I read somewhere that only 4% of new cars sold in the U.S. have manual transmissions. There were a lot more in the 60’s when I was a teenager learning to drive. We had an almost new Pontiac sedan with automatic transmission and power steering that was a breeze to drive but my parents insisted I learn to drive my Dad’s old paint truck first. It was a 62’ step side with a 3 speed shift on the column, no power steering and smelled like paint and turpentine. You had to keep yourself focused to keep the fumes from making you daydream about your boyfriend. But I would do anything to get my driver’s license and my life was a little askew of my girlfriends anyway like the fact they all had pretty designer dogs and we had a hunting dog that stunk.
So, every Saturday off we went to the desert. I had not graduated to a city parking lot yet. My older brother was usually my instructor which I resented because he was so picky. My verbal instructions each and every Saturday according to him was – stay mentally vigilant, do not take your foot off the clutch letting it fly up stalling the engine, do not try shifting without the clutch or break forgetting you have a clutch, do not look at the shifter instead of the road (many cactus lost their lives by my hit and run), do not mistake neutral for first gear and revving it until smoke comes out of the tail pipe and the biggest demerit of all was forgetting to take it out of gear when parked causing his cigarette to fly out the window when the truck violently jerks forward. yada yada yada
After the summer of mind numbing practice I learned to effortlessly release the clutch millimeter-by-millimeter in a smooth transition. I graduated to city parking lots and even parallel parking which is a whole different learning curve than automatic transmissions. Although I was ready to take my driver’s test in my mom’s sedan my brother convinced them that I really needed to learn the five speed stick on his disgusting dirty Scout 4 wheel drive. Just to be rounded he explained.
So off we went to the desert again but I already had the clutch down pat so just had to learn the 5 speed configuration without always looking at it. We started in the area I already cleaned out the cactus months ago so no more fatalities would occur. A few weekends and I was a pro. I finally got my license by driving the automatic, power steering, glide on a cloud, Pontiac family car but I was capable of driving just about anything now. I knew a lot more than my classmates who only drove automatics like do I use second or third getting for the exit ramp, is the grade steep enough to downshift, did I remember to put it in first gear before parking. You never stop assessing the situations. Automatic transmissions took whole steps out of the driving process. Driving while doing something else isn’t like letting go of your handlebars while riding a bike. It’s like operating a missile without paying attention to where it’s going. Texting and cell phone calls are just about impossible while driving a manual transmission.
I look back now and marvel at the devotion of time and patience my family had to teach me skills that lasted a life time. Bonding together came naturally as each one taught one in my family village.
These are the last entries where I do not suspect anything is wrong with me. I’m in a race to be free and running my body into the ground. I’m so close to my goal but the condition of my over used body would be defensive against just about everything. I’m destroying my body to save me mentally.
Journal entry – End of September 1988
Fishing tournaments are in full swing this month so the restaurant stays packed way beyond closing time and the tips are rolling in. This is my first night off in seven days. Waitresses are dropping like flies from the brutal environment of carrying huge platters of steaming hot lobster, steaks and the weekend special red snapper from the overheated kitchen. Most of the customers are drunk by the time they dock and decide to eat and become belligerent about getting food and especially beer refills. These are huge parties of 15 to 20 people and my section alone has 18 tables. I had one group tonight with 31 adults and four children. This is what waitresses call “blood money” because it takes that and more to endure for your tips. But I do endure. I try not to think about the sweat running down between my painful shoulder blades as I heft another tray loaded to the hilt with burning hot plates then swing it gracefully down to a stand. How you do this and the courteous way you present depends on the amount of tip.
I have $550 saved for our traveling money so far. The rest pays bills and school lunches. I am determined to save at least $1200 by end of summer because winter is the extreme slow down for tourist towns. About 8 weeks or so it will be over for any good business until next spring. So although my headache never seems to go away, my stomach feels like I might have an ulcer and I live with leg cramps every night from over used muscles I will not give up. My dream and the kid’s stability in a real home is too important.
Arguments continue every night and day. He doesn’t know I’m planning to leave soon. He makes very little money as a maintenance man at the campground. I usually come home late exhausted from work to find him sitting around the fire pit in front of our trailer with three or four women who are tanked and think he’s wonderful because he fixes everything for them. It’s disgusting but it’s almost over. Little does he know very soon I will wave good by .
Things were looking up as my work at Western Sizzlin continued to bring money in daily. The work is punishing but I have my goal of moving back home to Phoenix soon and it motivates and pushes me along through the fatigue. The relocation to a KOA camp site has relieved some stress. Only four months to go but I don’t know it will be the last four months of living in a non-disabled world. Just around the corner disaster waits.
Journal entry – late August 1988 –
Been too busy and too tired to write in this journal lately but today is finally a day off after eight straight days. They finally hired enough waitresses to cover. The tips have been consistent allowing me to save enough to upgrade to the nice KOA very near the ocean. We are moving before dark. Next Monday I will enroll the kids in school. The owner of the restaurant likes me a lot but that’s because I work 150%. Almost all the staff are just working their way through college or supplementing their husband’s income. They are not as hungry and desperate as me so where they lag I over compensate. I know my body at 42 can’t do this forever but I just need to endure until Christmas break. When we get to Phoenix I will use my brain instead of my brawn. I can put my Associates Degree to work and even go back for bachelors.
I was hoping to get rid of him now but the money is on the night shifts so I need someone home with the kids. We argue daily with a never ending struggle of control but I must endure four months then I can fly. I will never understand why weak men seek out strong women then try to control them, must be a death wish.
Monday morning –
Love the KOA campground. The kids and I just walk a block to the ocean. There are lots of things to do like a swimming pool, game room, little store, huge community fire pits and a big playground. The kids are all enrolled in school which starts in five days. A bus comes right into the campground. It took almost all my tip savings to relocate and buy school clothes and shoes so I need to get back to work this evening to replenish my cash. I’m so grateful for the little child support from the girl’s father every month as it helped to buy school supplies and some extra clothes. I count every blessing. The kids are healthy and happy and I have a strong body to accomplish my dream and an even stronger will power to stay on task.
Once again my hopes are dashed but as you read in the journal entries below I will not succumb to victimization. I am a fighter and survivor and I’m all my children have. I still had goals and dreams that would not come to fruition for two years after an unbelievable crisis for me and the children. Never say it can’t get any worse because life will show it can.
Journal Entry – August – Wednesday 1988
We drove in to Destin three days ago. It is everything he said it would be. It looks like the Caribbean. However, seems like he never confirmed he would come back and work for the company so they hired someone else. We ended up in a small RV park nowhere near any beauty because it was very reasonable.
With no phone and little money left for gas it was going to be difficult to job search but someone had to do it. One of us would need to watch the kids and one of us had to get a quick job. Because I knew I was more driven it was going to be me and because I needed a babysitter, and couldn’t pay one, he is still alive.
I struck out yesterday walking in the scorching heat to whatever business I could find and put in 10 applications. I am desperate find something and settle in a better campground before school starts in about three weeks. I left the phone number of the pay phone in the park hoping I could hear it ring from my camper. About 7:00 p.m. I got a call from the Winn-Dixie grocery store offering me a position in the deli department. So tomorrow I start a job I’ve never done in my life at minimum wage but it’s a start and I learn fast.
This work is so exhausting and nerve racking but I don’t mind that as much as the terrible attitude of the manager. Everyone is related to him that works in the deli but me. My hours keep getting cut and now are less than 10 per week then I found out I will not get a check for three weeks! We can’t last that long. I need fast cash so knew I would need to find a waitress job that would enable me to bring home some money every day. So when I got off today at 4:00 I walked another few blocks where I noticed a Western Sizzilin restaurant. They were really busy so I knew tips would be good if you were fast and efficient and I was. I weaved my way through the customers and asked for the manager. I explained to him I was desperate for work and would even just work for tips. He said they were not hiring but to fill out an application and he would pass it on to the owner. I did and started my walk back to the trailer park feeling way more exhausted than before. Thank goodness tomorrows my day off.
At 11:00 a.m. the pay phone rang as I was coming out of the shower house. As I stumbled trying to get to it and breathlessly said hello, a voice asked for me. I acknowledged it was me and the female voice said “Do you still want a job at Western Sizzlin”? I said of course I did. The voice said, “Well I’m the owner and I need someone by 3:00 today to work until close.” I’ll be there I said. I am so elated, so relieved and so grateful. I called Winn-Dixie and quit.
It never occurred to me that I didn’t have any waitress clothes. I put on a pair of kakis and a cream colored blouse, my cleanest tennis shoes and hoped they would give me a break until I got paid. The boss was a former Virginia Slims model about 6 feet tall with white spiked hair. She looked me over and said I would have to get black pants, white blouse and black shoes soon as I could. She said she was two waitresses short so I would need to take both their tables which would be 22 tables. I said fine as I was not about to let this job slip away. Friday night was packed but I never missed a table. I stumbled home a little before 1:00 A.M. My back aches, my feet are on fire, my head is throbbing but I have $176, 00 in my apron. And, tomorrow is their busiest night.
My plans are going to come together. On my day off I’ll start looking for a nice campground near the ocean with facilities the kids can enjoy and schools nearby. By Christmas break the kids and I will have the money to finally go home to Phoenix and lease a home never to roam again.
This is the next journal entry after “Being Homeless” from August 1988. We are still in the KOA campground on the gulf coast of Mississippi. An opportunity has appeared that calls for some serious consideration. We have lived at the KOA for the last few years and it is the only place we found any semblance of stability. But, I do not fool myself into thinking we are not still homeless. I do not even suspect the life altering fate that awaits me.
Journal Entry – Aug 1988
Apprehension nags at the corner of my mind today. He has come back to visit the kids with news he has an opportunity to make some great money hauling tons of ice to the fish houses all along the coast. The main headquarters is in Destin, Florida and he describes beautiful beaches with white sands and emerald green water clear as a swimming pool. He says things will be different and so much fun to be had by the kids. Of course, I’ve heard the job promise before which is how we became sojourners hopping around following the next great offer.
Even though the apprehension won’t shut up I am considering because I am so desperate to leave this depressing place I am trapped in. I feel like a contained animal that just spotted a hole in the fence. I have no attachment to this place and won’t miss the stink from the slimy bayou that lingers under the dock, the green velvet mold that covers anything standing still more than an hour or the sweltering humidity that enters your body and lies there like an old heavy wet rug.
The kids are now excited and want to go and heaven knows they deserve some happiness. If the job falls through I’m pretty flexible and can work anywhere from secretarial to restaurant. So, although leery, I make the decision. But, I wonder what lies ahead? Will he come through this time? I guess if I get stuck at least it’s in a healthier environment. In two days we will be pulling into Destin, Florida with new hopes and dreams which have become dog eared from dragging them around.
It is so easy to judge the homeless and so easy to become one. I was there once and it was an almost impossible climb back up. I sit now in an upscale apartment retired after over 22 years of social work reading an old journal of mine from 1988. It is astonishing where the journey takes you and the strength you find along the way. I’ve decided to share these musings in my life in hopes of empowering someone else to never give up. A year after this entry my life would change and become even more devastating before I could start my uphill climb to a normal life.
Another summer almost gone. The seventh one actually and no permanent home before school starts. Another year in the 30-foot travel trailer, the box of tin on wheels as our friends call it.
There is never enough money saved to pay the deposit and first month’s rent on a house let alone utilities. We always come close to this dream but then a child needs shoes, the truck breaks down, someone gets an ear infection and the pot gives reluctantly until it looks more like gas money than homestead money.
So, we sit again in a campground on the southern coast of Mississippi where the heat and humidity turn you into one big sticky fly attraction and pretending to be just another snowbird vacationing for the winter. The job of managing the campground pays slightly more than the lot rent but it’s better than nothing.
1988 and the pot we do have to piss in has a leaky holding tank again. It’s not that it’s all been bad. We finally upgraded this month to a fifth-wheel trailer that is only six years old and close quarters have forced us to bond in ways reminiscent of earlier American life.
But, on those sweltering, muggy nights when trying to sleep is the most oppressive thing you can do, I sit on the picnic table top under the awning and dream my dream of a home I once had. As tears crawl ever so slowly down my hot cheeks I realize how easy it was to become homeless and how hard it is to try and climb back up
Hell, I thought, what do I need a house for anyway as I pop the top off my third Miller Lite. “Buck up, there are people worse off than you” I hear my Mothers voice echo in my ears as I light up my last cigarette in the pack. My heart opens momentary to store another sorrow. Maybe I’ll just sleep outside on the lounge chair tonight.
Anger days and sorrow nights — that is my life. If I just had lyrics I would be a great country song.
My Dad loved and I mean loved to travel and explore the states especially the lower coast-to-coast ones. Every school vacation off we would go. But don’t misunderstand this wasn’t a typical road trip. We moved. There was our 1953 light green Ford sedan, my dad’s 1949 Chevy pickup that pulled a 30 foot trailer with plywood sides and an army green canvas tarp pulled taught over everything we owned. Toward the end of school break we would settle in a house in one of the states from Florida to California.
My mom, sister, and two brothers and I traveled that route for many summers stopping at each attraction along the way and never missing the welcome rest stops in each state. We would read everything about the state’s history and all the attractions offered. My dad was a house painter so jobs were picked up everywhere along the journey. This was not a rich man’s vacation, not even close. But we survived and even had fun because of the roadside rest stops all along the highway. These were places you would finally get to go to the bathroom, run and play and eat your picnic lunch and ice cold cool-aide held in the big metal Coleman cooler. Dad more often than not took a little nap on the cool concrete picnic table bench covering his face with his hat or a newspaper and wake refreshed and ready to roll. My little brother and I would run, play checkers, jacks or anything else we found to entertain ourselves.
There was no worry that someone would rob you or you would get accosted in the restrooms or there would be drug deals in the parking lots. We were all travelers on a journey to different destinations. It was the place to get free water if your vehicle overheated or a helping hand from another traveler if you were broke down. You made friends for an hour or two knowing you would probably never see them again but you remember them in your stories along with the experiences and the sites that you encountered.
Now the rest stops are quietly disappearing. Budget cuts and people’s preference for fast food in place of picnics are causing these wonderful scenic places to fade away. Nowadays it’s about getting there fast as possible. Destination is the only goal. As the highway system expanded the off-ramps take you off the speeding interstate leading you directly to fast food and huge service stations. For years I did not notice that the road side rest stops were almost gone. Much like the phone booth and big blue neighborhood mailbox they just slid out of sight in the name of progress. But I have memories that weave into stories that come alive as I tell them to my grandchildren of the sights and sounds and smells and feel of the places we experienced that no book can match.