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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Unsettled Epilogue B: 1976

The year before I wrote those lines about our house on the hill, during the second semester of my sophomore year, one of my professors (Mrs. Harris) kept me after class and asked me if I had ever considered changing my major from a "youth work" track to education. “I’ve had you in three classes, Tom, and I think you’d make a fine high school teacher.” [It was Mrs. Harris who taught my freshman speech class, the one in which I gave the persuasive speech entitled “Why You Should Build Your Own House.”] At first, I was merely flattered by Mrs. Harris’ kind words, but a couple weeks later she asked if I had given any more thought to her suggestion, and I had. By my twentieth birthday in April, it was official; I was on track to become an English teacher. (I also took as many classes as possible in speech, journalism, creative writing, and dramatic production, and all of them were classes I eventually taught.)

The ironic thing about this change in my major was that, until that time in my life, I was never very strong in English. In fact, if my high school teachers had been involved, they would have told Mrs. Harris. “Are you sure about this? The boy is a terrible speller [as readers of these chapters know]; he gets nervous about giving speeches in public; and he’s a slow reader. [All of these facts are still true. My slow reading is because I read aloud in my head as if to another person adding voices to dialogue, etc. The concept of “speed reading” is completely beyond my mental guard-rail. If I try too read fast, the words sound like a 45 RPM record spinning at 77 and my comprehension flies off the road faster than a mixed-metaphor in a blender. Consequently, my pages turn at the rate of conversation. It’s a pleasant walk not a run. The good news is I remember what I see along the way.]

In spite of these and other weaknesses, Mrs. Harris said I had a knack at communicating ideas in ways that made them easier to understand and remember. The fact that I had overcome some early struggles in my subject matter, according to her, would make me an even better teacher. People to whom school comes easily sometimes cannot relate to the full range of students in their classroom. Made sense to me, and more importantly, it seemed to make sense to hundreds of students through the decades [not “all” mind you but “hundreds” among the many hundreds is a safe assumption]. It was in spring of 1976 that I changed majors and chose between these two roads, and as Robert Frost said, “that has made all the difference.”

I came home at the end of my sophomore year and found work right away as a care-taker at the New Baltimore cemetery. More about that job can be read in a forthcoming series called “Earning Your Keep and Then Some.” I really liked that job and would have kept it all summer, but something much better came along, and in order to pay for college I had to take it.

When my sister Kathy and her husband Jack came home, he began looking for a job. As you recall, Kathy was due to have her first child in late June. They began living in the basement with us just a couple weeks before my niece Aimee was born. We boys moved our mattresses from our make-shift room up to the corner bedroom where Paul had spent much of his winter and spring. By then the lack up heat was not an issue, and Dad had gotten the bathroom in working order. Sheetrock was now on the walls, but there were still no doors or curtains to close, which didn't matter to us three boys.

Before taking her teaching job down south, my sister had taught for one year in Michigan and the father of one of her former students was in charge of human resources at the Ford Vinyl plant in Mt. Clemens, Michigan. (The plant no longer exists—mostly because there is almost no vinyl used in car seats and interior “headliner” anymore, but it was a huge plant about ten-minutes from our house.)

Because Jack already had is college degree he was interviewed for a “white collar” job at a different plant, a job he held for over thirty years. Paul and I rode in on Jack’s coat-tails so to speak. We were hired as “summer replacement” along with a dozen other college students. We were supposed to work only three months (since exceeding 90 calendar days introduced many UAW issues). Paul’s and my official title was: “multi-colored printer operator.” Come late August, I went back to school and Paul stayed on right past those 90 days. In fact, he stayed on for over thirty years and still works there even as I type these words.

On June 25th, which also happened to be my brother Dave's birthday, my niece Aimee was born. Two weeks later was the biggest 4th of July celebration in our nation's history. It was our national Bicentennial, but Aimee's birth was the highlight of our summer. I was working seven-days-a week with a couple 12-hour shifts thrown in for good measure, and I don't remember much else about that summer. Jack and Kathy got an apartment a few miles away. Their place had a pool so between that and our new niece, we boys were there as often as possible. We did go on a short camping trip in August. Dad bought a used pop-up trailer for $400, an old Apache; it was a true upgrade from the tent we'd used for over a decade. (The picture below was taken on that trip.)

Two note-worthy things happened in the fall of 1976, which was the start of my Junior Year. First, Dave and I drove the old Ford Country Squire station wagon back to school by ourselves. That's the old station wagon there. That photo was taken on that camping trip (based on the 1976 bicentennial plate), which would make Jimmy 8-years-old.
The old car had over 140,000 miles on it and was on its last legs. In fact, just a year and three months before it had literally lost a wheel while making that same trip except headed north. Dad told us to do whatever it took to get that car to South Carolina and then sell it as is to whoever would give us a hundred bucks for it.

While climbing one of the long mountain roads in the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee, the engine overheated. Steam was spewing in a plume from under the hood. We stopped at the crest of the highway, found an empty pop bottle and proceeded to pour semi-clear water from a roadside puddle into the radiator one bottle at a time. It took several bottles of water, and lots of steam, but the radiator was eventually full again, and we headed on our way.
A few days after arriving on campus, Dave and I went shopping at a nearby mall where some Mexicans (I say that only as a fact with no other insinuations) saw the “For Sale” sign in our window, and paid us $100 in cash on the spot. We pulled the title from the glove box and signed it over so fast that as we walked back to campus we realized that we had forgotten to take off the license plates. The next day (being Sunday) we called home. Dad was glad we sold the car but not happy about the plates, but we assured him that surely these fine upstanding citizens would get a proper plate.

Two months later, we happened to see the old family car two lanes over in traffic—you guessed it: it still had our plates. I have a feeling that car had those plates until it died, but as far as I know it was involved in no illegal activities—at least nothing that was discovered by law enforcement.

The other thing that happened in the fall of 1976, was much more related to the house.

I mentioned that Jack and Paul worked at Ford. Well, in the fall of 1976, Ford got picked as a target for a big UAW labor strike. I could say a lot about unions and strikes and the mess Michigan is in because “labor” went way beyond the tipping point that free markets could bear, but I won’t. I only mention the strike because it led to a “hidden blessing” for my father. While he and Mom did not have the money to pay Paul and Jack for their time during those weeks of the strike, he did offer them free meals in exchange for work.

Paul had been paying “board” during the two years since he had not been in college. Kathy and Jack had lived in the basement with us for only a few weeks. During the strike they slept at the apartment, but Jack, Kathy, and little Aimee spent their days at Mom and Dad’s. The spending those days together was wonderful for Mom. Just one year before, she had been at a low-point in life, feeling lost in the woods, missing us kids--especially her only daughter who had moved down south. For Mom and Kathy both, sharing the duties that come with a ten-week-old baby was the best thing about the strike.

Dad took the blessing another way. It was during the strike that he, Paul, and Jack bricked the outside of the house and built the chimney on the inside. Just as they were finishing up the work, and just as Dad put the chimney to work by heating the house with wood, the strike was over, and things went back to normal for everyone. But make no mistake, had Ford not gone on strike in 1976, it would have been another year before the masonry of the house was done, and the house would not have looked like this at our second Christmas there.


Blogger the walking man said...

*Biting tongue*

11/2/10 8:01 AM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Just saw this over my lunch break.
I actually thought of you when I was writing about the Smokey Mountain puddle water in the radiator. Is that what you mean by "Biting tongue"? Hey, what else could we do? As an expert car mechanic, feel free to unbite your tongue, but be kind in your advice... Ha Ha =)

11/2/10 12:32 PM  
Blogger the walking man said...

ha haha haha ha Tom That actually was the most logical thing to do. Get something in the Radiator without driving it any further, puddle water was as good as anything else, would have been better to filter the bits and pieces out of the water is all.

No your union position irked me is all. The unions built the middle class and those wages sent many a kid to college who then went further than their parents ever imagined.

I just don't buy into the anti-union rhetoric sweeping the state and nation now. It wasn't union greed that caused the auto industry to outsource, they were negotiating for a fair portion of the pie they helped to bake.

Remember when GM was the largest company in the world, that was all built by cooperation, not constriction, between union and management. They were making billions of dollars, why shouldn't them that designed and actually built the things get a reasonable portion? every one including shareholders and the corporation made substantial profits. Why would a union not do everything possible to secure a retirement?

Though I never agreed with thirty and out it should have been age based, it was something the company agreed to and lived with for decades.

11/2/10 3:31 PM  
Blogger the walking man said...

We could argue reasonable but the MEA has redefined that for MI.

The industrial complex in this nation simply saw a cheaper way to make profit without fair labor practices and outsourced to Mexico, then when a dollar a day plus meals was costing profit they re-outsourced to Asia.

Unions have always fought against give backs and struck but in the end they always negotiated reasonable returns in the down times, until Ronald Reagan with complete impunity broke the union back with the air traffic controllers who went on strike.

That was the beginning of the end for the HS graduate to make a decent living by using his hands and back.

What I find funny (odd) though is especially in the auto industry their fortunes turned around in direct proportion to the amount they outsourced.

Henry Ford knew that his workers needed decent wages if they were to afford the product they made and because he paid them they formed brand loyalty and made him the wealthiest man in the world at his time all the while paying the highest manufacturing wages in the world (to some of his workers).

Once the offshore production became the standard it killed the loyalty to any American car company and people always were forced by their reduced wallets into the less expensive foreign brands.

*shrug* It is what it is now though and unions are becoming less and less relevant these days but all that means is a continued assault on labor by them that have the power to dictate what a mans toil is worth.

Recall the American Axle strike a few years ago? The union eventually caved and gave the company every single concession they asked for and what did they get in return?

Once the contracts were signed three American plants were closed and the jobs shipped to a low labor country with no union. The result...3000 more lost forever manufacturing jobs. This whole scenario was repeated i every industry from the furniture industry in the middle east to the mills of New England. What exactly besides weapons do we manufacture in an quantity in this nation any more? Not much when you have actual unemployment figures hovering near 20% (all inclusive)

Tom not everyone has the capacity for college but they still deserve to be able to work at a job that will support them in their quest for family and home without the constant pressure of high debt and low wages. Now the 4 year paper is becoming less relevant; the kids need a master's or a PhD to really be viable.

*shrug* None of it it really matters to me. I work as much as possible within the constraints of the near economy and not the global. My income was cut by 75% between 1999 and 2009 but I am personally debt free.

I own two Honda's with an aggregate mileage well over 400k. Both bought used and both are well over 15 years old. Any profit made off of their sale went into my local economy.

okie dokie...there I have un-clamped the tongue gently. hahahahah

11/2/10 3:31 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Sorry I didn't check here Thursday evening. Man, when you unbite you really unbite. Ha Ha. Here I thought of you when we abused that old Ford (sort of) when I should have thought of you when I said that about unions. I was actually thinking about my brother Paul. He and I have had that conversation, since he has been UAW all those years since 1976. I'm not anti-union and would agree with much of what you've said. My dad used to say that unions were formed because employers took advantage of the ebb and flow of workers, treating people like a commodity. That, we would all agree, is not right. And without getting into the specific wages and benefits, I'll simply say that what I meant by past the tipping point is that greed is a human condition--it is not a corporate or Wall St. condition...it's a vice all humans must beware of. In the recent near-collapse of the Detroit auto industry, even my brother agrees that it was time for the UAW to demonstrate a willingness to restore a balance so that both sides (labor and corp) have some footing on the bottom line. Another interesting comparison is a look at the prosperity of auto workers in "right to work" states down south. Same kind of workers doing the same kind of work and very happily employed.

You mention the MEA, and I agree. Two of my siblings have little choice in the matter; they teach in MI; they must join; their dues are used support policy (and candidates) with whom they do not agree; they are pressured to vote not as individuals but as dictated from the union. And you are right that the MEA is perhaps far more demonstrative of the states current budget woes (and the breaking of "Michigan's Promise") than is the UAW. Again, I am not anti-union. I have friends reading here who are local union leaders, but greed goes both ways, and when teachers lose sight of their calling and won't sign a contract because their medical co-pay on a "Cadillac plan" went up $2 a visit, hypothetically speaking, that doesn't seem reasonable. And when the president discovers that the unions that supported him for office are saying "no way" to his health care so in the midnight hour he says any employee whose health care is achieved via collective bargaining is exempt, you keep your Cadillac plans, but the rest of us millions need to face the music....well, that sort of quid pro quo is not going to garner much affection. I know we both agree, there is greed and corruption on both sides of the picket line.

Now you see why I didn't get into it. But I do thank you for your articulate and kind comments. We agree on much of what you said, but…
the best thing about the strike of 1976 is that it helped put every brick in place on our house. =)

12/2/10 3:22 AM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

I just read your comment again and wanted to add that I know you read regularly enough to know that you and Dad would have much in common. He was very anti-debt. One of the threads of this story is what it took for him and Mom to be anti-debt and to build a house right when four of the five kids were going to college, hence the many years living in the basement. Believe me, Dad's Bell job, was far less a year than my brother's Ford job (even factoring in for inflation). We were the sweaty middle of the middle class—probably below middle really, but we didn’t know it, and you're right... I don't know how they did it, but part of the formula was driving old high-miles cars and taking care of them until they wouldn't go. I also know from years of conversation with you that your parents were highly educated (in the university sense). I agree with you that society has put too much "stock" in sheepskin and too little in the trades, etc. There is much to be said for the non-college track to higher education that you and my Dad took. The end result, in many ways, is far superior to the 4-year-plus system. I will be touching on this when I begin the "Earning Your Keep and Then Some" series.

You would have liked my dad; you may have disagreed on some politics; but I really think you would have had mutual respect in many conversations if, for instance, one of his many auto do-it-yourself moments required him to go to your shop.

12/2/10 3:44 AM  
Blogger the walking man said...

Tom I know that the unions are in a period where they MUST give back. that is the nature of mutual survival. You go lean during the lean years and you go fat in the hog years.

But we also agree on one thing...my health insurance supplement and my wife's health insurance is a result of collective bargaining and I agree that it should not be exempt. I can afford a few dollars more if it extends coverage for them who have to use the ER for their primary care.

I am sorely disappointing, not in my vote for this supposed 'progressive" administration but at the same time I am disgusted by the back door deals...all of them.

It seems no one is willing to actually lead the nation not either side, we the citizens, have become nothing more to either side than a political football.

13/2/10 7:52 AM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

It is a very disappointing time to be sure. I know we voted differently, but I have had similar feelings to yours after elections when the other side gained control. Whether it's unions, corporations, or politics, it seems to reflect the maxim that "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

The next chapter, by mere chronology, includes the transition from Carter to Reagan, but I will try to avoid politics.

13/2/10 2:03 PM  
Blogger the walking man said...

If it plays a role in the telling of the story never stray from it Tom. It brings in the psychology of the thoughts going on in that day you are writing about. If it is not germane then omit it. *shrug* I think both of our political passions have cooled from a year ago.

14/2/10 7:53 AM  

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