Special Assignment

This is a true story of a defining moment in my life from my book, In the Right Place: A Gallery of Treasured Moments (Carr Twins & Co. 2006). This revision is as fitting today, January 15, 2018, as the nation observes the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, as it was when first published.

The scene: Proof machines clatter and a check sorter hums with activity outside the manager’s door in a bank Operations Center. A West Coast transplant to the Deep South is being briefed on her new assignment, a dark secret that is about to change this workplace forever.

 

“James wants to see you in his office when you finish that batch of deposits,” my supervisor said.  Except for annual performance reviews, a summons to his office was rare and seldom good news.

“I asked you here to give you a special assignment,” James said. “Because of your California background, you are the most likely person for this job. “You are used to working with different people,” he said, emphasizing different. “We want you to train Mary, our newest employee.”

Because of my previous experience and my accuracy and speed, I had been training employees since shortly after being employed by this bank. What could be so special about training another new employee?

James, who was usually quite fluent, was hesitant as he explained that the federal government was intruding where it had no right and telling our bank how to run its business. President Lyndon Johnson had signed something called a civil rights bill, so we were being forced to hire our first Negro employee. His southern drawl emphasized negro as though his lips were unfamiliar with the word. Management had decided to place Mary in the Operations Department to shield her from public contact.

I reminded James that Mary would be our second black staff member. The main office employed an African-American porter who made coffee and cleaned the kitchen. “That’s different,” he said with no further explanation.

I was embarrassed by the way the employees treated Mary on her first work day when I introduced her to each of them. I thought time would make a difference. How wrong I was! They moved their coffee cups to their workstations. At break time, Mary and I went alone. The others worked during my assigned lunch period, leaving me alone with Mary every day.  Afternoon break was no different.  When Mary was in the kitchen, they stayed out. When they entered as we left, they scrubbed the tables and wiped the chairs before being seated. None of the ladies entered the restroom for weeks after Mary arrived.  Only my direct supervisor and the manager spoke to me unless absolutely necessary for workflow.  After many weeks of this routine, it was clear that I, along with Mary, had been ostracized for exposing the staff to a new and uncomfortable experience.

I was appalled at the southern traditions that denied minorities access to restaurants and forced them to sit in back seats on public buses. I disapproved of segregated schools and churches. Although I felt strongly about these disgraces, I disapproved of ineffective—and dangerous—protest marches and sit-ins. By accepting a special assignment that others refused, I made enemies, but I left a mark in history. No holiday will be named for me. My statue will never stand in a public place. But by giving hope to one person during the civil rights movement, I changed the future of a corporate entity.

 

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To Do List

My mother went about her daily chores of cooking, housecleaning, feeding the chickens, gathering eggs, vegetable gardening, and sewing during the day. In leisure evenings after her chores were finished, she crocheted and read her Bible—her favorite pastimes. She created meals without a cookbook or printed recipes. She crocheted intricate patterns and made rag rugs by looking at a project completed by others. The one thing never seen in her hand was a To-Do list.

My father carried a notebook in his work shirt pocket and a stub pencil in the special slot next to it. He made lists and documented his work tasks and accomplishments. Everything from earnings as a gardener and weighing his filled cotton sack at the hanging scales. He listed everything from paid utility bills to grocery shopping. Nothing escaped that tiny notebook. While Mama crocheted in the evenings and listened to the Chuck Wagon Gang or the Carter Family singing gospel tunes, he sat at the kitchen table and transferred information from his pocket notebook into a sturdy ledger. He moistened the tip of his indelible pencil and wrote everything in purple ink. Then he joined Mama in the living room in time to hear a preacher broadcasting from the comfort of Rosarita Beach in Baja California who always ended with a plea for money to keep him on the air.

In my early working days, I made project lists with deadlines and dates accomplished. Then office computerization made that chore easier. At home, I continued making grocery lists but opted for adding events to my personal computer Outlook calendar. Years later I stopped making lists except for grocery shopping, relying on my memory.

In December, I returned to a daily handwritten To-Do List to practice for the New Year. I’ve accomplished more in the first three days of 2018 than I could have imagined. I still keep events, medical appointments, and other important information on my computer. This year, I’ve added a pocket calendar and softcover ledger to my purse. My father would be proud of my efforts, but no doubt he would be puzzled when I shred my printed receipts for groceries and other routine purchases and trust online sources to record the dates and amounts instead of writing them in my journal. He might question blog, an unknown word in his lifetime.

If I complain that my novel writing hasn’t improved with the To-Do book, I can imagine him saying, “Girl, it is not on your list.”

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New Year’s Superstitions

Our family celebrated religious holidays like Easter and Christmas and Thanksgiving Day, the day of gratitude, with abundant meals—except for the year we picked cotton on Thanksgiving (see my blog post  https://violetsvibes.wordpress.com/2017/11/23/thanksgiving-memories). Even with this strong dedication to faith and family, my mother harbored a few superstitions. She made us turn around if a black cat crossed our path while walking. A broken mirror brought seven years of bad luck. Visitors had to exit our house through the same door they entered to keep life on an even keel.

New Year’s Day, the first holiday of the year, began as usual. Mama woke us early even though there was no school. Then she made a hearty breakfast of fried eggs from the backyard chickens and homemade biscuits with butter and jelly. Thick slices cut from a slab of bacon filled a small platter in prosperous times. All routine until the breakfast dishes were washed, dried, and put away. Then superstition blew in like a gust of chilling wind on a winter morning.

“Be careful what you do today because you’ll do the same thing all year,” Mama said. That sounded great to me. My father guffawed and went about his daily chores like any nonworking day.

I wanted to read—my favorite pastime—but Mama insisted we do something productive—to “ward off laziness,” she said. Then she set about finding ways to bring a year of prosperity to us. She cooked black eye peas with ham hock or bits of bacon—a southern tradition for good luck. We’d been eating that main dish accompanied by cornbread and home-churned butter as far back as I could remember. It hadn’t brought us any luck that I could see.

She cooked greens because superstition emphasized a healthy year by eating that food on the first day. Nothing new there either. She’d served cooked mustard greens, collards, or poke salad for more years than I’d seen. I hated greens. I only ate the small amounts required by my father who insisted we “eat what was set before us.”

Most evenings after supper, Mama swept the linoleum floors in the kitchen, then the pathway across the dining room to the back door. She propped the screen door open with one foot while she swept the wooden threshold and the steps. Not on New Year’s Day. After supper, she swept the kitchen floor and emptied the dustpan in the trash. She stopped there. I thought it was to minimize her workload. Only later did I realize that she might have been clinging to the superstition of not sweeping out good things with the bad on the first day of the year.

I don’t follow Mama’s New Year’s superstitions. Well, maybe one. I’ll leave the broom in the closet today so I don’t sweep out the good with the bad from 2017.

 

 

 

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Black Friday

The day after Thanksgiving has been dubbed Black Friday by retailers. This term has been twisted into a pretzel of shopping frenzy, even to the point of bedlam. Wikipedia and other online sources insist that the phrase became popular because the day after Thanksgiving was the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. Wikipedia—perhaps a  contributor too young to have experienced the facts—gathered other online information to validate the article.  My father would have said hogwash! The generation before him spoke the somber words when referring to the nineteenth-century gold market crash.

Merchant bookkeepers, literally keepers of financial transactions, recorded the sales and expenses in ledgers. The most common was blue cloth with the texture of heavy linen. The spine was Symth Sewn with the outward corners protected from daily use with triangles of leather. The pages were divided by lines and columns where daily income and expenses were handwritten in the appropriate columns. The columns were tallied down, then across to the right. (FYI: This is where the phrase “Bottom Line” originated.) If expenses outweighed income, the bookkeeper wrote that final number in red. Back then, it was said that the bookkeeper put away the red pen the day after Thanksgiving.

My mother knew nothing of Black Friday. She began her Christmas shopping in the late summer during the grape cutting season or the early fall when cotton picking was plentiful. Long before credit cards when cash was king, she used the layaway program. Back then, no merchant would dare display Christmas items before Thanksgiving, but she didn’t wait for snowmen to be painted on wide glass display windows or silver tinsel to be draped over ornaments hung on Christmas trees. She searched the stores for gifts early. She used the layaway plan to pay fifty cents down and an equal amount every week until December. If she had postponed her purchase until the holiday shopping season, dolls for two girls would have been an unaffordable amount of one dollar every week. She guarded that palm-size layaway card with the diminishing balance handwritten by the store clerk after each payment. Mama paid the last half-dollar while we were at school or playing with neighbors and hid the dolls until Christmas.

Papa kept a ledger of family expenses down to the last nickel—perhaps the last penny. He wrote everything with an indelible pencil that turned to purple ink when he touched it to his tongue. He paid cash for everything. He didn’t Christmas shop and pretended not to know about Mama’s layaways paid out from her earnings money. That kept his books in the black—purple—every day of the year.

 

 

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Thanksgiving Memories

My mother always began preparations on Wednesday for our abundant home-cooked Thanksgiving feast with the main dish of turkey, ham, chicken, duck, or goose–sometimes more than one. Deviled eggs, black olives, pickles and cranberry sauce nestled among bowls brimming with homemade dressing, mashed potatoes or potato salad, and green beans. Mincemeat, apple, and sweet potato pies covered the kitchen counter. Occasionally, a fresh coconut cake towered over the pies, giving it bragging rights. Mama made room for other side dishes brought by my married siblings just before noon. Papa was serious about the precise time. We ate at noon by his pocket watch—not one minute earlier or later.

The adults sat with Papa around the food-laden table in the dining room. Mama seated the younger children at the square drop-leaf table in the kitchen. I ate in the living room with my twin sister and nieces and nephews our age, balancing our plates on our knees. Mama served everyone first and ate later. After lunch, the women washed and dried dishes. Children played on the covered porch. Men gathered in the tiny living room to talk. A couple of my brothers drifted outside for an afternoon smoke, forbidden inside our home.

The night before Thanksgiving, the smell of chicken frying in a cast-iron skillet wafted from the kitchen. The sweet smell of fried apple turnovers replaced the aroma of baking pies. I listened from the open doorway as my parents talked about working on Thanksgiving Day.

Oh, no! It can’t be! 

The next morning after breakfast, Mama packed the refrigerated chicken and turnovers in a sturdy cardboard box with eating utensils. She covered it with a tablecloth just as Frank, my oldest brother, arrived to take us to work.

I stepped down from the old Model A Ford running board. On the ground, I pulled the strap of my cotton sack over my head and under my left arm and shook eight feet of canvas between two rows of late-blooming white cotton basking in the early morning sun.

Five minutes before twelve, Mama stopped picking and spread the tablecloth on a patch of flat ground. Papa removed his hat, wiped his perspiring forehead with a handkerchief and checked his pocket watch. At noon he nodded to Frank to say a blessing for the food.

“Thank you, Lord, for family gathered here on this Thanksgiving Day. Bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies so we can finish this field before dark. Bless the farmer who allowed us to work today. Prosper him abundantly for his kindness. Amen.”

Bless the farmer? Without him we’d be home heaping our plates with turkey and dressing and eyeing the tantalizing desserts, not eating cold fried chicken in a cotton field. My complaining thoughts were interrupted by my nephew’s voice.

“Please pass another piece of Grandma’s fried chicken,” he said. “It’s the best I ever ate. And, could you hand me a couple more fried apple pies. Grandma knows how to make them just right.”

The next year, the Wednesday cooking rituals returned to our home. About thirty of us gathered around the dining room at five minutes before twelve. My father checked his pocket watch. At precisely noon, he bowed his head and gave thanks for the abundant meal. While children waited for their plates to be filled before moving to the kitchen to eat, adult talk turned to the previous Thanksgiving meal in the cotton field. One of my brothers mentioned Frank’s prayer.

“No more picking cotton for that farmer. He did so well after that prayer, he bought a cotton-picking machine and put all of us out of work.”

 

 

Posted at 12 noon, Pacific Standard Time, Thanksgiving Day, in honor of my father’s pocket watch time.

Disclosure: Revised third annual post, my Thanksgiving tradition, adapted from my original story in Double Take (Carr Twins & Co., 2014).

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Apparitions – Ghost Riders or Ghostwriters

“Riders in the Sky” was written and recorded by Stan Jones accompanied by the Death Valley Rangers  (Mercury 1949). Jones, the composer, drifted away, shrouded by ghostly cowboys floating into obscurity when Vaughn Monroe’s RCA recording became more popular.

Ghostwriters (GW) are another secret veiled by the clouds. Their roles vary. Sometimes a GW  interviews a person about specific events and shapes them into a blob of words that eventually becomes an inspirational book. Sometimes the ghostwriter begins with another person’s notes or ideas and whittles them into a memoir or self-help book. Sometimes a ghostwriter cuts and clips a poorly written fiction manuscript and embellishes it until it gleams like a cowboy’s silver belt buckle. That—and payment—are his reward because the published book wears the name of the fictitious writer.

“But that’s cheating,” you say.

The ghostwriter says it’s payment for work similar to writing a technical report, or create advertising copy while freelancing or salaried by a company. I say it’s like picking cotton.

 

Property of Violet Carr Moore

My father approved of producing without bragging rights. We picked cotton for pennies per pound. Father carried the stuffed ten-foot canvas cotton sacks over his shoulder to the hanging scales. He penciled the weight in a notebook, deposited it back into the pocket of his work shirt, and hoisted the bag onto his shoulder again. He climbed a wooden ladder resting against a wire-sided trailer and emptied the sack onto puffy fiber from other laborers. The owner towed the overstuffed trailer to a gin where it was baled with cotton from other farmers. The gin sold the bales to a textile maker which produced bolts of fabric with their brand printed in the selvage (My father would have said selvedge, the  British spelling, but he had no interest in sewing—that was woman’s work.) My mother bought yardage from the local Five and Dime and made my clothes. From the remnants, she pieced quilts. The cotton we picked in it’s refined stage clothed and warmed us.

Today, I salute Donald Bain (March 6, 1935 – October 26, 2017), the ghostwriter of the “Murder She Wrote” novels accredited to Jessica Fletcher, the Margaret Truman Capital Crime series, and many other ghostwritten books. In 2003, he published Lights Out with his name embellished above the title on the front cover. That brought Mr. Bain out of anonymity into the spotlight. Now he receives recognition as the original books are republished with his name on the covers, but there may be a few still clothed in secrecy, like the cotton my family picked that wore another name.

Yi-pi-yi-ay, yi-pi-yi-o!

 

 

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Safest Place to Live away from Natural Disasters-by an information junkie

Julie commented about the safest place away from natural disasters in my September 4 blog, “Riding out the storm-don’t try this at home.” That post focused on surviving natural disasters include earthquakes, tornadoes, and wildfires. The top three states for hurricanes are Florida, Texas, and Louisiana, but hurricane damage has extended past the Carolinas up the eastern coast to New Jersey.

Let’s look at the states most known for tornadoes. Stay away from Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Florida, Nebraska, Illinois, Colorado, Iowa, Alabama, Missouri, and Mississippi.

You read about my brush with the California 1970 Laguna Wildfire. Raging infernos like that seem common in the West, but Fire Science shows Alaska as the leader with more than 19 million acres burned since 2002. Texas is second, Idaho third, followed by California in fourth place. Safe states now down to 29 (Texas is already on the hurricane and tornado list).  I witnessed an Arizona wildfire from the safety of Tucson. Even that had a touch of humor.

The mountain view was spectacular through a floor-to-ceiling wall of bronzed glass windows behind the pulpit and choir area. I was frequently distracted by a climber picking his way to the top on Sunday mornings. One evening, a blazing fire lit the hill. Apparently I wasn’t the only one distracted by the flames. About ten minutes into the sermon, the minister turned to face the fire. “Since all of you are watching the fire, I will too,” he said. We stared at his back until he finished his topic.

Statistically, every one of the 50 states has been touched by wildfires since 2002. Even Hawaii has a tiny count of 29 acres. Most of these natural disasters occur in the summer, so that might still give you a peaceful winter. Depends on where you choose to live.

My mother told me about inching her way along a rope tied from the house to the barn to feed the animals during a Oklahoma blizzard years ago. They’re part of winter the Midwest and Great Plains. If you don’t like whiteouts, scratch all those states.

Flood records are not as reliable because they’re often associated with other disasters.  I survived the 1983 flood in Livingston Parish, Louisiana—alone again through most of the rising waters. But that’s another stormy weather story.

More than 8,000 earthquakes have shifted California in the last year, many so insignificant they don’t make the news like Sylmar in my previous post.

Where or where can we hide? One website has narrowed the safest place from natural disasters in the US to a single city. Syracuse, New York. But I don’t like heavy rain—more than 40 inches a year there—and I don’t like cold weather—only four months with temps above 70.

 

I’ll take my chances here in California.

 

 

 

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