Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Joy, Hurt, and Dirt

Working at the TJX corporate office was the wrong place for me. The environment was very competitive. The emphasis was on fashion – I've never been a slave to fashion. Everyone came to work coiffed and dressed in the newest styles.
I grew up in rural Southern Indiana.  I was a t-shirt and jeans kind of gal. I loved being outside. The Purchasing Department was on the 3rd floor of the TJX building - a beautiful building, but too sterile for my tastes. At the time I lived in a 3rd floor garret apartment too. Far removed from the ground on both parts, I was feeling quite disconnected.
When I feel this way I have the urge to stand outside barefoot and envision the Earth beneath my feet in a cut-a-way view where I can see the strata below me. I start down through my soles, to the grass, to the roots, to the dirt – down and down until I finally feel grounded. It’s always been my way of getting back to center.
On this particular morning I was desperately missing dirt; the smell, the feel, the texture. I was sitting in my cubicle when Ellie Feldman came by to say hello.

Ellie was a great person - full of fun and joy and laughter.  She had a quick smile and sharp wit and beautiful red hair, which exemplified her personality perfectly.

“You know what I miss,” I said to her, “I miss dirt!”
She laughed.
“Funny you should say that,” she said. “This morning I went to my Grandmothers grave to plant some flowers. When I was done I noticed I had dirt under my fingernails. I was going to clean them, but I decided not to. I wanted to leave it as a reminder of what I did this morning.”
It was obvious Ellie loved her grandmother very much and deeply missed her.
Then she showed me her hands. A fine line of dirt traced beneath her nails. We smiled at each other in that knowing kind of way that says, “I understand exactly what you mean.”
And you know what? Whenever I’ve been working in the yard and I go to wash the dirt from under my fingernails, or I feel disconnected and I need to get to some dirt in a hurry . . . I think of Ellie Feldman and that moment we shared at TJX.

© 2010

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


In the early sixties technology was something reserved for specific purposes; the science of exploration and national defense.  The closest interaction I had with it was our black and white television set and WBIW (the AM radio station just up the road from our house).

The radio station building was constructed of cinder blocks covered with a veneer of limestone "bricks" that varied in length giving the structure a fractured look.  It sat back in a grove of pine trees at the long wide turn just before our neighborhood on Highway 58.  The U-shaped driveway had a one-way traffic arrow intended to manage the flow of visitors we never observed.

The radio station tower sat out in a huge open field to the east of the building.  It was higher than any of us could imagine climbing.  Most of us had never seen mountains.  My sister and I would vicariously “reach” the top by way of the wooden teeter-totter my father had built in the backyard for our enjoyment.  It lined up perfectly with the radio tower.  You could sit opposite your totter mate and push them to the top playing ring-the-bell with it’s flashing light using your weight.  Bing!

Further behind the tower, against the old overgrown railroad bed that acted as an alley the length of our backyards, was the radio station dump.  Burnt out fluorescent bulbs and old black 45’s and LP’s littered the ditch.  Most of the records were broken.  If you were lucky enough to find an unbroken one you could throw it just like a Frisbee, but it too would shatter against the crushed stone of the old rail bed.  One wonders what treasures may have met their demise at our hands.

The programming of WBIW consisted of easy listening music (no rock and roll) interrupted by news, occasional sports (both local and professional), and informational call-in programs.  My favorite was “Over the Back Fence”.  It provided not only community news, but also recipes and “gossip”.  The gossip consisted of items like; so-in-so had been promoted to supervisor, or just made his 6th degree at the Masonic Lodge, or made the honor role, or was the new pastor of the Baptist Church.

A few of us would venture into the station and watch the on-air DJ through the large glass window of his booth.  There was no technician.  The DJ did it all; station breaks, spinning music, running commercials, and answering the phone.  Here was a talented fellow who wore a tie and suit coat and didn’t have to turn a screw or swing a hammer for a living.  Teachers and business owners were the only other people I knew who could do that.

The AP Newswire Teletype chattered incessantly in the back hallway near the offices.  Daisy wheeled copy spun off the carriage so fast I couldn't read it.  Periodically the DJ would come out and tear off a big sheet to review for any important news. 
I knew that important news came over that Teletype and, although I never saw it myself, I knew President Kennedy’s assassination had printed on that very machine.

Most copy ended up in the wastebasket – good news for me!  I brought those sheets home and pretended to read them to my imaginary listeners in my makeshift control room I erected over my twin bed using a blanket, two folding chairs, and a piece of rope.  I would sit there for hours listening to my transistor radio, clicking my flash light on and off to signal when I was “on-air”, and read the old news copy pretending to be a DJ. The radio station employees seemed to like having us around as long as we behaved, which we did because we enjoyed the privilege.The WBIW radio tower was a unique landmark that extended above the horizon like the anchor of our neighborhood.  It dominated the landscape.

 Our neighborhood baseball diamond sat in the lower level of the Pace’s backyard with the batter facing the tower and the outfield extending up an incline to Bell’s backyard.  From that angle the radio tower sat directly in the center of the horizon.  You swung for the tower like you were going for the outfield wall to smash a homer.

Our backyard sported a cinder block barbeque pit that sat on a poured concrete slab.  A chimney went straight up the back.  There was a main grill in the center of the construction with two smaller limestone shelves on either side for utensils and platters.  Under each shelf were open cubbyholes for firewood or whatever else you might want to store.  This structure made a perfect NASA Ground Control Command Center.  The WBIW tower was our distant launch pad where our rockets fired off with perfect precision.  We put paper grocery bags over our heads and cut openings to simulate space helmets.  We used our fathers work gloves and clomped around in our winter boots to complete our space suit ensembles.  We cupped our hands over our mouths and made static noises when we talked to each other to replicate NASA chatter exactly the way we had heard on radio and TV broadcasts during actual lift-offs, and we drank TANG even though we didn’t really like the taste.  After all, our very own homegrown astronaut had inspired us.

Virgil “Gus” Grissom was a hero.  Born in Mitchell, Indiana (a mere 12 miles south of Bedford) he was among the seven original Mercury astronauts, and the second American to go into space!  He helped design and build the Gemini spacecrafts.  He had been awarded numerous medals and gained several promotions.  We all wanted to be astronauts.

Having a local astronaut gave a new perspective to the night sky.  Suddenly our science classes didn’t seem so unconnected from our real lives anymore.  Any light moving in the night sky might be a spacecraft with people just like us inside.  One evening, as I was on my way home from play, a meteor came tearing across the fading sunset.  I could see the actual flame of its tail.  The light it produced was like the sun.  I was so excited I ran the rest of the way home to tell my family.  All this from a pea sized piece of rock from distant comet.  I could only imagine the intense heat and flames generated by a space capsule re-entering the atmosphere.  Had I been born a thousand years before it would have been interpreted as some heavenly sign indicating either blessing or curse, but I was living in the space age and knew the cause and effect.

When the news came on January 27th, 1967 that “Gus” and two other astronauts had been killed in a fire during an Apollo mission flight simulation at Cape Kennedy.  In an instant we learned how dangerous this effort really was.  How close to catastrophe space exploration could be.  Pictures of his generous smile were printed on the front page of the Bedford Daily Times Mail, the very paper he had delivered as a boy, and were shown on all the major TV channels.  He was gone.  Streets were renamed for him, memorials were built, and movies made.

 To this day I'm still drawn to radio station towers.

© 2010