Saturday, October 24, 2009

What Was.

We went to an estate sale today. The estate belonged to the Blair family. John Blair began a mail order company at the turn of the century called the New Process Company. It is a keystone of the local economy even today, although it has changed hands, and changed names.

I worked there right out of high school, as a key punch operator. I realized how dated that was when I tried to explain the job to my kids. They looked at me incredulously. They couldn't fathom it. Why on earth would you type information on a card that ran though a computer? In today's world of personal computing, it actually made no sense to them.They had no idea what I was talking about. I saw John Blair pull up once. He was retired at that point, and his son was running the place, I think. Mr. Blair was riding in the back of a Rolls Royce, and I'd never seen such a thing before. I was gawking from a window, and my boss bawled me out big time, afraid that I'd been seen standing there, doing nothing, which would make her look bad. John Blair was incredibly old then, back in 1975, his wrinkled countenance and hunched back bearing little resemblence to the face of the man with the chiseled features that appeared on the mailings we sent out, the envelope of little flyers that predated catalogs.

The mansion is old, beautiful, but dated, lots of bright green accents that you saw in the early 60s. A lot of the furniture was dated as well, expensive stuff, no doubt, but from an era I have no interest in, although the bedroom had a marvelous four poster bed, and the attic had some glass fronted book cases I coveted.

It is strange to pick through the mundane details of a person's life. There was a Corelle casserole dish that matched my own dishes. How strange to think that the mega rich would use something as ordinary as that, but how stupid to think that they would not use the ordinary things that are common to all households. What else would they cook their tuna noodle casserole in? We perused that house, from the first floor to the third, picking through the belongings of a man that shaped the economy of this town. I bought a small train case for Cara, still labeled with a customs sticker from 1955. I bought Christmas ornaments, cast metal reindeer, very detailed, brand new with the tags still on them, for the other kids, a momento of days gone by. I will put them in their stockings at Christmas, and they will look at me, and none of them will 'get it'.

None of them will understand that long ago, when I was a girl, I was making $137. every two weeks, pounding keys to punch holes in little cards that zipped through my machine. It was noisy and boring, a tough job for a girl with big dreams of college. Our bosses were incredibly old ladies who never married, choosing careers over husbands. They had to. If they had married, they would no longer be permitted to work at the New Process Company. John L. Blair knew a woman's place, by gosh. These old ladies watched over us suspiciously, and were quick to chastise if we talked too much. In those days, women wore dresses to work, and there were jobs that we were not permitted to apply for. Men made more money than women, but the jobs were separate. There were men's jobs. There were women's jobs.

Not one of my kids will understand what it was like to wander through that house, to look through those things. They will not understand that back when I was 18, I could not have imagined such a thing, would have been shocked at the thought of it. They will not understand that these momentos from the mansion are a link to what their mother was before she was their mother. I think of that young girl. I think of the middle aged woman she has become (sitting at a computer, for pete's sake, a computer. Quite a far cry from a key punch machine!) How the world has changed... Some of those changes are sad, I suppose, but really, there are a lot of things about those days that I am very glad that my children do not understand.

Up in the attic, there was a briefcase, a battered old leather briefcase, with the monogram JLB on the top, inside the handle. I couldn't help thinking, "Perhaps he was carrying that briefcase when he got out of a Rolls Royce 35 years ago..." It was a silly thought, and the briefcase was $10. I didn't say anything to Tim. I don't think he would have understood, either. Actually, I'm not so sure I understand it myself, but I will go back Monday, when everything is 50% off. If that old briefcase is still there, for $5.00, I will buy it.


Mrs. Spit said...

I am reading a book - fiction - about Edmonton in the 1930's. The book is based on facts, and I will never get quite used to conversations about my neighbourhood, back in the glory days. It gives me a bit of thrill, every time.

What wonderful finds.

Mikey said...

What a story! And what a treasure to be able to go in there and look thru it all, stuff you had always wondered about. Magical times. Buy that briefcase! Maybe there's something in it? Did you look?
PS, Starfish just got delivered to his new home. Text message via Susan :)

Karen said...

I agree with Mikey: Open the briefcase and check inside the pockets and the lining! :) Just kidding. Beautiful post about days gone by.

Roxanne said...

Hi my friend. I just wanted to stop by an tell you how much your kind words meant about sharing the word. It's as if God said, "Go for it" through your words. What a blessing you are to me. Love You Much!!!

WhiteStone said...

Funny thing. I went to an estate auction today, too. And when I was 18, just out of school, I lived in California for a year and worked for "the" Howard Hughes at Hughes Aircraft. One of my jobs was putting those punched cards into a huge monster of a computer so that the test readings of tiny electrical components would be punched into them. The computer was so expensive it was rented or leased from Texas Instruments. And I never met Howard Hughes...when he visited the plant we were instructed to stay away from the parts of the building where he would be visiting. I had no clue who he was at the time. But then, at 18, I didn't have a clue about much of anything. LOL

Bush Babe said...

Oh I understand ... believe me! I remember when newspapers were laid out on the stone with metal type in little rows... *sigh*

And I would sooooo be picking up that briefcase... you'll need a good one for the manuscript!

Ann said...

Lovely to step back in time like that, and get to think upon those memories again.

My husband was a programmer back in the day, and he had to do it using a key-punch. They bought time on computers and keypunch operators ran their programs through and gave them results. If the program didn't work, they'd have to figure it out on the cards and wait for their next time to test it again. I imagine it took a lot of patience to do that job back then.

I absolutely love mid-century style. I certainly wish I was there to shop with you. I'd buy all those things you had no interest in, and we could get a good luck at everything together.

Bob said...

What a great retrospective. I also wish I could have perused through these things. I have a couple of old manual typewriters in my basement that my kids think are just hilarious. I will never part with them and they can make the decision as to what to do with them someday. They sit right next to my vinyl record collection. If they get rid of the Doobey Brothers, Carole King or Dan Fogelberg, I'll come back to haunt them.

Anonymous said...

Yes, a very well-written retrospective. I especially liked its tone and atmosphere, your turns of phrase and your ability to invoke genuine sentiment without crossing over to sentimentality. Well done. Thanks.

Debby said...

WhiteStone: You did the job that women were NOT permitted to do initially. They were not permitted to load the cards to be read by the computer. I can tell you that the first woman to work in the computer room was a woman named Shelley, and she had to fight for the right. There were women there who were very angry at her. 'It was only right,' Mary G told me, 'that men should make more than women. They had families to support.' She fought and won and went into the computer room to work with the men. She was beautiful and knew her own power, and immediately began an affair which broke up two marriages, and outraged the young man's parents.

And then further down, I read Ann's comment. Her husband did the work that only women were permitted to do. We were the only ones who loaded the boxes of cards in the keypunch and entered the data.

What a funny remembering this post has taken me on!