Banner photo of Larry Eugene Meredith, Ronald Tipton and Patrick Flynn, 2017.

The good times are memories
In the drinking of elder men...

-- Larry E.
Time II

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Big City Land of Opportunity

In my high school years the trips to Philadelphia dropped off. I'm not sure there were any once we left my boyhood town in '56.

There had been a few occasions when my dad took the family, and sometimes a friend of mine as well, into Philadelphia to a movie. But all the films I remember him taking us to were before we moved north into the country.

There was, "This is Cinerama", an experiment in 3-D films that didn't required special glasses, but that was in 1952 and I wasn't even out of grade school yet. We went to see "Oklahoma!" in Philly, but that was in 1955 and he took us to see "Giant", with James Dean and that was 1956, the year we changed addresses.

But trips to Philly were about to begin again, but for a different purpose.

When I graduated high school I had little in the way of promise. My parents had started as early as junior high telling me to forget college. I don't know if they just didn't believe in higher education or it was the cost. I know both my mother and grandmother thought I read too much and that reading could somehow damage the brain. Don't ask, I have no idea why they thought that. I just knew there was no way for me to go to college if my parents weren't going to pay for it. I didn't know there were some alternatives except having a scholarship. I had good marks in my senior year, A's and B's; mostly A's, but I didn't win any academic scholarships and no one was recruiting me. I wasn't going to get a athletic grant either. I had only participated in Track 'n' Field and I was a mediocre player on a mediocre team. Our team  won one meet and I just threw the discus further than any other contestant one time, unfortunately I couldn't keep my balance, fell out of the circle and was disqualified. There weren't going to be any college coaches picking up the phone and dialing my number.

What I wanted to be was a writer and a cartoonist, but wasn't getting much encouragement about this "childish fantasy". My mother had sprung for me to study art through a correspondence course ("just don't say anything to your father.") when I was in 11th Grade and I continued it for two years before I dropped out. I had started well enough with straight A's, but after a year my enthusiasm began to wane and I practiced less and was getting slower and slower in returning my lesson work. Oh, I could draw realistic vases, pieces of cloth, rocks, wooden boards, horses and bunnies and dogs. I even got to where I could do a good sketch of a human hand, which believe it or not, is one of the more difficult things to draw, but all the emphasis was on commercial art. I wanted to draw funny little pictures over punch lines, not toasters and shoes for department store flyers or design wallpaper and bed sheets. I dropped out with a B average. There was value in those earlier lessons teaching such things as point of view, proportion, perspective and shading. I was able to use techniques I learned in art in my later careers.

There was a bit of a recession at the end of the Eisenhower years. My friend Ron (of the "Retired in Delaware" Blog) and I sometimes went out job hunting together, sometimes not. Ron joined the Army. He wanted me to join with him on the "Buddy System", but my parents were against the idea and wouldn't have signed the papers. (Back then you couldn't do such things unless you were 21 or older without parental approval.)  Doors of opportunity were shutting all around me. (As you can see in the photo I didn't have much fashion sense. Art training hadn't helped me there, so not much future as a couturier.)

Frankly, I wasn't suited for anything. I had worked at various jobs since I was in grade school, but they were not skill-building positions. In my high school years I worked on farms in the summer, enduring stoop labor along with the migrants. I picked tomatoes and strawberries. I knew I didn't want to do that the rest of my life. I had worked as a truck loader in the tomato fields of the Amish, worked for Proctor & Gamble hanging Mr. Clean samples on doorknobs, worked as a caretaker and house sitter, a car washer, a snow shoveler, a babysitter, a paperboy and a celery scrubber. There wasn't much there I saw as a lifetime career choice. (Although I had really enjoyed being a paperboy and though perhaps being a mailman would be the greatest job in the world.)

And I had always swore I would never work in the confines of a business office. Like ugh!

I went to a lot of local companies, Kiwi Shoe Polish, Mrs. Smith's Pies, but no one was hiring. But I began to notice in the Want Ads there were a lot of listing for something called a TAB Operator, what ever that was? There were a real lot of such listings, I mean columns full, so I was curious and one day I saw a little ad which said "Be a TAB Operator! Learn how to operate IBM Keypunches, Sorters, Collators, etc. Get in on the ground floor of the job of the future today..."

Because this involved operating machines, albeit ones none of my family had ever heard of, my parents allowed we to go to this school; after all, operating a machine was a real job. The only thing, this school, The IBM Automation Division of Florence Utz Schools, Inc. was in Philadelphia. I was about to resume my long time affair with Miss. Philly.

This was a scary proposition. I had been to the "Big City" many times once upon a time, but always with my parents. I didn't feel confident enough to drive there, so I would be going by train (there were no buses, trolleys or elevated-subways anywhere near where I now lived.  The closest public transportation to Philadelphia was the Reading Railroad.

I had only ridden a train once in my life (not counting those subway cars) and I was very young at the time.  It wasn't a passenger train, it was a freight pulled by a steam engine. My grandfather had taken me on a ride in the caboose with the rail workers. That rail line doesn't even exist anymore. Today where the tracks were is a nature walk called the Struble Trail.

In the midst of July I drove five miles to the nearest Reading Station and caught my ride. I've always had a certain anxiety about missing such things as trains, planes, boats, buses, so I was there early. Not much confusion at this little station. Two tracks, one running west, one running east and each with a platform along it. There was one ticket master. It was a piece of cake. The return trip would be a little more adrenalin raising. Reading Terminal in Philly seemed huge. There were rows of ticket windows, rows of boarding doors and platforms and rails. There were crowds of people going in all directions and constant announcements of arrivals and departures in some unintelligible garbled language struggling to be English.

Once on the Philadelphia Street I felt a familiarity. It was East Market Street, where the Christmas lights had lit my childhood, where the Magic Lady and Uncle WIP and Santa Claus dwelled. The school was along this boulevard, on the same side as the terminal on the block right next to City Hall. I found it easily.

It was not on the ground floor. It was up above a store front somewhere. You used an elevator.

There was another new experience. I think I had been in some elevators in those big department stores along this avenue, my mother or grandmother holding my hand, but I can't remember that for sure. There certainly had been no need for elevators in the small towns and little villages I had lived in. A skyscraper might be the hayloft of a barn where I came from. I wasn't sure how you operated these things.

I need not have worried. Back then you had elevator operators. The doors opened and this old guy (he looked old to this 18 year old kid anyway) yelled, "Going up!" He was dressed like the movie ushers I had seen with a little round cap upon his head held on with a chin strap. I stepped inside and he leaned his head into the corridor, looked both ways, stepped back and pushed shut a lattice-like gate, then the outer door closed with a bang.

"What floor?" he asked.


I told him again. I'm a low talker, I admit it.

He turned this lever with a handle and we rose with a sudden shutter, clanging and swaying till he turned it the other direction and we stopped with a jolt. He swung back the gate, the door opened and I went to school in the city.

I made a friend almost immediately, a fellow named Tom. He was going to be in my class here and he was also studying art through a correspondence course and he wanted to be a cartoonist. (He's the one with whom I accidently invaded the Ladies Room at Wanamaker's with.)

I liked the school, I enjoyed figuring out the schematics to program a job, to wiring it into a control board, to running these strange machines. I graduated at the top of the class six weeks later, an accredited and accomplished IBM TAB Operator.

Here we go, man, I am about to be a star in the Job of the Future! (By the way, the last time I saw anything related to the Job of the Future, it was on display at the Smithsonian Institute as the Job of the Past. Talk about feeling old!)

I signed up with an Employment Agency and began my pursuit of a TAB Operator position. This should be easy. There seemed to be thousands of such positions in the want ads everyday and with a crackerjack employment agency looking out for me, how could I miss. What I couldn't miss was the old bugaboo, the Catch-22 of the entry level jobseeker. It was either I wasn't experienced enough or I was too experienced.

"Oh, we're looking for at least six months hands-on experience, sorry."

"Oh, six-week school experience? We want someone we can train. We couldn't pay you want you'd want, sorry."

Pay me what I want? I just wanted to be paid. I didn't have some figure in mind. I once was paid a penny and a half a newspaper, 15 cents a basket of strawberries, I had no idea what the value should be for six-weeks of TAB Operator training.

It looked like my job courtship in Philadelphia was about to crash to an end even before a chance at engagement. Goodbye big city lights, back to the country nights.

Next: Working Philadelphia.

The illustration at the top of this Post is the control board for programming an IBM 604 Card-processing Electronic Calculator. Once upon a time I could have wired this thing up to do varied tricks.


Ron Tipton said...

Excellent posting Lar! You have missed your calling. You are a writer. I also think you missed your calling with following your dream to be a cartoonist. Gary Larson ("The Far Side") would have had competition.

Except for me going into the Army, our careers have been very similar. We both ended up in banking after a potpourri of jobs. Then we both lost our banking jobs and now we have part-time jobs in the customer service field (we don't make anything.) We are both grossly underpaid for our skills and worldly knowledge but we are happy with our jobs. Most of the time anyway.

Our saga continues Lar.


Jeff Jordan said...

You ought to write an autobiography. I can almost see the movie deal now.

Gigi said...

What a fun post! I look forward to the next installment!

Ron Tipton said...


Listen to your fans, write that book! Don't worry about the grammar, Miss Hurlock died last year.


Greg said...

Oh, how far computers have come. I still remember my dad's boxes and boxes of punch cards. How did people SURVIVE????