Exotic Places

The elements of the company’s product catalogue were stored in a small back room, adjacent to a large office space populated with steel desks and chairs – all likely AWOL from the U.S. Army.

Inside pigeonhole after pigeonhole, individual, mostly black and white, sheets of identical product descriptions were stacked. Each sheet had been punched with perfect circular holes, perfectly spaced; and each sheet would more or less effortlessly slide onto either the two- or three-rings inside a binder that would hold the collected works. Sometimes a little persuasion was required. But not much.

Lying about my age by adding a few months, I obtained working papers at not-quite-16 years. I recall nothing about any job interview. Never mind reference checks or penning grand philosophical and moral statements. The pay was 90 cents an hour. Way, way better than the paper route in my previous career. Nearly millionaire status, it seemed at the time.

The company manufactured gigantic fans and associated blower assemblies. The kind used by industries of many kinds. Other factories. Airplane assembly plants. Maybe Nike missile bases, a popular villain at the time. Who knows what else.

Assembling custom constructed catalogues was my job. There was an order sheet, detailing which of the seemingly hundreds of individual catalogue sheets were to be combined in a single binder. Some skinny, others fat.

I no longer recall who were the recipients. Salespeople? Architects and engineers? It didn’t matter. All that mattered was assembling the correct and complete set of sheets in a required order of presentation.

Sheets included electrical specifications and schematics. Dimensions. An illustration photo of the fan, assembled, unassembled, and exploded views of presumably critical, competitive fan and blower components.

Sharpest in my memory, though, were the places they’d be shipped. Exotic places. Towns I’d never heard of except, maybe, on TV. Topeka. Racine. Joplin. The latter also the name of a singer, though I would not become acquainted with her (well, not personally) for years.

Sometimes I’d get a break from the highly technical, precision work of catalogue assembly. They would need someone to answer the phones. “The kid can do it,” some adult doubtless volunteered. And so I’d park at one of the massive tanks with multiple drawers, waiting for the ring.

I’m pretty sure there was no training for this new assignment. Or mentoring. Just how much was required of a not-quite-16-year-old to say “Hello”?

And mostly, anyway, the room remained silent as I stood guard at the black, rotary dial phones.

But, as anyone could tell, adulthood and a career was on a near horizon. And at ninety cents an hour, less withholding taxes – a novelty compared to the cash-based paper route – growing up didn’t seem all that bad. Or difficult.

St. Louis. Wichita. San Jose.

It was a big world. To a 15-year-old.

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