I Can't Believe Its Not Bitter

It was January of 1970. Hopeful as I was at the time; the air traffic control career I coveted since leaving the Air Force would elude me for nearly four years. After months of waiting and many telephone calls to FAA's Regional Office about my chances for a job offer, I sought other employment. There were several disappointing interviews but I finally got my big break from a local discount department store. An opportunity had arisen in their janitorial staff and, apparently, I had the "right stuff" for the job.

Since the Air Force had already taught me all anyone needed to know about cleaning; I literally hit the floor runnin' with the company's rotary scrubber/buffer. My specialty, however, was an uncanny ability to locate chewing gum deposits across the store's acres of linoleum tile, then scraping them up with my putty knife. This talent earned me many deprecating looks from ungrateful customers (even though their shoes would no longer stick to the toy department floor) and the sincere respect of my peers.

My peers.... These guys were terrific. All but one of them were residents of a nearby home for the mentally disabled. Each would come to work with the attitude of a lottery winner; flaunting a contagious enthusiasm for even the most menial of tasks. They loved their job, took great pride in it and never complained. Not once. For me the job was simply an inconvenient way point along my path to success. For them it was a career. I knew that one day I'd be an air traffic controller again and these guys would still be proudly cleaning floors and bathrooms. I watched them work, enjoyed their friendship and often felt ashamed of my own attitude.

After nearly a year with these guys, I left the janitor profession for a better opportunity. I was given a lead on a position at the hospital, where they needed someone to manage their linen department. As it turned out, I was the linen department.

The work was significant but simple, disgusting but demeaning. The downside? Well, there was no real opportunity for advancement.

Basically, all I had to do twice a day was deliver carts loaded with clean linen to each floor, collect the dirty linen and transport it to the basement for pick-up by a cleaning service. The things I found in those linen hampers would gag a jackal but I never had time to throw up. Between the Doctors politely asking me to get out of their way and the nurses scolding me like a schoolboy, I barely had time to meet the daily linen delivery truck; download the clean and upload the filthy. With luck I'd be back in my linen room in time for the next autopsy. Oh. Did I mention that the morgue was directly across the hall from my basement domain? The staff often left their door open while dissecting their "patients." Great.

What was most interesting about the hospital experience was the way others related to me. My office was in the basement, I wore a green uniform and was often seen pushing carts piled high with things so foul that they should simply have been burned. Conclusion? I was of a lower caste. The Doctors had their white jackets, the nurses their crisp uniforms. Even the orderlies looked more professional than I did. This only served to reinforce my image as an anathema.

My plummeting self-esteem was about to meet my rising discontent. With a continuing dearth of encouragement coming from the FAA, I decided to leave my dirty laundry behind and seek other opportunities. I actually became one of several movers and shakers at an area manufacturing facility. That is to say we moved large pallets of material from the warehouse to the production floor, then shook our heads when the supervisor hollered for more. It was night work; another experience that would ease my eventual transition back into air traffic control. But not just yet.

I worked, nearly non-stop, from 4:00 p.m. till midnight; hauling boxes, unloading trucks, stocking shelves and scurrying around at the supervisor's whim. I didn't mind because there was a tangible chance for advancement here. All I had to do was convince the supervisor of my potential. Then, maybe I would receive her support when a promotion opportunity came up. It eventually did and she provided the necessary lift to help me get the job.

I worked for this company, making my way steadily upward in pay and responsibility, until one day in December of 1973. Arriving home from work one afternoon, I found a Mailgram from the FAA's Regional Office. It was a job offer.

It didn't occur to me during those years but the jobs I held from 1970 through 73 were actually the best preparation I could possibly have had for what was to come. While the FAA dithered over its hiring criteria, I was learning many useful lessons that, hopefully, would be carried forward into my FAA career. I reflect on those years with many emotions; none of them wrathful, regretful or . . . bitter.

© NLA Factor, 2010

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