What life events will transpire from the time of the first twist of the toothpaste cap to the last squeeze? The mundane, often monotonous, the surprising, spontaneous, joyful, sad and sometimes hurtful things of life. Our stories are diverse but similar because of our common thread, the thread of human emotions. My story is your story. We’re in this together. Whether spoken or written, our stories are meant to be shared. It takes courage and vulnerability to do so. Like love, sharing involves risk. But also, like love, the risk is always worth it. I share my stories with you in mind.
Tom ran from the angry group of inmates who were chasing him. He made it to the fifteen-foot chain link fence and began to climb…. This recurring nightmare seemed to confirm what Tom had already been thinking; working in a prison was not proving to be a good career move for him.
Speaking of bad career choices..….if you’re familiar with retail management you know that in the early stages the pay is not great. As a senior assistant manager in a retail chain, I was a salaried employee. One day I calculated my hourly pay and figured that I was pulling down an amount roughly equivalent to what the stock boy (excuse me, stock person) was making. To be fair, it was the holiday season, so I was working even more than the usual number of excessive hours. Still, the exercise was a real eye-opener.
Of course, money isn’t everything, especially if you’re doing something you love. Love, however, is not the word I would use to describe my experience in retail management. So there I was just over one year into my career, at a store located in the Roosevelt Field Mall in Long Island, New York.
Historical note: Roosevelt Field Mall opened in 1956. It was named after Roosevelt Field, the same airfield where Charles Lindbergh took off for his solo transcontinental flight in 1927 (there will be a test)
Back to my story…… so one day I’m talking to my brother Danny…..
Side note: (like Historical notes, but lacking historical significance): Yes, I’m talking about that Danny – the infamous but always interesting ‘Gumshoe’ who has catalogued a number of real-life crime-fighting, bad guy clobbering escapades on this very Site; if you have yet to read him…..stop here, bookmark, check out Gumshoe, return.
So, like I was saying……there I was, on the phone with the future Gumshoe (he was not a cop yet) who tells me about his interesting-sounding job with the CYA (California Youth Authority). I like what I’m hearing. For one thing, I did not hear the word ‘retail’ mentioned even once. For another, Danny mentions a concept foreign to those of us in retail management – ‘overtime pay’. Wow! He’s making $834 a month plus overtime! (bear in mind, this was 1973) I had to get me some of that!
In addition to what I considered a shortfall in monetary compensation, I had recently come to a rather startling realization…. I hated customers! (a potential retail career killer) Okay, I know, ‘hate’ is a strong word, it’s not nice to hate, I get it. And, yes, anytime we say something that paints a broad stroke about an entire class of people we unfairly lump together and no doubt wrongly judge many of them…. but I hated customers, so there you have it.
It came to a head one day as I was speaking with my boss; he was rambling on about something job related that should have been important to me, but it wasn’t. It probably wasn’t ‘on the edge of my seat’ kinda stuff, but I was his senior assistant manager, so I should’ve heard more than I did, which was, “blah, blah, blah, blah, blah…”). It hit me at that moment… the realization that I did not want to be in his chair… I had no interest in promoting to the position he occupied. As he blah, blah, blahed away, that’s all I thought about. At that point, it was just a matter of when to submit my resignation. I did not want to climb the career ladder only to find out it was leaning against the wrong wall. It was time to move on… 3,000 miles on.
So I loaded up the truck and moved to Beverly…. Hills, that is… swimmin’ pools, movie stars! (no, no, stop….cut!!) I didn’t own a truck and I didn’t move to Beverly Hills. (for the 3 or 4 of you who didn’t recognize it, I just flashed back to the theme song from The Beverly Hillbillies, an old TV series).
Please excuse my mind, it drifts a wee bit from time to time. (see Toothpaste Chronicle #1, ‘Let the Squeeze Begin’ re: inhaling during the 60’s).
Once my sister Dee (who was working as the snack bar manager at a sister store… a store that was part of the same chain….not a store where all of our sisters worked.)… once Dee heard about my plan to relocate, she decided to resign from her position also, and join me in my treck West.
Side note: Dee was the best snack bar manager they ever had. As time would prove, Dee was the best ever at whatever she did. She was very smart, and no one put their heart into their work more than Dee. She would eventually become an RN, something Dee was born to do.
Dee and I packed all of our worldly possessions in my ’72 Chevy Monte Carlo and headed for the West Coast. Fortunately, neither of us were packrats. (do you remember when you could fit everything you owned into your car? Them were the days!)
You guessed it, another side note: One of my first memories of California is when bro Danny and his wife Sue took me to Hanks Restaurant in Newport Beach for fish and chips. Along the way, they remarked about being able to see the mountains. Oh no! Had they both been stricken with some sort of terrible, obviously contagious, eye disease? If so, what was I doing in their van? Were the mountains somehow lowered into the ground at night and raised to be seen only in the daytime? Having been stationed in Hawaii during the last 18 months of my enlistment (USAF) I was not familiar with SMOG. Living in Bakersfield as I now do, I’ve become accustomed to seeing what I inhale.
As I awaited State testing for the California Youth Authority (“CYA”) I found a job with the California National Guard. I guess I just wanted to work for an organization with the word ‘California’ in its title. Testing was finally announced for Group Supervisor (“GS”), the entry-level position with CYA. I found myself in an auditorium with 300 or so people who were also seeking CYA employment. I passed the test, was called for an interview, and was hired into one of only three positions that were available at Youth Training School (“YTS”) in Chino, where bro Danny worked.
Did my dislike (sounds nicer than ‘hatred’) of customers qualify me for working behind bars? Was it my stellar good looks? My 90 wpm typing speed? Nope, none of the above… it was my last name. Danny had earned an excellent reputation at YTS, and by virtue of being his brother, I got the job – plain and simple. I rode in on the coattails of my brother’s good reputation, but now it was on me to perform.
Oh, did I mention that my loving-but-severely-warped-sense-of-humor brother set me up? Yup… he convinced the wards (inmates) that I could whoop his butt. You see, bro Danny holds a 3rd degree black belt in karate… unlike the (fantasy) black belt that he convinced the wards that I held. My denial only served to convince them even more that not only was I extremely dangerous, but I was also very humble; clearly a deadly combination. (My only skills at the art of self defense were gained as a member of my high school chess club. I was known to checkmate an unsuspecting opponent in only 5 moves…. no brag, just fact.)
During a good number of my twelve years in CYA I was known to many, not as Mike, but as ‘Danny’s brother’. Eventually, as people transferred, quit, were fired or deceased, I regained my own identity. Danny’s impact on people who experienced regular contact with him could be compared to some very naturally occurring things in nature such as ebola, tsunamis, earthquakes, tornados, or perhaps meteors. They all have lasting impact, are shocking to the senses, and often require counseling as a part of the recovery process.
I did not remain at YTS long, started there January 16th (my dad’s birthday) and transferred to another CYA facility being re-activated in May. I remember Danny’s reaction when I told him I was selected to be a part of the activation team in Paso Robles (a small town on California’s Central Coast)…”There’s nothing but hills and trees there!” After only five months of living in Santa Ana and working in Chino, I was more than ready for some hills and trees!
Little did I know I would find much more than hills and trees.
Sharron was the prettiest girl in the place. I don’t say this for the sake of earning brownie points, knowing that she’ll read it. It’s an incontrovertible fact. The Laguna Village Inn, or ‘LVI’, as the locals called it, was a popular dance spot in San Luis Obispo, a 30 minute drive from where I settled in Paso Robles. I love to dance (see ‘Eternal Consequences’, Volume #2 of Chronicles). The rhythm, the music and, oh yeah, the opportunity for a shy, average guy like me to break the ice with a pretty girl; what could be better? Sharron was in the company of two other young ladies at the bar. As I scanned the crowd I was immediately attracted to her pretty face, long brunette hair and beautiful smile.
Let me back up a bit. I’ve never been a ‘girl magnet’. Like Clint Eastwood’s character, Harry Callahan, says in one of the Dirty Harry movies, “A man’s gotta know his limitations.” I did. I’m a realist. I’m not a life-of-the-party, great-looking kinda guy, but, I might add, I did alright in the dating realm in my own, average guy kinda way. So, like many average kinda guys, I wasn’t afraid to shoot for the stars, so I asked the prettiest girl in the LVI to dance with me and she said yes!
I quickly discovered that Sharron had a great personality to match her great looks. She gave me her phone number that night. I began to wonder why she had when, after my 11th call (yes, ELEVEN), she had yet to agree to go out with me. Little did she know that I had a strict 12 call limit! Us average guys do have our pride! Like the saying goes, “the twelfth time’s a charm!” (or something like that) Finally, Sharron agreed to a date. Flash forward just several months to November 14, 1975, and we were engaged. We were married the following Valentine’s Day at Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa.
(Toothpaste Chronicle Volume #3, ‘Man in the Mirror’ shares much more details of my marriage relationship that intertwines with this story)
Much of what happened over the ten years that followed would only be of interest to those who have worked in a correctional environment, so I will spare the rest of you much of the details. I do so for two reasons; one, I have a lousy memory, and two – I’ve never been one to sit around reminiscing my time behind bars and swapping ‘war’ stories.
One of the ways we corrections professionals survive the cumulative impact of stress is not to ‘live’ what we do; not allow time off to be dominated by our job. When I do share some of what I’ve experienced, it’s with a purpose in mind.
That said, I share the story that follows out of respect and in honor of the memory of those who did not survive my profession.