Saturday, July 14, 2007

An Eighties Timeline: The Search for Spock & a life of my own



Recently, an old friend of mine (Brenda P, in case she’s reading this) contacted me to say she had seen my blog and enjoyed my look back on things, but wanted to know why there was nothing written about my life in the Eighties. 

Looking back, the 1980s were a very rough road for me; to this day, I feel fortunate that I was able to move on like I did.

In 1980, I was still a teenager--I'd graduated from high school the summer before, and had no idea what to do with my life.  (It would be another year before I enrolled in Waynesburg College.)  Plus I had recently moved back home after attempting to live on my own after graduating high school (with disastrous results), and my parents were anxious to know what my next plans were.      


My 19th birthday.  Skinny and holding a big chocolate cake, it doesn’t get much better than this!  But it wasn’t going to get any better for awhile, either…   

1980:  “Welcome to Murphy's Mart, your Friendly Discount Store" 

 During my senior year (and the summer following graduation) I worked at both 'The Olde Southern Pancake House' & then at Shop n' Save.  Now back home however, I had no job.  And then one morning, Mom said "Doug--did you see this ad in the paper?  They're building a Murphy's Mart in that field across from Bortz Chevrolet & are accepting applications." 

I went & applied, and was offered a job.  (The store was months away from opening, we assembled racks and shelves and unloaded hundreds of boxes of merchandise while they literally poured concrete around us.)  In fact, it felt odd on 'Opening Day' to see the customers pouring in—we’d been accustomed to having the store to ourselves for so long.


"Price check on Register 3!"

I worked there full-time (even while going to college) from the summer of 1980 to February 1986.  I started as a stockboy, and 'moved up' to the Garden Shop/Home Improvements area.  But as anyone who's ever worked in retail knows, it was not easy work.  The schedule can be a rough one--I worked 3 days a week, 9-5 and 2-3 days a week, 12-9:30.  Getting weekends off was out of the question, & there was no sitting—you were always on your feet.  Also, you were constantly being pulled in 3 directions:  you're needed for the registers up front, a woman in Paints needs customer assistance; a truck with 12 palettes of potting soil is at the rear gate.  And all of this for minimum wage.   When I started there in '80, I made $2.25 an hour.  When I left in '86, I was earning $4.10.  It wasn't exactly a living wage.

But there were good memories too.  I quickly made friends with a few people my age, & one person in particular became my best pal, Brenda Ullom.  We worked together for years, and shared a love for Stephen King novels.  She hosted weekly Saturday Night get-togethers at her house, to watch 'Solid Gold', 'Knight Rider' & 'Chiller Theater'; she always had snacks, and sometimes the night would include haircuts!  


It's been 25 years since I've seen Superman II  (and why I'll probably never see it again)

When Superman II opened in 1980, I was beside myself.  I asked my sister Shawn if we could go.  (It was 30 minutes away, at the Midtown Theater in Little Washington.)  Since she had a license & a car, if she drove I'd pay for the movie & Burger King.  So off we went--and I was in superhero heaven.  When I discovered it was still playing the following week, I struck up the same bargain, and once again, off we flew!  The movie remained at the Midtown that entire summer.  We saw it eleven weeks in a row.  (And when I got an RCA VideoDisc player in 1984, guess what was one of the free movies that came with the machine?)

When 'Yentl' opened & Shawn asked me to see it with her, I was only too happy to; we even went twice.  But I'm sure glad she didn't ask me eleven times!


1981:  Doug & Shawn are off to college—but not for long 

In 1981, Shawn & I both started school.  I attended Waynesburg College & majored in Business and Mathematics, Shawn went to West Virginia University & majored in Education.  Both of us lived on our respective campuses, and both of us lasted a year. 

Shawn did well, but changed her mind about teaching & wanted to take a year off.  As for me, I was having a difficult time paying for things.  My school was 10 times the cost of WVU, and I knew I couldn't go to my parents for help; Dad was laid off, our oldest brother was away at law school, and there was still 3 kids at home. 

(Just for that one year, it would take me 11 years, off & on, to pay off my student loans.)

November 1, 1982:  85 South West Street


Grandma Barnhart's little house (several years after Shawn & I moved on, the new owners almost burned it to the ground)

In the fall of 1982, our mother's mother (Grandma Barnhart) had a stroke.  Our mom (in a bit of temporary insanity) wanted Shawn to go live with Grandma to help her out.  I asked to go along & the day after my birthday, November 1 1982, Shawn & I moved to Grandma's small house in town, on 85 South West.

Grandma didn't stay there long; luckily our parents realized she needed professional care, and she was moved to the Curry Home, a nursing home.  But Shawn & I remained living in that little house for nearly 4 years.

For a long time afterwards, it used to upset Shawn when I would talk about how much I missed those years there.  I don't blame her, WE WERE POOR.  Between my take home of $85.00 a week, & Shawn earning even less (she now worked in the Shoe Dept at Murphy’s & would eventually become a manager there) we could barely afford groceries, let alone heat.

But we've always been close, and we’d often go for long walks at night and look at nicer homes around Waynesburg Park, and I think we both wondered and worried if each of us would ever have a better life.

June 1, 1984:  Star Trek III is released & all is right with the world

ST III The Search for SpockY’know, I’ve never really talked about my being a Trekkie on here, but suffice it to say I was and still am, and I sure was surprised (and relieved) when this sequel was released.  Spock is found—alive!  Captain Kirk lost his son and the USS Enterprise to get Spock back, but that’s beside the point… right?

I was so ecstatic I dragged my poor sister Shawn along with me to see it.   (I’m still dealing with the guilt from that too.)  I bet Kirk has long since moved on from his.



January 28, 1986:  One disaster after another...


The Space Shuttle Challenger, shortly before & after the explosion

I’ll never forget this day, for purely selfish reasons.  I had been in a pretty depressed state for months, trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life.  I knew Shawn & I couldn't go on living together, broke & living in that little house.

So the afternoon of the day we all watched this tragedy on the news, I called my older brother & told him I would take him up on his offer; he was living in Washington DC at the time, working in the legal dept for the Federal Housing Administration.  (Some months before, he told me I should come down there and look for work, as there was plenty of good paying jobs.)  I would soon learn there wasn't-- at least not for someone with my lack of education or experience.

 I went to DC the first time on a week's vacation; couldn't find anything.  I returned to Murphy's Mart for 2 days, thought "I didn't try hard enough" and with both great fear and relief, quit & went back to DC.

In retrospect, I can't believe I left Shawn on her own, but I knew she would be moving back home to our parents soon.  (I really didn't have this option as the boys were expected to be on their own by a certain age.)  

June 1986:  The FBI & a good friend help me from becoming homeless

 When I returned home (jobless & worse off than ever) that second time, my parents were livid.  Mom said:

  • Your sister Donda is getting married in August.
  • Shawn is moving back home.
  • Be out of that house by June 1.

I was 24 years old, and now homeless.

I searched for work frantically, but in a small town (with no car or drivers license), there was nothing to be found.  On a whim, I applied for unemployment and was approved.  I couldn't believe it.  (I even asked them to confirm, in case they had made a mistake & I'd have to pay it back.)  It turned out that a civil service test I'd taken for a clerical job with the FBI had been approved & then canceled due to Federal budget cuts; they saw this as my reason for leaving DC.  So at least I had a little money coming in, but still no place to go.

Fortunately, 2 weeks before the June 1 deadline to exit the premises, my best friend Dan & his wife Jean offered to take me in--for $50.00 a month for their room in the attic, and if I helped get their son off to school in the morning.  (Jarret was in the first grade.) 


August 1986 - Donda's wedding day.  I was happy for her, but was too caught up in my own sorry situation;  my parents and I were barely speaking.  

It was a strange existence; Dan & Jean lived in a fairly rural setting, and weren't home much.  We had no phone (and this was before cellphones).  The nearest place was a nursing home--the Curry Home, where ironically, Grandma Barnhart now resided. 

I spent a lot of time alone & deeply depressed.  One time my mom stopped by and angrily said "Why aren't you visiting your grandmother?  The Curry Home is only half a mile up the road!"  I yelled back "Why doesn't anyone visit me?  Shawn's the only one that comes out here!"  But looking back now, I can see the stress my mom was under too.  And no one will ever believe me, but even with the troubled history I shared with my mom's mother, I swear I DID visit her, on several occasions.   Anyway--it was a lonely and bleak time.  I felt alienated from everyone.   

1987:  Getting back on my feet--well, sort of


It actually began when I was offered a job at the Country Squire Restaurant.  (It was very little money & part-time work; but it was something.)   Soon after, my former boss at Murphy's Mart (now Ames) offered to let me return.   (My Aunt Terry also offered to let me live with her—and ironically, she was renting the very house that Shawn and I had once shared for 4 years!)  And soon after that, I met Fay, a girl who also worked at the store; we became good friends and then some, & moved in together. 

But to be honest, I was right back in the same boat I'd been in before the Challenger Disaster; in a minimum-wage job and going nowhere, fast.    



1988-89:  A New Hope (The Conclusion)

 I really don't know where I'd be today if it wasn't for my dentist, Dr.Jane Weinzierl, & Bill Lewis, a thoughtful OVR counselor.

Around November 1987, desperate for some dental work (but no insurance), I managed to work out a payment plan with Dr. Jane.  And on the first visit, she came right out & said "Doug why aren't you doing something with your life?"  I said I was desperate to, but had no money and didn’t know how or where to start.

She said "What about OVR?  They helped me...and with your epilepsy, they could help you."  Really?  I'd never heard of it—and I hardly considered my seizure disorder as being a disability.  She gave me the phone number for the Washington Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, so I called them--what did I have to lose?   I met with someone right away (Bill Lewis) who brought me to Pittsburgh for a battery of diagnostic & aptitude tests.

They said I had a strong aptitude for computer science, and could assist me in going back to school.  I was informed of a special accelerated degree program sponsored by CCAC, Pitt & various Pittsburgh corporations.  It was an 18-24 month 'crash program' of intense study--8 hours a day, 5 days a week.  And you had to maintain a 90% grade or you were out.

I got into the program, which started July 16.  I discussed it with Fay, who at this point also wanted to return to school, in Southern Ohio.  My parents, however, didn't think it was a good idea.  Mom said "Doug you're just chasing more dreams--what are you looking for?"  I said a real job, where I can afford to have a home and a real life.  She answered "You and 10 million other people."   So after Fay & I parted company, I sold my tv & the boombox my mom & sister had given me for my birthday, and with $230.00 in my pocket I said my goodbyes and moved to Pittsburgh. 


Arriving in Pittsburgh, I felt like Dorothy in the ‘Wizard of Oz’ seeing the Emerald City for the first time

On the first day, with roughly 25 students in the computer lab, a trio of teachers introduced themselves and informed us that before the end of the program, over half would drop out or be asked to leave.  But for those who 'made it', we'd have a degree, an internship for our resumes & little trouble securing a position.  (They were right--only 5 made it, & I was one of them.)

I never worked as hard in my life as I did with this school.  I didn't have a choice, I had nowhere else to go.

After graduation, I was offered a summer teaching internship at CCAC-North Allegheny, and when I excitedly told my parents, my dad said "How much?"  When I told him, he said "you could've stuck around here and made more than that."  (I was worried, was he right?)   Not long after, I was offered an unpaid internship with a small company, Omega Systems.  (And when my dad asked how much THAT paid, and I said zero, I could feel his eyes rolling over the phone.)  It was a tough few months--I worked as a programmer during the day, & an assortment of part-time jobs (K-Mart & Eat n' Park) at night.  I even sold my plasma!


March 1989; Dad & me, in the shabby digs I shared with a roommate while in school

On December 27, 1989 Omega Systems informed me my internship was over and they wanted to offer me a position.  They said they’d pay me 20K to start, but if I kept doing such good work I could expect a nice bonus at the end of the year.  I calmly responded that it sounded fair, but inside I was dancing with joy!  (It was 3 times what I’d ever earned before.)  They gave me a 'starting bonus' for the work done during my internship (which I promptly used to buy a couple suits, some furniture and rent for my first apartment) and a work contract--which I promptly made a copy of and sent to my mom. 

She called me two days later.  "My God really did it, honey.  Your dad is in shock, and we've never been prouder...”  

And for the first time that decade, I felt like I was finally somebody again.

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