My father left school at the age of 16. His father was not pleased and told him that if he wasn’t going to school, he was going to work and brought him down to the brickyards with him. It didn’t take long before my father decided that perhaps he should look for something else to do. He went to secretarial school in New York City, learned shorthand and typing, and found his first real job as a travelling secretary on The Twentieth-Century Limited, the crack train that ran between New York and Chicago. He was available to take dictation and prepare documents for passengers. These would be included in mailbags that, hung outside the speeding train, were snatched by hooks at various stations and sent on their way by the Post Office.
My father lost that job when the Great Depression began and my mother and he struggled through the first years of their marriage (in 1930) as he looked for jobs. Eventually he was hired as a court stenographer in the Rockland County Courthouse, a job he continued in for some thirty-five years.
He was very good at his job, very fast at shorthand and at typing. In a sense his work was only half-done when he came home, because then he had to sit at his typewriter and turn what looked to me like scribbles into perfectly clean and readable type. These were the days before copying machines, and if more than one copy was needed, he would use as many as five or six sheets of carbon paper to make them. I can still see him, if he made a typo, having to correct it on all the copies. We children all learned how to proof-read and help him.
My father was not as good at other tasks, although God knows he tried to save money by taking on other projects inside our large house or out in the backyard. Once he built a kind of outside fireplace out of cinder blocks where we could burn our garbage–this was long before recycling and restrictions on outdoor fires. He was frustrated because he couldn’t put a nice cement facing on the blocks, something that masons could do so easily. “But then,” he said, “they probably can’t type 200 words a minute either.”
He had a favorite saying if something he was working on didn’t turn out as perfect as he wanted it to be: “Well, a blind man on a galloping horse couldn’t notice it.” I looked up the expression and found that it’s original meaning was the opposite of the one he gave it. If you wanted to say that something was completely obvious, you’d say, “Lord, a blind man on a galloping horse could see that!” But I also like my father’s use of the image, and when something my brother and I are working on doesn’t turn out quite the way we wanted, one of us is sure to say, “A blind man on a galloping horse couldn’t tell the difference.”
Any other words of wisdom gleaned from your childhood?