Pit Stops on The Road Of Life

DISASTER BUM 1975

My stay in the Chicago District Office of SBA, which began in August, 1974, lasted for 9 months until May, 1975.  Undoubtedly, I earned it through my excellent work. LOL! Near the end, though, I kept getting extended for just a few weeks at a time.  The Assistant District Director would put in a call to Washington to see if there was still enough money in the disaster funds budget and he’d get the OK.  Finally, the money ran out, I bid the permanent staff a fond adieu, and flew back to Wilkes-Barre.

What then ensued turned out to be the longest break in my disaster bum career.  I’d been pretty much employed continuously since I left my job as a Bank Examiner back in the summer of 1972.  This time, I was off for about four to six weeks.  I learned that I was eligible for unemployment compensation and, with nary a hint of shame, I applied for it.  I had just finished a stretch of earning more than I ever had before and, with the benefit of the per diem allowance, covered all my living expenses.  Had I stayed at the Wilkes-Barre Disaster Office, I’d have had to spend my salary to cover those costs.  “What the heck?” I said to my Dad.  “I don’t make the rules and I’m eligible for it.”  I played the system for all it was worth, much as I had in accepting rental assistance from HUD right after Agnes in ’72.

My pal, Jess Peiffer, and I found time in the summer of ’75 to actually take a vacation.  His brother, Ralph, had an old mattress he no longer needed, so we threw it into the back of Jess’s camper-topped pickup and headed for New England.  So equipped, we were ready to spend the night sleeping in the truck wherever we could find a parking space.  We initially went to Newport, Rhode Island where I had spent most of my time in the Navy.  I had been discharged only four years earlier but, in the interim, the Navy had moved all its ships down to Norfolk so there was nothing to see at the piers.  We meandered afoot in downtown Newport and I showed Jess the tourist shops on Thames Street and explained what scrimshaw was.  We also saw Touro Synagogue, the oldest surviving synagogue in the United States (see http://www.tourosynagogue.org/ ) 

We  spent the first night at the Boston-area apartment of Gerry and Sylvia Missal, who had helped me immensely back in ’72 (see both Day Before Agnes and Aftermath of Agnes  Having passed through Connecticut to reach Massachusetts, we then proceeded to cover all the other New England states. 

New Hampshire didn’t show us much on our initial pass-through—a mere 35 miles of coastline along I-95. 

Maine was much more impressive.  Two memories stick in the front of my mind.  Immediately upon crossing the state line, we saw a “Moose Crossing” warning sign.  Despite our further travels in the state, we never saw another SIGN, let alone one moose!!  Maine is nicknamed “The Pine Tree State” but, to my way of thinking, it should be “The White Birch State.”  Growing up in PA, I don’t think I ever saw a white birch more than 4” in diameter.  They’d grow to about that size and then die from some disease.  In Maine, they line I-95 like huge, classical Greek columns.  One could be forgiven for thinking that one was driving through the Parthenon during the heyday of ancient Greece.  We drove as far north as Bar Harbor, Maine, and took in the sights in and around Mount Desert Island.  As described at Mount Desert Island , the area has been a playground for the rich and famous for generations.  Neither Jess nor I spotted anyone we knew, so we settled for taking in the scenery from the top of Cadillac Mountain.   Hmmm—we didn’t check but, perhaps, __could__ the mountain have been so-named because all the rich folks drove Cadillacs?  Big tee-hee!!  Hardy souls can hike to the top but we chose to drive.  Driving westward toward New Hampshire, I spotted names familiar to me from having spent my teen years on Renold Morris’s potato farm in Sweet Valley.  Kennebec, Katahdin, Aristook--all three of those names were related to potato-growing and we saw miles of such fields.   

Our plan of mattress-in-the-back-of-the-truck was working out fine.  All along our trip after leaving Boston, we’d just pull into whatever campground we found, no reservations whatsoever in hand.  If they were full, we’d just tell the owner “We don’t need any water or sewer hookups like all those RV’s do.  Just let us park under a tree somewhere and use the shower and toilet in the morning.”  The charge was only about $3.00, half of what he charged the others.  We ate supper at a local diner once or twice and always had breakfast there the next morning. Once we even bought hot dogs and buns at a local grocery and had them for supper, roasted over a small fire. 

Heading westward from Maine, we encountered the whole of New Hampshire, way more than the snippet we’d seen along the coast.  Most memorable was Mount Washington, located in the White Mountains range.  Topping out at a mile above sea level (6,288 feet), it is the highest point in the American Northeast.  I believe they told us that, as such, it is the first place that sunlight hits on the continent of North America.  The Appalachian Trail runs up it and there are all sorts of warning signs telling hikers not to start after a certain time of the morning lest they be caught in rapidly deteriorating weather above.  Neither Jess nor I are hikers so we chose to ride the cog railway to the top.  We noted that the higher we climbed, the less vegetation we observed.  Large trees would become small trees and then big bushes would gradually thin out to smaller bushes.  Last were the mosses and then, it seemed, nothing whatsoever grew.  At the top was a weather-observation station comprised of one main building and a couple of sheds.  We found it amazing that the buildings were strapped down by what seemed like ship’s anchor chains bolted into the ground on each side.  That precaution was necessary lest they blow away.  On the way back down, the cog locomotive was preceded by a second locomotive.  We kept in contact with its rear end so that it served as a brake.  I bought a pocket watch for my Dad inscribed with a picture of the railway.

In Vermont (French for “Green Mountain”) we mainly just observed the beautiful scenery and made only two stops.  I bought one souvenir at each place; a pint or so of maple syrup (looking exactly like a mini bottle of booze except that the label read “NORTHERN Comfort”, and a pair of moccasins made, undoubtedly, by Taiwanese “Indians.”

In New York we toured briefly around the Revolutionary War battlefield at Fort Ticonderoga, but battlefields aren’t all that interesting.  Over the passage of time from the date of the battle, the land had worn down to the extent that one really couldn’t make out many distinguishable features.  Also noteworthy along one stretch of highway was an adjacent canal which may have been part of the Intercoastal Highway system.  Waving to pleasure craft navigating what seemed to be an extra lane just feet away from our truck, we thought “Gee, maybe these are the headwaters of the Hudson River!” We never checked to see if that was right.

Back home in Sweet Valley, I only had time to pick up one more unemployment check and then it was off to work again.  This time the call was to report into the Washington, D.C. District Office.  There had been some minor flooding along a small creek in the northern suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland.  It was no big deal as disasters go, for the creek normally was used only by children to sail their toy boats.  Still, it HAD put 6’ to 8’ of water into some adjoining homes.  Initially, a one-stop disaster center was set up in the Georgia Avenue Baptist Church and I spent maybe a week there along with reps from the usual other agencies.  I found lodging at a motel 12 miles away in Rockville, the county seat of Montgomery County, MD.  Speaking to the hotel management folks, I found that many of them didn’t even know there had been a disaster that close to them.  After a week at the church, business dwindled down to the extent that my schedule changed.  Henceforth, I would head down Connecticut Avenue to the District Office each morning and spend about 4 hours there processing whatever loans had been accepted and verified.  Speaking of verified, we may have had a disaster bum Loss Verifier on staff but, if we did, I don’t recall his name and he certainly didn’t stay at my motel.  Perhaps a permanent staff member of the District Office did the verifying.  I know for certain that we hired no additional temp clerk\typist for I, myself, took on that task.  Normally, typing the official loan forms to be input into the computer was a job clearly separate from that of the recommending\approving officials.  The point was that, in so doing, valid internal control was effected, serving as a bar against fraudulent loans being input.  The District Office permanent staff, however, was bogged down with regular-program activities and were only too glad to overlook the norm.  I learned how to attach an OCR ball to an IBM electric and line up the forms correctly and then I was merrily on my way typing, one finger at a time.   Hey, I never SAID I was a real typist!  LOL.  I’d head out each afternoon and would spend the rest of the day at the Rockville County Courthouse, taking in new applications.  This was a great plan for, at 4:30 PM, I was really close to my motel and thus avoided the afternoon rush hour.  Although the D.C. area is replete with tourist attractions, I recall only visiting one.  I toured the National Zoo which I passed twice daily along Connecticut Avenue and I even bought a “FONZ” bumper sticker that stood for “Friend Of the National Zoo.”

Given the relative lack of work, my stay in D.C. lasted only until late July or early August.  The call came in that the Ohio River had flooded over in Wheeling, WV and I got orders to report to the District Office in Clarksburg.  Looking at a map, I saw that, if I headed North up into Maryland, I could catch US Route 50 at Upper Marlboro and head directly west on it all the way to Clarksburg.  Oops—did I just say “directly? HAH! Big mistake on my part.  That route turned out to be one of the darnedest trips I ever took. US Route 50, in many parts, was two-lane, and extremely up-and-down hilly with many corners navigable only at 20 MPH.  Going so slowly, I had plenty of time to see details one wouldn’t necessarily notice at higher speed.  Most notable was the paint job done by the highway department on the center line.  At one point, I had the broken yellow line on my side, indicating I was allowed to pass, and I followed it faithfully---all the way around one of those 20-MPH corners!!! Oh sure!! They really thought it was a good idea to let me pass on a totally blind corner!!  Having seen that, I halfway expected to find

    

From photo.net

around the next bend.

Growing tired of this roller coaster passage, I stopped for lunch at a small diner that had a barely-paved parking lot with grass sprouting through it everywhere.  Having eaten, I returned to my car only to find myself blocked in by a pony contentedly munching on the grass.  I guess he had stopped for lunch, too.  He ignored my repeated “Shoo!” commands and I disdained trying to direct him aside lest he kick me.  No hero I, I finally just blew my horn and a person came from inside the diner to lead him away.

As had become custom, I only spent a day or two on the “front lines” of the disaster, in Wheeling, before heading back to the District Office to process the loan applications.  Most memorable about Wheeling was the steep incline of the hills bordering the Ohio River.  I briefly toured the Capitol Music Theater where, I guess, country music shows may have been held since 1929 when radio station WWVA first began airing its “Jamboree” in 1929.  (I could be wrong on that detail—I’m not much on C&W.)  Built into a side hill, its seats bore a pitch equivalent to those found in the upper tiers of modern-day football or baseball stadia.  The women of Wheeling, while equally as pretty as others I had seen elsewhere, seemed to have legs more muscular than mine.  Heck, they had muscles in places where I didn’t even have places! You’ll have that from constantly climbing those hills to shop.

The work in the Clarksburg District Office was easy, for I had become quite an expert at processing disaster loans.  What made it interesting was observing the permanent employees.  Having studied Latin, Spanish, and French, I had little trouble picking up their Appalachian accent and soon found myself talking like them.  Two guys, however, have stayed in my mind for, lo, these 32 years.  They dressed well and were extremely knowledgeable in all matters financial.  Outside the official government office, one wouldn’t know them from your friendly bankers.  Inside the office, however, was a “whole other story” for, behind each of their desks sat a tin can on the floor that served as a spittoon.  These guys CHEWED TOBACCO on duty!!!!  I never took notice if they desisted while a female loan applicant was being interviewed but they had no compunction while I was at their desk.  My Dad had chewed, so seeing them so engage made me no big never-mind.

I was housed in a motel just three blocks from work and didn’t need to drive the Malibu.  From my prior years as a Bank Examiner and on disaster duty, I was quite the motel veteran who wouldn’t find anything unexpected. In Clarksburg, however, I encountered something totally new.  My routine was to return from work and take a nap before dinner.  One particular day, I simply couldn’t fall asleep for, whenever I turned on my side to face the door, an irritating red light on the bedside phone kept blinking in my eyes.  I pulled out the little menu from under the phone and studied it.  “How to dial another room” and “How to place an outside call” were fully explained but there was nary a word about what to do with this light.  Despairing and needing my nap, I finally gave up and just tossed a shirt over it to block it out.  Days later, I happened to be chatting with desk clerk and I mentioned it.  “Oh, that means you have a message down here.  You’re supposed to call down to the desk to retrieve it.”  He looked in the box for my room and found NO message Darn it!!  I pondered for hours—who knew exactly where I was staying?  Had my brother needed to tell me that Dad was sick or give me any other important message, he’d have called my office.  I finally concluded that the clerk had inadvertently turned on the red light in the wrong room.  Thus, I pitied the poor fellow for whom the message had been intended, for his light would NOT have blinked.

I passed nearly the entire winter in Clarksburg, until February, 1976.  Work had nearly petered out when I got a call from the SBA Regional Office in Philly.  “Would I be interested in a permanent position in Richmond, Virginia ?”  Richmond was a lot closer to home than was Chicago where I’d earlier turned down a similar offer.  I hadn’t even known that a slot was open in Richmond and I don’t think it had ever been posted on the bulletin board in Clarksburg.  I told Region “Sure, I’ll try for it.”  They told me to head down for an interview and I did so, by plane.  I was interviewed by Jerry Dwight, a genial “good ole boy” from Texas and I thought I presented myself well.  I didn’t ask how many others I was competing with.  I flew back to Clarksburg and set about finishing the work there.  Having heard nothing further by a given Wednesday, I called Region again. “Golly, any word on who was selected?  I really would like to know where I stand.  I have to leave here on Saturday and need to know whether to head East of South.”  To my utter surprise, they said “Didn’t anyone down there tell you? You’ve GOT the job!!”  It turned out that the interview had been a formality just for show and that they fully intended to hire me all along. 

As I sit here in the year 2007, some 31 years after the events described above, I have plenty of time to ponder the choices I made along the way.  It occurs to me that maybe I had a “guardian angel” or mentor up in the Philly Regional Office guiding me along.  The calls to head for various disasters, I think, had come directly from Washington but they may have sought input from Region.  Most certainly, SOMEONE in Philly had known they needed another permanent Loan Officer in Richmond and had selected me.  I have a hunch that my “guardian angel” may have been Dave Malone and I’m now going to find out if he’s still alive so I can thank him.

I headed the Malibu South on that Saturday in February, 1976, thus ending my career as a disaster bum.  Watch for further chapters entitled “Richmond” and “Baltimore.”

Ronald E. Hontz

33 Whitcraft Lane

Shrewsbury PA 17361

(717) 235-5791

cell phone (717) 309-1402

e-mail: Sweetvalleykid@gmail.com

 

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