I think in a way my father was lucky to have succumbed of lymphoma at 51. Never mind, for the time being, that he was grossly misdiagnosed by a doctor who said the painful palpable lump on his neck was just fat from . . . well being fat. Our doctor did not like fat people. He tried to get me on a diet when I was 11.
Ignore for now that my father’s cancer went through at least two stages until a biopsy stunned hospital personnel who could not believe a patient would have waited so long before being biopsied. What was my dad supposed to think? His doctor was giving him cortisone shots in the neck and he must know what he’s doing, right?
Also ignore that after my dad died fighting a hopeless rear guard action against the cancer, that the same doctors who were so ‘aghast’ at the obvious malpractice, zipped their lip when my mother’s attorney came calling.
In the end, it all may have been a blessing in disguise.
|When they looked like this. And were great.|
See, dad was a Sears man. It was the only job he’d ever had in his life; stretching back to 1962 when it was made clear to him he did not have the skills to create a career in art. It must have been a crushing blow to someone who studied with diligence for several years at the Cleveland Institute of Art to be told: you’re good, just not good enough. Dad, a Korean War Veteran, went to school on the GI Bill.
His parents thought it was a waste of time and money but dad had to know.
Once he was disabused of the notion he would be the next Currier and/or Ives, he had to find a job. Straining to make mortgage payments and with a son (me) on the way, he turned to Sears’ salesman training program.
They made an interior decorator out of a Marine. That must have hurt too.
Nevertheless, he forged on selling custom drapery out of his van all over the east side of Cleveland. He worked in the Carnegie Avenue store which was then, as it is now, a pretty sketchy area.
He got yelled at by everyone, bosses, customers, and the warehouse. Kids would take a dump on his samples. But he kept on. Even though he never made more money than my mother (a school teacher), he kept up his end of the deal working a job that must have sacked his will to live, judging by the tirades we had to endure when he got home.
I remember more than one time my father saying to all of us “my days at Sears are numbered; they have it out for me.”
This was a (meager) draw against commission. The pressure to help put food on the table and pay the light and gas bills took a toll. My parents would get into screaming matches while going over bills. As I’ve written before, sometimes the phone would be disconnected; sometimes the heating oil arrived late to a cold house.
His only real escape was the great outdoors and the hunting and fishing he so loved. Had he been able to, he would have gone into the woods with his camping gear and never come out. He could live off the land. He really could.
|All he ever wanted. Really.|
“To suffer fifty weeks of the year for the sake of a two-week vacation, when all you really desire is to be outdoors, with your shirt off.”
There was only one time I ever saw him happy about his job. We were eating dinner and the phone rang. You couldn’t make my father angrier than to call at dinnertime. Mom answered and said “Ed, it’s for you.” My father’s face went into an instant twitch and scowl. He always expected the worst.
But within a few second I saw a look of pure joy on his face I did not think possible. When he slammed the phone back on the cradle, he literally danced for joy.
“Ed, Ed, what is it.” Mom asked.
“I got the job in carpeting,” my father shouted.
I asked what that meant, thinking going from selling drapery to carpeting didn’t seem like such a big deal to me.
“Bigger commissions,” dad said.
It was the happiest I ever saw him.
Sad, isn’t it?
“The only thing you’ve got in this world is what you can sell.”
But when he died on August 11, 1983, Sears was starting to go through a transformation which would eventually turn it into the shit store it is now – complete with the death rattle coming from deep inside a once great retail empire.
By this time, some of the wonderful things that had made Sears great were gone: the cafeteria, the driving school and the candy store where dad would pick up some bridge mix for us kids when he was feeling particularly generous.
About a year after my father died, Sears slowly began converting the commissioned salespeople to hourly employees. When I would return to the store at the Great Lakes Mall in the years to come, I would notice less and less suit and tie salespeople and more kids trying to sell merchandise whose features they couldn’t sell and, in many cases, didn’t understand.
By the early 90s, all that was left of the commissioned salespeople were in major appliances. Custom drapery was gone and carpeting would follow by the mid-90s. By the end of the century, Sears looked like a somewhat neater Wal-Mart with customer service to match.
Don’t think for a second that just because dad had issues with management and had a hard time handling rude customers that he didn’t believe in Sears.
|Everything, but especially tools.|
Everything in our house was from Sears. Dad always said that he was proud his company stood by its products with that ironclad ‘satisfaction guaranteed, or your money back’ promise.
I am convinced that if he had lived long enough, in fact, not that much longer, Sears would have broken his heart. Then they would have let him go.
“You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away – a man is not a piece of fruit.”
He would have been in his mid-50s with nowhere really to go. If he got lucky, our neighbor might have been able to get him a job selling hardware to independent retailers – but that job died in the mid-90s thanks to the mom and pop hardware stores being crushed by the big boxes and Wal-Mart.
He might have sold cars. That’s about the only thing I could think of as a reasonable alternative. But the way cars were sold back then (and still today in some dealerships) would have also crushed his soul. Dad believed in integrity and that a handshake was as good as your word, which was a trusted bond.
And by that time, as it is now, companies didn’t want used-up sales retreads in later middle-age. They wanted fresh-faced young go-getters who were hungry and would work for peanuts.
My mom missed him terribly. I can remember, even moths after the funeral, her wailing in the dining room. I stayed in my bedroom listening and having my heart torn apart. There is no worse crying than that which comes from grief.
Mom never remarried. She had one love of her life and he was gone forever. So she buried herself in her Catholic faith (with particular emphasis to charismatic practice) and changed so much that after a decade, I barely knew her anymore.
It would have been far worse for both of them had dad lived. They had just gotten their heads pretty well above water when dad’s illness hit. His despair, I believe, would have brought the bad times back with a vengeance. My sister and I would not have gone to college for sure. The marriage may not have survived.
God only knows how he would have reacted to my two divorces, mental illness (which he didn’t or didn’t want to, understand), my sister’s issues, etc.
In the end, dad left mom with a small Sears pension and some minor investments which all added up to just enough to create a portfolio that grew steadily and allowed mom slowly begin to live off the dividend checks. By the time she retired from teaching, her pension plus the stock portfolio ensured she would keep the house and live out her last years in dignity.
“After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive.”
He never realized it, but it was truly his time to go; for mom, us kids, but most importantly, for himself.
“Nobody dast blame this man. You don’t understand: Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman, there’s no rock bottom to the life. He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s a man way out there in the blue riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back—that’s an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple spots on your hat and you’re finished. Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream boy, it comes with the territory.”