Side Hustles and Morality in the 80s

Back in the 80s, it was a little lean around my house. I didn’t realize it then, but I’m pretty sure my father was out of work a good bit of the decade. He’d never gotten a degree, but he was very smart and had a knack for working with machines and electrical things so he’d been fairly successful just based on prior experience. My new stepmom had not yet started working, so we were solely reliant on my father’s salary–and maybe a little “state support” if you know what I mean.

I’m not certain where all of our money came from that decade, but I vividly remember my stepmother collecting green stamps and pasting them in a booklet and using them for groceries. I assumed they were a local store promotion, but in retrospect, maybe that’s what food-stamps looked like in Alabama during Carter’s presidency.

To make ends meet, my parents tried a lot of different things, some more successful than others. For instance, my father installed a hot-water-heater timer that automatically turned the water heater off during non-peak hours. This little doo-dad was mechanical and I remember that, as a seven-year-old, it was extremely difficult to “flip the switch” on it when you needed to turn it on out-of-hours. I can remember coming home late of a night from being out of town and needing hot water. I’d have to go through the garage, climb up on a table and trip the switch. And every time I did it, for some reason I expected to get shocked. I don’t know why…

My father tried to get into dog-breeding once, as well. We had a beautiful Doberman female. After successfully breeding her, she had a litter of 9 pups and promptly developed mastitis, which quickly put an end to any future breeding endeavors.

But perhaps my folks’ most enduring moneymaker was a plastic sign-making business. Plastic was a fairly novel thing then. And being able to make signs out of plastic, versus metal or some other material, was much less expensive.

Our “business” consisted of a giant vacuum molding machine and a hundred thin sheets of different colored plastic, each approximately 4′ x 4′. With this, you could create just about any kind of sign as long as you had the mold or template and whoever we purchased the equipment from also provide a large catalog of rubber molds you could purchase for use.

The actual sign-making process was fascinating to me, even then. Once you selected your rubber sign mold, you put it on the bottom of the machine. Above that, you placed your sheet of plastic–usually white. Once you closed the lid and flipped a switch, the plastic would begin heating up. And this is where it got tricky..and hot! Everything was manual then; there were no electronic dials or automation, so you’d have to squat down and watch the plastic slowly heat, breathing in hot plastic fumes all the while. When it got to the point where the plastic was so hot that it was started to droop down in the middle due to gravity, you had to very quickly do the following: shut off the heater, flip on the vacuum, and then push the handle that lowered the plastic onto the rubber mold. The drama was palpable and the noise from the vacuum was like a Harley Davidson thundering through the garage and every time we did it, my heart would thump in my chest and I felt like I was having a mini panic attack! But if you did everything correctly, almost as soon as you lowered the shelf onto the plastic, the vacuum sucked the hot plastic over the mold, and voila! You had your sign. You then reversed all your switches and louvers and you were done.

Slightly less exciting, we could also make engraved wooden signs. Most of the engraving sign business involved office name tags for doors and desks and all you did was put letter templates in a row and then trace the letters with a “pen” attached to a long arm, which was attached on the other end to a router that similarly traced the letter pattern onto a piece of plastic that looked like wood. Not nearly as fun, but probably more profitable.

My brother was old enough to help make the engraved signs for doors and desks, but I was too young to do much of anything. Still, I used to love to watch my parents make the signs. Once you had the mold you needed for you signs you could then turn around and create as many of that type of sign as you wanted. Most of the templates were for things you might attach to your vehicle using magnetic tape, such as “For Sale” signs, or other common things like “Plumber” or “Electrician.” My brother and I used to love to play with the rubber molds. There was something really cool about a floppy, soft, rubbery thing that you could bend and twist. For us, it was something new and interesting, and therefore, something our parents didn’t want us messing with.

Not long after my parents took possession of all of the equipment, my brother and I snuck into the garage to look through the catalog. I remember thumbing through it and coming on a section of, what was then, very racy sign mold templates. I don’t know why, but one, in particular, struck me and it has stuck with me all these years. It was a nut and bolt, each with human characteristics–a face, arms, and legs–and the bolt was behind the nut, presumably about to screw itself into the nut and the caption on it read, “Not without a washer!”

I think my brother had to explain it to me at first, but once I understood what the sign inferred, I was dumbfounded that my parents would be involved in a business where they might make such a sign. I mean, we weren’t terribly religious then, but there was certainly never any sexual innuendo bantered around the house. Looking back, I still can’t imagine what business scenario might require such a sign. Maybe at a strip-club, or as a joke in a mechanic’s shop?

I searched for this design and found several versions of it in random places, like this one on Etsy:

The one we could order wasn’t quite like this, but the gist is the same. Scandalous, no?

Considering what all happened in the 70s, this was probably pretty tame for most adults; but for a kid, pure magic!

I don’t think I ever looked at my parents the same after that. Not that they ever made a sign like this, to my knowledge, but the idea that they were involved in something where this was even a consideration, changed how I viewed them.

As I got older, my parents became more involved in church and got more “religious.” Our involvement in the church waxed and waned for various reasons, but it struck me that despite whatever we choose to practice in our personal lives, just existing in this world sometimes requires a certain “moral flexibility” to steal a phrase from “Grosse Point Blank.” I guess the alternative is to draw a line in the sand and say, “This is not something I’m willing to bend on,” but then, we’ve seen how well that has worked out for many, especially of late.

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