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.

A Dust Pan for Dad – A Fish Out of Water Story

The other day I was picking up a few items at the grocery store, walking through the produce aisle, selecting some bell peppers here, a few (overly) expensive mangos there. Coming towards me was a middle-aged man and what appeared to be his two children–a boy and a girl. Nothing unusual in that. If anything, it’s always good to see the continued debunking of the media myth that men don’t contribute in the home.

As I selected a few lemons, I couldn’t help but notice the father. Slumped over his cart as he was, it was clear he wasn’t entirely comfortable in whatever “this” role was, probably a new one for him. Seeing that, I started paying a bit closer attention to the situation surrounding him and his children.

I caught one of the kids talking about the apples and I heard the man say something like, “But do we really need them?”

I didn’t catch the rest; probably because I was immediately swept away into a memory from my childhood. One that included another middle-aged man–my father–also with his child–me–and also clearly not entirely in his element.

I was probably 13. After 11 years of what seemed to be a stable, if perhaps uneventful, marriage, my stepmom announced she wanted to separate from my father for a while. As usual, my father seemed caught completely unaware, a trend that he appeared to have ignored much of his life. But, it being the 80s and divorce trends on a steep trajectory upwards, while I wasn’t unfamiliar with divorce, I didn’t know what a “separation” meant and I found myself at a complete loss as to how we were going to make it without her at home.

Even at that young age, I recognized that it was very selfish of me to immediately jump to concerns of self when my parents were clearly having problems. But the last time my father had to care for me (and my brother at the time) by himself, he was not good at it and it only last about a year because he quickly met someone who stepped in and took over everyday home-making.

At 13, I needed little supervision. I got myself up in the mornings; made my own breakfast and got myself out the door with no intervention from my parents. Dad was gone to work long before I even got up and my step-mother stayed in her room getting ready for work until after I left.

My father was not a “household chore” kind of guy. He was a builder. Tell him something needed fixing and he was on it. Tell him he needed to cook dinner, however, and he was at a total loss unless it meant cutting up and boiling some vegetables.

I very clearly remember our first trip to the grocery store. It had probably been two weeks since my stepmother had packed up her things and moved out. She had rented, and furnished, a nice apartment about 30 minutes away. Any hopes I had that her moving out was just a temporary thing were dashed the first weekend I spent at her place. I remember looking around thinking, “She has every piece of furniture someone who is single would have.” It didn’t occur to me then that she had clearly been planning this, if not actively setting it in motion without anyone knowing it, for quite some time and was planning on it lasting more than a few days. I also saw a pack of cigarettes sticking out of her purse. So far as I knew, both she and my father had quit smoking years ago, so this was (also) a new development.

But, “visiting” your parent is awkward. There I was, a pre-teen and a middle-aged step-parent stuck inside a nondescript apartment for two days. No money. Nothing to do really. And frankly, if we were at home, we wouldn’t have much day-to-day interaction anyway, so suddenly being forced to interact just because it’s “your weekend” made for some awkward moments. I couldn’t wait for the weekend to end.

Back at home; after a couple of weeks of my having to come up with meal ideas for my father and me, not to mention that I’d not had anything to pack for my school lunch in days, a grocery-run was unavoidable and so I broached the subject with my father one Saturday morning. He was not enthused.

Now, I had no idea of my parents’ financial situation; not really. We had a comfortable house, but there were little things that led me to believe we weren’t doing all that well. So, I was very cognizant of money. Much like the children of the Great Depression, still today I’m a saver “just in case” and I’m confident much of my tendencies stem from the lean times of my youth when I spent my school lunch period pretending to study in the library so I didn’t have to explain to my friends that I wasn’t eating because my parents always “forgot” to give me any lunch money. And other small financial crises.

We drove to the store together. I’d shopped with my stepmother enough to know the drill. I grabbed a cart and headed right. In truth, I don’t remember much about the actual grocery store, but one particular selection impressed itself in my memories, again further cementing the fact that money was tight and this whole “on our own” thing was not going to be easy.

With “mom” gone, I had picked up the bulk of the housekeeping duties. I lightly cooked and cleaned up the kitchen. I dry-mopped the downstairs floors and vacuumed the carpets in all but my parents’ room. I did our laundry. In short, I did most of the housework.

I remember that the dustpan we had, had seen better days. The edge was chipped and dulled and it was difficult to get fine dirt and debris into it and so as we passed the aisle with household cleaning supplies, I told my father we needed a new dustpan. Of all the things we needed, why a dustpan? It’s one of those things. One of those battles upon whose hill you know you will die on while defending. But it needed to be done.

The dustpan selection ran the gamut from a super-cheap aluminum pan, similar to the crap-tastic plastic one we currently had, to a more expensive glossy white plastic unit with a small brush attachment. I picked up the latter and my father immediately said, “Why do we need that one? This other one (the cheaper alternative) is just fine.”

l remember making the argument that the cheap one is just going to get brittle and break like the one we already had, so we should buy the more expensive, but durable, one. I remember the look on my father’s face before he put the dustpan in our cart. For a brief moment, a pained expression passed over his eyes. I remember seeing him about to argue and then immediately change his mind. And I remember the resignation that fixed itself on his expression as he placed the shiny, white dustpan with the attachable broom into the cart.

That day, upon that hill, I’d won and he’d given up. Maybe that was why my step-mom left. Maybe at some point, he got tired of fighting and just stopped trying, or caring. And I guess she did too.

Like the dad in my recent shopping experience, my father was just as uncomfortable playing the homemaker. Back in the present, while watching the dad at the grocery, I experienced a momentary pang of empathy for what he was having to deal with. Whatever situation led to him being there, he was doing what he needed to do despite his inexperience and discomfort. For that, I gave him credit. Maybe, like my father from long ago, he too was going through something in his relationship. Or maybe his wife just had other plans that day and asked him to do this thing he didn’t normally do. I hope for his kids’ sake that’s what it was.

I don’t know what all happened between my father and stepmother back then. She did eventually come home, but it was six months or more later. When I graduated from high school and joined the Air Force, less than a year later my step-mother divorced my father, and once again, he claimed complete ignorance of any issues and was completely taken by surprise by the whole thing.

She will tell you she divorced because he ignored her despite her trying everything to get him to pay attention to her. If the never-opened bottle of Jack Daniels that sat in the back of their closet my entire teen years, or the nearly-pristine, lone Playboy I found in the back of my father’s dresser drawer, which surely my step-mother knew about, are any indication of the lengths she went to, none of it worked.

My dad was many things. And he was NOT many things. But of this about him I will admit, he was loyal. Perhaps too loyal. Once he committed to something, it was a done deal, for better or for worse. At 40, he adopted two young boys–one with documented mental issues–and when he and his young wife, who was 11 years his junior, divorced a few years later, he took us with him and did the best he knew how.

But my father’s Achilles’ was women. So far as I can tell, he never told a woman in need, “No.” The bigger the hard-luck story, the harder he pursued them. Lord knows I wish he hadn’t. I’ll never stop regretting the last time he couldn’t stop himself from getting involved, and never walking away, even as the relationship cost him quite literally everything. But he was loyal.

Not too long after his death, we found out something that turned everything we thought we knew about my father on its ear. And the more I think about it, perhaps that is the reason he turned out to be so loyal later in life.

Maybe that’s all any of us can or should ever try to be. Even when life goes sideways and things aren’t ideal, maybe the best you can be remembered for is having always being there for the people who needed you most. Even if it ends up costing you your own happiness.