"Good morning young lady. Please follow me." He headed for the stairs with me right behind. A few steps up he paused, turned and said, "A managers’ meeting has been taking place upstairs this morning, and right now it’s time for me to introduce our new office manager. You know the other managers already, of course, and they know Violet is gone, but they don’t know who will be taking over for her."
We continued up the stairs and paused outside the door, Bob’s hand on the knob. "You ready?"
"Yes, I guess so." Cold hands, racing heart. I was as ready as I’d get, but why so nervous? Probably because I’d only known the other managers for nine months now, hardly long enough to guess how they’d react.
Bob pushed the door open to reveal five grown men, crowded together in a semi-circle of folding chairs, staring at me with befuddled faces. Ben Gordon was the first to gather composure.
"Well, Helen, welcome aboard! I know you’ll do us proud!" He stood, reaching out to shake my hand. "Congratulations."
"Thank you." One by one I thanked them as they followed suit, affirming their acceptance of my new role in the dealership, then leaving the meeting to return to their everyday posts.
Unsure of what that new role was, I followed Bob’s lead down the stairs to the area of individual windowed rooms where the office staff worked, behind the showroom. He ushered me by the elbow to Violet’s old desk.
"Wait here," he said. " I’ll be right back."
I watched him poke his head into each of the other rooms, asking the girl within to stop her work and join me for an important meeting. "Hellos" and "Happy Mondays" were exchanged as the women came into the small and quickly crowded space. Bob entered last, and closed the door.
"Good Morning, ladies." He began, slowly, politely, hands behind his back against the door. "I’m here to tell you that Violet no longer works here. She is gone."
Smiles crossed their faces, a couple of them holding fingers against their lips as if to hide their pleasure at the news. I felt myself relax a bit, then smiled too.
"Your new Office Manager starts today, and in a moment you’re all going to meet her."
I watched the girls exchange looks of eager expectation.
"But first," Bob continued, "let me tell you a little about her. She has worked in car dealerships before, but this will be her first Office Manager position. She’s facing a huge undertaking, but I’m convinced she’s got what it takes to pull our people and paperwork together for the good of the dealership. I expect each of you to give her your complete cooperation on a daily basis. And, just so you know, she is fully authorized to hire and fire employees in her department. Any questions?" He smiled broadly, scanning each face in the group, waiting for an answer.
The girls stood, uncomfortably quiet, eyeing each other back and forth before one small voice replied, "No questions."
"Good." Bob smiled again. "Then let me announce that Helen is your new office manager."
They cheered with childlike effervescencepatty-cake hands, tiny up and down jumps and hesitant gigglesexcept for Violet’s pet employee. She scowled and slithered to the rear of the group. We all smiled as the girls patted my back and hugged my shoulders in a welcome display of acceptance, then exited, each to her own desk.
"Well, that’s done!" Bob wiped his brow.
"Yes. Thank you." I stepped behind Violet’s desk and pulled out the chair. "Where do I start, Bob? What should I do?"
"I have some suggestions, in no particular order," he began. "I’ll bring you the applications I’ve received so far for the title clerk job, and you can move forward on those. Then there’s the bank account that hasn’t been reconciled for the last three months." He winced. "Also, stacks of repair orders and parts tickets that have not been coded or entered. Somewhere along the way, you might spend time with each office gal to find out exactly what Violet had them doing. That should hold you for a while." He backed halfway out the door, then added, "Mr. Halleran will be here all day Thursday to sit with you."
"Okay, good. Thank you. I’ll get busy right now." I checked the list I’d just made to make sure I could decipher my own notes, and was busy organizing the bank statements and reconciliations I’d located when Bob returned with the title clerk applications. Based on their accompanying résumés, I selected four likely candidates and scheduled interviews with each one within the week.
Later that day I learned from Bob that Violet’s demo, the Olympic blue Karmann Ghia I couldn’t wait to drive, had been sold. He handed me the keys to a new Volkswagen Beetle, my first demo, and an oil company credit card. He told me to keep the tank filled, either by using the card or the pump next to the used car sales office.
It was a fortunate situation for both me and Mike, each having a company vehicle and easy access to fuel, as an Arab oil embargo hit that year, 1973, and caused a severe shortage across our country. We would sit comfortably at home and watch the news reports of cars lined up for miles, hoping to pump a few gallons into their thirsty tanks. There were confrontations, vehicles running dry before reaching the station, and underground tanks themselves running out of fuel. The national speed limit was reduced to fifty-five miles per hour in a conservation effort.
While the oil embargo did not have much impact on us, we did face challenges. I pumped my brain full of automotive accounting know-how. The learning curve was steep those first few monthsfrom how to use the chart-of-accounts, to taxes, to payroll, to amortizing expenses, creating a monthly financial statement and schooling the new title clerk I’d hired. As the months flew by, my salary increased along with my responsibilities, including serving as a personal secretary to the actual dealer himself, an "absentee owner," so-called because he lived much of each year in Mexico.
He was generous to a fault, doling out lavish gift certificates to employees every Christmas, plus an annual holiday party for employees and families, which I was required to attend. The new car showroom would be emptied of cars and filled instead with musicians, catered foods, an open bar and festive decorations. For as much as I disliked social gatherings of more than four people, Mike enjoyed them, and especially the open bar.
One year, after a few free drinks, he humiliated me by recklessly rolling the secretary's chair I was sitting in across the shiny showroom floor in the middle of the circling crowd, and nearly spilled me on my head. I cringed with red-faced embarrassment. He laughed with the party-goers, then disappeared. When I finally asked someone if they'd seen him, the reply was, "He's in the men's room, puking his guts out all over the place!"
I waited for him to stagger out, then insisted we go home. Only after considerable coercing and pleading on my part, was I able to get our car keys away from him. I drove us home and helped him inside. He vomited before I could get him to the bathroom, then crashed onto the bed and immediately fell asleep. I cleaned up his mess before turning in myself, only to be jarred awake a few hours later by his thrashing about in the midst of an insulin reaction. I rose to pull him out of it in spite of how intensely my exhausted body didn’t believe it could. Little did I know then that loyalty to my wedding vows would result in planting seeds of resentment in my soul.
Back at work in the days to come, he began meeting other road construction inspectors for lunch, where they’d relax over cocktails to discuss their different projects. The lunch drinks continued, adding more ammunition to my unwitting garden of grief. He remained active with the target shooting group, occasionally attending an out of town meet with them, returning without any signs of hypoglycemia.
That same summer of 1973, we came home after work one day to discover our house had been burglarized. The back door had been kicked in, windows left open, dresser drawers over turned and dumped out on the bed and floor, and Mike’s target pistols gone. The police came and took a report, advising that Mike’s guns were most likely out of the state within hours of their theft. Fortunately, our homeowners’ insurance covered most of that loss, but Mike missed a full season of competition while dealing with the paperwork for getting them replaced.
My biggest loss was the comfort of securitynot knowing who or how many had been in our home, digging through our belongings, searching in our cupboards and closets and, in fact, might have been watching us leave for work that morning.
I learned from the police that burglars frequently return to a target when they think the items have been replaced by insurance; that outside yard décor, like small concrete statues, bricks or rocks, are seen by criminals as entry tools; that landscape bushes should be pruned up from the bottom so police can see if someone is hiding behind them. "Leave your window coverings open when you’re gone," the officer said. "The first thing burglars do is close the curtains so neighbors won’t see in."
"They did," I responded. "The drapes were pulled closed when we got home. I found torn bits from a cardboard container on the floor below the center of the window."
"Of course," he said. "They were peeking out the opening while tearing open your keepsakes and such. Be sure to keep your doors and windows locked."
"We do!" I assured him. Thereafter we let Duchess stay in the house rather than her outside kennel when we were at work. Everyone became a suspectneighbors, friends, even family members. I no longer had our phone number printed on our checks and became excessively leery of sharing our home address with anyone. If a car drove slowly by the house, I became suspicious, noting the make, model, color, time of day and the date. If I could note the license plate number, I would. To not know who had violated our privacy, our sanctuary, our personal belongings, and to learn they were likely to do it again instilled a fear in me that I could not dismiss.
The days moved on into a new year. Mike’s job slowed with the passing of the road construction season. Some days the county would call him into the office downtown to work, and some days he spent in a job shack either on-site or at the county equipment yard.
My work involved the constant shuffling of papers, training employees, making sure the DOC Sheet (daily operating control) was on Bob’s desk every morning so he’d know the current bank balance as well as sales figures-to-date for the new car, used car, parts, service and body shop departments. I’d become quite familiar and disciplined with my responsibilities as office manager and outlined the same work ethic for each of my department’s employees. Paperwork began to flow in a daily, efficient routine, giving the girls a sense of pride and accomplishment. Unlike my strict predecessor, I’d say, "It’s okay if you have fun while you work, but, if the work doesn’t get done correctly and as scheduled, then you need to cool it." We worked as a team, together toward a goal, and the jobs became enjoyable.
Ironically, my streamlining made it clear that Violet’s pet employee fulfilled no purposeful function in the dealership, so, with Bob’s diplomatic assistance, we let her go.
With spring came the call of the cabin. Once again, weekends became something to look forward tonature’s serenity, relaxation, the recalling of what is really important in life. Our dream of building a house and a life in the forest resurfaced. It fueled our daily thoughts and dominated our evening dinner conversations, which led to the sad realization of its impracticabilitycommuting to our jobs would be a logistical nightmare, let alone expensive. Jobs on the peninsula were few and far between, not in our range of skills, and well below the salary levels we enjoyed in Seattle.
We quickly reasoned that a larger, better house wouldn’t have to be in Quilcene, and started to read the real estate ads in earnest and crunch our income and expense figures. Although our pay scales had recently risen again, the costs of buying a new house locally would be steep. We learned that the market value of our current little house was a good three thousand dollars below its purchase price, a loss we could ill-afford to take. A realtor suggested we do what it took to hang on to it, to consider renting it out. In that case, the only way we could fund the purchase of a new house would be to sell the property at Quilcene. In addition, when we compared the high amount of income tax we were paying now to the tax benefits of a larger mortgage interest deduction, the choices were clearcontinue to pay Uncle Sam, or pay the bank and enjoy a larger domicile. We chose the latter, and were surprised how quickly the pieces fell into place.
My sis said she’d rent our little house, she’d been looking for a more affordable place and, to help her out, we agreed to just a few dollars over our monthly payment.
A nice couple answered our newspaper ad for the property at Quilcene. We met them one day and drove them over to see itthey agreed to buy it on the spot.
All we needed then was to find a house we liked, which seemingly fell into our laps as well when Mike came home from work one day in a hurry to share something with me.
"Guess what?" He called, pulling his lunch bucket out of the tool box on the county truck and heading for the flowerbed I was watering. "What?" I turned off the water.
"I found a house for us!"
"Where?" I asked.
"Couple blocks from my job site. Came upon it today by accident, but the builder was there working, so I got some information from him. It’s not even finished yet, we’d get to pick floor coverings and light fixtures and so on."
"So, what’s it like?"
"A big split level … we can go walk through it this weekend if you want. He said we could."
"Okay. Let‘s do." I was encouraged.
The following weekend we drove out to have a look, and fell in love with ita three bedroom, two bath split level with white stucco arches on the front, a double garage, and sitting on a third of an acre on a private cul-de-sac.
By summer’s end, we had completed all the paperwork and selected the carpeting, vinyl, appliances and light fixtures necessary for the builder to finish the job. We made the move just before Thanksgiving that year.
A new chapter in our lives was beginning, and we were grateful.