“The Great Santini”:
TGS by Pat Conroy - Wikipedia
Forgive this section being out of sequence, but my recollection of events is out of sequence, so much so that I almost blew past this post. I never read Pat Conroy’s autobiographical novel so my introduction to the “The Great Santini” happened late on a Saturday afternoon in 1985 when I was surfing through the cable channels. Robin and the kid were shopping for school clothes with the neighbors and I had lasagna in the oven with time to kill. Suddenly there was Robert Duvall on HBO flying full throttle in an F-4 Phantom and I was sucked into Conroy’s tale of adolescent discovery. Bull Meecham was a hard drinking, flamboyant US Marine Corps fighter pilot bigger than life hero with four kids and a pretty wife.
Although Mac had the good sense to retire from the Air Force in 1954 after five years of active duty and four in the reserves, he went to work for the DoD and so he too was a kind of “lifer.” There were significant parallels between Pat Conroy’s story and my family experience but nothing prepared me for the Meechum family fight scene in front of the refrigerator. I had completely forgotten that experience.
In the film, late at night illuminated only by the light spilling from an open refrigerator door, a drunken Duvall blew up on his wife and all four kids came running down the stairs to intervene. Pat Conroy’s character as the teenaged son got the worst of it, but his sisters quelled the fight by clinging to Duvall’s legs as he held onto refrigerator door. I never had any sisters…
Mac’s blow up happened in November of 1961 after Mom got back from work to discover that I’d forgotten to pull the pork chops out of the freezer. She’d taken a seasonal temp job at Sears to make some money for Christmas. None of us kids were aware of the specifics of our family finances; but with the mortgage payments for our new house on Mulberry Street, things were getting tight. We barely got by on Mac’s paycheck and Mom was tired of being the coffee klatch housewife without her own money. Mac reluctantly agreed to her taking on a “part-time” job, but within a few weeks Mom was scheduled forty hours a week.
Mom was furiously working at putting dinner on the table when Dad came in from work. He was a practiced alcoholic so I had no way of knowing that he’d been drinking, but with Mom’s experience with her family, she was acutely aware of his condition. He wasn’t pleased to see her pissed off with me, and he didn’t want to hear her shit about his drinking. Their verbal conflict escalated around the obvious and trivial without mention of the elephant in the room, and when Mac pulled the refrigerator door open to grab a cold beer, a jar of Miracle Whip fell out and broke on the kitchen floor.
Everything exploded with that broken glass and sweet white goo. It all just came off the chain and when he reached his big paw back to swing at Mom, I jumped off the couch in the family room and raced to grab his arm. I was still a 97 pound weakling and he barely noticed my skinny arms; so with a startled expression Mac grabbed my shirt collar and tossed me ten feet through the air back into the family room. I’m not sure but think I actually landed on the couch and bounced onto the floor. What I do remember clearly was my mother’s voice screaming, “Look what you’ve done to your son!”
Twenty odd years passed until late on that Saturday afternoon all of it flooded back into mind as I watched it happen in living color on HBO. All the fear and tears and a sense of overwhelming sadness…odd how I clearly remembered the Miracle Whip but couldn’t recall if I landed on the couch or the floor… a strange chuckle as I wiped a tear away.
Women’s Lib 1961:
Sears Catalog – Google images
After the battle of the pork chops, everything settled into an uneasy peace. To Mom’s credit she stuck to her guns and after Christmas, she accepted a full time position with Sears telephone catalogue sales, where she was trained in how to use a computer to enter orders. Though she was paid bonus money for meeting and exceeding sales goals, she never received commission for large appliance orders. Salesmen on the floor of Sears stores made up to 30% commission on television, kitchen appliances, furniture, tools, floor covering, even paint and big dollar sporting goods; but women only sold clothing, jewelry, perfume and other sundries. Everyone in catalogue sales sold everything from washing machines to shotguns and got squat for commission.
It took more than twenty years before the class action suit got filed and another five before Sears settled out of court. I think Mom got something like $20,000 in stock as her part of the settlement, which eventually grew to $80,000 before she retired and cashed it out so she and Mac could buy a house.
None of that mattered in the era of Mad Men and the Space Race! Mom now made her own money and she worked with computers!! So very cool for a farm girl from Indiana! We were all proud of her.
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