Published 8:02 pm Tuesday, December 24, 2002
By By Lloyd Albritton
I was 17 years old when I graduated from high school in 1965. I would not turn 18 until October. College was not in my list of options for my immediate future. My father believed a boy was a man when he finished high school and his first order of business should be to get a regular job. A regular job to my father meant a job which payed a regular salary and usually had something to do with sweat and dirt. I did not like getting sweaty and dirty. It messed up my hair and diluted my cologne.
That summer I perused the job ads in the Pensacola newspaper and decided to apply for a job as a Sales Executive Trainee, which turned out to be a job peddling encyclopedias door-to-door in a crew of flashily-attired flim-flam artists. The sales manager who interviewed me, a big red-haired fellow named Ronald U. Douglas, said I could make more money in "the publishing business" than I could haul home in the back of a pickup truck. That particular power phrase triggered a visual image which I found irresistible, so I joined the crew.
The boss was so impressed with me that he put me in his very own car crew and I was introduced to a couple of veteran slicksters named Wesley J. Sklander (not Sky-lander!) from Sheboygen, Wisconsin, and Pat Cummings from Birmingham. Wes was a slender young fellow in his mid-twenties with blonde hair and albino skin and a severe dour expression. He wore sharkskin suits, fancy cufflinks and alligator shoes. I thought Wes was the coolest guy I ever saw. Pat Cummings was a short young fellow, not much older than me, with long black pompadoured hair, who wore loud, plaid sports coats and chain-smoked.
With this crew of sales professionals I traveled from town to town all over north Florida and south Alabama selling encyclopedias . . . er, excuse me, I mean to say the Collier's New Edition Home Reference Library. We plied our trade under cover of darkness, dropping into a neighborhood at dusk and knocking on doors until late in the evening in an effort to obtain entrance and a sales presentation. We never bothered to obtain a local license to solicit when we arrived in a new town. Consequently, we were all arrested from time to time by the local police for illegally soliciting or simply for prowling the streets late at night.
Ron Douglas, as the senior manager in charge of several other sales crews, usually met with the other sales crews late at night at a designated bar or pool hall to receive their sales orders. We all then proceeded to drink beer and shoot pool until the wee hours of the morning. This was my first experience away from home and in such bohemian circumstances and I thought I was in heaven, though I was barely making enough sales commissions to cover my day to day expenses, much less fill the back of a pickup truck. This colorful crowd of silver-tongued crooks and ne'er-do-wells with whom I was running were introducing me to exciting new sins of the flesh with each new day.
During the year of 1965-66 that I worked as a traveling encyclopedia salesman, I lived in various cheap motels and boarding houses in Birmingham, Montgomery, Orlando and Jacksonville, and we worked all the small towns in the surrounding areas. I found myself in December of 1965, living in an old boarding house on Market Street in Jacksonville, Florida. The old house served simple meals of mostly beans, cornbread and ice water at a community table surrounded by an assortment of old wore-out consumptive winos who coughed all over the food. It was very cold in Jacksonville that winter and the only heat in the old multi-storied house was a big round kerosene heater on the first floor. The old-fashioned heater did not cast its warmth more than a foot or two from the unit, so one had to practically touch or hug it to get warm.
The Christmas season is not a good time for door-to-door selling. People just don't want to think about buying encyclopedias at Christmas time. Consequently, I was broker than usual as Christmas Eve loomed and all my fellow sales associates dispersed to one location or another to be with their families and left me to my own devises. I had been writing home to my mother and telling her all along how successful I was, how that I would soon have to buy myself a new pickup truck to haul around all the money I was making. She would always write back and tell me to say my prayers and to be careful and she would usually slip a ten or twenty dollar bill in the envelope. I know my mother must have been worried sick about me during that time, for she surely knew my outlandish tales of financial success were all lies, but I will always be thankful for a mother who let me go forth and test my wings.
The following summer, I would finally hitchhike home with my tattered old suit coat slung over my shoulder and Mama would meet me at the door with a hug and sit me down for a healthy meal. I would enlist in the Marines that summer and go away again, but this time Mama would not have to worry about me having three square meals a day and clean sheets to sleep on. But on that cold, wet Christmas Day in Jacksonville, Florida, as I sat in front of an old kerosene heater and listened to old men cough and wheeze, I thought about how wonderful it would be to be home with my family, playing board games around the Christmas tree.
Lloyd Albritton publishes The Albritton Letters on the Internet at www.Lloyd-Albitton.com. Lloyd invites your comments to LloydAlbritton@aol.com.