When the 1960s came to a close, Jim Stafford was a 25 year-old father of three paying the mortgage on a small V.A. repo in a lower middle class Denver neighborhood. The previous owners converted the garage into a master bedroom, so Jim’s mostly bank-owned station wagon sat in the driveway. This was the family’s only car, but that wasn’t a problem. During the day Jim drove his Montgomery Ward appliance repair van around town, so Bonnie had full use of the wagon. Weekends and evenings the family went everywhere together: the grocery store, movies, the Army surplus store where Jim bought vacuum tubes to repair the endless parade of televisions and radios that marched through the house.
He was a magnet for appliances and electronics that appeared to be beyond hope. Friends, neighbors–even Wards customers and co-workers–gave Jim their old cast-offs. If they weren’t repairable he’d strip them for his growing hoard of parts, but often the irreparably broken simply needed a new tube, a coil, some fresh motor brushes. Now and then he’d score a television or refrigerator that needed nothing more that a new power cord. Sometimes he resold these items after he got them working, others he traded up for some more expensive piece of junk in need of repair.
Often he kept them: The working class family owned six televisions, and there were only six rooms in the house. A church organ shared living room space with one of those televisions and an upright piano. Out on the service porch one found a chest freezer, a washer and dryer, an outboard motor, and several lawnmower engines. More junk filled two aluminum sheds in the backyard, and the house’s small cellar was packed with Powr-Kraft tools, Montgomery Ward’s answer to the Sears Craftsman line of products.
Jim turned out all manner of items from his cellar workshop. The wooden lamps in the family’s living room were turned on his Powr-Kraft lathe, the shelves in his daughters’ bedroom cut with his table saw. Doll houses, doll furniture–he even made a pair of wooden dolls for Bonnie, who hand stitched dresses for each of them. Over in his son’s room a pair of dressers became a train engine, a coffee can smokestack serving as a night light. The boy slept in a race car bed handmade by his father.
But don’t let all of that domesticity fool you. Jim was very much a man in his mid-twenties. He came home one afternoon and sheepishly confessed to wrecking his repair van while staring at a young woman in hot pants. Another afternoon Bonnie found her husband lying in the street in front of the house, victim of a liquid lunch with his work buddies. That was the only time in his entire life that Jim was fall down drunk. His vice was food.
Some people gravitate toward sweet and others toward salty. Jim liked it all: ice cream, potato chips, canned meats, cake, cookies, sausages, fast food, slow food, food food food. Pull up to Denver’s King’s Food Host on any given afternoon and you’d see a row of Wards repair vans. Inside the little diner repairmen swapped stories, ribbed each other, harassed waitresses, and downed Cheese Frenchees–a breaded and deep-fried cheese sandwich so cholesterol laden that you just clogged an artery by reading about it.
That doesn’t matter when you’re 25, immortal, and enjoying life, though. Jim gave no more thought to what he ate than he did to not wearing ear protection around his power tools or while flying his airplane. A Cheese Frenchee or a can of Vienna sausages was as harmless as the insecticide he sprayed on his home’s plants while maskless. Both his blood pressure and his cholesterol were through the roof but there were pills for that, and so what if he’d put on some weight? He’d just use saccharine in his iced tea.
He was a young man cruising through life. The bills were paid, the job was enjoyable, and between family and the guys at King’s Food Host he had all of the human interaction a man could want. And then one afternoon his manager called him into his office. “Stafford, what are you doing?”
“What do you mean?” Jim asked.
“What are you doing with your life? You’re too smart for this job.”
“I like my job.”
“So what? What do you think is going to happen? Maybe in ten years you have my job, and then you sit in this office for another 30 not making much more than you do now? Maybe you’ll get old fixing washers and grabbing waitresses’ asses just like Ernie? You’ve got a family to think about. It’s time to get off your butt and do something. Go to college and make something of yourself.”
“I can’t do that,” Jim said.
“I can’t afford it, and even if I could how am I supposed to go to school and work at the same time?”
“Metro is cheap, and I’ll work around your school schedule. Just bring me your grades every semester so that I know you’re doing the work. Any other excuses?”
And with that the high school dropout became a college man.
The first order of business was transportation. He couldn’t drive the repair van to Metropolitan State College, and even if he could a parking pass cost more than tuition. There was always somewhere to park a motorcycle for free, so he swapped some junk with a buddy who had a 300cc Yamaha that was running rough, then he built a wooden box for his books and bolted it to the bike’s rear fender. For the next 2 1/2 years he rode that Yamaha to campus every day, regardless of the weather. During the winter he wore a snowmobile suit and stuffed the scarf that Bonnie knit for him into his helmet. The bike slid out from under him on more than one snowy street, but such is the cost of higher education.
At that time Metro charged a flat fee per semester, so Jim got the most for his education dollar by packing in as many classes as he could. He was in the last weeks of one of those semesters when he was called into the dean’s office and asked to explain why he was taking a year’s worth of classes all at the same time. There’s no prohibition against doing so, he said, and besides: I’m acing all of them. What’s the problem?
Four years of college in 2.5 years, and he still found time for Alpha Eta Rho, the fraternity that serves as a conduit between students and the aviation industry. The Vietnam War was still hot as he neared graduation, but the armed services weren’t interested in a 28 year-old father of three. The CIA had no similar qualms. Would you be interested in flying private planes in Southeast Asia? No, no combat, nothing like that, more like a delivery service–just point A to point B. Oh, and by the way: If you happen to get shot down, we have no idea who you are. That didn’t sound like such a good deal to Jim. The airlines were out of the question, too: They had their pick of veteran pilots trained by the military.
If he couldn’t fly for a living and fixing appliances was a dead end, what was he supposed to do? Management seemed like the right path, so he submitted resumes wherever there was a job opening. The Ralston Purina plant in the Denver area called him for an interview, but the strong odor of death wasn’t worth the salary. Amana flew him to Iowa for an interview. During a tour of the customer service area Jim was left alone for a few minutes while his guide took care of a little business. The telephone rang, so he answered it: “Amana, how can I help you.”
“My new range isn’t working.”
“What’s it doing?”
“Well, it doesn’t seem to be heating.”
“Are the lights working? What about the clock?” Jim stayed on the phone with the customer for twenty minutes until he’d resolved the caller’s issue. He didn’t get the job, but at least he got an anecdote out of the trip.
Months went by. Jim kept looking for work around Denver, and the family started looking for a bigger house–where one went, they all went, remember. Bonnie and the kids even sat in that malodorous dog food factory parking lot while Jim interviewed.
Bonnie’s mother died during those months, a devastating blow for the young woman. Eventually Johnson & Johnson offered Jim a job as a maintenance manager in their Chicago plant. The timing was terrible, but this was what those 2.5 years of killing himself were all about. Bonnie didn’t want to go, but inevitably that didn’t matter. Where one went they all went. The Staffords were headed to Chicago.
What awaits the Stafford clan in the Windy City? Will Jim fall victim to the excesses of that big maintenance manager money? Will Bonnie pack up the kids and head back to Denver? And what became of that Amana customer with the oven problem? Tune in next week for part six of The Rather Unusual Obituary of Jim Stafford.