Memories · The Last Half Century

The Wonder of Fashion Trends

Maybe it was just a style that eventually went out of fashion or just pure practicality, but for some reason when I was in grade school all the kids wore bread wrappers on their feet. Not as footwear, but over our socks before we put our feet into our winter boots. I remember the floor in the back of the classroom in second grade filled with boots and bread wrappers sticking out of them.

For me it was purely practical to wear bread wrappers over my socks. My buckle boots had a hole near the tongue and when I stepped in deep snow my socks would always get wet. The bread sacks solved that problem by keeping my feet warm and dry. I never felt silly having bread wrappers sticking out of the top of my boots because all the kids were doing it.

But like any fashion trend, there were the kids who displayed their superiority with high-end bread sacks. I recall seeing one classmate with large, multi-color dots on the bread sack protruding out the top of her boots. We all knew that label — it was a Wonder Bread sack, the more expensive white bread in those days. Next to that, I was a nobody with my cheap store brand bread sacks.

Eventually winter would end and my humiliation would melt with the snow. We traded our snow boots and bread sacks for high top tennis shoes. Somewhere between second grade and junior high the bread sack fashion trend ran its course. We stopped putting bread sacks over our socks when we wore our winter boots. I never did understand how it started or why it stopped. Fashion trends are one of the great mysterious of the world.

I’d love to hear if your childhood included bread sacks in your boots.

© 2020, CGThelen

Image from wonderbread.com

The Last Half Century · The Work World

How Someone Helped Me Get My First Job at Their Competitor

When I look back on my career I recognize that I owe a lot to the people who helped me along the way — people who took time to mentor or advocate for me when there was nothing for them to gain by helping me. One person in particular stands out to me.

A few decades ago, with college graduation a few months away, I began looking for a job by sending out a paper cover letter and resume through the mail to 50 targeted companies – yes in those days we used paper and the U.S. Postal Service. Many never responded, some sent rejection letters, but one person took the time to call me.

Dave from J.I. Case called to tell me he did not have any openings but he would be happy to meet with me. A few weeks later, during a spring break trip to visit relatives, I stopped to see him in Racine, Wisconsin. I remember sitting in his office and talking for almost an hour. I’m sure he had better ways to spend his time, but he told me before I left that he would watch for any potential job openings. I left thinking I would never hear from Dave again.

About a month later an envelope arrived from J.I. Case. I was surprised when I opened it to find an Advertising Age ad from Deere & Company seeking a copywriter in their advertising department. Scribbled on the copy of the ad was a note, “I know they’re my competitor, but I thought it would be worth a shot.” It was signed, “Dave.” I couldn’t believe he actually thought of me and took the time to copy the ad and send it to me. I was even more amazed that he sent me an ad from his competitor! I immediately sent my resume to Deere & Company.

A few weeks later I heard from Deere. They wanted me to go to a John Deere dealer, get a brochure for their hay equipment, and write an ad for their round balers. I secured the brochure, wrote the ad and sent it off. They liked the writing sample and flew me out to their headquarters in Moline, Illinois for an interview. That ultimately led to a job offer and my first job out of college as a writer in Deere & Company’s advertising department.

When I received the job offer, I immediately called Dave and thanked him for taking the time to meet with me and for sending the ad. I told him that I would not have gotten the job if he had not taken the time to send me the ad. He laughed and simply said, “You can thank me by doing the same for someone else.”

More than 30 years after Dave took time to help me land my first job out of college, I still have to be reminded to “do the same for someone else.” In the course of a busy work day, it can be hard to stop and think that there is a person at the other end of a request. Taking a few minutes to respond could change someone’s life.

© 2020, CGThelen

Below: The toy tractor and wagon that sat on my desk at my first job out of college.

Memories · The Last Half Century

When Wishes Come True

Photo courtesy NASA

What makes childhood dreams? As a kid in the 1960s, for me it was the Sears Wishbook. When this Christmas catalog arrived at our house, my sisters and I would fight over who would get to browse through the pages chock full of toys and other wonders. I dont’ remember exactly what year it was, but I think it was 1971 when I saw something I instantly wanted for Christmas: a space age watch which featured the Apollo space capsule as the hour hand and the Lunar Module as the minute hand.

Like many people at that time, I was obsessed with the recurring Apollo moon landings. I couldn’t watch and read enough about the astronauts landing on the moon. I recall watching many of the launches on our grainy black and white television set.  I can still see the image of the shadowy figure of Neil Armstrong climbing down the ladder of the lunar module and taking the first step on the moon. That lunar watch was the coolest thing I had ever seen in the Wishbook and it was at the top of my Christmas list underlined and circled.

But like so many things in the Wishbook that we put on our Christmas list, I was sure that it was only a wish. We often picked things that were just too expensive. So when Christmas came that year, I was certain it would not be in my stocking. I unwrapped my gifts and just as I expected, there was no lunar module watch — that is until I was given one last gift. When I unwrapped it, I was shocked to see the lunar watch.

I wore that watch everywhere and showed it off to my friends at school. Every hour I had to watch the lunar module minute hand dock with the command module. I felt so cool wearing it. The funny thing is that when you finally get something you want, after while its novelty wears off. To this day I cannot recall what happened to the watch. I can only guess that because I wore it everywhere it finally stopped working and was thrown away.

Just for fun I tried to find a picture of that watch to no avail. I thought you could find everything on the Internet, but not this little gem. I imagine there are a few thousand of them buried in landfills across America. What I did find was a website with decades of scanned copies of Sears Wishbooks dating back to 1937. I searched the Wishbooks from 1969-1972 but did not see the watch. None-the-less, it was a lot of fun to browse the catalog and reminisce about fashions, furniture and other things that were in style at the time — but those thoughts are for another time.

© 2020, CGThelen

Memories · The Last Half Century

The Cows Shared Our Swimming Pool

I’m not quite sure when I realized that my childhood wasn’t normal. Of course we can debate what a normal childhood should look like, but somehow it occurred to me that cows sharing our swimming pool was not something most kids had to tolerate during their childhood.

Okay, so true confessions, we didn’t exactly have a real swimming pool. In fact what we really had was an old steel storage tank cut in half that held a couple hundred gallons of water. My dad was a welder who took a torch to the tank and cut it in half. He didn’t do this to give us a swimming pool, but rather to give our cattle a watering tank. Of course me and my siblings had other ideas.

The most memorable was the time my older brother decided to test his new snorkeling equipment. As a teenager, he was the more mature one compared to my single-digit age that shouted, “Help me button my shirt.” After all, he could drive a car while I was still saddled with training wheels on my bike.

It was the perfect summer evening as my brother donned his snorkel while we gathered on the fence outside the barnyard. The night was warm, the sun low, casting a golden glow on my brother’s work clothes. More importantly, my parents had just left us alone with the capable care of my mature brother. We watched in awe as my brother scaled the fence and then slowly slipped into the cattle water tank next to the fence.

Like a frogman he slipped below the surface of the watering tank. The cattle in the pen kept their distance, a couple dozen of them lined up watching with an annoyed look that said, “Why don’t you kids get your own tank?” We waited with wide eyes as we watched the breathing tube move around the surface of the water. The water in the tank was only about four feet deep, but it might as well have been the ocean to us.

When he finally emerged from the deep, our minds were racing as to what he might’ve seen in depths of that tank. Fish? Sharks? A sea monster? My brother stood a moment with his upper torso above the surface as he removed the snorkel mask. “What did you see?” We blurted out, anxiously awaiting his answer. “Not much of anything,” he replied with a smirk. “Nothing?” We asked. “Just a lot of moss and slime on the tank,” he replied.

We were disappointed at this news as we watched our deep sea explorer pull himself out of the tank. He climbed the fence and joined us on the other side, his pants and shirt dripping wet. At that moment he was a Navy Seal to us, his wet suit still dripping from his latest adventure. But that image was soon shattered by the sound of a car coming down the road. My brother quickly climbed the fence to see who was coming.

From the top of the fence he shouted an expletive related to cow manure and quickly jumped off the fence. “Dad and mom are coming back!” he announced to us. The admiral of our ship was returning and she was soon to discover her sailors had disobeyed orders by running a mission into forbidden waters. We had risked an international incident and the repercussions would be severe.

We watched as our brother quickly spun himself in circles, water spraying off his soaked clothes. I heard gravel crunch as a car pulled up our driveway by the house. “Go see what mom and dad are doing back so soon,” Carl instructed. “I’ll stay in the barn.

We greeted mom and dad at the house. “We forgot something,” mom said to us as she ran into the house. We nodded as dad sat in the car waiting for mom to return. “Where’s your brother?” Dad asked. “Oh, he’s in the barn finishing up chores,” my sister answered. “Good,” dad replied. A sigh of relief came from our lips as mom returned from the house with a bag. “You behave,” the admiral said as she climbed back into the car. “Yes mam!” We replied as we saluted. (We actually did not salute, but it seemed the appropriate thing to do as she boarded her boat to go to shore.) “Be back in a couple hours,” She shouted to us through the open window as they backed out.

Back in the barn we gave my brother the all clear. We had avoided the repercussions of our actions and an international incident. My brother was now able to exchange his wet suit for dry clothes. My parents would never know about our secret mission — except now my mom, the admiral, knows about it.

© 2020, CGThelen