Pages Navigation Menu

a cheery playground for writers and artists, with uplifting news about the Rogue Valley and beyond

What the Nikko Says

What the Nikko Says

This is Wilma’s hydrangea, blossoming under the sun with flossy petals bouncing in the breeze in our front yard.

Wilma became my friend in 1968. We were the two “girls” hired right after high school graduation to work at E.L. Yeager Construction in Riverside; it was apparently a tradition there, hiring a couple of work-experience highschoolers. This was a first job for each of us, and it was certainly the first time I’d ever experienced the word “probation”.  I’d never had that word associated with my name before.

Wilma sat at the front desk, and indeed hers was the first face I saw when I arrived for my interview. Hers was the first face seen by the countless visitors, employee hopefuls, vendors and solicitors who arrived at the construction headquarters. That beautiful young woman was the keeper of the peace for the owners and other movers and shakers who trusted her to screen those who passed by her. From that central lobby spot she manned the multiple-line phone system, took dictation, typed proposals, posted the mail, and never stopped working or moving and smiling. I was encouraged.

I was hired on the spot and situated in the back, down the hall, to work during the summer before college with the “back office” folks. It was a different world for back-office people, and I dutifully crunched numbers, filed W-2s, W-4s, and whatever needed filing that others refused to file, and even sat in a vault constructing cardboard transfer files as — honestly — I thought about the uselessness of learning about Plato’s cave. I communicated between the crew supervisors and the one-person department heads, and I typed furiously, every moment of the morning and early afternoon on Friday paydays, on an industrial strength manual Smith-Corona in Payroll.

We loved it. Both Wilma’s job and my own were high-energy, over-the-top-stress jobs, had we but realized it. That person whose phone connection we lost could be a millionaire builder or political force who could make or break a contract. That accounting error or misplaced comma in a job quote could cost the company a fortune in or lose the bid. Failure to type the Payroll envelope correctly could mean that an owner/family member had to leave his overflowing inbox to rev up the company airplane and deliver checks to men working afar whose contract stipulated they’d receive their weekly pay TODAY.

About that. To be fair, I had asked my boss, “So what do I put on this envelope?”  I was told that it had to be mailed because the crew chief couldn’t pick it up in the office.  And I said again, “So what do I type?”

She answered, “It’s General Delivery, way up there near Lake Isabella.”  Time was wasting, men were due in to pick up their crews’ checks, I had more to type, but I wasn’t yet clear on the task set before me. I remember asking again, “And, so what do I type on the envelope?” and the Payroll clerk said emphatically, “General Delivery!”

“That looks funny,” I remarked after typing it, and my office boss repeated – yelled, actually — “I SAID GENERAL DELIVERY!”

When I brought it to Wilma, she studied the envelope and said, “Just ‘General Delivery’? That looks funny,” but after hearing the story, we each shrugged our 17-year-old shoulders, Wilma ran it through the fancy stamp-applying machine, and off it sailed – as far as the local Riverside Post Office, that is, whose staff thought it looked funny enough to return it later that afternoon. Hence the airplane.

Wilma and I got to know one another more closely then because, for one thing, you never knew when you might need a back-up whose intelligence, diligence, and job dedication matches your own to support your side, and because I spelled her on the phones during her lunch and breaks. We were also the two office gals who were expected (and excited!) to work the necessary half-day every Saturday, and from there we learned we both liked to head to the beach, rain or shine, and hitting a mall or two was not out of the question.

About spelling Wilma for breaks: Wilma was a fine teacher who shared her space like a professional. Take the phone system. Half-a-dozen calls arrived every moment, and you placed them on hold until you could get back rapidly to transfer the lines, visually monitoring the blinking red lights and solid bright lights constantly to make sure somebody picked up, and then you broadcasted over the site-wide loudspeaker to get the necessary person to pick up on the critical ones — and, trust me, they all seemed critical to the callers. On occasion Wilma also alerted me to be on the look-out for somebody coming into the office later to meet with one of the Yeagers or the engineers, somebody who sounded “extra cute” over the phone. That’s a real friend.

About going to the beach: We took turns getting there in her second-hand Mustang or my ’57 Karmann Ghia, and we didn’t greatly care which beach we found. See, neither of us were too keen on directions; follow the signs that announced “Beaches”, we theorized, and you’d find a beach.  Getting home was another prospect entirely, in those pre-GPS days. Why, a freeway could call itself “Riverside” and spike off in two entirely different directions, leaving you to drive in circles for hours.  But leave that worry for later: I loved the sound and smells of the beach – the sand, the surf crashing, and the smell of cocoa butter and, if you lucked out and found a beach with concessions, over-salted French fries!  If memory serves, we scarcely entered the water once we were laid out on our big garish towels; mostly we just broiled by the ocean, listened to other people’s radios, and let the sun wring all the angst out of another busy work week.

At summer’s end I left for college but returned to work through Christmas, spring break, and the following summer.  A month into the next college year, I left academe with an upwardly spiraling load of downwardly spiraling grades and began to work at Yeager permanently, like Wilma.

I was soon transferred to Accounts Payable, only the second female to ever work that position, as it was “too hard on women”. My female partner and I managed to plan the month, work ahead of schedule, and within 90 days of working together had cut the overtime from two weeks of 18-hour days that nearly killed two grown men to about four hours of overtime during the final monthly crunch. It seemed like I got a raise every three months, back then, and still never made half of what they’d paid the men.  On the positive side, they hired a new “girl” to spell everybody and only called me back to my old office to do the filing that the new “girl” flat refused to file.  (Note to self: Why had flat refusal never dawned on me?)

For the most part, Wilma and I could now spend our breaks together, and we enriched ourselves with discussion on every conceivable topic, laughing ourselves silly over life in general. There was much to discuss and much cause for laughter, even in that environment with its unending workload and expectation of break-neck speed for every chore.

For instance, this was funny: One of us (okay, Wilma) made fresh coffee every single time we hit the break room (before work, at the beginning of morning and afternoon break, and during our lunchtime), and we cleaned the pots at end of day – but neither of us even drank coffee; that bothered me more it bothered Wilma. One night somebody snuck in and changed out the antiquated four-pot system for a brand sparkling new one, with no warning and no book of instructions. The old system was so slow that Wilma could scrub out, rinse, and replace all four pots before the thing percolated and generated one drop of rich brown liquid. The new system let Wilma put all the pots in the sink and hit BREW, as always, but within a nanosecond four spouts were spewing hot coffee into thin air and over the countertop, cupboard doors, and floor. We didn’t laugh at the time but have since found the episode funnier as years pass and technology continues to confound us.

It was funny, but it did not make me laugh at the time, that the office manager ran into my cubicle at least once a week snapping his fingers and yelling, “Check! Check!”  When I asked “How soon?” because I was either on another unforgivable deadline or my 30-minute lunchtime was in two minutes and I had to relieve somebody else in 32 minutes regardless of whether I’d gotten lunch or not, he’d roar, “If I wanted it later, I’d ask for it later!”  He’d leave it to me to cut the check, search for somebody authorized to sign it, and deliver it to his office, where he’d already left for his lunch and would not return for two more hours. Wilma and I would eventually laugh later as we made fun of him, somewhere at a safe distance.

It was particularly troubling to Wilma, and often a topic of conversation and laughter on my part, that one of the highest earning men in the power side of the building paid good money for bright green or purple or plaid polyester leisure suits — and that his wife allowed him to wear them to work.

We pondered the fact that an effusive, bigger-than-life, worldly woman in Accounts Receivable received verbal abuse on a daily basis that would have destroyed either of us and, after the past-due account had hung up on her, she’d chuckle for a long time after and repeat, “God love ‘im!”  Yet when a pious older woman in the cubicle next to her was stewing and muttering and began repeating “God love ‘im!” it sounded like a curse.  Funny.

The head secretary who’d been with the company for eons had a reputation for overstepping her boundaries with the founder and his grown sons working there. Why, she’d tracked down one of the men, we learned, in the Men’s restroom and stood there pounding on the door, determined to get an answer that could not wait. Can you imagine?  THAT made us laugh!  There was a possibility that she’d even changed diapers on one of “the boys” back in the day, and now when she griped to him about the Receivables gal for keeping a big bowl of popcorn on her desk, that grown man responded by throwing a handful of popcorn over his shoulder toward her when he passed her desk, just because he could.  We laughed!  Not in front of the head secretary, of course.  We were utterly, completely solemn within her reach and within her sight.

And how about that guy who rarely gave us eye contact when we passed him daily in the hall?  He spewed uncivil and surly comments, without exception, when we were asked to retrieve something from him for a boss.  One morning when we found him alone and (an amazing event!) reading from a genuine hardcover book. He looked up, we both smiled, and one of us asked, “How ya doin’, George?”  He yelled, “Can’t YOU TWO see I’m READING?” When he held up the book to shake it at us, the title was How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Those were the days!  Honestly, I loved, loved, loved working and playing with Wilma. We had graduated from different schools in different towns, and it was humbling to realize that had we been educated at the same high school, outside of a one-in-six chance we’d have had the same P.E. class, we probably never would have met. Wilma was what they called in that time a Business Education student, learning advanced office skills to help her compete in the workplace after graduation. I was College Preparatory, enrolled in an academically demanding U.C.-directed schedule and whiling away any free time at journalism competitions and conferences.

In that day, your future was determined early. In fact, your future at 18 was determined by how you saw your future through a 14-year-old’s eyes: “Shall I spend the next four years in English literature plus two years in lab science, two years in higher mathematics, two years studying foreign language, and given that doesn’t kill me, one more year of one of those three?  OR:  Do I want to work on cars in the grease or type for eight hours a day in a back office?  OR:  Howzabout I barely pass the basics and get the heck out of Dodge?”

The answer to those questions when you were barely into puberty held sway over your high school coursework, your future as a young wage-earning adult and, if you were male, your chances of serving your country in VietNam. A number of young men’s Plan A for not celebrating their first Christmas post-grad in VietNam, in fact, was the 1-S deferment that denoted he was a college student in good standing.

Many of my male friends were in military service by 1969 or, if not, lacking a social life due to the studious lifestyle demanded to ensure they didn’t fall out of 1-S status. Nonetheless, among my male friends born under a fortunate star who drew a high draft lottery number, college friends on break, and servicemen on short-term leave, I think each fell in love when he met my friend Wilma.

If you didn’t know Wilma in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, you missed something: She was a slight thing, all legs, huge brown eyes, and sun-lit long hair, swift to observe and assess and learn, scurrying and organizing and earning promotions, repairing her own Mustang and wiring it by herself for stereo, all the while smiling her great smile and wearing a mini-dress and cute heels.

Then marriages, moves, children, and challenges took us in different directions for decades. When we finally found one another again, we discovered that little had changed: We loved one another still, and the world has remained mighty funny.

Wilma and her sister visited us here for the first time a few years ago, they have visited each summer since, and they bring love and sunshine and laughter and organization with them. Wilma is much the same, still a mover/shaker, organizer, fixer, and creator of lovely things – a woman whose goal and motion is so aligned it’s as if she’s been schooled by an efficiency analyst. Or more likely, as if the school of efficiency analysis was modeled after her.

You might say we’re different that way. On one visit, she brought several pair of like-new pants for my husband from hers, and when it dawned on her I’d probably never hem them, she hemmed all but one pair before she left. (Yes, I loved her enough to allow her to do it.)  She measured, cut, and pinned the last, showed me what to do, and on her next visit, asked me for them back so she could finish. You’d think I’d be insulted (“You think I just left them half-done like that for a year?!”), but I just found ‘em and let her do the job.

Wilma also gave us a bright blue-purple Nikko hydrangea, its drab pot draped in taffeta and ensconced in a lovely collectible she’d picked up somewhere – a ceramic dish/vase of white swans.  We kept the hydrangea inside our cottage until its blossoms faded, moved it outside for a spell, and then planted it “permanently” in our yard when we moved here. Alas, it died the second winter when Grants Pass was blanketed with heavy snow, we were busy onstage with “Scrooge: The Musical”, and our new puppy Mister Darcy stole our attention from thoughts of spring.

We didn’t let the demise bother us greatly; neither Kenneth nor I stand much on celebration, and as soon as we found another Nikko at a local nursery spring event, we brought it home and planted it in a great cement pot. It’s survived gamely, bloomed bountifully, and I smile out at it through the front window and from the swing when I’m on the front porch.

It’s Wilma’s hydrangea, that Nikko, regardless of its origin. It says, “Look at me!  I’ve known you nearly half a century, and you’re still my friend!”  It tells me, “Go clean a coffee pot, and don’t push BREW until the pot’s clean and back on the burner!”  It reminds me, “You don’t need a map to find fun,” and it shrugs, “Hey, one destination’s as good as another if you’re with a friend you love!”  It makes me laugh out loud hollering, “Read a book on friends if you must, but don’t yell at somebody who’s trying to BE one!”

“And whatever you do,” that Nikko calls as darkness settles in for the night (and here I see Wilma’s big eyes scrunched and her usually smiling lips pursed in warning), “don’t wake up tomorrow morning and decide to wear plaid polyester!”