Michele Grgas Thomas The Triplicate

These uncertain economic times bring to mind my mother's accounts of surviving the Great Depression. Mom was resourceful and found ways to make her money stretch and get a decent return on her investments. I was one of them.

When I was a high school senior planning to attend the University of San Francisco, Mom insisted I take the civil service employment exam. USF is a private university and even 40 years ago tuition wasn't cheap. I had to earn as much money as I could the summer between high school and college to help with expenses.

My mother encouraged me - actually, she forced me - to take the civil service exam because she said those jobs paid better. She was right. The summer of 1968, my best friend stood on her feet all day making minimum wage, $1.60 an hour, while I sat at a desk earning nearly $4 an hour.

Working at the snack bar and gift shop at Marineland, Denise spent her

days waiting on tourists. She helped them pick out souvenirs and

scooped ice cream into cones. She worked with other college-bound

students and met lots of people her age.

Marineland of the Pacific on the Palos Verdes Peninsula opened a year

before Disneyland and was considered a major theme park back then.

Folks paid admission to see orca whales, "Bubbles" the pilot whale and

the dolphins perform. They experienced the wonders of the deep as

voyeurs, similar to what we do at Ocean World, but on a larger scale.

On balmy Southern California summer days, Denise was among the cool

people at the ocean's edge enjoying the creatures that lived there.

Occasionally a Hollywood TV show or movie would shoot on location there

(years later producers of "Pirates of the Caribbean" would do the same)

and often celebrities could be seen taking their children through.

Just 10 miles away, I was also working on the ocean's edge, in a much

different environment at Fort MacArthur, a U.S. Army post. My civil

service exam landed me a job at the 20-acre facility dedicated to

defending the continental U.S. coastline and the Port of Los Angeles

from enemy attack. It served proudly since 1916.

Working at the military fort named after Gen. Douglas MacArthur's

father, Arthur, was not exactly like working at a theme park. I was

classified as clerical summer help in an office run by two women who

had been employed there for years. There were dusty piles of paper

everywhere. If someone from another department or the civilian world

asked for a particular document, we scrambled to produce it.

In those days before computer files and carbonless copies, my job was

to file two carbon copies of reservists' pay stubs in metal file

cabinets so full that it took a strong arm and determination to force

another paper into the drawer. I did this all day long, all week long,

all summer long.

It was during breaks at Fort MacArthur that I learned to smoke

filterless cigarettes and drink my coffee black. The ladies were kind

to me, sharing their Pall Malls and instant coffee, treating me like

one of their own.

That summer at Fort MacArthur I earned enough money to buy my college

clothes and books and furnish my dorm room. The coffee and cigarette

habit stuck for years, although I switched to brewed coffee and

cigarettes with filters. I only drink decaf these days and I smoked my

last cigarette on September 7, 2002.

After Fort MacArthur I never sought another civil service job and to this day I hate to file.