The fall of 1978, I entered my senior year of high school. I didn’t foresee college in my future, and it seemed like a great opportunity to work in the family business. My dad owned and operated a Ford franchise. I was a bookkeeper’s assistant.
In 1979, the world became a scarier place. The Shah of Iran was overthrown and Ayatollah Khomeini came into power. Khomeini forced thousands of U.S. State Department workers from the country. There was a drastic reduction of crude oil shipments to the United States, and gasoline prices soared. The American economy plunged into a recession, and Dad’s dealership began to feel the strain.
My sense of security began to falter.
It didn’t take long for Hollywood to exploit our fears with the release of the documentary, “The Prophecies of Nostradamus.” The predictions by Nostradamus proclaimed an anti-Christ coming from the Middle East, economic collapse, and the beginning of World War III. These events would be the predecessors to the end of the world.
I remember the night my boyfriend and I went to see the movie. We found ourselves behind a long line as we waited to buy tickets. Conversations around us were depressing. An acquaintance of my boyfriend’s was in front of us.
“I heard you got a job at the lumber mill,” the acquaintance said.
My boyfriend had started at the mill as a grunt shoveling wood chips. When the position of boiler man opened up, he applied. He easily got the job because no one else wanted it. It was dirty work dealing with aged equipment. He was also one of two employees who kept the plant’s heating system running 24 hours a day. He figured he would be one of the last people to get fired if it ever got that bad.
“I heard they just laid off two more guys.”
“Yeah,” my boyfriend answered, “and there’s talk of more.”
I left the theater that night in a trance-like state. Nostradamus’ prophecies of economic collapse, war, and weapons seemed to be turning into a reality. I began to plan for a future I viewed as doomed. I started buying yarn, fabric, and crafting odds and ends. I wanted to have projects to keep me busy if I found myself with little else to do.
“What are you doing that for?” my big brother asked. “If this country falls into a depression, you’re going to have a lot worse things to worry about.”
I knew he was right. I had learned in school that shortly after the Great Depression ended, World War II began. It scared me to think of the similarities. My imagination was wild enough to place me in one of those war camps I read about in history class.
I started taking a mental inventory of canned goods at my parents’ house. I wondered how long the canned peaches, pears, and tomatoes would last. I scanned the basement cellar in my parents’ home and mapped out in my head where in the yard a small garden could be grown. I started buying bath towels, kitchen towels, and kitchenware. I spent little on things I viewed as frivolous. I opened a savings account.
On the same city block where my dad rented his new-car lot and building was a flailing Chrysler dealership. News of that dealership closing cast a cloud of foreboding over my dad, our family, and the dealership employees.
I worked in the business office as an apprentice under Doris McDougal and Char Chidsey. I listened in on the meetings they had with my dad. Char was the voice that could brighten the hardest of days. Doris, with her thick silver hair pulled up in a bun that accented the classy black outfits she wore daily, became the messenger of doom.
“We need to get money transferred into the checking account to cover our payables.
“If I don’t send out a check soon, our credit line is going to get cut.”
“These accounts should probably go to small-claims court. It’s been six months, and there has been no attempt to pay them.”
And on and on.
Vehicle interest rates skyrocketed to an all-time high, and fewer people were buying cars. In fact, 1981 sales marked an all-time low for American-made vehicles. I will never forget the customer contract I typed up with a 21% interest rate. That man, who I thought must have been rich, was buying our last Ford Thunderbird off the new-car lot. My dad was excited for the lucky guy to have purchased such a lovely automobile. I watched the happy man walk to his brand-new car and drive it away. I watched Dad go into his office, pull his handkerchief from his pocket and dab the sweat from his forehead.
My dad’s business struggled to stay on top of the waters around him. When I listened in on conversations between Dad and his Ford representative, I learned that numerous mom-and-pop dealerships were shutting down across America. I felt safer hearing the sharp-dressed representative from Appleton, Wisconsin, call Dad a smart businessman.
Dad had numerous property assets going into the car business. At critical points of financial need, he’d sell a building to keep the business afloat. It was a gamble, depleting his retirement assets, but the auto industry of the past had proven to be more profitable than the slow inflation of property values.
Dad had a lullaby he used to sing in the office on those rare better days. He’d rock an imaginary baby in his arms and sing in his off-key voice, “Buy low, sell high.” I loved watching the show of confidence he displayed in those moments.
And just when Dad thought it was as bad as it could get, he was hit with another slap. His mechanics, parts man, and car washers were solicited to unionize by one of his new hires. When it went to a vote, the majority chose the union. My dad was both angered and worried of what that union would cost him with his business already in such a fragile state. I don’t know if he even cared as much about that business anymore. He had to wonder who he was fighting.
The final blow came when the building Dad was renting sold. He was given a 30-day notice to vacate. Instead of starting over at 65, Dad decided to let the franchise go.
I often think of those times, remembering the struggles, the fear, watching the loss of an American dream. I don’t think the world has ever looked as dark to me as it did back then.
I don’t remember at what point things started to turn around for my family. For me, moving forward without the security blanket of working for my dad’s business forced me to find my own way in life. For my dad, I’m guessing it was soon after he handed over the keys to the building and when the new owners razed it down.
Doris Rauschenbach is a writer in Ashland and a regular contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page. Her website is doriswrites.com and she can be followed at facebook.com/DorisWrites. She can be contacted at email@example.com or at P.O. Box 1024, Ashland WI 54806.