Roadside Reflections

Roadside Reflections: Experiences of A Salesman's Son


As I've looked back on the years I had with Dad and Tim, I've been forced to walk in their footsteps--to experience the life of those two salesmen, today known as marketers.

Dad used to joke "How I rose from success to failure through selling."

The reverse is the "official" line, "How I rose from failure to success through selling."

It's not an exaggerated claim: the best-paid, most financially-successful business people are in sales--usually direct selling. That is, door-to-door, or virtually door-to-door, selling.

We're all selling all the time. We sell what we believe. We sell what we do. We sell ourselves.

That's the rationale I've been using as I've pursued selling jobs. Not teaching. Not research. Selling. As I've completed my degrees and pursued my writing and research with seriousness, I've found a deep need to experience "with" Dad--and Tim--the vagaries, pitfalls, heartaches, stresses and triumphs of the direct marketer--the salesman. (Of course, we should clearly note here that there have always been female salespeople. The Avon lady is the most famous one, but there are dozens-to-hundreds more examples. After all, in the age of Chivalry, when women weren't "supposed" to work--they sold door-to-door.

Avon. (The Avon lady.) "Paper roses." Tupperware parties. "Artificial flowers." Jams, jellies, fudge. And that's not to mention those famous and still-ongoing Garage sales.

I've tried several different sales jobs in my life, even before Dad's and Tim's passing. I'd sold Witch brand needle threaders door-to-door in Batesville in 1969 to scrape up money for my college tuition. They sold for $1.00 apiece. I paid 40 cents for them. Thus, I made 60 cents per sale. Dad gave me an additional break, after awhile. He was able to get a large quantity for us both to sale, for 30 cents apiece. By selling them at the same time I did--he sold them out of his furniture, fishing tackle and picture frame store--he could buy larger quantities and allow me to pick up the extra dime. That meant I then got 70 cents per sale.

By selling 10 a day, I could make $7.00 a day. By selling 10 a day for 5 days in a row, I could make $35.00 a week--back then, about what a part-time job paid.

And it was an extremely "part-time" part-time job. I could work for about an hour and cover a sizable number of houses. I could also work residential areas at various times of the day. It didn't have to be in the evening hours, since a Witch needle-threader was a product that elderly, retired women and couples needed, also. So I could sell in both day and evening hours.

And I had some small measure of success. Enough, too, to help me lose some of my fear of selling. I learned, as Dad consistently showed and told me, that repetition, persistence is the key. Keep going. No matter how many rejections you get, just keep going. You'll get a sale eventually. If, near the end of a day, you haven't gotten many sales, you just chalk that one day up to a bad day. Things will get better. After you have a "good" day, you overcome your fear.

But there is an uncertainty, a gut-wrenching anxiety, that always accompanies any salesman. Though he may know that next sale is coming, how soon will it get there. Will it be today, tomorrow, when? How much expense must he rack up before that sale comes in?

It was that anxiety that Dad always faced, from the time he was a young kid. For, straight out of the Navy after WW2, Dad already had a daughter, my oldest sister Sue, who'd been born while dad was in the Seabees. She'd been conceived shortly before Dad left to go overseas to the War.

That meant that dad, with only a high school education and my mom's experience (an experience that was no small valuable to have) as a bookkeeper in her dad's bottling plant to help him, had to get some money coming in right away. Though he'd take odd jobs as he could along the way, Dad had to have an immediate check upon any move they made. He couldn't wait for the classic "check in two weeks" of a traditional time-clock job--though he would get several of those in his life to supplement his sales jobs.

The advantage to Dad of the sales job was the commission system. Instead of having to wait until the new job had "panned out" and payroll distributed, the commision check arrived the very next week. No need to be "processed". Thus, for Dad, the first job he always got when he moved to a new area, was a sales job.

But dad also worked for himself. He always tried to put money aside, as any thoughtful entrepreneur does, to set up his own small business. Every chance he got, he'd rent a small place and place a few sticks of used furniture, appliances, rugs, picture frames--anything he could get cheap, on display for sale. Along with that, to help pay the bills, he'd then get that hourly-wage, time-clock job. Thus, for Dad, the part-time or even full-time, time-clock-based job, was only part of his work scene. 9-5 he worked for The Man. But after 5, he was his own boss.

That was one of his favorite sayings:

"9-5, I work for The Man. But after 5, I'm my own boss. Except for what Maxine tells me to do--ain't that right, Maxine?"

So, in the evenings, he'd immediately set about making sales calls, meeting people at pool halls, bars, ballfields, concession stands, street corners, parking lots--and present them an array of items he'd scrounged around to find to sell: shoes, brushes, burial insurance. On top of that, afterabout three hours, he'd go down to his small shop, work with getting deals and displays completed. By about 10, he'd have something on display, and usually would have some kind of a sale by then, too.

He was, in short, a business man. As soon as his business was rolling, he'd go to part-time status with his time-clock job, if possible. Then he'd focus both night and day on the business.

"Making a go of the business" mom called it.

It meant that one tired fellow--from a poor background, whose father had literally hunted for food and chopped wood for survival--would have to work even harder.

Dad voted for Adlai Stevenson. Both times. He said he was a smart man. He said he respected him. He said he didn't care for Eisenhower. He blamed Ike for a lot of the casualties in the War, including Mom's uncle, Mack White. Chalk White and Mack White, brothers from Paragould, had been drafted. Chalk had made it back uninjured, but Mack was horribly wounded by shrapnel during the Battle of the Bulge in 1945.

Dad often seemed to indicate he distrusted the commander, Ike, because of such casualties. In numerous conversations with my Uncle Jay, his older brother (also now deceased), he frequently said that he felt the men were virtually betrayed by the top officers, who allowed them to be "shot down like flies".

It turns out, as my research in my earlier book Tim, George Bush and Me revealed, that Allen Dulles, an associate of Eisenhower golf buddy Prescott Bush, did, indeed, engage in WW2 treason. Dulles was Prescott's attorney and business partner at Standard Oil and its affiliates throughout the War--and he illegally sent messages via couriers to the Axis in the last two years of the War, trying to arrange, with FDR's approval, a negotiated peaced with the Axis. It was Dulles who was at least partly responsible for the initial German successes in the Battle of the Bulge, as he communicated with the Nazis via courier and alerted them that US intelligence had broken their radio codes.

In those poverty-ridden early and mid-1950s days, with the South still very poor and unindustrialized and primitive in many areas, Dad voted for Adlai Stevenson. There must have been several Dads doing that, here in the South, because Adlai Stevenson carried the South in both of those elections. He carried, however, little else: the South and Appalachia. And little else.

Now, as I reflect back on the places Dad had shown me that I'd grown up in, I've been amazed. In Salem, Arkansas, Mom and Dad showed me the tiny road on which the little hut house they'd lived in had stood. Without running water, mother had made do with a brand-new baby (me) and four-year-old Sue, while Dad hitchhiked huge distances to find little "spot jobs"--one-day jobs. There was a well in back of the house next door, and she'd walk there every few hours for water. Dad at one point hitchhiked and road freight trains all the way to the West Coast, in search of jobs and money.

But he always returned, as he was desperately in love with my mother. He was driven by an intense sense of responsibility to her--and a deep love for Suzy and me.

Out of the service only a few months, he was called back in for Korea. He had to make his way to report for duty, and his small paychecks never arrived because the military lost his records. He'd had no choice: he bootlegged a small quantity, but he used an old bus and only had to make one run. With the money, he was able to buy clothes and food, and he put a small amount into some used furniture, got a deal where he got to use an old shack for free for a week, and sold enough furniture that first week to pay his balance of the rent there. From there, he went on to continue furniture sales, expand his inventory, and even buy a small car. He also sold shoes, burial insurance, and worked at more odd jobs.

My mother's father helped my dad, but not in those years. At that point, Mom's parents still hardly spoke to Dad, though Pop's grudging acceptance of him was growing as he saw his two sons and my father emerge from the military after the War much more mature and responsible. Theirs was The Greatest Generation, indeed. As Pop was to say years later, he could look back and see that he'd taken it for granted, in the 1960s, that the "boys in the plant"--Buck and Henchy, his two sons, and Dad, would be able to take care of any emergency and responsibility. He could not assume that about subsequent generations, he noted.

In those hand-to-mouth years, mom and dad worked not for weekly checks, but for daily checks. Any little thing would work to help, as these two raggamuffins sought survival for their babies and themselves. My mother had naturally beautiful teeth, but a tragic bout with Pyorrhea caused her to have to lose them all. One at a time, she had to have them pulled, in painful, blood-soaked sessions at the dentist. She did it the "cheap way", instead of with gas anesthesia, to save money. Already underfed, overly thin and anemic from the physical torture of repeated childbirths, she was now forced to undergo blood-letting at the dentist--and with nothing to show at the end but the loss of her beautiful teeth. How she could have kept from dipping into extreme Depression is beyond me.

Bottle Bill

As for Dad, in those days, he was traveling in a used bottling plant truck, trying to set up bottling plants around the country. He picked up empty soda bottles along the sides of the road and put labels on them, labels he made by hand until he could get in touch with the local distributor of Lime Cola. He then got a franchise that soon went bust. Working day and night to find empty bottles, he had to manually operate much of the bottling equipment.

Yet, even with all that, he was managing to turn a profit in his own operation. But Lime Cola, at the Company end, went bankrupt. There was no corporate backer. Dad had no choice but to close his plant.

All my mother's tragic sacrifices seemed in vain. My mother began to crack under the strain of never getting to see her parents, on top of the depressing financial situations.

The Wolf was again at the door, with yet another baby--tiny Amy, who'd been born with a hugely-swollen leg--to feed, warm and clothe. Mom broke down and cried as she tried to explain to the neighbors. The next-door neighbor showed compassion, willingly giving Mom a bottle of milk every morning straight from her just-milked cow. The man down the road gave Dad a job digging postholes for a couple of days. Dad located the mailing address of yet another shoe company, found an old copy of their catalog, and was again selling door-to-door. With the Miracle milk and the two-day posthole-digging job money, Mom and Dad survived, with their tiny babies in tow, for a few more days. On the radio, the tragic results of the 1952 Presidential election rolled in: Ike had won, carrying everything but the South--including Arkansas--and a couple of border states. Dad's South was a Depressed area. The GOP victory seemed disheartening news, since Depression was associated with the Republican Party. "I always thought Adlai Stevenson was a smart man," dad sometimes would recall to me, a slight sadness crossing his face, as he drove through the Texas or Oklahoma night, in the furniture delivery truck or the Olds sales car.

Walking for miles at a time, starting early and working late, with that outdated catalog and his sincere gaze as tools, Dad got a few shoe sales. With the small amount of money from the posthole-digging job, and the small commission check from the shoe company that arrived in the mail shortly after Stevenson's defeat, Dad located a shed downtown in Ash Flat. He found the owner, who felt he couldn't readily use the shed for a few days because of a recent fire in it.Dad got the use of the shed for a few days for a few pennies, and put some old stoves and a couch he'd found in an abandoned lot and cleaned up, on sale. He got some sales, along with the shoe sales. Again grocery money was available.

He even went into partnership in the temporary "furniture store" with a local. But another disaster ensued: the new partner skipped town with the few pieces of furniture. Fortunately, the pieces left were used in a swap for a car. Just then, Dad met a man involved in Bible distributing, and got a job selling Bibles--a job that required him to re-locate, first to Texas, then to Seattle, Washington. The old car, swapped for junk furniture, was a godsend. It was used to carry two frightened 20-year olds and three tiny children all the way across the country, to Washington state, with first a stopover in California, where Mom's brother, Buck was then living. Buck reinforced Dad's decision to go into the commission sales job, and made other arrangements that allowed Mom and Dad to continue the journey to Seattle.

Once in Seattle, Mom was again big with child. In Renton, Tim was born. Mom said the rainy weather was immensely saddening .("I cried every day.") She longed to see her parents. Her mother, at long last, wrote her a letter and communicated love and concern. Pop grudgingly sent some money.

There was no let-up in the stress. The Bible-selling job seemed to work at first, then the commission checks seemed to get waylayed.

In desperation, Dad took more odd jobs, then sold some more shoes door-to-door. Mom was too ill to do much but recuperate from the baby.

The shoe company always paid its small commission to Dad. And dad sold burial insurance, which also paid a reliable commission. And Dad finally got the opportunity, in Washington, to get a better understanding of how insurance worked. He then began selling life insurance and, with input from Mom's parents, the decision was made to move first to Houston, as mother was big again with Ann, and then to North Little Rock. There, Ann was born. Mom had been in labor in the drive up from Houston, in the move in 1955. Again, an election was pending, and the economically-depressed South desperately hoped the North would finally vote against the "moderate" Republican Eisenhower. But there was to be no such break through politics. Ike swept back into office with a similar margin to that of 1952--but, as with 1952, without control of the Congress. Meanwhile, our next-door neighbors in NLR were again kind enough to allow Mom to have fresh milk straight from the cow, as Dad got his first job with a bread truck, with Ideal Baking Company in Batesville. We moved to Batesville in 1956, and Dad went to work delivering bread. But, always seeking the elusive chimera of a better job, Dad again moved us to California, where an opportunity to rent a house from his parents, combined with a better-paying bread truck job (selling and delivering French bread) persuaded him to move.


We lived in the Oakland area of California, an area known as the San Francisco Bay Area. I went to school in an area known as San Pablo. Looking back at my school pictures from those days now, I can see it was a heavily-ethnic and Hispanic neighborhood. Indeed, Sue, who was then a teen, often commented on the numerous gang fights between rival youth gangs from the various ethnic communities.

We lived in San Pablo for three years, during which time Dad mostly did blue-collar work, then we moved to Ceres, where dad got a sales job. We owned a nicer home, and dad seemed happy for a time. But mom now longed to go back home to be with her parents, who now accepted dad fully and wanted him to come back and work in Pop's Pepsi plant. It seemed a dream come true. And so we returned to Batesville in the summer of 1960.

That Fall, JFK defeated Nixon, and a Democrat was finally (in those dismal days, the South was hard-hit by chronic economic bad times, which Dad associated with the Republican Party) in the White House again. Even though Dad had a job with Pop, and we soon located a two-story house in West Batesville on Hill Street, he was soon dreaming of again having his own business.

Meantime, he supplemented his job at the plant with more sales jobs. Insurance, burial insurance and shoes. Then he began to dabble in wholesale, looking at the possibility of selling fishing tackle. Through it all, it was the door-to-door selling jobs, the straight-commission jobs that could be "landed" when nothing else could, that had pulled mom and dad through desperate crises.

Perhaps, then, it is no wonder that I feel such a deep need to "relate" to Dad, to experience more of what he did, in the area of the door-to-door sales jobs. To participate in sales meetings, to have route and sales buddies, fellow sales people, and to communicate with "the office." With all the years I worked in Dad's wholesale and retail businesses in Batesville, I learned a great deal from him about selling. I must endeavor to share what I know, and increase my experience, in order to be "closer" in spirit to both Dad and Tim. Both were salesmen. Both made their living, much of the time, via commission. Now, I feel I must do this, at least for a time.

As I've experienced new things in sales, I've recalled a number of things, just in the past year, as I took door-to-door sales jobs:

The train in Cabot Arkansas, as I stood trying to decide whether to walk acros the tracks before it came, or to continue to work house-to-house and business-to-business on the same side of the street for a while longer. Standing at the RR sign, I watched a dust-covered pickup truck roll across, just ahead of the train in the sweltering, record heat.

The parking lot at Target in West Little Rock. On break, trying to plan a sales route when I got off from work at my hourly wage job, (which was never sufficient to pay my bills, especially after I ran up huge educational bills). Targetland. I gazed across the rippling parking lot in the heat at cracker-box-shaped buildings surrounded by re-planted trees (the originals would never do). The cracker boxes sat beneath a still-daylit sky that revealed a half-moon--a moon that has never been "explained" to most astronomers' satisfaction. Natural, older Arkansas trees seem stand-offish, observant. :Cars run down Chenal and points West with a speed that daunts the more cautious motorist. A lone chickenhawk flies fitfully and erratically, alien to the largely now stone landscape below.

I wonder, as I try to put myself in Dad's and Tim's places: where should I go next to get a sale? Where next? Who's to be the next prospect? What's the best product? For me, it could be either DishNetwork or ADT Security Systems--or perhaps it'll soon be something else, even something of my own. Could I really sell them effectively? My dad was an A-1 salesman. Maybe some of it has rubbed off on me. Anyway, I have to let Dad and Tim know that I have some idea what they've been through, that I don't think I'm "too good" to sell door-to-door. I had to make this one last effort to "reach" them.

Subsequent chapters:

Return of Blue Hat

New Synchronicities:

Reappearance of "Hugs"

New Synchronicities:

The van and its driveway in NL

New Synchronicities:

Names (Blassingame, Collier, Adrian Ward-Sims...)

New Synchronicities:

Finding Lani (odds, please)

Go back to The George Bush-Undercurrents Website

Go back to The Diplomats, Dad and Me