Kathryn Brooke describes herself as a “blue-collar baby,” meaning that she has floated from one blue-collar job to another. A profession was never an option in her life.
I grew up in Chicago. My parents were Catholic and thought I should be a nun. You see, I was adopted. They got me from the Catholic Home Bureau, the Catholic supermarket for unwanted babies during the war. So, of course, I went to parochial schools all the way through. The teachers were convinced that I was there just to harass them. I wasn’t a rebel, but when things didn’t add up, I’d ask questions and be pinged for it. Like one time in catechism class we were supposed to go through this book and memorize long explanations for simple questions. One of the questions was, “What is the difference between a mortal sin and a venal sin,” and they were talking about stealing. If you stole a penny from someone who made X number of dollars a year that’s just a venial sin, but if you take like five dollars from the same individual, that’s a mortal sin. Well I popped up and said, “What about inflation?” I was told to leave the room.
In high school at St. Thomas it was the same old stuff. I didn’t fit in with the program. My mold kept cracking and they would have to wet down the clay and start over again. I was really a rebellious piece of pottery there, and so they finally just gave up on me and asked me to leave after my junior year. I said, “That’s cool,” and started waitressing in restaurants.
When I was seventeen I made one of my many mistakes. At that time the only way a good Catholic girl left the house before she was eighteen was to get married or join the convent. By then I knew I would never be in a convent, so I got married to someone I’d known for three weeks to escape from the house. I got pregnant and didn’t even know how it happened. Right after the baby was born I left my husband and had to work two jobs to make ends meet. Well, he sweet-talked me into going back with him, but by this time I knew how to get pregnant. I’d been told if you drank orange juice that it would help. I was trying to figure out how the citrus fruit prevented pregnancy—did you drink it before or after?—when I got pregnant with my second son, Danny. Later I learned you drank the orange juice instead of—so after Danny was born, I left him again. I couldn’t take the beatings any more. This must have been nineteen sixty-three through sixty-four.
I got a nineteen fifty-five Dodge with no reverse and went to Los Angeles. I knew if I got far enough away from home I wouldn’t be tempted to go back with him. But then I made another mistake. I like mistakes. I thought, “Well, I gotta go to church,” so I talked to a priest about what my condition was. Great! Six days later my husband was knocking on my door. The priest said he told him where I was for the benefit of the children. So I thanked him very much for his assistance. One night after a bad argument, my husband raped me and that’s how my third son came along. I said, “That’s it,” and left for good.
By this time I was up in Washington and had heard of welfare. So I went down to my friendly welfare office at eight in the morning, got a number, waited in line, and they saw me at about a quarter ’til four that afternoon. They said to come back the next day. When I came back, they told me I hadn’t been in the state long enough to get welfare money, but I could have low-income housing. They put me in a place out in White Center that rented for thirty-three dollars a month. That little thirty-three dollars a month back then was a fortune to me. I could hardly make it.
I went back to restaurant work. I’d work the breakfast shift, stay through lunch, and then come back to work the dinner. By working the evening shift I wouldn’t get out of there until eleven-thirty at night. The kitchen would be closed by then. It was an Italian restaurant and they’d put the meatballs, spaghetti, and ravioli in a big can over night. This was before the days of plastic bags, but not before the time of Tupperware. Everyone wanted to know why I carried such a big purse. Well, it was a grocery bag. I’d reach in as I walked through the kitchen and grab a handful of meatballs, cheese, or sausage and put it in a Tupperware bowl in my purse. After awhile my purse smelled like oregano, and I had all the dogs in the neighborhood following me as I walked down the street.
Just when I was thinking there had to be a better way, along came Jim, who was overwhelmed by my strength and stamina. I’m five foot six and weighed ninety-eight pounds at the time. The energy had to come from God, because otherwise I never could have made it. I was twenty-one years old and the mother of three kids. Jim was twenty-seven years older than me. I really fell in love for the first time. He came when I needed a father for myself so I could be a mother to my kids, and he needed a daughter. Our needs were met in each other so we got married. Nine months and one day later our daughter was born. By the time Michelle was a year old, I didn’t need a father any more. I needed a husband and the children needed a daddy.
Jim wasn’t a very good manager of money. He tried selling real estate and cars, but we were in the midst of a big Boeing recession. So we moved to Elma and started a restaurant. I worked my butt off—went a year and a half without a day off—but we lost the place. Jim never paid the taxes, so it was shut down. That was real hard on me. I knew then I would never be able to have the yellow house with the white picket fence and my little girl dressed in pinafores. “Leave it to Beaver” or “Father Knows Best” weren’t going to be for me.
After we lost the restaurant, I became a born-again Christian. A neighbor lady had a Bible time every Wednesday afternoon for the little kids. I said, “Wow, a free babysitter,” and sent my kids. Every time I saw that lady she was so up, exuberant, happy. I couldn’t understand it, because her husband beat her, drank, and smoked. And all the time she talked about this Jesus. It got to the point where I told her, “It sounds like this Jesus is your best friend.”
She said, “Oh, but he is.” And I thought, “This lady needs help. I better get away from her.” Then she asked, “Are you saved?”
“Saved? Saved from what? Of course, I’m saved.” I knew I didn’t come from a monkey. Good Catholic girls know that.
But one afternoon I laid down. I fell asleep. Now I’m not saying I had an out-of-body experience or a vision. Call it a dream. I had died. Jim and my kids and my mother were there, and I saw a little cloud leave my body. It was going to a place called Hell, where there was going to be torment. Right then I woke up and said, “I give up. I give up.” That’s how I got saved. I was born again and felt it immediately. It wasn’t religion, but a definite relationship with Jesus Christ. I was charged and the charge is still with me. Not too much later, I was praying one night for my son, Matthew, when I hear a voice—not with this ear, but the one behind it, inside of my head. It said, “I will show you how.” And then I started speaking in tongues. I mean, I took Spanish and I can’t roll an R if I tried, but all of a sudden there were these words coming from me. It was beautiful. This was before the charismatic movement, so I got thrown out of the Baptist church I had been attending. I heard about a church called the Full Gospel Pentecostal Church on KBLE radio, and that’s how a good Catholic girl became a Pentecostal.
During this same time I finished up my high school degree and started taking community college classes in commercial foods. An Army recruiter at the college was pushing a new Army program called Stripes for Skills. He said you go in as an E-3 and two months after basic pick up E-5. Well, I didn’t know what an E-3 or E-5 was but I soon learned. Normally it takes six or seven years in the service to make E-5. The recruiter said the only problem was that I was married and had kids. He said I could petition the court for a legal separation, giving all the care, custody, and maintenance of the kids to my husband, then go through basic and get my E-3. As an E-31 could reverse the court order and have my family as dependents. This was March of nineteen seventy-four. We were awful broke, so about a week later I did it.
I had seen the recruiting films about all the fun you had in basic training. You know, everybody is out there doing PT [physical training] and saluting the flag and looking patriotic. It didn’t look too bad. And, well I guess my husband and I thought it would be a new beginning for us. So I kissed Jim and the kids goodbye and went to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, for basic. That was one of the most sad times of my life. It was the first time I was separated from my kids. On paper I was single, so I had to think and act single. There was a real conflict of interest between on paper and in heart. But I knew I had a job to perform. It was like when I went through labor with my kids. I learned on my second child that with every pain you are closer to birth. And so I just conditioned myself to thinking that every minute that passes I’m closer to being home with them.
What was basic like? Well, the PT was not like in the training films. It was a pain in the the tusch. And it wasn’t like “Private Benjamin” either. It was what you made of it. I thought it was kind of neat to learn how to iron fatigues on the floor and be able to make a bed so a quarter bounces off it and how to stand in line at three-thirty in the morning so you can be the first one down to the mess hall to eat by seven. It’s just a bunch of razzle-dazzle that they use to try to break you, and in trying to break you, they make you. I’d been through a lot of crap in my life and this was the first time I felt like I had accomplished something.
When I got my permanent party station at Fort Ord, we reversed the court order and my family came down. I’m not going to say it was because of my situation, but it wasn’t more than a month later that the military changed the rules so you had to have an actual divorce decree to get in—no more legal separations. I guess it got expensive for the military to move my family and all my personal effects down. Since I had dependents, I immediately qualified for housing. That was something! Okay, they write the rules and you play the game, so if you go by the rules in getting over, then you shouldn’t get pinged for it.
When I started doing my job, I didn’t know what in the world I was doing. But the thing I’ve got going for me is I don’t mind doing paperwork. You can have grease three inches high and cockroaches crawling across the counter, but by God if that paperwork is squared away, “You’ve got it together, Sarge!” So the mess sergeant, Sergeant Lawrence, put me in charge of paperwork. He was an alcoholic with about four months until retirement, so he didn’t care about anything. But the one thing he cared about was me. He said, “They aren’t going to screw you out of that E-5. I’m gonna see to it that you get it.” So he schooled me in all the essentials, like what a lieutenant was and how to talk back to a warrant officer without losing my military bearing. Thanks to him I made my E-5 on October fourth, nineteen seventy-four.
The trouble started when I made E-5. I had to put in a lot of extra hours to justify having those stripes. They were hard to hang onto. Everybody in the world wanted those stripes. You know, they wanted to know how come I’d gotten E-5 when they’d been in for ten years and didn’t have ’em. Then my husband started getting upset about the long hours I worked.
When he couldn’t take it any longer he left me. I felt totally rejected. I had done this for him. It was my name on the dotted line, but he packed up and left. I could have gone to the NCO club every night and gotten bombed, but I turned to the Bible where it says, “All things work together for the good.” I was where God wanted me to be, so I served out my three years.
The military doctors screwed up some surgery and messed up the sphincter muscle for my bladder. As a result I have to drain my bladder a couple of times a day. No one knows about that except for the Veterans Administration. So I get three hundred eighty dollars a month, fifty percent disability, because they screwed up, but I did my duty.
After getting off active duty, I kicked back and collected unemployment for eighteen months before getting into trucking. I knew a guy who worked for a trucking firm, and one weekend he said, “I have to take a load down to L.A. Do you want to go?” That’s when I learned what a Kenworth was. I needed a challenge. My kids were older, and I was ready to do something different, so I hit the road.
I worked partners with an independent trucker. There was no sex involved. He was a married man and his wife was one of my best friends. It was just a business relationship. He respected me for who I was, and he needed someone who would work cheap, and I worked cheap. It was a split after expenses. You couldn’t get most partners to work for a split after expenses. They’d want a per diem and meals and stuff, but I was going through a period where I needed to get loose, get away. I could not have afforded to pay for a vacation to all the places I went to. I was bringing in two thousand dollars a month and getting piles of job satisfaction. My kids were real proud to have a mother on the road, a trucker. A young couple took care of my daughter when I was gone, and my mother lived only three blocks away, so it was very convenient.
A woman trucker had to constantly prove herself. When you come out of a truck to get some coffee at a truck stop, you’re not seen as a trucker. You’re not a driver. You’re a beaver. A beaver is a term given to female truck drivers. They have gross bumper stickers about beavers. I’m sure you’ve seen them. One says, “Save our forest. Eat a beaver.” I don’t know if it’s because of the tail—piece of tail. I sure don’t know. I don’t have buck teeth. But what’s important is to do your job and not lose your integrity. Fools are gonna talk so you just have to carry on.
There was a lot to learn about trucking. There’s two basic truck models. The conventional is the one with the long snout. The COE, or cab over engine, is the square one like BJ in “BJ and the Bear” had. Also trucks take diesel, not gasoline. You don’t ever say gasoline. The first time into a fill-up station, I asked the man to fill it up with gas. He just refused, and I didn’t realize my mistake. It’s fuel, not gas.
Our truck was real comfortable. It had a sleeper, a little color tv set, a microwave oven, and was all padded. When you lay down in the bed, you strap yourself in. One drives and one sleeps. That way you keep it rolling all the time. Course, how long you really drive it, and how long you put down on paper for the State Patrol are two different things. According to the Patrol, you’re only supposed to drive eight hours in a twenty-four-hour period, but you don’t. You drive until the coffee buzz wears off and your partner takes the wheel. When you put more miles on in a day than the Patrol allows, that’s an overload. Then you take the back roads and wait for the scales to close. Where did you think all these trucks came from on Saturday and Sunday nights? They’re all overloaded.
I never thought of it in terms of hours a week, but as trips or loads. Like, say we had a trip down to Phoenix. Well, rather than drive back up to Washington empty, we’d go through a broker to find out who needed a load brought up here. Then you get paid for both ways. It’s real uncertain, though, how long you’d be gone. My longest time away from home was twenty-three days. We’d had a breakdown and I flew home.
Most truck drivers, if they see you back up a truck, jack that trailer around, let your fifth wheel down, and hook up, know you can handle the job. I think a lot of women bring heartache onto themselves. If you put on Levis that are three sizes too tight and walk around with a blouse open down, then you’re gonna get sexually harassed. I don’t care if you’re a monk. But if you maintain your integrity and do your job, it’ll be recognized.
I really loved that job, but it got to the point where I said, “Kate, you’ve gotta grow up.” I had to change my short-range goal of just getting that quick buck to a long-range goal. I wasn’t always gonna be thirty. Pretty soon I was gonna be forty, then fifty, and then sixty. I was gonna want to retire someday and knew I had to get into a job where there were some benefits.
That’s when I started thinking about driving a bus. I loved driving and the transit company had the most benefits. Well I got hired for part time and went full time two-and-a-half months later. I thought it would be pretty much like driving truck, but I was mistaken. God, it’s like the difference between sweeping the rug and using a vacuum cleaner. Driving a bus is a lot more secure. You know where you’re going and spend every night home in your own bed.
When you start there, they train you on every kind of bus imaginable from a 200 American Motors General, which is a nineteen fifty-two vintage monstrosity, to the Articulateds, which are sixty-foot-long bending buses from Germany. All of them are diesel except for the trolleys, which are electric. Before you even get behind the wheel, you’re taught defensive driving techniques. The cardinal rule is summed up in what they call the Three S’s—Safety, Service, Schedule. That’s the order of priority you must keep.
An example of a safety rule is keeping your distance behind another vehicle on the freeway. You pick a point the car is going past, and then count the seconds ’til you reach it in the bus. One, two, three, four on a regular bus. On an Artic you count to six. Another safety point is checking your mirrors every six seconds.
The supervision uses fear as a tactic on new drivers. It is just like coming out of basic training and not knowing what you’re getting into, and before you know it you’re caught like a fly on flypaper. Supervisors are people who used to be drivers the same as you are, but now they stand on corners waiting, anticipating, praying that you’ll make a mistake. If you ask me, it’s a bunch of bullshit. When a ten-year driver does something wrong, they look the other way, but let a new driver do something— Like in downtown Seattle, have you ever been sitting in your little Volkswagen and got stuck behind a bus and said, “Those damn buses”? Well, that’s cool; you can afford to swear, but when you’re driving that bus it’s a whole different story. There you are in that bus and see three buses in front of you that the traffic won’t let pull off the curb. Well, if you can do it, you stick your ass end in the curb lane and pull your front end out to where the traffic can’t get by you, so those three buses in front of you can pull out of the zone. You gotta protect each other out there. It’s like a war out there on the streets. So if you’re an old-line driver and you do that, it’s fine. But let a new driver do that and a supervisor see you, you’re standing before “the man.” It’s called an RDA, report of disciplinary action. Each infraction is worth so many points. The maximum you can get during your probationary period is fifteen. The points stay on your record for a year. One morning I got stopped by a policeman on the way to work and was two minutes late; I got pinged with four points for that.
Another thing you get hit with right off the bat is the union. You pay, I think, a three-hundred-fifty-dollar initiation fee and then seventeen fifty a month. It don’t matter if you work sixty hours a week as a full-timer or only an hour and a half a day as a part-timer, you still pay the three-hundred-fifty-dollar initiation.
Have you ever had a fancy on a Saturday night to steal a bus? I’ll tell you how to do it. It’s not just a simple matter of going out and turning on the key. What key? They don’t use keys. First thing you do is find a transit base and get on a bus. Now if the doors are locked, you squeeze them open. They open very easily. Once on the bus, you push a switch marked, “Day or Night.” Then you hit the tiny button that says, “Start.” Give it some fuel, just a little bit, and it should start right up if it’s in neutral.
We’re also supposed to check the oil and water, but the union says no, that we’re not mechanics. But we do have to go around the coach and make sure there’s no scratches and all the lights are working. If there’s a scratch when that bus comes in at night and you haven’t reported it, then you get pinged for it. You gotta cover your tail all the time.
I’m not working right now. I haven’t worked since October twentieth, nineteen eighty. I had finished my morning run and stopped to help this new driver back up her coach. It was her first day. Anyhow, to make a long story short, when I stepped off her bus, I slipped in some wet cement and landed on my behind. I told the chain of command about it and was taken to the hospital, where they rubbed cotton all over my arms and legs, and I was told to blink, and they put a pin in each thigh and said I was fine. I said, “I’ve got spots in front of my eyes. In fact, there’s a great, big green blob on the end of your nose.” The doctor didn’t understand what I was trying to tell him. He sent me home, said to take two aspirin, and report to work the next morning.
That night I had a splitting headache and real bad pain in my back and down my legs. I went to another doctor the next day. He said to take Valium and stay in bed for three weeks. The pain got worse and worse until one night I passed out during dinner. They took me to the hospital in an ambulance. The next day an orthopedic surgeon said the nerves in my back were screwed up because I had broken my tailbone.
Up until then no one had even taken an X-ray. This was a good three to three-and-a half weeks after the accident. They gave me pain killers and muscle relaxers and said to go home and rest. That’s what I did until New Year’s Eve, when I started vomiting up this stuff that looked like coffee grounds. It was blood. Happy New Year! I ended up in the hospital with a bag of blood hanging over me and a needle stuck in my arm. The medicine this one doctor had given me for pain had eaten holes in the lining of my esophagus and going down into my stomach. So now, not only have I got a broken tailbone, but I’ve got a restricted diet and ulcers and they’re talking about sending me to the pain clinic.