In America, as is becoming more and more the case in the rest of the globalized world, we change jobs (and everything else, including lovers and spouses) like shoes. Companies also come and go in a ceaseless cycle of boom and bust. The empty buildings in downtown LaFollette, such as the so-called “Leather Factory,” “Shelby’s Grocery” and the former Greyhound terminal, are crumbling witnesses to the city’s vibrant past. Down the road in Jacksboro, vacant buildings, like Ingles and the former K-Mart (can anyone really remember the K-Mart?), remind us of the dog-eat-dog nature of the retail world.
As a teenage employee on the frontlines of the retail and grocery industry, I had my fair share of experiences in such places. Now, whenever I pick up a few groceries at Save a Lot, my mind flashes back to my White Store days. White Stores in LaFollette was my first paying job. God, it was hard work—but fun. The boys all wore white pressed shirts and red clip-on bowties. At first I bagged groceries, I still do today when my wife and I go to the store, before I “moved up” to the more civilized “produce section.” It was this time at White Stores that I remember most: produce delivered by local farmers, bread brought in fresh from Knoxville, watermelons appearing majestically and mysteriously by the truckload.
I have the inclination, frowned upon in today’s so-called “flexible” working world, to stay in a job too long. Such was the case at White Stores. In 1981, after nearly four years of pushing buggies, mopping floors and sorting out rotten tomatoes, I finally decided to apply elsewhere, to a place that at least sounded better: Roses Department Store. That’s where I met Gordon Wirt.
Gordon was the first manager of the Roses store in LaFollette. In those days, strategically located across from Woodson’s Mall, business was booming. I interviewed for a position as a stock boy. The upshot of the job was simple- push around a virtual tower of boxes containing sales goods to the various departments. Well, I guess it was a step up from sorting tomatoes and potatoes. The interview with Mr. Wirt began routinely: What had I done up to then? Sort tomatoes. Why did I want to work at Roses? Because boxes were infinitely more appealing than tomatoes. And then came the big question- “What kinds of hobbies do you have?” “Well,” I said, “I like to fly around with my buddy, Bert Loupe, in airplanes.”
As if kicked by a mule, Gordon shot upright, shifted his lanky body in the imitation leather seat, crossed his right leg over his left, his number 12 shoe a kickin’ excitedly up and down, and asked, boy-like with stars in his eyes: “You fly?” “Sure,” I responded, noting his obvious attention. And then I laid it on thick by checking off the list of planes I’d flown (or better put, flown in): “Cessna 150, 172, 206, Beech Bonanza, Baron, Duke, Piper Cherokee and Aztec.” I got the job.
Roses turned out to be pretty much like White Stores.
Instead of pushing around tomatoes and grapefruit, I pushed around lamps and shelving units. In my lowly position I didn’t see Gordon often, but when I did we talked about flying. Gordon, as it turned out, had taken a keen interest in ballooning back in the 70’s. But now, as manager of store number 139 (if my ancient memory serves me correctly), Gordon was too busy selling swing sets, plastic swimming pools, lamps, fishing tackle, clothing imported from Asia, and just about every other knick-knack under the sun; ballooning would have to wait. In the years after Roses in LaFollette closed (Wal-Mart finally drove Roses’ into bankruptcy), Gordon moved from place to place, selling everything from office supplies to insurance. I went on to Roane State and finally to U.T. Knoxville. I never saw Gordon again.
The people who work for us every day in the grocery and retail industry work hard and they’re paid a pauper’s wage. Often they have no benefits and little vacation. Their jobs, even at the management level, like Gordon’s, are precariously held at best. And nowadays, with only 1/3 of America’s GDP coming from industry, our careers sometimes amount to nothing more than a lifelong carousel of poorly paying “McJobs.” Being a “store manager” is often just a notch above working in the retail trenches. The hours are long, the conditions hard, and long-term job security practically non-existent.
Like the other store managers and trainees that come and go, LaFollette knew little about Gordon Wirt. He lived here a few years, worked endless hours in Roses selling and managing a lot of stuff that no one can remember, and then, like the store itself, moved on.
I remember Gordon well, the grownup boy fascinated by balloons. In 2004, Gordon Wirt, only 53, was killed in a ballooning accident in Kentucky. Did his obituary appear in The LaFollette Press? I don’t know, but probably not. Like the industry he worked for and the products he sold, his life was only a will-o-the-wisp. And yet I know that Gordon is somewhere up there even now, excitedly pulling on the controls, just a boy in his balloon.