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The Unsung Heroine

18 August 2021

Times there are in your life when the future looks unclear, but something in you knows that it’s time to break free from whatever it is that holds you back from . . . the future, or even the present.

Fears and reminders of past mistakes, of being played for a fool, of being betrayed because you cared and the other person cared only about himself: those stumbling blocks have to be put back where they belong — in the past. Placing them on the road that lies ahead will only obstruct that passageway with untold feelings of dread.

And if there is one sensation that freezes your feet right there, in their spot, on the spot, it’s dread. Dread possesses a paralyzing power that can be unconquerable. In fact, your enemy knows well that numbing knockout punch that a person gives to himself. She will create dread to the max, to keep you from moving forward in your tracks!

Even worse than dread is the corrosive emotion called shame.

Most of the time, the shame does not even belong to you. It belongs to the person who has shamed you. But he, or she, is not human enough to have a conscience that registers any humbling sense of dishonor. There’s no honor among thieves, especially the sneak-thieves of personal decency. And, so, the wronged person nobly takes it upon herself to own the disgrace that rightly must be borne by another. That devilish trick is how a pygmy becomes big; and how the heroic giant can cut the image of herself down to the puny size of her enemy.

When first I arrived in California, many years ago, I wasn’t much past the phase of adolescence. I was, in fact, carrying with me many of the apprehensions and unlearned lessons from that growth period in life. I’d yet to grow from that growth period!

The real-life schooling that taught me well how not to stay in the hell of ignorance about myself, and about others, those lessons took place during my first few years in this State. Friends would later call that intense interval “the early years” of my California life.

And they were right. Those dear souls were right about many aspects of my being that I’d seemed nearly blind to, so busy was I in learning the art of survival.

The early 1980s in Sacramento, California formed a crucible for me, a blessed and tormented vessel of experiences from which I still draw wisdom to this very day. I’ve come to realize that I was one of the fortunate and fiercely unyielding ones who got away from the evils that lucratively surrounded, not just me, but many other young men and women who didn’t have the moxie that I displayed in spades, every day.

Perhaps their sense of self had been so mauled that they didn’t know how to fight back against another mauler, especially in the work environment, The Office. The women, in particular, held a starry-eyed belief that they were “special”; they’d been chosen among so many others in the business world — to receive this enticing treatment that really was giving them the business.

Usually, those young women did not know they were just more in a long supply line of what the Boss considered delectable floozies to be used. In certain narcissistic cesspools of employment, the women lined up to be the next-in-line to toady to the office-tyrant. In other arenas of exploitative industries, the young women felt powerless in life, and even more powerless at work. That baneful perception of self became their fixed future.

One of those women whom I met, during those early years in the Golden State, had been forced to work for a living because of personal tragedy. She was a war widow. I shall call her Mary. Her husband was killed in the Vietnam War. Their only child was left an orphan, with just her mother to raise her to adulthood.

Mary worked at the Sacramento District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in Personnel. She was one of the gals who’d had to endure routine, but covert, mashing by the Big Boss. I worked in the Word Processing Center of that agency, down the hall from Personnel. Mary regularly brought work to be churned out by me, or by one of half a dozen other operators, in that windowless office. For the most part, our lives did not intersect much at that time. Our lives would later mesh, in ways that affect me to this day.

There were no “sexual harassment” laws back then. Both sexes got harassed, and worse. Back then, ambitious avaricious women were commonly known to use their bodies to progress up the line of male overseers. The same ploy is used today, except, now, all of those harassment laws have been enacted by the Political Philanderers to cover their own butts, and to create revenue for the nuisance lawsuit, which is brought largely against men, although I have known, in detail, about legal cases brought by one woman against another woman.

In some ways, the workplace is even more sexualized than it was before; the “harassment” laws started to give cover to some of the most foul perpetrators in public office and in the media. At a very young, and tender, age, I quickly ascertained that the media ladder was specially constructed for women to sleep their way to the top via physical connections to news bureau chiefs, Congressionals, and, for the shrewder vixen, a high-ranking Senator.

For a long time, I didn’t judge those greedy gals one way or the other. Whatever they did under the covers was their business; they paid an awful price, though, in self-respect. The time came, however, when I had to form a rather decisive opinion about that centuries-old means of self-promotion, after I’d moved to Sacramento, California. Because I was being mistaken — often — for that type of working girl.

My first instance of being viewed as a demure hussy, covertly hustling for a higher grade of bacon to bring home — that character-building experience came via a female supervisor who claimed that she was a “good friend” of the war widow. Mary had also been misjudged by this cream-puff-in charge who followed orders, in the Nuremberg trial style. Mary was judged by this administrator to be a slut, willing to “work” her way up-the-pay-scale in that cistern of sliminess known as Personnel.

During my first summer of working at the Corps of Engineers, in that searing dry heat in Sacramento, I had to work overtime one day, till past dinnertime. I was finalizing a document for a guy in the Pay and Promotion Section of Personnel. Mr. S. was a gentleman, who offered me a quick ride home, which I accepted. The bus schedule at that time was hit-or-miss, and I’d missed the next available pollution-fuming coach to the outskirts of the River City.

That adventure was a real thrill-ride!

Since the price of gas was sky-high in the California, and in the nation, of 1979, Mr. S. drove a little motor scooter. It was the ugly American form of a Vespa. That trip, east on I-80, was fast and frenzied on the soft shoulder beside the slow lane.

No helmets were worn, or mandated, in those days. A person prayed while mounting the iron horsey and a few times more en route to the destination. After dropping me off in front of my apartment building, this federal employee asked me about my current GS-level, and about my federal government job in D.C., the one I’d held just before moving West. In particular, he wanted to know the duties, pay grade, length of time in that pay grade, and if that position had any promotion potential (which, indeed, was the case).

I informed Mr. S. of those pertinent particulars; and he informed me that I’d been assigned too low a step-within-the-grade on the pay-scale in this clerk-typist job at the Corps of Engineers. He wondered how, and why, that miscarriage of salary-justice had occurred. He promised to fix that problem, soon.

I thanked him for the ride home; we bade one another a good night; and off he sped on his wanna-be Moped.

Fix the problem, soon, Mr. S. did.

That very next day, he “cut” a change order to adjust upward my peanuts-pay by at least five steps within the presently-determined and ridiculously low GS-3 grade. In Washington, D.C., at the Export-Import Bank, I’d been a GS-4, about to be promoted to a 5, when I’d vamoosed to Sacramento, California.

Boss-Lady received the paperwork on her desk. She then summoned me into her cubicle.

She looked at me with the catty eyes of suspicion. She spoke of Mr. S. on a first-name basis. She justified away the low blow of her having low-balled my wages by stating that only 2 positions in her digital domain could receive a GS-4 classification; mine was not one of them. (That ginormous gimme was being reserved for a nepotistic pick whose skids got greased to a GS-9 title inside of a year.) This incident would not be the last time when I somewhat unintentionally, but nevertheless unabashedly, revealed how this shallow back-biting woman had ice water in her cowardly veins.

Boss-Lady asked me, how was it that this man had re-categorized my position so quickly, and had put this change order through to D.C, ASAP. Furthermore, the Top Boss-Lady, the wicked witch in charge of OAS, the Office of Administrative Services, had not been in the loop on this official action.

Mr. S. had gone over that ogress’s head!

The eyes of my supervisor spoke much more than her jealous, skeptical words.

I explained the simple, logical technicalities of the situation, and then I breezily quipped:

“If I’m gonna sleep my way to better pay, it’s not gonna be for a piddly step increase.”

I was not gonna lower myself to sleep my way to any pay. My “lady” boss, though, would soon prove to be more than willing to physically lower herself to go higher administratively in this organization. All the while, she looked down upon her presumed friend, the war widow, working for chump change in Personnel.

Within the next few years, I worked my way, through skills, sweat, tears and enormous tenacity, into a technical writer job in Civil Design Section A of the Engineering Division. My climb had been difficult. I’d had to confront many unpleasant sensations, including dread. I did not, however, drag a sense of shame with me as I ascended the pay-scale to a place that was still beneath my proven abilities. I felt some level of professional recognition, but, by that point in time, I’d worked myself out of my own job. I’d accomplished so much within that office, that the position was no longer “Debra’s Job.” Or so I thought, once I’d formally and unconditionally vacated it.

That Tech Writer slot went unfilled for almost two years in Civil Design Section A. The first year encompassed the duration of my pregnancy with my first child. The second year was the time frame wherein I was supposed to return to work at that office. I’d already informed everyone who was anyone that I wasn’t coming back. I do not go “back”; I go forward. And forward did not include a job that had carried with it more baggage than I intended to bring with me to any of the future jobs in my life.

Mary, the war widow, got the Tech Writer post. She was not qualified for it, and I’d been a bit too vocal on that point. My intention was not to insult her, or to imply that she wasn’t smart enough for that undertaking. Au contraire, she was smart, and clever. She was nevertheless not organized and tough enough to deal with the dumping ground of that desk, situated amidst an increasingly chaotic and venal crowd at the Corps of Engineers. The editing and the writing were the easy tasks! Dealing with the dodgy, pass-the-buck, boot-licking paper-pushers can wear anyone out, but particularly a person who needs firm guidance from a trustworthy leader.

During the mid-1990s, while visiting Dear Hubby and some former colleagues, I caught a glimpse of Mary, standing in the lobby of the agency building. She’d been toiling away as a Tech Writer for about seven years; she looked extremely tired. A heavy briefcase was held in each hand, as she eyed the elevator into which she’d disappear from my sight. She was wearing one of those gorgeous gabardine wool suits that I could never afford to buy on any government paycheck.

Yes, she was dressed professionally, for success, and she’d felt more than successful in having put behind her those humiliating episodes of eking out a living, and demeaning herself in Personnel. She was no longer one of those gals. She was her own person.

To a great extent, she was. She was a devoted, dedicated helper to a structural engineer whom I’d initially believed was on my side during my years of working with him. I’d quickly realized, however, with appalling sadness, that helping you was merely a function of helping him even more. Until he was through with you, or what he could extract from you, and you were abandoned emotionally, as if you no longer existed.

It was a different kind of forced subservience that I’d encountered. It was, in my opinion, more damaging to a healthy sense of self because of its surreptitious nature. Such a warping of trust came wrapped in a comfy but false feeling of emotional support. That buttressing, and bracing, and groundwork completely crumbled the minute you crossed this structural engineer with even a hint of a will of your own.

To disagree with him was to doom that contrived comfort zone that he’d built, just for you. He could, and did, likewise destroy that utilitarian illusion with a cruel comment, or a snide and cutting remark, always below the womanly belt. An engineer co-worker of mine had been nearly brought to tears by his casual cruelty to her. She opined that he’d never treat me that way. I informed her that my time would come. And it did, years later, once I’d left that office and began working for myself, in the home.

I wasn’t brought to tears by his indifference to my existence, but I did realize how much Mary had yielded to the will of this stone-cold supervisor. He’d acknowledged her existence, and for that minimal act of recognition, she’d rewarded him with loyalty, and the belief that he would repay that loyalty to him: he’d be in her corner when she needed him.

No, he was not, nor had he ever been, in her corner. He would abandon her, and vacate that agency just when she’d desperately need him. As justice, and the Divine Judge, would have it, this bitter coward ended up only in his own corner, alone, carrying the chains he’d forged in life.

Mary was not of a nature to fight back against a slyly controlling male, or even an overtly scheming one. She was not like me, who almost savoured those chances to strengthen my will, to develop willpower through methods I’d not yet learned. A decade of dealing professionally with this walled-off, indifferent man had brought out the fighter in me, and the tiger in this woman named Debra, aspects of my being I’d not even known were waiting to flourish.

Mary was a very female woman. She was willing to be compliant to meet the demands and the expectations of a noble goal to which she’d committed herself, whole-heartedly. There was no pulling out for her, once she’d made her vow to a cause, even if that cause turned out to be a crock of slop, neatly packaged with promises of dreams that could never come true. She believed in the dream. That little matter of belief was more important to her than the dream itself. Unlike me, she was not readily capable of hauling out of a toxic place, or a poisoned predicament. This older woman had, indeed, witnessed me, more than a few times, carrying out my missions — of daring, and defiance.

She might have admired me for that audacity. She perhaps knew it was innate, a talent that came naturally, one she’d never realize, but, good Lord, she’d tried.

During a little more than a decade, this conscientious woman slowly, but surely, wore herself out. Maybe she was slaying the ghosts of her past, the degrading reminders of how she’d had to survive grief and loss and the spectre of shame. In my mind, any shame belonged not to her, but to the sovereign leech who had preyed upon a heart-broken woman. The weaker sex remains weak only if she accepts shame and remorse that are not rightly hers. Even in a half-broken state of anguish, a woman of valor possesses the power of a magnificent conscience, something the high-and-mighty, monied predator cannot buy.

By the dawn of the year 2001, I’d gone to a meeting at the Corps of Engineers, to put an end to a contract that had turned out to be a kettle of stinky fish. By that time, I didn’t want a contract with those linguistic frauds, I wanted a contract taken out on them!

In leaving, I stopped by the geotechnical section to chat with Mary. She let me know that her daughter was now fully grown, and out in the world, on her own. I informed her that I was home-schooling my two children, and had just decided to brave the high school years with my son.

Mary suddenly began to speak of those years when first we met, two decades earlier. She talked about those olden days at 650 Capitol Mall. She said I’d looked like I was twelve years old, like a little girl who was too young to even be working for a living. She then confessed that the job at which she’d been working was still “Debra’s Job.” Did I not want it back? She so very much wanted to give it back to me.

I, at that moment, wanted no part of that job, of my past, of any part of my past. That undeniable feeling of needing to take flight would transform itself into a staid courage within the next year or so, after 9/11, as my mind started to methodically piece together the creative components to compose THE DAWN.

With a palpable sense of unease, I explained that I wouldn’t have time for that work. Mary explained that I could do my job — through a contract — at home. I countered that I’d already tried that route, right after having left the Corps. I’d gotten small contracts, but those man-hours, which were really woman-hours, would never leave the building.

“It will always be your job,” she quietly stated.

And I laughed. I wished her well, and walked away.

A year later, this brave, wonderful woman was dead. She was, at long last, re-united, with her Beloved, an unsung hero in Heaven.

Whenever someone asks me if I am the character of Camille, I truthfully say, “Yes and no.” In actually, I am much more Arthur. There’s too much bending of the will in Camille for her to be “me”, Debra. Camille is not passive, but she portrays a war widow who triumphantly yields in ways that I am still trying to accomplish.

That real-life war widow at the Corps of Engineers inspired me to grow to become more like Camille, to permit the hard knocks of my past to heal, until they are soft touches in my soul. She showed me how to look at yesterday, and allow those troubled waters to take me to today, to its wellspring of faith.

Nothing in your life was lost that cannot be found. The years of our lives come full circle, and more than once, when you open your heart to the yearning, and to the tenderness, that your heart had sought, but had to wait to come across anew. The journey might be long, but it’s a voyage filled with unexpected rewards that are timeless.

Breaking free is the heart finding itself fuller than it had been, because it has parted from the past, has broken free from the prison of dread and shame that came with yesterday. Breaking free is when yesterday opens up to today, and the heart casts out all sorrow, while that little matter called faith gives the vision of a brighter tomorrow to someone else.

I am that someone else who received those visions of faith that became THE DAWN. Those imaginings were granted to me, willed, if you will, by an unsung heroine who is unsung no more.


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