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Flag Day 2020

The SF-171


The SF-171 was the official U.S. Government Application for Federal Employment. In its original paper-version, it was a nicely designed and executed form, as Federal forms go — and, as Federal forms go, this one went! As I remember it, the paper came in a lovely shade of pale green. Not Army green, but more of a Forest Service green. This form was the key to my future, but I did not give it very much respect, even though I took its existence very seriously, too seriously in fact.


In 1979, after I first arrived on the Federal Government scene in Sacramento, California, I had to fill out my SF-171 all over again, since I had literally shredded any previous paper trail of my Federal Government past in Washington, D.C. The last thing on earth that I wanted, in the Jimmy Carter-land of America, was to work for Uncle Sam. I wanted a private sector job.

Decent-paying private sector jobs, in Sacramento, the capital of California, were nearly non-existent during the first Jerry-Brown era. Geezer Moonbeam was Medfly Moonbeam back then, in the late 70s-early 80s, and the cow town of Sacramento was pitiful. I mean, the biggest employer was the State of California, and it still is. Blue Diamond Almond was a big “seasonal” business, along with the Libby Cannery, another “seasonal” workplace. The existence of someone called A Chiropractor came into my conscious awareness. There must have been 20 or so, just in mid-town Sacramento.


The “chiros” (as a friend of mine at the time had rapturously called all of hers) were giving the legit-doctors a real run for their money, that lovely green stuff that would finally start to inundate this flood-plain town once Reagan-era reforms finally took hold. (California is historically the first state into a recession, and the last one out.) The Managed-Care-Monstrosity then got its death grip on the fiscal fight between allopaths and osteopaths, while the Lawyers concurrently dug their grubby claws deeper into the sons and daughters of Hippocrates.

That illustrious Father of Medicine, from his heavenly perch, watched his poor children become disfigured by the ramming-speed insertion in 2010 of The Government Club Foot into the ballooning cost-mouth of medicine. That ancient profession of the healers, at least in Sacramento, California, amazingly had gone corporate without having truly known the intervening phase of a fully operational small-business model!


I think we can all blame the Lawyers for that one; at least my fictional character Shannon Caine, in NORTHSTAR, does.

Sacramento, in 1979, specialized in boondoggles and beds. Witness, for example, as I did, the LaBrie’s Waterbed Factory. A Sleep Center, in Sacramento, for all of those unemployed groovies, with a free lava lamp included with the California Hydro-King!


I knew all about The Waterbed because it was a hot-ticket item at the George Washington University, my semi-alma mater. The Waterbed Craze was BIG there in the 1970s. Many students were known to have the thing shipped to them, on-campus, from California. During my early years here in the Golden State, I was told by quite a few people that I resemble Debbie LaBrie, but I never saw the woman, so I have no idea if the comparison was accurate. She and her husband used to do TV commercials that I never saw because I rarely watched television.


Law offices were squirreled away in small mid-town rattraps, or ostentatiously splayed in the primitively-posh 8-story buildings that made up the Sacramento River skyline of its time at the western end of Capitol Mall. The pickings were slim, very slim, for a good private sector job for someone who knew no-one. Or for a no-one, like me, who knew someones who were also no-ones.

The State of California had decided to tax waitressing tips, so that blue-collar labor option was thereby automatically eliminated for me. There was the behemoth Pacific Bell, on Marconi Avenue (named after Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of radio), but I absolutely refused to work for the Phone Cops in their huge building adjacent to the bowling alley, Country Club Lanes, a place that I frequented, often. Besides, the building looked like it had NO windows.


I did work for a few months as a secretary at a groddy pest-control outfit (I learned a lot about dry-rot and the parts of Sacramento County not to inhabit), but the pest inspectors were larger parasites than the pests they reputedly inspected.

My merry-go-round and run-around search for a decent-paying job in Sacramento are exquisitely detailed in my mid-April 2017 essay, Tax Day USA. It’s a tale of uplifting hilarity and timeless frustration, not unlike our present state of satiric silliness and hypocritical elitism in Tax-Year 2020 America.


It was only after exhausting all of my other acceptable options that I warily eyed the Feds as an employment opportunity. Yes, it was with a sense of doom that Debra decided to meet kismet and karma, all at once, on the same day, that day of personal displeasure — sacrificing herself at the altar of federal employment!


My adamant but idealistic vow to not work for Uncle Sam had turned into a real real-world fiasco. And now, looking back, I can see that I owe so much, good, bad, awful, daft, dingy, and divine, to the Feds.

It was a hot, very hot, (100-degree F hot) afternoon in early April when, in sheer desperation, I trudged into the Federal Building at 650 Capitol Mall, the John E. Moss Federal Building in Sacramento. The architecture of that antiquity has been deemed “Sacramento Modern”, a term that, even today, I find most laughable and telling!


Mr. Moss was a Congressman of the Democrat stripe who, over the course of 12 years, got his little-engine-that-could, the FOIA, slowly steam-railroaded through both houses of Congress. The Freedom of Information Act was conceived by the Moss Committee as a result of the leaking of classified U.S. Government documents by “insiders”. Mr. Moss took the leaking very personally, and thus took action! This Congressional baby was much reviled, but it miraculously survived a hazardous entry into the real world, after being very begrudgingly signed, likely with a hands-off approach, by President Lyndon Johnson, LBJ, an ardent advocate of bugs and snoops.

The Freedom of Information Act was something that I would one day work with, on several Federal cases, almost intimately, as a technical writer. One private-sector loony bin sued the Feds for building dams where they ought not be! The Corps of Engineers was (and probably still is) sued for all kinds of things. FOIA’d all the time! The New Melones Dam, “the Big Baloney”, was a magnet for the craziest of cranks!


But I am getting ahead of my Federal self!


On that fateful spring day, I walked into the Federal Job Center on the first floor of the Moss Building. A very friendly red-haired man behind the counter told me that the Corps of Engineers was always looking for a good typist.


A good typist I was and am.


And so the SF 171 re-entered my life. Personnel was very happy to see me, and to hand me the form. Now, in my own defense, I will say that, as a writer, and as a person who likes words, I am literal. Very literal. When one section of the form requested that I write down all previous residences for THE PAST TEN YEARS —

I filled in that empty space, but after the few allotted lines, I ran out of space. I therefore had to request the SF-171 Supplemental Form. I ran out of space on that piece of paper too, and had to ask for an extra sheet of lined paper!


I easily got the position of GS-3 Clerk-Typist, after having worked as a GS-5/7 in Washington, D.C. And because of my security clearance, and highly successful training in various nascent communication systems, I was deemed Essential Personnel in my classification series.


When the Government Shutdown during the fall of 1982 occurred a few years later, I was tasked with manning the entire Word Processing Center. My supervisor was sent home. She was categorized as Non-Essential.

Let me tell you, this professional power imbalance did not improve the Boss-Underling rapport — which was already on somewhat shaky ground after I’d called her at her home to request authorization for weekend overtime. Her husband, who worked in the Casual Construction Business of 1970s California, answered the phone. As he handed the phone to Boss Lady, he asked her who was the babe with the Telephone Voice.


I didn’t know at the time what a telephone voice was; but evidently I have one, especially during more formal speaking engagements!


I’ve since discovered better uses for my telephone voice, other than official requests for overtime authorization. I even get to approve my own working hours (that never end)! With the newest discovery of all of that efficiency as a result of the recently mandated tele-work and work-from-home setups, it’s high time that the American Genius finally becomes unleashed — along with all of those Genius Machines and the digital devices that were supposed to simplify life. Just think of how easy it could be to fill out fewer forms along that information superhighway.

The Libby McNeil Cannery has become classified as National Register #8200223. It’s a real museum piece, even though it claims to house some office space. The building has never been in the best part of town, but Sacramento, in itself, is not the best town for commerce. The private sector, in California, is in an arrested state of decay, perhaps heading toward fossilization.


I wouldn’t want The SF-171 to become a museum piece as well, even though the form is now online. But what isn’t?! The Continuation Sheet is also downloadable!


The SF-171 is one of the more revered forms among the millions that the U.S. Federal government counts as uniquely American. I came to respect it a whole lot more once I was free of it! Needless to say, I do not own any copies of my own filled-out forms. I shudder to think of the amount of space that my entire file, a real DOSSIER, might be taking up somewhere in a vault in OPM on behalf of the USACE, within the DOA, in D.C. It’s a real SNAFU.

Freedom from the SF-171 brought new life to my life. I was free to create my work-at-home and work-from-home projects, decades before the dire directives from the dullards of governments throughout America, decreeing and decrying farcical measures to the Citizenry across the fruited plain. Why, the mere act of honoring the flag of our great nation has become a rebel stance! We need a few more real rebels among the American Babbitts, the bricks-in-the-wall with their corporately-sponsored bricks.


I still recall, at our coffee klatsch table in the government cafeteria, one civil engineer, sardonically predicting that I, the desperado, would leave the Corps and make more money than the entire group of them combined. It’s a prediction that has yet to come true, but since those professional-series-engineers were horribly underpaid, I think the numbers might yet tilt in my favor.


I’ll need an extra piece of paper to fill out the official Federal form for those numbers!