In this world, most everyone knew — and cared — what your dad did. By no means was McDevitt as status-conscious as my daughter's sixth grade at National Cathedral School, where kids could discern the difference between an undersecretary and assistant secretary of commerce. But gross distinctions could be drawn. The kids from the aptly named Steelton, where mills were closing, were left behind in the stampede to hang with the kids whose parents were bankers and builders, lawyers and doctors, and who lived in the Father Knows Best neighborhoods. Their dads went off to corner offices with secretaries who brought them coffee and made deals that yielded your own car when you were sixteen and a backyard pool.
I got this sickening feeling my father had a job and not a career. What we had came from scrimping, not from my father landing a new client. It never entered my mind to ask if he liked going off to a desk and requisition forms each morning, just as it never entered his mind to tell me he didn't. When he retired the first minute he could, I thought it was only so he could take care of my mother who was ill by then. But it also must have been to end the drudgery. When he was suddenly so full of energy and good humor, I realized how deadening worrying over parts for aircraft carriers for thirty years must have been. Even if I'd understood as a kid that he'd droned away so I wouldn't have to, I couldn't have explained it to my ninth-grade gym class.
So I kept my mouth shut and concluded that to succeed in this new world, I would have to fail at home. I no longer had enough time to keep Jimmy amused. I stopped having friends over (there was that pool and a centrally located diner to hang out at) and was out as much as I could be, which wasn't nearly enough. My parents were opposed to extracurricular activities because they kept me out too late and also included members of the opposite sex, some of whom had never been altar boys. Not that there was much chance to be boy crazy. At McDevitt, there was a boys' tower and a girls' tower (how medieval is that?), which made me both a protofeminist (without alpha males around all the time, we could be high achievers) and a party girl (we didn't see enough of boys not to go a little batty when we did). I wanted to be a cheerleader, play basketball (I was taller then), and be in the school play. I made the cheerleading squad but couldn't try out for the play because I wasn't allowed to take the city bus home after dark. I sewed the costumes without ever tipping my hat to my mother for teaching me how.
Nothing was more crucial to my teenage happiness than summer afternoons at the country club pool. A whiff of Coppertone and chlorine can transport me back to that Promised Land, where all-important social transactions took place. An ice-cold Coke, "Teen Angel" on the transistor radio, and the boys from the tennis team dropping by our blanket were heaven on earth.