Wednesday, September 27, 2023

2020 pandemic road trip to from Wisconsin to Montana: Chapter 7

Photo by Retiring Guy

Chapter 7
The Lead-up to a Year in Deer Lodge

Sunday, September 27, 2020

During the summer of 1974, I applied for library jobs all over the United States. Mostly at public libraries. In fact, in mid-July, a group of 40 students at Pitt’s library school chartered a bus to the American Library Center’s annual conference in New York City for the express purpose of visiting the job placement center. One of the openings I spotted here was an entry-level reference librarian position at the Great Falls Public Library. 

Interior view of 'studio apartment on Melwood Avenue in Pittsburgh

Wouldn’t it be cool to live in Montana again for a while? I asked myself. 

I decided to go for it but by mid-August hadn’t received a response to this or any other of the other jobs for which I applied. With the lease on my Melrose Avenue apartment, a one-room la cucaracha haven, I started to pack my belongings, ready to head back to Warren – briefly, I hoped, without knowing where my first professional library job would take me. 

At least that’s the sequence I remember. I might have received a call during my final days in Pittsburgh or shortly after I returned to Warren. That raises the question: Did I include multiple phone numbers on my resume and application? The question will remain unanswered. Surprisingly, I didn’t keep a copy of the resume I prepared at the end of library school. I typically held on to such documents, as more than 100 archival boxbinders will attest. 

Whatever the case, I received a phone call from Alma Jacobs, who had been hired the previous year as the first director African-American director of the Montana State Library in Helena, the agency responsible for the operation of libraries at state institutions. Alma asked me if I’d be interested in working at the prison library in Deer Lodge. In fact, she offered me the job about 10 minutes into our conversation. 

Was I that convincing in my responses or was she desperate to fill the position? 

As I learned from a state library employee shortly after my arrival in Montana, the prison — and by default the state library — had cycled through 4 librarians in 4 years. I’d say I should have detected a note of desperation in Alma’s voice. 

And how did she even know to call me? you might be wondering. 

In what was most likely another African-American first, Alma previously served as director of the Great Falls Public Library from 1954 to 1973. (She would have been in her first year of employment when I made my first visit there with Dad.) I suspect she called the new director there, knowing that the library had just hired, or were in the process of hiring, a reference librarian, and asked if they had any promising “cast-offs”. I’m sure she explained how my resume came into her possession, but all I recall of our conversation is being gobsmacked when she point-blank offered the position to me. Maybe she has called my references beforehand and liked what she heard. 

In a week or so, I found myself heading west, my baby blue VW bug filled with as many of my belongings as I could cram in. I made the trip to Helena in three days, Eric Clapton’s “I Shot the Sheriff” in heavy rotation on every radio station I listened to on the way. During my few days in Helena, I was given a series of orientation by a state library staff members over a few days. My immediate supervisor, the Assistant State Librarian, a gay man named Dick Peel – I kid you not – never once made a trip to Deer Lodge to visit the library. After spending my first night at a motel, I stayed a few nights with a state library employee and his wife, the messiest housekeepers I have ever encountered. In what should have been a dining room, clothes spilled out of a dresser, trailed across the floor, managing to avoid brown-paper grocery bag with more clothes, and seemingly climbing into the drawers of a chest across the room. Dick forewarned me about this situation, his description interrupted with bursts of hysterical laughter. 

The state employee, whose name I’ve long forgotten, was a former, but not the most recent, Deer Lodge prison librarian. During a series of ‘unofficial’ conservations, he shared numerous observations and advice about what to expect and how to conduct myself — with inmates, guards, and members of the prison administration. It was a more helpful and instructive orientation that any of the talks I have with Dick, who probably never set foot in Deer Lodge during the few years he worked at the Monday State Library. He left shortly after I did, ending up at the Arizona State Library. He and Alma never got along all that well. 

Arrangements were made for me to stay with Sandy and Howard Heffelfinger in Deer Lodge until I found my own place. Outgoing, direct, and droll, with a resemblance to Melissa McCarthy in retrospect, Sandy was a special education teacher and Howard, much more reserved and laidback, worked for state government, though in what capacity I can’t recall. I think they moved to Helena in the summer of 1975 when Howard was transferred to the main office of the agency in which he was employed. They were a most hospitable and gracious couple and helped to ease my anxiety and doubts about my choice of employment.  
(The above photo is one of a series from a commemorative article in the Helena Independent published shortly after Sandy’s death  from melanoma in 2010. During their 35 together in Montana’s capital city, Sandy and Howard were active in Democratic politics and numerous civic organizations. They adopted two children after they moved to Helena.) 

I arrived in Deer Lodge in the middle of the afternoon, before Sandy and Howard returned home from work. No knowing what to do, I drove around town and became increasingly unhappy with what I saw. Deer Lodge, which had a population of 4,200 in the mid-70s (currently 2,800, according to late US Census estimates), looked shabby and unwelcoming, in spite of its scenic location in a broad valley between two mountain ranges, the majestic Flint Creek Range (and Mount Powell) to the west and the smaller Boulder Mountains to the east. (It hasn’t changed a bit; the town is still shabby, perhaps more so than when I lived there.) I spent a brief period time lying on the top of a picnic table in a deserted park, staring at the sky and wondering, What the hell did I get myself into? 

My decision to make the move to Montana was clearly influenced by one of my professors at library school, Wendell Wray. In my final trimester at Pitt, I took one of the elective courses he taught, “Library Services to the Underserved”, which focused on populations without ready access to libraries: inner city residents, people with disabilities (though at the time we still called them ‘handicapped’, the institutionalized (which, of course, included inmates in prisons and jails). Dr. Wray was an inspiring teacher – and very accessible, due to his lack of the overweening academic pretensions some of his library school colleagues exhibited. The major course project involved small work groups that developed a model library to address a particular group’s lack of library access. My group – I think there were 3 of us – planned a public library branch, a storefront library, in an inner city neighborhood. I wish I had kept a copy of our proposal. (It’s curious to me that I saved nothing from my year of graduate school at Pitt but still have most of the papers I wrote as an undergraduate at Buffalo.) 

Within a week, I found a small house to rent — living room, kitchen, bedroom. I think two of the hotel rooms where we stayed on our recent trip provided nearly as much room as I had in Deer Lodge. During the summer of 1975, I trailer-sat for friends, a married couple, both teachers – a great money-saving proposition. (Sandy Heffelfinger probably introduced them to me.) The two of them spent the summer biking around the Northwest. 

The mattress in the color photo is a later addition, and it serves to mark the space in the front yard where I parked the VW -- where, in fact, it sat for more than two months in February a siege of 24/7 subzero weather, the engine refusing to turn over until the temperature rose above zero. Moreover, I don’t remember mowing the lawn, let alone there being any grass when I lived there. 

The black-and-white photo is a view from the living room couch, looking into the kitchen. During my year in Deer Lodge, I wrote many letters to friends – not so many to Mom and Dad, I suspect, much to Mom’s disappointment, I’m suspect -- and transcribed the journals I wrote starting in 9th grade.

Read about the entire trip

And check out "Covid Chronicles" here.

No comments: