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    Jobs Abroad - Memoir of a Flower Child
                       chapter one - Letters

Chapter One

    Before my mother died in 2002, she sent me a collection of letters. My jaw dropped open when I recognized my handwriting. I sifted through the stack, then stopped when I saw the post dates were 1968. 

But as it turns out, my mother was not the only pack rat in the family. In a fading shoebox hidden away in the back of a storage closet was another collection of letters. I pulled the stack out of their hiding place to compare the dates. “I don’t believe it” I thought, when I realized they were the same letters Mother and I exchanged that life-changing year.

    As I shuffled through the parchments, the airmail stamps still in place, memories of a forgotten age unfolded. The thin onion skin stationery felt soft in my hands. Aging envelopes, their tops ripped and jagged. Scrawling, messy script, fading away. One letter caught my attention. The paper made a phishing sound when I pulled it from its fifty-year-old sheath. Mother typed this one. But my mother, like myself, wrote her letters in her speaking voice. The words brought back the memory in vivid detail.

    On the second page, catching my eye in caps, was; “TWO YEARS AND A LIFETIME LATER” The letter continued, “How I wish you were at least within speaking distance...”

     I stared at the date. September 17, 1968. That meant I received this letter less than four weeks after departing from America. I turned eighteen that year. Perspectives change with age, and my thoughts turned to my mom, and I shook my head, wondering how our correspondence affected her.

My mom was forward-thinking and ahead of her time. She was born in 1910. She graduated from Wooster College and found gainful employment in Chicago during the Great Depression. Mom had her first child at age thirty-two and her last, me, in 1950 when she was forty.

    I was the youngest of four children and the only one left at home. But while my mother encouraged independence, there must be less jarring ways to achieve it than to send a naïve high school grad to Europe alone. But even as I write this, memories of the bygone days surface. My mother was not negligent she was following a prior brief based on her life. As I said, she lived independently in Chicago in her twenties.

And can we think of eighteen as immature when our own government laws categorize an eighteen-year-old as an adult?

    You could say it was the times or was because our parents wanted to live after suffering WWII restrictions and said to hell with raising these brats, or you could blame it on Dr. Spock, the Bible of child-raising in the fifties.

But then again, we were the Boomers, and Boomers were like wrecking balls. Brought up on books such as Animal Farm, 1984, and Lord of the Flies, many of us began asking questions our parents had no answers for. Like “Why are we here?”

    “Finding ourselves’ trumped any other studies. Social and political changes during our teens infused us with a must-change attitude.

     Hullabaloo, a televised teen dance show, is a prime example of Baby Boomer irreverence. Dancers hopped, jumped, and twirled. Some followed the beat; no dance steps required, just fling your arms up and do whatever.

   And then there was religion; the status quo wasn’t enough for us boomers.

    The need for new and exotic left many in a perpetual search mode. As pre-teens, we learned to adore influencers from foreign nations like the Beatles. Me and my compatriots stared stunned, amazed and intrigued when the photo of Beatle George was broadcast posed cross legged with an Indian religious priest or swami in a bathrobe.

    During recess the following day, observations were expressed.

    “Which one was it?”


     “What’s it called again?”

    “Hare something”

    “Why do you think he joined?”

      The pursuit of answers often sparked new questions, giving rise to New Age, Wicca, and other alternative belief systems.

    President Kennedy began an international student program called the Peace Corps. This program still exists today. The premise explained on the Peace Corps website says the idea “is rooted in a shared vision for what is possible by working with, living alongside, and celebrating the diversity of cultures around the world.” Several of my classmates took part and traveled to third-world countries. Not long after, international experience programs sprung up like tulips in the spring. Many students opted to study in Europe or job programs, like other friends of mine who spent their student exchange months in Europe and China, many meeting their future mates.

   And then there were the others: young intrepid souls unaffiliated with any program. They packed a backpack, armed themselves with Formers Europe on $5 a day, and just ‘up and went.’ with either a rail pass or hitchhiking around Europe.

     But not everyone. In the years I graduated high school, I saw masses of young people in their late teens or early twenties eager to follow their domestic wanderlust. Infused with the writings of On The Road by Jack Kerouac and Travels with Charlie, they found old vans or sedans, piled into them with friends, and headed out to see the land, singing campy tunes like, This Land is Our Land as they went. And if they couldn’t find a vehicle, they hitchhiked.

    I don’t remember when I first heard the word hippie. But when the local news started using phrases like hippie communes, I wanted to know more. Because “commune” was also a new word to me, I had to ask for the definition. So I asked my dad.  His explanation was that “communes were full of dead beats who didn’t want work and had no regard for human dignity.” Followed by a lecture.

     Not all young progressives (aka) hippies lived in communes. They embraced the ideal and lived on a dime, but followed their own drummer. They were open to adventure, willing to risk humility, and viewed the world through a child’s eyes. These were the flower children.

     The sixties also ushered in the civil rights era and kick started the age of women. For me, this was empowering because possibilities seemed endless.

    One movie that embodied the baby boomer philosophy was, Wild In The Streets. This dystopian spoof, set in the ‘60s, featured a fictional rock singer named Max Frost. He becomes a spokesperson for a Senate campaign. His rhetoric is so engaging that his fans lobby for Congress to lower age requirements for elected government officials. Soon, every lawmaker was under twenty. Touted as a ludicrous and cautionary tale, this film builds to a wild crescendo as teenagers take over the government. This film typified the times.

    Considering my trip on these terms, Mom’s decisions did not appear too out of line within the fabric of 60s society. And if the motto of the Agency I signed up with was “to teach Initiative,” well… except for one little thing.

Today, communication is accessible, right at your fingertips, a mere heartbeat away. But in the ‘60s, the norm was to walk out of the house, becoming unavailable to anyone by phone, text, or whatever. And even though letters to and from Europe can arrive within days after posting, it’s different from instant contact.

     That was the setting when my recently divorced mother ignored my dad’s objections to this job program. She took the initiative of paying for and corresponding with the murky agency.

     I remember reading the back-and-forth letters between our house and the organization many years ago, but details fade after time. So imagine my surprise when I found their correspondence included in the aging stack of letters Mother had sent me. The letters detailed steps needed to get a job overseas and personal responses to my mother’s complaints about how they botched my paperwork, leaving me without a job or support in a foreign country on my second day.

      I counted seven formal typed letters on yellow stationery with printed letterheads for the International Student Information Service, replete with a red and white logo of a stylized Egyptian-looking phoenix, flames in the front sitting on a drawing of an open book, with the initials ISIS. Some letters ended with different job titles for the same person. At one point, he was assistant to the Director, then the Director General, then he was president.

     This Agency claimed to offer a broadening cultural and “character-building experience”. But as I examined the correspondence, I got the feeling Mom may have misunderstood how involved they would be in my supervision. It was as if she thought this was a summer camp. She told them she felt they were responsible for me at one point.            Their response was, “Of course, a strange city in a foreign country can be rather daunting for any young person, but after all, that is one aim of our program: to help develop the students’ initiative.”

    I will never know her reasoning. I can only relate the facts. For instance, the first letter, dated February 13, 1968, acknowledges receipt of a $100.00 deposit with a balance of 475.00. This was no small sum in 1968 and the equivalent to a month’s pay for my mother, who worked for the VA as a secretary. A mere two weeks later, on February 19, confirmation arrived. I got my first job pick. It was a dream job; I was to be a secretary and live in London. But now they want an installment of 247 dollars to hold the job, and Mom sends it. Believing everything was in order, she bought tickets for our flight to New York, where she planned to see me off in August. Then, on May 27 comes the ‘We regret to inform you, your employer cannot secure the proper papers,’ so there is no job.

     Mom must have written to them in a panic because a correspondence from the office in Belgium arrived on June 18, saying…

    “We will try to alleviate any fears you may have regarding a job for Jennifer” and “We would suggest that you proceed with your plans to leave California on August 23 since you have scheduled your vacation to coincide with Jennifer’s departure from the States”. The letter claims, ‘her application is currently pending with another employer, and news might come to you regarding her placement.’ They finish with “Jennifer’s program balance is due.”

Perhaps alarmed, Mom called her ex-husband, my Uncle Ben, an insurance adjuster. At my mother’s request, he called the Consulate General of Belgium on my behalf, following up with a typewritten letter. This letter was in the collection I received. In it, he recounts his conversation with the Consulate General, quoting him:

   “You stated you believed this to be a reputable organization.”

    How could the Consulate know that on a brief phone consult? Number one, the internet did not exist, and unless this agency was breaking major laws, it would most likely be under the radar.

    But we always see and hear what we want. And with this proof, Mom finished paying my tuition. And I spent the summer packing for a trip I wasn’t even sure I wanted to take.

    The Jobs Abroad program profoundly affected my life, not because they did their job, but because they botched everything. The last letter from The Agency, dated October 18, 1968, was in response to my mother’s outrage when I informed her what happened during the first days of my journey.

     Their response was, “We cannot help feeling that Jennifer exaggerated her first day in Brussels.”

I did not.

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