You see no reason to waste your time? I thought that once. Then I met Em, Mrs. R and the furnace pipe.
I was working in downtown Seattle during a transition period of my life, sort of between diploma and diaper pail. I’d acquired a husband a year earlier and had given little thought to much else since.
Working alongside me was a young black man, recently discharged from the wartime Army.
Em was tall, thin and shy. It took time to develop rapport. He was good company, except when he and another ex-GI wasted time making noises like machine guns. I wasn’t as tolerant then as I would be now.
Mrs. R took unofficial charge of the office, immediately upon arrival. She was much older and much more sure of herself. Most of her career had been spent at the Pentagon, and she was a self-styled expert on everything.
She told our supervisor, Jerry, how to run her unit, asked patients embarrassing questions, and pushed the doctors to keep to their schedules.
She "mother-henned" the rest of us into submission, told the janitor the restrooms were a mess and planned "command performance" dinner parties. Along with Jerry, the rest of us giggled over coffee about who really was running the office.
One September morning, Em and I were discussing the coming election and our disinterest in it. Mrs. R’s shrill voice sounded behind us, "Are you registered?"
"No", Em admitted, "but I’ve been in the Army for four years."
"You’ve also been out for two," she snapped.
"And you," I shrunk from her finger, "turned 21 a year ago February."
"Well, we’ll just spend our lunch hour tending to this!"
Noon found us at the corner of Third Avenue and James Street. Mrs. R marched us across the street and into the county-city building to register, lecturing as we walked.
"Democracy is not yours until you reach for it," she preached. "It does not remain yours unless you hold onto it. However tenuous a handle it may sometimes appear to be, your vote is still your grip on freedom. Only a fool does not exercise it."
Once back at work, we concentrated on important matters, such as the World Series. This was the year Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, and I brought a portable radio to the office.
The next six weeks were full of election talk, and both Em and I gradually developed a sense of outrage. So maybe Harry Truman wasn’t the best president ever. (Neither of us remembered anyone but Roosevelt.) Talk of that "no-good" 80th Congress intensified a sense of futility. Why waste our time? The election was a foregone conclusion, and Truman was a loser.
Election Day arrived, wet and cold. I really didn’t want to leave the house for work. I certainly didn’t feel like wandering around the neighborhood looking for the old house where I was supposed to vote.
Mrs. R was waiting when we arrived at work.
"Have you voted yet?"
Our mutual discomfort was not due to failure, only that we had been thinking of not bothering.
The resignation in Em’s voice spoke for both of us.
So I didn’t go right home after work. Mrs. R would be waiting tomorrow, and I’ve never been a good liar. Something else had come into play, too. So this little guy Truman had been beaten up, and he wasn’t going to win. But he was a fighter, and I admired that. He was still going to get my vote!
I walked into the polling place, soggy and shivering. An ancient furnace sprouted big, round dirty pipes that hung less than 5 feet off the floor. The officials and the voting booths were on the other side of them.
On our side of the pipe, a young, skinny and very mouthy fellow had others laughing, quietly.
"Don’t know why I’m here," he fussed. "Isn’t going to make any difference. But I’m going to vote for him, anyway."
Leaving that dingy basement, I felt satisfied: ready for rain, the future, even Mrs. R. I would not always vote the same ticket. I’d be disgusted, switch sides and back. I’d say, "What’s the use?" Sometimes, I’d vote wrong. But I’d always vote. And within hours after that vote, listening to returns, I developed a tiny, deep-seated conviction I have never been able to shake.
I’ve always suspected that, just maybe, a loser from Missouri became a second-term president because 10 wet people crawled under a furnace pipe to vote, knowing it wasn’t going to count.
Along with a lot of others who felt the same way.
Katherine Bourg has lived in Gold Bar about 20 years. She moved to the Northwest from Colorado with her family in 1944. She’s a retired homemaker with five kids and worked for the regional Veterans Administration office in Seattle when this story occurred.