JT's Blog

Things that interest me, things that happened to me, things that I like, even some things that I don't like...

The PACE Test

By early 1980 I had become seriously dissatisfied with working at Channel.

We had a new manager, and he and I did not see eye to eye, although it was probably more my fault than his. He admitted to me that when he learned he was being given the Harrisburg store, he was looking forward to working with me because he and I had previously worked together to set up the Fairless Hills store. But given my current mood, I was no longer performing the way I used to. I was probably just an average employee at this point. But I kinda think he overreacted.

So did Ron Massal, who by then was well into the managerial track and working in the front office. He interceded a few times to try to defuse a tense situation between the new manager and me.

But I knew Ron wouldn’t be there much longer, so I started seriously looking for another job.

There was only one problem: I really wasn’t qualified for much of anything except working in retail, which was something I definitely did not want to do.

I wanted to stay in Harrisburg as I was basically happy there, as I had a radio program on the local classical music station, and I didn’t want to give that up. But give it up I did—because I was afraid it might hold me back if by some fluke I found a job opportunity outside of the Harrisburg area.

When I went to an employment agency, the guy I spoke to took one look at my experience and just shook his head. I don’t think he even pretended he’d be calling me.

My job prospects looked bleak indeed. And then someone, I no longer recall who, suggested I try taking the PACE test.

The Professional and Administrative Career Examination was a multiple choice test administered by the federal government back in the late 1970s and early 80s. And if there was one thing I was good at, it was taking multiple choice tests. At least I used to be good at it. It had been awhile since the last time I had taken one.

So I signed up for it and took the test on a Saturday in April (I think), which required me to take a day off work, which just added to the friction between me and the manager. I no longer recall any details about taking the test, but I think it was a fairly long one, three or four hours perhaps, but I’m not sure.

Defense Personnel Support Center (DPSC) as it was known in 1980

The results came relatively quickly, and out of a possible 100, I received a score of 96. Which put me at the 98th percentile, I think.

Anyway, it was more than enough to get me an interview in June at a place called the Defense Personnel Support Center, whatever that was, in Philadelphia. Well, actually in addition to scoring high on the PACE test, I needed to have four years of college under my belt, but I only had completed three years of college. Happily there was an alternative. One could also qualify if one had three completed years of college and at least four years of job experience in a related field. I was going to be interviewing for an Inventory Management Specialist position, whatever that was, and I had had about six years of working in retail, so that had to count for something, right?

I had interviews in three different directorates at DPSC: Medical, Subsistence, and Clothing & Textiles. I no longer recall the Medical interview, but the one with Dave Snyder of Subsistence was a joke. Happily, I must have impressed Maggie Rees and Frank Kenny of the Clothing & Textiles Directorate because they offered me a job.

I began on August 4, 1980.

Shortly after that, the government discontinued the PACE test because it wasn’t fair to all demographic groups. Had I waited, I couldn’t have gotten that job. And now the government is requiring a four year college degree for new hirees, so someone like me couldn’t possibly be hired today. I guess that’s what they call progress.

The Shopping Mall Looker

Amy was clearly agitated.

I had known her for several months and she was always cheerful and upbeat, but now something was wrong.

As the story emerged, it turned out that this had been a long time brewing situation. The shopping mall that she and her friends frequented had a looker.

They had only gradually become aware of him, and at first they thought he was just loitering and not doing anyone any harm. But he was always loitering around the same places—the bottom of a staircase.

And now two things had clicked for Amy. She realized that he was there specifically to try to get a glimpse up women’s dresses as they came down the staircases. And she was pretty sure she had seen the guy someplace else.

In fact, she was sure she had seen him at Channel Home Center, the store where I was working.

As she described him, I got a sinking feeling in my stomach, because the person she was describing was our manager Cort.

I was certain that there had to be some mistake. The behavior that she was describing just didn’t seem like something that Cort would do. But then—how well do we really know the people around us?

She described the times that the looker usually showed up, and I had to admit that it was at least possible.

So we formed a plan.

She would get together with her friends who had seen the looker, and they would all come to the Channel store at a time when both Cort and I would be there. If they all agreed that he was the looker, then we’d all confront him and see what he had to say.

Probably not the best plan but there it was.

But it took several days for Amy to arrange for her friends to get together and converge on the store, and in the meantime one of them confronted the looker directly at the staircase in the mall. By confronted I mean she screamed at him that if she ever saw him again, she’d call the cops.

That solved the problem, as he was never seen at that mall again.

But to this day I have no idea whether Cort was the looker or a victim of mistaken identity. I prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt.

The Sun'll Come Out

Working at Channel Home Center in Harrisburg was not my idea of fun. And I never thought of it as a career. At the time in 1977 it was the only job outside of Richland that I could find, as I had experience working at my parents’ hardware store.

Guess who is playing Annie?
That’s Sandy playing himself, as the Playbill put it

But I did work hard, and I must have impressed the management team during my first week on the job, because they then held my position for me for three weeks when I was laid up due to an auto collision.

I probably have Ron Massal to thank for that. Thanks, Ron. Wherever you are.

I fairly quickly became a group manager, and whenever a new Channel store was being set up somewhere in the area, I was usually dispatched to help whip it into shape. In fact, when the Hagerstown, Maryland, store was being organized, Channel paid for me to go down there for several days to help with the setup.

It wasn’t long before the regional manager approached me about getting into the management program. This was the real management program, not the bogus fast track one. I resisted, because I was pretty sure I didn’t want to spend my life working at Channel.

But I liked a lot of my co-workers. In fact, Sue (I forget her last name) and I got along well, so I had her and her husband Mike over for dinner one time.

For some reason that I’ve long since forgotten, Sue got on the bad side of manager Cort. In fact, they were barely on speaking terms except when absolutely necessary.

And then sometime in 1979 our store won some sort of contest. Or perhaps it was Cort who won the contest, something to do with the top four managers in the Channel enterprise, or the top four performing stores. The prize that Channel was giving to each of these top four managers was an evening for two in New York City with dinner at an expensive restaurant followed by tickets to Annie, which then was a big hit on Broadway.

Now Cort didn’t particularly like musicals, so he asked if I’d like to go in his place. Of course I said yes. And I asked Sue if she wanted to join me. Of course we didn’t tell Cort that Sue would be accompanying me.

So on a warm summer night in July 1979 I drove us to NYC (as one of the songs in Annie calls it), and we joined the other couples at the Spindletop Restaurant on 48th Street. They knew that I was subbing for Cort, of course, but they just assumed that Sue was my wife, and neither Sue nor I did anything to disabuse them of that.

It was a great meal, and we asked the head waiter if we could postpone dessert until after the show. Since Channel was paying for it, the waiter had no objection.

We all enjoyed the show, although Andrea McArdle was no longer in the cast (the title role was now being played by some unknown named Sarah Jessica Parker), and then we returned to the restaurant for dessert.

Afterwards, I drove us back home to Harrisburg. It was a very long night. We got home well after 3:00 AM.

I always wondered if Cort ever spoke to any of those other managers about that evening. What was his reaction when they mentioned my lovely wife?

I found the Playbill for Annie which had the handwritten instructions for that evening, as well as the names of the other stores which had won: Ramsey, Pompton, and Lodi. Alas, it doesn’t have the date, and I didn’t save the ticket stub, so the best I can date this is July 1979 from the Playbill.

A Badly Managed Business

Once I became a Channel group manager I frequently had to deal by phone with the head buyers at the Whippany, NJ headquarters. They were all idiots.

When we passed on the customer complaints to them that Channel’s prices were too high, they always shot back that Channel was not a discount store. That might be so, but what were we? We didn’t offer any extra value. Our sales clerks weren’t highly trained to offer expert advice; they were minimum wage workers with no expertise other than what they picked up while on the job.

A good example of the buyers’ idiocy was their reluctance to let us stock up on highly desirable sale items. When a very popular brand of motor oil was slated to go on sale for a real bargain price, our assistant manager Bob Hughes ordered a gross of cases. The buyer slashed that down to a dozen. When the sale date arrived we ended up turning away dozens of disappointed potential customers. Yes, we offered them rain checks, but few of them returned.

Conversely, when a less popular brand of motor oil went on sale, the buyer shipped us dozens of cases of it that we hadn’t ordered and didn’t want, presumably because he had gotten a really good deal on it. Those didn’t sell and sat in our warehouse for months, just taking up space.

Another example: one summer Channel offered a high priced riding lawn mower, but we weren’t allowed to keep any in stock—not even for a demo model. How were we supposed to sell that? How were we any different from a catalog company? That’s where Bob Hughes just ignored the directive of the buyers; he ordered one that we set up as a demo. We sold more of those mowers than any other store in the chain. At the end of the season, we sold the demo for a discount. (Since the buyers weren’t aware that Bob had set up a demo, and at that time I was the group manager of that department, Seasonal, I received the credit for selling all those mowers. When a couple of the buyers paid a visit to our store, the Seasonal buyer introduced me to one of the others as “the guy who sold all those mowers without having an in-store demo.”)

So I learned just how stupid a lot of people in positions of authority in private industry really are. And Bob Hughes taught me how to work around some of their stupidity.

At some point Hechingers opened a store across the river, and we started hearing from customers how much better it was than Channel. I drove over to take a look and saw that they were correct.

Channel somehow lasted until the early 1990s, though I don’t know how they managed to hang on that long. Hechingers outlasted them, not succumbing to the Home Depot/Lowe’s juggernauts until the first decade of this century.

A Very Merry Christmas

It was my first Christmas working at Channel Home Center in Harrisburg, and as I recall the present that Channel gave to all its employees that year was a bottle of wine and a set of wine glasses. The glasses were real crystal, the wine was nothing to write home about. Mateus, if I remember correctly.

We still had our original philandering manager Jerry, but assistant manager Bob Hughes was able to keep his worst impulses in check a lot of the time. Truth be told, most of the time Jerry had no idea what was going on in the store.

Christmas fell on a Sunday in 1977, and the day before was just a normal workday for most of the staff. But Bob decided we needed some spirits to help keep up our Christmas spirit, so he provided some spiked punch in the break room starting around lunch time.

And so it came to pass that Channel’s customers were greeted by a very merry band of employees that afternoon, and probably that evening as well, but since my shift ended at 5:30 PM, I can’t actually report on what happened during Christmas Eve at Channel.

I needed to make my way to the Zellers family Christmas Eve gathering.

Now I had been nipping at the punch all afternoon, and I was in truly high spirits. I have no idea how much alcohol I had had to drink, but since it had been spread out over four or five hours, I was in a state of what you might call high functioning inebriation.

The family gathering was in a new location that year, but I had directions for how to get there, but I must have taken a wrong turn or maybe I just didn’t realize that I was getting on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, because I sailed right through the gate where you get the ticket, and as a consequence, I had no ticket. In fairness to me, I’d like to point out that this was not one of those normal Turnpike entrances where there are a dozen or more gates and it’s clearly obvious that one is getting on the Turnpike. No, this was a single-gated entrance directly off the exit of one of the main highways.

Well, since I had no ticket, when I got to my exit, I was charged the maximum amount, which I think was about $20 in those days. According to the inflation calculator, that would be about $84 in 2019 dollars.

I did make it to the family gathering, and that became the Christmas Eve to remember, at least for my cousin Kim, who every Christmas Eve ever after would delight in reminding me of my performance and encourage me to do an encore. I, however, recall very little of that evening.

Except, I remember, my grandparents’ present to me was an envelope containing $20, for which I thanked them as I explained it would cover my Turnpike expense.

Somehow, I managed to make it back to Harrisburg in one piece.

The following year there was no spiked punch in the break room at Channel.

The Fast Track Management Trainee

In case any of my former co-workers from Channel Home Center in Harrisburg should ever find their way to this blog, I’d like to point out that in the previous post one of the details I changed was where the events occurred. So don’t waste your time trying to figure out which employee I was talking about.

This is not the Harrisburg Channel store, but it looks similar

But while we’re on the subject, I just want to point out that Channel Home Center, once it was acquired by W.R. Grace and Company, was an extremely badly managed business. How it lasted as long as it did is something I’ll never understand.

I worked there for about two and a half years from late 1977 to mid 1980, and although I got off to a rocky start (about a week after I began, I was in a car crash that kept me out of work for about three weeks), it didn’t take me long to move from a sales clerk to a group manager in charge of one department of merchandise.

The Harrisburg store was plagued early on by a manager who was having an extra-marital affair with the secretary in the front office. This affected the business as the two of them (manager and secretary) were often screaming at each other, and folks learned to steer clear of the front office. Happily, he didn’t last too long, three or four months, I think, before he was canned. I believe he left his wife behind and took the secretary with him.

My memory is cloudy on his replacement, because I seem to recall that the assistant manager Bob Hughes, who was a decent guy and a good manager, remained the assistant. I was sorry when he got promoted and sent to another store. Eventually, however, we got a pretty good manager named Cort.

At some point, probably in 1979 during the Three Mile Island crisis, Cort told me that we’d be getting a temporary employee. This guy (I don’t recall his name, so I’ll call him John) would be with us for two weeks and would circulate through all the departments to get experience in each one. He was part of a new fast track management trainee program that Channel was starting. Cort told me to keep him apprised as to how John was working out.

Well, John arrived, and he had a somewhat dour personality, not at all what I would expect in a management trainee. The few days that he spent with me, he didn’t seem to want to do anything that I told him to do. If anything, all he wanted to do was hang out in the break room as much as possible.

So when Cort asked me for a report, I began, “They say if you can’t say anything good about a person, you shouldn’t say anything at all…”

“Is he really that bad?” asked Cort, visibly surprised.

I nodded.

As the two week period went on, I was hearing the same thing from the group managers of the other departments. John just didn’t seem to want to work.

On what would have been his last day, he didn’t even show up.

Cort told me that the day before John had come up to him and said that he was feeling a lot of resentment from the other employees because he was on a fast track to management. But Cort thought something else was going on.

A couple months earlier one of the top employees at the Pottstown, PA Channel store had tried to organize the other employees into forming a union. He failed, and according to Cort, he had also tanked whatever future he might have had with Channel, which was staunchly anti-union.

“I think John may have been sent to feel out the employees here to see if there is any interest in unionizing,” said Cort.

In any case, we never heard from John again. Nor did we ever hear anything more about a fast track management trainee program.