Chapter Twelve - The Formative Years

	My Mother operated her own upholstery shop in Tuscaloosa from
about 1943 to 1982 or 1983, roughly forty years. She upholstered and
made slip covers for furniture, plus making pillows and cushions and
covering bicycle seats. When business was slow she would take scrap
material and make about a hundred bicycle seat covers. The bicycle shops
in town bought them to cover ragged or torn bicycle seats. She also made
the spring sets to go in cushions and sometimes she would sit down at
the machine and make cushion units all day long. She was never idle,
always busy, and she had more friends than anyone I knew. Total
strangers would come in the shop and many would become friends for life.
It was unusual as she was a very unemotional woman, never smiling or
laughing and sometimes not talking much for days. People were still
attracted to her and I think it was because they could sense she was a
very compassionate person.

	Anyway, I joined her in the upholstery business. I was never
really great as an upholsterer. People were generally very satisfied
with my work but I was never satisfied with it as I could see where it
could be improved and that bothered me. Dealing with the public is not
an easy thing and particularly where you are working on their furniture.
They all wanted lower prices and perfect work. In many cases the
furniture was just not worth recovering and I always tried to be honest
and tell them if it was costing more than the furniture was worth.
Sometimes the frame was not properly built to begin with and
occasionally even damaged by termites. I found most people were insulted
when you told them their furniture was of low quality and not worth

	Many people also wanted to buy their own material and were
confused when you told them the labor had to be more if they did that,
because you were not making a profit on the material. Also, in many
cases they bought very cheap and inferior material that was harder to
work with than good quality material and even when you increased the
labor you still lost money. Some shops in town charged double their cost
for the material and could have afforded to do the labor free if they
wanted to. We charged a reasonable markup per yard for material and our
material was considerably lower in cost than most shops.

	There was a lot of competition and some of the competitors did
very good work and some did extremely poor work. John Sykes was the best
in town but his prices were ridiculous and J.O. Woodyard was the
cheapest in town but his work was ridiculous. I have seen Woodyard stop
to smoke a cigarette and prop a foot up on a white satin sofa he had
just finished and flip ashes on it. Of course it did not look much worse
dirty than it did clean. Woodyard would run advertisements that said
something like, "You have tried all the rest, now try the best." People
would go for it and he always had his shop full of work. Unfortunately
he was in poor health and sometimes did not work for weeks at a time.

	I visited the Veterans Administration and they approved a
program in which my Mother would pay me a salary for working and I would
train as an upholsterer. The Veterans Administration would pay for
necessary books and tools and a small payment each month to augment the
salary. I bought a cushion stuffing machine, a cushion form machine,
hammer, scissors and miscellaneous tools. We then had the best equipped
shop in town and some of the other shops brought their cushion work to
us. The appearance of our work was improved considerably.

	No matter how you looked at it, upholstering used furniture was
a dirty and dusty job. When you ripped the old material off, dust
clouded the air and there was no way to avoid breathing it. The dust and
dirt would get all over you and then the sweat would make it like a
filthy mud. It made your eyes itch and burn and your nose run. There was
not much way to not be allergic to it.

	I was hauling most of the furniture in the trunk and passenger
seat of the Chevrolet. I would open the trunk and put a chair in it,
cover the chair with a quilt, lower the trunk lid onto the quilt and
then put a sofa cross wise on the top of the trunk lid. If there was
another chair I would turn it upside down and put it in the passenger
side of the car, with the arms on the seat. I picked up a chair at a
house one day and put it in the passenger side and drove back to the
shop with it. I took it in the shop and put it on the work benches and
ripped the dust cover off. A rat that was at least a foot long jumped
out and ran. It took me an hour to find it and kill it. It made me
shudder to think that rat came to the shop less than two feet from my

	The only way you could be effective upholstering was to take a
large hand full of tacks and stick them in your mouth. You could then
pull the material with your left hand and put the magnetic end of the
hammer in your mouth and flip a tack on it with your tongue. You then
started the tack with the magnetic end and flipped the hammer and drove
it in with the other end. Many days I would leave the shop with a mouth
full of tacks and not know they were there until I started to eat
supper. It was so automatic you forgot about it.

	I eventually got totally disgusted with upholstering and went to
the Veterans Administration and talked to them about going to the
University of Alabama to get a degree in engineering. They said that
since I had used six months of my entitlement in upholstery training
they felt I should take an aptitude test. If I agreed to major in
accordance with the results of the test they would approve the change. I
agreed and took a battery of tests and they said it indicated my
aptitude was in accounting. I agreed to major in accounting and enrolled
at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa in the summer of 1952.

	I continued to work at the upholstering shop all the time I was
going to the University of Alabama. I got a lot of work at fraternities.
Most of them had genuine leather furniture and the hand stitching had
rotted out. I would sometimes go to a fraternity and sit on the floor
and re-stitch leather for hours and hours. The pay was very good and
usually one of the parents would pay the bill. I knew it was going to be
a long and tough job getting my degree but I was determined I would see
it through.
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