Climbing the Ladder: A Journey From the Bottom


LadderThe older you get, the more you reflect on the miles you’ve already come.  This article is about climbing the ladder, a journey from the bottom.  It is a reflection of my own journey.  Every footstep, every inch can feel like a horrendous uphill struggle.   A loser never wins and a winner never quits. It was Mother Goose that nailed this writer’s journey in the poem “Monday’s Child is Fair of Face” with the verse “Saturday’s child works hard for a living.”Countee Cullen said it even better in the poem below:

 “Saturday’s Child”

 Some are teethed on a silver spoon,

 With the stars strung for a rattle;

I cut my teeth as the black raccoon—

For implements of battle.

Some are swaddled in silk and down,   

 And heralded by a star;

They swathed my limbs in a sackcloth gown   

On a night that was black as tar.

For some, godfather and goddame   

The opulent fairies be;

Dame Poverty gave me my name,   

And Pain godfathered me.

For I was born on Saturday—

“Bad time for planting a seed,”

Was all my father had to say,

And, “One mouth more to feed.”

Death cut the strings that gave me life,

And handed me to Sorrow,   

The only kind of middle wife

My folks could beg or borrow.

Countee Cullen, “Saturday’s Child” from My Soul’s High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen.

I have always worked hard.  As a single mother, I sacrificed to give my children the things they needed.  I couldn’t spoil them with all the things they wanted.  I believe that has been a blessing in the development of their own work ethic and character and I am extremely proud of them both as independent, college-educated adults.

I remember being a young newlywed whose husband made only $13 a day in the late 1960’s.  He was lucky if he got to work 3 days a week.  There were no benefits and no health insurance.  Having married at the age of 16, I was still trying to finish high school. Our first (& only) home together was a 2 story wood frame coal camp house in Eastern KY with 5 rooms, a tiny bath and a dirt basement.  We had no heating system except for a Warm Morning stove and a fireplace in our bedroom.  There was no insulation in the house and the curtains would flutter as the wind made howling sounds through the cracks in our windows and doors.  Ice literally froze on the windowpanes inside our house.

For many years there was no carpet on the floors, only lineoleum.  Eventually we had 3 rooms carpeted. We bought a used naugahyde couch, chair, end table, coffee tables and a refrigerator and an electric stove with 2 elements out for $300.  We had only a metal bed frame with box springs and a mattress on top (no headboard).  My “dresser” was an electric fan box with a lavender piece of scrap fabric draped over it.   Our Melmac dishes were bought with redeemed books of Gold Bond stamps my grandmother gave me.  My only wedding present from my parents was a Sunbeam Mixer.  We bought the house for $1695 (this is no typo) around 1970.   We were poor and we knew we were poor.  Our first child was born within a year after my husband was able to get more reliable employment and benefits with Beth-Elkhorn Corporation (which eventually closed.)

In 1978, my husband and I divorced due to his continued infidelity at a time when I was going through an ordeal with cervical cancer. There was no child support and certainly no alimony.   Promises were made and broken.  Whatever debts we incurred as a couple, debtors looked to me to pay while supporting 2 children as a single parent with only a high school education.  Having to ask for welfare and food stamps were a huge blow to my pride.  I had been raised by a very hard working Daddy and our family had never resorted to hand outs from anybody.  My Dad, intent on punishing me for divorcing my husband, turned his back and refused to help me.  Much of this was due to the influence of the step-mother who came into our family only 4 months after my mother was laid to rest at the age of 52 from uremic poisoning resulting from polycystic kidney disease. (But that is also another story best left in the past.)

There were no jobs to be had except for waitressing for $1.00/hour plus tips or a 40 mile drive for a job with no benefits that paid $2.80 an hour at a fast food restaurant (which would require a babysitter who would charge more than I earned). Left without choices, I did the unimaginable.  I decided to go to college.  The day I came home from a trip to the college and told my dad, he replied “You’re going to spend every dime you can get your hands on and you’ll never amount to anything.”

That day, I remember getting angry.  I was crushed at his lack of support for me.  Still I pulled from something deep inside of me as I silently voiced “I’m going to prove you wrong, old man!” I had remembered so well my dad stressing the value of getting an education.  Having only completed 4th grade, he was no stranger to hard work and realized that those with an education were the ones who were presented with the most opportunities.  He was able to read and write, which was amazing considering his lack of formal education.  My mother had completed her sophomore year in high school when she and my dad met and married.  She was always the one who conducted all the family business, because she had the most formal education.  Yet my mother was primarily a stay-at-home mom.

At that time, Eastern Kentucky’s primary industry was coal mining.  Jobs were scarce.  When I read about the Mining Technology program at Pikeville College (now University of Pikeville) where the tuition was only $99 per semester because of grants, I decided to check it out.  If I was going to venture into the mining industry as a female in a male-dominated industry, I would need to have an education to get me in the door.  I had no desire to battle an EEO case in the court system to force a coal company to hire me.

To this day, I don’t know how I did it.  It surely must have been a “God thing.”  I was accepted into a special program for mothers on welfare that paid me a meager $3.00 an hour while I was in school.  All of this went for gas money and babysitters and I was left with food stamps and $197 per month from welfare for 2 children while attending Pikeville College. I can’t begin to detail the hard financial times my children and I faced.

I finished the Mining Tech program  in 1980 and Dave Zegeer himself, a celebrity icon in coal mining, was there for my graduation day to tell me how proud he was of me.  My Daddy, however, was boycotting my graduation because he was appalled that his daughter would go underground in a coal mine to work.  Given my choice of welfare or work, it seemed to me that coal mining was an honorable profession.

I went on to obtain First Class Mine Foreman and Mining Instructor Certifications and worked as a Safety Inspector until 1983. Yes,  the work was hard and the environment was dangerous and dirty.  Respect was something that had to be earned (& often demanded) in a male dominated environment.  I was snubbed far worse by women over my occupation in an underground mine than I was by men.  The women were the most disrespectful with their snide remarks.  Some of our small town “fine ladies” even shunned me, but they did not have to support my children.  I earned the priceless gift of self-respect by earning my own way and I had no trouble with my conscience when I laid down to sleep at night.

Pam the Safety Inspector Surprisingly, many of the men I worked with underground treated me as a sister.   The older ones treated me as a daughter.  In fact they frequently held open the trap doors in the ventilation walls underground–much like a gentleman would hold open a door for a lady.  This always made me smile.

My children and I continued to live in that same house until 1985 when the 3 of us left so I could go to nursing school in Hazard, Ky.  My work as a Safety Inspector, First Aid, CPR Instructor and Emergency Medical Technician had been a natural progression into the field of health care and nursing.

The 3 of us eventually ended up in Central KY in 1990 where we all attended the University of Kentucky at the same time.  I entered as a junior in the BSN nursing program.  My daughter entered as a sophomore majoring in Middle School Education.  My son entered as a freshman majoring in Agriculture.   All 3 of us graduated, laude, laude!  I had obtained several competitive needs-based scholarships which paid for my tuition and books.  I worked full time as an RN in a local hospital on a Baylor (weekend 12 hour shifts) program with full time wages and benefits in addition to attending classes at the University of Kentucky full time, 5 days per week.  I got only 2 weekends off per year for the final two years I attended UK until I earned by baccalaureate degree in nursing in August 1992.  I remember being tired most of the time throughout those 2 years.  The reward came when I watched both my children walk across the stage to accept their degrees from UK as well.

Me and Dad

Hard work has never been a stranger to me, but things that are earned with the hardest work also give a greater sense of pride and accomplishment.  I have always wanted to be an example to my children that they would never fail if they refuse to quit trying.  I started out with (basically) nothing.  I had no education and little hope that I could ever do more than live in poverty.  I was a disadvantaged first generation college graduate on the bottom rung of the ladder with nowhere to look but up.  I looked up and I started to climb.

It was in those character-building years and in those hardest moments of not being able to “see the light at the end of the tunnel” that I realized God’s prevenient grace.  I didn’t even know Him and yet He was there, going ahead of me and preparing the way, opening the doors for me and my children.   It was in my darkest moments, underground and alone in the darkness that I recognized Him as my Lord and Savior.  Sparing my life from the certain death from a mining roof fall while my children sat, unsuspecting in their Middle School classrooms, I came to know there was a higher plan and purpose for my life.

My children are now grown with lives of their own and my identity is no longer that of a struggling single parent.  We survived the hard times as a family of 3 and are stronger for it.  It took every available resource to provide for my family.   The journey may have been different for you, but perhaps your own story of depleted resources is similar.

Although I am in my “empty nest” years now, I know God is not finished with me yet.  (Jeremiah 29:11 NIV)  I am now looking ahead to retirement and working to maintain my financial independence through those retirement years ahead.  I am still not a quitter.  I still want my children to be proud of me.  In the process, I’d like to be able to leave them a financial legacy as well as the legacy of our journey together.  I’m still climbing the ladder.  A journey from the bottom has now progressed further up due to a lot of hard work and many blessings along the way.  I haven’t stopped to rest though; I’m still climbing.  How about you?

If you enjoyed this story, you might also enjoy:

What about you?  What has your journey been about?  Easy? Hard?  Character-building?  Are you looking to achieve financial independence, pay off debt or build a financial legacy?  Come work with me and let’s discover how we can continue the climb together!

Pam Baker, RN

Posted in Mindset and tagged , , , , by with 2 comments.

The Spirit That Never Quits

Run the Race photo for blogMost of us have taken a lot of first steps in life.  Before you did though, you probably did a lot of crawling.  You first stood on wobbly legs, fell down, and got banged up too many times to count before you confidently let go of the objects that steadied you and focused on where you wanted to go.   A good many of us have gone (often kicking and screaming) places we didn’t want to go.  The majority of us have gone places we probably should not have gone.  Some of us have gone places and were later glad we did. What motivates you?  Why did or do you persist?  Why did you keep getting back up amidst all the bruised and banged up knees (or do you)?  The desire for something more must surely have spurred you on.  Your hope of triumph helped you overcome your fear of pain, failure, or the great unknown.

Today our Pastor reminded me of a time in my life (and there have been a few), when I was “going through hell.”   Some of those times are too personal to share in this venue, but there is one I’ll share and I hope it will inspire you. One of my proudest and most triumphant moments came when I passed the Physical Ability Test (PAT) at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) in Glynco, GA.   Perhaps this would be no big feat to someone in their 20’s who had always been physically fit and healthy.   However, I was taking the same test at age 56 that most of my peers took in their 20’s and 30’s with no allowance for age or that fact that I was 50 plus pounds overweight.   There was also no allowance for the severe valgus deformity (“knock knees”) that had been a constant source of pain or even the asthma triggered from exercise and breathing cold air.   I considered myself fortunate that there was an age waiver for Registered Nurses during a nursing shortage.

The first time I went to take this test (on Valentine’s Day 2007), I tore my right rotator cuff and had to be sent home.  I was crushed; I returned home without triumph and feeling like such a failure.  Ordinarily if you fail this test, you also lose your job.   However, mine was a Worker’s Comp injury, which gave me another opportunity.  In the months ahead, I had rotator cuff repair, then spent the next 6 months going to PT twice a week for rehabilitation.   My ultimate goal was more than simply rehabilitating my shoulder, it was preparing me to retake and pass this test.

During those months, many of my co-workers questioned me almost daily. “Why do you want to do this?”  “You could always get a job somewhere else.”  “Why put yourself through this?” My mind translated these remarks to “You shouldn’t do this.”  “This job isn’t for you.”  “You don’t belong here.”   “You’re too old” and “Are you crazy?”   They might just as well have said those exact words to me.   So in my most discouraged moments, I could hear my mother’s voice deep inside me as she would equate these remarks to “waving a red flag in front of a bull.”  Sometimes you need to use your own stubbornness to your benefit.

By January 2008, my shoulder was finally rehabilitated and I was as ready as I was ever going to be to return to FLETC.   I boarded the plane to GA with a great deal of anxiety and fear of failure and/or re-injury.   There were friends and family in prayer on my behalf.  Since I have never been a runner,  had knees that were 23 degrees out of normal alignment , asthma and was carrying too many extra pounds, I was more than a little afraid.

Successful completion of self defense training, fire arms qualification (M-16, 9MM and 12-gauge shotgun) , the PAT and a written exam are all part of the required training.

Of those requirements, the PAT is the first hurdle.  If you don’t pass, you go straight home, unemployed.

The Physical Abilities Test

  • Dummy Drag – drag a 75-pound dummy 3 minutes continuously for a minimum of 694 feet.
  • Climb and Grasp – climb rungs of a ladder and retrieve an item (contraband) – ideal requirement 7 seconds.
  • Obstacle Course – ideal requirement 58 seconds.  (Where I tore my rotator cuff jumping over a desk, going under tables, weaving around objects, locking and unlocking doors)
  • Run and Cuff – run one-fourth mile and apply handcuffs to a non-combative “prisoner” – ideal requirement 2 minutes, 35 seconds.
  • Stair Climb – participant, with a 20-pound weight belt, will climb up and down 108 steps – ideal requirement 45 seconds.

I will never ever, ever forget the PAT.  It was a defining moment and a crossroad in my life.  My second trip back to FLETC, I failed the PAT by 8/10th of a second.  You heard me correctly.  Just 8/10th of a second and there was no benefit of the doubt.   At this point, my instructors had to notify my institution that I had failed the first attempt (without injury).  I had only one more attempt to pass it.  There was no such thing as retaking the part you didn’t pass.  A retake meant I had to do the whole thing over again.   Since I had been unsuccessful getting the completion time down on my run and cuff to under 3 minutes, my only hope to pass was to exceed on all the other components of the test.  The “prayer warriors” I knew began to pray for me fervently.  I knew it and I could feel it.

Later I learned that the Human Resources Director at my institution, (upon learning of my failure on the first attempt), closed his office door and began praying “Lord, we need this one here.”   It still brings tears to my eyes every time I remember his intercessory prayer on my behalf.  There were many of those prayers offered for me during that time.  I imagine it was like George Bailey’s friends in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  We all need friends who will lift us up (in prayer is even better), cheer for us, and genuinely want us to be successful.

I reached a point in my run when everything in my body (especially my lungs) was screaming that I should “just stop running” and “just quit.”   It was at this moment that I claimed the verse in Isaiah 40:31 (NIV) “But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.  They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”  Over and over and over again, I said these words in my head as I was rounding that track.   The second verse I heard was from Hebrews 12:1 (NIV);  “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses. Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.  And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”

It was then that I began to hear my classmates yelling and cheering for me, but the voice I heard above them all was my FLETC instructor.  From all the way across the field I could hear his booming voice “IT’S JUST ONE MINUTE OF YOUR LIFE, PAM!  DON’T QUIT!   These were the voices of angels here on Earth, sent just to encourage me.  Sir Winston Churchill once said “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”  Translated, this means at the moment you want to quit the most or are in the most pain, don’t stop and set up camp surrounded by your misery.  Press on, get through it, and reap the reward of triumph on the other side.For double emphasis, indeed this was a defining moment in my life.  It was both a miracle (considering all my obtacles) and a crossroad.   God parted the waters and delivered me “through the Red Sea” that day.

No person who ever passed the PAT is more grateful than I or was more humbled by their own disadvantages.  After running the race with perseverance, it is fitting that Hebrews 12:2 continues:  “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.  For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”   This was the triumph of Jesus.  He endured the hell of the cross with a goal in mind.   His test was far greater than anything I endured with the PAT.

Where do you want to go?  What will you endure in order to get there?  Is the triumph of the goal ahead worth the pain and sacrifice?   Will you keep going amidst all the obstacles to success?  Do you have friends who will lift you up along that journey and spur you on along the journey (Hebrews 10:24 NIV)?

Godspeed on your journey

Pam Baker

If you enjoyed this story, you might also like to read:  Sack Race-Rookie-Triathlete-Marathoner: Run Your Race Like a Winner






















Run the Race photo for blog

Posted in Mindset by with 2 comments.