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?

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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

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