The Penguin Club



54a Penguin Club Jan. 1stSome cities have Polar Bear Clubs that award memberships on New Year’s morning to those who dive into the Hudson River or Lake Michigan or some other freezing cold body of water. Here in San Diego, we have the Penguin Club. To qualify, you must water ski a couple of laps around Mission Bay and then lie on a block of ice for a pre-determined period of time. I’ve got a couple of stories about Pat and Terri and the Penguin Club but first I’d like to tell you some of the things that transpired and got them to that shivering group.

Pat was working in the Auditing Department at Sears in San Diego. For many years, that was the only Sears store in the county. The first new store was built in the South Bay at Chula Vista though the original store was still the place to be. In the 1960’s, Sears Roebuck was the primo department store in the country. The commissioned sales people and the clerks were all well trained in both product knowledge and customer service. The benefit packages included great insurance and retirement plans.

Pat was working the Payroll desk in Auditing so each month she saw that the commissioned sales people were making a ton of money. More than once, she expressed a wish to have that kind of earning power.

Pat’s supervisor announced that the company making electric knives and fondue pots for Sears was scheduling demonstrations of their products at the Chula Vista store and it would be an opportunity for employees to make some extra money by conducting these demonstrations in their “off” hours. Pat was asked if she would like to take part in this. She acknowledged that she could use the money and though she didn’t know anything about either product, would like to give it a try. She was accepted and worked several shifts at this new job. It turned out that Pat not only enjoyed what she was doing but was very good at it. The story of her success was passed back up to the San Diego store and her supervisor.

Pat continued working the Payroll desk in the Auditing Department. This was the period when computers were being introduced as tools for business use. The computer necessary to do the administrative, book-keeping, and inventory functions of a store the size of Sears required a room larger than the average bedroom. During the infancy of the computer, life was just one mechanical problem or memory or software glitch after another.

The Auditing Department faced some kind of problem constantly with the reports from the computer. Pat’s co-workers became terrified when they heard the word “computer” and they had little success at troubleshooting. Pat had worked every desk in the department, had a solid understanding of them and fortunately had an uncanny knack for solving computer problems. She approached them in a matter-of-fact manner, without hysteria, and solved the problems using good book-keeping practices and common sense. She solved a number of problems that had baffled the “experts”. Her ability raised her profile in the office even higher than where it had been before. At one point, she suspected that an embezzler was at work but hadn’t as yet been able to pin down the department involved and come up with a suspect. She took some print-outs to her boss and explained why she felt something “fishy” was happening. Her boss looked over the reports and agreed that something didn’t feel right. He asked Pat to stay an hour every night, going over the reports, with a person from Security in the room, until she figured out what was going on. She worked at it for several days before turning over her findings. The result was that a man went to jail for embezzlement.

Pat’s supervisor told her that the management team had been considering her for the position as head of the Auditing Department. He said it would take another 2 or 3 years to acquire the experience she would need but they were confident that she could do it. Pat declined and was asked “why?” She said she needed to increase her income sooner than that and besides, wasn’t interested in heading a department of gossipy women.

One day, a problem occurred that the computer people couldn’t find. Auditors were due in from the home office in Chicago in a couple of days. Pat’s supervisor was under the gun and told her that if she could find the problem, he would help her transfer to sales. It took some doing but she found the answer and though he hated to lose her, her boss kept his promise.

Pat got her transfer and became the 4th woman working as a commissioned sales person at Sears Roebuck in San Diego. She was put to work in the Electronics Department selling TV’s, stereo systems, tape recorders, and other electronic items. The first thing she learned was that she had been dumped into the middle of an “old boys club.” The manager didn’t want any women working for him and the salesmen on the floor were sure that no women could possibly do their job. They treated her terribly! The manager withheld information about sales and merchandise and didn’t provide the day-to-day support that would help her learn the business. The salesmen were rude and withheld information and stole deals from her. If a referral or a returning shopper asked for her when she was out to lunch, the men would say it was her day off and would make a deal and write it up in their own names. They pulled every dirty trick you can think of. It was the same as stealing money right out of her pocket. She would come home at night, frustrated and crying and mad. I felt so bad, seeing her this way, I wanted to go to the store and have a little heart-to-heart talk with them. She said no, because that would just make it worse. She had to stand on her own two feet and learn how to out-sell them.

It was tough. Week after week, Pat studied the merchandise and memorized the specifications. Her sales figures started coming up and she was becoming more at ease on the floor. The salesmen started to loosen up, too. The first was the oldest guy in the group. I guess he realized that he had been brought up better than he had been acting and it was time to display some manners. The other guys softened up, too and the working environment became tolerable. Her sales figures steadily increased and she became one of the top salesmen in the store. A couple of times, she was Salesman of the Month at the store and once was 4th on the west coast. She was making a heck of a lot more money than I was as the Manufacturing Manager of an electronics company.

The “big ticket” salesmen, the people who earned the big money, always worked the weekends and took days off in the middle of the week. Several of them liked to water ski and had their own ski boats. They started to gather informally at Ski Beach, on Mission Bay, on Thursdays for a big skiing day. Pat had earned the respect of the group and she was asked if she would like to participate. She told them that she didn’t know how to water ski but would like to give it a try. She started attending the ski parties on Thursdays and loved it and soon discovered that she was good at it. It didn’t take long for her to graduate from two skis to one ski. At this point, she decided that she needed her own ski and soon after that she needed her own boat.

Pat watched the classifieds in the paper and soon located a good ski boat and trailer and we went out and bought it. We both had a lot to learn about the upkeep of boats and trailers when used in a salt water environment. And, since I had to work and wouldn’t be going with her, Pat had to learn how to hitch up the trailer, back it, pull it, gas up the boat, launch and recover it, and a thousand other things. She learned these things along with our daughter, Terri, who Pat was kidnapping from high school on Thursdays.

Pat told me that she and Terri were going to do the Penguin Club stuff on New Year’s morning and earn the shoulder patch and membership card. It sounded like fun so I went along as a spectator. Boats and equipment would be available so we didn’t have to take anything. There was a good crowd there and people were scattered around the parking lot and the beach and a television crew was there from one of the local stations. Pat and Terri went to get in line for their event. I got myself a cup of coffee and milled around while I waited for the girls to have their turn on the skis.

In the crowd, I spotted a guy that I had worked with for several years named Art Ahlquist. Art was waiting for some of his family to take their turn on the skis and ice block so we stood together and watched and talked and drank coffee. This Penguin Club event was at a different part of Ski Beach than where Pat usually skied. At her regular place, when you were done skiing you headed for shore, cast the tow rope aside and coasted right up to the water line and stepped off onto the beach. Here, the water was shallower so you couldn’t ride all the way in and would have to step off your ski earlier. Art and I watched as people glided in and stepped off their ski into the shallow water.

Pat’s turn came and I watched as she got up and was skiing around the bay. Art had been talking to someone else but turned back around to watch as Pat headed in and prepared to dismount. We could see that she was heading almost straight in, rather than paralleling the shore. Art, who was familiar with this beach said “Who’s that dumb s—t coming straight in?” About that time, the skag on her ski hits the mud and Pat lands face first in the water. “That dumb s—t is my wife”, I said. Pat got out of the water, freezing, and with a skinned nose from her fall. She sat on the block of ice, shivered until it was over and got her shoulder patch and official ID card.

Terri made it around the bay without incident (except for freezing) and did her time on the block of ice. She received her shoulder patch and card and about that time was approached by a member of the San Diego Water Ski Club. He said they wanted to form a pyramid and make a lap around the bay for the TV camera but one of their team couldn’t be there that morning. He went on to say that they had watched her ski and it appeared that she was good and could help them with their pyramid. She would be the person at the top so she wouldn’t have to worry about supporting any weight. She agreed to give it a try so they started instructing her right there on the beach about how the climbing sequence should work so she could get safely to the top. After a bit, they went down to the water and started off. Terri struggled a little but got to the top of the pyramid and had the tow rope in one hand and a flag raised high in the other. They made a lap around the bay with everyone looking good, and then told Terri it was time to dismount. She started trying to climb down and realized that no one had explained the proper way to get down or told her of the proper sequence for doing so. She soon knocked one of her cohorts off balance and the whole pyramid came tumbling down. It was quite a pile-up and Terri nearly had the earrings jerked from her head. They didn’t tear through the bottom of the ear lobes but they made some nasty looking gashes. She was mad and when they all got to the beach she made them show her the safe and proper way to get down. Terri was asked to join the ski club but she told them she would pass.

Water Ski Pyramid 1

This is a file photo from the Internet, just to refresh your memory on what a pyramid looks like on water skis. Terri said it was quite a thrill.

Dave Thomas
January 16, 2015


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