Neatness Counts

In the 1940s, my mother taught me how to clean. I was the youngest of five, so while my brothers helped my father, my big sister and I helped my mother. Mom taught me to clean, cook, sew, wash, and generally keep a neat house.

Mom  was forever teaching, by word and by example. For instance, once in a great while the two of us would go out for lunch, or an ice cream, and she would tell me to watch the waitress as she cleaned the tables: “If she doesn’t move the condiments and napkins in the center of the table to clean under them, but just cleans around them, she is just doing enough to get by. That probably means the kitchen isn’t clean either.”

Of course, the ultimate determinant of how clean the kitchen was, short of inspecting it, was using the rest rooms. “If they don’t clean the rest rooms,” Mother said, “they don’t clean the kitchen either.”

These people were “Center of the floor” cleaners. This was my mother’s term for the lowest form of cleaning life.

When I was 14, I went to work for Harold, a friend of my father’s, at his pharmacy on Main Street. Harold had a successful business, and the Main Street crowd piled in for breakfast, lunch, and snacks. He was another fanatic cleaner. “People judge my pharmacy by my soda fountain,” he’d tell me. If the soda fountain is dirty, or if the clerks aren’t in clean whites, they wonder what it must be like out back where I mix their prescriptions.”  There was no slacking off with Harold.

When I was 17, I went to college and got a job in the student dining rooms. I started out as a pot washer. The older guys told me that at the fraternity houses they paid pot washers by the number of pots they cleaned per shift. This resulted in their slogan: “Speed before Cleanliness.” That would never fly with Harvey, our chief cook. Harvey, was another cleaning fanatic. He couldn’t stand pots that looked clean, but felt greasy. “You can make people sick using pots like that,” he’d say, “do them again. And this time use clean hot water, soap, and elbow grease.” Harvey’s kitchen was always clean.

Then, at 18, I was in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) and they sent me away for 12 weeks basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky. With my mouth, it wasn’t long before I was on Kitchen Police (KP) and they assigned me to….washing pots: Big, big, pots. The army cooks were military cleanliness fanatics, but they couldn’t compete with the inspectors from the medical unit who came in to inspect actually wearing white gloves. They ran those white gloves over all my pots and pans and if one mark appeared on their white glove, they tipped over the whole stack and said, “Clean them again.” I had more than a few late nights in the kitchen before I satisfied the inspectors.

After I graduated, got commissioned, got married, got a civilian job (not cleaning), Judy and I started a family. I tried to pass along my cleaning credentials to the next generation. They called me “Captain Clean,” and the ultimate accolade about an assignment was that: “It’s ‘Captain Clean’.” What a way to be remembered.

Now, I have grandchildren, and they don’t how to deal with me either. When they come to my house, they humor me. They’re neat, and they pick up after themselves. I suppose that’s a good thing.

But, when we go out as a group for lunch or dinner though, my Mother’s voice rises up in me and I tell them to watch the waitress. If she doesn’t move things, and just wipes the perimeter of the table, you can check the restrooms to be certain, but the kitchen’s probably dirty.

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