OPINION | MIKE MASTERSON: The path to bliss

During the late 1960s in my pre-ripened early 20s, I tried my hand at several jobs: Selling shoes for Sears, a manager trainee for a drugstore chain, and collecting past-due accounts on vehicles for CIT Finance Company in Albuquerque.

I failed at all three, again proving without question there is a God.

I was a lot like so many others my age, taking a job wherever I could find one to earn enough mostly to keep my car running, pay insurance and the rent.

My final day with CIT is memorable for several reasons. I recall the exact date: June 6, 1968. The manager had sent me about two hours north to the Taos Pueblo to repossess a pickup one of its native citizens had failed to pay the note on for more than three months.

Being young and naïve, it didn't seem like a big deal to traipse onto an Indian reservation and simply hook up a vehicle and tow it back to the dealer.

To me "right was right." He owed the payments and I needed to collect either a check for past-due payments or the truck.

After all, that's how the binding contracts we all sign work, right?

I recall the date because, as I neared Taos, a news flash over the radio said Attorney General and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, who had just been shot the previous day following a campaign speech in California, had died.

Pulling to the side of the highway, I sat and listened in disbelief.

It had been only five years since his brother President John F. Kennedy had died in the same manner at an assassin's hand.

After several minutes I drove on into town and checked in at a motel for the evening. My plan was to seek out the Pueblo resident (I believe his last name was Whitehorse) the next morning. Seemed simple enough at the time for a fresh-faced bill collector with so much about life yet to learn.

Turned out bill collectors (especially those not of Native American descent) aren't especially popular among the Puebloan people of the Southwest.

While I had a street address for the man, I quickly discovered none of the streets were named. Those who live there already knew where everyone lived, so why the need for street names?

And no one I happened across was talking.

Stopping by the tribal office, I got what I can only describe as "what's a young white man doing asking about one of our own?" It was the response I should have expected had I possessed even a modicum of real-world experience.

I explained who I represented, and the two tribal office workers looked at each other as if they had done this routine before. One pointed one way and the other another in the other direction. I felt like they were chuckling on the inside as their conflicting explanations became ever more confusing.

And that meant I set out into the maze of virtually identical adobe homes without a clue where to find Mr. Whitehorse or the truck.

So I weaved through the streets searching in vain for house numbers. On the verge of giving up, I happened across two teenagers playing basketball.

I told them who I was trying to find and offered each $5 if they could lead me where to go. They agreed and I was starting to feel hopeful.

It would have been a long trip to have returned to an office manager expecting results and explaining I couldn't find the man.

After I knocked several times, a woman carrying an infant finally cracked the door and peered out. The baby was crying and her eyes reflected fear and desperation.

I told her who I was and wanted to speak with her husband. She said he wasn't there and I didn't see a truck parked nearby.

Asking when he might return, she opened the door wider to reveal the child cradled in a soiled, white blanket.

"I don't know," she said. "He left a while ago and didn't say when he'd be back." I saw tears welling at the edges of her eyes.

The moment of clarity that I was not cut out for this line of work struck me hard when I saw she was holding a half-sized baby bottle containing as much water as it did milk.

Excusing myself, I returned to the car where I had a soul-searching conversation with myself that went something like this: "What are you doing? Are you really hard-hearted and desperate enough for what they are paying you [wasn't much] to do this? Could you really take this clearly impoverished family's only way of transportation?"

After several minutes, I cranked the engine and drove out of the Taos Pueblo forever, heading back to Albuquerque. During that pivotal two-hour drive, I decided to finally buckle down and apply myself toward a life's work that gave me a sense of purpose.

At the office, the boss asked about the truck. I told him I couldn't find it. Then I laid the company keys on his desk and said it was apparent I wasn't meant to become a CIT bill collector.

I headed out the door and within six months was following my bliss under the mentorship of much-beloved journalism professor Dean Duncan at the University of Central Arkansas.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.