Five months after our wedding my wife Judy landed a job doing research at Dupont’s Experimental Station in Wilmington, Delaware. She had to pass through locked gates to enter and leave, and her car could be searched at the discretion of the guards manning their posts. The company distrusted its workers and assumed that equipment and research data were being smuggled out on a regular basis.
Dupont had a rigid caste system. People were acknowledged according to their power and status within the company. When Judy greeted researchers and administrators in the hallways of her building she got a mixed reaction. She was ignored if judged to have no political use to the person addressed. And by ignored I mean that no acknowledgment that she existed and had spoken was detectable in the facial expression and body language of the bigwig passing by. On the other hand, if she greeted workers somewhat below her status they responded, and Judy was thus reassured of her continued, physical presence on this earthly plane.
We met a man named Bob Waring when Judy and I began to attend the Alapocas Friends Meeting. He was a Quaker and an engineer at Dupont who had somehow managed to retain his kindness and humanity. He and many of his colleagues were offered an early retirement deal by the company. Management had decided that a lot of the researchers and engineers over the age of 55 were dead wood and needed to be cleared out. An unexpectedly high percentage of workers enthusiastically seized the deal, and the administration discovered that there weren’t many employees left who actually knew how to do research and run departments. Bob formed a consulting company with a few of his recently retired friends. He sold his expertise back to Dupont at a much higher rate than his last pay scale, while still collecting his retirement check. Bob was our hero.
Nearly everyone hated working there, and the misery spilled over into the rest of the town. We lived in an apartment just north of downtown Wilmington and had trouble finding grocery stores, laundromats and gas stations at first. (This was in 1985 well before the advent of the internet and search engines.) When I called up the telephone company and politely asked if there was a way for us to pick up a directory, a man in customer service yelled at me. Supermarket shoppers wearing fur coats and expensive jewelry tsk tsked if their access to items on shelves was temporarily blocked. Attenders of a church a few doors down from our apartment glared at us when we parked on the street on the day of a service. They apparently thought that they had a prior claim to every space on a public road. Drivers were rude and impatient and often put themselves and others in danger. I remember being passed on a two lane road that curved downhill and to the right by a woman who didn’t seem to care that trees blocked her vision of oncoming traffic.
An old, Dupont family mansion halfway between our apartment and the Experimental Station sat on a wooded lot of about twenty acres . There was a wrought iron gate blocking access to the drive leading up to the house. The French words for friendship and love were scrolled above the topmost bar. The stone walls enclosing the compound gave passersby a different message, however. They were topped with shards of glass cemented so that they pointed straight up.