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Signing up for her future

After a life shaped by a husband awash in alcohol, a retiree has an epiphany of how she can start over.

August 27, 2008|Joe Mozingo | Times Staff Writer

She worked on the corporate side of the aerospace industry for 30 years. She intersected and dialogued and facilitated. She drove a Realtor's champagne Cadillac CTS. She raised three sons. She kept her family together as her husband drank himself to death.

Karen McCarthy mulled over her accomplishments as she drove home from her mother's nursing home in Hemet one night last spring. Her mom's mind was evaporating in the final stages of Alzheimer's. Seeing her lose title to her life's narrative brought McCarthy to consider her own.

She pulled onto the 91 Freeway and headed west into the orange city glow. In the hermetic silence of the Cadillac, her mind hurtled through old memories and dreams ahead. She wanted to make an impact beyond work and family.

She had coasted out of her youth, swirling in the eddies past so many opportunities she would jump at now. By the time she took a hard course as an adult she was already hemmed in by the rugged circumstances she had drifted into.

Now she was retired at 57. Her sons were grown. Her greatest love and torment was dead.

The terrain was wide open. She needed to set out beyond comfort and protection.

She just needed a path. Corporate organizational development managers -- retired or otherwise -- do not wander aimlessly. For years she strode into conference rooms at Raytheon Corp., flip chart in hand, urging teams to set "identifiable goals."

Now one kept running through her mind -- not so much the ultimate destination but the first step.

By the time she pulled up to her little home in Torrance, her mind was set. She would join the Peace Corps.


Karen Pettyjohn was eating a burrito on the floor when John McCarthy and his dog walked into her friend's beach shack in Hermosa that day in 1970. He was strong and rollicking, wearing long hair and a torn Army fatigue shirt with a pack of Camels in the pocket. He pulled the tab off a can of Coors and the party began.

She was spellbound. He was the one.

Karen was an insecure 20-year-old emerging awkwardly from a sheltered youth in Thousand Oaks.

Her mother was a fastidious archetype of the 1950s, so fanatical about having the perfect household that she did Karen's homework to ensure it was just right. Karen came out of high school with a phobia of classrooms and uncertainty about her intelligence. She didn't dare have any opinions. Her father, an executive in Howard Hughes' upper-middle ranks, got her a job in accounts payable at Hughes Tool Co.

Her career goal was to be a perky, hardworking secretary like Susie in the 1950s sitcom "Private Secretary."

McCarthy blew that to pieces.

He hailed from a loud, liberal Irish family in fractious South-Central L.A. He was smart and curious, read the newspaper front to back every day. Once they started dating they were rarely apart. She loved listening to his stories and takes on the world.

She quit her job at Hughes to protest the company's making of helicopters for the Vietnam War, and within a year, they were married.

They rented a triplex with a big communal garden on Border Avenue in old Torrance. He started driving tractor-trailers between L.A. and San Luis Obispo. She rode shotgun. In the evenings, a motley assortment of friends and neighbors gathered with their dogs around the big drum barbecue in the garden. John was always at the center, manning the grill with a Budweiser (having dismissed the Coors family as a bunch of reactionaries).

The McCarthys had two boys, and Karen had to go back to work to pay the bills in 1976. She called Hughes Aircraft in Culver City and got a job making employee security badges for $4.76 an hour. They bought a little home on West Clarion Drive in Torrance, had another boy.

John was a devoted, funny, affectionate bear of a father. He coached Little League and always took the boys out in nature.

But as the 1980s rolled on, there was no way for Karen to ignore his drinking. He was always loaded to some degree, and erratic. There were nights he came home late, flat-out wasted, or didn't come home at all.

With a mortgage and three boys, his dissipation forced her to take command.


Karen propelled her way into middle management at Hughes as her marriage fell apart. John stopped working regularly. When she learned he was spending her earnings on pints of Smirnoff vodka -- and, to a lesser extent, crack cocaine -- she cut him off. He holed up in the extra bedroom for two years, in depression, until he started getting government disability checks and could drink again.

John became a ragged, drunken specter who came and went. He was bloated and dirty. Karen couldn't bear his smell.

Her feelings for him were a messy snarl she would rather ignore than try to untangle. She was livid that he just couldn't get himself together. She resented how his morose presence sucked the air out of her home. And her heart broke to see how pained he was knowing he let his boys down.

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