Billy Blanton "became aware" of June Sugden when he was in eighth grade at the little schoolhouse in Mathiston, Miss.
For six years he paid her court, promising a life beyond their small town, where roots plunge deep but ambition wilts in damp summer heat.
Education was the ticket out, he told her. Education would buy security, put cash money in the bank, let them roam the world in their retirement years.
June married Billy 37 years ago and worked five years to support them until he had his ticket -- an engineering degree.
"We were dirt poor, but we thought it would be worth it, so we didn't mind," June said. "He would never be without some kind of job because he had a college degree."
Today, the Garden Grove, Calif., couple know there are no guarantees.
Education and experience mean nothing for them and thousands of over-50, white-collar workers who are losing jobs as industries collapse, cut back and consolidate in this recession.
Since 1989, about one in every 100 working people in America, most of them older than 50, most of them white-collar employees, have been cut from corporate staffs, said Dan Lacey, editor of Workplace Trends, a national newsletter.
Five years ago, after 24 years of work, years when he often gave employers 12-hour days, seven days a week, Billy Blanton, then 53, lost his $57,000-a-year job as a software engineer/computer programmer.
He has never clicked in a white-collar job since.
He tried other career paths, more schooling. No luck.
And as the months stretch, he slips further behind in his own field. "Not up to date on the new software," he hears from potential employers. "Systems have changed. Try us again later."
Fifteen months ago, defeated by debt and rejection, Mr. Blanton went to work as a security guard by night and real-estate courier by day. He works 70 hours a week to bring home $24,000 a year.
"Now I get home from my courier job at 5 or 6 in the afternoon," he said. "I go to bed at 7 and sleep until 1 in the morning. And then I get up and spend eight hours at the guard job, get home, change clothes, maybe take 30 minutes to sleep and go back to work as a courier.
"I am greatly disappointed. When I was a young man, I couldn't foresee a depression or a recession. I felt I was set up for life with an education. Do you know what it's like to put in all those years and end up with nothing?"
It is devastating, said Mrs. Blanton, 56. Watching her husband labor too long for too little has made her bitter.
"The person who is laid off is ruined for life. He is never given another chance to work at anything else, and if there are no jobs in their exact profession, then they may as well just go away and die somewhere, for no one will give them a chance to make a change."
Mr. Blanton grabbed his first chance to change his life when he went to college. He got his second chance when he moved to California.
"I was working on the space program in Huntsville, Ala., and the company asked me to move to Vandenburg Air Force Base in Lompoc. That was in 1967, and we were there for three years until I got laid off during the 1970 recession," he said.
Never out of work for long, Mr. Blanton moved around the aerospace-industry companies, working for MicroData in Irvine, McDonnell Douglas, Lockheed Electronics.
Sometimes, he worked 80-hour weeks. "Companies always thought they were behind and they wanted to catch up," he said.
In later years, he sought flexible schedules, working four 12-hour days to earn long weekends.
"I wanted to get a retirement from some company," he said. "I saved a lot of money in the retirement plans. We used to go places -- the mountains, the desert. I enjoy driving through the countryside."
In 1980, with his income improving enough to let him make double payments on the $380-a-month mortgage of his home, Mr. Blanton took up flying. He joined a club, went on weekend flyaways to Mexico and Arizona.
"I had a life. I really don't have a lot of friends to speak of. In a way, I've been a loner all my life. But we enjoyed ourselves," he said.
Even after he was laid off five years ago, Mr. Blanton expected his normal life to continue.
"Every month we put a little something on the credit cards. The bills get bigger and bigger, like a balloon," he said. Mr. Blanton turned to guard duty and courier work.
Working six-hour days, five days a week, he clears about $200 delivering documents to banks and offices around Los Angeles and Orange County. He pays his own car expenses.
As a security guard, he makes $6 an hour. On this job, he works five nights a week but gets no medical, dental or other job benefits.
The grinding drudgery of his work is compounded by fear. The Blantons are afraid of the future.
"I don't know what we will do when his auto tears up. If his health gives way, we are done for," Mrs. Blanton said. "We have no savings for emergencies. Just survival today."
She also frets that her job at McDonnell Douglas Corp. in Huntington Beach, Calif., could be precarious because of layoffs within the aerospace industry.
Soft-spoken, not much given to words, Mr. Blanton is weary of living his latter years underemployed.
"I miss having a job up to my educational level. I miss the money I used to make, sure, but mostly I miss the kind of work," he said.