Heather, I always have about 6" of top and bobbin thread which I put under the foot and hold before I begin sewing. The other thing that strikes me is that maybe your needle is not the right one for the thread you are using? I have also noticed that the tension on my machine only changes if the foot is down. If I try to change the tension while the foot is up it doesn't do it. I feel your frustration because I was exactly the same when I began. It's terrible not having somebody to hand who can help. Hope you get sorted soon.
Oh and one more thing - if you have a memory stick you could put the manual on that to save you having to print the whole thing out. And you could just scroll down to the troubleshooting section if there is one. Although, if it's a really old machine then the word 'troubleshooting' probably wasn't yet invented.