38,325 days… installment 2

As I stated in the last installment, my Grandparents’ marriage was not without tragedy.

In 1948, on a typical late fall afternoon, my Grandmother had just finished making dinner. A fresh pot of coffee was percolating in the kitchen and my Grandmother had just asked Charles to run into the living room and tell my Grandfather that dinner was ready. The distance from the kitchen to the living room was not even 15 feet but Grandpa’s game was to ignore her until she yelled then he would come into the kitchen with a big smirk on his face. Marion didn’t want to deal with the game. Charles did as he was told, and dutifully ran down the short corridor to call his dad. As he did, he accidentally tripped the power cord to the ancient coffeemaker. As if in slow motion, my Grandmother watched helplessly as the pot tipped and the scalding hot coffee poured down his back. He screamed, immediately went into shock and was dead moments later. My mother tells me that a team of doctors, with today’s technology, could not have saved him. My grandparents were completely crushed. My grandfather would retreat into himself, my grandmother would deal by completely, and I say this without exaggeration, smothering my mother, her only remaining child.

Not the grieving types, life went on. The UK in them sustained them. Grandpa was from Scotland, Grandma was from England, they were built of sturdy stock. My grandfather found work as an Oil Burner repairman and worked several side jobs. My grandmother busied herself immersing herself in her daughter’s life. She would find fault, in as matronly a manner as possible, with her friends, their parents, their houses, and their clothes. No one or nothing was good enough for her daughter. It wasn’t snobbery, although it looked an awful lot like it, it was merely overprotection. My mother somehow managed to maintain a small circle of friends, she simply coached them to look past the interrogations and disapproving looks and see the nice, battle-worn woman within. She managed to have a fairly normal childhood. At least for a while.

As it would turn out, tragedy would unfold again. After going upstairs during her 7th birthday party because she didn’t feel well, my mother would be found unconscious in her room. The diagnosis would be Viral Spinal Meningitis. In 1952, this disease had no cure. She would languish in a coma for a week until a young doctor approached Mel and Marion with a glimmer of hope. He told them of an experimental serum that had shown promise but was not approved by the government yet. With little to nothing to lose. they agreed to try it. It would save her life. It would take a year of recovery, including learning how to walk again, but my mother made a full recovery. I only wish the same could be said about Marion. The smothering would escalate to epic proportions.

to be continued…

The day the walls came crashing down

Back in the good old days, when I was a working and contributing member of society, I was an auction guy. I didn’t start in that industry. I worked at a restaurant for a very long time, until I was 31 to be exact. When I was diagnosed with Cancer I made a change. A haircut, a closet full of new suits and a pay cut of $20,000 later I entered the “real world” in the exciting world of car rental.

As the unofficial world’s oldest trainee, I ran circles around the recent college graduates and moved up the ranks fast. I was a blur known as “who the fuck is that guy?” After 18 educational months, I was forced to take a stand (a story for another blog) and I quite ceremoniously (also a story for another blog) left the company. No skin off of my nose, I had secured a position with a concrete company. I would become a dispatcher of concrete trucks servicing the USA’s second biggest, only second to the Hoover Dam, civil project, the Central Artery Tunnel AKA the “Boston Big Dig”.

It was a bloated, bureaucratic, enormously expensive and corrupt project but it was great for my resume. I acquired fleet, management, union negotiation and project supervision credentials in a short time. The job was killer, 6-6 daily nailed to a desk answering phones, monitoring job sites, and listening to drivers whine like bitches (some, not all) but it was worth it. Seeing the project coming to an end 2 years later and fearing downsizing, I went on the internet and found an opening at a National Salvage Auction. An industry I knew nothing about. Using the internet, not a real familiar medium in 1999 for me, I was interviewed within a week and off to CA within 2 to learn how to be an Assistant General Manager of a Salvage Auction that I had never been to and had not met one employee. 8 weeks later I would return from job training, walk into an unfamiliar building and ask for a Manager that I would grow to hate. I lasted 2 years, despite the fact that she never wanted me there. Gordon Gecko was less of a control freak than this woman. At the end of my 2nd year, an old friend from my Enterprise days reached out to me. He was the new GM of a wholesale auction and he needed me. Wrecked cars to whole cars? I thought to myself, why not? I joined him.

I was immediately hooked. Being on the road, talking to dealers, being around cars new and old (I love cars, have since I was a kid) and then there was auction day. Auction day was about deadlines, a week worth of preparation going off at 10 whether you were ready or not, regardless of weather or any other excuse you could come up with. It was “Go Time”. Hundreds of dealers, lane after lane of bidders frantically waving as auctioneers spoke lightning fast selling cars at the rate of 1 every 30 seconds per lane. There I would be, maintaining my dealers, meeting new customers, shaking hands and making money. I would turn out to be very, very good at the auction business. For the first time in my life, I had found my special purpose. Apologies to Steve Martin.
steve martin

I had never done sales in my life. As it turns out, being knowledgeable of your product, attentive to your customers, and passionate about what you do is enough. I worked hard for my customers, I earned their loyalty and I never had to be “Slick Willy” once.  I simply did what I said I would for my people and I became a well-known guy in the business. With success comes some obstacles and the owner eventually decided that I was making too much money, despite the 38% increase in overall volume during my tenure. I warned him that I wasn’t taking a pay cut and should I leave my customers were coming with me. He called my bluff and he lost…bigly.

For several years after I left this company I expanded my experience in the car business. I dabbled in retail sales for a bit and one day in 2008 I had a serendipitous moment. My mother-in-law worked with a woman in Real Estate whose husband was GM of a sub-prime Automotive Loan company. He was looking for a guy with car biz experience. Once relayed, my mother-in-law, over a glass of Chablis immediately took down the husband’s phone number and called me. I went to meet him the next day. He was looking for someone with experience working with car dealers, sales management, remarketing and strong negotiations skills. In particular, knowledge of auto auctions. It was a perfect match. At first, he didn’t believe that I knew the people that I said I did, but as good fortune would have it several dealers would traipse through the office that day, poke their head in to say hi to the gentleman I was interviewing with, and subsequently say “Bill, what are you doing here?” As the saying goes, SOLD!

I was hired on the spot, given a department to set up, funding to staff it and leeway to run it my way. It would take time, but I became an integral part of the operation. Part of my responsibilities were to attend the auction every week with my GM. For 9 years we went to the same auction, a huge operation in MA where we sold our repos, mingled with our dealers and met as many new dealers as we could. Because most of our dealers were there, it was the ultimate way to conduct business. We would get there early, I would evaluate our vehicles and set prices and hunt down any poor sap that owed us money. When 10 AM rolled around, I was “on the block” selling cars. Wheeling and dealing, as they say, working with the auctioneer as he captured bids as fast as lightning. Once I was done, my GM and I would evaluate how we did, process our titles and then relax. On nice days, we would lean against the outside wall of our lane and enjoy the weather.

Last year to the day, a driver lost control of a vehicle, sped into a crowd of dealers and crashed through the very wall that I would always lean against. 3 innocent people died and 24 were injured. It was a senseless tragedy.
Fortunately, I wasn’t there that day. My career was over by then.

Being in the industry as long as I had been, I had seen accidents before. People are careless and walk in front of cars as they roll up to the line to be sold. People run across entire lanes in order to bid on a vehicle at the end of the building. They forget that these are used cars and the brakes may be old and worn out. In this particular case, old and worn out described the driver. He maintains that the accelerator stuck. Something was clearly defective because the first victim he killed was hit at approximately 35 miles per hour.

I was reminded of this incident by Facebook Memories today. I had posted a tribute to the victims last year and briefly touched on my history at that auction. I re-read my post, had a quick moment of silence for the victims and then I read the comments. I had completely forgotten the response my post generated. The most significant aspect was how many people immediately thought of me when it happened.

It was a pretty well-known fact among my friends that I was in the industry. I would often post pictures of nice cars that I saw at the sale. All of my dealers knew where I was every Wednesday. But the number of people who I thought had no idea what I did for a living was checking in with me on Messenger, calls, and texts to make sure I was unharmed. It really affected me today. Well, that and the actual tragedy itself…you know what I mean.

I didn’t have the heart to tell most of those that checked in that I was out of work for health reasons. I thanked them for their concern and assured them that I was fine. But it is nice, at the end of the day to know that people are there for you when you really, really need them.

38,325 days…a life truly lived

Yesterday, May 2nd is a tough day around this house. My mother was uncharacteristically quiet and I had no interest in pushing her to talk about it. I knew why, and wasn’t going to bring it up.

Over the course of several May 2nds for the last 16 years, my mother had lost her father, her mother, and her 2nd husband. My Grandfather, a wonderful man who I have written more than one tribute to passed in 2002. He lived until 92, I miss him terribly but he didn’t owe anyone anything. My Grandmother died in 2015, 12 years to the day that my Grandfather passed. That was no coincidence, despite her semi-conscious state she knew what she was doing. 1 year ago, on May 2nd, my mother lost her second shot at love when her husband of 3 months passed from lung cancer. He lasted 10 days from diagnosis to departure. May 2nd is, safe to say, her least favorite day of the year.But she doesn’t talk about her problems, she bottles them up and shoves them down deep where they can’t be felt.

I felt guilty being in a good mood yesterday knowing she was in such pain. I couldn’t help it. The sun was out, I was on the deck blogging in view of my beloved duck pond. I washed my truck without sucking wind and I was finally starting to feel better. I was grateful for all of the support I have gotten from friends, family and the WP community. As my buddy Bojana pointed out, I have been fortunate enough to have some wonderful people in my life. Especially those that have passed on. Instead of mourning, on March 2nd of this year, I chose to celebrate the memory of my Grandmother.

It is hard to be sad about losing someone who lived almost 105 years. In my estimation she graced God’s green Earth for 38,325 days give or take.

Born in 1910, Marion Francis Barnes lost her parents in a house fire when she was only ten years old. She was raised by her Grandmother, a tough as nails Yankee woman with ties to the Mayflower and as deft with a wooden spoon as a Ninja warrior and his sword. I barely knew her, but I heard the stories. She did an admirable job of raising Marion and her sister Bertha, both finishing High School as strong, independent women, as the Great Depression in 1929 ravaged the country. She wasn’t entirely unscathed by the atmosphere of the times, pictures of her then suggest a very serious, proper woman who valued etiquette and upbringing. If one didn’t know better, she was a snob. In actuality, the purest example of a New England “Blue-blooded” Yankee.

Marion would become a victim of the wiley charms of my future Grandfather, a hard-working young man who didn’t worry about his future because he could build, paint, repair, rebuild and refurbish anything. Another skill, he was not fazed by her Yankee sensibilities and I suspect that he was the first person to ever make her laugh. The unlikely couple married in 1935 and began their life of 65 years together. Family was the main goal, and once the house was built, by him, my Grandmother conceived 3, and lost, 2 babies. One was a miscarriage and one a stillborn.  She became pregnant for the fourth time with my mother just before my grandfather enlisted in the Navy Seabees and went to fight in the Pacific in WW2. He tirelessly wrote her letters. I have them in a box, all of them expressing his love for her, his son Charles and my mother. I’ve read the letters, one thing that stood out was the guilt when he missed penning one letter a day.

Marion was busy doting over my mother. Having lost 2 children already, nothing was going to happen to Charles and my mother. She worried about her husband, feverishly wrote letters to him and friends and patiently waited for him to come home and resume their lives together. They, as one single couple, embodied the Greatest Generation. True to the nature of the said generation, when he came home, he didn’t relax. He didn’t talk or complain about what he saw (he saw a lot as I would later learn) but instead, he started making up for lost time.

My Grandfather returned from active duty in 1947. He spent 2 years working on battleships once the Pacific campaign was over. Charles was 6, my mother was 2. They acted as if they never skipped a beat. They would almost never be seen apart after that. Theirs was s love story for the ages.  Life went on and they were a big, happy family again. But it was not without heartbreak, tragedy and incidents that tested the concrete foundation of their marriage.

Tragedy would strike a mere year later.

To be continued…

The mystery text…part deux

Approximately a year after I became sales manager Eric’s performance had reached an all-time low. His daughter was at the peak of her illness, his marriage was in disarray, he was missing work by starting late and leaving early. I suspected that he was drinking heavily due to the bags under his eyes and a noticeable weight gain. Never was it harder for me to walk the line between friend and manager. Up until this point we had made it work, he was receptive to my input and appreciated my attention to his performance. In turn, I treated him with the respect that a man of his experience deserved and I was as lenient as I could be with regards to the number of appointments he was committed to as the ordeal with his daughter continued on. Family court, doctors, and lawyers all work 9-5 and I couldn’t stand in his way in this difficult time. It soon became clear, however, that his work, and consequently my department was suffering. My leadership would soon be called into question.

Little Machiavelli, as Eric and I jokingly called him, summoned me to a meeting with the owner. The topic du jour was Eric’s performance. The owner was a very nice, highly intelligent man who knew everything about his business numbers wise. The rest he relied on my manager for. This relationship was at the center of all of the problems I had with the company. The owner was fed daily doses of one-sided information, carefully crafted to build up the performance of my manager while carefully chipping away at the accomplishments of the other players…like me. In addition, he ran some solid defense in not allowing us access to the owner, insisting on following the “chain of command”, aka the wall of misinformation. I sat before my two supervisors and patiently listened to a long list of things I already knew. Eric’s sales numbers were way down. He looked disheveled and overtired. His customers had been calling in more often, which usually suggested a rep wasn’t making his rounds. None of this was news to me. I was told that disciplinary action was in order. I had been expecting this but the dread that consumed me was as if it came out of the blue. It was also not lost on me that both of my supervisors had never, ever reprimanded him during Eric’s entire career because they were both extremely non-confrontational. I was to be the heavy. I told them that I would write up a disciplinary action proposal, sit him down in person and give him terms. We agreed that he would be subject to a 90-day probation period at the end of which time he would be deemed, by me, as satisfactory or unemployed.

I called Eric and asked him to come into the office the next morning before he started his rounds. He wanted to know why. I explained that I had to review some things with him and left it at that. I didn’t sleep that night. I hadn’t had to be the heavy up to this point and while certainly capable of the role, I didn’t like it. My style was one of collaboration, hands-on assistance and to lead by example. I had disciplined employees before, but not one that I cared as deeply about.

The next morning arrived and I was in early doing my daily reports. Eric had come in without my knowledge and was in my GM’s office. My first instinct was that he was fishing for information about why he was called in. My GM dutifully called me and I went in, made small talk for a few minutes and then asked Eric to join me in the conference room. I was nervous and extremely uncomfortable with the task at hand so I got right to it. I handed him my written disciplinary action which listed in great detail the concerns we had with his performance with statistics to support it. I sat in silence as he read it. At several points, he offered up objections but I was ready with a fact to support my position. Finally, he finished reading it, looked up defeatedly and asked: “Where do we go from here?”

I explained to him that he was grounded for the next three months. He was to be in the office, with me, working his customers from inside. He would leave only by a verified and legitimate appointment. It was explained that I would do whatever I could to help him and to count on my support. It was further explained that I would decide after those 90 days if he still had a job. It was painful for me to say the least. To his credit, he made no excuses and offered no arguments. Amazingly, he said, “This must be hard for you.” Interesting take, as accurate as it was, that he was concerned about me at this point. I accommodated him:

“This is one of the hardest things I have ever had to do” I admitted.

The next 90 days were painful. It was difficult for him to be “grounded” and he struggled with the micro-management. I did my part and worked with him to rebuild his client base, making calls and visits when needed. His numbers began to turn around. As the deadline approached, I was again summoned by my GM regarding his fate. Was he doing the work? Has his attitude improved? Do you want to keep him on? I explained that I did want to keep him. I was then told, shockingly, that I didn’t have the “balls” to let him go. My response was “I’m the only one with enough balls to write him up. You sure didn’t.” This pissed him off to no end and I was told to do whatever I wanted. And I did. I told Eric the next morning that his job was secure and that my assistance would continue if needed. His response almost knocked me off of my chair. “Thank you, Bill,” he said. “You saved me when I couldn’t.”

We became even stronger at that point. Many things would happen after that. I would later be removed from sales because my previous department fell apart in my absence. Eric would be given my old job and we were true peers again, co-managers. He would deal with Little Machiavelli as I did and eventually would quit because of him. But we always stayed in touch until last year.

Our conversation would reveal that he is doing very well professionally and has a very nice girlfriend. While his daughter is still a tremendous emotional burden to him, the situation is “stable” so he is dealing with it. He was in a good place. It occurred to me that the tables have turned. I once sat across from him at the lowest point in his life, in a position of power. Today, he sat across from me as my life was at its lowest point ever. He had no power over me, but he is clearly doing much better than I. And he was kind. A lesser man may take advantage of my situation. I decided that I had to address the elephant in the room.

“You know, my Facebook post wasn’t intended to make anyone feel bad for me. That’s not me.”

“I know that. But your post reminded me that you were out there. That you weren’t feeling well. That maybe you needed a friend. You know, like you were to me.”

I thanked him for reaching out to me. He responded, “You’re one of the few people that I smile every time I think about. I needed to reach out to you, it’s the least I can do.”

He paid the tab, his theory was that now I owed him one and a second lunch was now guaranteed. I thanked him and we walked to the cars.

On the ride home, I marveled at how much he and I had been through together. I fondly remembered my working days. The good and the bad flashed through my mind as I drove. It seems so long ago, the days when my days were full of meetings, I was called upon to make decisions, my presence was felt and my absence was noticed. I accomplished things. My, how my life has changed. To imagine that it was only a mere 10 months ago.

Eric’s text reminded me of one thing, there are people who still care about me out there. That in itself provides hope where there once seemed to be none. I look forward to our next meeting.