Get a Job

“If I’d only known, I’d have been a locksmith.” Albert Einstein

I’m at a party. Trailing My Life’s Editor like a remora, I swim through the sea of conversation. I strike a casual pose, gripping a weak bourbon and water in my fist. Herself introduces me. I nod, catching bits of her conversation with the person, whose name I immediately forget. Occasionally I slip from her side to scarf up a small cocktail weenie then slip back into formation. So far, so good. A guy turns to size me up, glass of beer in hand, and says, “So, you’re retired. What is it that you did for a living?” Alarm bells go off in my prefrontal cortex.

Rather than job history, I would prefer a questioner at a party ask about a skill I might possess, like making fart noises with a hand under my armpit. Or, how about being asked what musical talents I possess? As a child I did a mean Turkey in the Straw on my red, 48 bass Hohner accordion. For an encore, I did Liebestraum.  My parents bought me an accordion believing that in future years I would go to a party and a host would say, “Oh, it’s Marshall, with his big red Hohner. Play for us!”

I envy men who have had a profession, men who always wanted to be an actuary or a toll collector on the New Jersey Turnpike. I was born into a military family. My father, both grandfathers, a great uncle, my brother, a brother-in-law, and three of my cousins were military officers. Seven were lifers. I learned Reveille before Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. My first two words were “Yes, sir!”  Guns figured in the scheme of things.  Logically, I would grow up to be a soldier or an arms merchant.

In my teens, a snake slithered into the military garden of Eden. I started to ask “Why?” and “How come?” One evening my father directed me to move some trash cans behind the house because guests were coming. Smart ass, I said, “Why should we hide them? Everybody has trash cans!” He called me a communist. When college loomed, I joined my father on a pilgrimage to West Point, his alma mater. He teared up in the cadet chapel, the battle flags celebrating battles like the Meuse-Argonne hanging gloriously below the clerestory windows. We stood on The Plain, the storied parade ground. We gazed up at the severe grey stone buildings frowning down on us. I looked for an exit.

I went to a civilian college. True to my roots, I joined Army ROTC. One Saturday at summer Camp in Ft. Devens, Massachusetts, my sergeant gave me an earful during inspection. He pointed to the boxer shorts on the top tray of my foot locker: “Sloppy fold, Craig!”  I protested. My platoon mates bought theirs at the PX and kept them in the package just for the inspection. I actually wore my shorts, no longer perfectly folded, but honestly employed. He directed me to the lean and rest position for 50 pushups.

I bounced off the first flipper of my career pin ball machine when I started college as an engineering major – a personal disaster of Katrina proportions. Kindly college deans suggested that the world would be a better place without the bridges I might have built. They asked, “How about trying something less numbers intensive?” Graduating as an American Studies major, I had definite opinions on Charles Francis Adams and Abraham Lincoln, but still had no calling. Mozart was born to compose music, Atilla was born to plunder, I didn’t know what I was born to do. I evaded the issue, opting for more education – graduate business school.

Business school was like learning a foreign language. I knew as little about business as I knew about elephant husbandry. A member of the “Silent Generation,” I soldiered away. Born between 1925 and 1945, following the “Greatest Generation” and preceding the “Baby Boomers,” we are traditionalists. We grew up to be seen and not heard.  We beaver away, pay our mortgages, and join Rotary.  In my case, I had to get a job because relations had intensified with the person who was to become My Life’s Editor. A Silent Generation guy doesn’t ask for someone’s hand without having a regular paycheck.

My so-called career started as a peddler for Scott Paper Company in Chicago. My strong suit was toilet paper, although I was considered promising at moving Confidets, the sanitary napkin brand. Eleven months, two weeks, thirteen days and two hours later, Scott Paper and I parted ways. I headed for the tonier world of commercial banking, where I commanded a desk with a nameplate rather than a Chevrolet station wagon. Time passed and, overcome with terminal boredom, I fled the bank and joined a boutique management consulting firm. My children came to wonder who the nice man was who appeared Saturday mornings and left Sunday nights. My Life’s Editor pinned name tags on their jammies. The firm gave me a nice set of golf clubs when I departed for the executive suite of a public company in St. Pete. There I wrote memos tossed out by company vice presidents.

It was clear that I either couldn’t keep a job, or a job couldn’t keep me.  The soldier gene had gone AWOL in my DNA. I wouldn’t salute, I viewed authority as a challenge and had the attention span of a two-year-old. What to do? Fortune arrived in the form of my tennis pal Nick. We started a wholesale business. I found my life’s passion – driving the warehouse forklift.

If I’d only known sooner.

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