Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Last Thoughts on Veteran's Day

I put up a letter Friday afternoon, and folks really responded to it.  I'm glad.  I'm pleased that folks felt like they got something from it, even if it's just an acknowledgement that I haven't forgotten about them.  I haven't--of course, I haven't--but it's a big world, and we all wind up alone in the dark from time to time, and it's easy to feel alone.
With that in mind, one of my classmates put up a link on Facebook to an article that another of my classmates (Mike Stajura) wrote for Time Ideas, which seems to have filled in the gap for Newsweek's old "My Turn" segment now that Newsweek no longer runs in print.  The article is about how difficult it is to leave the military and transition to civilian society, and it is right on.  To quote briefly, when you leave the military, a lot of what you come to take for granted--socially and professionally--just sort of goes away:
"Gone, suddenly, is the cohesive structure that existed to take care of you. Gone is that strong sense of social security. Gone is the sense that, wherever you go, you know where you fit. Gone are the familiar cultural norms. Gone are your friends from your ready-made peer group, who are just as invested in your success as you are in theirs."
That’s true, even for guys like me.
 I left Korea at the end of August in 2000, and as breaks with the service go, that was a good one.  I walked out the gate of Camp Garryowen as a Captain in the United States Army, caught a civilian cab, boarded a civilian flight on Korean Air, and landed at Nashville International Airport--as a civilian.  My folks were there; the rest of the world kinda kept turning the same way it always had.
Everything had changed.
My folks were living in a little town in Tennessee, a town that they thought of as home but in which I’d never even set foot.  Both my parents were from Tennessee, and when my father retired from the Marine Corps, they decided to move back there, but it didn’t feel like home to me at all.  I knew no one, sounded like a foreigner to the locals, and didn’t have any interest at all in trying to blend in.  
It’s funny because my folks spent maybe ten grand refurbishing their attic, so that I’d have a place to sack out while I waited for the next semester to start at Vanderbilt, and I was ready to take any job I could get just to get the Hell out of there after less than two weeks.  In the end, I wound up sitting on their couch for about six weeks, alternately watching the Titans go 13-3 and catching up on old Battlestar Galactica re-runs.  When my new boss called and told me to meet him up in Boston as soon as I could there, I left right then.
It 4pm on a Thursday.  

I didn't even stay to have dinner with my family.
But if I’m being honest, the new job was even worse.  I worked as a logistics consultant--it was a good job--and it was not easy.  I was used to snapping out orders on my own authority and having them be obeyed.  But as a consultant, you’re not in the chain-of-command at all.  You have to plead, cajole, explain, and even bribe--a lot more often than you’d think.  After I’d been there about a week, my new boss pulled me aside and told me I was being too abrasive.  Clients were complaining.  I was simply telling them what to do and then expecting them to do it.  I was stepping on toes.  Right didn’t matter; I needed to learn to convince.  To get buy-in.
His advice: “Take them out to lunch more often and buy their affection.”
It was December 2000, and I was on an expense account.  Nobody cared how much I spent, and they barely cared how about my work was actually progressing.  What they cared about was the client’s hurt feelings.  I don’t know how to explain how weird that was.  Truth was entirely subjective, and money was no object.  I’m telling you, it was beyond strange.  One guy said, "Dinner is a motivator.  Take 'em out and buy something expensive."
Meanwhile, I was living in a hotel room.  For weeks.  In a town I’d never been to, around people I barely knew, most of whom left every weekend.  Wow.  Less than six months prior, I’d been at Camp Garryowen--not paradise by any means, but also not exactly lonely, either.
I eventually got an apartment with a guy, but we weren’t close, and neither of us wanted to get closer.  We had nothing in common.  We were the same age, but he’d been in the business for five years, and I was the guy whose abrasive personality was pissing off the client.
When the Dot-Com Bubble crashed, I wasn’t exactly pissed.  As far as I’m concerned, that bubble cracked because companies like mine spent their clients’ money like it was going out of style without worrying about what they delivered in return.  I got results.  Our outbound shipping went up by something like 25% in less that two weeks.  The breakthrough?  I made the leads take roll twice per night, so that they’d catch the temps sleeping in the corners.  Worked like a charm.  I mean, it was like a miracle.  The idea of accountability had honestly never occurred to anybody.  But that eliminated the backlog of old orders--almost overnight--which in turn showed that orders weren’t as high as management had predicted they’d be.  That was an embarrassment, and it hurt feelings.  It was real.  The project ended at the end of December, and I only realized later that the company had been trying to milk the client for as long as they could.  Actually succeeding with the mission wasn’t precisely the goal--and it probably never had been.
I did another project with that company with similar results.  We improved productivity, pissed people off, and I got caught in the third round of layoffs as my company suddenly found itself radically downsizing in the midst of a crashing economy.  I’ve no idea what would have happened if the Bubble hadn’t crashed, but it did, and for as much as I’d found the job itself interesting--and financially rewarding!--I was just as happy to move out of the hotel rooms and into something a little more stable.
I was lucky because my current company was hiring, and they have always hired a lot of vets.  I went into Overhead Construction, and I’d bet that something like half the guys I worked with had spent some time in uniform.  Granted, they’d mostly been in the Navy, and most of them were older than my father, but still…  We all spoke the same variety of English, you know?  They were all tough guys doing a difficult job outside, usually around energized high-voltage conductors, and we were working out of a pretty rough section of the Bronx.  

It was a pretty good gig.  Maybe I could’ve found something more lucrative if I’d kept looking, but I quickly discovered that I liked building things--who knew?--and in general, I’ve found that being in the power company is generally in the public interest.  It’s service.  People need electricity, and I help them get it.  I can live with that.

If you care about public service, that's something that you really do have to consider.

No comments:

Post a Comment