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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Monday, March 29, 2010

Epilogue F-1 "The Meaning of 'Breadwinner'"

These epilogue chapters have been added to the end of the story only to explain how the house was finally completed. They span wonderful years of family living. Jim got his engineering degree from Oakland University and began working at General Dynamics in 1992. In 1993, he married his college sweetheart, Heather. It took a while, but all five kids were now married and life was unfolding as it has from the beginning of time. Lots of grandchildren being born and spending unforgettable days at Grandpa and Grandma's house in the woods.

During all of those years, Dad had plenty of projects to keep him busy. When we came to visit in the summer of 1994, Dad had just taken down a huge ash tree that stood in front of the house. [This photo is actually an oak he brought down the winter before. I can't find the pictures from that summer.]

The ash was healthy, but it was in the way of where he hoped to put a circle driveway that looped up from the main drive which he had made from cement slabs of I-94.
Explain that, Tom. What do you mean "slabs of I-94"? Well, one day Dad was driving home from work in Detroit, and not far from his exit at 23 Mile Road, they were tearing up a mile of Interstate 94.

Dad noticed that they were doing so by jack-hammering the pavement into long rectangles, about three feet by nine feet in size, and loading them onto trucks. He pulled over and asked the truck driver where he was taking the slabs, and they said to a land fill. Dad laughed and asked if they would bring the slabs to his place and dump them back by the barn. The man laughed back, but agreed, and just like that Dad had tons of long, irregular concrete slabs (roughly in the shape of Indiana) delivered free of charge.

Why would a man want tons of concrete from I-94 on his property? Mom asked the same question when she saw the trucks arriving.

We should all know by now that Dad always had his reasons. Why let all that solid flat concrete go to waste in a landfill when we had been in need of flat concrete for years?  For as long as we had owned the property, the long driveway was a dirt two-track that was a muddy mess each spring after the thaw. In the months ahead, one by one, Dad took his old John Deere front-loader and backhoe and inlaid each slab in the driveway like gemstones in a bracelet. When he was done, the long, winding driveway was still a two-track, but now it was a concrete two-track. Don't get me wrong, it was not suitable for roller-skating, but the days of mud in the driveway were gone. (He also used the slabs to rebuild the bridge over the creek as I mentioned in Chapter 8. The cement-slab driveway was actually put in place around 1985, and now nine years later, Dad was felling a huge ash tree to clear the path for the circle drive to the front porch.

From the trunk of the ash tree, Dad intended to hew two beams that would connect the garage to the house and serve as the main supports for the breezeway.

You may be thinking: Isn't that a lot of work, Tom, hewing beams from a big ol' log? Yes. It is a tremendous amount of work--kind of like making a jigsaw driveway out of an interstate--and the average person building a breezeway would not dream of adding "(1) Hew beams from log" to list of things to do before starting the project, but that is the way Dad was; that's why it took so long to finish the house; that's why we all marveled at his ingenuity and Mom's patience.

The circle drive, breezeway, and white trim of the house will come in Epilogue F-2. Here I must digress or we will never know how those finishing touches were possible. Here I must change the subject abruptly to talk about what it means to be a breadwinner.

Dad had been hired at Bell Telephone in Port Huron a year or so after graduating from high school in the winter of 1948. It was a time when students with enough credits could graduate a semester ahead of their class. It was a time when young men were in a hurry to move on to adulthood, get a job with a life-long empolyer, save a nest-egg, get married, build a home, have lots of kids, and hopefully move up in the company or business. It was a different time.

(The following paragraphs are generalizations, but I share them mainly to contrast the meaning of “breadwinner” from 1950 to 2010.)

Today young men and women typically talk about their futures in terms of what they think they might “major in” and at what college they hope to major in it. Half-way through college, they change their major (as I did) and then many of them graduate with a degree but no job. In many cases they’re still not sure what they want to do for a living and they are reluctant to earn their keep doing something “below them,” so they hold out (weeks, months, years) for some position that will look good on their resume, while at the same time avoiding entry-level jobs that would at least put some money in their pockets. In other words, after spending tens of thousands of dollars at college (enjoying life away from parents but in most cases still counting on their pocketbook), they move back home to save some bucks while they figure out which employer is most worthy of their boundless skills and energy.

I’m not judging these situations; each case is unique and sometimes moving home makes perfect sense—especially for young women. But trust me, as a person who interviews college graduates annually, I would advise that a good worker finds work even in difficult times. A resume that reflects a willingness to earn one’s keep even when overqualified looks far better than a two-year unemployed search for the perfect career path.

In Dad’s day, it was different. The vast majority of young women took whatever jobs were open to them with the hope of someday quitting them to get married to a “breadwinner” who could support her and a growing brood of offspring. The vast majority of young men did not go to college; they stepped from the 12th grade into the realities of earning their own keep. Some went into the service; some started on the path of getting their own farm; but most young employees sought jobs that rewarded hard work and loyalty.

The utility companies were such a place. Dad’s brother jack had found what would be his life-long job at Detroit Edison. Dad applied to both Edison and Bell, Bell called him for an interview first, and offered him a job just days before Edison called him for what was probably a better position, but he had already said “yes” to Bell, and though he had not yet begun work, he felt it was the honorable thing to keep his word. Today, many would disagree with that, but it is the way Dad felt about such matters.

In Dad’s day, jobs were distinguished by whether or not they “had a future,” meaning: was it the kind of business or company that hires people at an entry level and grooms them to keep moving up to better-paying jobs with greater responsibilities, promoting and promoting its most promising employees until the Peter Principle kicks in.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines [the Peter Principle] as "The theory that employees within an organization will advance to their highest level of competence and then be promoted to and remain at a level at which they are incompetent." ... "In a hierarchically structured administration, people tend to be promoted up to their level of incompetence," or, as Dr. Peters Principal explained more simply, "The cream rises until it sours."

This is not to say that all people who climb the corporate ladder are incompetent upon retirement. As I understand the principle, it is cautionary in nature: “Think long and hard before promoting a person from duties they do exceedingly well to a new position with different expectations—especially if the new duties involve working with people rather than things.”

In Dad’s case at Bell, he began by installing phones and moved up to linesman, and knowing what you know of my father from these chapters, it is safe to say that he enjoyed his work. It was interesting, and each assignment held a new challenge (like the time he was sent to install an extension phone in the basement of a funeral home, and the mortician (who knew Dad’s family well enough to play a joke on him) turned out all but a small light at the far side of the room, and put himself on an empty table under a sheet about five feet from the wall where Dad had to mount the phone. You can pretty much tell the rest of that story yourself. I will only say that whenever Dad told it, he took pride in adding that he did not need to change his pants when it was over.

In that sense, Dad literally started at “basement” level with Bell, climbed up the corporate ladder to the top of poles, and then moved on from there in Bell, steadily working his way up in the company. It was a Bell promotion that moved our family from our first unfinished dream house on Atkins Road to the little finished house in Roseville. From that temporary house (we lived there 14 years), he spent his spare time settling some land on which to build their second dream home. And all the while, Dad continued to rise in the Bell system.

I can’t think of anything Dad was “incompetent” at, but I think he would say that the Peter Principle did kick in—sort of. I think he would say it happened when Bell moved him from hands-on problem-solving assignments to a desk position in management. For a few years, he was over scores of younger workers who now did the tasks he used to do. He was not incompetent in this managerial role, but he was often frustrated at the chronic poor work habits of those he oversaw. The work ethic had changed from the early Fifties to late Seventies. In all his time with Bell, he had a pattern of never being late and never leaving work early. He hadn’t taken a “sick day” since a bad bout of poison ivy in 1960. Needless to say, the dozens of workers now reporting to him were of a different generation, one that felt the employer owed the employees rather than the other way around. That was what Dad disliked about his years in management, and shortly after the federal government broke up the Bell system’s so-called monopoly, he jumped at a chance to move on to a new frontier with his life-long employer.

He and three other cohorts were recruited to become part of a new branch of Bell called Datech, it was hands-on, brain-engaged work in a whole new technology that used words now common but then new like “digital” and “fiber optics.” Dad enjoyed that work and stayed in the Datech division through 1984, when, after thirty-five years of steady employment, he was offered early retirement with two-years severance and benefits (not to mention an additional half-year in “banked” sick days. He was fifty-four years old with no debt and enough investment income to maintain their frugal lifestyle indefinitely. Not many people can say that.

For about a year, Dad enjoyed the casual pace of retirement. He had plenty of time to put around the house and property, and even took in plenty of “handy-man” work that generated extra spending money. Then in 1985, he got a phone call out of the blue from one of the Datech buddies who also took early retirement. The man had gotten a call from a company Dad had never heard of called EDS (Electronic Data Systems) founded by a man he had also never heard of, Ross Perot.

Well, it seems this Ross Perot guy had sold a controlling interest of his Texas-based company to General Motors for $2.4 billion, but he promised to continue overseeing the company until the new owner's three EDS sites were built in the Detroit area. Perot was a no-nonsense billionare who liked things done right. EDS was a young company with mostly young intelligent MIT-types who knew everything the books and teachers taught them, but they lacked field experience.

Perot wanted to re-employ some of those veteran Bell /Datech guys that had been put to pasture. Dad had no intentions of ending retirement, but from the very first call, he was impressed with what he heard. At an interview shortly thereafter, he and his buddy met Mr. H. Ross Perot himself. He had a quirky grin and a good handshake. The first thing he said to dad was, "Like the crew cut."

Turns out, Perot was also a navy man who had never let his hair grow since leaving the service. He was born the same year as Dad (a month later), and the more Dad learned of this guy and his work ethic, the more he was flattered to be asked to help get these installations done. Dad spent the next five years overseeing the hard-wiring of those three EDS plants. At the completion of each project, Ross Perot was at the celebration banquet--He greeted Dad with the same quirky smile and firm handshake each time. Over Spring Break 1990, we came home to visit and Dad arranged for me to shadow him at work. It was the coolest place I'd ever seen. We had to use I.D. cards to go from room to room. He was proud to introduce me to all the young men who worked with him. He was not their boss. Technically he was a full-time, on-site consultant. He liked the arrangement. At the end of that day, he told me he could get me into EDS--if I wanted to move back to Michigan from Iowa that was--no pressure. He just wanted to mention it. (I'll tell you more about that in Epilogue F-2.)

We all know Ross Perot from his other mark on history, but that 1992 presidential run happened after Dad had retired from EDS. Neither Dad nor Mom nor any of us kids voted for Perot, and it's quite likely that his third-party run, which garnered 19,741,065 votes, is what put Bill Clinton in the White House. In looking back on it, Perot's political views and prophecies make more sense now than they did then. He warned about what would happen to the American economy if we didn't get our heads out of the sand, but let's face it... he was quirky.

Anyway, I say all that to say that Dad retired twice. Once from Bell and once from EDS. He stayed with Perot's outfit exactly five years to qualify for their retirement benefits. Because EDS was a young company, Dad was among the first to retire from there, and they had quite a send off. Among many other speeches and honors, they gave him a brand new aluminum canoe with a gold plate commemorating his years of service on the bow. We took that canoe down the creek many times with Dad. It was the perfect retirement gift.

Even more perfect, in Dad's eyes, was being able to squirrel away a big chunk of the best pay of his life. It came at a good time just as Jim was entering college, but much of it was "gravy" since he had already planned on living off of his Bell retirement . . . . We kids knew nothing of Dad and Mom's finances, of course. Dad was always very private that way. We learned these things later.

Which brings us back to that ash tree in the summer of 1994.
Continued and concluded in Epilogue F-2


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