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Archive for the ‘Recollections 9 to 5’ Category

Leaving Fort Lauderdale

A couple of weeks ago, I introduced you to one of my former bosses, Harry (not his real name), and wrote about his epic clash with Art (not his real name), a soon-to-be-fired employee.

Like most people, I worked for some competent, fair-minded people over the years. At other times, I suffered under villains and fools.

Maybe it’s my imagination, but for the most part, I remember the fair and competent bosses as being relatively nice folks. Often, the inept ones were self-serving jerks — unpleasant types you would avoid if you had a choice.

About a year after the eyeball-to-eyeball showdown between Harry and Art, Harry announced his resignation as our Executive Vice President. As Chamber of Commerce executives are wont to do, he had quietly negotiated a job with a larger Chamber in a larger city that paid a larger salary.

Chances are, the fellow he replaced in the larger city had done the same.

Which left our little Chamber with an EVP vacancy. The Board of Directors promptly began a search.

A couple of the board members thought I might be a good choice. I was Manager of Communications, Public Affairs, and Governmental Affairs. I was a good worker, had several years of experience, and understood the local business and political pecking order.

But I wasn’t right for the job, and I knew it. I’m wired to write a speech, not deliver one. I worked best as a staff man.

In the end, the board brought in fresh blood, someone from a smaller Chamber in another state who was looking to advance.

The new fellow, Ken (not his real name) was an odd duck. He was quiet, businesslike, and humorless, but had a practiced air of authority.

Frankly, he never really accomplished much, but it didn’t matter. New EVPs always have a year or two of grace before the Board of Directors holds them accountable to any degree.

As Ken’s reign got underway, things were routine enough. He hired a new Membership Sales person to replace the legendary Art, and the rest of us carried on with our duties.

For the record, I did a solid job for the Chamber. I got things done and got along well with the people I worked with, members and otherwise.

The first time Ken called me in for a performance review, he was quite complimentary. He criticized exactly nothing about the work I was doing. Keep up the good work and all that.

Several months later, Ken announced another new hire. He was bringing in a fellow who worked for him at his previous job, a young man he knew to be exceptionally skilled and valuable in many capacities.

After considerable thought, he said, he decided that the new guy would be Manager of Governmental Affairs.

What?

Think of it as relieving some of your heavy burden, Ken told me. This will allow you to devote more time to Communications and Public Affairs.

Hmmm…

Let me put it this way: I pride myself on having a finely-tuned BS detector. It is a skill I have possessed since childhood, and I trust it unreservedly.

The hiring of Ken’s buddy to take over a piece of my job caused my internal alarm to clang like a fire bell.

The new fellow was Steve (not his real name). Like Ken, he was single. He was young and eager and outgoing and made friends easily.

Even though I was not pleased with the new situation and unquestionably smelled a rat, I welcomed Steve and assisted him the best I could.

A few months passed. It was clear that Ken and Steve were mediocre talents at best. It was clear, as well, that they were very fond of each other. Very fond.

That fact probably was not evident to anyone except the staff. But to us, it was crystal clear.

If this had taken place in 2010, Ken and Steve no doubt would be open about their relationship and living together. But this was 1979. If they came out, they would lose their jobs immediately.

Their sexual orientation didn’t color my opinion of them. I disliked and distrusted them for other reasons.

Before long, my internal alarm proved to be correct.

One day, Ken sent me a memo setting aside a time for the two of us to talk. That alone was suspicious. Something was up.

At the appointed time, I went to his office. He closed the door, took the seat, and clasped his hands on the desk.

Slowly and deliberately, he stated his conclusion that my job performance was not up to the standards that he demanded.

His argument was long on hyperbole and short on evidence. The truth was, my job performance was quite outstanding. He knew it, and I knew it.

And I told him so.

“This is unbelievable,” I said. “You can’t be serious. I do a damn fine job here. Everybody knows that. You know it, too.”

“In spite of your inadequate performance, I have decided not to terminate you immediately,” he said calmly. “But I suggest that you explore your options elsewhere.”

“That’s simply a lie,” I shot back. “You want me out to make room for your young buddy Steve.”

Ken said nothing. He sat looking at me, expressionless.

“Why didn’t you push me out a year ago?” I said. “Why that elaborate crap of dividing my job? Are you making this up as you go along?”

“I have no objection if you use Chamber time to find something else,” he said. “But try to make your arrangements in, say, the next two months.”

“I’m curious,” I said. “Were you aware that I was considered for your job — not all that seriously, but considered? Did you know it, or is this simply a case of taking care of your boy?”

“I think two months is very generous,” he replied without a hint of emotion.

So ended my Chamber of Commerce career. There was no point in fighting it or whining to the Board of Directors. Ken was in charge, and he would get his way.

Naturally, I wanted to deck the guy. I wanted to quit with my head held high, as the legendary Art had done. But I was married with two kids. Having a job would be a huge advantage while I shopped for a new one.

As a reward for knuckling under, Ken gave me a highly positive letter of recommendation. Which said quite a bit about his integrity.

Years earlier, before we moved to Fort Lauderdale, I had worked in Atlanta in the Governor’s Office. My boss at the time, the Chief of Staff, was Zell Miller. Zell went on to become a fairly decent Governor and later a mentally unhinged Senator.

Back then, Zell was Lieutenant Governor. I wrote him to see if a prodigal son like me could return to Georgia state government.

Of course you can, Zell assured me. Get your family moved back to Georgia, and I’ll find a position for you — possibly in Tourism, or Recreation, or maybe Economic Development. Not a problem!

I didn’t entirely believe him, of course. But we were ready to leave South Florida anyway, and we proceeded to made our arrangements. We sold the house and transported ourselves back to the Atlanta area. From temporary quarters in Mom and Dad’s basement, we began looking for a house.

As I expected, Zell’s assurances proved to be hot air. He dumped my case onto an underling, who soon announced that they had nothing for me. Sorry.

Before long, we found a terrific house. Although I was unemployed at the time, we had a fair amount of savings, and I seemed honest, so the bank gave us a mortgage.

Yes, they really did.

Soon after we moved into the house, I found work. I was hired by a large manufacturer, Lithonia Lighting in Conyers, as a copywriter in the Advertising Department. I worked there very happily for the next 25 years.

I have no idea what became of Ken and Steve after we left South Florida. I hope they developed migraine headaches, or underwent root canals, or got caught cheating on each other.

But later, I heard a satisfying report about my previous boss Harry.

In the early 1980s, a friend from South Florida wrote me that Harry had been fired from the job he had taken as Chamber EVP in that other Florida city.

My friend reported that the Chamber of Commerce building there is several stories high, and on top is a garden area.

One afternoon, several board members were taking in the view from the garden, when one of them noticed movement, some kind of activity, in a car parked on the secluded street below.

Upon closer observation, they saw that it was Harry and one of his female employees, engaging in an act of carnal knowledge.

Harry was summarily dismissed from his position and escorted from the premises.

It couldn’t have happened to a more deserving guy.

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It began as a routine staff meeting.

For most of the 1970s, my family and I lived in South Florida, near Fort Lauderdale, one of the jewels of the Gold Coast.

In our case, the jewel was a rhinestone. We couldn’t afford to live in Fort Lauderdale proper, or anywhere near the ocean. The only house we could afford was in the suburb of Sunrise, 15 miles inland. I could see the Everglades from my house.

Not really, but alligators sometimes emerged from the canals at night.

At first, I worked as a copywriter in a small ad agency. But the economy in South Florida was shaky in those days, and the agency eventually went under.

So I took a job at a Chamber of Commerce in the area. I was Manager of Communications, Public Affairs, and Government Affairs. Among the various hats I wore: PR person, press liaison, speechwriter, printing and publications specialist, meeting scheduler, fly on the wall at City Council meetings — you get the picture.

The Chamber staff was small. It consisted of the boss; a general manager/admin guy; a couple of clerks; me; and one fellow who sold Chamber memberships.

Memberships are the lifeblood of a Chamber of Commerce. Many local businesses join the Chamber because of the social and business connections, but some do their best to avoid it. They see the annual dues as a pointless waste of their money.

Thus, the Chamber employs one or more aggressive Membership Sales people whose job is to go out every day to coax, cajole, hound, and embarrass the recalcitrant businesses into coughing up the dough.

Membership Sales people are clever, smooth, persistent, and highly skilled. They have to be.

Our Membership Sales guy, Art (not his real name), was tall, thin, and somewhere in his 50s. A seasoned pro, he had been with us just six months. The boss hired him because memberships were not coming in at an acceptable rate, and he needed a closer. Art came highly recommended.

The boss, Harry (not his real name), was in his mid-30s and a rising star in the insular CofC business. He was a brash, aggressive, take-charge person — some would say an obnoxious jerk. Like Jackie Gleason, he was quite graceful for a portly man.

From the beginning, Harry and Art disliked each other intensely. No one told us that. We simply observed it to be the case.

Art considered Harry to be a opportunistic blowhard and would not treat him with the proper deference. Harry knew what Art thought of him, and his resentment was palpable.

But with Art on the job, membership sales were booming. Harry could only bite his tongue and fume.

But back to the staff meeting.

Our little group filed into the conference room, minus one clerk who remained at the front desk to answer the phones and greet tourists. We settled in for the usual blah blah blah.

Bob, the General Manager, Harry’s toady, began with the financial report. He announced that for the first time in many weeks, income from membership sales was down.

Harry promptly zeroed in on Art. “You weren’t on vacation last week, were you?” he inquired cheerily.

“Nobody can set records every week,” Art replied.

Leaning back casually in his chair, Harry continued to jab and probe. Art remained calm, but you could sense the anger rising.

“What I need is to have two sales people out there,” said Harry finally, “But I can’t afford it. Not enough income from membership sales.”

Art looked up at Harry for the first time. “You would be amazed at the stories I hear out there,” he said. “The smaller businesses, they consider this place a waste of money. They compare the costs to the benefits, and they aren’t impressed.”

Harry was furious. His eyes were aflame. His jaws were clenched. I thought he was going to have a stoke.

“A lot of people don’t like what they see,” Art continued. “That makes it a very hard sell.”

So began a drama worthy of a David Mamet play.

As the rest of us looked on, the back-and-forth between Harry and Art rapidly escalated, ending inevitably in — but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Harry accused Art of making lame excuses.

Art accused Harry of poor leadership.

Harry accused Art of malingering.

Art accused Harry of incompetence.

Harry spat the first profanity.

Art replied in kind.

Soon, both were on their feet, facing each other across the conference table.

“ — the most worthless [expletive] [expletive] who ever came through the [expletive] door –”

“– more [expletive] talent in my [expletive] little finger than –”

Eventually, harsh words no longer sufficed. Harry slammed the conference table with his fist.

“I want you out of here NOW, you sorry [expletive]!!” he bellowed.

Art angrily slammed his briefcase shut. “You think you can fire me, fat man?” he spat. “Too late! I’ve already quit!”

He turned to Bob. “When you open the doors in the morning, I want my [expletive] check waiting,” he said menacingly. “And believe me, I know what you owe me to the exact [expletive] penny!”

“No problem,” said Bob.

Without a further word to anyone, Art turned and stormed out of the conference room.

I thought Harry might calm down at that point, but he didn’t. He pointed a quivering finger at Bob.

“Get on the phone, right now!” he shouted. His face was beet red, his collar wet with  sweat. “I want the [expletive] locks changed TODAY! ALL OF THEM!”

Bob calmly stood up and left the room.

“That no-good [expletive] [expletive] [expletive],” Harry said to no one in particular. “A guy like that will come back at night to see what he can steal!” He paced back and forth, wringing his hands, breathing heavily.

The clerk and I looked at each other. We weren’t sure whether it was safe to leave.

“Bob, wait!“ Harry suddenly shouted. “Don’t call A&H about the locks! Give the business to that new place, uh… [expletive] –you know the one!”

Bob shouted something inaudible. “What?“ Harry yelled back on his way out the door. The clerk and I were not far behind.

The next morning, Art arrived early as promised, long before Harry showed up for work. Art collected his paycheck from Bob and said his goodbyes to me and the two clerks.

“I really admire you for what you did,” I told him. “I couldn’t have done it.”

“Well, I lost control, and now I’m out of a job,” he said. “The little bastard won.”

“No, you won,” said one of the clerks.

“You should be proud,” I said. “You went out in a blaze of glory. You‘ll be a legend around here for years to come.”

And he was.

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Then and Now

When I was a kid, we moved constantly. Dad was in the Air Force, and especially in the early years, we packed up and moved often — sometimes every few months.

The pace slowed as the years went by, but Dad still got reassigned regularly. According to Mom, we changed residences 25 or 30 times before I finished high school.

As you can imagine, the details of those moves — the planning, the execution, most of the actual work — fell to Mom. By the time Dad retired, it was no secret that she had reached her limit, moving-wise.

Dad still relished the adventure. He dreamed of moving to a mountain cabin in Asheville, a beach house in Savannah, or who knows where.

Mom would have none of it. She had done all the moving she intended to do.

After Dad died, and Mom was left alone in a two-story, four-bedroom house, we tried to convince her to move to a smaller place. Not a chance. She wouldn’t budge.

As for me, when I went away to the University of Georgia in the 1960s, living in Athens for four straight years was a personal record — the longest I’d ever stayed in the same place in my life.

Some people spend their entire lives in the same place. My grandfather Frank, for example, was born at home — the Byrd family home in Suwanee, Georgia.

Frank lived in that same house well into adulthood. After he married my grandmother Leila, he built a house for the two of them across the road from the Byrd place. And he lived there contentedly for the rest of his life.

Why am I droning on about houses and moving? The subject came to mind because of the contrast between the awful conditions in the job and housing markets these days and my own employment and house-buying experience in better times.

Consider the following facts from my young adulthood, and ask yourself if anything remotely like this could happen today…

In 1972, I finally had a bellyful of working among the jackals at the Georgia State Capitol, so I resigned my position, and we moved to Fort Lauderdale.

I had no particular job prospects down there. We knew the city because Deanna’s stepdad, Roy Miller, lived there. We simply packed up our apartment in Atlanta, piled the kids in the car, and moved.

For a while, we stayed with Roy. I got busy looking for work, and before long, I was hired as a copywriter at a small advertising agency in nearby Deerfield Beach.

Shortly after that, we bought a house in Sunrise, one of the ‘burbs for non-millionaires. It was our first house.

At the time, my attitude was that a job and a paycheck would materialize soon enough. All I had to do was pound the pavement until it happened. And it did.

That was the bank’s attitude, too. Okay, so I was new to town and new on the job. But we seemed to be upstanding folks, and we had a modest amount of savings. Why NOT give me a mortgage? So they did.

In 1979, seven years later, the process repeated itself.

By then, the ad agency had folded. For a few years, I had been working at a local Chamber of Commerce as the public and governmental affairs guy. It was honest and interesting work, even though the political types I had to deal with were the same variety of jackal I left behind at the Georgia State Capitol.

But the really bad news was my newly-hired boss. Not only was he an utter jerk, but he had just added an old pal to the staff — a fella with a background in public and governmental affairs. It was time for me to move on.

I resigned — politely, in order to depart with a decent recommendation. We sold the house in Sunrise, packed up our stuff, piled the kids in the car again, and moved back to Atlanta.

On arrival, we moved into Mom and Dad’s basement. I got started job-hunting, and we began searching the northern suburbs for a house.

Naturally, we found a house before I found a job.

This particular house had sat empty for almost a year, and it needed attention. The owners were desperate to sell. It was a good deal in a great location. So, in spite of being unemployed, I applied for a mortgage.

Consider the bank’s choice. I was new in town, and I didn’t have a job.

On the other hand, we were upstanding folks, a typical young middle-class family. The sale of our previous home gave us a sizable down payment. I had a history of steady employment.

The bank assumed that I would find work directly, so why NOT give me a mortgage? And they did.

Almost immediately, I did find work. I took a job in the Advertising Department at Lithonia Lighting, where I worked for the next 25 years.

These events occurred 30 years ago. Could someone without a job secure a mortgage today? Not a chance.

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A few years before I retired, pads of the routing slip below quietly surfaced at work.

When I realized the form had been tampered with, I confiscated a small supply for my souvenir file.

I suspected that my friend Larry was responsible. But then, Larry was blamed for everything, whether he did it or not.

I have no idea how many of these forms got into circulation, or how many people used them unawares. For all I know, they’re still in use today.

That would be perfect. Worthy of Dilbert.

Routing slip

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Keeping It Clean

Back in the 90s when I was working at Lithonia Lighting, one of the higher-ups issued orders to have the warehouse cleaned up. The dirt and dust were pretty bad out there, and it got trashed quickly.

After the clean-up project, someone printed a stack of signs and posted them in the warehouse aisles nearest to the executive offices. This is the sign.

Lets

By the next morning, someone had written at the bottom of several signs in longhand, “What are Lets?”

I didn’t do it, but I wish I had.

Home of the Lets.

Home of the Lets.

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Who Goes There?

One of the defining characteristics of every Air Force base is the presence of transient flight crews.

It is, after all, an Air Force base. Every day, huge numbers of aircraft are criss-crossing the world, engaged in all manner of business. At the end of the day, the majority of them land somewhere so the crews can get food, fuel, and rest.

Arriving pilots are housed at the Visiting Officers Quarters. They also have access to the Officer’s Club, dining halls, theater, and other base facilities, time permitting.

I know this because I was raised as an Air Force brat, and I also served four years in the Air Force myself. That was long ago, but some things don’t change.

In 1966, my second year as a lieutenant at Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico, our base commander had an inspiration. As boss types and wont to do, he came up with an idea that created work for others while making him look good to his peers.

The idea: an extra duty assignment in which his junior officers would become lackeys for the transient pilots. He dubbed the role Transient Services Officer.

Specifically, all lieutenants at Cannon Air Force Base were required to serve as TSO on a rotating basis. The duty began at 6:00 PM and ended at 6:00 AM. During those hours, you were required to stay at Base Operations on the flightline, greet arriving aircrews, and tend to their needs, if any.

We had a few other minor duties, but our main assignment was to be available to serve the transient pilots.

The thing is, every military airfield already has plenty of staff to handle both routine and emergency occurrences. They even have a Duty Officer to take care of stuff nobody anticipates. The idea of a TSO was strictly political.

In practice, most of the visiting pilots were either puzzled or amused by the presence of the TSO. Pilots are almost always seasoned senior officers. They know what to do. They don’t need lackeys underfoot. Usually, they thanked the TSO and shooed him away.

Naturally, every lieutenant at the base hated TSO duty with the intense, burning hatred of the trapped and frustrated; it was a pointless, demeaning, shitty assignment that we could not avoid. Every lieutenant at Cannon probably felt he or she detested the duty more passionately than anyone else. I know I did.

We junior officers pulled TSO duty about once a month. Between the day TSO was invented and the day I was promoted to captain, I performed TSO duty about 15 times. Every one of those times was 12 forgettable hours of boredom and fatigue… except one.

It was April 9, 1967. We seemed to have quite a lot of air traffic for a weekend. The long runway was closed for repairs, so the secondary runway was extra busy. But at least that gave me something to do.

Just after dark, a sergeant from Civil Engineering came to get me for the nightly check of the runway lights. I hopped behind the wheel of the TSO Jeep, and we headed out.

A few minutes later, we had checked all of the lights on the runways and taxiways except for one last stretch beyond the last hangars.

“Sarge,” I said, “The lights on the other side of those fighters — do we have to drive over there? I don’t want to clip a wing in the dark.”

He agreed that we could verify the lights from our position. So, instead of driving around the F-100s, I just drifted closer to them. It turned out to be too close.

“Halt!” shouted a voice from the darkness. I halted the Jeep.

“Who goes there?” the voice demanded.

“TSO and the CE light man!” the CE light man replied.

“What are you doing in a restricted area?”

“Checking the runway lights. Didn’t know we were in a restricted area.”

“Turn off the engine! Set the emergency brake! Put the lights on bright! Dismount from the passenger side!” We did.

“Stand in the headlights with your hands over your head! You on the right!” — meaning me — “Stand with your legs spread apart!” I did.

“Ranking man! About face!” I turned around, hands still on my head. In the glare of the headlights, I could make out the shape of a helmeted Air Policeman, firearm at the ready.

“Where is your 1199?” the AP demanded.

Air Force Form 1199 is a restricted area badge. My 1199 was affixed to my TSO badge, which I was required to wear at all times, but which I inconveniently did not have on my person.

“I, uh, left it at Base Ops,” I told him. The dog ate my homework, Mister AP.

“Prisoners! Double-time out of the RA! Move!”

So the CE man, the AP, and I double-timed out of the restricted area — which isn’t easy with your hands on top of your head.

“Halt!” the AP commanded when we got beyond the RA boundary. “Lie down with your hands out in front of you!”

The AP took out his radio and reported to his superiors that he had apprehended two people in a restricted area.

Within 60 seconds, 10 or 12 more APs arrived, bristling with flashlights and weapons. The NCO in charge stepped forward.

“At ease,” he told our AP. “The tower confirms this is the TSO and the CE light man. Let ’em up.”

The NCO gently chastised me for not wearing my TSO badge, but otherwise was friendly and understanding. The AP who apprehended us, not so much.

After it was clear I wouldn’t be shot, all I wanted to do was get to a phone and call my roommate John. He, of all people, would appreciate the Kafkaesque scene that had played out on the runway that night.

John was one of the base legal officers, a captain. He was irritatingly exempt from TSO duty.

When I contacted John, he was way ahead of me. He had been playing pool that night at Base Ops with Captain Henryson, the Duty Officer.

They heard the entire incident on the radio.

An F-100 Super Sabre, circa 1967.

An F-100 Super Sabre in its restricted area.

Those crucial runway lights.

Those crucial runway lights.

Sleep tight tonight -- your Air Force is alert!

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It was vintage Larry Flowers: a clever prank on the perfect foil. This one had all the earmarks of legend.

In 1997, I was a copywriter in the Marketing Communications Department at Lithonia Lighting in Conyers, Georgia. Larry, my boss, was a proud and accomplished trickster.

Larry wasn’t merely skilled at perpetrating practical jokes; he was a bona fide genius. An artist.

Which is why, when a co-worker ran into my office and breathlessly announced that a prank was about to go down, I sprang from my chair and followed a parade of other people outside to watch.

It was a few minutes before 5:00 p.m., almost quitting time. On the way out to the parking lot, I learned what was about to happen. The prank, as the best often are, was simple.

Larry’s boss, the late Dick Morse, drove a beat-up, high-mileage Honda Civic. Dick was a well-paid vice president, but it was no secret that he came to the company with financial problems. His constant penniless condition, and the series of decrepit vehicles he owned, hinted at the extent of his troubles.

Dick was a past president of the Atlanta Shakespeare Company and as you would expect, given to theatrics. In his role as our boss, he developed a sort of faux gruff demeanor, but it was exceedingly faux. In truth, Dick was good-natured, good-hearted, and undemanding. We knew it, and he knew we knew it.

Which helps explain why he was an ideal foil for Larry’s machinations.

Sometime after lunch that day, Larry had gone out to the parking lot and, using two small axle jacks under the front wheels of Dick’s car, raised the front tires one barely-noticeable inch off the pavement.

The Honda, Larry reported later, sat rock-steady on the jacks, and it looked perfectly normal to any casual observer, including Dick.

By the time Dick emerged from the building at 5:00 p.m., half of the people in Marketing Communications were stationed in and around the cars, waiting for him.

On the surface, it appeared to be the usual afternoon exodus. We were anonymous among the hundreds of company employees leaving for the day.

But our attention was quietly focused on Dick. Some sat in their vehicles, feigning activity. Others stood in small groups, feigning conversation. I watched from the vantage point of my car 20 yards away.

Dick walked out to his parking space carrying his briefcase and a purloined box of K-Dry paper towels. He unlocked the Honda, placed the items on the back seat, and got behind the wheel.

He rolled down the window, poured some stale coffee on the ground, lit a cigarette.

He started the engine, put the vehicle in reverse, and turned to look over his right shoulder, preparing to back out.

The engine roared. The tires spun in mid-air with a mighty whine, but the Honda went nowhere.

Dick eased off the gas, and the engine subsided to an idle.

He turned off the engine, restarted it, and tried again to back out. Same result.

I watched his head bob as he looked left and right, up and down. He leaned out the window and peered at the tire.

Leaving the engine running, he got out of the vehicle and paced back and forth, looking at the grill and hood. Dick knew less about automobiles than the average 10-year-old.

As we relished the scene, trying to keep our snickering inaudible, Dick raised the hood of the Honda and looked for… he knew not what.

As he stood figuratively scratching his head, Larry got out of his car a few spaces away. “Hey, Dick!” he shouted. “What’s up?”

I couldn’t hear Dick’s reply, but I watched gleefully as he explained his plight to Larry, gesturing at the car, shrugging his shoulders, shaking his head.

Then Larry put an arm on Dick’s shoulder and pulled him closer. For a few seconds, Larry talked and Dick listened.

When Dick finally grasped that it was a joke, the moment was unmistakable. He looked skyward, then dropped his head to his chest, then shook it slowly from side to side.

The rest of us emerged from concealment and gathered around the two of them, laughing and chattering. Dick laughed as heartily as anyone.

Soon, the jacks were removed. Dick drove away, and we dispersed. For the umpteenth time, I mentally tipped my hat to the prankmeister himself, Larry Flowers.

For years, that was how I fondly remembered the episode. But as usual, there was more to the story.

Recently, I emailed Larry and asked him to refresh my memory about the car-jacking incident, so I could write this post. His reply was wholly unexpected:

Rocky, I tell you the following with mixed emotions. I set out to have some fun and play a trick on Dick. But once it was done, I felt pretty bad.

Dick came to Lithonia Lighting in poor financial shape. He was just divorced, and the IRS was all over him. His pay was being garnished. He had no money.

Dick knew little about mechanical things. One time, he poured a gallon of windshield washer fluid into the oil filler of his Cabriolet, blowing the head gasket.

When I walked over to his Honda that day, he had a worried look on his face, and it hit me. The man had just borrowed money from the bank so he could have wheels to get to work. That car was  his lifeline to Conyers and what little money he was able to keep. I made him think it was ruined. I felt pretty lousy.

When I explained that it was a joke, I expected him to be angry, but he wasn’t. Not at all. He was just relieved that his car was okay.

He just said, “Larry, get it off the jacks so I can go home.” It made me feel really terrible, and I’ve regretted it every since.

Dick left Lithonia Lighting in 1998. He died in 2002. He said many times that we would miss him when he was gone, and he was right.

As Larry put it:

Dick was a lovable scoundrel, a master of getting by with stuff that still amazes me. But he was a true advertising man. A good writer, a man of impeccable taste.

Wherever Dick is right now, I know he’s got something going on, and he’s surrounded by his precious books and cats. Rest in peace, Dick.

Amen to that.

Richard V. "Dick" Morse

Richard V. "Dick" Morse

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