Posts Tagged ‘Work’

Well, we have happy news in the Smith family: my son Dustin is officially retired from law enforcement. He served 20 years in the business, first with Family & Children Services, then with Athens-Clark County PD, then with University of Georgia PD.

As you can imagine, his work involved risks and challenges that were downright ugly. Now we all can rest easier about his physical safety and emotional well-being.

Dustin plans to focus on his new business, Sporting South Photography. Check out his website.

On Dustin’s last day with UGA PD, his wife Leslie posted this on Facebook:

“Today, Dustin retired from police work after 20 years. The first picture is from his ACC Police Academy graduation and the second is from UGA.”

Dustin 3-03

Dustin 3-19a

“He has served his community with dedication, loyalty and professionalism. He has made life-long connections and lost a brother. Thank you to everyone that supported him and prayed for him throughout his career.”

Dustin 3-19b

“He will begin a new journey with sports photography, that we hope will give him renewed focus and success, and maybe a little less stress.

“Congrats to you Sgt. Smith! Enjoy your next chapter in life.”

The lost brother Leslie mentioned is a fellow officer, Buddy Christian of ACC PD, who was killed in the line of duty a few years ago.

Dustin’s police career was filled with superlatives. He was not only a crackerjack officer, but also the kind of person you want to see in law enforcement: intelligent, empathetic, and compassionate. He recognized the importance of the work and the obligation to do it well.

That was apparent when he was named the Honor Graduate of his class at the Police Academy. It was apparent again when, in his first assignment on patrol in a section of Athens with a large Hispanic population, he went the extra mile and took Spanish lessons.

In time, Dustin was assigned to the Domestic Violence unit, a notably stressful job. But he was good at it, and Athens PD kept him there, even after the work began wearing him down and he asked for a reassignment.

Eventually, he was moved to Investigations, where he excelled again. In recent years, owing to his skills and years of experience, he ran the UGA PD Training unit.

Dustin told me some years ago that one of the toughest aspects of police work is knowing that half the people you contact on a given day hate your guts.

He probably wasn’t exaggerating. He had to deal with the worst people, on their worst behavior, often in the worst parts of town. As the cop confronting them, he was the enemy personified.

That’s why he and I see Athens differently. To me, Athens is the UGA campus, the special vibe of the downtown, the stately old neighborhoods, the Botanical Garden.

Dustin remembers rundown neighborhoods where a shooting, stabbing, or beating just happened. He thinks about dealing with drunk and belligerent frat boys and working on Saturday when the Bulldogs have a home game.

Maybe now he can get acquainted with a more positive side of the city.

Anyway, the page has turned, and Dustin starts his new life as a civilian.

And he promptly marked the occasion by making a delightful video that, in my humble estimation, knocks it out of the park. I can’t get enough of watching it.


That’s my boy.



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In late 1967, I was still stationed at Cannon AFB, New Mexico, near Clovis, the “Cattle Capitol of the Southwest.” I was a 1st Lt. and Commander of the Supply Squadron, and I had moved off-base to an apartment in Clovis (where, incidentally, I met my future wife Deanna).

Here are some of my journal entries from those days. In them, you will meet:

Col. Frank Shepard, Base Commander
Col. George Doerr, Deputy Base Commander
Capt. John Thornton, Base Legal Officer and my roommate
Capt. Ted Mayo, Base Legal Officer


3 NOV 67

Well, I’m in trouble for sure. This morning, I testified in Airman Key’s administrative discharge hearing. Key is a bad apple, and Col. Shepard (the Rococo Toad) is hell-bent on kicking him out of the service. The pressure from the Toad to get it done has been intense. Ill-advised, if not illegal.

Thornton kept me on the stand for 45 minutes, and I said my piece. In the end, the board voted to retain Key in the Air Force. Shepard will go ballistic when he reads the transcript.

Originally, Mayo was appointed as Key’s counsel, but Key insisted on Thornton. Ted was livid. After the hearing, John being John, he sent a telegram to Ted in Ft. Worth, where he and Judy are attending a country club gala. The telegram read, KEY RETAINED STOP MAY HE COME TO THE BALL STOP

5 NOV 67

A few months ago, the City of Clovis installed a marble tablet of the 10 Commandments on the courthouse lawn. Yes, for real. Thornton and I went down there this afternoon to take photos.

And get this: the Clovis tablet has 11 (eleven!) Commandments. The line about not coveting thy neighbor’s house is presented as Commandment 10, and the rest of the shalt-not-covets are Commandment 11. You can’t make this stuff up.

I’m pretty sure the 10th Commandment is supposed to be something like this: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, nor his wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s.”

The Clovis version also skips the “nor his ox” part, and “nor his ass” was changed to “nor his cattle.”

Maybe the cattle part is appropriate. Clovis has stockyards as far as the eye can see and the nose can smell.

10 Cs

6 NOV 67

I got a call this morning from SSgt Hinkle, who came home early from a TDY assignment to find an airman from my squadron living with his wife. Hink wants to confront the airman in my presence. The villainous airman is on leave for a few days, so I have that to look forward to.

Mayo got John’s telegram Friday night in Ft. Worth. It arrived while they were searching for a pearl and diamond bracelet Judy lost. They didn’t find it. Poor Ted.

7 NOV 67

Thornton got permission from 12th AF to release a summarized transcript of Airman Key’s board hearing. Thank God. I was really worried about how Col. Toad would react to my testimony, honest and accurate though it was.

John said he did it to save his own skin, not mine. In his closing argument, he called Shepard two-faced and a dupe. Why, Shep would kick John off the bowling team for that.

8 NOV 67

Hinkle came to my office today and said he changed his mind, he doesn’t want a come-to-Jesus meeting with the cuckolding airman. He just wants the guy transferred as far away from Cannon as possible, ASAP. If not, he will call his congressman and every officer at Cannon from the rank of bird colonel on up.

When I informed Col. Shepard, he summoned me to his office, where he was waiting with Col. Doerr (Commissioner Gordon). Doerr is a decent guy, but nobody considers him a mental giant. He had little to contribute.

Shepard finally decided it would be best to get the offending airman reassigned. He left to go talk to Personnel about it.

9 NOV 67

The Squadron Fire Marshals met today at 1400 hours. I had to meet with Col. Shepard and Hinkle at 1500, so at 1445, I got up and quietly excused myself.

Col. Stitt, always a favorite among the junior officers, said, “Where do you think you’re going?” I explained where. “Sit down, Lieutenant,” he said. Sir yes sir.

The meeting ran until 1530 hours. When I got to the Toad’s office, he chewed me out for being late. I apologized for being such a slug.

Col. Shepard told Sgt. Hinkle that the Casanova airman will get a fast assignment to somewhere else. Personnel is already working on it.

He then gave Hinkle a lecture on how to keep your family together. Ha. Last spring, the Toad’s wife threw him out for two weeks for some mysterious transgression. To our collective chagrin, we never found out what it was.

10 NOV 67

When I got back from lunch, Capt. Bryan from Civil Engineering was waiting in my office. Some major told him that the CE barracks is a disgrace and Bryan’s men are filthy pigs, which is true. The major said Bryan could learn something from Supply Squadron.

That was flattering. I wanted to ask which major it was, but Bryan wasn’t in a happy place, so I refrained.

In spite of being angry and insulted, Bryan was curious. And there he was, asking to see my barracks. I gave him the pass keys and sent him down the hall with a pat on the rump.

13 NOV 67

This morning, MSgt Smith popped in and said he couldn’t find the pass keys. Did I have them? Crap. That moron Bryan didn’t return them.

Smith asked what we should do. I said either pick up the phone and call Bryan or go over to CE and find him, your choice.

I’m amazed that Smith got to be a first sergeant. He always needs help or permission.

I’m beginning to think the Air Force is a haven for incompetents and loafers who can’t make it in the civilian world. Maybe the entire military is that way. I try to maintain my sense of humor about it. You could go mad if you let the daily nonsense and stupidity and petty dramas wear you down.

Now if I can just laugh my way through the next 264 days, I’ll have my DD 214.

DD 214


The Rocky Smith of those days honestly believed, I can attest, that the Air Force was a sanctuary for incompetents and loafers incapable of handling civilian life. To him, the evidence was clear.

On the other hand, he was still a young lieutenant, not long out of college, whose work experience was, in fact, limited to the Air Force. Not until he left the military and widened his experience would he learn the truth: all workplaces are the same, whether military, government, academic, privately-held, or whatever.

In reality, the world of Dilbert is the universal norm. Only the people change. And you might as well laugh as cry.


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When I got my Bachelor’s degree in 1964, I wanted to follow up with a Master’s in Journalism and Law. But there was a complication. I took ROTC as an undergraduate, and at some point, the Air Force would call me up to serve four years on active duty.

In reality, months could pass, even a year or more, before your orders arrived. Starting grad school in the meantime was not unreasonable.

But it didn’t happen. My orders arrived immediately. I graduated in early June and became 2nd Lt. Smith by the end of July. Indeed, life is like a box of chocolates.

My assignment was to Cannon AFB in eastern New Mexico. I lived in the Bachelor Officers Quarters and worked as an Administrative Officer, a deputy to one of the squadron commanders. Later, when the C.O. went to Vietnam, I moved up to his job.

Being a Journalism major and predisposed to writing, I quickly fell into the habit of keeping a journal about my life at Cannon.

Here are some entries from late 1965. All the names below are real except “Billy Joe Brown.” For him, a pseudonym seemed prudent.


3 DEC 65

The legal office called this morning and said to come running. They needed me on standby until we got a verdict in the court-martial of one of my airmen, Billy Joe Brown, alleged bad check artist, deserter, and car thief.

Billy Joe and I played double solitaire for an hour, and then the verdict arrived: a Bad Conduct Discharge, forfeiture of all pay, and six months confinement. I signed Billy Joe over to the APs and headed out to find some lunch.

6 DEC 65

Groan. 1st Lt. Jelley from Operations Support called. He said he had reason to believe that one of my men, A1C Wika, had stolen two parachutes while on the night shift and may have hidden them in his room in the barracks.

“You’re kidding,” I said. Jelley said no, he wasn’t kidding. With a sigh, I went up to Wika’s room and woke him up. I said, “Do you know your rights under Article 31 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice?” Nope.

I couldn’t ask questions until he acknowledged his rights, so I went back down to my office, got a copy of Article 31, and read it to him. He said he understood.

So I said, “Wika, don’t laugh, but did you swipe two parachutes while you were working last night, and if so, are they hidden in this room?” The room is barely large enough for me, Wika, and the bed.

“Yeah, Lieutenant,” he snorted. “I stuffed them in the pillowcase.”

7 DEC 65

I got to my office this morning to find 2nd Lt. Harkrider and MSgt Childress from Base Fuels waiting for me. Harkrider, who looks about 14, is trying to grow a mustache. It’s sort of a wispy blond thing. He said someone stole a parka, and he needed my advice on how to open an investigation.

That’s easy, I said. You don’t open an investigation. You call the Air Police, stand back, and watch them open it. Childress, who is twice as big as Harkrider and twice his age, never spoke.

8 DEC 65

MSgt Stricklan is a crackerjack first sergeant. I’m lucky to have him. Everyone at Cannon respects him, from the top brass to the latrine orderlies.

Strick and I have an unofficial arrangement: I don’t do anything without his tacit approval. That way, the squadron runs smoothly, and I get credit for having the sense to listen to my first sergeant. Mama didn’t raise no fool.

Usually, Strick is stoic and cool-headed, but this week he nearly blew a fuse. It happened during the barracks inspection when he discovered that Airman Lloyd hadn’t changed the sheets on his bed for about a year.

Apparently, Lloyd was out boozing the night before and was still sawing logs when Strick reached his room. Lloyd usually has the bed made and the room ready for inspection, but this time, he was sprawled out on the bed zonked, and the linens were exposed for all to see.

Something about it hit a nerve with Strick. He was appalled. Indignant. He said the sheets were brown, Lieutenant! Literally brown! He reamed Lloyd out and told him to (1) change the bed, (2) prepare for a re-inspection, and then (3) report to my office.

An hour later, a half-hung-over Lloyd knocked on my office door. He admitted he hadn’t changed the sheets since he arrived at Cannon this time last year, but he didn’t see what the big deal was. It was easier just to make the bed and be done with it.

I patiently made a hygiene case. Lloyd wasn’t impressed. No matter, I told him. I suspect you’re about to be put on a laundry schedule that will be personally monitored by the First Sergeant.

10 DEC 65

Maj. Colvard from Operations Support called. He wanted to know if I had reported the theft of the two parachutes to the APs. I said no, they aren’t my parachutes.

Maybe not, he said, but Col. Shepard wants you to handle it. And while you’re at it, report the loss of six aircraft tires. I have the paperwork. Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.


In my next post, some journal entries from 1967.

Stricklan & Smith

MSgt Stricklan and 2nd Lt. Smith in the Orderly Room, December 1965. Note the many decorations Lt. Smith had earned at that stage of his military career.


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Finding My Niche

Before I retired and became a man of leisure, I was an ordinary working dude. A nine-to-fiver. A white-collar wage slave.

Over the years, I came to know a series of corporate cultures that were every bit as Kafkaesque as the world of Dilbert, but without the humor.

Some of those places — actually, most of those places — were dreadful, borderline dysfunctional organizations. Bureaucracy, politics, and incompetence were constant obstacles. In truth, the organizations were not so much managed as mismanaged, and everyone knew it.

And, oh, how I hated it. The pomposity of the corporate caste system, the norm of inefficiency and waste — everything about it was offensive. I was in a state of constant indignation.

Probably, eventually, I was destined to leave corporate life behind. I had no idea what I might do to make a living, but I wasn’t making peace with the life I was leading.

Then, in 1989, when I took a new job in metro Atlanta, I got a lucky break.

The job was in the advertising department at Lithonia Lighting, a national manufacturer of commercial, industrial, and residential light fixtures.

The position, it turned out, provided a niche that gave me unexpected protection from the worst of the corporate crapola. I was able to do my work in a manner I found acceptable. It was a gift from God.

The details are a bit tedious, but I’ll try to keep it simple.

Lithonia Lighting hired me as the company’s first professional copywriter. The Advertising Department staff included graphic designers and marketing types, but no writers.

I soon learned that, in large part, I was hired to fix a chronic and maddening problem: the higher-ups were tired of being sued, sometimes by their own sales reps, over typos and inaccuracies in the printed material describing the products.

For a long time, the bosses had been reluctant to hire a writer. This was a company of and for engineers — real men — not some useless liberal arts major.

But they finally relented, and there I was, a detail-oriented guy with a knack for writing, grammar, proofreading, and similar skills that the engineers, poor things, clearly lacked.

The inaccuracies in the sales literature were having real consequences. When a contract is signed to supply the light fixtures to populate an office building, a factory, a mall, or whatever, the financial commitment is significant.

And lots of variables are involved — wattage, voltage, light source, lumen output, fixture dimensions, and more. If the products delivered are not precisely as quoted, and don’t perform precisely as promised, the manufacturer (or the manufacturer’s rep) is legally liable.

Lithonia Lighting was capable of manufacturing countless product variations. The technical specifications for all those theoretical products were maintained in a vast set of central files. The files amounted to a blueprint of what could and could not be manufactured.

When the sales reps needed descriptions of specific products to facilitate a deal, the company would refer to the official files and furnish the necessary information to the reps. In effect, documents describing any version of any product were available on demand.

When a product was modified or a new product variation was created, the central files were updated. Thus, theoretically, the sales force always had access to the latest and most accurate information.

In the years before I came along, the central files had been maintained and updated by a succession of employees — product engineers, marketing trainees, sales people, and others.

They were, to be sure, sincere and capable folks in their areas of specialty. But ensuring the accuracy of a huge mass of constantly-changing data was not among their skills. Hence, they decided to try someone like me.

Owing to the scale of the task, I was allowed to hire a few young copywriters fresh out of college. Like most writers, they were naturally detail-oriented and undeterred by what others might see as overwhelming and unmanageable.

And it worked. Within a year or two, we brought discipline to the system and restored the data files to a state of accuracy that was, if not perfect, at least acceptable. The lawsuit problems faded away. The bosses were pleased.

As a result of all this, management tended to stay out of my way. They were happy to let me do my thing, more or less undisturbed.

Because I was important to them in this manner, I was exempt from many of the petty annoyances of corporate life.

When a stupid management fad came along — Six Sigma, Core Competency, Management by Objectives — I wasn’t forced to endure the training sessions as were my peers.

And never once was I assigned to the universally-hated duty of helping to conduct the periodic inventories of the main warehouse, which was the size of the Pentagon.

As time passed, the people changed, and the tools we used and the tasks we performed evolved. But the work remained interesting and fun.

The Advertising Department, an enclave of creative types amid a sea of math and science majors, was never dull.

And I stayed plenty busy. In addition to overseeing the product data, we produced product catalogs, prepared advertising and marketing material, wrote news releases and newsletters, and edited a steady mass of correspondence.

Yes, the place was still a typical large corporation. The bureaucracy was appalling. The mismanagement, at times, was spectacular and stultifying.

But I stayed anyway. For 25 years.

All because I got lucky and found my niche.



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The cubicle, the familiar modular workstation used in offices everywhere, was invented in 1967. It was the brainchild of designer Robert Propst, head of research for Herman Miller, Inc., the American manufacturer of office furniture.


Propst was assigned to identify problems in the modern office environment and find sensible solutions. The project was a good-faith, objective, scientific undertaking.

Back in those pre-cubicle days, Propst said, “Today’s office is a wasteland. It saps vitality, blocks talent, frustrates accomplishment. It is a daily scene of unfulfilled intentions and failed effort.”

He and his team looked for ways to reduce material costs and use office space more efficiently, while at the same time, boosting worker productivity. That would be done by providing a degree of privacy, limiting distractions, and making the workplace more comfortable and more inviting.

The result of Propst’s efforts was the “Action Office,” which featured inexpensive modular components that could be changed easily.

The design facilitated interaction with co-workers, but allowed privacy when appropriate. The placement of the components encouraged workers to move around instead of remaining sedentary.

Propst was convinced his concept would transform the business world and lead to major increases in employee productivity.

Ironically, it succeeded at the former, but at the expense of the latter.

Capitalism, true to its mercenary nature, simply used the “cubicle” concept to pack as many workers as possible into the available space.

As the reality of the situation dawned, Propst was appalled and outraged. “The cubiclizing of people in modern corporations is monolithic insanity,” he wrote.

But the corporate world does not care what idealistic do-gooders think. Cubes and cube farms quickly became ubiquitous in the modern office — a symbol of enforced uniformity and the pitiful, stultifying life of the lowly office drone.

Today, Herman Miller still manufactures the Action Office and still promotes it as grandly envisioned by Robert Propst. But the effort is hollow and forlorn.


My own introduction to the scourge of cubicles in the workplace came in the late 1980s, when I was working as a copywriter in the advertising department of a large manufacturing company near Atlanta.

The company was Lithonia Lighting, which built residential, commercial, and industrial light fixtures. The company employed a few thousand people in several states. Business was excellent.

By that time, I had been with Lithonia Lighting for almost 10 years. I had joined them as their first-ever professional writer, and they liked the results — so much so that I was ordered to hire and train a few more of my kind.

The job of us copywriters was to write the sales material that went out to Lithonia’s customers and sales reps around the country — brochures, catalogs, product data sheets, etc.

Most importantly, we were expected to proofread everything with ferocious intensity to be sure it was accurate.

Before we wordsmiths came along, the company was taking constant heat from sales reps and customers about inaccuracies in the literature. Because of pointless typographical errors, the company literature couldn’t be trusted to provide accurate product specs — e.g., the precise weight and dimensions of the products.

When you’re dealing with an order of ceiling lights to fill a skyscraper, numbers count.

Because of earlier inaccuracies, the higher-ups had lost several painful lawsuits. They had become very unforgiving of typos.

I mention this to establish that proofreading was an important part of our work as copywriters. Our duties required close attention and concentration, and most  of the time, we worked quietly and alone. When a copywriter’s office door was closed, you knew to come back later.


That was the situation when plans were announced to renovate/upgrade/modernize the Advertising Department offices, for the first time in several decades.

As a manager, I would have a private office. But my copywriters and the rest of the underlings in the department faced wholesale cubicalization.

When I saw the schematic for the first time, my anguish was almost palpable. Surely — SURELY — I thought, the company wouldn’t needlessly hamper the ability of the copywriters to do critical work for the sake of some trendy concept.

Of course they would.

With no real hope of getting anywhere, I decided to lodge a formal objection to the plan.

Being mentally hard-wired as a liberal, I resolved to use logic. I would reason with them, appeal to them on a factual level, help them see the light.

Being mentally hard-wired as conservatives, the bosses had no logic gene to appeal to. Seeing the light was not in their nature, or their interest.

Well, that statement is not entirely accurate. Although I lost the war over the cubicalization of my staff, I won a minor victory in the initial battle.


When I approached my immediate boss to protest, I made the point that the proposed cubicles actually would cost more than standard offices with walls.

I knew that was true because I had talked to the construction guys. They said the cubes would be built by cutting off the plasterboard walls at a height of six feet and topping them with metal caps. In the end, that was more labor-intensive and more expensive than installing standard wall panels from floor to ceiling.

My second point, of course, was that the loss of privacy would be a detriment to doing our jobs.

I predicted flippantly that if the copywriters were allowed to have real offices, the ROI in productivity would be about two weeks.

My boss was sympathetic, but understandably impotent in the matter. Only the higher-ups could make exceptions to issues of such gravity.


A week or two later, time enough for the issue to float up to the decision-makers and come back down, I had an answer.

To my amazement, the copywriters would be allowed to have actual offices. With floor-to-ceiling walls.

But the doorways, they decreed, would be doorless.


About five years later, in another wave of modernization, the copywriters were swept out of their walled-but-doorless offices and into a sea of standard cubicles, joining the rest of the rabble.


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For most of my working life, I was the de facto office wordsmith. In matters of spelling, grammar, and the art of phrasing things to best advantage, I was the designated go-to guy.

I got overruled regularly by my corporate masters, but still, I was the acknowledged expert.

Things worked out that way because I enjoy writing and have a knack for it. Consider this blog, for example. I started it after I retired in 2006, and I’ve been posting merrily along ever since.

And I assure you, I’m not in it for the money. There is no money. I do it strictly for the enjoyment and the mental exercise.

Because I was an advertising copywriter for much of my writing career, I typically worked alongside a stable of graphics specialists who handled the design and typography side of things.

Graphic designers are fiercely proud folk who obsess over the minutiae of a project, in much the same way as do accountants and clockmakers. The designer’s realm is one of fonts, kerning, rastering, vectoring, Pantone color-matching, and other such mysteries.

As any one of them will tell you, no mere copywriter is capable of understanding what they do. Graphic design is a calling that requires specialized knowledge and training. That’s certainly true.

Then again, I may not know art, but I know what works.

Bad design is depressingly prevalent all around us. It haunts me wherever I go, just as it haunts my designer friends. Go online and take a look at a typical website. It’s probably an affront to clarity and order in a hundred ways.

Or consider the case of Fairfield Missionary Baptist Church, located on a lonely stretch of Georgia Route 82 south of my little town of Jefferson.

The sign in front of the church caught my attention soon after I moved here. I remember the day I first approached the place and saw the sign from a distance.

The thing is, the “F” in Fairfield is so elaborate and tricked-out — even enclosed in a box and separated from the other letters — that you almost don’t notice it.

The first time I saw the sign, I honestly thought it said Airfield Missionary Baptist Church.

And it isn’t just me. A couple of years ago, my ex and I were taking two of our granddaughters somewhere, and we drove past the church.

Maddie, the older granddaughter, was about six or seven at the time and a voracious reader — of books, road signs, anything.

As soon as the church came into view, I said, “Maddie! Quick! What’s the name of that church up ahead?”

She looked up at the sign in the distance and replied without hesitation, “Airfield!”

I may not know art, but I know what works. And doesn’t.



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As one would hope it to be, my college experience was a happy, entertaining, and enlightening time of my life.

I loved the freedom, the challenge, the sheer joy of those years. Every day was fun and exhilarating, not just for me, but for those around me. What could be better than that?

As I explained in an earlier post, those were austere times for the Smith family. Dad had just retired from the Air Force, and he took a substantial pay cut to reenter civilian life.

As a result, my financial situation at college was bleak. I was functionally poor. Chronically bereft of spending money. Always lacking a few extra bucks for a few extra beers.

Technically, everything was under control. At the beginning of each term, Dad paid in advance for my dorm room, meals, tuition, and books. But after that, precious little remained for socializing and frivolity.

I wasn’t alone, of course. Plenty of other students were on a shoestring budget. You simply made the best of it.

And, if you truly were in need, a solution was available. You could get a job.

Later on, I worked various part-time jobs here and there. I worked downtown, for example, serving tables at Ma Dean’s Boarding House. In exchange for working one meal a day, I got three meals free.

I finally had to quit. The food was great, but eating three meals a day at Ma Dean’s was killing me. Half of everything she served was cooked in a deep-fat fryer.

But for my first two years in Athens, I made the conscious decision not to take on a part-time job.

Why? For one thing, carrying a full academic load was time-consuming. I took college seriously and wanted to do well.

Furthermore, at least for a while, I wanted to enjoy the little free time that was left to me. I was willing to forego the money in exchange for the freedom. To me, that seemed like a reasonable and harmless arrangement.

Mom seemed to understand, but Dad was clearly irked. To him, it was evidence that I lacked a proper work ethic.

In Dad’s mind, it wasn’t enough to have a work ethic; you needed to demonstrate that you had it. He communicated that feeling without formally expressing it, as most fathers are capable of doing.

For my entire freshman year, Dad fumed about it. Then, when summer arrived and school was out, he ambushed me. He set me up with a full-time summer job.

Dad probably made the arrangement through a business acquaintance. I don’t know for sure. In any case, the plan was completely unrealistic, doomed from the start. And, after certain unfortunate events played out, even Dad admitted that.

The events of which I speak occurred as follows…

The job was at Flowers Baking Company on the south side of Atlanta. At the time, Flowers was franchised to produce Sunbeam Bread.

Sunbeam — the brand that featured on its packaging the wholesome, angelic image of Little Miss Sunbeam, one of the great symbols of both white bread and whitebread culture.

The bakery was a huge operation, employing hundreds. Production was largely automated. On the giant factory floor, ingredients were mixed, poured, baked, cooled, wrapped, stacked, and shipped out to the grocery stores, all in one continuous operation, around the clock, shift after shift, without end.

My job was in the stacking stage. I stood at the end of a gravity-operated steel conveyor belt. As the wrapped loaves rolled downhill in my direction, I had to place them in stackable plastic trays waiting behind me.

When a tray was full, I placed an empty tray on top of it and filled that one in turn. When the stack of trays reached a certain height, another worker took it away, into a waiting delivery truck.

On paper, it was simple. In practice, it was a nightmare.

First, the bakery was 40 miles from home, on the other side of Metro Atlanta. The cost of gas was going to dent my paycheck severely.

Further, I was assigned to a shift that worked from 6:00 PM to 2:00 AM. Getting to work meant fighting the evening rush hour traffic.

The work itself was not only tiring, but stupifyingly repetitious and monotonous. We had to repeat the same motions, over and over. Loaves came down the rollers without let-up. Unless you kept up, they would be all over the floor. In the eyes of the bosses, surely that would be a flogging offense.

Every hour, we got a 10-minute break. That was my time to rest, to contemplate the miserable working conditions and the pathetic pay — and to endure the taunts of my co-workers.

Ah, yes, my co-workers.

I was assigned to a team of four. The other three, about my age, worked at the bakery full time. Two were black, one was white.

The white kid was an arrogant, menacing person who considered himself the lord of his corner of the production line.

From the very beginning, he went after me mercilessly. He needled me for being a soft, privileged college kid. He ridiculed me for how I got the job. He made fun of my inexperience, my clothes, my glasses, my haircut.

The black guys served as his audience and enablers. They never joined in the heckling, but they laughed uproariously at everything the white kid said.

After the third or fourth break, the white kid went analytical on me. He started in on my inner shortcomings, such as why I was such a snob with such an irritating air of superiority.

All of his wisecracks were expressed as humor, but he meant every word. The hostility was genuine and ominous.

At first, I tried to go along with it. I laughed politely at the jokes and mildly protested. I also tried asking the three of them friendly, benign questions — where they were from, how long they had been at the bakery.

When that didn’t help, I ignored them. Naturally, that didn’t help either.

Finally, at a rest break around midnight, I saw red and got really angry. I told the little punk to back off.

He reacted as if I had stomped on his toe.

He rushed at me, fists and curses flying.

I wasn’t prepared for so quick an assault, but he never reached me. The two black guys, apparently knowing their co-worker well, grabbed him and held him back.

As the white guy struggled and yelled, one of the black guys pleaded, “You wanna get yourself fired? You wanna get all of us fired?”

Soon, the fit of rage subsided, and the white guy stopped straining. For a few long seconds, he fixed me with a cold, murderous look. Then he jerked his arms free and left the break room.

The incident was over. So was my career at Flowers Baking Company. The next day, I quit. I didn’t tell the bosses why.

A day or two later, I sat in the living room with Mom and Dad discussing my run-in with psycho boy.

Mom thought the kid should be reported. He was unhinged, a loaded gun waiting to go off.

True enough. But Dad thought getting him in trouble would only enrage him further. He was bound to lash out, maybe at work, or against his girlfriend, or a family member. I agreed.

Finally, so did Mom. Any action we took probably would backfire. We could do nothing to help. We let it go.

In the break room that night, I came very close to having my butt soundly thrashed. The white guy was a thug and a bully, but I remember him with sadness and pity.

What happens in a person’s life to leave them so bitter and angry? So damaged?

A few days later, mail arrived from the bakery. It was my first and final paycheck, for an insignificant sum. Typed across the bottom of the check was, “Worked one shift and quit without explanation.”

Ordinarily, I care a great deal about what others think of me. Ordinarily, that statement would have been humiliating.

In this instance, it wasn’t. Except for the bosses and some accounting clerk, everyone who mattered understood the facts.

Somehow, when I think back on my brief career at Flowers Baking Company, my first thought is not about my volatile co-worker.

No, Instead of that unpleasantness, my first thought is about the omnipresent, overpowering aroma of baking bread.

And second, I think about the episode of “I Love Lucy” in which Lucy and Ethel are assigned to an assembly line, with predictable results.

I feel their pain.

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I worked in the advertising business for many years, so I’m well acquainted with the tendency of corporate executives to meddle in ad campaigns.

When it comes to advertising and sales promotion, management is especially prone to overruling the staff — creating the themes, coming up with the slogans, writing the copy.

It’s easy to see why. Compared to the mundane crap the executives usually face, advertising work is SO much more fun.

And, as a rule, nobody in their employ has the fortitude to tell them the truth — that their ideas are almost always amateurish and lame.

Some years ago, when I worked at Lithonia Lighting, one of the senior vice presidents (we had lots of them) had a eureka moment and proudly announced to us a new company slogan that he, himself, personally had created. It was this:

Lithonia Lighting… A Place Where People Count.

He was so, so proud.

At that time, Lithonia Lighting already had two official slogans, both absolutely sacrosanct and untouchable: “Best Value in Lighting” and “Easy to Do Business With.” Those slogans dated back to the early years of the company and were as revered as Mother Teresa.

The “People Count” slogan certainly wasn’t intended to replace either one. No way. It was merely a tactical thing — something to hang an ad campaign on because, well, we were overdue for some kind of promotional paroxysm.

The SVP instructed us to go forth and promote the slogan throughout the corporation with great vigor. Which we did.

Now, fundamentally, A Place Where People Count is a perfectly nice sentiment. But as I explained to my boss, it had a fatal flaw.

“It will be ridiculed,” I told him. “People will begin literally to count — ‘one, two, three.’ The whole idea will be reduced to a joke.”

Maybe my boss didn’t believe me. Maybe he feared retribution from the SVP. Maybe he wanted the campaign to fail. For whatever reason, he wouldn’t take the matter upstairs.

So we went ahead with the campaign. Promotional items bearing the slogan appeared. It was promoted aggressively throughout the company.

Within days, the inevitable happened.

An employee would pass an acquaintance in the hall. After they exchanged greetings, one might say, in a deadpan manner, “One, two, three…”

To which his friend might reply, equally straight-faced, “38, 39, 40…”

And it quickly spread. Soon, similar exchanges were taking place in company offices as far away as California and Indiana.

The counting phenomenon lasted for a few weeks and eventually faded. After a time, the slogan and the campaign likewise died.

My guess is that upper management, and the senior vice president in particular, never knew that the mockery had taken place.

To the rank and file, however, it was a welcome and amusing distraction.

God knows, the poor wretches deserved it.

A Lithonia Lighting ad from 2010 that sticks to the basics.

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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.


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.


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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