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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