All posts by jimazing

Workin’ for the Man – Part 12

Working Two Jobs

 

dead-tired-with-baritone.jpg You know it is funny. Working in IT, I was earning a pretty good wage, but four teenaged daughters can be expensive! At the same time that I was doing the IT gigs, I was also resurrecting Anderson’s Music as a home based business. Mostly, I did work for other music stores, but I also had a few customers who came to the house. I actually had more business as a home based business than I did when I had the full service shop. As the business became more successful, it began taking over my life. Jeanie handled the pickups and deliveries to schools. Kat helped disassemble and reassemble instruments, but I was the technician, and I was tired. The business didn’t produce enough money by itself to support us, but it was producing more work than I could keep up with.

pb-convention.jpgIn 1998, I went on an IT business trip to Charlotte, NC for a PowerBuilder programmers convention (a real geek-fest). There were a few vendors in the hall giving away information (along with the silly squeeze toys that we really wanted) and settled amongst these vendors was a conservatively decorated booth sponsored by by First Union National Bank. I wandered over to the First Union booth and inauspiciously asked the lady behind the table, “Why does a bank have a booth at a Nerd Convention?” Yes, I really did ask that! She replied that they were recruiting for PowerBuilder programmers. While I thought the idea was interesting, I wasn’t actively in the job market, so I stayed long enough to hear her pitch and then politely excused myself for the next presentation.

During the presentation, I couldn’t stop thinking about her description of the job. It sounded really good to me. It would pay as much as I was making with both jobs in Charleston! Like I said, I was tired and the thought of having some free time sounded too good to be true. I went back to the table and got some information to take home. Over the next couple of months we worked out the details. One beautiful spring day, I walked out of the SPA office and down the sidewalk. I wondered to myself if I had lost my mind. I was leaving this location and a job where I had an office with a door to go to work in cubicleville. However, the prospect of making enough money to support my familiy with only one job was singing very loudly and clearly to me. I resigned from the State Ports Authority (SPA) and made plans to move to Charlotte.

Move to Charlotte & First Union

charlotte-skyline.jpg When I took the job at First Union, our oldest daughter had only one year to go in high school, so we agreed to let her finish there. During that year, I would stay in Charlotte during the week and come home to Charleston every weekend for the first year. Even with that concession, the decision was far from a family concensus. Jeanie and I were not winning any popularity contests. The thought of moving was much harder for the girls than I imagined it would be. They were upset that we were taking them away from their friends. The younger ones weren’t as upset, but saw it more as an adventure. (I’ll let them comment with the details that they really felt).

It was a particularly difficult year for the girls and I hated placing so much of the burden on Jeanie. We had some real crises to deal with and I spent a lot of my evenings talking on a pay phone with Jeanie. We didn’t have cell phones and I didn’t have a phone in my apartment. In June of 1999 the family joined me in Charlotte where we still live in the same house.

I will have been with the bank for ten years in May, 2008. This is the longest I have ever been with a single company. During that time, First Union merged with Wachovia and took its name. I have changed roles a little over the years and I do not do as much programming. However, I still support the programs and frameworks that I helped write when I first joined the bank. The way technology changes, it is remarkable that they are still around at all. The life expectancy of a computer program is not very long, if it even makes it into production. I am proud to say that one of the programs that I helped write has been in production (with hundreds of users each day) for over five years… unchanged! It has passed audits and reviews that were not even in existence at the time it was written.

Wrap Up

Writing these posts about my job history has been cathartic for me. I expected it to just be fun to recall some silliness and some thoughts and feelings about my jobs. I didn’t expect to feel some of those feelings as deeply as I did. There were so many more stories than the ones I told. (I think I got all the jobs though). I tried to stick to the ones that were more important to defining who I am today. My jobs don’t define me, but the things that happen at my jobs (and everywhere else) are part of my journey.

I have received a few encouraging posts, emails and phone calls along the way and I want you to know how much I appreciate them. Hearing that my words matter helps keep me writing. Who knows what topic will be next?


Workin’ for the Man Series

Workin’ for the Man – Part 11

My First IT Job

A PC like we had at TTC My programming curriculm at Trident Tech was focused on mainframe computing, hence my first IT job was as a mainframe programmer. This was the early 1990’s when the personal computer was just beginning to be considered a serious business machine more than a toy. Our labs at school were setup with new PCs setup with mainframe terminal emulation software. In fact, when I started my first job, I had never even seen a real mainframe terminal.

Mainframe Terminal At Westvaco, right before I arrived on the scene they had replaced their mainframe terminals with PCs. So my coworkers were a bit out of sorts about it… trying to figure out how it worked. This turned out to be a great “equalizer” for me. The other programmers had much more experience than I, but they had no experience on a PC. So I felt like I was able to immediately make a contribution to the team.

As projects came along that involved using Windows, they would pass them off to me, and I was happy to take them. I was ambitious and ready to learn as much as I could. The future of computing was going to be something other than mainframes and I wanted a piece of that. The IT department provided many learning opportunities some of which were about databases. The more I learned about databases and SQL , the more I enjoyed them. Database design is about organizing information in logical ways which lights me up. I believe my affinity for database work is directly related to the satisfaction I received when I organized the bins at the sheet metal shop. It is just part of the way I am “wired”.

Trouble in Paradise

pointy-haired-boss.png After a couple of years, I was moved under a different manager. Little did I know at the time that this move would lead to one of the hardest moments in my life. I was young and naïve and I operated from a belief that I could get along with anyone. My manager and I weren’t buddies, but I liked her ok and I thought she liked me. At some point, however, our relationship took a turn for the worse. I don’t know when it happened or why it happened, but I found myself in a position in which I could not please her. This was a real blow to me because I operated from a belief that I could make the best of any situation and I could make other people like me. I now know that as a classic example of codependency (sometimes, I think I could have been the poster child for Codependency).

Much to my dismay, our relationship continued to decline. Interestingly, I didn’t tell Jeanie what was happening for a long time. I was afraid that she would worry about my losing my job and I was ashamed and embarrased. In my mind, I was responsible for getting along with everyone. If there was a problem with my boss, it must be my fault. When I could not avoid it any longer, I told her and she was a real trooper. She was less worried about my losing my job and more concerned for my well being. I was so thankful to be able to vent about the situation and so thankful for her encouragement.

Things deteriorated to the point that I felt ill just going to work. If I had a meeting scheduled with her, I was a complete bundle of nerves. During this time, my friend, Curt, was a great encouragor to me. I called him often and he built me up. One day in particular, she called me for a one to one meeting in her office. On the way to her office, I stopped off at a conference room (I worked in a cube with no privacy) and I called Curt. I was so upset that I literally cried. He reminded me that my value was not dependent on my job. He reminded me who God said I am and he prayed with me. I don’t remember the manager meeting, but I will never forget that phone call. Thanks Curt. You are a great friend!

Eventually, I could not take the pressure any longer and I resigned from Westvaco. I did not like the idea of resigning with no prospects for another job, but I trusted that the Lord would watch over us. It was quickly apparent to me that the job market for programming was poor in Charleston and the pay scale was low. Things looked much better in Greenville, SC or Charlotte, NC, but I didn’t have the qualifications to move into those markets. While I was at Westvaco, I had gotten experience programming in PowerBuilder, which I enjoyed. PowerBuilder was becoming the standard platform for businesses everywhere, so that seemed like the ticket to better a better job for me. However, I needed more experience with the latest version.

SPA vs The Pig

I interviewed with the SC State Ports Authority (SPA) and Piggly Wiggly about the same time. I really wanted the SPA job because they were just beginning to use PowerBuilder and they were very interested in me. The computer systems and languages at the Pig were comparatively archaic, which was unappealing. However, the SPA was very slow to respond and Piggly Wiggly was quick to respond. Getting more experience with PowerBuilder was a huge desire for me, but the Pig was actually going to pay me real money to come work for them. My choice was made. You might say I was Big on the Pig.

Fun at The Pig

Right after I started at the Pig, they issued pagers to those of us who supported the inventory system. These were the fancy pagers that would recieve messages not just phone numbers. We had a program on our Unix system our customers could use to send us pager messages. Because the program was overly complicated the system admin wrote a little menu driven program that gathered all the information and sent the page for us. It prompted for your name, the name of the person you were sending the page and the message. Then it put it all together and sent the message to the pager. One day, I got curious about this program, so I went looking for it. I found the program and opened it up to see what made it go. While I was in there, I couldn’t help making a slight modification. I fixed it so that the signature of the message would include “Love, ” + your name. So if I sent a message to Bob, it would say

From: Jim

To: Bob

Blah blah blah. This is an important message…

Love,

Jim

love-heart.gif All of a sudden the Piggly Wiggly warehouse got just a little bit cozier (or uncomfortable depending on who you were and who just sent you a message). At first everyone was wondering why their coworkers were being so friendly. I didn’t take long before they realized something was up. When they found the little modification, they all knew it was me. Everyone took it in fun.

Just a month or two into my job at Piggly Wiggly, I got the offer I had hoped to get from the SPA. This put me in the uncomforable position of wanting to take the SPA job but feeling an obligation to the Pig. Although I didn’t particularly like the work I was doing, the company was great to its employees and I liked my coworkers. To make matters worse, the SPA job would be a slight reduction in pay! However, in the long run, it would give me more of the skills I wanted for my career. I decided for the SPA job and made the move.

At the SPA, the wages were way lower than the industry average, but the benefits of working with the latest version of PowerBuilder supported my longer term vision of getting a better paying job in a better market. When I started, they told me that they were in the middle of restructuring their pay scales and were hopeful that my position would get a substantial raise when they were done. It was several months before they completed the pay scale review and restructuring. My “substantial” raise came to about $200 a year. A real joke. However, I had not gotten my hopes up, so although I was disappointed, I was not surprised. The morning after I found out about the raise, Jeanie had gone to Krispy Kreme for doughnuts for breakfast. When she arrived home, I fussed at her (as a joke) for spending my whole raise on doughnuts!

pineapple-fountain.jpg I did enjoy the work at the SPA. I was learning a lot and building the resume I wanted. One of the ammenities I enjoyed, working for the SPA, was the location. We were in the brick building right beside Waterfront Park in downtown Charleston. If you have ever been out on the pier where the big swings are or at the Pineapple Fountain, you were right next to my office. It was a blast to go out at lunchtime and eat on the park benches and walk around downtown.

Next time a relocation to Charlotte…


Workin’ for the Man Series

Workin’ for the Man – Part 10

Choices

dollar.png Economic pressures caused me to think about my choices for a career. I was learning quickly that raising a family of four daughters is expensive! At the same time, I realized that my income potential was limited as an instrument repair technician. At the same time, I noticed people who were making lots more money than I, but who were not very good at their jobs. Over a two or three year period, thanks to these incompetent people, I gained confidence that I could make a career change. I thought to myself that there was no reason I could not do at least as well as these people. During that time, I swung back and forth emotionally between feeling that I loved what I did so much that it didn’t matter and realizing that if I didn’t do something soon, my family would be in for a difficult future. Family won. I decided to make a change.

It seems like answering one question generally leads to a host of unanswered questions that I had never considered before. This was not different. My decision to make a change merely led to a much bigger choice. What will I do, specifically? The only marketable skills I had were around repairing instruments. I knew I would have to return to school, but to study what? Where? At 31 years old, could I do it? Was it too late? These were very real, very scary questions in my mind.

I visited the local library and looked through the Occupational Outlook Handbook, (which is now online here). This book lists every legal job available in the United States. It tells what kind of person would excel at the job, the qualifications needed, any geographic constraints, how much one can make in the profession and what the future looks like in that field. I sat at the library table with this huge book and a pad of paper. First I scanned the table of contents and wrote down every job that I was interested in; no matter how remote the interest. This was a dreaming session. Next, I looked up each of these professions in the book to get the details. One by one, I eliminated all of them except Engineering and Computer Programming. I weighed those two in my mind for a few days or weeks and eventually made the choice to go for computer programming because I could do it with only two more years of school. Time was a huge factor. With four little girls, I didn’t want to bite off any more than I had to.

Back to School

I signed up for classes at Trident Technical College, a community technical college in North Charleston. PEL grants paid almost everything, my first year (tuition was cheap). I approached the whole thing with much fear and trembling. Could I really handle school along with working full time and being an involved dad? I got into school and did very well at it.

statistics.png One of my classes the first semester was Statistics. I enjoyed the class and I understood the material perfectly. On my first test, I got a C. I didn’t mind my grade being low, but the reason it was low bugged the crap out of me. I understood the material, I had made careless mistakes in my calculations. From then on, I changed my ways with test taking. My approach was to skip any questions I wasn’t absolutely sure of. When I finished, I would go back over the test and do those questions I skipped. When I finished that second time, if I still had time, I started over and checked my answers. Usually, I was the last one to finish each test… But there were no points given for finishing faster! I quickly learned the ropes and made straight A’s.

I not only went to school full time, I also worked full time, and was a full time dad. My job at Fox Music was ideal for me while going to school. As long as I did my work, they didn’t care when I worked. I was paid a straight commission, so I had the incentive to do the work quickly and thoroughly. Since I had a key to the repair shop, I could work around my school schedule, which was much easier than it would have been to schedule classes around work. I spent many late nights at the shop after helping tuck the girls into bed.

notecards.png Another way I survived was by finding ways of combining studying with my other resposibilities. When I studied my text books, I took notes on 3×5 cards. I would outline the text and write words and definitions. Immediately after class, I reviewed my notes and copied them onto 3×5 cards too. I put a clue on the back side of the card, so I could use them as flash cards. After I finished making the flash cards, I put away the book and my notes. Everything I needed to know was on the cards. Every free second, I was studying those cards. When I stopped at a traffic light, the cards came out. At work, I had the cards out on the bench while I fixed instruments. I took the cards on outings and campouts with the girls. Wherever I went, the cards went. As I reviewed them, I separated out the ones I knew and kept the ones I didn’t know. However, I didn’t throw the ones I knew away, I saved them for the final review. For that final review at the end, I put all the cards back together to make sure I relearned anything I might have forgotten . It was a lot of work, but it was a perfect method for me. It allowed me to keep doing things that were important to me, while adding a huge undertaking to my life. In a way, I had my cake and ate it too.

I made some great friends at school. One of these friends was Cindy E. She was also an adult returning to school for computer programming. Along the way both Cindy and I learned of an IT job opening at Westvaco, a local paper/chemical manufacturing plant. Now we were in competition for the same job! We polished our resumes and prepared for the big interview. It seemed like forever that we had to wait to hear their decision. Did one of us get the job? Did it go to someone else altogether? Finally, the big day arrived and we were both surprised to learn that they wanted us both. It had taken a long time to respond because they had to create a second job in order to get both of us! Thus began my career in IT.

Next time, Westvaco.


Workin’ for the Man Series

Workin’ for the Man – Part 9

Back to the Instrument Repair Business

assembly-bench In Part 4 , I talked about my initial job learning musical instrument repair trade and why I left that job. I came back, but under a much better pay scale. This time, I was paid just like all the other technicians and I felt like I could make a go at it. By this time, my former mentor had moved on to bigger and better things so I was the brass repairman. I enjoyed the work and I did it well.

I am not only a “fixer”, I am a “learner”. Doing the same thing over and over bores me, so I asked about learning woodwind repair. Unfortunately, this didn’t fit with the plans of my boss. He felt that they were well covered with woodwind technicians and he wanted me to concentrate on the brass. I didn’t want to switch jobs, just to learn. About this time, I began to get the itch to branch out and start my own business. I wanted to have the freedom to do the kind of work that I wanted to do.

penske.pngA music shop in Dallas, Texas had gone out of business and was selling all of their equipment and supplies. I approached my dad and we entered into a business partnership in which he would supply the startup money and I would make the business go. He was a silent partner and I was the managing partner. My friend, Mark S and I flew to Texas, picked up a big rental truck, loaded it with all the stuff and headed for Charleston, SC. That was a fun trip. Long… very long, but fun.

Anderson’s Music

mellophone-bell beforeTo see my portfolio from Anderson’s music, click here. I setup Anderson’s Music in Ladson, SC doing everything myself (brass and woodwinds). The technician at Fox Music, Gene, and I were friends (even though they were my biggest competitor). Gene came out to visit fairly often and offer his encouragment. One time he brought a mellophone bell that was smashed flat by a bus. They had already ordered a new bell for it, and he jokingly asked me to fix it. However, to his surprise, I asked him to let me fix it. I knew I could do it, and this would give me some great before and after shots for my portfolio.

mellophone-bell after He left the bell with me and I proceded to fix it. After I finished it, I invited him back out to see it. He was amazed at how well it came out. Soon after that, he called me and wanted to know what I would charge for that repair. It seems that he needed to use that bell after all because the manufacturer sent the wrong part! I was excited that I got some great photos AND I got paid for the work too!

Being in business brought its own challenges. Doing excellent work was not a problem. Getting enough work to pay the bills was. I was Anderson’s Music; the salesman, the technician, the delivery person, the bookkeeper… everything. If there’s any one lesson that I took away from going into business, it would be that it takes more than being good at your craft to make a business work. Although I was a very good technician, I had no idea how to run a business. I was not bringing in enough repair work to keep the doors open. If it had not been for my dad shoveling money into the business and Jeanie working as a nurse, we would have gone under a lot sooner. After a few months, I realized that the best course for me was to get out while I still could.

I approached the folks at Fox Music about buying my equipment and supplies so I could just walk away from it all. (Secretly, I wished I could work for them. In my mind, they had everything that I was lacking: They were well established. They had plenty of work. I do the repair work that I loved without responsibility of finding it and billing for it). I was happy when they agreed to buy all of my stuff, but I was absolutely elated when they asked me to come to work for them! In fact that was a condition of their buying all the equipment and supplies. They wanted me as badly as I wanted them! I happily accepted their offer.

The Fox Music Years

cimg18881.JPG I knew that I would enjoy being workmates with Gene, but I had no idea what a great friend he would be. We worked side by side every day for over five years and we talked about anything and everything. Although he was Catholic and I was Protestant, we had a bond in the Christ that was very real. I don’t know anyone who loves Jesus more than he. This photo was taken a couple of weeks ago when Gene joined my family for Veteran’s Day concert at CSU where Danae is the principle flautist. It was great to catch up with him. I miss him terribly.

Fox Music was very good to me, and I was very good to them. I had lots of ideas that I had thought of while I was in business, but didn’t have the resources to make them happen. At Fox, I was able to try them out (and some of them were quite successful). One of my ideas was to go into the band classes to do free inspections and estimates on the instruments. This was good for the parents (saved them a trip to the music store), it was good for our relationship with the band directors (created a sense of partnership) and ultimately good for Fox Music and me.

Although I could make more money doing the routine work, I found that to be boring. My favorite jobs were the challenges. Something that I had never done before, or rarely got to do. These didn’t pay as well because I was slower at them and could not charge the customer enough for the time I had in them. One of my very favorite stories is when I opened an old case to find an Albert System clarinet (an old, obsolete style of clarinet). My first thought was that someone has found it in their attic and wants fix it up for their child to learn on, which would be a grave mistake. Giving a child this clarinet would have handicapped them considerably. The right thing to do would be to talk them out of the repair (But I really wanted to work on it. I knew it was a rare opportunity). When I called the customer, an elderly lady answered the phone. When I asked what she planned to do with the instrument, I was so happy to hear her answer. It seems that she was the original owner and she understood just what she had. She knew that it was an obsolete system, but she wanted to get it fixed so she could play in the community band again! What a pleasure it was to work on that instrument! I am sure I didn’t charge her enough, but the experience was well worth it for me. It was the only Albert System clarinet I ever saw!

moon-stars.png Once, a old beatup Tuba came in with the bell crunched and crinkled. It was full of cracks and holes that needed to be patched. Patching a brass instrument involves cutting a piece of brass a little larger than the hole, forming it to the shape of the instrument where the hole is and soldering it in place. This tuba was special because it had a lot of holes in the bell where the patches would be seen by everyone. So I got creative, I cut the patches in crescent moon shape and star shapes. Even though it was more work, it was worth it. That may be the only tuba in the world with the moon and stars in the bell.

A wise man told me that I would never get rich at this business and I was beginning to see the truth in that. The girls were getting older and supporting them wasn’t getting any cheaper. I soon realized that I needed to go back to school and get a skill that paid better than what I was doing. More about the transition from instrument repair to IT next time.


Workin’ for the Man Series

Workin’ for the Man – Part 8

Restaurant Business

ham-n-eggs.JPGWhile looking for my next job, I met a man who owned a small restaurant in Boone. The name of this restaurant was “Ham & Eggs”. When he offered me a job as a short order cook, I took him up on it. As a young man with a family to support and no marketable skills, anything that pays and is respectable would do. Ham & Eggs was laid out very much like a Waffle House (in fact, this location is now the Huddle House on Blowing Rock Rd). It was a long building with the cook (that was me) out front, booth seating and bar seating near the grill. I quickly learned how to cook eggs, pancakes, waffles and all sorts of sandwiches. I even learned how to crack eggs with one hand, a skill that I practice regularly to this very day!

Mind Games

The waitresses brought the orders up to the grill and slipped them in this ticket holder that kept them right in front of me. I read the orders and cooked the meals. Sometimes, when we got busy, the orders would come in way faster than I could cook them and the ticket holder would fill up. A full set of tickets meant lots of people were waiting to eat. That’s bad! After I got the hang of it, I created a little private game. The game helped me get through the boredom of doing the same old thing over and over. The object of this game was to get the tickets off and empty the holder as quickly as possible. The waitresses were unaware of the game, but they were my opponents because they kept putting up more tickets! When a new ticket came up, I evaluated it as quickly as I could, to see if it was one I could get down quickly and be done with it. I know it was silly, but it worked for me.

Another game I played involved an older gentleman who came in every morning around 10:00 after the breakfast rush. He was there almost every day. He always ordered a grilled cheese sandwich, and he always sat in the same seat at the end of the bar. The object of this game was to have a hot grilled cheese sandwich waiting for him at his seat when he arrived. As soon as I would see him pull into the parking lot, I would start cooking his sandwich. It was great fun when the sandwich beat him to his seat. I think it made him feel special and it also gave me some time to chat with him, which I enjoyed.

Being a 24 hour operation, there was a time that I did my tour of third shift. Staying up all night was very hard for me, but the biggest challenge was the night rush. At that time, Boone was dry (no alcohol sales allowed… period). Just a few miles away, in Blowing Rock, the bars closed at 2:00 AM. At 2:30, you could count on a restaurant full of intoxicated patrons. One night, while I was working as hard as I could playing my “empty the ticket holder” game, one of the waitresses came up behind me to tell me that someone in one of the booths had a message for me. There was no way I could leave the grill, so I turned to see what was up. A rather tipsy young lady called out, “I love you!” Not quite knowing what to do, I yelled back, “No you don’t, I’m married!” and I flashed my wedding ring at her. I thought it was pretty funny.

Sea Grits

One evening, a customer walked in and asked me if we had sea grits. I told him I didn’t know what sea grits were. This being a breakfast restaurant, I imagined that he had gotten some grits made with sea salt or something like that. It was not uncommon for a customer who had never had grits to want to taste a grit. But not this guy. He was definitely a local. He got more exasperated every time he asked, “Sea Grits. You got any sea grits!” I tried my best to understand, but I could not make heads or tails of what he was saying. Finally, I called over a waitress and asked her to interpret for me. He repeated his request and she said no, we got rid of the machine a while back. She smiled and turned to me as he walked away. It seemed that he was wondering if we still sold cigarettes.

Why, God?

mop.png I guess it goes without saying that this was not the most glamourous job in the world and I quickly grew to hate it. However, I believed that I was there because God had me there for a reason. Once I fulfilled my purpose, I could move on. In a way, it was another game… the “Figure out what God wants me to do” game. One night, while mopping the floor at the end of my shift, I remember crying out to God asking why he still had me there. Since I hated the job so much, I reasoned that He must be trying to teach me something. I was ready to move on to something new. In my mind, God’s will for me was a narrow path laid out that included all the little choices and decisions I might make. So my role consisted of simply waiting for Him to tell me what to do next. My view of what it looks like to follow God has changed a lot since then.

After about a year as a cook, the owner, Mike, opened another restaurant and asked me to be the manager. It was just outside the ski resort on Beech Mountain and we named it the “Ski Food Shoppe”. What a goofy name! I had no experience as a manager, no training and my only role model was a pretty poor manager. Needless to say, I was terrible as a restaurant manager. The Ski Food Shoppe failed after just a few months and I found returning to the musical instrument repair business. More about that next time.


Workin’ for the Man Series

Workin’ for the Man – Part 7

 Linn Cove Viaduct

lynn-cove-viaduct1.jpg I must admit that it feels very cool to be able to tell my friends that I helped build the Linn Cove Viaduct . This was a “missing link” in the completion of the Blue Ridge Parkway. For many decades, tourists had to have to leave the parkway for a dangerous 14 mile detour over narrow, windy US 221. The difficulty that prevented them from completing the parkway was getting around Grandfather Mountain without destroying the natural beauty of the mountain. My purpose, however, is not to tell the story of the Linn Cove Viaduct. You can read that here . My purpose is to tell my family and friends about my experience there.

jim-silly-hard-hat.jpgRod, who was an elder in our church, hired me as an iron worker for Jasper Construction Company (who was constructing the viaduct). We, iron workers, created steel “cages” that were the support for the 153 concrete segments that make up the bridge. Our job was to take steel rebar that was prebent (or straight) and tie it together with wire one piece at a time. I had no experience with iron work before, but it wasn’t difficult to learn. (However it was back-breaking work to do). We created the segments in a building about a mile from the bridge site itself. We built the cages and a crane lifted them and placed them in the forms where they poured the concrete. Because it was so loud, we had to wear hearing protectors that were attached to our hard hats. The way the hearing protection was built-in to the hardhat, you could either place the covers over your ears or fold them up on top of the hat. Since they were flexible, that meant that they also folded out and up like Mickey Mouse ears. This is a photo of me coming home from work at this job. (As you can see, my issues go way back Wink)

lynn-cove-viaduct3.jpg Sometimes, my work would take me down to the bridge site, where the view was absolutely breathtaking. I found it very interesting to watch the workers place the bridge segments together. Since there was no road beneath for them to drive these segments out to the place where they went, they bolted a crane onto the bridge such that it could pick up a segment and hold it in place while it was attached. That meant that at times, the bridge was hanging out in space!

Several of my friends and I carpooled from Boone to work at Jasper. I will never forget Carey’s little convertible VW Bug that was rusting away. Mike B and I would ride in the back with blankets to keep warm because it didn’t have a very good heater. Early one very cold morning, I stepped into the back and my foot went right through the floor! As I recall, that hole was patched with a piece of plate iron from the job site.

The Great Purge

Periodically, Jasper laid off a bunch of workers and hired new ones seemingly for no good reason. I am sure there must have been reason, but as the grunt workers, all we knew was that it seemed random to us. We called them, “The Great Purges”. I made it through several great purges, but eventually one got me. If I was let go for poor work, no one told me. It was just a layoff. It was a hard time to be out of work because we had a baby on the way. Life was about to change completely.

Soon after I lost my job, I learned that life after Jasper for me would mean fixing breakfast for the masses! Next up, Jim, the short order cook.


Workin’ for the Man Series

Workin’ for the Man – Part 6

Rocko

rockwall.pngI do not remember why I left the tree crew for Rocko. Maybe it was the off season. Maybe it was a desire to have a job that paid me money and didn’t require me to be out in the elements. Whatever the reason was, I took a job at a startup company (called Rocko) where we manufactured woodstove mats. These were made from a concrete coating over a composite board of some sort. We had two or three different patterns where we made them look like bricks or stone. The mats were used by consumers who had woodstoves to protect their walls from the heat without having to install real masonary walls.

I was the cement mixer for the two weeks that I was there. One day the boss called me into his office. Guys being guys, my coworkers started poking and teasing, saying that I was going to get fired. A few minutes later, when I came out of the office, they asked me what happened. “I got fired,” I replied. Oh boy did they feel bad. The fact that they were teasing indicated to me that they never expected that to happen. So I had no hard feelings towards them.  The company just wasn’t making it, financially. I was the last in, so I was first out. Those were some hard times financially!  The company didn’t last much longer than that.

House Painter

paintbrush.pngAt that time another guy in the church, Bobby, who was a house painter, said that he would hire me to help him paint. I had no experience painting, but I didn’t think it could be all that hard. I quickly learned that I was not a good painter. So, while I continued to paint, I also continued to look for something else. What I didn’t know was that Bobby was agonizing over what to do about me. On the one hand, he wanted to treat me in a Christlike manner, but on the other hand, his reputation as a painter was at stake and he couldn’t justify keeping me on.   Jesus didn’t leave very explicit instructions on how to fire your friend.

One day, Bobby and our pastor, Tommy had a meeting. Bobby poured out his heart and asked Tommy for advice on what he should do. Tommy was happy to tell Bobby that he had nothing to worry about. The Lord had already solved his problem. It seems that just prior to the meeting, Tommy had receved a call from Rod (another man in the church) who was a foreman on the Lynn Cove Viaduct project. Rod was trying to find me because he had an opening on his ironworker crew that he wanted me to fill.

Next time, Jasper and the Lynn Cove Viaduct.


Workin’ for the Man Series

Workin’ for the Man – Part 5

Tree Crew

I loved working on musical instruments. It was a craft that I felt proud of and I thought I was pretty good at it. However, when it became clear that I was not going to get paid a reasonable wage, I decided it was time to follow the other men I knew and get a real job. Many of my friends from church worked on the “tree crew” and were making big bucks (up to $50 or 60 a day or even more)! Coming from $50 a week job, that was looking pretty good. So I jumped ship at the music store and joined the tree crew.

dibble-use-thumb.jpgThey paid us 5¢ a tree to plant white pine seedlings and 4¢ a tree to plant loblolly seedlings. The reason white pines were so much more is that they take two hands to plant. To plant a white pine, you poke a hole in the ground with the dibble (the tool in the picture). If you are lucky, the ground is soft enough that you can slam the dibble into the ground and it will sink in and create a hole for you. More often than not, when you slammed it down, it bounced on the hard ground. Then you would have to step on the foot peg and wiggle it back and forth to open a hole. After the hole is open, you stick the dibble into the ground next to the hole just to keep it upright so you can let go. Pull a seedling from the bag on your side. Twist the roots and push them down into the hole (making sure not to “J” root-where the roots come back up at the bottom end). Now that the tree is in the ground, you stand up, grab the dibble and poke a hole very close beside the tree hole. Wiggle the dibble such that it pushes the dirt against the tree and leaves a little hole to catch the rain. The tree must be tight enough that Ben could not pull it out by tugging on the needles (right Ben?). It’s one of those things that is tedious to explain, but it is not so difficult to do. It is physically hard work, but mind numbingly simple.

dibble.jpg Loblolly pines were easier to plant because they had a “tap root” that was stiff and pointy with hairy roots connected to it. So, you could plant a loblolly one handed (leaving the other hand free to hang onto the dibble. No double sticking the dibble. No two handed planting. No danger of “J” rooting. That’s why we only got 4¢ for these.

I averaged about 800 white pines a day for about $40. On my very best day ever, I planted 1600 loblollies! I will never forget that day either. It was one of the few overnight planting trips we made down to the piedmont region. The land was flat and felt as hard as concrete. We had been planting the site for a couple of days and we were all very tired. It was looking like we wouldn’t finish that day, so the boss called us together and said that we would stay another night if we didn’t finish it. We were so anxious to get home that we all busted our butts to get it done… and we did!

Generosity

At the end of each day, the foreman would take a tally of how many trees we each planted so that we could get paid for them. This was all honor system and as far as I know, no one ever broke that trust. The trees came in bundles of 200 and we tried our best not to end up with loose, unbundled trees at the end of the day. So if someone finished up and there wasn’t time to plant another bundle, we might take some of the trees that another person hadn’t finished to help him out. Also, when they took our tally’s, some of the guys would “give away” some of their count to others. My friend, Jim Kassner was constantly doing this. I know, because I was frequently the recipient… and it wasn’t always from his excess. He would just lean over and whisper in my ear to add 100 or 200 to my count from his count. He was one of the most selfless people I have ever known.

Horsing Around

horse-plow.png One of my favorite Jim stories was of a particular site we planted just west of Boone. It was a small knoll next to a garden. The farmer who owned the garden was plowing his field while we were planting trees. Each time we came around the hill, we would see him plowing the field. What was remarkable about his plowing was that he was using a horse. When we finished planting, we all took our lunches down by the garden to eat and watch him. He stopped to chat for a telling us the advantages of a horse over a power tiller. After a while, he asked if anyone wanted to give it a try. I wanted to, but I was afraid I would look goofy. After a minute or so, Jim stepped up and said he would like to try. He hooked up the straps and grabbed the plow and went for it. It was not so easy as the farmer made it look. The plow would not go straight and he couldn’t get the horse to turn. (The farmer called out “gee” or “haw” to get him to turn). I was right. Jim looked extremely goofy. However, that decision is one of my few regrets in life… not trying because I was afraid of what others would think.

battleship.png One of my frequent commenters on this site (ded) and I were on the tree crew together for a time. One day, several of us (including ded and me) finished a site early and had to wait for the truck to return for us. While waiting, ded and I decided it would be fun to play a game of Battleship. Only problem was that we didn’t have the game. Not to worry… we played it in our heads. We agreed to a 10×10 grid and started with a single ship three coordinates in length. Gradually we added one or two more ships. This became a regular passtime for us and irritated our workmates to no end as we called out, “D-6”. “Miss”…

I have so many stories about the tree crew that it is hard to know when to quit. In hopes of not losing my audience from entries that go on too long, I’m going to wrap it up with a memory that is less of a single snapshot and more of just a feeling of the way things were. Everyone on the tree crew was committed to following Jesus, so we had a commeraderie that went very deep. We sang together on our trips to and from sites. We frequently prayed for one another and many times just worshipped together. It was a very rich time of bonding and spiritual growth. I am thankful for the experience.

Next time… Rocko Woodstove Mat manufacturing


Workin’ for the Man Series

Heart Friends

heart-shell.png I just returned from a trip with my friend Dave to the hospital to visit our friend, Bob. Bob had open heart surgery two days ago. He’s recovering well and full of spit and vinegar. His stories are so amazing. He tells how God has helped him over and over throughout his life… including some pretty incredible stories about just getting to have this surgery. He’s a great encouragement to me.

When Bob introduced Dave and me to his nurse, he told her that we were part of his men’s group in Charlotte. He also said that I was the one who invited him to be a part of a men’s group. I had forgotten that. It was a few years ago, we had a men’s “retreat” one weekend with Kenny Luck as the guest speaker. Kenny was talking about having good friends and community. I was bored silly. During a break, I was standing in the church atrium and thinking about how little I needed to hear this stuff. I was already in community with several guys. I had all the things he was talking about. While I was sulking and considering whether or not to just leave, God whispered to me that there were others right there in that room who did not have community. Not men who needed to be convinced; men who desparately wanted community, but didn’t know where to find it. I felt the Lord prompt me to turn around and introduce myself to the first person I saw. I turned around and put my hand out and said, “Hi, my name is Jim.” He replied, “I’m Bob.”

I’m so glad that God entrusted me with that little job… and I’m so glad I didn’t let Him down. Bob, I pray for a speedy and thorough recovery for you. You are a great friend.

Workin’ for the Man – Part 4

Brass Musical Instrument Technician (Apprentice)

jimshands.JPGWhen I was a teenager and thinking about what I wanted to do for a career, I knew that I had three loves (other than Jeanie, of course): Jesus, music and working with my hands. I can remember agonizing about what I was going to do for a living the rest of my life. I had just decided that music education was not for me, but what was for me? That was the question. The rest of one’s life at 18 years old seems like an awfully long time. My love for Jesus and my love for music seemed to add up to “minister of music”, but the thought of going down that path was not at all appealing. Even then, I was driven by a sense that being a serious follower of Christ should be able to fit into whatever career path one took. I knew that I could follow Jesus with my whole heart without having to work in a church for a living. Please hear my heart on this, I’m not putting down anyone who works in a church. I am saying that I was not interested in a professional ministry. That’s about me… as is the rest of my blog. My other choice seemed to be to combine my love of music with my desire to work with my hands. I put those two together and decided that more than anything, I wanted to fix musical instruments. That choice was not clear out of the blue however. In high-school, when the repairman from Fox Music, Mr. Maxwell, came to my school to do maintenance and repairs, I watched him as long and as often as I could. I also hung out with Roddy, who was a repairman of sorts at Leonards Music Store. They were both great encouragements to me… although Mr. Maxwell’s most heartfelt advice was to run from this career. He kept telling me that I would never get rich from it. What he really meant to say was that I could very well get poor doing it. He was right.

In 1978, I left Newberry College, married my highschool sweetheart and we headed to App State (ASU) in Boone, NC so I could complete a degree in Music Technology (instrument repair). When I arrived and enrolled, I learned that the program was already being discontinued. I was determined, however, and I approached the leader of the now defunct Music Technology program, known affectionately as “Happy Jack”. Happy Jack had his own music store/repair shop in Boone. So I asked him (actually begged and pleaded with him) for a job in his repair shop. He tried to disuade me too, but I finally convinced him that I was serious about wanting to learn to do instrument repair, so he “hired” me to apprentice with his brass technician, John Dameron. I put “hired” in quotation marks because he paid me $50 a week for which I was expected to put in 40 hours as if I were a regular employee. I considered $50 paid to me to be more favorable than my paying tuition to ASU and I happily accepted the proposition. At that time, Jeanie was a nurse and we could survive comfortably on her income.

trumpet-bell.jpg John taught me everything there was to know about repairing brass instruments. He was quite a teacher. To say that he cared greatly about attention to detail would be a gross understatement. Let’s just say that he literally would not accept anything less than perfection. I learned everything from basic repair to dent removal to complete refinishing. It was sometimes meticulous, always demanding, frequently dirty work and I loved it! When we refinished horns, we would buff them to a mirror finish. In the final buffing step, we used a compound called red rouge. This was so fine that even wearing a tee-shirt, workshirt and an apron, my skin would be completely red on buffing days. Doing this kind of work, I felt like an old world craftsman. Even though we used modern tools where we could, so much of the work was manual and intricate. We often referred to ourselves as “elves”.

After being there for a year or so, I approached Happy Jack about really getting paid for what I was doing. He was not willing to increase my salary to something reasonable, so I resigned. In years to come, I would return to the world of instrument repair, but I didn’t know that at the time. As much as I wanted to be an “old world craftsman”, I was beginning to feel the tug of responsibility. It was time for me to find a way to earn a living so we could start thinking about a family. Many of the guys in our church worked on a tree planting crew and were making “big bucks”. More about the tree crew next time…


Workin’ for the Man Series