Friday, December 3, 2010

On being “better off”

I am content to sleep in regard to political controversy a while longer. I thought I would be able to switch between photography and such subjects as totalitarianism in the same way I have switched between, say, Heidegger and the Invasion of Sicily in World War II. Heidegger was after all alive during that time, and if I wanted to I might imagine what Heidegger thought of the Allied "second front," but photography doesn't relate to anything I've studied recently. So it is difficult to switch from what I've been studying (DSLR related material while I await my eBay purchased two-year-old Olympus E-520) back to an argument with Omar (who seems ready for one).

I could switch back but if I then neglected photography before becoming adept with the E-520 I would feel guilty. A lady in a Ridgeback discussion group, slipping a bit into politics after having wandered off the canine reservation in my blog, was sure I was 'better off' than she was. Well, perhaps now, but I was born during the depression from a blue-collar and farming heritage. I wasn't "better off" then. I enlisted in the Marine Corps during the Korean War, as any Scotch-Irish Jacksonian young man would, but began reading the Classics at 29 Palms after coming back from Korea and deciding that rather than a career with the USMC, I would go to college and do something else.

I suppose I am chafing a bit over this lady's implication (which I may be imagining) that I perhaps inherited something in order to be "better off." I went to college on the G.I. Bill but I was fascinated with the Classics and took courses in Literature, History and Philosophy that would most closely approximate them. And then, when I graduated from college in 1959 with a degree in English, I was certainly not "better off" than anyone that I could think of. My step-father, a truck-driver, had some sense of the sort of degree one ought to get in order to "get ahead," but I insisted on studying what interested me, come what may.

After four years in college and a marriage that in retrospect was not a wise one, I was definitely not "better off" than any one -- at least it didn't seem so, and my step-father was saying "you should have studied engineering." I needed a job but had no idea how to get one; so I went to an employment agency and promised them some percentage of my first month's salary if they could find me a job, and they did. The sent me to Douglas Aircraft Company where I, ironically, was sent to the Engineering Department to turn Engineering proposals into language understandable to the Air Force.

In 1959 I was in a lower rung of the Douglas Engineering department, but an interesting aspect of Engineering was that it was to a substantial degree a meritocracy. They would let you do whatever you could do. Think of Lt. Ripley in Aliens II on the ship with the Marines going off to find out why the colony (that Ripley knew had Aliens on it) wasn't answering. Bored, she asked the Sergeant if there was anything she could do. He looked at her speculatively and answered, "I don't know. Is there anything you can do?" She looked at a robot-looking loader and said, "I can operate one of those." The sergeant waved his hand and let her do it. Perhaps since I had something to prove to my step-father, I worked very quickly and often asked, "Is there anything I can do," and supervisors gave me more and more to do as time went on. Until one day I was indistinguishable from coworkers who had studied engineering in college. I had studied on the job because I was cocky in that meritocracy back then telling the equivalent of Ripley's sergeant that there was nothing I couldn't do.

Was I better off in Engineering in say 1962 after Douglas lost the Skybolt program and I was going to be laid off unless I found another job in Douglas? It was a spooky because I had a profligate wife, a recently purchased house, and a lot of bills. But some of the people I worked with recommended me to the Aircraft division in Long Beach where I would be working on DC-8 proposals and specifications. I didn't feel "better off" then. I had to prove myself in a new department, but I did have the experience of having done that in the Missiles division; so how hard could aircraft be?

It took a successful proposal (the KC-10) to get me out of the Spec Group (by that time Douglas had merged with McDonnell). Once we won that contract I was given a job in "Program Engineering." but I also worked for the KC-10 Program Office. I was given all the work I "could do," and ended up as a kind of assistant to the KC-10 Engineering Director. I seemed "better off" for a while, but then there was a colossal shake up in Aerospace because "the Japanese had gotten ahead of us," so we had to learn new ways of doing things, resign our jobs and compete for the jobs we had or new ones we might want. I ended up as a manager on the T-45, I might have been "better off" after that, but in about a year that program was transferred back to St. Louis because the parent company, McDonnell, needed the work more than we did in Long Beach.

After that I was a manager in the C-17 department, verifying that the ground test results met Engineering requirements. But then some new consultants convinced McDonnell Douglas management that they could get more work out of all departments by hiring young proven managers from other industries. My new manager hadn't a college education but had been a successful manager at some place like Penny's Department Store. I had a lot of difficulty accepting that situation. McDonnell Douglas was at the same time on an "austerity program." They sought by means of these ruthless young managers, to get rid of older more highly paid employees, which I was at the time. I thought my days were numbered.

I might have been in good enough financial shape to take early retirement if I had been able to participate in the McDonnell Douglas savings plan to the maximum extent, but nature abhors a vacuum, and no sooner did I start making more money than Susan's brother began having trouble with his wife. They had a messy divorce, her brother got custody of their two boys, and since her brother was now too depressed to work they came to live with us. At a time when I was convinced I was about to be laid off I got on the internet and discovered that I could afford to live on my early-retirement money and support my brother-in-law and my two nephews if I moved to Tennessee.

The brother-in-law problem eventually blew over. He moved out and got a job, but since I had begun thinking about retirement I looked at my job at Boeing (who had merged with and subsumed McDonnell Douglas) in a more cynical light and began leaning toward retirement. The closer I got to age 65 the less tolerant I was of management rules that I considered illogical or unnecessary. I was the Engineering representative on the C-17 Change Board for the last several years of my employment at Boeing. Those on the board knew that I did a good job, as did the Air Force, but my management back at a remote location wasn't impressed, especially because I wouldn't walk the two miles or so to staff meetings. I was riding a motorcycle back then and didn't feel like walking that far in motorcycle boots. My manager, whom I never met, had no leverage over me after I decided to retire. All I needed to do was to convince Susan that we should sell our house in Garden Grove and move to some more agreeable retirement location like Payson Arizona; which turned out to be more difficult than dealing with my management at Boeing.

After much negotiation (with Susan) we retired to San Jacinto where I took up walking my dogs at the San Jacinto River (which can be seen in the photos I've been posting recently). With the money we got from selling our Garden Grove house we could afford a large two-story house with a view of the nearby mountains out my study window.

I had worked continuously for 39 years at Douglas, which became McDonnell Douglas, which became Boeing, my retirement income, coupled with Social Security, turned out to provide about as much useable income as I had received while working. So I was indeed "better off" than I thought I would be after retirement.

There was always some relative or friend needing financial help while I was working. I naively thought that would end after I retired and was living on a "fixed income," but not so. The Ridgeback lady who remarked that I was "better off" than she isn't expecting anything from me, but certain relatives and friends have made that same observation and do. And as long as they do not have their "needs" all at the same time, and thus far they haven't, we seem to manage -- yes, because we are "better off," but not because I was "lucky" or inherited money. I am "better off," I suppose because I had the Protestant Work Ethic that Max Weber referred to.

Then too there was an intelligence level that enabled me to do all the things my managers had in mind when they said the equivalent of "I don't know. Is there anything you can do?" And that intelligence (according to Herrnstein and Murray) was from 40% to 80% the result of genetics (in which case I can take very little credit for the things I achieved at my job) or almost all the result if environment. In the latter case since I resisted anything authoritative in my environment (until I joined the Marine Corps) perhaps I can take more credit. On the other hand, since I am a Protestant (Presbyterian) in actuality as well as in Work Ethic, I don't have a problem with the idea that whatever skills and talents I have are a gift -- just not a gift I received from family influence or money.

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