(Editor’s Note: This article was written July 3, 2009, shortly after my first retirement. It has been lightly edited to remove misspellings and grammatical errors I can’t bear to promulgate).
It begins by foraging for wild blackberries in Lake Macbride State Park.
Between a twenty five year career in transportation, and Independence Day 2009, gathering berries in the forest seemed a natural and appropriate way to mark my retirement at age 57. I knew that my work life would continue even if my employment for Iowa’s largest transportation firm was over. On this first day of what’s next, I hoped to wander the forest with my bag and gather what blackberries I may, an archetype of my life as an American salary man turned loose.
To say I lacked the commitment of a career in transportation misses the fact that I devoted much of my waking time and personal energy to being a successful transportation manager. At the same time, it was a bargain of time for money with what I now realize as little chance to get ahead. Transportation is not a traditional career as are medicine, the law, retailing, carpentry and plumbing. At the highest levels of transportation’s hierarchy executives are few in number and part of a clearly defined and relatively small social network. It was never my world, nor was there opportunity to make it my world, even if I was successful in delivering the business results my employers expected.
I figured this out late in the game, and it drove me to leave the business, not just recently, but in 1998 and 2003 as well. Finally, after a job as Director of Operations for CRST Logistics, Inc., my team achieved remarkable results, one last time, and I left the business.
Why did I sacrifice so much? I hoped to establish a home, meet the basic needs of our family, support our daughter’s start in life and leave time to enjoy ours. It was, among other things, for the ability to forage for wild blackberries.
And as the sun rises in the security of my partially finished study, I have concerns. I am most concerned that I will use the talents I have been given, the experiences I have had and the meager resources we have been able to accumulate, to contribute to life in society.
This means more than paying taxes and getting along with neighbors. It means considering life from my unique perspective and create an endeavor that brings peace and prosperity to a larger segment of society. The sacrifice we made resulted in a life that is economically better than many families. Our current life is a foundation upon which to build what is next. It has never been about the money or economic gain. It is about fulfilling life’s promise, and the moment I realized this and it sunk in, my so-called career in transportation was destined to end.
To start an autobiography at my age is not unusual. What is different is I want to cover the middle of life, beginning when I was married and age 32. There is another autobiography of the earlier period to be written. If I am lucky, I will get an opportunity to write that part as well.
I sense a pressing urgency to understand how I spent the middle years. If I hope to inform others of the perils of working for wages, this story should be told now, with certainty and the energy of a life lived for others. I want the story out so our daughter can benefit from it. This book will pull in parts of my whole life, but the focus will be living with a family, the meaning of labor, the consequences of delayed gratification and subservience, and the possibilities of living a life as a manager in a large company. It is a story I do not see others aware of or writing today.
My feeling about work is as old as the colonial days in Virginia. I suspect it is derived from the intellectual history passed down in my family through the generations. People indentured themselves to pay for their passage and get a start in the new world. They might indenture themselves for another contract period to pay for the passage of their family. It was a tough bargain and as many as half of the white emigrants are said to have come to the New World as indentured servants. I suspect my ancestors were among these people whose contracts were sold upon arrival in Virginia.
Henry David Thoreau wrote of the trade off we make in taking employment in Walden,
“…men labor under a mistake. The better part of the man is soon ploughed into the soil for compost. By a seeming fate, commonly called necessity, they are employed, as it says in an old book, laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal. It is a fools life, as they will find when they get to the end of it, if not before.”
I am lucky to have figured this out while having a life expectancy of another quarter century. As I look through boxes of artifacts and papers I laid up before and during my working life, the papers are yellowing and dusty, diminished in importance. While I do not seek to be like Thoreau, I would learn from his writings.
I have worked for large and small businesses. I was in the military and worked for the University of Iowa. I worked brief periods of my time as an independent contractor. I belonged to a union, voted against unionization and managed union employees. I negotiated union contracts, the modern successor to the indentured servitude of the colonial days. I worked through 25 years in transportation to yield a nest egg insufficient to retire in the traditional meaning of that word. If I had stayed on, until age 65 or 68, I would not then have accumulated enough money upon which I could finish life, work free.
I seek to inform, not complain.
In a varied work life I gained experience in many facets of life, both in and outside my career. Reflections on a thousand meetings and experiences inform how lives devoted to labor can be improved. My hope and intention is that as I consider the detritus of a life in transportation my view will become more informed and I can help others, our daughter particularly, avoid the pitfalls of which Thoreau and others warn us.
On my last day of employment I had parked at a distance from the employee entrance, as usual. As I settled into my blue Chevrolet Colorado, I stopped to look at the building. I sat for a couple of minutes trying to remember entering for the first time.
A woman named Jean King took my application and gave me the Wonderlic test. There was a sign made from a 4 x 8 foot sheet of plywood that said “A Company on the Grow.” I worked most of my 25 years for CRST and saw it grow from a $60 million company to more than $820 million in revenue. I am pleased to have been a part of that.
The growth and success expanded the property, and while the main building was the entire company when I started in 1984, we acquired land from Wiley all the way to Edgewood Road along 16th Avenue. A grocery store was converted to CRST Van Expedited Headquarters and we built a training center for the asset divisions. There are major facilities in Birmingham, Alabama, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Fontana, California and dozens of agent and sales offices dotted across the country.
What attracted me to the company was that it was owned by Herald Smith’s family and of a size where I could get to know everyone in the company. For most of my time there, I did. On my last day of work, Herald’s son, John called to wish me well.
These were things going through my mind as I sat in my pickup truck getting ready to go home. I started the engine and instead of driving to 16th Avenue to turn right and take Wiley to Edgewood, I exited the parking lot north and drove 12th Avenue east to Edgewood, seeking to have a different view of the drive home. I did not look into the rear view mirror.
Our life has been good by any standard. We have a roof over our head, clothes to wear and food to eat. There is plenty to occupy our time and we have hope that our daughter will experience success. We were able to send her to Cornell College in Mount Vernon and support her through her beginnings after college. I am not complaining about our quality of life, nor would I. We have had a good life, to a large degree because we have lived in the United States and in Iowa for most of our time.
Journal entry from July 2, 2009:
Lake MacBride. It is 20 minutes before I leave for the last day of work at CRST Logistics and I am ready for the change. There will be uncertainty but we have to have courage to get through each day’s challenges. I am not sure how much this means, but hope the new path leads to a brighter day.”
Post on Big Grove Garden July 3, 2009:
“Each year I walk to the state park and search for wild blackberries. They are typically ripe around Independence Day, and after walking to town and searching for them I gathered about a pint. The berries on the south side of the trail were more abundant and on the north, were almost finished. The variation in sunlight seems to matter, although not by much. From the looks of the plants, we are about a week into the season.
After a few years we learn how to look for the plants and some places there are a lot to be picked and others one or two. We build expectations based on remembrance of where the best spots were previously. To write these locations down is unthinkable as the knowledge resides within us, and we don’t want to reveal our best areas to others. This is a natural human behavior.
One of the best places in previous years is replaced with a natural gas substation. The town and the youth recreational complex adjacent to the elementary school continue to encroach upon the wild places. The odor of natural gas came from the pipes, reminding me of West Texas. It was disappointing to see the berry patch gone.
Once I had more than a pint, I looked at other things along the trail. The flowers are in bloom and abundant as home construction peeps into the once isolated trail.
I made it home and made oatmeal topped with a handful of the wild blackberries picked this morning.”
Perhaps the encroachment on the wild blackberries is evidence of the corruption and thievery of which Thoreau wrote.
E-mail to Mike Fouts, President of CRST Logistics, Inc. on July 5, 2009:
Please let everyone know how much I appreciated the many goodbyes and best wishes last week.
The cards and gifts were more than a person should expect, and will be useful in my life in Big Grove and beyond. I wore the hat at the Coralville parade on Independence Day and young women wanted to hug me: surprising and happily accepted.
Two bits of news since Thursday are 1). My uncle sold his coffee shop last week, so that idea is out. 2). our daughter is talking about returning to Iowa in 2010, so it looks like we will be staying here for the present.
Thanks again for the thoughtfulness in celebrating my tenure with CRST Logistics. I found CRST Logistics to be, every day, without exception, a great place to work.
Best Regards, Paul
I made wild blackberry jam with the day’s findings and we enjoyed it through the Christmas and New Year’s Holidays. What may have been on the periphery of our life became a main event. However, that is another story. Let’s dial back the clock to March of 1984 when we made the decisions that led me to a career in transportation.