This week I was fortunate to snag Ralph Stanley's new autobiography, Man of Constant Sorrow, from the library just as it came in. I'll have to admit I didn't know about the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys until the movie O Brother, Wherefore Art Thou? came out. Turns out Bob Dylan did, as he has an unerring nose for quality Americana -- he even states that his career highlight is a duet on a Stanley Brothers album! The 10 million-selling soundtrack was a career summit (despite recording hundreds of records since the late '40s) for Mr. Stanley, obviously. He still plays festivals and big concert venues, which he achieved upon finding worldwide fame, after 45 years of playing bars and schoolhouses. Anyway, the point of this is that occasionally, someone who does exactly what he was born to do and sticks with it despite decades of discouragement is either nuts or right on track (both are probably true).
Two posts ago, I was discussing how the amount of control you have over your life seems to be the most basic determinant of your health, mental and physical. "Dr." Ralph is 86 and still does 100 shows a year, so he would be a good example. He has maintained control (no outside management) of his life and career with a laser-like concentration, never comprimising his simple, solid values. He worked for somebody else about 6 months out of his long life. He thinks everyone has a gift, but so many do not ever find it and are thus at the not-so-tender mercies of others.
I found this twice in my working years, and treasure those times -- the idea of never having experienced that leaves me feeling very bad for those who haven't. 'Way back at the beginning of this blog, I mentioned my first real job working at WFMV-FM in Richmond, and how lucky I was to fall into the perfect combination: on my own, editing the news and selecting music to play, writing brief intros to introduce the next selections, watching the equipment carefully, keeping the FCC logs meticulously and having full responsibility for the whole works at a young age. Being paid (poorly) to learn so much was a thrill, too. I met quite a variety of people; we were even invited to dedicated listeners' homes for dinner and discussion. I had my first and only meeting with the Virginia State Police late one evening, when it was cold and raining and I hadn't gone outside to check the tower lights since dusk (of course, that's when the top one went out). Someone, somewhere noticed and called them, thank heaven -- taught me to not let things slip, because for the want of a horseshoe a kingdom (or a small airplane) could be lost...
It was a sad day beyond telling when the station ran out of money and sold the frequency to an easy-listening chain from the Midwest; we were replaced by tape machines. We got to split up the music library, though, and I've enjoyed selling them all over the world via e-Bay recently: I've had those gems long enough and it's time to give away, and give back.
After years of working with and for idiots, getting back to this type of sweet spot didn't happen; I made it happen. It didn't even last a year, but I proved my point about supervision just getting in the way. I had started with ASCC, a communications company headquartered north of Pittsburgh, when they got the contract for the new Keystone state office building in downtown Harrisburg. They needed to hire a large local crew for the duration; most of us hoped to remain on after it was completed. About five of us did; we stayed on most of the following year performing the "adds and changes," as they call it, sometimes re-doing whole office and courtroom areas. This made the company so much (taxpayers') money they bought their own new office building and several vehicles. We each got a big bonus, too. Most of our work was wasted: an extensive daycare area was never used (we had even wired the outside play area for audio and video); an entire complex was changed after we had crawled under the floor for two weeks to cable it for all the computer, phone, audio and video you could possibly cram into it; I cabled each of four outside entrances similarly (in 15-degree weather) only to have it all covered over with stainless steel panels; the granite-floored foyer and 9 floors' worth of receptionist offices were both completely cabled -- none of it ever used. An outstanding example of no control: your time, efforts and considerable material wasted due to the incompetence of well-paid authorities. We then did school after school (talk about frustration and waste) until the company landed what is called a multi-site contract. With these, one or two people travel to local sites of some large corporation and perform the same task, the challenge being to figure out different buildings quickly and trim your time down with increasing efficiency: we could see that responsibility and decision-making would be in our hands (yay) and we'd be out of those stifling schools (yay again). They were working on several of these (Fed Ex, Sheetz, Radio Shack, a reginal gas pipeline, Health South, retail chain's distribution centers) as big electrical contractors were successfuly taking the educational contracts from us (yay).
One of the Keystone alums, Bill, is my age and we worked together in the "adds and changes" phase and on several subsequent projects. We jumped at the chance to be an on-the-road team for the Health South nationwide satellite TV project, the first (and a sort of trial) of these multi-site deals. Bill isn't a drug-infested redneck smoker like half the other guys, and is level-headed. I thought we'd make a good team, and saw a chance to get out of the clusterf--- that was the usual big project. We got a Lowe's charge card and a Wright fuel card, a claptrap used-up Chevy van, and a portable television monitor, loaded up a heap of our own tools and supplies, and lit out from Pittsburgh. The project coordinator would fax us the work orders and Mapquest directions (what would a GPS have done for us!! I can assure you Mapquest is wrong half the time) on Sunday afternoon and we would meet up and hit the road at 7 am Monday. Now, satellite TV is not rocket science, I'll admit, but being free was worth the lack of mental challenge. Figuring out how to do each site was -- I recall the time we had to go from the roof of a four-story gym complex in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, down through a row of offices, down masonry walls, across the ceiling over an indoor pool, and down to the reception area while hundreds of people were in, out and around. Without ticking people off.
I still chuckle to think of the other two-man crews and what they did with that freedom: descending into drug and alcohol delerium, doing such shoddy work we would in the future spend half of each week cleaning up the messes, apologizing for their smoking and cursing everywhere. The clinic in Somerset, Kentucky, was hating on the previous crew so much we spent lots of extra time smoothing them over and doing a meticulously neat job to show that you do not have to be an immature redneck to do physical work. That got back to the project manager as we had hoped, and (1) three crews were dispatched to their just rewards (2) we got that baby-blue Dodge van in great shape which served us so well (3) gave us the leverage to put my plan into action.
That plan was to wrest control of our schedule from the manager (he set appointment times for each job -- absolutely nonsensical: a job could take 15 minutes or 10 hours; you never knew). My scheme was for him to send me the work orders, let us pre-contact the sites, and I would arrange the schedule and research the directions. I had two binders: one with the orders arranged geographically and with detailed directions, and one with those pulp motel-coupon fliers you find at interstate rest stops arranged in order, state by state. We got a per diem payment, and with careful management of expenses and the route, saved the company a great deal of money and made a lot for ourselves. Without superivsion, we managed the supplies so well there was no waste and hardly any trash. We utilized time so well by ourselves that were back in Pittsburgh by Thursday noon, restocked, and were back home for three-day weekends. If you have a little bit of sense and control over what you're doing, things become ridiculously easy. I can think of so many other places and times when that would have worked just as well, but there was no escaping the disastrous supervision.
We snagged a smaller operation at power plants; they didn't hire another crew since we could fit those less numerous jobs in on Fridays. I'll never forget how hard it was to find the one in southwestern New Jersey, on the Delaware Bay; due to security considerations, they're not on maps and there is no signage. That one we found after four hours by going through a church parking lot, down a one-lane dirt road, and through the woods. Believe it or not, the locals didn't even know it was there! At another, it poured down rain the whole day; it's not so easy hauling a satellite dish, eight cement blocks, stand, and monitor up a metal roof with a torrent of cold water rushing down it. Still, when it was done and we were wringing our socks out in the employee cafeteria (which had closed -- no food or coffee to be had), we both agreed it was STILL better than being part of a moron crew with no autonomy -- being tired wet, cold, but free and prosperous was a very good feeling. And we were done for the week, because we followed our own plan.
We got the nickname "The Noise Boyz" on our best day. We had to go back to the Columbus, Ohio Health South location for the second time because they had lost their signal again. The disk was somewhat sheltered from the wind, so we couldn't figure out why it was off location, but after studying the whole roof, saw that someone had been repairing small areas and just moved it out of their way. The director, a tall redhead who thought everything, especially us, was quite amusing, was glad to find out we weren't just doing a bad job, and bestowed the name on us, saying we were welcome to come back anytime. In all the states we visited, we only ran across one sourpuss, in Wilkes-Barre, and we concluded that having to live there would have that effect on anyone! When we arrived back in Pittsburgh late on that Thursday evening, we had done 9 jobs in four states, having started out there early that freezing morning (we had run out of non-Lowe's supplies so had to loop back). That record impressed the project manager mightily; but -- rather than ratcheting us up to the really good, long trips to Florida, Texas, California and -- eventually! -- Hawaii, we found out soon after that he had screwed up the whole deal and Health South said SEE YA! It was a long time until the FedEx and Sheetz projects would start, so we had to give up the baby-blue van and go do a new elementary school in York County, PA. We did a good job until we got supervision for the fiber-optic portion of the job, and then just dragged ourselves through to the end.
Since we didn't have to travel with a repellent crew who wanted to eat at convenience stores and truck stops, smoke and go to bars at 1 a.m., we saw some interesting places and met many nice people. The ladies at the Augusta, Georgia clinic were all dressed as if for an evening event and could not have been more gracious. The staff at Nashville downtown were hilarious; we were all laughing so hard our sides hurt. In Pulaski, Tennessee, they had a downtown car dealership (disappearing from small towns rapidly elsewhere) and a soda fountain with 5-cent Cokes. The KKK was founded there, but it was a nice town I'd visit again anytime. In northern Georgia, we saw a white marble elementary school on a hill -- they quarry so much marble there it was just donated to build the school. In suburban Charleston, South Carolina, we arrived late in the afternoon and had a heck of a time getting through the ceiling of two buildings (about 5" clearance) from dish to TV location, so were nowhere near finishing at a reasonable hour, but the last staff member volunteered to stay until we were wrapped up at 10 p.m., saying she had to study anyway. That allowed us to head home Friday morning, and we rode up the coast on a beautiful one-day vacation and visited Bill's in-laws in a little paradise called Sunset Beach. EVERYTHING falls into place when you are in control, and you work hard on what you're doing and how you do it.