Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Sexual harassment is about power, control and authority

In the spring of 1994, I was about as excited as I’d ever been.

Having finished college with a bachelor’s degree, I had just given notice at the Postal Service and was finishing off my final two weeks in the worst job ever.

The idiot bosses at the post office didn’t give a shit about me, but they were pretty afraid of what I might tell people. I mean, I had seen them cheating on the Price Waterhouse mail testing, I had seen mail damaged and destroyed in processing machinery, and I had been able finally to make a dent in a giant room full of damaged packages, over the objections of one supervisor. Some of those packages dated back to the previous holiday season.

I had an exit interview where I had reported a white female supervisor for dropping the “n” word everywhere, and they still had her supervising mostly black employees. Her status as a member of the KKK was common knowledge to everyone at every level, but no one cared because there were few blacks in postal management. I was offered a management job, but refused.

The one incident that blew my mind during my last two weeks was that I saw a female supervisor get groped by a male supervisor, while they were talking to me!

In the West Palm Beach General Mail Facility in that time, sexual harassment was rampant. Despite promises to new hires during orientation that sexual harassment and retaliation for reporting sexual harassment were not tolerated, what really wasn’t tolerated was reporting such activity.

Male supervisors saw the hiring of every new cohort of female employees as “open season” for them, sexually. The very, very few women who co-operated were advanced into management. Women who wouldn’t “play ball” or filed complaints were fair game for abuse and even more harassment. Complaining to the Postal Inspection Service was pointless because the Inspection Service was corrupt to the bone, had run a bogus drug informant in the facility and thus had zero credibility with the workers, and itself had a sexual harassment problem.

Nearly all Postal Inspectors were white males; the few women in the Inspection Service were brutally harassed.

I was talking to a male supervisor and a female supervisor about my plans, and how I looked forward to getting away from the post office and moron management, when the male supervisor said something, grabbed the female supervisor in a close hug (to her extreme dismay), and then walked away.

The female supervisor said to me, “Did you see that?”

“Yes,” I said.

“He does that constantly, and he keeps hiding out in the ladies’ bathroom, too,” she said, “so he can harass other women.”

“So,” I said with little interest, “you know what to do. Report him.”

“I can’t,” she said. “It’ll get worse and I’ll get busted” (back to regular work).

I don’t know how it worked out in the end, but I am sure the female supervisor realized that she would just have to put up with the guy’s sexual harassment. Today, he’s probably a high-level postal manager.

In the recent sexual harassment incidents that have come to light, I have found that the main propagator is a powerful man who has decided that it’s open season on the women under him, and makes sure that they know the cost of blowing the whistle.

As a man with no power, and someone who believes that the purpose of the workplace is to go to work and not harass women, it irks me that women have to be afraid. These men want women to be afraid, though, and it hurts the efficiency of the workplace and the company.

I learned that even in the most elevated areas of the Postal Service, there was extreme harassment going on. One woman told me that she had been working late one night with a male superior on a report that had to be submitted, and he had attacked her and groped her in the break room. Even worse, when she reported the assault to postal management – it was drilled into everyone’s head that the police had no jurisdiction in postal installations, so calling 911 was not allowed – postal management decided that even though he was a threat to women he was a manager whose numbers were good, so there would be no action taken.

When the woman continued to pursue action, she was retaliated against and eventually ordered to be in two different places at the same time, then fired.

Sexual harassment is about power. Never forget it.

Advertisements

December 9, 2017 Posted by | Education, Life lessons | , , , , | Leave a comment

Bergdahl’s lack of prison time offensive to veterans

It takes all types of people to make a military, and it’s just a fact of life that if you join the armed forces you’re going to run into a very wide variety of attitudes, from those who believe that the military is perfect to those who believe it’s an abomination they must escape immediately, and everything in between.
The recent sentencing of Pvt. Bowe Bergdahl to a dishonorable discharge is the right punishment for what he did, but the failure to attach at least some prison time is a slap in the face to every man and woman who has served honorably in the U.S. military.
When a service member goes AWOL or UA, it means someone who was scheduled to be off duty has to carry out the assignments of the absent service member.
In addition, Bergdahl’s disappearance triggered a massive and costly search for him, and raised fears that perhaps the enemy had infiltrated his base, abducted him and possibly was torturing him for information on the base’s security set future infiltration missions that could have left many more American troops dead.
The anger felt by those who searched for Bergdahl and were injured — as well as their families — is real and heartfelt. Bergdahl deserted his post in the face of the enemy. It wasn’t like he went AWOL from a stateside base and went home to his family or to Las Vegas.
We are told that he felt his mission was to tell high-ranking officers that the unit was not being run properly. There were countless other ways he could have brought his concerns to higher authority; leaving his post in enemy territory was the worst. The belief that he might not have been in his right mind is no excuse. Bergdahl’s actions exposed the whole base to a possible attack.
Bergdahl’s defense used the fact that the enemy captured him and tormented him to try to persuade that military that he had “suffered enough,” but there are plenty of other people still suffering because of that bad decision.
Bergdahl deserves a much more serious punishment. It upsets me that he probably won’t get it.
I served on active duty in the Marines from August 1978 to August 1982, and I spent the first year and a half going through basic training and the schools for my field of service (aviation maintenance). When I arrived at my squadron in Yuma, Ariz, in early 1979, I knew enough to realize that I wanted to be someone who finished his term of service, then returned to civilian life.
One of the first training films I saw soon after arriving at Naval Air Station Memphis for aviation training was about a young Marine who wishes to go on leave to apologize to his father for some verbal abuse, and is advised by a fellow Marine that with the unit about to leave for a few weeks of field training that the sergeant major is bound to reject his leave request.
“You’re better off just taking off and going UA (Unauthorized Absent),” the fellow tells the story’s protagonist, who leaves but is captured soon after, then brought back for disciplinary action that includes a term in the brig.
Training films in the military tend to not be Hollywood productions in terms of acting and quality, but the message was important. It’s all revealed to be a bad dream. The Marine requests his leave, and gets it, and goes home to apologize to his father.

At Parris Island, the drill instructors of my platoon warned us about being wary of the “‘birds,” who will try to persuade new arrivals that the unit is in disarray and the NCOs and officers in charge are inept and not worthy of respect and obedience.
“You’ll notice that they’re all privates even though they’ve been in the Corps for several years,” one drill instructor said.
“That should be warning enough. They’ve been in trouble and punished for it before. Don’t join in with their negativity.”
One Marine in my squadron was an example of someone whose career had gone off track. He had, over the course of four years, advanced all the way to sergeant (E-5) and re-enlisted for six more years. He got a nice five-figure cash bonus (serious money in 1979), a bump to staff sergeant (E-6) and a room in the Staff NCO barracks. He had a good job without heavy lifting and no more dirty mess duty or boring guard duty details in addition to his regular work.
According to a fellow Marine, this guy then went UA for several months and was caught, demoted and returned to the regular barracks. He kept going UA, kept getting caught, kept getting punished and finally was demoted to private and restricted to barracks all day except for work, worship services, visits to the chow hall or medical, and visits to the PX for health and comfort items.
He had a room to himself to keep his bad attitude from infecting everyone else. I was the Duty NCO on the night when two military police officers and the officer of the day came to the barracks and took him away for good.
No one was sad to see him go.
For when he wasn’t present to do his job, someone else had to pick up the slack. That’s something the media never tells in its stories about a military deserter: the impact on those in the unit who are left behind and have to take on extra duties.
There are two sides to every story, I’ve always been told. Unusually, we’ve been able to hear from those who did their duty and paid the price for Bergdahl’s disloyalty and misbehavior.
It’s time for Bergdahl to pay.

November 8, 2017 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , | Leave a comment

Need a lift? Call me at Lyft

If it’s Thursday or Friday and you’re heading somewhere in the Bradenton-Sarasota-Tampa Bay area, now you can call on me and I’ll give you a “Lyft.”

I recently became a driver for Lyft to make some extra money (not to write a book, though that might happen), and on March 30-31, did my first drives for Lyft.

I’ll share my experiences and the tips I learned the hard way here.

Stay tuned.

April 1, 2017 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , | Leave a comment

The Wildest Times of My Life: Catholic School Bazaars in the 1970s

For many people, Catholic school is nuns, confession, communion, getting rapped on the knuckles and being terrorized into submission by adults who have an all-powerful invisible friend that confers on them the ultimate superiority.

As someone who began to question the whole religion thing early on but kept conforming, I suppose I was part of the problem. Later, I would condemn superiors who I felt “pretended to be religious” out of the desire for personal gain – going to the same church as the boss in order to suck up to him or her – but I have to confess I did it, too, for a while.

Where I grew up on 80th Street in what was then called Elmhurst in the Queens borough of New York City (a Zip code change much later resulted in the area being relocated into Middle Village) there were three big Catholic parishes: Our Lady of Hope (OLH), on Eliot Avenue; Resurrection-Ascension (known to all as RA); at Eliot Avenue and Woodhaven Boulevard; and St. Adalbert’s (known as St. A’s), on 83rd Street in Elmhurst.

I went to OLH, my friend John across the street went to St. A’s and some of the other kids on the block went to RA.

Catholics might have seem repressed, but their fundraising bazaars have to be the stuff of legend. I still recall being taken as a child to the “Feast” in Brooklyn, where you could eat Italian food, bet on horse races (in the days before OTB) and gaze with fear and wonder at the guys in see-through socks on the street corners.

Closer to home, all three parishes mentioned above ran their own fundraising bazaars, and in contrast to the image of the Church as strait-laced and repressive, they could and did literally turn into bacchanals of food, fun and frivolity for all ages.

I didn’t lose my virginity at a Catholic school bazaar, but I bet there are plenty of my peers who did. I did have my first – and last – bad experience with alcohol at the RA bazaar, though, in which I actually blacked out. I experienced fun, disappointment and a lot more, and regret sometimes not being back there to experience them again.

Let’s just say that people really cut loose back then, and maybe the pope wouldn’t have approved.

Fun and games – and a surprise – at OLH
At Our Lady of Hope, the bazaar’s preparations would begin and we students would lose access to the schoolyard, which is where the bazaar’s attractions were located. Workers would assemble the tents’ frames, then put up the tents, and the students in grades one to three who sat in classrooms that overlooked the schoolyard would lose much of their sunlight.

No one cared because the bazaar was coming and that meant seeing friends outside of school, fun food and rides, as well as the possibility of prizes.

Access to the schoolyard had to be severely limited, and security obtained, especially after the prizes for the games of chance were distributed in the tents.

I remember one opening day as a small child, and I was waiting outside and watching as some misguided eighth-grader was dared to climb the fence before the bazaar opened. I recall that he climbed the chain-link fence and came down on the other side, but when he tried to come back his friends kept preventing him. Eventually, he was caught, brought back through the gate and released with a chewing-out.

In addition to the games of chance, there was gambling and kids my age were allowed to bet. There also was a ferris wheel and a couple of other rides.

I still remember that great year when, on the final night of the bazaar, a grand prize drawing was held for a bicycle. My brother Patrick won the bicycle.

The thing was, we thought we’d get the bicycle they showed in the tent, but my father instead received a boxed and disassembled bicycle. I think dad paid a local bicycle store $25 to assemble the bike, and I know Patrick got a lot of use out of it.

Disappointment at St. A’s
St. Adalbert’s had its bazaar after OLH and RA, when it held one, but it was a disappointment. In any case, we were bazaar’d out by this time, and because St. A’s had such a small outside area, nearly all of it was indoors.

Going all the way at RA
There were some wild times at OLH’s bazaars, but the biggest of them all was at Resurrection-Ascension. RA had a huge land footprint, including a gigantic schoolyard, and the rides were pretty extensive. The gambling operation was in a recreation building and down a flight of stairs, which protected it from the elements, and whenever I think of the RA bazaar I can remember it being packed with people.

As a teenager, I can recall some pretty brutal disappointments with girls, including finding out that the girl I had a crush on was a smoker, but there were fun times.

On one occasion, a girl got on this ride where you basically were on the end of a line and spun around. I was standing near her friends and she got on the ride and realized that she was losing her shoes. She was wearing these chunky wooden platform sandals that girls wore back then, and I guess she decided that she’d better take them off and toss them before they landed in traffic in the street.

One shoe landed near her friends, but the other whizzed past my head and hit someone in the crowd behind me.

One of my fondest memories is the walk down the tree-lined Eliot Avenue to the bazaar, and sometimes running into school friends on the way.

But as my crowd got older, we began to get a little crazier. My last memory of the RA bazaar must have been in 1977 when me and my friends went to a liquor store up Woodhaven Boulevard and bought a bottle of some concoction called “Rock and Rye.”

We had beer, and passed around the “Rock,” and were having a great time. My memory starts to fade in and out. I remember being on the Woodhaven Boulevard side, then somehow we were on the Eliot Avenue side.

I was lying on the sidewalk, and I heard one of my friends say, “He’s really drunk. We have to get him home.”

I then sat up and announced, “Let’s go.”

The next thing I knew, I was in my bed and I had a fat lip.

As it turned out, I had tried to bite the curb and my father had not smacked me in the face.

He opened the door to my room, saw me awake, and said, “Boy, you put on one hell of a performance last night.”

I remembered none of it.

Now it’s nearly 40 years later and I live in Florida. But I’ll never forget those times.

Memories
I posed a question on the Facebook group “You Must Have Lived in Middle Village if You Remember …” and got a ton of responses. Here they are, unedited:

Frank Nagy OLH had the Bazaars, I remember Puking on the “Tilt a Hurl” ride

Frank Nagy And the rickety Ferris wheel ride..

Vincent F. Safuto At the last RA bazaar I attended (1977, I think), I got so drunk I blacked out. Good thing my friends got me home.

Marty Muller I remember all the fights at the RA bazaar! Every year same shit ! Lol

Lawrence Burns My Dad worked the gambling tent and the poker games in the brothers house on Eliot ave..Those games went on all night till the early morning…..R.A. good times….

Teresa Grogan You could hear the shouts from the other end of the block “UNDER!!!!!” “It’s UNDER!!!!” LOL

Tony Marine My uncle also dealt poker there!

Jay Scahill Remember the ones at RA. Wish I had pictures

Christine Blondel Maddalena Lots of beer pot and fights lol

Maria Puglisi Definitely “Here comes the rollllll …Under!” lol & the Swinging Gym.

Lydia Bellafiore Best times of my life with my gramps

Debbie Hoffman-Silvagni RA bazaars, the best! Looked forward to it every year!

Doris Tavella I took all my allowance savings ($40 +) and gambled it away at over- under tables. Dang… my Dad was annoyed by my irresponsibility! That was odd, however in the 70’s that minors could gamble at RA ?
All good memories and my losses were like tithes to the church 🙏🏻

Vincent F. Safuto Back then I liked to gamble at the tables, but I had slightly better luck. I know that you could gamble at OLH and no one even bothered to stop you.

Doris Tavella Yes, I recall the tables and probably gambled at OLH. Got it out of my system before I turned 18 and as an Adult in Vegas, I usually go to the shows instead. Thanks RA and OLH… you taught me at a young age that I did not like to loose $

Ken Lenczewski Man, I was young but I remember the OLH bazaars. Lots of fighting and I heard someone was stabbed there

Doris Tavella PS…. I also puked after tilt a whirl and told my Mom it was because I ate belly bombers from White Castle on Queens Blvd. uhhh, oops, did I forget to tell her what I drank that night before the rides….LOL !

Vincent F. Safuto I heard about the dances at OLH that ended in fights and drug ODs, etc.

Ken Lenczewski There was some serious gambling going on in the cafeteria.

Vincent F. Safuto I remember at the RA bazaar one year a girl went on one of the rides and realized she was about to lose her shoes, so she reached down and tried to toss them to her friends.

One shoe landed nearby, but the other whizzed past my head and hit someone in the crowd. And remember, this was when teenage girls wore clunky platform sandals, not flip-flops like today.

Doris Tavella Ha ha, those platforms and clogs are back in style … especially the hard wooden ones like Dr. Scholls.

Vincent F. Safuto Doris Tavella All I can say is I was glad I wasn’t the one who stopped the shoe with my head.

Jeannie Opitz Hernandez Always went to RA

Carolyn Specker Cerrito Not the 70s, but the early 80s

Chris Kiernan Sure do
Worked them for years OLH

Tony Marine My family and neighbors worked the RA bazaar for years. My mom and aunt worked the stuffed animal booth, my grandmother used to sell paper chances that you would peel and read to see if you won. My uncle dealt poker. So many great memories. My cousin and I would buy a bag of zeppoli’s (sp?) and eat them behind the booth my mom worked in. I have a special memory too – my friend and I were riding the ferris wheel. It stopped at the top and we had a great view of the whole bazaar. We looked over across Woodhaven blvd, and there was a large, naked young woman walking across the street. She was wasted. She made her way across the street and started to mingle with the crowd until she was finally grabbed by the cops! True story.

Vincent F. Safuto Love these stories and they’re all great. Doesn’t anyone have photos?

Ken Lenczewski I love these stories, brings back so many memories

Joanne Stankovic Sorry, I would go to St. Margaret’s.

Maureen Zahn Scotch OLH bazaars were the best. I was young when we moved but it seemed like we would get a bag of zeppolis??, lots of powdered sugar!!

John Camilleri My Dad ran a lot of the OLH bazaars for years. I would work in the change booth. All everyone has commented is true, the rickety Ferris wheel, the gambling and what not. The big prize in one of the booths was a 12 inch BW TV!

Jeri Calvaruso Knobloch I went to OLH and I remember the carnivals well but don’t have any pics.

Denise Orphal Baietto I went yo the RA bizzare and won a bottle of wine when

Denise Orphal Baietto I was 16 lol

Martha Tambini I went to RA and just remember having to sell those chances for the bazaar.

 

March 22, 2017 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , | 1 Comment

The ever-forgetful Publishers Clearing House

They keep forgetting how to get to my house.

They fail to move online stickers.

They forget my prize choices.

They even lose my address and need to have it confirmed. Over and over.

They are the Publishers Clearing House.

For decades, and even after tons of legal action, the Publishers Clearing House has persevered. Its famous (or infamous) “Prize Patrol” is nearly legendary for its supposed surprise arrivals at people’s houses, presenting them with giant cardboard checks and life-changing sums of money.

Like the Reader’s Digest and Time-Life contests, which used direct mail, the Publishers Clearing House was a legendary user of “junk mail,” filling mailboxes with notices that the recipient was about to lose his or her “special status” because of failure to return an entry, and hey, an order would be appreciated even though ordering something did not improve your (massively low) chances of winning anything.

The movie “Nebraska” shows how seniors could be fooled by their clever language into thinking they had won the big money. Bruce Dern plays a sadly deluded man determined to walk to the headquarters of a company, letter in hand, to collect a non-existent prize.

I remember that people would show up at the Tampa airport, expecting to be presented with a big check for the Time-Life contest.

I once read that a big reason why the Reader’s Digest’s parent company is now a shadow of its former self was that it had to stop running its contest, which brought in tons of revenue, but also lawsuits over the wording of its mailings.

Publishers Clearing House has stopped sending me mailings, but I still get email, and the “official” certificates and other palaver have migrated online. I still recall, though, getting mailings telling me to sit down and then saying that my number was in the final run on the computer, and I might want to consider what I would do with several million dollars. I actually thought I might really have a shot, but noticed that the envelope it came in was mass-mailed third-class mail. Probably everyone on the mailing list got that one.

I’d get scripts I’d have to read, telling me that the last winner had not been enthusiastic enough.

I’d get maps and itineraries, showing nearby florists where the Prize Patrol would buy flowers for my wife (I’m single) and all I had to do was confirm the directions to my house.

Now it’s all online, and I’ve confirmed my address, confirmed the itinerary and “transferred” enough virtual stickers to make me want to hurl.

I read somewhere that in some states, Publishers Clearing House is enjoined legally from many of these activities. Not in Florida, apparently.

But before they finally “process” your entry, there’s the last thing. You click through all the sales pitches for all the goodies you don’t need, and “Wonderful Children’s Stories from the Bible” and so forth, and there’s the reminder that you haven’t ordered anything.

But you can pass that and then you are shown a fake progress bar and finally you’re done. You’re entered yet again in their contest, several months from now, to win the big grand prize.

Tomorrow you’ll get another email telling you the Prize Patrol lost your address, or the directions to your house or you need to transfer more stickers.

Sometimes, people actually win.

One time, out of a mailpiece, I was asked to write why I hadn’t ordered anything. The answer was pretty simple. I didn’t have the money to buy anything. Give me the big prize, I said, and I’ll order everything.

They never responded.

I never ordered. And won’t, until that check lands in my bank account.

In the meantime, I have to again confirm my address.

The Prize Patrol is so forgetful.

March 11, 2017 Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , | Leave a comment

Thanking the people who got me going

When we embark on changes in our lives, we often leave behind people who have had a tremendous impact on us.

Recently, I was thinking back to the time in the late 1980s when I lived on Aztec Court in the Arbor Glen subdivision of unincorporated Palm Beach County, and the people who lived there. At the end of our cul-de-sac of two-unit townhomes was a married couple, Dave and Linda (real names are different, of course, and I saw from the Palm Beach County Property Appraiser website that they’ve moved on, as have so many of us who lived in those starter homes).

Dave worked for a company that did employment evaluations for people who could no longer do their previous jobs. He and his wife, who was from Kentucky, regularly held Kentucky Derby parties every year and I was invited, as well as their neighbor in the unit, a fellow named Stan. (Not his real name).

Stan and I both tried the singles circuit – without much success – and we had another thing in common: we both worked for the Postal Service. I worked as a mailhandler in the main Hell on Summit Boulevard in West Palm Beach, and he worked as a mailhandler at a post office in Boca Raton.

In fact, Stan and I had an acquaintance in common: Lou had been a postal supervisor who – amazingly – was a decent fellow and tried to fix Stan up with women. Even though the results had been disastrous, Stan still liked Lou. Through some process I never really got the whole story on, Lou ended up leaving management and became a mailhandler at the West Palm Beach main facility, and he and I became fast friends. We’d recite dialogue from the movie “Do the Right Thing,” (he loved to imitate Radio Raheem’s “Love, Hate, routine) and tell each other stories to pass the time.

(I suppose I should note that Lou was African American; his imitations were meant to honor, not ridicule, the movie and its characters.)

Of all the people I worked with at the post office, I missed Lou the most when I left.

Stan had worked in the past at the infamous Lordstown, Ohio, General Motors plant, and had been part of the big strikes that had taken place there over working conditions and abuse by the bosses, so he felt right at home in the post office of the time, except for the strikes. We weren’t allowed to strike at the post office, but I sometimes thought we should have done it.

It was probably Kentucky Derby day in 1987 and Stan and I had sat there and whined about our jobs to Dave, and he finally said he’d had enough.

“Do something about it,” he said, and offered to help us both.

“We’ll have you both over for dinner some night soon,” Dave said, “and I’ll give you the testing I give clients at my job, and then do the same evaluation.”

Dave was an amazing guy, and he and his wife soon had three adorable children. He said the testing normally cost hundreds of dollars, but he’d do it for us for free.

“I will note that how it turns out depends on your attitude, and how eager you are for a change,” Dave said. “I have seen that postal workers often don’t do very well because they can’t find a comparable job outside the post office.”

I didn’t care at this point. I wanted some direction and a few good ideas as to what I could do. The Postal Service had told me that I had nothing, no abilities, no skills, no opportunities. I needed an objective view, and Dave was offering it to me.

A couple of weeks later, Stan and I came over to Dave and Linda’s house, and after we ate he set everything up. Soon, Stan and I were taking tests, filling out forms and following instructions as Dave timed us.

We finished the work and relaxed in the living room with a drink or two, and Dave said he’d contact us in a few days with the results.

One day I saw Dave, and he said, “Come over tonight and I’ll talk to you about the results.”

I did. We sat down and he said, “Stop wasting your life at the post office.”

His evaluation of my results was that I had everything I needed to go to college and succeed, and that I should go to Palm Beach Community College (as it was called then) and register for classes as soon as I could.

The details are lost in the mists of time, and I’m sure Dave told Stan a similar story, but I realized that I needed to make a decision here.

It can be tough to get off a treadmill. I could have spent the rest of my life in the post office, wasting my talents and skills on a job that was never going to give me any satisfaction; in a corrupt, mismanaged organization that never was going to change; and I could look back on a life wasted in my old age.

Or I could take a chance, and do something. I had done it before, when I left Queens a scared teenager and came back a confident Marine. When I had left Long Island and moved to Florida. “It’s time to change,” I told myself.

Dave, thanks so much for showing me the way. Thanks to Dave, I have the great career that seemed impossible 30 years ago.

I overcame my fears, registered for college and soon was on my way to achievements that continue to this day.

I don’t know what happened to Stan. I hope he moved up to bigger and better things, too.

My path was hard, though my postal salary got me through college without any loans or grants as I worked my way through.

Amid the negativity of some of my coworkers and nearly all my superiors, all the way up to the top dope in the Postal Service, the postmaster general, I left the disaster area and soon was working in my chosen field.

What does this story mean for you?

Well, many years ago, there was a made-for-TV movie called “The Burning Bed.” The late Farrah Fawcett played a brutally abused woman – in a true story – who eventually waited until her drunk and passed-out husband was asleep, then covered him and the bed with flammable liquid and set it on fire. She then turned herself in to the police.

She was charged with murder, went to trial and was found not guilty because of the abuse she had endured.

The movie fictionalized some aspects, but when I saw it in the 1990s, one thing really touched me. In an effort to get away and develop herself, the wife began to attend college. She found other women there and a community of help.

But her husband kept coming back into her life, and there’s a climactic scene where he decides to burn her college schoolwork and textbooks. He picks up one of the textbooks, looks at it, leafs through it, and then snorts and shakes his head as he tosses it, and then a match, on the pile of books and papers.

In a symbolic way, he’s reasserting his power over her. In effect, he’s saying, “All this book knowledge is meaningless in the face of my power over you.”

Indeed, I often heard that the “book knowledge” I was pursuing would be useless in my future, and there were many nights when I would lie awake in bed and worry about my planned giant step into the unknown.

What if they were all right, and I was wrong?

But at college, I got the reinforcement I needed to go on.

I used to say that some of the smartest people in the county – the people at the community college and university – thought I was pretty darn smart.

And some of the dumbest people in the county – my bosses at the post office – thought I was a moron.

“I’m going to bet on the smart people every time,” I said, “ and not the dumb ones.”

In the end, I was right. Leaving the post office was the best thing I ever did.

What relevance does this have for your own life?

If you’re considering beginning the process of change, no matter how old you are, go for it. Try to avoid student loan debt but show that you’re determined to follow your dream, whatever it is.

It’s OK to be afraid. When I was in the Marines and was training for electronics at a Navy school, a petty officer in charge of the training said, “It’s normal to be afraid when you go out on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier during flight operations. But if there’s ever a day when you’re about to do that and you’re not afraid, that’s the day you better not step out onto that flight deck.”

Go out there.

Achieve.

You won’t regret it.

February 21, 2017 Posted by | Life lessons | , , , , | Leave a comment

‘Hidden Figures’ book is a story that takes off for many

The next time you go to an airport to catch a flight somewhere, take a break from your laptop or phone to look, and I mean really look, at the airplane that just rolled up to a nearby gate.

Once upon a time, a plane would have discharged a flight crew and passengers who were all white, all dressed up and all certain that America was the greatest nation in the world, and that the apartheid that existed in the South was the only thing that stood between us and Communism.

Today, people of all races, creeds, colors, national origins and political views not only fly the planes, but fly on them. Many see diversity as a strength, not a weakness of America.

But, just for today, look at the plane. Look at the wings. Why are they attached to the plane that way? What are those things on the wing? Why are the wings swept back like that? And who designed that tail? Why does it look that way?

The movie “Hidden Figures” is mostly the usual Hollywood treacle with a strong dose of truth, I must say, but in the book you get the whole story in all its glorious and challenging complexity.

The story by Margot Lee Shetterly is partially her own. She returns to her hometown in Virginia and her parents talk about the people in her community. Nearly all of them worked for NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, at the Langley Research Center, and their stories are the heart of “Hidden Figures.”

The conquest of the sky was fairly easy compared to winning the battle for equality. Virginia was a state that fought integration and equality between the races with every fiber of its being, and its politicians were determined that black people would always ride in the back of the bus, be educated in their “separate but equal” schools and eat in their own cafeterias.

But the federal government’s installations did offer a bit of a refuge.

It was a product of necessity. During World War II, NACA desperately needed smart people, and the country’s white population simply couldn’t provide enough trained mathematicians to do all the calculations needed to improve American aircraft before they left for combat in the skies over Europe and Japan.

More out of that desperation than a desire to make a social statement, NACA’s managers began recruiting blacks to work at Langley as “computers,” the people who did the engineers’ math and helped figure out how to squeeze every ounce of performance from an aircraft.

From “black colleges” in the region, they flowed into Langley, filled out forms, swore a loyalty oath and sat down at desks in the segregated West Area Computing Unit, and they saved the world for us.

Before American planes went to war, they went to Langley to be “cleaned up.” The process involved vast amounts of math as well as the removal of bumps and other interruptions to smooth airflow that could slow an airplane down or cut into its maneuverability.

The “computers” had to navigate a society outside the gates of Langley, and often inside, where Jim Crow was worshipped above all. Many engineers didn’t care what color the “computers” were so long as the numbers were right, but plenty of white workers resented having black people around, and outside the gates the rule was segregation, all the way, forever and ever, world without end, amen.

The end of the war seemed to mean the end of good times for the black computers, but then the advancing technology and the needs of the Cold War intervened. While some left Langley to navigate the segregated higher education still in force for more advanced degrees and in pursuit of goals such as becoming an engineer, many stayed and found advancement as their managers realized their worth and rewarded their skills and motivation.

Computers often left the West Unit to work directly with engineers on projects such as improving wind tunnels, developing and improving the delta wing, developing and improving swept wings and many, many more aviation areas.

As the Space Age dawned, some moved into the rocket teams that were forming and began looking at orbits, trajectories and the effects of heating on re-entry.

Sputnik was a shock to the system, and the work picked up dramatically as the nation pondered the Soviet challenge. One evening in 1958, the workers left their offices and slide rules at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and returned the next day to a new agency: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

NASA was pushing the envelope, as the test pilots would say, but for blacks at NASA the biggest challenges were not just at work. Virginia fought integration, as mentioned above, and even after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision some school districts resisted integration to the point that one Virginia school district even shut down its schools for several years.

One white parent insisted to a newspaper reporter that she’d rather have her children grow up ignorant than have them sit next to a black child in a classroom.

(Florida, another big NASA site, had its own issues. Manatee County did not integrate its high schools until 1969, and only then after fights and race riots.)

Just as today people might declare, “Free health care, then free housing, then Communism,” back then people said, “Integration, then Communism.”

But the “hidden figures” kept on calculating and kept on making progress. The technology advanced, and so did their skills. They loved their work, they loved America and they loved NASA and its missions.

Author Shetterly had to work hard to get these stories out, and some of them still haven’t been told. Many years have passed, most of those whose efforts got us into space have passed on or are in the realm of very old age, but those who are still around remember the days when they were young and doing the math that made our nation great and proud.

Today, segregation is part of a shameful past that is still so hurtful to many people. The “hidden figures” had to fight for something white folks take for granted: the right to go to school and get the best education and training, and to live where they wanted to live. Nearly every step of the black folks’ lives had to be taken carefully, and in trips through the Jim Crow South to visit friends and relatives they had to be careful not to anger a white person or persons on the way. The result could be fatal.

The movie, of course, is the usual Hollywood stuff, but it has its value. If it encourages people to pursue their goals and dreams, it will have done its job.

I would more highly recommend the book over the movie, though, to get the full flavor of the accomplishments of the “hidden figures.”

February 18, 2017 Posted by | Life lessons, Vinny's Book Club | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Building your future, one step at a time

I recently read two articles that really inspired me, and the odd thing was that one of them was about a group that ordinarily I’d have a hard time feeling any sympathy for.

In The Daily Beast, a young Hasidic man (link: http://thebea.st/2hFsiwT) described how he decided that despite his community’s strictures, he needed to learn English and get an education. It might seem odd that someone born and raised in the U.S. would not speak English, but in his closed society in Rockland County, N.Y., such efforts were not allowed and could even make him unmatchable in marriage.

In a deal that went down late at night, he bought a small transistor radio and learned English, then got himself admitted to public school. Despite being totally unfamiliar with American culture, he managed to learn his way around and pursue his dreams of getting an education and a good job. There’s an amazing twist to the story, and I won’t give it away. Read it for yourself, and be inspired.

The other story, in the New Yorker magazine (link: http://bit.ly/2gKu2aF), is about men trying to build a better future for themselves after serving time in prison for crimes, many of them bad crimes, in California’s state prison system. Carl Sagan once said that it’s amazing how brilliance can sprout in even the most unlikely places. The men in the story discover books, start reading and become determined to better themselves. Sure, there are a lot of idealists out there who want to help them, but these men are so determined to get ahead and live life the right way that they forge ahead through the many disadvantages placed in their path. There’s still a ways to go for many of them, but they’re getting there.

When I worked in the post office, I remember that one time a woman came up to me and said that she wanted to go to college, as I was. This was in the early 1990s. I had long since given up hope for advancement in the post office, and was focusing on my next career. Her main worry, she said, was that having a college degree might hurt her chances of advancement in the post office.

This was not an idle worry. The Postal Service was and is notorious for limiting the advancement options of people with college degrees. Look, a place that would promote an elementary school dropout is not one that’s going to respect a diploma. Many postal managers were high school dropouts with GEDs who were very proud of their lack of education, which they saw as a sign of wasted time. Even other workers were negative toward my goals.

But I had set my sights higher and was determined to make something of myself. In the meantime, I tried to make change real in the post office, but my low position meant that my ideas never were taken seriously.

Oddly, I was aligned with the views of the postmaster general at the time, but local postal management told me his views had no relevance to the Postal Service. These were the same folks who thought the internet was a passing fad.

I quit the post office in 1994 and began making my way in a new field. I still watch as the post office tries to change and adapt, and cannot because of its leadership. Preventing the smart people from advancing was a good way to protect postal management, but the system is paying the price.

Individuals, though, have to forget this whole notion of blind loyalty to collective groups and forge their own path. It’s not easy, as the young Hasidic man finds out, and the cost can be your ability to ever connect with a woman, but it has to be done.

No one ever regrets going to college, no matter their age. If you’re thinking of doing it, do it! You’ll be glad you did.

December 14, 2016 Posted by | Life lessons | , , , , , | Leave a comment

J.D. Vance, author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” takes on, defeats stereotypes

A couple of years ago, I wrote a very critical blog post about a book, and the author actually responded.

The author had appeared on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” and I lambasted the author and host Terry Gross because I thought the story the author was telling was a complete whitewash. The author had spent time in prison and had read lots of books. He had dealt with the fact that his father was an immigrant by becoming a drug addict and committing strong-arm robberies in New York City.

Now he was “reformed,” he said.

I called B.S. on it all. Negative biographies have been all the rage for the past decade or so, and the “up from the gutter” narrative seems to require drug addiction, crime and more without any consideration for the victims of the author’s past behavior.

In reading “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” by J.D. Vance, I finally realized that this was a story of someone who should be admired. He grew up in the most unstable of families, in an area of the country where poverty is endemic and even the “good economic times” aren’t so great, and with a drug-addict mother who repeatedly goes into rehab, recovers for a time and then relapses, and a rotating array of men who take up with his mother, and comes out the other side determined to rise above his upbringing.

Vance should be a positive role model for everyone regardless of race or color. He had a vast amount of help, though, and he admits that for all the government programs that try to mitigate the poverty and its negative effects, without a grandmother such as his in your corner, you might not win in the end.

She’s a “hillbilly” of the old school, Vance notes, but she moved out of Kentucky with her husband as a young woman to Ohio, where the husband went to work in a steel plant. This was back in the day when a man with little education could take a blue-collar job, stick with the same company for 30 years, and build a life and living.

She has lots of regrets, and this grandmother admits to making a horde of mistakes. Vance is drawn to her despite her toughness (and maybe because of it), and she pushes him to greater achievements. Her lack of education motivates her to push Vance to get an education. When he can’t afford the university, he joins the Marine Corps and achieves success there, then leaves and goes to college on the GI Bill.

One of the best stories, though, is about how he was going to take an advanced math class and needed a $180 graphic calculator. He didn’t have the money, he recounts, and tells his grandmother he’ll have to pass on the class. Somehow, she comes up with the cash, buys him the calculator and then makes Vance bust his ass in that class.

She wants her money’s worth, she tells him in ways that go beyond words. Vance doesn’t disappoint.

Wherever Vance goes, and whatever he does, it’s clear that his grandmother is the North Star who guides him toward success. He wonders at times what his life would have been like without her insistence that he do his best.

Unlike those who think education just gives people ideas above their station, Vance’s grandmother tells him those folks are idiots. She’s so plain-spoken as to be very un-politically correct, noting at one point that her daughter, Vance’s mother, could have done better than trying to kill herself with the family’s new car. She drove it into a pole in a suicide attempt, Vance recounts, and his grandmother notes that it was a waste, and if she really wanted to kill herself, she should have just asked to borrow one of her mother’s guns.

This plain-spoken determination might seem a bit shocking to many of us, but it’s part and parcel of the life the “hillbillies” lead. Opinions are held, strongly and – Vance notes – even when they’re wrong and disadvantageous.

As for the term “hillbilly,” it is to most of us a very pejorative term and one I would avoid using, but Vance uses it and almost embraces it to define a sense of self, family and community even in the midst of terrible circumstances. These folks are pretty strong when you get beneath the surface, I say, and remember that in the main industry of Appalachia, coal mining, it was not uncommon for labor disagreements to be conducted with weapons, and sometimes automatic weapons, borne by police and others in authority and aimed at not only men but women and children.

That breeds a toughness that we city folk will never know, and I admire it.

Vance is a man after my own heart in so many ways. He’s probably the only U.S. Marine to enlist in the aftermath of 9/11 and not get married and have several children during his enlistment. It’s not like in my day, when women and their parents seemed to prefer that their daughter marry federal prison inmates instead of people in the military.

But Vance is so focused that it’s scary. And he’s not alone. He tells the good, the bad and the horrible of how life can turn out, as layoffs destroy the community that the emigrants from Kentucky built in the Rust Belt, and how they battled to survive.

The scourge of drug abuse nearly destroyed their families and their futures, but Vance tells of people who emerged from high school drug-free, went to college or into the service, and eventually went on to great careers or came back to try to rebuild their communities. Beneath the photos of the drug addicted are the regular folks who go to work every day and try to build something against the odds.

I had one worry as I read “Hillbilly Elegy.” It was that Vance’s grandmother was such a force in his life. She helped him with her letters when he was in Marine basic training and his tours overseas. What would happen when she died? Would Vance revert to the way so many others had been?

As it turns out, his beloved grandmother’s death while he’s in the Marines doesn’t divert him from the right path. He mourns and then continues on, finishing his Marine service, readjusting to civilian life and attending college. After graduation, he goes to Yale Law School, though his biological father dismisses it as the “liberal” thing to do. He doesn’t care.

Today, J.D. Vance is married and a successful man working for a capital management company out west.

His story is an indictment of the many efforts to “help” the poor and white working class, and the allure of some political candidates who want those votes, promise much and deliver little.

Ultimately, Vance is saying, you have to go out there, find the best mentors you can and do the work.

That’s a great lesson for everyone, and I highly recommend you read this book.

 

November 6, 2016 Posted by | Life lessons, Vinny's Book Club | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Another economic development scam falls apart

When times are tough and you have millions in grant money sitting around for economic development, it’s easy to fall for the lure of the economic development con man.

He rolls into town and promises everything to everybody.

Want jobs? You’ll have them.

Need a tenant? I’ll sign a long-term lease.

Got cash to give to me? I’ll take a check.

I don’t seem to have enough cash to get started? Fear not, I have investors in Minnesota, oh, I mean, investors in Singapore, or maybe it’s Albania?, whose identity I can’t disclose who’ll lend me $20 million.

You insist that I meet your requirements before you disburse the money? Oh, if you want to be “that way” about it, I’ll still do the deal.

I think the word is getting out about the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corporation, and it’s that they’re the biggest bunch of suckers since that lollipop truck overturned on I-75.

Sharon Hillstrom, CEO of the EDC, gushed like mad over the wonders that Major League Football would bring to the area. As I mentioned before, and before, and before, this bankrupt pseudo-football league is run by people who are adept at making economic development jumps to different parts of the country, making wild and vague promises, and then walking away, leaving vendors and lenders in a pinch and seeking legal relief.

It was hardly a surprise when the league, after holding tryouts, canceled its inaugural season and then announced that it was all part of the big strategy, and then this past week it was revealed that the league has been living “on the arm” at Lakewood Ranch, and the landlord decided to make a move and file eviction papers.

(You can follow the story at the newspaper where I work, the Bradenton Herald.)

The Bradenton EDC managed to avoid being taken in the Sanborn Studios scam, but remember that they fell for the Gulf Coast Swords hockey team deal, the rowing competition and now Major League Football.

What’s next? Cat racing?

June 25, 2016 Posted by | Living in the modern age, The business of sports | , , , , | Leave a comment