Monday, January 23, 2012

I have walked and talked with God


Sit down, take a deep breath, and relax.  Let me tell you a story, a true story that begins this way:
I lived and worked in Laurel, Mississippi, from 1979 through 1982.  I moved there from Mobile, Alabama, where I’d also lived for three years.  Prior to living in Mobile, I lived in Jacksonville, Florida for…, you guessed it, three years.  When I left Laurel, my three year cycle was broken, due in large part to the book, Round the Bend, by Nevil Shute.

When the chartered 707, carrying over two hundred of us, cleared Vietnam’s airspace, I thought I’d closed a chapter in my life story.  I didn’t realize then that life doesn’t have chapters.  I know now that life is a never-ending story; one sentence leads to the next, to the next, to the next… I knew that I wanted to stay in the small north Florida town where I’d finished high school, at least until I got a few things sorted in my head.  That didn’t work.   The only job I was qualified for existed only in the Republic of South Vietnam.  The job I finally accepted didn’t pay enough to support me and my family.  Within two months, I was back to searching for a job.

To make a year’s long story shorter, in 1976, I was working for Ryder Truck Rental in Jacksonville, Florida.  After three years in Jacksonville, I transferred to Mobile, Alabama.  One day a man came into the shop, told me he was from Mississippi, where he worked in trucking.  He asked if he could take a look at our new shop.  I gave him the whole tour, more than he bargained for, I thought later.  But I was wrong.  Inside of a week, he called and told me that he and his brother would like to offer me the position of Managing Partner in a car dealership they owned in Laurel, Mississippi.  I had moved to Mobile when I discovered that Vietnam Veterans were not in Ryder Truck Rental’s future District Manager personnel pool.  I thought about that for a couple of seconds, and then told him I’d like to talk more about their offer.
 
Two days later, I accepted the position, sold my house in Mobile, and moved to Laurel.  My first day on the job was a shocker.  I discovered that everything I’d been told about the dealership was a lie.  The only assets the business had were a falsified balance sheet and two lines of credit secured by the automobiles.  They went on to explain that they generated operating capital by using the proceeds of sold cars, rather than paying them off within twenty-four hours required by the terms of the credit lines.  Seeing the shock on my face, my partners explained that “everyone did it,” and made it clear that they expected me to lie to the representatives of the two institutions that issued the lines of credit about the whereabouts of cars that weren’t on the lot.

I ignored the loud voice in my head that was screaming, “Don’t do it!” And I did do it.   I convinced myself I had no choice.  I lost sight of my innate knowing that we always have a choice.  For the next two years, I ran the dealership, on misappropriated funds, and every day the knowledge of what I was doing ate at me.
 
One evening after I closed the business, I went to the Laurel Public Library and began browsing the shelves for a book that I hoped would get my mind off the condition I’d let my life slip into.  I’d been up and down a few rows of fiction when I stopped to look at the books at eye level.  A second or two later something rustled on a higher shelf.  I looked up just as a book bailed out of its place two shelves above my line of vision.  I caught it before it hit the ground.  I looked around to see if anyone had noticed what had just happened – it’s a guy thing.  I was disappointed to see that I was alone.  Only then did I look at the book.
It was Round the Bend by Nevil Shute.  I had never heard of the book or the author.   I opened it to the first page and read:

“I came into aviation the hard way.  I was never in the R.A.F., and my parents hadn’t got fifteen hundred pounds to spend on pilot training for me at a flying school.  My father was, and is, a crane driver at Southampton docks, and I am one of seven children, five boys and two girls.  I went to the council school like all the other kids in our street, and then when I left school Dad got me a job in a garage out on the Portsmouth Road.  That was in 1929.
I stayed there for about three years and got to know a bit about cars.  Then, early in the summer, Sir Alan Cobham came to Southampton with his flying circus, National Aviation Day, he called it.  He operated in a big way, because he had about fifteen aeroplanes, Avros and Moths and a glider an Autogiro, and a Lincock for stunting displays, and a big old Handley Page airliner for mass joyriding, and a new thing called an Airspeed Ferry.  My, that was a grand turnout to watch.”

The next morning, as the sun rose on Laurel, Mississippi, I read the final passage.
The following week a representative from one of the lending institutions came to the dealership and counted the cars.  When he finished, he came in my office and said, “Hi Bert.  You’re missing a few cars.  Tell me where they are for my report, and then we can go to lunch.”

I looked at him, smiled, and said, “Jerry, I sold them, and I’m using the money to keep the dealership running.”

I didn’t go to lunch that day, and that afternoon I told Jerry’s boss exactly what I’d told Jerry, expecting to hear him say that I was about to go to jail.  Instead, he looked at me and said, “We’ve known that for a while.  Most of our dealers are doing it.”  He paused, opened his briefcase, pulled out an envelope, looked at me and continued, “I have a check here for you in the amount of $250,000.00.   It’s an unsecured loan…”

I don’t know what else he said, but I do remember, like it was yesterday, that when he finished talking, I looked at him, and then I looked at my two partners who had joined the meeting, and said, “You three can do what you want to do, but the last couple of years have convinced me that this business isn’t for me.  I’ll be doing something else from this day forward.”

Quickly, because it isn’t the point I want to make with this blog post, I’ll tell you what happened next.  The lending institution wouldn’t make the loan unless I was the Managing Partner and my partners didn’t want to operate without me running the place, so we closed the business. 

Nevil Shute
What is my point in telling you this?  That’s simple.  A book I’d never heard of changed my life.  It wasn’t a self-improvement book.  It was a novel, a novel written by a novelist who wrote twenty-one other books - a writer, just like you and me.   He sat at a typewriter a long time ago and poured himself into telling a story.  He didn’t write that story for me, he wrote it for himself, and he gave it his very best effort.   We have got to do the same.  We can’t afford to give our writing anything but our very best shot.  We shouldn’t do it for money or fame.  We should write for ourselves and, because one day someone may find our book and read it when they need to get their mind off what’s going on in their life.  And, you can trust me on this, the answers that make a difference are written into novels by authors just like you and me; writers who know what matters and are willing to write about it.

Oh yes, the final passage of Round the Bend goes like this:
“I still think Connie was a human man, a very, very good one – but a man.  I have been wrong in my judgments many times before; if now I am ignorant and blind, I’m sorry, but it’s no new thing.  If that should be the case, though, it means that on the fields and farms of England, on the airstrips of the desert and the jungle, in the hangars of the Persian Gulf and on the tarmacs of the southern islands, I have walked and talked with God.”

11 comments:

  1. Every time I read one of your posts, Bert, I sigh. It's a good sigh. It means I have thought and felt deeply. But, more importantly, I smile. I smile a knowing, contented smile. That is what your writing brings out in me...depth...that is why I keep coming back. Comedy, or whipped cream as I call it, is great, but I crave meat more.
    Thanks for another great one I can sink my teeth into!

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    1. Thanks Mary Kathryn,
      I'll bet I've read Round the Bend at least thirty times and I'm about to read it again. Nevil Shute has been a mentor for me. Another great one is Trustee From the Toolroom - about an unlikely man who just keeps doing what is his to do.
      Yours to count on,
      Bert

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  2. Really great stuff, Bert. Nevil Shute's On the Beach is also a fantastic book and great movie about the dangers of doing things for the wrong reasons.

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    1. Thanks Stephen,
      A few years ago,I was searching Abebooks for Shute books and found an entire set, red leatherette covers, unread - they are on one of our bookshelves now. If I remember correctly there are 22 novels, one play, and his autobiography - every one is a gem. Also worth mentioning is that every one is about something he was passionate about - On the Beach is a perfect example.
      Nevil has taught me a lot and I'm sure he'll teach me a lot more before I'm done.
      Bert

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  3. "the answers that make a difference are written into novels by authors just like you and me; writers who know what matters and are willing to write about it."

    I am a perfect witness to what you wrote, Bert. Christina's "Dying to Know" and your "Southern Investigation", and other of your writings opened my eyes and mind to a whole new world of possibilities that I'd never considered before. I can perfectly pinpoint the day that I met you two as a seminal moment in my life. I can feel myself growing, changing, headed for the first time in a positive direction, directly as a result of words written on a page by both of you. I'm forever in your debt, Bert and Christina; you are my Nevil Shute I and II. Wonderful, wonderful write!

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    1. Jo,
      The instructions in this box, that disappeared when I made the first keystroke, read, "enter your reply." It should have read, "enter your reply, if you have one." I don't. You've left me honored and speechless.
      We've come a long way since the first time I sat down on that ancient stump beside your bonfire. Of course, how far we've come, pales beside how far we've yet to go.
      Yours to count on,
      Bert

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  4. You know these are my favorites: the book, the blog and the man.

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  5. I was just re-reading this and I think it's so amazing that now I'm a postscript to this story! The book is so wonderful. I'm only 70 pages in, but Nevil Shute's writing style is so appealing! He just gives it straight, no usual author gimmicks, no snobby words, just plain talk as if he were sitting across the table from me and telling the story. Absolutely enchanting! How can I ever thank you and Christina? Love you both so much!

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    1. You just thanked us more than enough (I read your comment to Christina).
      It's easy to become a Nevil Shute fan and you nailed the reason why. His characters all do what is in front of them to do and they do it well. Just like you.

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  6. I finally finished "Round the Bend" last night. So hard to find time to read without interruption around this joint! Fascinating. Fascinating! I've started it all over to pick up what I surely missed. I can truly see why it was such an influence in your life, as you guys' writings have been in mine. It's a lovely treasure.

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