There's No Crying in the War Room
Copyright © 2007 By Nathan Gendzier
Unless you live under a rock, you know about the year I’ve just experienced. You’ve seen all the T.V. show, news reports and ads. There’s been enough ink wasted on me to float a super-tanker. What you don’t know about is my side of the story.
Before I start, I just want to say that the story you’re about to hear could have happened only in America. There’s really nowhere quite like this country. It’s corny and hackneyed and you’d never catch me saying this out loud, but it really is true that in America, even the poorest immigrant mother can dream that her child will grow up to be President. More than any other idea, America has embraced the radical idea that every citizen has a voice and every voice should speak up. I suppose the problem with that with that is that you end up with 250 million or so people talking and nobody listening. Democracy has been called a “grand experiment”. We’re still waiting for the results.
Anyway, it all started exactly a year ago today. I’m in my car on the Capitol Beltway headed toward one of my stores. I own a regional chain of auto parts stores: 23 shops in four states and D.C. I inherited all of this from Father, who had inherited it from his dad. Actually, Father, (never Dad), only got two stores from Grandpa. Grandpa was a real pioneer but he wasn’t very ambitious. Opening the second store was more or less a charitable affair. Grandma Manya’s brother needed somewhere to work, and providing a job for a member of the clan was fine….as long as Grandpa didn’t have to actually see him every day. So, he opened the second shop halfway across town in Falls Church and hired Uncle Herschel to run it.
Grandpa only went over there once a week or so to repair the damage. Herschel meant well, but he was either lazy or stupid; the family was always too polite to say which. Myself, I always thought it would have been the polite thing to go ahead and say which; that way at least we’d be able to remove the onus of one of the two things. But instead, the best we could tell ourselves was “Hey, that Herschel, he may be stupid but he’s sure not lazy….or is it the other way around.” Whatever.
When Father came into the business, he was just a ball of fire. Grandpa was proud of him and all, but I think he was a bit bemused by the whole thing. Within a month of going to work there, Father was talking about expanding the business. As far a Grandpa was concerned, things were just fine the way they were. The two stores provided the family with a very comfortable living. There was money in the bank…enough that he could make a big donation to the schul every once in a while and be a “Macher”. (That’s a geometric progression over “Mensch”, and being a Mensch isn’t half bad.) Grandpa took Grandma to one of those resorts in the Catskills once a year; they had two new cars, and the house had been paid for years ago. Father was a married man with a 17-month-old daughter, a second child on the way (me as it would turn out), a college education (business and accounting), a great job and a beautiful house. Why should we fool with the business?
Well, Father was never exactly a shrinking violet and he badgered Grandpa mercilessly. Finally Grandpa gave in. Father could open one new store. If he could make a go of it, he could do all the expansion he wanted from the profits and any loans he could get on the new properties. They formed a new company, Harkness Automotive, Inc., so that the original company wouldn’t be affected if Father tanked.
A brief moment to address the issue of names. My name is Paul Harkness. I was born in Falls Church, Virginia in 1958 to Abraham and Lucille Harkness. You may have noticed that names like Manya, Herschel and Abraham mix a little oddly with a good WASP name like Harkness. Grandpa making donations to the schul might have been another red flag. The story is (and I don’t know how true this is), that my great grandfather Artimus (go figure) came to America from Lithuania in 1892. The original family name was something that started with an “H” and the rest of it sounded like an old woman preparing to hock up a huge gob of spit. The guy at Ellis Island wrote down “Harkness” and Harkness, we remain. Incidentally, Great Grandpa Artimus worked as a door-to-door typewriter salesman. Now, picture this guy tromping all over Dixie, schlepping a 40-pound typewriter around. He’s dressed like the Hassids you see in New York in the Diamond District trying to sell typewriters to a bunch of illiterate dirt farmers who mostly keep big mean dogs in the front yard. To my knowledge, he never made it past the front door, much less made a sale. My Great Grandmother must have been one hell of a woman. But that’s probably another story.
Anyway, Father turned out to be such a success, that within five years, ha had opened four more stores, all of them going like gangbusters, and Harkness Automotive bought up control of the two original stores. Everybody was pretty happy with the deal. Father became a Captain of Industry, Grandpa went into semi-retirement (he came in one day a week ‘til he was 86), and Herschel was kept on for the sake of family peace.
Father kept building on his success. My sister Rachel and I each went to a nice private school, Jewish summer camps, and eventually college. Rachel majored in Music at Julliard and is actually the 2nd chair violin with the National Orchestra here in D.C. I majored in Poli-Sci at B.U. and came home to take up my rightful place in the family business. Father never forgave me for taking such a useful Major. Which brings us back to the events of a year ago.
--One year ago, today—
So, I’m in my car on the Capitol Beltway headed for one of my stores. I like to pop in unexpectedly now and then. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not trying to catch them with their pants down. I just like surprises. The fact is I’ve got a bunch of great people working for me and I may be the most superfluous part of the operation. When I first came to work for Father, one of the first jobs he entrusted to me was to make periodic checks on the different stores (to catch them with their pants down). Not that I was supposed to take any action if I found something amiss. My job was to call Father and rat out the offenders.
After performing this miserable task for about five months, I started a little conspiracy with the various store managers. We’d start keeping all misdemeanors between ourselves if they’d stop hating me. I’d pretend to discipline them and they’d pretend to have reformed their evil ways. Well, little by little, they started to feel sorry about the position they were putting me in with Father, and the mischigas mostly disappeared.
Just so you shouldn’t get worried, you should know that I’ve about exhausted my Yiddish vocabulary. The way it works is…..Grandpa and Grandma used to speak Yiddish whenever Rachel and I weren’t supposed to hear what they were talking about. Father and Mom understood all of it but they weren’t about to deign to actually speak the language…..”Pop, we’re American ferChrissakes”! Rachel and I ended up picking up about as much Yiddish as your average Catholic kid growing up in the Bronx.
Anyway, flush with my success, and with my New England educated idealism, I started to make suggestions to Father on more liberal ways to run the business. I reminded him what he had told Grandpa when he started in the business; that “you can never rely on the previous generation’s ways of operating; You’ve always got to try new ideas if you want to succeed; New blood equals progress”. Father reminded me to shut up and maybe I’d learn something.
So I mostly shut up for the next ten years. In 1991 Father had a minor heart attack. Most of the family suspects he was faking, but it was enough for him to justify retirement. After all, Father was never in love with the business for it’s own sake; he was in it for the money. And he had piles of the stuff by then. He signed over 60% of the business to me and basically told me I could run it into the ground for all he cared. He had enough money to play golf three days a week, take month-long vacations with Mom and to take week-long vacations without Mom, which is what he proceeded to do until the day he died last year. (This time the heart attack was real, brought on by hitting 12 straight balls into the water at the 17th hole, island green at Sawgrass.)
Mom has started dating again, and what with the
16 million dollar estate Father left, she’s not short on suitors if you know what I mean. Rachel and I are a little concerned about all this, but Mom pointed out that she spent 49 years with Father (God rest his soul), and she had earned every dime of the money, and she could piss it away if she wanted and she deserved a little fun, and she could date anyone she wanted and……..I don’t know how Rachel feels, but, as far as I’m concerned there are some things about your mother you don’t need to hear.
So anyway, I’m in my car on the Capitol Beltway on my way to one of my stores. During the years since Father retired, I’ve been able to institute most of the ideas I had for reorganizing the business. Some of them worked out fine, some not so great, and some were clearly the rantings of a lunatic. I’ve managed to weather the storms, and the company’s doing pretty well. You should have seen Father’s face when I set up a profit sharing program for all of the employees in 1993. He never managed to acknowledge that it was a success, but, on the other hand, he didn’t complain when the net profits went up 27% in the first two years.
O.K. I’ll get to the point. I’m tooling along doing 70 and this tractor-trailer goes screaming past me; must be doing 95. It really scared the crap out of me because I wasn’t paying such close attention to my driving. I was flipping around the radio trying to find something worth listening to and I practically drove off the side of the highway. Well, about 3 miles further, I came around the bend in the road right before the bridge that crosses the Potomac into Maryland. The truck that had passed me is overturned in the middle of the highway with the ass end hanging over the guardrail. It’s completely blocking all but one of the three lanes and there’s smoke coming out from behind the cab.
Most of the other cars on the highway were just coming to a complete stop while a few morons were trying to squeeze by in the one open lane. As flames burst out behind the cab, even the morons stopped. Since traffic had been light, I was only about five car lengths back from the truck. Like everybody else, I got out of my car and edged forward for a better look.
I could see the driver through the crazed windshield. He wasn’t moving, just sort of hanging limp in his seatbelt. Well I don’t know what got into me then. The flames started getting higher and I took off like a bat out of hell toward the truck. Somewhere in my subconscious, it registered that everyone else was running the other way.
With the way the truck had come to rest, I had to climb up onto the passenger side of the cab, which was now the top. I kind of climbed down into the cab, undid the seatbelt, and pushed/pulled/dragged the guy out of there. From the door/top of the truck, I had to push the guy over to the ground, a fall of about 8 feet….Sorry, Pal. I jumped down and dragged the guy away from the truck as fast as I could.
I got no more than fifty yards when the tanks blew. The explosion mostly deafened me a little and I guess the shockwave did something to bring the driver around. So there I am with flaming shrapnel dropping all around me, a 190 lb. maniac who thinks I’m the source of his problems, and I can’t hear a fucking thing.
I ended up lying on my back, sort of dazed and staring up at the sky. I noticed that there was a traffic helicopter circling overhead, presumably taping the mayhem, probably going out live to the whole metro area, isn’t that nice. At this point, some kind soul ran over and rolled me across the pavement. Apparently, my shirt had caught fire. Scraped the shit out of my elbows and knees, but hey, what’s a little road-rash compared to roasted Paul?
I came to rest facing the guardrail. My hearing was starting to recover and I could hear a bunch of people at the rail yelling about something. They were all leaning out over the rail and pointing at something. Curiosity overcame caution (and pain) and I made my way over to the rail. When I got there, I saw what the commotion was all about.
There was an SUV (Suburban families seem to think you need to be prepared to take on a Serbian tank at the drop of a hat, I guess.), in the water that must have gone over the side in the accident. I searched the water for people. I couldn’t see any evidence of rescuers in the water. What I could see was two little kids pounding on the inside of the rear hatch window. The forest green behemoth was still mostly afloat, but that was obviously not going to last forever. And no one’s doing a damn thing but yelling and pointing.
Look, you’ve got to understand; pulling the truck driver out was pure instinct. I didn’t think about it, I just did it. And now that I’d had a moment to think about it, I was shaking in my Timberlands. Not to mention singed, pierced and scraped raw. I am not jumping off a bridge. I am not diving into that water. I better see someone in that water pretty damned fast, ‘cause I’m not jumping into the fucking river.
I shucked my boots and dove. The first thing I noticed was that the water was cold. I mean melted snow, down from the mountains, knock your breath out cold. Then I realized that the SUV had come to rest on sort of a shallow sandbar. I didn’t have to worry about it sinking any further, which was good. Then again, the sand bar made for one hell of a current, which was not at all good.
The two kids were screaming their heads off and it took a minute or so to get them to pull up the lock knob so I could pull open the hatch. One at a time, I pulled the kids out and swam them over to the ledge at the bottom of the bridge supports. As I started to swim back for a third time, it occurred to me that this must have been going on for at least an hour and WHERE THE FUCK ARE THE COPS?
No cops, but two news cameras are already set up and shooting from the bridge. It’s good to know the important stuff’s covered.
When I got back to the SUV, I took a deep breath and dove under. The kids’ mother was conscious and panicked, her face poking up into a small air pocket where the windshield met the roof. I couldn’t pull the door open because of the way the car had come to rest, so I went back to the surface. The car wasn’t going to sink far, but the rear
Had started to take on water and settle below the surface. I dove again and swam in through the rear hatch. I had to slap the lady to get her to shut up, explaining that the air pockets would be gone soon. She said she couldn’t swim. Great. I told her to just hold her breath until we got to the surface and relax; I’d do all the work.
She did and I did. When we got to the surface, I saw that some cops and an ambulance had finally showed up. Thanks for the assist, guys. I swam to the shore with the lady in tow. As I hauled us up onto the shore a paramedic ran up to us. She put one of those space blankets over my shoulders and started helping the lady up the embankment. I could see that some cops were swimming out to where I had left the two kids perched. As I took my first step up the embankment, I guess the adrenaline ran out and I collapsed. “Hello….little help?”
O.K., so the next thing I know, the paramedics have got me on a stretcher and they’re hauling me up the embankment. As soon as we get to the top, the T.V. cameras and microphones are in my face.
They’re all shouting questions at the same time….”Who are you?”….”What’s your name?”…..”Why did you do it?” My answer to the last question was replayed on every news program, news promo, news magazine, tabloid show and God knows what else over the next three days…… "Someone had to help those people”, I said. The end of the sound bite was always the same: one of the paramedics caught on tape, thinking aloud, “But you’re the only one who did.”