Tuesday, June 30, 2020

The pleasure of giving respect

I’ve been thinking recently, four years after he died suddenly at eighty, about my old boss Spindle. He was “Gerald Spindle,” “Jerry” to some, “Mr. Spindle” to others, “Chief” when I addressed him directly, and “Spindle” when I alluded to him. This was in no wise a token of disrespect. On the contrary, when I delivered a spoken tribute an audience of ≈150 at a retirement luncheon held in his honor a quarter-century ago, I observed that the honorific was supererogatory: “Does one say Mister Thor? Mister Zeus? No. These are forces of nature, personified, and titles do not obtain or apply.” Spindle was Vulcan, God of Steel, Smithy to the Olympians—the metaphor was more apt than you strangers might imagine.

In his magnificent short story “A Bullet in the Brain” (a PDF transcription can be found here), Tobias Wolff’s doomed, unpleasant protagonist briefly recalls—doesn’t, actually—“the pleasure of giving respect.” But I do. I worked for Spindle for five years (most of us were rotated from one office to another after a year, but the fierce head of the steel products branch was so dreaded that, when I volunteered each year to re-enlist, management was relieved to avoid the bitching and complaining that might otherwise have ensued) from 1982 until 1987 when, greatly to his ire and disappointment, I took another gig in order to get out from under his boss, who had taken a considerable and consequential dislike to me. What was contemplated at the outset to be a temporary assignment ended in consuming the remaining thirty years of my alleged career, and while in consequence this depressed the bottom line, it was better for my mental health. I grieved that Spindle regarded my defection at the outset as a betrayal, but following an interval of reproach I worked myself back into his good graces, beginning with a flattering and well-deserved article about him published in the house organ.

Following his retirement in 1995, Spindle and I remained in regular contact, mainly by phone, several conversations each month, and secondarily by email; occasionally by post. He was a bottomless fount of knowledge on military history—WW II informed the childhood of a precocious youngster, nine by VE Day—and of films: to the extent I am conversant today with cinema as an art form, I owe this almost entirely to Spindle’s tutelage.

He died suddenly in 2016. In the preceding weeks he had spoken—turning eighty, as he had that February, tends to focus the mind on these things—of putting his affairs in order. A flinty midwesterner (he once copped to a tendency to “squeeze the nickel until the buffalo shits”), he wanted to arrange his estate without the costly participation of an attorney. I told him that I’d see what I could find online. Alas, a cerebral episode took him out before I’d even begun my researches, and his estate ultimately fell into the hands of a court-appointed trustee. I do not doubt that a generous slice of administrative expenses were extracted.

Still: “the pleasure of giving respect.” I’ve enjoyed this a few times during my adult life, but at this point, probably not again. Have I ever been, will I ever be, the object of this? Dunno. I’m inclined to doubt it.

Above: Master and journeyman, circa 1985

Monday, June 22, 2020

Borne in the USA

At the kind suggestion and arrangement of my younger brother I spent a fortnight in London and environs last summer, my first time across the pond since Tony Blair was PM, and Lina’s first time ever farther than a mile off the US East Coast. A pleasant time was had by all, not least because we secured transatlantic passage via somewhat costly “business” class, which provided us with something approximating beds, and with in-flight fare a cut above the pretzels and peanuts grudgingly provided those in steerage.

Upon our return from that green and pleasant land, we disembarked at the airport in San Francisco, dodging the 350 passengers awaiting Customs clearance—three international flights had arrived within a quarter-hour of one another—by means of our “Global Entry” passes, a system that permits Real People who can afford the tariff to bypass the hoi polloi as they trudge sullenly through the lines.

The filth and squalor on the train back to our neighborhood, and visible on the streets, were striking: nothing much changed from our departure the previous month, but a shock upon seeing this with the impressions of a civilized country fresh in memory. Indeed, returning earlier from a daytrip to Oxford, I looked at the comfortable, tidy villages from the train and thought “they wouldn’t let me live here if I asked.” And for the first time, belatedly, I realized that I was a prisoner in my own land, a grim and grimy police state.