What I want to talk about today is values, and staying true to your values no matter what. Values is everything, folks. It’s values that separates us from a dog or a hyena. A bad dog. I’m talking about a bad dog, here. When I say a dog. Among other things. As you’ll see.
What do I mean when I say values? That’s a pretty important question. I guess you could say your values are like your code of how to live and what’s important to do. Things like hard work and discipline, being steadfast and even-keeled, doing what’s best for your family and your country and not stealing and such. You understand. A man has a set of values, and no matter what he’s got to live by those values and not be a hypocrite when the chips are down. That’s what makes a man a man, in the end. Did he live by his values, even when the going got rough, so to speak.
Now, hard as it is to believe, there’s people out there, and not what you or I would call good people, but people out there that’s got a different set of values altogether. Or you could even say no values at all. What they’ve got instead is weakness and greed and laziness, all those things that makes a person weak and disagree with a good sensible value system. That kind of a person wants to tear down a man’s values at every chance. And what I want to do is, I want to tell you about a time when I faced them down and triumphed in a most difficult of situations. When my values were put to the ultimate test and stood firm. Think of the worst thing you can do to a man and his values, and then double it. The greatest challenge a man’s values ever faced.
That’s right. I’m talking about brainwashing. Thought control. Just like out of a movie.
But first let me tell you something about myself. I come from a hard-working blue collar background. I worked at the mill for 22 years to the point where my story happened. Dad worked at the mill for forty-some-odd years, and before him you know Pappy was a foreman at the mill for better than 35 years until he got knocked into the number eight bin by a buckled driveshaft and buried under several tons of sorted bran. They say he was likely dead on contact, and thank God for that. I hate to think of a man calling for help from the bottom of a eight-foot heap of cereal grain. That is no way to go, if you ask me. I guess you’d suffocate on bran. Dead or alive you know all that grain will crush a man flat as can be. Lord knows. Don’t even ask Dad about that one.
That was no open casket, tell you what.
Still and all, a man knows the risks when he joins up at the mill. Even a twelve-year-old man, such as I was when Dad dragged me down there one morning after his tulip investment scheme went belly up. I’d seen the scars and bruises. Do you know what a torrent of grain will do to a man when the distributor chute vibrates clear of the clamps? Like he got beat about the chest and arms with a sack of marbles. That is nothing pretty. That there was an early lesson in values. Dad wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, so to speak, but hell if he didn’t march right back to the mill the next morning, purple as a ripe plum and warm to the touch. What the man lacked in investment knowledge he made up double in grit. You can’t imagine what he thought he knew about tulips. Turns out he missed the great big tulip craze by the width of a whole ocean and three-hundred-some-odd years. Took college right off the table with that one.
So it was about that time it made good sense I might as well start my career down at the mill. And I have worked there every day since. And let me tell you, that is not easy work. They don’t take a twelve-year-old and give him a corner office and a secretary like they probably do on Wall Street. A twelve-year-old at the mill gets a pair of stiff gloves and a broom big as he is and sent down into the bins to push out what bran and germ sticks down at the bottom. He’s lucky to get a hardhat most days. He’s made to chase vermin with a crowbar and carry the sticky mess to the pile behind the back dock. That is not clean work. That pile gets to be more of a mountain and when it gets hot back there you do not want to be loitering downwind. I’m talking about thousands of mangled rats. And don’t think the other rats won’t eat from the pile. They’ve got to chew something. I mean that is nasty business.
Still, you get pretty good at winding those rats up by the tail like David with the sling and flinging them out from a good distance. They ought to make an Olympic sport out of that. That is a satisfying sound they make when they hit the pile. You’d be surprised, I think.
Six years I carried the broom and flung the rats on account of they can’t give you any more sophisticated work until you’re old enough to sign the waiver. Dad wanted to help me out on that, but they won’t let folks sign their kids into the more dangerous jobs, try as he might. Turns out also I wasn’t what you’d call “on the books” so to speak, meaning Dad probably wouldn’t want his John Hancock on any official document or otherwise indicating he had a minor in his care working in such conditions.
Then I got to adulthood and they shifted me over to bundling, and I can’t say that’s a whole lot easier, as jobs go. We are talking about tons and tons of grain in a day for each bundler, that will wear out a man to where it feels an awful lot like someone dropped a mule onto your low back round about midday. But by that time I had developed my own set of rock solid values: the mill needs bundlers and they pay a man to work hard at his job until the whistle sounds. And I assume it was good money, too, although at that time Dad was still in the habit of collecting my paychecks for me, and you know that man is the picture of set in his ways. No matter how early you get out of the house on payday I mean you will not beat him to the clerk’s office. Still it all comes down to paying your own keep, and after all he kept the roof over my head, such as it was. And all the while I was developing my own set of values. That’s what we were talking about. Values. You show up, you punch in, you work hard from start to finish, you’re honest with the boss and a help to the other men, you respect the job and your coworkers and superiors. Determination and persistence and honest work.
Besides that, a place has its own ethic. You come to rely on each other every day, and you’ve got a set of standards. And in our family as in the mill, we value above all else reliability and loyalty and all those good things that make a place go good every day.
From bundler I moved on to work the distributor chute for some years until they moved me over to the gristmill rollers themselves, which is cleaner work, mostly just minding the gears and the power panel, initiating a shutdown in the case of any catch or overflow and hopefully not getting batted into a bin like old Pappy. Still it was a good day’s honest work and I worked hard at it every day. It’s not sore work like the chute or bundling nor busy work like the brooms, but I’m up and out before the sun and bent over the gears the day long and I’m sure not saying it’s a swell time, don’t misunderstand me. Nine long years of it, but a man’s values will see him through, and hard work rights the soul. Or anyway that’s what Dad said the day he and Mom handed me the keys to the house and shipped out for Florida.
I ought to call Dad sometime. I do wonder how he and Mom are getting along down there.
Now comes that part of every man’s life where he faces a true test of his character. And when I mention character what we’re talking about really is values. You can’t have character without values. Or maybe there are characters who don’t have any good values, but now we’re talking about a Snidely Whiplash type of character and that is no one anyone wants to be.
Came a time I took a call from an old buddy of mine, Mitchell, who lived up a ways from the house and went away to college around the time I left my rat-flinging days behind me and got into the bundling business. Anyway in our youth I would talk to Mitchell all about not working down at the mill but going away to college one day, of course that was before the tulip fiasco, which I’m still not sure who to blame about that, but it sure seems someone took old Dad for a ride and I’d sure like to find out who on that one. Mitchell he went away to college, which I said already. Anyway Mr. and Mrs. Gorman still lived back home and Mitchell he’d come along to visit every now and again and he and I get away and have a beer and catch up when he’s in town.
So he’s not in town this time but he calls me up one day and says Stan have I got an opportunity for you. And you know right away I’m wondering just what does Mitchell have in mind here. I mean I may not be a Rockefeller but I do alright and you know I take pride in earning an honest living with honest work down at the mill, just like Dad and Pappy did. But here he’s going on and on, says he knows a man who got into an investment of his own with a government initiative to quote-unquote modernize America’s gristmills and bring quote-unquote efficiency to operations nationwide. Seems someone had the idea America’s grain operations were being supplanted by cheaper operations overseas. So right away I’m thinking here we go with another tulip scandal.
Anyway, Mitchell wants to bring me down to Washington D.C. and meet the man and talk to him about gristmill logistics. Stan, he says, Stan this is a chance to get out of the mill and play a leadership role in revolutionizing the industry. And I figure what the hell, if someone else wants to pay my way and fly me over there and put me up in a hotel for a few nights, I’ve got a decade’s worth of accrued vacation time to burn, even while I’m wondering what the hell kind of a man invests in gristmill operations and needs a gristmill operator to explain how the gristmill works. Besides, if I’ve learned one thing it’s investments are most likely scams anyway, and here I am a mill man, from a mill family. And a mill man has mill values and knows the value of a day’s work. In the mill.
I get down there and here at the airport is a man in a suit, and I’m not even in a suit, just jeans and boots with the flannel I wore on the plane, and he’s got the suit and he’s holding a sign with my name on it, and it turns out he’s a driver. In a suit. And I’m thinking who are you trying to impress, buddy. He gives me the cheshire smile and I’m following him to his car and I’m thinking Mitchell buddy what on earth have you gotten yourself into with these people. Down in the garage he’s got a great big Town Car and he wants me to sit in the back and I tell myself just play along, there is something going on here and the only way to the bottom of it is to let them play their little game. Maybe this is the same operation that scammed Dad, you know you can’t rule anything out in a situation like this, and I’m thinking maybe there’s still a chance in hell of saving Mitchell from a lot of heartache. Which little did I know at that time how deep this whole thing goes. I mean you will not believe.
So he drives me over to the quote-unquote hotel, which anyone can see looks an awful lot like some kind of palace or embassy, I mean I have never seen pillars on a hotel, we don’t have any hotels or anything else like that back in Derwin, I mean come on. I mean do these people think I am so stupid to fall for this kind of thing. I’m not chasing the quick buck, you have picked the wrong person for your scheme, they have no idea. I am prepared to shut this whole thing down.
The lobby is like you would not believe. Like something out of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. And here comes Mitchell across the lobby and first thing I notice is Mitchell is wearing a suit. And Mitchell is a good guy, a solid man from a good solid family from my same town, and now I’m thinking man they have got their claws into you, buddy. He’s smiling and shaking my hand and he’s got a look on his face, a spooky look like they’ve got The Rapture going over at the bar and he’s been invited onward and upward. And now here comes the cold sweat - they’ve got Mitchell. Whatever these people are up to, they’ve got Mitchell and we are not in Kansas anymore Toto. And we aren’t even from Kansas, if you take my drift.
Mitchell’s telling me how he’s glad I could make it and how he’s eager for me to meet Jeffrey, how Jeffrey has in mind a “team” of “experts” representing a “broad range” of “perspectives” on the grain industry, and how Mitchell told him I’d been in the mill from the time I was a boy and knew the quote-unquote old mills inside out, which may be true but I’m already uncomfortable with how much this shadowy figure knows about me and my history. I mean you hear all kinds of stories about people having their identities stolen and sold to gangsters and what-all, and who knows what this Jeffrey character has in mind, if that’s even his real name. Jeffrey. I won’t know Jeffrey from Adam, unless he’s Jeffrey from Derwin who dropped out and drove the roadkill truck, which I think Mitchell would have mentioned in the first place. I mean that would be something else altogether. Anyway it wasn’t that Jeffrey, that Jeffrey couldn’t count to ten from memory and last I heard couldn’t do it on his fingers neither on account of only having seven or eight after the roadkill truck rolled over him while he’s scraping up a possum one night. My point here is I may not be a wealthy man but I’ve got as much to lose as the next guy and a damn site more than some. And I’m looking right at Jeffrey when I say that. Not that Jeffrey. The other Jeffrey. Not literally looking at him, because he’s not in the room, he’s back in Derwin. The other Jeffrey. Not the investor Jeffrey. If he’s really named Jeffrey after all. Jeffrey barely has a pot to piss in. I think he eats some of those animals. That is not a guy you want to invite around very much.
Not the investor Jeffrey. Not that you’d want to invite him necessarily either.
Still, this is a nice hotel, and I’m thinking what honest thing would a man have to do to pay his way in a place like this. I mean it is definitely tempting at this point in the story to think about that sort of arrangement.
Jeffrey, investor Jeffrey, and from here on we’ll just refer to him as Jeffrey because frankly I’d like to forget about the other Jeffrey altogether while I’ve still got an appetite for lunch, Jeffrey is a short guy with big hands in a black suit and he’s sitting at a low table there in the lobby with all kind of papers spread out in front of him. And Mitchell takes me on over there and we do introductions and shake hands and Jeffrey’s the sort to smile and look you right in the eye and shake your hand firm. Which I’ll be damned if I’m going to let this probable scam artist identity thief be the firmer hand-shaker, so I’m gripping and grinding his hand to jelly and peering into his eyes to see the moment when he cracks. But this Jeffrey is one cool customer, he actually laughs and says how I’ve got the strong grip of a man who has worked with his hands his whole life, which, damn right I do, first of all, but also to be fair that is a pretty solid thing to say under the circumstances and I’m a little touched.
And this is an instance where your character is tested, because a man like that has a million little tricks to knock you off your foundation and make you forget your values. And whatever he’s after, that’s his way in, confusing your mind so he can control your thoughts. See by this point I’m pretty well onto what’s going on here. Here’s this mesmerist, I mean let’s call it what it is, and he wants to sell my identity to the highest bidder, and frankly I never had any idea it was this sophisticated an operation, planes and drivers and suits and hotels and thought control. Am I out of my league here, is what I’m thinking. I’ll be honest here. A man can be dazzled by those kind of things.
So we take a seat around the table and here goes Jeffrey off to the races, here on the table he’s got charts about grain processing and worker efficiency and overhead costs and you name it. Union demographics. I mean you name it. And he’s telling me about how there’s an opportunity for a smart group of investors to raise capital for modernizing operations with an eye toward improved efficiency and worker safety and so on and at first I’m listening, and I’m thinking hey you know there probably is a better way to handle rats beyond just flinging them out into a giant pile under the sun where they turn into a ripe furry blob of rust-colored rat pudding, maybe there’s something to this Jeffrey and his big ideas after all. And then I notice Mitchell over to the side and what’s he doing? He’s just nodding away with this happy look on his face. Just nodding and nodding, like he’s listening to a sermon at church, and I mean my flesh went cold as bologna in the ice-box. I’m thinking to myself old Mitchell’s mind is gone forever, like an automaton or something. And this is scaring the bejesus out of me as I sit there, I mean I am beside myself having never witnessed mind control in person outside of watching X-Files now and then. That’s not even in person either, if you think about it.
Then I think Jeffrey must of noticed something was off because next thing I know he’s looking at Mitchell too with this puzzled look on his face, no doubt because I have proved to be impervious to his hypnotism to this point, and Mitchell’s looking back at him with this sheepish little shrug, and he says to him it’s okay, he’s fine, let’s get some coffee, he had a long flight. That kind of thing. And now, see, I’m ahead of the game now, behind enemy lines, disrupting the operation, and now I can see that Jeffrey has turned Mitchell into an agent in his scam, this is just getting sadder and sadder for Mitchell.
Mitchell heads off to get “coffee” which now that I think about it would of almost certainly been poisoned with truth serum or something along those lines. And Jeffrey sits back and asks me what I think so far. And this is a key moment, do I keep playing along and see where this thing goes, or do I spring the trap now and expose the whole dastardly operation? But I’m thinking with Mitchell out of the room or out of my line of sight there’s no telling whether I’ll have a chance to rescue him if I go too soon, plus maybe he needs to be nearby to break the spell when it’s broken. So I tell him it sounds like he’s got one or two good ideas and I’d like to know just where I fit into this operation. I’m careful to use the word operation and not scam, but I make sure to pronounce the word operation real slow and significant, so he knows I’m onto his little game. I can see straightaway it has the intended effect, he squirms and chuckles and looks less than half as comfortable as he was before I sat down. I’m getting to the little sucker.
He’s “glad” I brought that up, and then he goes off about how the gulf between technology and operations in an “old mill” and the “sophistication” of “modern” mills being run in “Europe” and “Asia” is vast, and in order to bridge that gap they’ll need a comprehensive understanding of the old mills and young leaders from among the current labor force to lead the way in gaining the necessary skills and experience and then help develop training programs for the general workforce. And he’s talking about pulling me out of the mill and sending me on all-expenses-paid trips to cutting edge mills overseas for hands-on experience on the new equipment, and then a top-notch business leadership and project management program here in the States, where I could then settle into a management position relative to mill operations nationwide. Which, of course, sounds too good to be true, because it is. I mean I am no dummy. And of course he’s telling me that Mitchell said I was just the man for the job, that I come from a family of mill workers and understand the culture of a mill town and the values of a mill worker.
And that word, values, that just snapped me back to reality. Because I was way off in LaLa land, thinking about hotels and new machinery and drivers and suits. About going back to Derwin in 24 months in a new car with a shiny watch and maybe even a monocle or something, just to really make the point, and whipping that mill into shape, I mean that’s where your mind goes during one of their attacks. I was on my way back to the national headquarters in a private jet with my pet lion which I had named Ely in my mind when the word values went ricocheting around in my brain like a bat in a cave who also happens to be on angel dust. Not that my brain is empty like a cave. And anyway, what kind of a man says 24 months when 24 months is the same thing as 2 years. I mean that was a dead giveaway. Jeffrey doesn’t even speak English as his first language, is what I figured out right then and there.
And again, here’s Jeffrey looking all puzzled like he can’t figure out how I beat his tricks a second time. And Mitchell, who by this time had long returned with the coffee but I didn’t mention it until now because I forgot in all honesty but also at the time I hadn’t noticed while I fell into the trance, this time Mitchell isn’t even talking to Jeffrey or offering to get more coffee. This time he’s talking to me, saying things like breathe easy Stan and are you okay and it looks like you saw a ghost. Which I am a pretty good card player and I’ve been known to have a stone-solid poker face, which just tells you right there how they’d penetrated into my mind to know the struggle taking place within. I mean some of these people out there, you have really got to be on your toes.
I had planned on discussing salary arrangements but I’m not sure it would be appropriate at this time, is what Jeffrey was saying, about how maybe we should adjourn for the afternoon and he and Mitchell can talk in private. But now I have had it up to here with this and I just go ahead and cut him off and tell him here’s how much I make down at the mill and I’m looking at a COLA increase plus a performance bump at year end and I’ll be damned if I’ll even consider leaving that so-called old mill for anything that can’t at least match that. And here comes the most ridiculous part.
Stan, says Mitchell, and he leans in like he’s talking to a child or telling a secret, Stan, he says, this would have paid several multiples of that. Mitchell, my own friend, is the one who said it.
I mean where do you even begin with that. First of all, I am no idiot. Being talked to like an idiot makes my blood boil, but especially when I’m being told a boldfaced lie. Which, I mean do we even need to go there. Multiples? What does that even mean? If I am understanding him correctly, that is an amount of money that is not even possible. I mean we are talking six digits here. And second of all, did you notice the slip-up? Plain as day. Go ahead and read it again.
Would have. It would have paid an impossible fortune. Past tense. Meaning not gonna happen. Which is the magic word, so to speak. Our magical job with all these magical perks is never gonna pay you this impossible amount of money. I mean that is the literal translation. And of course it came from Mitchell. I have no doubt Mr. Slick Money Man Mesmerist Jeffrey never would have slipped up like that. At this point all he’s doing is shaking his head with pursed lips, just looking off into space. Which all you can do at this point if you’re me is laugh. Which is what I did. I mean I let it all out at the last. I laughed and laughed and laughed. I laughed at Mitchell for saying it. I laughed at how stupid it was. I laughed right in Jeffrey’s face. I hooted like a drunken owl until everyone in that damn place was watching me. I thought there was a good chance it might break the spell on poor Mitchell, but next thing I know, all Jeffrey’s papers are gathered up into a slim briefcase and he and Mitchell are walking away from the table towards the exit. This did not stop my laughing of course. I mean I let her rip. I must of laughed for an hour sitting there. It damn well got dark outside before I finally wound down, and only then when the hotel security surrounded the chair with their hands on their pepper spray. I figured that was my cue to exit stage left and I got the hell out of there. I didn’t even stay the night. I transferred my ticket to the next flight home and waited in the airport. Washington D.C. What kind of a place is that?
I feel bad about what happened with Mitchell. I mean if we’re being honest here he is probably a goner. They probably tied a bag over his head and threw him in the ocean.
I’m happy to say I’m back in Derwin today, and I’m even happier to say that street-smarts and character and good old-fashioned mill-town values triumphed over greed and dishonesty and, yes, hypnotism. I mean I put the hammer down on their scheme one outrageous temptation at a time. That is the kind of thing you relay to your children one day. There are bad people out there in the world, who want to lure you away from your foundation and assail your values and trip you up and take advantage, but you keep your head about you and hold to what you know and for God’s sake don’t drink their coffee whatever else you do.
I’m less happy to report that we have seen a series of technological quote-unquote improvements down at the mill. New machinery and safety redundancies and a surveillance system to go along with new protocols and an entirely new labor structure. They chased off the rat-chuckers altogether. The bins are stainless steal now and are swept and even sterilized by a little robotic arm, and there’s an on-staff sanitation crew that keeps a checklist of duties and conditions of cleanliness. The place is turning shinier by the day, with the new equipment and the missing coat of grain dust.
And we’ve had some layoffs. All part of the new quote-unquote efficiency standards. They’ve still got mill operators, but it’s a more computer-y job these days, and they bumped me back to the bundling team, which is itself not a heck of a lot like what it was back from what I remember. I’m just not a computer-y person and never have been. They brought in a young guy, Melvin, to teach all the new operators how to man the mills and mind the distributor chutes, which is one job now. Boy is that Melvin a sharp-dressed man. He has got some job. It is of course still uproariously funny to me that I thwarted Jeffrey and Mitchell’s plan as I did, and I’m mighty curious to know where they got their information in the first place. I mean they must have a man on the inside feeding them all the new changes coming down the pike in gristmill technology to run such a convincing scam.
I don’t make what I made, although I did get the COLA and the performance bump before they bounced me back to the Parcel Packaging Team as I’m told to call it, and I socked a little away for a rainy day. That too is a value, one I learned from Dad, save your money, especially after the tulip disaster, which I have no doubt is connected somehow to Jeffrey and his Washington D.C. scam. These things are all connected. Save your money, is what he taught me. What you want to do is take your cash and put it somewhere safe. I got mine in a paper bag under the bed, I don’t mind saying. You know whatever else happens, nothing is as safe as cold hard cash. A dollar is a dollar is a dollar. And a mill man knows the value of a dollar.
It’s all about values.