Not long ago I was asked, “Who was my first boss?” It felt like a trick question, like when someone asks where I’m from. My flippant response is, “Yes.” I was an Army brat, and by the time I was 18, I had moved 21 times. Likewise, my answer to this question depends on what you consider my “first job.”
In a generalized way, it was Mom and Dad. I did “chores” for which I was paid an allowance. They were stern, unyielding bosses. You met the standard and the schedule, or you didn’t get paid. You still had to do the work, you just didn’t get paid.
Alternatively, it could be my brother. In high school, I became an accomplice to his illicit scheme. I guess my brother was like a cheap crappy moonshiner (but without the still).
On the upper shelf of his closet, he had a small wooden cask that would act as his fermentation tank. Into it would go concentrated grape juice. Add yeast and … voila! Wine (or sorts).
It was the most godawful stuff. My role was to hold the funnel and strainer (scrap of fabric from my mom’s sewing inventory) through which the “witches brew” was poured into whatever container we could find that had a lid. No matter how many times you strained it, there was always “stuff” floating around.
This all came crashing down when my brother neglected to “burp” the keg, and the pressure blew out the stopper, covering the clothes in his closet with a purple goo. I don’t recall if I ever actually got a cut of the profits. I was very much exploited child labor (even if I was generally a willing participant).
Later in high school in Germany, my father arranged a summer job working for the military. I cut grass on the base. I had to bike to work at the engineering office. There was a long downhill with a stop light at the bottom. I always got caught at the red light and lost my momentum.
One day I could see that it would remain green. I poured on the steam, zipping through the light. That’s until a taxicab stopped abruptly. It was wet and I did not understand that the friction brakes don’t work so great in such conditions. wham! I slammed into the back of the car and was hurtled up on the trunk. A frightened woman looked up at me through the back windshield. I was OK, but my bike was mangled.
I had sprung the front fork and had to walk it up to work. My boss, a German who ran the maintenance operations, admonished me for my stupidity but managed to pull the frame back into some form of alignment. He was a life saver. I wobbled my way home at the end of the day only to end up in the chain-link fence at the end of the drive because once again, “brakes don’t work in the rain” (I am a very slow learner).
We returned from West Germany almost immediately after my graduation from Frankfurt American High School. I found summer employment as a painter at a motel. I worked for the hotel manager, who seemed kind of oblivious to things. I overlapped briefly with the previous guy. On day one, we punched in, then he drove us to a mini-mart and bought a six-pack of beer. As we sat at a secluded spot along the Potomac River, he explained the ropes (at least his version).
The motel paid minimum wage (crappy pay at any age). His “response” was to paint enough so as not to raise suspicion, while working for himself. His real gig was to use the account at the paint store to acquire the materials and do the house painting he did on the side (or more precisely did while he was on the clock at the motel). I didn’t follow his path, but I sure learned a lot of bad lessons growing up.
So, this leads me to my first “real” job and one that would be a part of my life for the next three decades — the US Army. My “first boss” was Capt. Doug Lute. He was commander for Charlie Troop of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment. Also a graduate of West Point, he was an excellent officer. (He became a three-star general and the US representative to NATO). Although I was good platoon leader, I can’t say that I was always the best subordinate. I sometimes got in trouble for playing along the margin of regulations (it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission). He tolerated my shenanigans but could not always protect me from self-inflicted injuries. I paid the price on occasion.
Doug was a mentor, a friend (to the degree that the military hierarchy would allow), and always an example of what a professional soldier should be. I would have followed him into the “jaws of hell.”
We all have our own story. Often it is “luck of the draw” when it comes to who we work for. If we are really fortunate (and they are good), it can change the trajectory of our lives. Thankfully, at age 23 I found a truly inspiring “boss” that did that for me.
Dave Clark is an entrepreneur and a former Kingsport alderman.