Oct/Nov 2004  •   Spotlight

Killing Work

by Elizabeth Roy

Richard grew up in the '50s and '60s. His father had held one job for his entire life, with Ma Bell. When, after 20 years, the poles got taller and the winters got colder, nothing to do with anyone getting older, his father transferred from being an outdoor repairman to being a central office repairman. That was the biggest change in his 40 years of work.

The next biggest change was when the central offices went to electronic switching. His father worked a lot of overtime to prepare for that. It was against the rules, but Richard's father slipped him into the old office the night of the switch. The typewriter-like clacking was deafening as the switches danced across the contacts for each digit dialed, and then the men cut the cables, and the silence was even more deafening.

It was also against the rules, but Richard's father collected the data punch card trouble tickets the computer spat out and gave them to his wife, who folded them and made large, one-sided star wall hangings for everyone for Christmas, like the double-sided wax star tree ornaments.

It was settled, as far as Richard was concerned. He was going to work with computers. He had to wait until after he returned from 'Nam, but in college, he studied programming. He didn't talk about 'Nam. He didn't admit to having been in 'Nam, because he never knew how people would react. He hadn't been wounded there, not physically, but he drank, and he didn't like being out at night, or out in the woods, or in the country.

One weekend, sitting in the den, watching football with his father, he asked, during a commercial, "What was in like, when you were in Europe?"

Long seconds passed before his father looked away from the screen. "You know what it's like."

Richard nodded.

Just at the end of the game, his father squeezed Richard's knee. "It doesn't go away, but the longer you live, the more other things you have to think about."

Richard squeezed his father's hand, but back at college, he couldn't stop drinking. He couldn't concentrate. There were kids breezing through the courses in FORTRAN. He was flailing, though he was sure computers were the thing.

At college, Karen was the only one he could talk to. She reminded him of Darlene on the Mickey Mouse Club. Her family owned a grocery store, and she was studying business.

"Some company will need someone to manage all those little genius programmers," she said.

He switched to the MBA program, and he and Karen graduated and then got their Masters while their degrees were hot. She went into marketing and he went into sales so they would be in separate departments. They celebrated when they were hired on the same day, even though a sales job meant Richard would be traveling. He would be promoted. They were secure. They weren't married until Richard stopped drinking, but Karen helped him through that. Richard coached Karen as she gave birth to Richard Jr., and Karen went on the Mommy Track. She resented it in general that women who wanted children were quietly excluded from promotions, but for herself, it was what she and Richard wanted. They lived their lives according to a slight revision of their parents plans, only a couple of long distance transfers and one shift of employers that worked to their advantage in the end.

It was through Richard Jr. that they noticed the changes.

When it was time for college, there was plenty of money, but Richard Jr. wanted to be responsible for himself. He signed up with the navy for travel and for the college money.

"Who are we going to fight, Dad?" he asked.

Richard still worried.

Richard Jr.'s destroyer was in the Persian Gulf for the war, but his part of the action was to watch the planes on radar. He returned home, went for a still hot MBA, went to work, married Ashley, coached Ashley as she gave birth to Rory. Richard III seemed pretentious. Richard and Karen forgave the name and thought their son successfully launched on the plan.

Then, there were rumors of layoffs.

They worried.

Richard Jr. was kept on.

Richard and Karen relaxed.

Richard Jr. and Ashley didn't. Richard Jr.'s department manager was pressured, so Richard Jr. was pressured: so much work, too much work, too few workers, come in early, stay late, work weekends, take work home if you must see the family, check your home computer for e-mail before going to the office, always have your cell phone, just in case, put in an early, late or weekend appearance to look dedicated, even if, on a rare occasion, the work is done, then take a pay cut and another because the company is in trouble and you want to keep your job, but still keep up on the same amount of work, work, work, and, honey, the kids and I never see you. He prayed to be included in a layoff, but it was always someone else, and he was left with that someone else's impossible mound of work to do on top of the impossible mound he already had.

Richard Jr. started to drink.

Richard Sr. recognized the signs. He invited his son to watch football and discovered Richard Jr. was fighting on a different sort of battlefield, one with an extended term of service. Squeezing Richard Jr.'s knee wouldn't help. He turned the television off.

"We're going to your grandfather's."

That afternoon and into the evening the three men shared the stories of their battle wounds. They made a pact to help Richard Jr. stop his drinking. They talked about what business Richard Jr. could start. Richard Jr. took advantage of one of the benefits he still had and signed up for evening courses in Web design and internet commerce. By the time Rory was ready for college, Richard Jr. was a local success in his new career.

It was September 2001.

On September 12th, Rory joined ROTC on his campus. His tank corps was one of the first to enter Baghdad. He wasn't wounded, not physically, in Iraq. He returned to sit in the great room with Richard Jr. and Richard Sr. and watch an end of season football game.

The quarterback ran through a hole in the defense. Richard Jr. leaned forward, chanting, "Go, go, go..."

Rory left the room. Richard Jr. and Richard Sr. followed him.

Rory was in the kitchen, pouring a whiskey. "Sorry."

He tossed the drink back and gestured with the glass, "I know this isn't the answer, but it was like 'go, go, go' was 'kill, kill, kill.' Maybe I haven't been home long enough. Maybe it will go away."

Richard Sr. squeezed his grandson's shoulder. "Come back and sit down. We'll turn off the TV, and we'll talk."