Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Moving the Box

Although this is being written with the current SAG issues in mind, the story is one that I feel is beneficial for all aspects of life.

I was at my dad's retirement party out at the plant when I was approached by a man I had never met. Very distinguished, about my Dad's age. Impeccable Suit. Tailored. Very expensive. Perfectly groomed. Hair as white as snow.

"Your Charlie's boy Chris, aren't you?"

"Yes sir, I am...and you are?"

"Harry Rothschild...got a minute?"

The owner of my Dad's company wanted to speak with me. I didn't know how he knew who I was(I'm adopted and look nothing like either of my adoptive parents), or why he would want to speak with me. I was a little nervous, but I went. He took me off to one side at first, but the room we were in was pretty noisy. He motioned to an adjoining room. I followed him in, and he shut the door behind us. He told me a lot of stories that afternoon...about my Dad...and about his relationship with my Dad over the years. The one I'm telling you today is one of the few stories about my father that I had never heard from anyone else before. I don't think too many people knew about it...which is part of the story itself.

My relationship with my father had been rocky for a number of years prior to that day, culminating with my being kicked out of the house on my 18th birthday. I had lived on my own for a number of months before my Dad asked me to move back in.(That's a story for another blog) I had only been back for a few weeks, and we were still doing that delicate dance between father and son. Mr. Rothschild's conversation with me...the stories he told me...started me on the path to looking at my Father with the kind of respect that had been so sadly lacking on my part for a long time.

"Have a seat, Chris. You know...there's an awful lot about your Dad I bet you don't know. Mind if I tell you a few stories?"

"No, sir."

"Good...maybe you are as smart as your Dad has built you up to be. Do you know Nate?"

"Yes sir. He's a great guy."

"Yes...yes he is. Did you know that Nate was the first black man ever hired into the union out here?"

"No...no, I didn't know that."

"Did your Father ever tell you the story of how he got Nate hired on here at the plant?"

"No, he never did."

"I'm not surprised. Your Father has never been one to blow his own horn. One of the many things I've always admired about him. This goes back to the late fifties. Your Dad came to me in private. He did that a lot if there was something important on his mind. He said,

"Harry, it's time we got this plant integrated."

I told him he was right...that it was long overdue. I couldn't, however, appear to be behind it. My doing so would make that first man's life a living hell, or I should say, more of one than it was already going to be.

"You know you've got my backing Charlie, but...you're going to have to figure out a way to get it done. The old-timers here are pretty die hard racists...the newer guys that you've hired over the years aren't as bad, but we can't have a civil war going on on the job. And Wiley..."

"I'll handle Wiley. Just wanted to let you know what I was setting in motion."

"You have a man picked out?"

"Yeah. Fine young man. Name's Nate. Worked on our construction team on the last project. College degree. Family. Good church-goer. Clean as a hound's tooth."

"Good luck Charlie."

Nate came in the next day to fill out an application. Wiley, he's my sister's husband, and my top manager, saw him from a distance. Grabbed his application as soon as he left. Now...Wiley is dumber than a post. No, seriously...dumber than a post. Being my brother-in-law is the only reason he has a job. I love my sister, I really do, but why she ever married that...anyway, besides being stupid, he's very prejudiced. I couldn't figure out how your Dad expected to pull it off.

Wiley had the option of firing Nate at any point up to his ninety day probationary period ended...and it would have been just like Wiley to do it on day one as it would have been to do it on day eighty-nine. The few old-timers left at the plant were either friends, or stooges of Wiley's. I just didn't see it happening.

You have to remember Chris...there were still "White's Only" signs all over the country. People were being beaten. Dr. King hadn't given his "I have a dream" speech yet. Things were tough. Trying to break the color barrier anywhere was difficult enough, but in the oil fields? Still...someone had to be first...somewhere had to be first. I was really hoping it could be here. It would cause a nice little stir at the country club where no one wanted me as a member, but couldn't keep me out of.

Wiley came running to me, giggling like a buffoon.

"I'm finally gonna pull one over on Charlie."


"Charlie hates spooks. Hates them He just told Fred yesterday that he was scared I'd find out about this spear-chucker applying, and stick him with him, just to screw with him...and that's exactly what I'm gonna do. I want to assign this Nate to work every day...every shift, right next to Charlie...and you better not try and stop me this time Harry. Charlie's got it coming. I'm damn near blood to you...you gotta take my side...just this once."

"All right Wiley. Whatever you want."

Days turned in to weeks. I tried to stay abreast of everything as discretely as possible...which wasn't that hard...considering Wiley would talk to me almost every day about how miserable his stooges said your Dad was.

The ninetieth day finally came. Wiley signed off on Nate's papers. He was in. I called your Dad in to the office after Wiley went home that night. I had to know how he'd done it.

Your dad had started the day before Nate even applied. Every union has its Judases. Guys that report directly to management. Your Dad, of course, knew exactly who they were. He made sure that one of them saw him get visibly upset and take one of the old-line, anti-union racists off in the back. The spy stood just outside to listen in. Your Father told the old timer that he had heard "some colored guy" was going to apply. He was scared to death that Wiley would stick that "spook" with him, just out of spite...maybe even let him make it through probation and get in the union. If Nate made it, it would make Charlie the laughing stock of the union. Your dad asked the guy if maybe he could have a word with Wiley...or at least help your Dad drive the guy out by making him miserable.

Wiley got the info that day. That's why he pulled Nate's application so fast. He changed a bunch of the schedules so that Nate had to work every shift with your Dad...and he told all of his buddies that Nate was not to be touched. Period. Getting revenge on your Dad was more important to him than keeping the plant segregated. It was brilliant. Truly brilliant.

"My dad must have laughed so hard in Wiley's face when he told him...wish I could have seen it."

"Your Dad never told Wiley."

"You mean Wiley never found out?"

"Eventually...but not from your Dad."

"Who told him?"

"It was about six months later at our semi-annual meeting between management and the union...which meant your Dad. Wiley couldn't resist getting in some digs at him. I kept waiting for your Dad to tell him off. He didn't. Kept playing it like he was pissed off about the whole thing. I don't think your Father would ever have told Wiley the truth."

"Then who..."

"Me, I'm afraid. Your Dad wasn't too happy with me about it either...but I couldn't take that smirk on Wiley's face any longer. You should have seen both of them after I told Wiley how your Dad had played him. Wiley looked like the whole world had just seen him with his pants down around his ankles. Your Dad...he looked mad. At me. Wiley left the room, muttering to himself. Almost tripped and fell on the way out. Your Dad chewed me out after Wiley left. Told me never to do something like that to him again."


"He was afraid that if Wiley found out, he'd have those old-timers make Nate's life miserable...try and force him to quit. Told me he'd hold me personally responsible if anything happened to Nate. Then he stormed out."

"Did they go after Nate?"

"No. Thank God for me, no. Wiley was far too embarrassed to let anyone know how your Dad had played him. He continued to act like he had screwed your Dad over. Only the three of us ever knew...and now you."


"I learned a lesson in business a long time ago. Life is about "moving the box" from point "A" to point "B". Getting the job done. For most people, however, their box isn't the job...it's recognition...being noticed. They really don't care if the job itself ever gets done...just that people recognize their work. I learned early on that, not only did recognition not matter...sometimes it was better if no one even knew you wanted the box moved. The best circumstance was if you could get people to move the box for you...and think the whole thing was their idea.

Your Dad was one of only a handful of men I've known in my entire life who looked at that exactly the same way that I did. Your Dad was all about getting the job done. Period."

Mr. Rothschild told me a lot more stories that afternoon. I didn't find out why he took so much time with me that day for a number of years. Doesn't matter for this story...but I'm very glad he did.

That story...that lesson, has served me very well from that moment on...especially when I was a Deputy Sheriff in LA...and a high level bodyguard and then PI after my retirement. It's amazing what you can get people to do...especially if you check your ego at the door.

Some of you might be asking how this applies to the current situation at SAG. Check the latest news. Does what has happened, and continues to happen, sound like people are trying to get the job done...or be recognised for trying to do the job? I realize that in our business in particular, we tend to thrive on being noticed...complimented...stroked. We are, by the same token, the union best equipped to "move the box"...get the job done, without others ever knowing what it is that we are really trying to accomplish. We are, after all, actors.

I've tried to make this point before. I'll try again.

To all of the members of SAG:

Your brothers and sisters within the union are not your enemy. You only have one enemy. That enemy is the AMPTA. They may have moles, stooges and/or Judases in your midst...but those people are just pawns.

Meet behind closed doors. Formulate a long-term strategy that includes ALL of your affiliate unions. You may not be able to get everything you want this time. Do your best. But...if you unite with the other unions...if you can work together for a common purpose...then collectively you will have the strength to stand against the AMPTA...you will be able to "move the box"...instead of being the box that is moved by those more powerful...at their whim.

"A house divided against itself cannot stand... I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. "

Abraham Lincoln

1 comment:

Off.to.Broadway said...

Very valuable lesson you speak of. Thank you for pointing it out. Esspecially to us actors out here.


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Christopher Blake is a loving husband...devoted father...minister...crippled ex-cop...screenwriter...novelist...actor...and more than a little rough around the edges...