A BROTHER’S TRAVAILS THAT WERE WORSE THAN THE CHEMO
My brother might well merit at least a couple of movies, one for his Country-Rock-God music accomplishments, another for his leaping tiger football heroics. Probably, a remark such as this would apply to almost everyone if we could fully acknowledge our lives and times, the victories that frighten us, the catastrophes that shame us.
While the subject of this recounting primarily deals with neither guitar riffs nor touchdown catches, both of which in turn depended on finely-tuned hands that connected ever so seamlessly with a brave heart and incisive mind, a brief contextualization of my sibling’s life—which came to include these other arenas—sets the stage for today’s article. J. Thomas knew trouble from the day he came squalling into the world, if only because he had a tough-customer like the Spindoctor as his elder by a couple of years.
To start, given who J.T.’s brother is, one might expect the information to appear that J. Thomas was born in May, 1955, during a period of time that included twenty atmospheric nuclear tests, between February of that year and May of 1956, in other words, or between the time when he was seven months in the oven, so to say, and a year old. Such an observation might help account for the reason that one so young and strong and vital would nearly succumb to a rare form of blood cancer.
As is the case with so much morbidity in the modern sphere, one cannot be certain. Still, that one of United States’ only High Altitude atom bomb detonations occurred on April sixth, 1955, five weeks prior to his birth, at a time of year that the prevailing West winds were as likely to be prevalent as at any other season, and that he came into our midst a couple thousand miles due east of the Nevada Test Site, is worth noting.
After all, no less an authority that the former Atomic Energy Agency, in its now released Former Restricted Data set concerning The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, notes that these rare tests, in which explosions occurred at tens of thousands of feet, in the upper atmosphere, might have resulted in widespread dispersion of radioactive particles. “Therefore, a radiation opaque fireball does not form, other attenuation effects are minimized, and the radiation can travel great distances while remaining at significant energy levels.”
Establishing a context for who a person becomes, and what he experiences en route, can reasonably include such data, particularly given the so well-established facts that they shouldn’t even require a mention, to wit that beings in-utero and just-born are more prone to damage from radiation than any other age group, and that irradiating energies cause blood cancers. As well, of course, a more personal ‘case history’ also ought to present itself. And J. Thomas had plenty of other matters that colored his life.
Such a little thing, but telling, is his left-handedness. His father’s mother, God knows why, associated such a quality with the devil. Even though his own ma and pa blocked the most execrable effects of such a barbaric attitude—even if it came from his pie-making and otherwise jolly grandma—the time that he and his brother spent in the West Virginia hills inevitably entailed an ‘evil-eyed’ staring intensity at his southpaw ways.
A much larger issue was that his mom and dad, also the Spindoctor’s parents, parted ways in 1961, when J.T. and his older brother were six and eight respectively. The year prior to that and the span of time that followed were harsh times in our household, perhaps harsher for the not-yet-big-and-strong J. Thomas more than for any of the others, given that he had the misfortune to look exactly like his father at that point in his life, at the same conjunction when my dear mother, not without some cause, entertained not one single positive, unconflicted feeling for the progenitor of her four offspring, whom her younger son both resembled so completely and, quite logically under the circumstances, missed so achingly.
Hard luck indeed: no doubt this contributed to how J.T.’s wild streak manifested at such a youthful age. That, and a native sense of the value of cash, and a clever capacity to pick up Spanish in South Texas, apparently made this ten-year-old and skinny innocent an ideal ‘mule,’ perhaps especially since he had both the mechanical and physical gifts that permitted his at once maintaining and riding a broken down scooter on his deliveries. Puttering about on the rickety conveyance, he must have seemed comically unthreatening, which he would have played upon like a maestro whenever he could.
Inevitably, or certainly almost unavoidably, the youngster in such a situation comes face-to-face with either violent competitors or the law. The one makes for a kill-or-be-killed personality; the other for the far-too-frequently hideous joke of juvenile justice. J. Thomas, smarter and Whiter than most Rio-Grande Valley thirteen year olds—his age at his first bust—lucked out in finding a probation officer who recognized raw athletic talent, however, even if it hid inside a scrawny frame and had found no outlet more challenging than the occasional swim or the more frequent task of dodging slightly older and bigger gangsters.
This mentor guided J.T. to football, which is akin to the highest priesthood in Texas generally, and in San Antonio more so than most other parts of the Lone Star State. Shortly after J. Thomas began to exercise and train with the same focus that he had theretofore devoted to delivering marijuana and other comestibles, he began to sprout muscles that, at first, didn’t look like too much on the surface but which exhibited Herculean capacities in the event.
The Spindoctor found this out fairly painlessly when, at the age of sixteen, he challenged, despite J.T.’s fairly equable warning, his erstwhile younger sibling and punching bag what turned out to be a final time. “You’ll do what I say, or I’ll kick your ass!”
“You think?” And I did think, but the next thing that I knew, I had flown through the air with the greatest of ease, right through the porch’s screen and into a thorn bush that just scratched the surface of what a thrashing at J.T.’s hands might deliver. How it happened will remain mysterious, since no YouTube moments were then possible, but it definitely happened.
ENDOWMENTS DIVINE & EARNED; FORTUNE NOT SO FORTUNATE
These abbreviated descriptors of a young man’s character and travails may or may not adequately express a contextualization, as it were. Whatever the case may be, brother J.T. soon blossomed into an almost incredible specimen, though as footballers appear in the flesh, he was always among the more diminutive representatives. He never weighed in at more than plus or minus two hundred pounds, for example.
Thus, that he could bench press regularly, and occasionally with repetitions, three hundred seventy-five pounds of steel, almost double his body mass, made him a monster to confront. Both various opponents on the so-called ‘gridiron’ and randomly encountered combatants in the world at large learned this in ways that one must imagine were unforgettable.
J.T.’s development, given his personal traits and natural capacities, probably seems relatively obvious. He received copious scholarship offers and decided to attend the academically competitive small-school sports powerhouse, Texas Lutheran College, where his prowess blossomed apace with this graceful maturation.
His presence on the team helped near-championship seasons to happen in each of his three years as a varsity player. Many the old Texas newspaper archive contains articles that attest to his capable hands, stalwart ability to take a hit, and touchdowns attendant on these factors during the 1974, ’75, and ’76 seasons.
Professional scouts began to sniff around by the beginning of his junior year, and though an agent might have seemed a good idea, brother J. Thomas’ business sense led him to feel comfortable in taking these opportunities to negotiate as they came up. By the start of his senior season, in 1976, he had signed a letter of intent with the Cincinnati National Football League organization and banked what he described as “a friendly sum” for his consideration.
The final game of his regular senior season, in raw conditions for the November Texas Hill Country, would determine the ranking for post-conference play, so J.T. did not sub out for the entire contest. In the fourth quarter, with the score knotted, he ran a post pattern near the goal line, his leap an eruption into the atmosphere that put him out of reach of the two defenders who covered him.
He caught the ball, and cemented a win for T.L.C., but upon landing with the ball in his grasp, his pair of pursuers hit him, hard, one high and one low, in a tackle that in college competition may have been illegal: the referees threw flags in any event. More to the point of J. Thomas’s story, though, the impact crushed two of his lumbar vertebrae.
This not only ended his season but also led to a fateful medical interview. “Son,” the doctor related, “we can clean up that damage, and you’ll quite possibly feel fit as a fiddle again.”
Brother J.T. waited, looking at the x-rays that displayed his backbone’s fragmented condition. His advisor, bow-tied and scholarly, persisted. “But if you ever take another hard hit anywhere close to those vertebrae….,” the orthopedic specialist let his words dangle.
“I’ll have trouble with my legs forever after,” my brother finished for him.
The dapper surgeon corrected him. “You’ll never perambulate on your own again, most likely.”
These circumstances eased a decision that would otherwise have been impossible. He chose to walk away so that he could continue to walk at all.
And, gifted with multiple talents, J. Thomas had options that might appear still more glamorous, and definitely would seem much safer, than professional football. He excelled as a mimic, for instance, someone whose comic sense frequently regaled anyone nearby with hilarity. Moreover, he had already begun, from his third year at T.L.C., to play local venues in Seguin as both a singer who could cover all sorts of country and rockish hits, and a songwriter who could win over most of the young girls and boys who were his academic and cultural cohorts.
While his days of eight-hour, full contact workouts and pumping tens of thousands of pounds of iron were over, the intensity and yearning that had combined with discipline and diligence to yield an N.F.L. deal now converged around music and performance. He managed to graduate with honors at the same time that a full calendar of play dates awaited his attention; he became popular in Austin, packed barrooms in his native San Antonio, and even made inroads in Dallas and Houston.
Not only did he appeal to hardcore country fans; he garnered followers among the progressive country, country-rock, and Latin genres. He could even conceivably have focused on Ranchera, since he played a few gigs across the Rio Grande, where his Spanish was just serviceable enough to let him communicate intelligibly and understand intelligently.
His ‘big break’ came during the Spring of his twenty-fifth birthday. He had plowed through one marriage, horrific in every sense but its impact on songwriting, which bloomed with ache and lust, hope and despair. He was playing what in England would count as a lively pub; he had shined with sweat and broken hearted smiles and tears through two encores.
The little fellow, pudgy with glasses, would have made someone who was actually the redneck that J.T. superficially appeared grin in a way that could have been offputting, or—after the requisite number of beers in four or five sets—worse than rude. But when this producer pulled up a chair and greeted little brother, the young crooner sensed the opportunity that was in the offing.
“Can I buy ya a beer? How ya doing? What can I do for ya?”
The upshot was a plane ticket to Boston, not the center of operations for a country rock label that one might have anticipated, but the headquarters nevertheless. And the further promise was a $25,000 check, to start, and a record deal for at least three albums in two or three years.
Football could quite possibly have delivered more immediate cashola, but the stressors would have almost certainly been vastly more stressful, not to mention that the long range prospects had to have been at least equal. Whatever snakepit that the music business turned out to be, the killing fields of football represented perhaps the most daunting way imaginable to make a living.
So young brother had done better than well. He arrived in Boston as slim and handsome, really as beautiful in his rugged way, with the scar where the jagged rock had pierced his cheek when he was eight, as a young Texas crooner could conceivably be.
In the truly lustrous suburban office where he found himself, a check the size of a small breadloaf, endorsed to J.T., perched on the glass that covered the black leather whatever-desk of the vice president whose signature was on this particular negotiable instrument. Brother man waited.
“There’s just one more thing.” Brother man nodded.
But when the executive, smooth and cool, unzipped his pants and inclined his head downward, the only outcome that could take place—given who my brother was and still is—unfolded without rehearsal. “I broke his jaw and walked away.”
DRUDGERY & DRIVE; CHARM & CALCULATION
Again, fate had elicited a seemingly gleaming prospect that disappeared in the harsh glare of cruel reality. Perhaps the most devilish aspect of where brother J. Thomas then found himself was that the surgeon’s promised ‘fit-as-a-fiddle,’ while true enough, turned out to be anything but pain-free. Yoga helped; it provided a fun foil for some of brother’s funnier shticks too—“Redneck Yogurt” and so forth.
Nonetheless, a two-pronged dilemma accompanied the ubiquity of regular, at times daily, torment. The first stab was that anguish made work-performance difficult to maintain at the standards that younger brother expected. The second thrust was that the temptation to turn to painkillers or other ‘controlled substances’ would always be pulsing in his consciousness as the agony throbbed in his body.
Drink was the easiest anesthetic, but it led to weight gain. That increased the pressure on his now-fused discs. Smooth or easy facility was hard to countenance, under such conditions.
None of what J.T. had theretofore possessed, however, would have amounted to much more than loads of sweat and frustration had he not also trained, through athletics and music, to continue well beyond points of pain that would have sidelined most players. Nevertheless, no regimen of drills could overcome a broken back, nor could any legerdemain with guitar and chords and lyrics overturn a system that consisted so fundamentally of corrupted relations.
Thus, J. Thomas confronted—in slightly different ways from those of us in the common herd, like brother Spindoctor—the limits of desire and focus and determination. Still, as a working class bloke, he had to make ends meet. The signing bonus from the Bengals long since having vanished, and the promised advance from the record label having never materialized, therefore, J.T. cast about for things to do to make money, something for which he had always shown a talent, in any case.
Being a ‘club musician’ would never raise the family that my brother knew would come to him eventually. Furthermore, he had supplemented his ‘artist’s wages’ by working construction for years.
He had, he said, always known that he could fall back on being smart, fast, and capable of seeing that projects finished. He had the combination of craft skill, human touch, logistical sensibility, and engineering aptitude—straight from rocket science dad—to rise in the commercial building trade.
As a clever, clever lad, he had immediately after high school started working for a large outfit that paid well, albeit it also imposed what for most people would be murderous ‘productivity’ requirements. He had stuck with this company in the break that followed his freshman year at Texas Lutheran, in fact, and from these initial ‘Summer jobs’ had flowed offer after offer to become a part of the corporate team whensoever J.T. felt so inclined.
Hence, when he found himself with no viable prospects that would have let him display his star qualities on a wider stage, he turned to his capabilities as a worker who could also manage others and the work process itself. Within a year of his altercation in Boston, in fact, he had upped his already essentially fulltime schedule with his conglomerate construction employer—prior to erupting violently to the insistence that he provide a blowjob for a contract, he had ‘punched a clock’ as whatever ‘breed’ of craftsman was in short supply, carpenter, laborer, plumber, electrician, HVAC, etc., while he wended his way to musical venues on a regular basis as well.
After coming back from New England, he conveyed to the supervisors who had more or less constantly sought to ‘promote’ him that he was now available for any and all such assignments. Before his twenty-sixth birthday celebration came about, he was an assistant site supervisor. A year after that he was a project manager, and his superiors quickly enough vetted him for the most elaborate and intricate types of undertakings, anywhere in the Western Hemisphere.
The rise in income was nothing short of meteoric, although National Football League compensation would still almost certainly have surpassed these sums, and the creative satisfaction of being a rock god is just damned hard to quantify. But with his thirtieth birthday still a year away, his salary and bonus exceeded one hundred fifty thousand dollars.
In the context of this rise in the company, he met a woman just slightly older than he was, the daughter of a retired Vice President of a competing operation, based in Missouri instead of Houston. They had married by Summer of 1983, and the first of three daughters came along by 1986. Little brother provided quite well for his growing brood.
The primary gifts that he brought to corporate America are easy to catalog. Drudgery was a constant. If a subcontractor proved unreliable, if a contract requirement proved problematic or even insane, if anything threatened the flow on which timely performance depended, J. Thomas had—both on the job and in side operations that he somehow managed to finance or actualize at the same time that he slaved away as many as eighty hours a week—the most excellent skilled help to make sure that the job got done, correctly, under budget, on time. He and his delegated coterie of former teammates and random recruits might face three, or even thirteen, twenty hour days in sequence, but things came together as agreed.
Tex-Mex, which he supplemented with four years of college Spanish, also meant that he could both understand and make whatever points he needed with the thirty-to-sixty percent of his fellow workers whose primary linguistic traditions, so to speak, were Latino. He never emphasized this as critical, but half the stories that he relates have included components that proved this factor to be crucial.
Charm and psychological savvy do not necessarily stand out as the most common characteristics of jocks. On the other hand, other than quickness—which is at least somewhat different from speed, one being trainable much more so than the other—the defining trait of professional athletes is intelligence, with which finesse and psychic insight do decidedly associate.
Brother J.T., no matter what, could sell firewood to tropic-dwellers and water to those who lived next to natural springs; thus, among hundreds or even over a thousand workers on a big job, who were in turn part of dozens or even hundreds of smaller companies, he could engage and figure out how to motivate almost everyone. In the rare case that someone, either because of personality clash or stupidity, simply proved immune to little brothers charisma, he had the force of personality and the physical prowess to run them off and find someone who would “get with the program.”
And this SOP always included a willingness to bend rules to the point that they shattered. Without exception, every contracted operation had someone on site who provided contraband—painkillers, crystal-meth, cocaine, the list goes on. Such material support was, and is, part and parcel of the production process. Moreover, the sacrosanct rights of ‘property owners’ could become flexible or even disappear if such plasticity or absence meant the job finished according to the date on the contract.
Relentless negotiation skills also attended this erstwhile almost magical magnetism that J. Thomas could turn on at will. Eventually, if skimping on overtime were too obvious, or the ferocity and intensity of the demanded pace were well beyond brutal, people bridled, in which instances J.T., following the lead of those who taught him the business, would literally every time find something that would sweeten the take enough to induce the necessary output.
“Hell, yes! You can take all that PVC with you that we don’t use.” Or, “Man, I have no idea what happened to that compressor; it just was gone yesterday morning.” In the end, these last two capabilities, perhaps as crucial as any of the others, provided a convenient excuse to screw him over when the time came to do so.
Perhaps most centrally, as already alluded to, a fanatical focus on timeliness underlay this younger brother’s truly brilliant success. He rattled off figures that made a Spindoctor’s head swim. In five years of one-to-two huge contracts a year, he made—or, in what amounts to the same thing, avoided the loss of more than ten million dollars a years, vis-à-vis the expected per annum take. Mostly, according to J. Thomas, this type of result hinged on the avoidance of the witchery and morass of ‘liquidated damages.’
This categorical imperative has proven the bane of all but the most successful commercial construction firms. Its arcane rules essentially flow from the inevitable central importance of finishing according to somebody’s calendar, on the one hand, and the inherent impossibility of determining “actual damages” for tardiness, the result of which is an agreed ‘liquidation’ of daily fines for being late. Some big companies win in this arena because of their murderous lawyers; others have more mundane homicidal threats at hand; the outfits for which J.T. worked relied on his ilk—worker managers who could actually deliver timely completion.
Throughout this period of rising in the business world, little brother evinced the exact qualities of a true conservative that he had revealed more or less from the start of his adult existence. He obsessed about having enough set aside to deal with setbacks. He always carried substantial life insurance for whomever he wanted to benefit from an unplanned and untimely demise. He paid whatever was necessary to have health insurance as well, even when his ‘income bracket’ made that seem like a luxury choice. He was, in other words, a classical ‘liberal,’ as far from Keynesian as one can fathom and thereby in some ways even further afield from the attitudes and perspectives of his older brother.
Moreover, in matters that play a large part in this narrative, he also aggressively put money away for the still-distant future of retirement, when he could sip beer and tell stories rather than work fifteen hours a day or so. He selected his employers because they would generously match whatever portions of his wages he foreswore consuming in this fashion, which was also sensible because it avoided the taxes that all ‘true conservatives’ so despise.
Because of this tendency, anyway, by the time that he was thirty-two, he could know that he was eighty percent of the way to his first million, that he still had plenty of zip left, that he was someone who knew both the score and the ropes, as the idioms expressed such things, and that he was living the dream. He admitted, as he trudged and sweated his way to immense and long-sought prosperity, that this achievement of ‘middle-class’ fantasyland would have been impossible for most of his former teammates, who were Black and Hispanic and as a consequence not likely ever to catch the combination of opportunities and ‘get-out-of-jail’ free cards that had come to J. Thomas despite his equally evil experiences of lady luck’s eccentricities.
In this regard, his John Wayne imitation was especially farcical. But J.T. had enough sophistication to recognize that the Duke whom he parodied was in fact a parody himself, of righteousness and ‘freedom’ in the land of frenzied bigotry and systematic oppression. Of course, as well, John Wayne died of a nuclear-weapons induced cancer, a fate of which the legendary actor may himself have been aware, and of which J. Thomas was certainly cognizant.
A KICK IN THE TEETH THAT GRIT COULD NOT FINESSE
The first time that J.T. noticed the bloody urine, he thought of the day after a tough football battle. He shrugged it off for a morning, a few months after he had turned thirty-two, but then he added this dark stain to the intractable malaise and profound fatigue and the occasional lingering bruise that had afflicted him for—what was it?—months at least. And he used some of his good corporate insurance benefits to schedule a medical visit.
“It was goddamned inconvenient; I can tell ya that!” The job that was unfolding was in the middle of Houston’s swelter and involved complicated social and labor issues that little bro’ could handle but most people couldn’t even see. “And we’re talking fifty-thousand dollars a day liquidated damages.”
Nevertheless, he wouldn’t avoid any cost overruns whatsoever as a corpse, and when the second and the third appointments that he made soberly agreed that he had a rarely encountered, unpronounceable version of Acute Myeloid Leukemia, he wrestled with the existential question at its rudest and most obtrusive—to work and prosper, but to die, in juxtaposition to a withdrawal and ‘defeat’ that might permit continued life. The family has detested doctors for good reason, yet their presence had here forced just such rumination, arguably noteworthy or more, to the fore.
“I mean, they tried to be all jolly, like what the fuck?” He explained. “They said, no shit, that a half a year earlier I’d have been dead within a year almost ninety-five percent. Now, if I wasn’t one of the five percent who died in Chemo, I could live to be a hundred.”
But his corporate overlords were far from sympathetic. “They were like, ’Yeah, John, that’s tough. Can ya wait to start chemo till after October?” The magnitude of fifty grand a day overshadowed mere mortality, at least to an everlasting corporate entity.
“I said fuck that.” J. Thomas had the drip in his arm within a week.
LUCK AT LAST
When J.T. told me that the chemo almost killed him, the instilled understatement chilled Spindoctor bones. “Another day, I was through.” This was the younger brother for whom persistence and stoicism in the face of devastating agony were qualities that he had consciously instilled since early adolescence.
So far as an elder sibling knows, BDSM was never little brother’s ‘thing,’ but he could easily have established his philosophy of life on the altar of anguish. The purpose of practice was a tantra of torture—the idiom, obviously, ‘no pain, no gain.’
Hence, to discover—and to hear the barely-breathed affirmation first hand—that this erstwhile therapy was worse than anything else that he had ever encountered implied a sense of resolve in his follow-up, implacable, indicating that no retort could ever tease out a different result. “I’ll never do it again. I’ll die first.”
Both of these hillbilly Texans, J.T. and his elder, loathed nausea almost as much as the promise of hell’s brimstone, nearly as much as the eternity of silence that the extinction of life guaranteed. Therefore, treatment from which a consistent noisome vomitus was inescapable might, if not quickly then eventually become worse than the purported life-giving drip’s dreadful tonic of gruesome, heaving purges.
When death’s grim grimace grins before one’s very eyes, of course, even the firmest supposed resolution might waver. A more ‘opportunistic’ POV could prove particularly persuasive given the reality of what transpired for J. Thomas, despite the misery that the chemicals induced while they assassinated his errant blood cells.
The Spindoctor never saw the article that convinced his younger brother of something akin to divine intervention. The attestations were hearsay, but J.T. had remained a rigorous empiricist in his dealings with reality since very early in his life. No amount of Spindoctor sifting has turned up the research brief as of yet, but its pronouncements branded J. Thomas.
“Less than a year before I came down with this, I’d’ve died—twenty-to-one—within a few months, probably.” The clinicians spoke of different chemical cocktails from the past. The result was ugly. “Either they killed you, or the cancer got you.”
For six months, more or less, at first once weekly then for the last couple lunar cycles biweekly, he would venture to Houston’s M.D. Anderson clinic. An intravenous drip administered the poisons that would almost kill him, and with luck almost certainly kill the cancerous cells that would, unchecked, end his days.
“I got to where, two days before, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t get it up, I’d have these, like me! panic attacks that were like insane: hyperventilating, fidgeting around, all flushed and fucking scared, me.” The vomiting was probably the worst, given how our line relates to upchucking.
After he “kicked (his) music habit,” he’d always kept his hair super short, so losing his hair didn’t amount to much. He knew that he would get through the process, so that whether it cured him or not it wouldn’t kill him yet, the first time that he didn’t have to schedule a weekly appointment.
That was roughly four months in. “I never asked them to stop early. I never complained. Like coach Schwenie said, ‘Take it like a man.’ But I’ll tell you—it was hell, and I’m never going back.”
In the event, he didn’t have to. A quarter century later, he’s back in Texas, he has a love, he drinks too much. He’s still got most of the money from various employers pension contributions and all his own tax deferred income that he didn’t share with his second wife. He could tell stories for longer than he’s been alive, which will be sixty years this month.
MAD ENOUGH TO LIVE
“My boss came to see me, I don’t know, at least three times. He was not a happy camper, and it wasn’t because of how much I was suffering, believe you me. The fellow who replaced me—masters degree from somewhere, MIT I think, maybe Georgia Tech, I don’t know—knew everything there was to know about the business, so he didn’t know shit.”
Given the family proclivity for the luck of the Irish—“If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all!”—J.T. says that he sensed that something evil had to be lurking just ahead when the visits stopped. As noted above, his direct supervisor had been the only managerial colleague who had visited during his battle with cancer and chemo.
“They lost five million dollars,” as the project that he had ditched so that he could live went a hundred days past its due date. “It was October 20th. They were going to do a week earlier, but they were superstitious about Friday the 13th.” Sometime late in January, J. Thomas’ replacement finally brought the new structure online and eliminated the bloody flux of lost currency.
“I knew for sure when I got the registered letter.” It was a classic ‘Dear John’ missive. ‘It having come to our attention that you’ve been a naughty, naughty boy, we regret to inform you that, effectively immediately, we’re handing you your head.’
But that wasn’t the half of the insult, nor a fraction of the injury. “My pension was less than three months from vesting,” in January, 1990. The company was taking back, principle and interest, something like $400,000.
When the Spindoctor heard all this, years later, he howled. “You got to sue. You can still sue! You got to make an example of the fuckers!”
J. Thomas gave his elder a level look, lips pursed. “Yeah. That’s what I told my lawyer.” The trouble was that in managing to save the company five million here and five million there, with the knowledge and tacit okay of the entire chain of command, little brother had followed the not uncommon practice of bribing subcontractors into doing what they had agree, or sweetening the pot when management wanted a little extra oomph from the workforce.
In practice, this kind of kickback basically never took the form of cash. Instead, a small carpentry company would walk away with fifteen hundred dollars worth of sheetrock; a plumbing outfit would get a few pallets of pipe and joints; an electrician would receive leftover conduit. Less frequently, redundant equipment would no longer be on J.T.’s manifest, nor would its physical existence any longer be apparent in the corporate stores.
“They threatened to bring in the police: Texas Rangers, no less.” What was standard procedure, looked at in a harsher light, added up to pilfering, embezzlement, theft. “All of it felonies too:” all tolled, “we’re talking at least fifty, sixty thousand dollars a year for maybe five years.”
“I told ‘Bertie,’” Alberto Rodriguez—one of San Antonio’s most accomplished criminal defense attorneys—“we can’t let them get away with this. It’s fraud from the get-go.” J.T. and he were good friends, as little brother had more than once needed the most expert assistance in delicate matters that could have had deleterious outcomes for a young defendant.
“John, let me put it to you like this: you just can’t go to the judge, who wants to hang your ass for murder, you just can’t go up to him and say, ‘Hey, your honor, I know I shot those guys, but it was an industry standard; everybody was doin’ it, and, besides, my boss said it was OK.’ You’ll swing, compadre—stairway to heaven.”
Hence, no matter how much Spindoctor or J. Thomas himself snarled or complained, “they had me over a barrel. Sabe?”
What could a brother and writer respond to that. Of course it was understandable: check and mate. But, “Christ have mercy, bro,’ you can’t keep working for these motherfuckers.”
THE UPSHOT & THE AFTERMATH
“What the fuck else am I supposed to do?” He asked me this when a Spindoctor sibling begged him to consider alternatives to commercial construction.
Nor did any research-based theory or stratagem answer his pugilistic challenge. “Huh? Just what the fuck?” He had moved near Atlanta to work for another of the top ten contractors in the business, his preacher-man father-in-law’s former firm, a company that had gladly scooped up J. Thomas as a multimillion dollar asset.
His brother nearby for the first time in decades, we socialized and collaborated a few times. The stories here came out in enough detail to allow a Spindoctor’s interlocutory facility to narrate the whole process.
By the time that the cancer hit, he had, as noted above, met a woman—stern and well-to-do and hyper-Christian but fertile and decent—with whom he had built a marriage and a growing family, two on the playground and one on the way. While, had he been ‘at liberty’ at this straitened crossroads in his life, he might have turned away from the proven moneymaker that his faculties in the building trades represented, he absolutely could not think too far ‘outside the box’ and support the relationships that at that precise conjunction defined him, as a man, a husband, a father, a ‘breadwinner.’
Therefore, he put his head down, gritted his teeth, and persevered as project supervisor. He insured that deadlines did not pass without completion; he avoided liquidated damages like a plague; he schmoozed with subcontractors in similar fashion as had just led to the stripping away of hundreds of thousands of dollars of ‘equity’ from him, although one must realize that his own quarter million or more in contributions, plus interest, remained his own.
In returning to the corporate wellspring anew, he spent long months of every year on job sites far afield from his Cherokee County, Georgia home. Still, he and his wife created a fourth new infant together before he had himself fixed to preclude more than four children, though he still “loved to practice in spite of the cut,” as he articulated the point.
As time passed, his penchant for beer and tales remained as vibrant as ever. So he gained weight, the stretching and yoga became more difficult to perform, and his personal pain increased; he gritted his teeth and kept his head down some more and tried different chemical interventions.
Until now, like another ‘Lefty,’ in the song by Townes Van Zandt that he has covered with eyes moist and emotions raw, he is growing old, a fate with which his Spindoctor brother is very familiar. His second marriage, from which three Spindoctor nieces and a last progeny who was his son and my nephew emanated, also cracked up on the shoals of longed-for riches and other unrealistic expectations, though an observer might state the case in coarser, more vernacular terminology.
Anyhow, he had never grown fond of Georgia. He therefore fulfilled the prognostication that his more aged sibling in no way ever came close to manifesting, returning to the South Texas landscapes where residents swore that one could not leave the environs permanently behind if one had “worn out a pair of shoes” there.
He still sings and plays guitar. He remains a patriot despite all the evidence that suggests the good sense of a contrary attitude. He drinks almost as much as, and holds his temper only marginally better than, he ever did. Adventures in love and family and labor, along with scrapes with the law, have dotted his landscape and might fill volumes of narratives such as this.
In relation to the cretins who robbed him, who lied outright that “we did not know” in order to pad their bottom line with a paltry six-figure sum in their bloated eleven-figure balance sheet, he has for the most part remained taciturn. The reality is simple. “I may forgive, but I’ll never forget.”
COSTS & BENEFITS, CAPITAL & BULLSHIT
Those who hear this story, and other accounts like it, often scurry for the cover of the so-called ‘narrative fallacy’ and other ways of isolating and distinguishing the ‘merely anecdotal.’ And to an extent of course this is fair. One case does not an argument make, let alone prove.
Yet any follow-up inquiry of a statistical sort must ultimately turn on whether such a case as the single instance here is more, or less, typical of what bean-counters and trustfunders, CEO’s and their boards, would do whenever such a sublime opportunity as my brother’s vulnerability confronted them. Nor does the evaluation end thus, with a conclusion that businessmen will only be predatory thugs one per cent or five percent or fifty percent of the time.
After all, what if we were to discover that such actions as befell my brother—garish visions of descending axes are possible to insert—were merely occasional? How about more than occasional, say ten percent of the instances that qualified? Would such tallies let capital’s social proposition ‘off the hook,’ as the saying goes?
Clearly, a value judgment of that sort might educe any number of replies. Just as obviously, one can assert that the decent and humane and ethical response would have to revolve around the notion that such a system—in other words a society in which one out of a hundred, or whatever proportion one finds, were, to use an idiomatic phrase, “hung out to dry”—would, at best, on the one hand amount to something suboptimal under conditions that were primitive and brutal, and, on the other hand, add up to a monstrous crime in circumstances that would otherwise permit everyone to receive allotments according to both his due and his needs.
J. Thomas’ fraternal Spindoctor has written this chronicle for reasons both simple and more complicated. For one thing, most easily, this is a scribe’s job. In a slightly more nuanced manner, what happened to J.T. has always struck chords that imply importance or utility or interest too. The recounted contradictions, the yarn’s twists and turns, its life and death situations, its intractable conflicts and uncertainties ought to entertain, if nothing else.
These are all straightforward rationale. More convoluted motivations are also in play though. Maybe one reader will come to accept one more element of an argument for social democracy. Maybe one observer will face what seems like a fact to the Spindoctor: either people will learn how to share and to relate to each other more in terms of mutuality and equal allocation, or very soon a bleak human prospect will seem like great good fortune indeed. The vague potential has to exist that many more than a single reader or observer will conclude as he hopes they might as a result of this bit of personal history.
Whatever the case may be, additional actual workers confront additional actual workplaces each day that the Earth turns round the sun. In the fullness of a time that deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership define, moreover, the treatment accorded J. Thomas could approach the universal norm, so that any more gracious conduct would be against the uniform code of the great god profit and thereby illegal.
One can therefore propose that this issue of discarding people at the merest hint of an excuse of weakness is omnipresent, whether or not it shows up most, or even much, of the time that such eventualities currently unfold. Reams from the realms of available research demonstrate as much.
For example, the search, < cancer workplace discrimination firing OR fired OR dismissed OR “laid off” prevalence OR frequency OR likelihood> yields nearly five million results. Matters of legislative remedy appear frequently on the first pages. So do advertisements or blogs from law firms. In the first half-dozen pages, which is to say among sixty links, a veritable litany comes to the fore of people who are begging for surcease from some sort of standard operating procedure that consigns people to the reject-pile at any inkling of possible defect or difficulty.
Even reducing the size of the net, < cancer leukemia workplace discrimination firing OR fired OR dismissed OR “laid off” prevalence OR frequency OR likelihood> brings-in in excess of a million and a half hits. Perhaps this article will soon enough show up in a related search.
Moreover, another string, slightly broader < cancer OR injury OR “heart disease” employment discrimination dismissal OR firing OR fired OR “laid off” “united states”> nearly doubles the take, to over ten million citations. One would have little choice but to recognize that issues of significant size and scope surround such case studies as a brief about a Spindoctor sibling.
Finally, as regards this grappling with numerical gauges, just in the course of a few short weeks of pondering this essay, the Spindoctor and his helpmate have encountered multiple additional anecdotes of such eventualities. One involved allegations against the local bank where Guardian Media deposits our stipends. Another detailed a mediated ’firestorm,’ on Facebook and elsewhere, in which an oral surgeon defended his layoff decision as helping his former employee to obtain unemployment benefits and ‘focus on her recovery.’
At least ten such stories bubbled up from the ether and caught our notice because we were producing this story. Many of the confrontations ended in court. The ‘damages’ from such litigious encounters often redound largely to attorneys fees and often aren’t very substantial anyway. The point of developing these very brief empirical points, in any case, is not to provide an overarching synthesis, let alone to prove some conclusive synthesis; it is only here—in this non-research articulation of journalistic work—as further background, a deepened context, an enriched sense of the systemic and systematic way that such problems show up.
Turning back to the individualistic frame, examined strictly as a human interest or character study, this report reveals a strong and resolute character at the heart of things. The Spindoctor’s brother not once has asked for sympathy. Nor did he ever appear to feel sorry for himself: anger, frustration, a desire for vindication or retribution made their appearances, but not once a ‘woe-is-me’ mien, let alone such an identifiable verbalization.
J. Thomas’ thoughts and feelings about his brother-in-law, who is Mexican, and about some of his Black and Brown companions over the years suggest that he may even have comforted himself that in the grand scheme of things, he’s not had nearly as ill-begotten a ride through life as have many of them, whose skin color combined with their class origins to work against the kinds of ‘breaks’ that J.T. received when he made occasional missteps. This is speculation, no doubt, but circumstantial evidence indicates that it could easily be true. More than once has he acknowledged, “I’m free, White, and American by God: you can try to stop me” or keep him down.
Howsoever one is able to dissect an individual’s own awareness or consciousness, as in this specific case, a deeper delving about how facts and data and experience all agglomerate generally is worth considering. Our age of ‘big data’ often seems to direct those who would develop sociopolitical arguments to rely on empirical sets of information alone, so much so that any sets of hypotheses that do not start with such foundations receive short shrift at the very best—fodder for the gossip column but unworthy of a citizen’s serious attention, let alone having any role in policy discussions.
Another pathway to knowledge—and some might aver the sole route to wisdom—is possible however. Rather than beginning with overall data, such a methodology accepts that an investigator can initiate analysis with a single account.
In this contextualization, an individual story is explicable in terms of possible relationships and connections. One can then check those ideas about interconnection against the numerical substrate, the collected—which is hugely different from the collectible—background data. In such a scheme, that one’s evidence is anecdotal is the opposite of a drawback; it in fact creates a plausibly superior basis for considering wider pools of facts more intricately and usefully than if one were to launch the attempt at comprehension on the foundation of statistical materials alone.
No matter the perspective that one ultimately develops in this regard, a Spindoctor’s brother did undergo trials and travails that are possible to ponder. And whatever the general point of view that one promulgates about such matters of labor and compensation and fairness and equity and so on and so forth, this sibling’s experiences must fit that overall outlook. If the story that results can engage and provide a sense of wonder en route, so much the better.