I still remember my first day of work at grandpa’s used car lot. It’s still so very fresh and alive in my memory and has been since I walked into the office and was greeted by my new boss, my grandpa, in June of 1972. Dad relayed to me grandpa’s job offer at home just a few days before and I was wild with excitement for my first day of work. I was just 14 years old on the ride with dad to work the morning of my first day. Dad parked his daily driver on the back row along with the other older cars not yet ready for retail sale. We stepped out of the car and walked together across the car lot to the office entrance at the corner of Canal and Broadway streets in Peru, Indiana, the location of South Side Sales. “A Lot of the Best” was their company by-line.
This business was grandpa’s answer to his former boss who told him after he turned 60, “Burns, you’re too old to be sales manager anymore so I’ll be hiring a new one. I’d like for you to be a salesman now.” Grandpa was an exceptional sales manager by all accounts but it was 1960 and bosses were allowed to say that back then. Grandpa returned no offense or ill will and calmly replied, “If I’m too old to be sales manager for you then I’m probably too old to be a salesman for you as well. I think it’s probably time for me to leave.” With no back-up plan, no other job waiting for him, no idea of what he’d do next, he cleared his desk at Peters and Horst Ford Dealership in Peru, shook hands with the owner, and calmly walked out. Within just a few weeks, he opened his own used car lot just two blocks from his former employer.
That wasn’t the first time he had to overcome obstacles and fight to make it. In 1938, at the height of the depression, he lost his job as circulation manager for Southern Indiana for the now defunct Indianapolis News. He applied for a circulation management job with the Chicago Tribune and, during the interview, was summarily turned down for the job. He was told he couldn’t get the job because he was too short. Grandpa remembers the interviewer saying, “Everyone knows short men can’t sell.” He was a giant of a man to me at five feet, eight inches tall.
With no other job opportunity in the newspaper business, he located his family to Mexico, Indiana where he opened a doughnut shop until World War 2 broke out and ration stamps made buying enough flour impossible. After that he drove a milk truck. From there he moved on to selling new Fords in Peru. Peru is only six miles south of Mexico, at least in Indiana.
Not until well into adulthood did I discover that grandpa’s first real test of adversity was at the age of 26 when his father died of pneumonia. He was the oldest of six children so the responsibility fell upon him to help care for his mother and youngest siblings.
When I walked up to the office door of grandpa’s used car lot, little did I know that grandpa would see my work as a refiner’s fire in which the dross of childish immaturity and sensitivities would be scraped away and I would be poured out, ready to be molded into a man. His life taught him that adversity brings maturity and strength and on my first day I was to begin learning in the same way, albeit with more gentility and love than grandpa’s own experiences.
Grandpa greeted me that morning as I walked into the office and a half dozen or so unfamiliar men turned and gave me a curious look. I learned later that the car lot attracted a group of “regulars” who came for the free coffee and spirited political debate. I guess I interrupted one of their discussions when they all stopped talking, turned and stared. Stammering and sputtering, I said meekly, “G-grandpa, I’m here to work now.”
He looked at the others as if to say, “Watch this, guys” and then turned back to me and said, “Stan, I have a job for you, if you think you can handle it.” At that cocky age I believed I could handle anything so I answered, “Sure can, grandpa.” He said, “OK, go check the water level in the radiator on that Volkswagen on the back row.” With that directive, I was off on my first easy task. Dad, grandpa, and the rest of the coffee clutch watched me confidently turn and walk out toward the back row of older cars.
The old Volkswagen was on the back row, just as grandpa had said and, opening the hood, I found, mysteriously, a spare tire but no engine. Still curious about the absence of an engine where engines are found, I went to the trunk. I figured if a spare tire was under the hood then an engine just might be in the trunk. “What an odd little engine”, I thought as I opened the tiny little trunk and looked in. Examining every inch of that sewing machine-sized contraption, the radiator was nowhere to be found. I searched under, over, inside, outside, every square inch of that car and couldn’t find the radiator. After 30 minutes of searching in vain, I walked back to the office door. Embarrassment and defeat surely showed on my face as I walked back to that group of intimidating men to tell grandpa I failed my first task on my first day.
“Grandpa,” I said quietly and less confidently than when I first entered that door, “I couldn’t find the radiator.” He responded in a loud, authoritarian tone, “Speak up Stan, I can’t hear you.” He wanted the coffee clutch to catch what I was saying and what he was about to say. “Grandpa,” repeating a bit louder but no less timid, “I couldn’t find the radiator.” He turned to the other men, chuckled (I can still hear that chuckle), and responded, “Well Stan, everyone knows cars have radiators. If you can’t find it, then maybe I ought to fire you and find someone who can. Now get back out there and keep looking.”
As I think back, I can only hope that at least one of those men, maybe dad, told grandpa as I walked out and shut the door, that he might have been a bit too hard on me. What am I thinking? Of course they didn’t. The clutch, as I came to know them, were all roughneck drill sergeant types who relished the opportunity to use the same aggressive techniques to change boys into men. They probably laughed their asses off as soon as I closed the door behind me.
Anyway, I walked back to the Volkswagen and resumed my search for that evasive radiator. After another 30 minutes of searching in vain, my dad came out with a wry smile on his face, put his arm around me and said, “Stan, Volkswagens don’t have radiators. They are air-cooled. Grandpa was just joking with you.”
I learned, right there in that back lot of not-quite-ready-for-front-row cars, that I was being tested in the crucible. As I look back, I now know that I wasn’t there for the paycheck, although the money was always important to me. Grandpa saw my time there as an opportunity to build character, thicken skin, shape humor, and instill humility, among other things he probably knew all along but I haven’t yet discovered. My first day on the job was just the beginning of that process.
I learned so much that first day of work. The lessons weren’t immediately apparent but slowly revealed themselves as each page of the book turned in my life at South Side Sales. Those lessons were rich and powerful and I’m still uncovering some I missed, even as I write these stories.
But the strangest thing I discovered that day was that Volkswagens store their batteries under the back seats. Weird, huh?