Friday, April 18, 2014

No Way Home

By John Calder

An Essay on the human cost due to the collapse of a City
I often ponder what kind of man would I would be today, had I NOT been born in a place that started dying the day I was born. 

What and where would I be today if my place of birth was growing and vital? Where people had happy endings, stories that had endings, things that made you happy or even something to look forward to?
It wasn't till I was maybe 10 years old did I discover that the very existence of Detroit, my friends and families, were all tied to the rise and falls or whims of the Ford Motor Company. I realized that this town only had room for one great man, I too wanted to be a great man (in my boyish brain) and I would have to find my opportunities elsewhere. Where was my land of opportunities? I had no idea.

Well, pretty much the car companies got their asses kicked, and the place beat up the most was my home town, Detroit and all the little suburbs that housed the people that fired the automobiles manufacturing machines, and all small business that supported them. I remember as kid feeling that people were uncomfortable, very unsure of what was to come.

I was born in Detroit Children’s Hospital, right down from Tiger Stadium, on December 6th 1957. General Motors had just released one of there finest, highest selling cars of all time, the 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air.

As a kid growing up I thought the word “FORD” was a thing, maybe a government agency, but certainly, not a person. Ford seemed to be everywhere, schools, hospitals, pharmacies, parks, the back of cars and trucks. Everything was provided by Ford and of course, everything was named after the man himself, the genius engineer, first American Billionaire, outspoken racist, pen pal of Adolph Hitler and rabid anti-Semite, the great Henry Ford.

This time, around my birth, marked the ‘high water mark’ in the 50’s and into the late 60’s for the Detroit automotive industry. Within in a few years Detroit icon’s like Ford, Chrysler, Pontiac, Cadillac, Buick and Oldsmobile would lose market share to the likes of Volkswagen, Mercedes, Opel, Honda, Toyota, Datsun, and you know how that played out. Add in an oil embargo in early 70’s, where gas prices went from $.36 cents to $.85 cents in two years, where Detroit was making cars that had ½ to 1/3 of the gas mileage as the imports.

Detroit was going to get hit, and get hit hard. Detroit was terminal; it was going to die.

In return for their dedicated and unwavering loyalties, Detroit autoworkers (and just as important, the sales and retail business that supported them), were rewarded with lock-outs, massive layoff, offshore transference of jobs.  A complete gutting of the middle class that Henry Ford proudly created in 1914 by paying a fair and equitable wage of $5 dollars a day -- nearly double the amount of his competitors -- a shocking event in these time.

As long as I can remember, everything around me was constantly changing, always bad changes. Never do I ever recall a ‘happy’ story or one that ended better off at the end than the beginning. Some popular business or restaurant was closing, so and so was being laid off at one of the factories or somebody’s uncle or husband was dying because of drinking or drug abuse.

“Tough” is what happens when you lose everything and run out of options. “Pride” comes from surviving those times. Detroiter’s are Tough and Proud. Hell, we were proud to be Detroiter’s, we were tough, and we had a reputation.

It seemed every one moved from a big house to a smaller one. Never do I ever recall anyone I grew up with moving away to a nice place or town, ever. My family went from a nice house in Detroit proper, with a beautiful lake front vacation home on an exclusive island -- where I would sit all summer on our dock under a gazebo with my Grandfather and Uncles and fish as we looked out into Laker Erie and watched the giant lake freighters make there way up the Livingston Channel -- To a tract subdivision in a small town south of Detroit.  No more lake house, and no more fishing trips. My Grandfather had died and we sold the island home to pay his debts. No one in the extended family had any money; everything was drying up.

This changing landscape was most apparent in the neighborhoods in the shops and small businesses that served the autoworker and their supporting community. As unemployment grew, high wage autoworkers that had saved, bought a 7-11, or a Domino Pizza store. Mom and Pop stores and restaurants, places that gave neighborhood character, soon began to close. Soon each town, each block, became the same mosaic of the same franchise fast food, copy shops, and chain auto repair shops. In effect, they all looked the same and all the uniqueness was gone.

And of course, all these new jobs paid minimum wages. The boss you had at work, who bought a pizza chain store,  ‘hired’ back his fellow workers, his ‘crew’ at GM, but instead of $24.50 an hour and full benefits, the ‘crew’ was working for 1/5 of what they once made.

Detroit went from a Growth based, high wage manufacturing economy to a Stagnant Service based economy that paid minimum wages. This simply was not sustainable, for families or companies.

I left Detroit after graduating high school in 1976. I got out of school on June 10th and I shipped out in the Air Force on July 21st 1976. I was not going to linger at home, did not want to get tempted to stay, I needed to go and go quickly. Detroit in 1976 simply did not instill enthusiasm and access to opportunity for a young man looking for his opportunity to be great. Time to go, but where? At that time, anywhere but here!

My older brother Mark had faced the same decision I had; family with no money, no chance to go to school, he chose the Navy.  He would send letters from Japan or the China Sea, I’m thinking, “this sound good to me”! Yes, the Air Force, very serious, smart people and I’m going to travel.

Having a life long love of airplanes and all things design and mechanical, I choose the United States Air Force and I was going to be a Jet Propulsion Specialist, a jet engine mechanic! Off to basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas and technical training at Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, Illinois; after that: The world!

Surely, this would improve my situation; get to place where I can become my own great man!

First stop was Lackland, Basic Training for entrance into the United States Air Force! We were hustled into a sterile room and this little mean, short Mexican Drill Instructor, Sergeant Lopez, wearing one of those stiff Brimmed Drill Instructor hats.  Sgt. Lopez commenced to ‘Orientate us’, or basically, yell at us for about an hour. I’m thinking, “My situation in has NOT improved here”.

Well we were in for a wake up call this seemed very serious. But alas, Sergeant Lopez made a fatal error; he forgot to read the paperwork and learn that we were from Detroit! As he was winding down on his “Orientation”, he proclaimed: “I am the baddest man in Texas, if any of you fools want to try me, step up, I will kick your ass!”

Well, 5 of my fellow Detroiter ‘Brothers’ stood up and said, “I’ll take some of that!” Wrong thing to say to roomful of Detroiters!

Sergeant Lopez fled the room in fear, trying to find Security Police. Suddenly this whole thing did not seem too serious any more. (Sergeant Lopez DID have me though, for about 58 minutes.)

Yep, My situation was not improving! No room to be a great man here, but if I can just make it through my 4 year obligation? Maybe I can use this as a platform to build on? But at least I was not floundering in the soul-sucking place of my birth.

Mom still lived in the family home in Detroit proper, having moved into her mothers home when Grandma died. I diligently visited my Mom and Detroit, every Saint Patrick’s Day, a family tradition, sometimes for the 4th of July, (another family tradition) and either Thanksgiving or Christmas. So pretty much I visited Mom and Detroit 2-3 times a year for 38 years, close to 100 trips.

And every time I visited, something else had died, or someone else had died, something else closed or was lost, some family had yet another tragic story told. No happy endings.

Suffering most was Detroit. The City was dead, declared so buy the New York Times in 1978. Yet each time I visited, it died more! One-year vandals set fire to 2000 houses; that number increased every year for 20 years! How can something continue to die when it’s already dead? How can something rot when all that's left to rot IS rot?

Detroit, if it’s known for anything, its Determination and Pride. Detroit is determined to die forever and be proud of it.

The Air Force brought me to California. In 1980 something very big was brewing, Silicon Valley, fertile ground for a creative mind. I found my ‘springboard” my opportunity, perhaps my time to be a great man, do great thing. Optimism, a first for me, abounded!

Schooled as an Electronic Engineer, I went to a Defense company, where I received 5 promotions in 2 years. I was recruited to a Start-up company, where I wholly designed my first product. The company folded, but I was able to acquire its assets, including my product, for $4500. I added my new label, and in one month shipped $150,000 worth of products, in one year it was $1,500,000. 17 Years later $75 Million.
Well in spite of long odds, a rough start, a bad marriage and raising 3 beautiful children, I found my niche, my time, and my opportunity to become a great man, to do something great!

I have been on TV, in books, featured in magazines, ‘Entrepreneur of the Year’, ‘Start-up to Watch’ in Wired Magazine, Started 3 companies, still own two. I produced movies, raised significant Venture Capital monies, spoken at universities, traveled in the Pacific Rim extensively, shipped hundred of thousand products to 11 countries in 5 languages, raised money for school, mayor, governor, senate and congressional candidates. In short, I have live a full and rich life, all the result of opportunity, a bit of luck, hard work and determination.

My names not on the back of a truck or a school, but its my kids last name and I’m very proud of that. I think I’ve done just fine! Maybe that’s a first for a Detroiter? A happy ending!

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