Stuck in the Middle with You

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From the bleacher seats, it seems celebrity a much deadlier virus than the corona variety. Those basking in the limelight seldom reach a ripe old age. And so it was with Gerry Rafferty who spent a life flirting with fame financed by alcohol’s sedation. But in 1973, Mr. Rafferty penned a hit song, “Stuck in the Middle With You”, whose chorus captures my situation in this Twilight Zone episode known as the Coronavirus War.

Clowns to the left of me

Jokers to the right

Here I am stuck in the middle with you.

I am in the middle, one of the huddled masses. There are leaders to the left, the sober Adorable Left, counseling – no demanding – a total and complete shutdown of everything until the perfect safety of the “experts” Eden is achieved. There are leaders to the Right excoriating open borders, international agencies and Chinese plots, demanding an international accounting and the creation of Fortress America. We truly stuck in the middle of a unique experience.

And let it be said, experience is a great teacher. But like all great teachers, the lessons learned become clear only with the passage of time. In the time of crisis, in the time of the coronavirus, leaders are pinned, captured butterflies under the magnifying glass with no shadows to hide in. How will our leaders be judged? Because there is no doubt – they will be judged!

And that is only right, to accept the mantle of leadership is to stand exposed, to bear the blame. Even the greatest and most successful of leaders must pay in full for the frustrations and disappointments of their followers. And how do we, the faceless and voiceless masses stuck in the middle, recognize the clowns from the jokers? Is there another choice?

I am reminded of something that scoundrel Warren Buffet said; “You never know who is swimming naked until the tide goes out.” The coronavirus is a quickly receding tide. What will we find out about our leaders swimwear? The media, carrion crows on the fence of a killing field, sing praises of the clowns while cawing unceasingly at the jokers. But I can only hide my eyes from the grotesque malformed nudity exposed by the likes of Bill de Blasio and Mario Cuomo, New York’s leaders. And as we watch the jokers and clowns in sick fascination, we wonder what will we find out about ourselves?

The pandemic will kill people, an unknowable number, or it will crater the world’s economy. There does not seem to be any middle ground. Playing the middle – giving something to both sides, the traditional move of the successful politician is now a trap, a cul-de-sac of tragedy. The price for waffling is heart wrenching – both terrible outcomes will come to pass.

I truly pray for those making decisions on life and death, on depression or recession. While their time of decision is painful, it passes quickly. But the burdens and the terrible scars that come from that decision will be with their makers, the jokers and clowns as well as those of us in the middle, for long years after.

Back in the day, it was my great honor to be the chief executive of a fast growing company, small in Wall Street’s eyes but fast becoming a player to be reckoned with in our own market. Success brings many things, among them a prideful arrogance in our hearts, a willful indifference to our own feet of clay. My company had grown like wildfire, in a few short years from the proverbial desk in the basement to a large regional footprint. Everything we touched turned to gold.

But as the fables of Aesop teach children and winsome adults, success is a fickle and inconstant mistress, prone to cruel tricks. Our market hit a bump in the road, our cash on hand was short and the layoff of some employees seemed imminent.

There was a project proposal on the table that could solve our problem, keep our people busy and even allow more growth. But. . . .! The project was a hard money bid for a project far larger than any other hard money project we had ever done. It was for a client in Houston, not Denver. The work to be done was in a foreign land – the Deep South of Mississippi & Tennessee, not our own Rocky Mountain pastures.

The bid documents were shaky at best and the client, Duke Energy, was even shakier. It was a time of blind panic in California’s power market, a panic precipitated by the Enron bankruptcy. This stampede for the cliffs of folly by California’s Public Utility’s Commission was shaking the bedrock of Houston’s office towers. Just to put a cherry on top of this particular dessert, there were 17 other companies bidding on this project.

There were a hundred good solid reasons, maybe more, to just back off – just say “No thanks” and toss the bid documents into the round file. On the other hand, if we didn’t get the work, we would have to swallow some pride and lay off a few employees – one engineer in particular for whom I felt a special obligation of loyalty.

And our people had worked so many wonders in the past, I felt we could walk on water. It seems I had temporarily misplaced my memory of the Apostle Peter’s experience with water and of the walking on it. Hubris and Scripture are uneasy companions at the best of times.

And so we bid it tight. We bid it to win, the decision made in a fleeting moment. We won the bid. But within weeks the unpleasant surprises began. The bad news didn’t stop and the unexpected costs just kept rising. The tide was going out and the world began to see what success had concealed – my lack of swim trunks.

Over the next few years, I lived with the consequences of that fleeting moment of decision, seemingly every minute of every day – and every night. All the reasons for not taking the project proved real enough. We, and I, were in way over our heads, landlubbers steering an ill-fashioned packing crate through Class 5 rapids.

Our reputation, both individual and corporate, the trust and camaraderie with people and companies, sometimes developed over decades in the business, was severely shaken, many times lost. Internal company stress ballooned, relationships grew toxic, key people lost hope or grew disgusted and left. The one engineer that I felt a special loyalty to, he was among the first to throw in the towel and leave. As Shakespeare said:

“How beautiful is mankind! O brave new world,

that has such people in it!”

For nearly two years we struggled to get Duke’s compressor stations built, but they were finally up and running. Duke Energy’s stations were moving gas, but the true costs were only beginning to surface. We were insolvent, creditors circled. We needed money and there was only one player left at the table with chips – Duke Energy.

With nothing to lose but our self-respect, we went after Duke Energy. They didn’t exactly laugh, but brushed us off with an amused smile. We were such rubes from the country – such things are not done in the Kabuki Theater that is the Houston energy business! But Bob Dylan understood the situation better than the folks at Duke. The lyrics of his song, “Like a Rolling Stone”, explained our situation:

“When you ain’t got nothing,

you got nothing to lose

You’re invisible now

You got no secrets to conceal”

People with nothing to lose and no secrets to conceal are dangerous. Cornered rats will bite. We still had a card to play. The implied threat of “no future work if you fight” is not a threat to the bankrupt contractor. In the Goliath vs. David world of energy giants and their contractors, the law has provided David a seldom-used stone for his slingshot. Contractors can put liens on property for work done, an action that requires the powerful to take the claims of the frail seriously.

Both Duke Energy and we had managed the job in a spirit of fear, a fear that bred ineptitude. Seen from the outside, that fear induced ineptitude invited serious questions as to our competence. Questions of competence allow grey area for argument, a Field of Dreams for the trench warfare of construction litigation.

And so we filed Mechanic’s Liens on the compressor stations. Duke Energy was outraged and not without reason. Yes, both Owner and Contractor had managed the job poorly, but that was no excuse anywhere outside of a lawyer’s office. We had contractually agreed to do Duke’s work for “X” dollars. We had a deal and we were in flagrant disregard of accepted practice by filing a lien.

And so we negotiated – under duress. They had the contract. We had the abyss under our feet. There were many tense meetings, in Denver & in Houston, but they were always the same. Duke would point to the contract documents. I would say, “Here are the keys to my company – and my house. They’re yours.”

Luckily neither company had given over their negotiations to outside counsel, negotiation was face to face and we eventually reached an accommodation. But those years were among the hardest of my life. Stresses and tensions were high at work. Sleep was a phantom, illusive and ephemeral. My family suffered. My marriage suffered. My wife had a husband distracted, fatigued and desiring nothing more than to hide and lick my wounds

In many ways I don’t think I ever recovered from those years. I felt broken inside. The “me” that went into that experience never came out. Even today, fifteen years later, I hide from the telephone, the telephone conversations of those years, fires that burned so deeply I reflexively pull into a shell at the sound. I still sometimes start in the night, a wave of formless anxiety and depression leaving me awake, struggling to regain equilibrium.

What about those who lead us now through the time of the coronavirus? Our leaders are human beings and thus not immune to the psychic weights of their job. One of the worst hit cities, New York, the city that has closed down one hospital per year for the past twenty years, has a mayor proud of his health leadership. He garnered national praise from the carrion crows only a few months ago for his groundbreaking health initiative – an ordinance banning the sale of large soft drinks.

What are the thoughts, the anxieties that come in the night, of those who lead, and have led, New York? What scars will they carry in the years to come? City politics required policies casting a benign eye on homeless vagrants in order to gratify the sophistry of affluent urban liberals in an increasingly bankrupt city. These policies required medical treatment for the indigent yet the shrinking tax base of the area meant the City could not pay for it. Perhaps this is an example of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object?

Ignoring their obvious dysfunctions for over two decades, city leaders instead fought to ban the sale of “jumbo” sodas while bankrupting hospitals by requiring unpaid medical treatment. As my mother used to say, “The chickens are coming home to roost.” As the prophet Hosea said, “Those who sow the wind, reap the whirlwind”. I will not judge or cast blame. The facts speak for themselves.

There are many – former employees of vendors, Duke Energy and my own company – who have bitter memories of me and my actions during my company’s time of crisis. They are bitter with good reason. Leaders lead and accept the consequences, fair or not. Time will judge the actions of Mayors Mike Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio. Jesus, who knew a thing or two about accepting consequences, had this to say, “Wisdom is vindicated by her children.”

The past decades have been a time of growing partisan antagonism in our nation, a refusal to accept ideas other than our own. There was truly so little at stake only a few short weeks ago, yet our nation was in the grip of partisan madness, a nation’s government held hostage for three years. What will we do in the coming months as we count the costs, as we deal with the wreckage of decisions made by our leaders in the moment today?

There is this sense in the land that our leader, the President or perhaps the Justices of the Supreme Court, are the source of our prosperity and tranquility. Perhaps that is our price for abandoning God. Even in the thoughtless ignorance that comes with the routines of daily life, we know that we need a protector and a benefactor.

Despite the fact that we as a nation and as a people speak and act as if we are omnipotent, of course, we know that to be an absurdity. One event after another demonstrates our vulnerability to the natural world, but secure in the urban canyons of our fragile Eden, we ignorantly agitate for actions flaunting that vulnerability without thought for the consequences.

But despite our arrogance, it is our nature, the nature of both sheep and people to huddle together and follow. Where we differ from sheep is in our habit of arguing over which of our fellow sheep to follow. But as our leaders are simply fellow sheep with lion sized egos, they often fail our expectations. Upon which time we more nearly resemble a wolf pack falling upon the now unseated alpha male than a flock of sheep.

Our President, “our experts”, mayors, governors and thought leaders are just people. They are going to make good decisions and they are going to make bad decisions. In most cases we won’t know the difference for a long time.

Scripture does understand that we need leaders in this world and has instruction for us in how to live with our leaders. Of course that lawyer to the Apostles, Paul, puts it best –

In his Epistle to Timothy, he urges:

“prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions”.

In his Letter to the Romans, Paul expands on our proper duty to our leaders, saying:

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed.”

The admonitions of St. Paul exist in uneasy tension with American traditions on the subject. We are a naturally fractious people, born in revolution against a tyrannical king. On sober reflection and at a distance of nearly 2 ½ centuries, that king and his parliament don’t really seem that bad. But over our history, we have borne the burden of leaders uneasily. Though it must be said that as we have become more educated over the past half century we have grown increasingly domesticated, preferring the steady ration of the feedlot to the uncertain fare of the meadow’s freedom.

Today, we are suddenly thrown into confusion. In the absence of our own experience or Yelp’s reviews, we have only our leaders’ words to guide us. And we are to be excused if we look at their words through the jaundiced eyes of hard experience. It has been a long time since selfless men or women of character, integrity and competence were at our head. It has been a generation since our President was worthy of history’s respect.

Two of those Presidents were Democrats, the one a charming rouge the other a freshly minted representative of the pampered oppressed. Both garnered fortunes measured in the hundred millions despite a lifetime in “public service”. The other President, a Republican, was the pale shadow of a once great family, well meaning but lacking in so much. Though it must be added, this pale shadow created the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza, its stockpile of respirators, masks and protective equipment being the only meaningful preparation other than the “planning of experts” for pandemic made in the past generation.

As we look on the political scene below the Presidential level, we are adrift in a sea of the venal, the self-serving, the puppet of the powerful, the corrupt and the fanatic. In other words, they are a cross-section of humanity. But worst of all, they are virtually without exception simply careerists. There are few indeed who move the levers of power with experience of this great country beyond the academy and government.

Ah – the Academy and Government! It is America’s great fortune to be blessed with a meritocracy of the altruistic to lead us, an aristocracy of “experts”. Where once we sought men of destiny, tested on the field of battle to lead us, we now have an inclusive diversity, tested in the lecture halls of Harvard.

Where once our leaders were winnowed by the hard judgments of success/failure, we now hand power to those cloistered in the rarified air of “expert instruction”, relieved of the need for apology. “I’m sorry” or “I was wrong” need never be said, because we are endlessly assured that these “experts” are selfless servants guided by “the research”, “following the numbers” and of course, “led by the science”.

We would be hard pressed to argue that America has been blessed with trustworthy or wise political leadership in the past generation. Where else might we look? One of the lesser lights in our Presidential pantheon once remarked, “the chief business of America is business”. Though Calvin Coolidge has been given a bad press, in this instance he spoke true.

America has been blessed in the past generation with many business leaders of renown.

But while possessed of great business skills, there have been few of them indeed that stirred anyone other than the ambitious, to anything more than the career ladder. Some few of these modern Croesus-like figures aspire to public acclaim through acts of mega-philanthropy, but their record of success though fulsomely praised by a fawning press is meager before that achieved by their reviled, sexist and bigoted predecessors – i.e. Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller.

While success in business is what drives the wheels of our prosperity, it has a very poor track record as a nursery for greatness. It is almost as if the reverse is true. One has only to revisit the careers of Harry Truman and US Grant, along with many others, for proof. Even back in the days of the Roman Republic, the weak leg in the Triumvirate was Marcus Crassus, the super successful businessman who failed in every other way.

Truly, we are in confusion and have only our leaders’ words to guide us. Our experience of such a time is lacking and our free press has become a puppet gallery of the snide clueless, masters of the cheap shot. One imagines present day schools of journalism to be staffed with professors imagining themselves Bob Woodward or Edward R. Murrow, but instead more nearly resemble Basil Fawlty channeling Karl Marx. As today’s journalists trumpet their abhorrence of “fake news”, they increasingly adopt Walter Duranty, the New York Times’ dupe of Josef Stalin, as their model of journalistic integrity. The words of H.L. Mencken have never rung more true:

“A newspaper (TV news) is a device for making the ignorant more ignorant and the crazy crazier.”

We are suddenly adrift in a stormy sea, our captains as blind as ourselves with only a future horizon gray and unknowable. Yet they pilot our ship and it would be well for us to remember that unlikely mediocrity often surprises by rising to greatness in the crisis. George Washington was a failed land speculator who married a wealthy widow. When Ft. Sumter was fired upon, Robert E. Lee was a subordinate officer in the 2nd Cavalry – a civil engineer in a Texas cavalry regiment pursuing Commanche raiders with an ineptitude rarely seen. US Grant was a binge drinker who failed as a farmer, reduced to selling firewood on St. Louis street corners before his father-in-law gave him a job as a rent collector.

Franklin Roosevelt was afflicted by polio and confined to a wheelchair, a wealthy dilettante before. As WWII dawned, Dwight Eisenhower was a junior staff officer chiefly known for his adept handling of vainglorious general officer’s egos. Harry Truman was notorious as the “The Senator from Pendergast” – the protégé of Tom Pendergast, the notoriously corrupt political boss of Kansas City. And of course, Ronald Reagan, known as a chimpanzee’s co-star in the unforgettable movie, “Bedtime for Bonzo”.

America has been blessed again and again in moments of great need, in moments of crisis. As I read history, America has had better luck with the mediocrity or chance accident than the anointed good and great in charge. Even though our culture has grown cold toward Him, I have no doubt that in the days and months ahead God will raise up those who will lead us out of this dark time.

Perhaps once more our schools and civic gatherings will sing “America the Beautiful”, without ironic tongue in cheek:

“America! America!

God shed His grace on thee

And crown thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea!

To be sure, crisis drives change. You only have to revisit your last time at the airport to be reminded of how a singular event can bring momentous change. But change is part of life. The true test of a leader is not delivering prosperity and ease. That is beyond the ability of any man or woman. The true test of a leader is to lead us, guide us, inspire us to survive hard times. The hard work of surviving and then prospering remains our own, each one of us. The success of it is in the hands of God and in Him alone.

Nearly two months into the Coronavirus War, our leaders have avoided speaking harsh truths. The concept of “trade-offs” remains safely hidden in a dark closet. So far our leaders have acquiesced in a public discourse dictated by those who rose to prominence in their Junior High School, either as teacher’s pet or Queen Bee at the Smart Girls Table. The blind eyes of logic tell us that the coronavirus is not going away. Our experience with flu vaccines tells us that the magic bullet of some future coronavirus vaccine is a frail shield against a mutating virus.

We cannot cower in our bunkers forever. Yet our leaders cavil at speaking of the hard truths we must embrace if we are to recover as a functional society. We find ourselves confined to a public conversation curated by and acceptable to the sainted Oprah and her acolytes.

If we were honest with ourselves, our faces would turn a bright red when in future times we sing the National Anthem. The chorus we so like to hear “home of the brave and land of the free” would be better said; “home of the cautious, land of the coddled”.

Is there a Winston Churchill on our horizon who might remind us of who we are? Perhaps our spiritual leaders might step up as well. There is certainly a vacuum to be filled. Rather than the therapeutic platitudes of homilies common to the bunkered on-line church, our spiritual leaders might again reacquaint us with the once common understanding of Memento Mori, the Christian understanding of death’s inevitability against the backdrop of an eternal Heaven and Hell.

There are hard truths to be faced in our future, whether we speak of them in public or not. As the Dogs of War growl, or perhaps even as the Four Horsemen saddle their steeds, we debate the mortality rates at long term care facilities and the availability of face masks.

What of China? China is the rising specter of a different and hostile world order, a China at the very least the irresponsible facilitator of this pandemic, at worst, the calculating originator. Perhaps both. Warships maneuver in the South China Sea in a precarious daily minuet.

What of the web of international organizations that our money funds? International organizations like WHO (World Health Organization) have greatly enhanced the speed of advance by the Coronavirus Blitzkrieg while doing nothing of relevance beyond reviling those pointing out the lack of the Emperor’s clothes on NPR. The WHO resembles a Maginot Line, a device of politicians, favor seekers and “experts”, useless before the pandemic panzers.

While the front line soldiers in the Coronavirus War make us proud, their generals, back in their chateaus, recall Pearl Harbor’s Lt. Gen. Walter Short. Just as the Japanese carrier task force prepared to launch its dawn air attack on Pearl, Gen. Short, concerned with his command’s “readiness”, ordered his fighter aircraft lined up “wingtip to wingtip” so they could be guarded more easily.

What else awaits us in the mists of future time? My vision of the Coronavirus War is of a slow motion train crash, the cars hitting each other as they derail each in their turn. The United States is cushioned by its vast wealth and deep reservoirs of civic trust. Few other countries can fall back on such resources. These poorer fellows, unlike us, can’t print money they don’t have. And their populations hate each other, a hate with roots reaching back centuries.

In such cases, leaders fall back on that old reliable, blame it on an enemy. What of Iran – a country nearing bankruptcy with soaring coronavirus deaths and internal unrest? What of Venezuela/Cuba/North Korea – countries in the final stages of the socialist disease with starving populations? What of Africa – its many bleeding wounds and Chinese dependencies recall the Cold War NATO planner’s witticism describing a Soviet invasion of Europe – “a target rich environment”. What of Europe – is the EU simply a scab on the ancient breeding ground of war, an increasingly irrelevant gossamer mask on a sleeping monster whose waking is a fearsome nightmare.

The hard times I mentioned earlier were a searing experience, a time I would never want to relive. But, during those years I was closer to God than I have ever been in my life, before or since. In those sleepless nights I began a prayer journal that is a comfort I turn to again and again, a record of God’s undeserved grace and His infinite mercy in my life. I see, in my own handwriting, a chronicle of my journey through the wilderness and how God answers prayer.

The company I led suffered for a time, but it emerged stronger and healthier for it. Prosperity and success allows weeds to grow, encourages them. No sane person enjoys closing down unproductive operations or replacing underwater managers. The crisis forced us to prune and to weed out the unnecessary, the extraneous and the weak. A much leaner, more focused, more cohesive and much stronger company came out of the fire.

In the coming post-crisis times when we sing “America the Beautiful” in our schools and gatherings, we might also sing the other verses. Perhaps we will nod our heads in understanding as we sing the 2nd and 3rd stanzas especially:

“America! America!

God mend thine every flaw,

Confirm thy soul in self-control,

Thy liberty in law!

 

“America! America!

May God thy gold refine,

Till all success be nobleness,

And every gain divine!”

3 Responses to “Stuck in the Middle with You”

  1. Russell G Kyncl says:

    One of your best, Bill.

  2. Judy Hoxworth says:

    I agree…thank you for the honesty and encouragement! WE all need it! Look up our redemption draws nigh!

  3. Jim says:

    You had a lot going on back then. We have a lot going on now. This missive was a good read!
    When times get tough, look for an open golf course!

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