My Grandfather's Flying Circus

My grandfather, who just died at 93, made the hot, dry, monotonous California desert seem like magic to me as a child. When we flew from Columbus, Ohio to California to visit, he explained to me every rock and every plant, which tree was related to that tree, and why one snake was one color and a jackrabbit or roadrunner another.

From time to time, a relative or two of mine would suggest that he should have become a botanist. Perhaps such a career path, they said — though otherwise one with low pay and little prestige — would have brought money and fame to someone with his passion.

But as time went on, and Americans including myself renewed their collective interest in WWII veterans, I realized my grandfather’s categorization skills actually served him and the nation quite well, and were quietly put to use on a little-known project that may have been one of the nation’s biggest, quickest human resources operations until the TSA airport screener hiring 60 years later, following the 2001 terrorist attacks.

While attending Northwestern, my grandfather worked two jobs and slept on the train to school. When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, he volunteered. (He also got married two days later.)

The Navy had him training people – women – to take over jobs at home, when they found out he had played a very minor role working in Joliet, Illinois, on a dictionary of occupational titles, one many in the HR field still know.

Because of the Joliet project, he and nine others joined what my grandfather always called the “flying circus.” They went to what my grandfather referred to as an “establishment” (such as a naval base) and assessed three things about the sailors: 1) their skills; 2) their aptitude; and 3) their interests. The goal was to have the military do what companies are still trying to do today: put the right people in the right jobs at the right time.

They went to one base and then another. And then another, and another – and still another: 10 times, 20 times, 100 times, 200 times … all in all, 219 before the war ended.

He kept, and still has, a list of every city he went to, in order, including those he went to multiple times. It looks like this:

Brooklyn
New Orleans
Brooklyn
Philadelphia

and so on.

The assessments, he believes, were put to good use during the war, and were actually used to make decisions on ships. Who knows: It all happened so fast, there wasn’t exactly time for an ROI analysis. (Heck, he didn’t even meet his daughter, my mother, until she was two.)

All of the assessments, he is pretty sure, are still sitting in the Pentagon.

My grandfather was an accountant by trade who ended up in human resources. He worked for the state of California, doing what was called “affirmative action” and is now called “diversity.”

He helped Native Americans get jobs, and was one of the first in California to work on improving the (still-lagging) employment prospects of the disabled, an initiative he called by a now-politically incorrect phrase “hiring the handicapped.”

Meanwhile, when Governor Reagan had a foreign VIP in town, he’d have my grandfather handle the tour. Perhaps this was because he could pick up a variety of languages, or because he knew how to appeal to their needs.

It would go like this: some dignitary would want to go to Hollywood to see a certain movie star. My grandfather knew the dignitary would be highly unlikely to find the celebrity. But he’d take them there anyhow, and show the visitor where the star eats, where some other star was recently, where the star’s husband or wife was recently, and so on. The visitor always ended up pleased, I’m told, particularly when the tour ended with a Coca-Cola at the beach in Santa Monica.

My grandfather was a Democrat, but a Midwestern, White-Castle-eating Democrat, never part of the I-shop-at-Whole Foods-and-you-don’t-so-you-must-be-a-redneck elite. He came to believe that President Roosevelt should have bombed the railroad tracks. At one time, he wrote a car-advice column. Later, he was involved in the Audubon Society, protecting birds. He was a Dodger fan, something not to be underestimated: in an email to me a year ago, my grandmother wrote to me (in response to my query about how her and my grandfather were doing): “We’re a little sick, but we’ll be fine, because we have each other, and the Dodgers.”

When I ended up in jobs relating to (though not “doing”) human resources, he frequently reminded me that his career was spent as a human resources person. Perhaps then, I should now roll out the cliché about HR being about people and how he was about people. Actually, no: first and foremost, he was about nature, remarking to me almost every time, from the time I first remember him until and including the last day I saw him, what a beautiful day it was outside, and what sorts of flowers were doing what sorts of activities that time of year.

Although he didn’t know an RSS job agent from Tweetmyjob, he did ask me regularly to explain to him such things. It was all new to him. Actually, not all new. One time I played for him a Boston radio station recording where they were interviewing me about jobs stuff, and I was explaining to the host why there are always people unemployed yet many being recruited. My grandfather nodded along the whole time. This jobs thing is an old conundrum.

It’s funny about grandparents. Our parents are human but our grandparents subjects of a sort of romance, a sort of idealism. As our parents age we are reminded of our own aging; as our grandparents age we are reminded of our youth.

Yeah, our grandparents suck us in like the earth’s core. After my cousins and I, as children, observed my grandfather collecting stamps, we all went back to our respective homes in Portland, Oregon, Pasadena, California, and Columbus, Ohio, and began collecting anything we could find.

As this year began and I was making a sort of New Year’s resolution, or at least a vague goal, I set out to spend as much time as possible (if by following their tweets and posts, if nothing else) with the people who want to move forward. No, not those who are stupidly optimistic or blind to debt and disease, but rather those people with the American spirit to tackle and not be defeatist about such problems.

And with that goal I found myself wanting to speak more to my grandfather. He didn’t talk much about the “good old days” or the “way things used to be”; perhaps, despite the various ailments that come with being in one’s 90s, he knew this world is all in all a healthier and largely wealthier and safer place than it ever has been. Or regardless of whether the world was somehow “better’ or somehow “worse” he lived through a time when the more economic pain the depression caused and the more casualties mounted in the war, the more resolute the country grew.

The day before he died, he took a sudden interest in working on the garden again — mainly managing my grandmother’s work, and complaining to her about what she was planting and trimming incorrectly. He had a certain way he wanted to arrange plants, and people for that matter, to get the most growth out of them. It was an interest and a skill I like to think was quite valuable to the Navy and the nation 70 years prior.

The Job-seeker Side of Things

Some thoughts based on recent conversations I’ve had with friends in the job market:

  • I’ve tweeted about this, but one friend of mine had two potential jobs about a month ago. Well, three — the third was her current job. Anyhow, she took the job with the organization who “got it” the best, with “got it” being parenthood. She’s smart, works hard, but wants flexibility. I know of other moms looking at quitting jobs for the same reason. Their employers from what I gather seem to think they are unmotivated, not into the company enough, and so on, when in reality they just want more flexibility.
  • One quality friend of mine, who trains people, particularly salespeople, is employed also, but looking for a job where he would travel less. He called me for advice, and among other things, I suggested he expand his LinkedIn profile a bit. He did so, and then called me to say that “I did what you said, but no one is calling me.” At first, his comment seemed silly; on second thought, there has been so much said and written about how job-seekers should do this or that on LinkedIn, and employers will find you — that it didn’t surprise me. Perhaps we all need to be clearer that recruiters are still most heavily recruiting people in certain industries, jobs, and geographies. 
  • Regarding that same friend … I’ve mentioned to him a couple of times that one of the most common ways employers find people is via referrals. But his response was similar to what many people experience: he has, of course, tapped that out. Of course he has asked the people he knows and tried to work through those who they know. And when he moves out into 3rd and 4th-degree contacts, it becomes a matter of “your neighbor’s dog trainer knows my cousin’s barber?” sort of thing, which isn’t doing him much good.
  • Another quality friend of mine is a sales/marketing guy. He was recently laid off and really needs to work — but says he doesn’t want a job. Don’t get me wrong: he’s searching for full-time work almost non-stop, but wants to officially be classified as a contractor, as he simply sees this, ironically, as in some ways more stable than being on a payroll. Of course, many on ERE and elsewhere have said this for years, but you don’t often hear job-seekers saying it.