Monday, June 06, 2005

Johnnie B-Part One

If you've come this far with me, you may be wondering how I got it in my head to become a lawyer. I have often wondered the same thing, believe me. Like many decisions we make in life, the choice of a career is sometimes a combination of luck, false expectations, and momentum. I would say that combination was strongly at work in this instance as well.

My father had any number of faults, some of which I will continue to recount on these pages. He was not, however, willing to accept mediocrity of any kind, and this intensity was manifest in the masonry work that he did. More than a few times, mostly while half in the bag, he would lament to me that "I might only be a stone mason, but I'm the best .... stone mason around"--colorful adjective elements omitted. This boast was true. My father was also a man of very high intelligence, and smart people like to be around this most difficult man. He could, for instance, solve complex mathematical problems in his head, and his memory was remarkable.

Because of his reputation and the way he executed his craft, my father would sometimes be hired by cottage people or their typically more repugnant brethren, the cottage dwellers who became permanent lake residents. Normally, these individuals would have him build a stone fireplace, a brick retaining wall, or perhaps have him pour them a driveway. On such projects, I would help, especially in the summer.

One such customer happened to be a lawyer, and a fellow alcoholic, by the name of John B. John B. too was an ornery German, nose shaped like an old, undersized pear, and eyes, as my dad would say, that looked "like two pissholes in a snowbank." The expressions on his face, to paraphrase Graham Greene, resembled the painful reopening of a wound.

One stone fireplace later, and my father was comfortable around John B. One poured driveway later, and John B. had his respect. One deer season later, and the two had become drinking buddies. As a 10-11 year old, I would sit and listen to my father and John B., while drunk and while sober, while discussing work and while deerhunting, and many times while riding around the wooded roads in John B's cadillac or the old man's pickup. At that time, John B. was the only lawyer I had ever met, and almost certainly the only college graduate as well. John B. was about half as smart as my father, as far as I could tell. Somewhere on one of those rides, I decided if John B. could be a lawyer, so could I. It is a fair guess that if John B. had been a doctor, I may well be a doctor today.

You could say John B. was my inspiration to become a lawyer, but that would only be about half right. I can honestly say that it was his son, Johnnie B.--a second generation, ne'r-do-well rich kid--who did so with a single piece of advice, advice I have carried in my hip pocket over the years in many different contexts, a profound piece of advice I find myself routinely applying, even to this day.