Saturday, June 14, 2008

Hold the Fork for me!

As some of you may know, I have been in the automotive sales industry for 8 years. For the last year and a half, I have been working in what some dealerships would refer to as a "call center", a place where all the sales calls for the dealership are routed through. My responsibilities during that time included answering the phone and calling people who had either missed an appointment or inquired about a vehicle online. I took great pride in the performance of these duties, as I believed I was very good at what I did. I also enjoyed working in an office setting, and the friendships I had developed there.
On one occasion, my supervisor had to leave the room for a moment, and before he left he uttered the words "hold the fort for me while I am gone." All expressions have a story behind them. While some are lost to history, others are easily researchable. That is the case for this one. An article in the New York times, dated February 3 1882 tells the story. A Captain Judge Mckenzie of the union army during the civil war was dispatched by General Corse to take a dangerous mission to answer a message from General Sherman. The message the General had sent simply read, "Hold the Fort, I am coming." Corse's response was "I am short a cheekbone and one ear, but I can whip the hell out of them yet."
Being something of a class clown, when I had to leave the office later in the day to take care of some business in another building, I produced a plastic fork that was left over from my lunch and handed it to a co-worker. I told him to "Hold the fork while I am gone." In puzzled astonishment, he grabbed the fork and said "ok Eddie", and the other co-workers began to laugh. It became something of an inner office joke, whenever someone left the office they would pass along the fork.
There is a man who works at the dealership who you want to talk with only once, because if you talk with him twice more often than not a negative experience. Of course I am speaking of the human resources director. He is in charge of hiring people for the dealership, and he is in charge of letting people go. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To see him in your department usually meant that someone was going to be taking a permanent vacation very soon. Amongst ourselves In the office we jokingly referred to him as the Angel of Death.
A few days ago, there were three of us in the office, and we spied the Angel of Death speaking with the head honcho of our department. They were inside small office with glass doors. We knew then the Angel of Death was about to spread his wings, and someone was going to be leaving the company very soon. We were hoping the phone inside our office would not ring, but ring it did. With a small twinge of apprehension I picked up the receiver. I was not prepared for what I heard.
"Thank you for calling 1(company name), this is Ed speaking, how may I assist you?"
"I am looking for a Henway."
"What options and equipment are important to you on your next vehicle?"
"Do you have a Henway or not?"
"I am sorry sir, what exactly is a Henway?"
"About three pounds." At this point, I realized it was the head honcho, who was speaking with the Angel of Death. "Is Don there?"
"Yes he is, would you like to speak with him?"
I put the call through to Don.(Not his real name) Don is a somewhat soft spoken middle aged man with grey hair and glasses. A retired Army veteran, Don was also a supervisor in my department. As he placed the receiver down, he looked over at me and said, "I have to go see the Angel of death, hold the fork for me."
As I saw them in the glass office, I thought "That's a shame. I didn't always agree with Don, but I hate to see anyone get the axe so close the holidays. Oh well, at least its not me."
When Don had returned, his face was red and I could tell he was upset. He looked at me and said "They want to speak with you now Ed." I got up from my computer console and began the journey across the hallway to the glass office, or if you prefer the "Walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death." I grabbed the cold steel handle of the glass door, pulled it back, and walked inside.
"Ed, have a seat. The reason we have called you in here is to inform you that Mr. Owner has decided to shut down the department where you work."
"At last" I thought. "Now they will offer me the promotion to sales manager after my exemplary performance in my department and my five years of loyal service to the company."
"We are offering you the position of Product Specialist." The sales department in my former place of employment operates like a pyramid scheme. At the bottom of the pyramid you have the product specialists, then the sales managers, then the tower directors, then the general sales managers, then the owner. The higher up the pyramid you are, the more money you will make. I had been a Product Specialist before, and I had no interest in being one again.
"No thank you, I am not interested in doing that again." I replied.
The head honcho looked stunned. "I know you must feel like you were just hit with a ton of bricks. If you want to take a couple of days to think about it, you can."
I looked over and stared directly into the face of the Angel of Death, who had been silent until this time. His eyes were cold and uncaring, and his face was like stone. When he opened his mouth to speak, I expected an echo that would crack open the Earth and swallow me into the depths of Hell. What I heard was a calm and soft spoken voice. "Why do you not wish to accept the position we have offered you?"
It was not the voice of a demon from the pits of Hell, the Angel of Death was just a man after all. "Because I have done that before, and it didn't work out the first time. And it is less money and more hours." The Head Honcho then gave his sales pitch, but by this time I really wasn't listening to what he was saying, I was deep in thought on what I wanted to do next. They needed someone to work the next couple of days, to tie up loose ends in the office, and this I did agree to do.
The next day, there were only two people in the office, myself and another supervisor who was staying with the company. The atmosphere of the office was like a morgue. The phones had stopped ringing, the chatter and laughing voiced had been silenced. I took this time to reflect on my situation. I had faced the Angel of Death, yet I was still alive. More than alive, I was free. I thought about the sad chapter of history in the United States where slavery was legal. It still is in a way, as I had been a slave to the time clock, to my supervisors, and to my company. I remembered a story about a group of slaves freed after the Civil War was over who did not wish to leave the plantation. "How will we eat?", they must have thought. "How will we survive?" I now know how they must have felt. But as a wise man, Benjamin Franklin once said, "Those who sacrifice freedom for security deserve neither."
As the day wound to a close, I shook the hand of my friend and supervisor and told him it was great working with him, and that I would miss him. I then turned to walk out of the office for the last time. As I was heading out the door I remembered something, something that seemed important. I walked back up to where my friend was sitting, reached in my pocket and pulled out a small plastic fork, and extended it towards him. "Hold the fork for me while I am gone."
With a tear in his eye, he grabbed it and said, "You got it." I then walked out the door a free man.

"Writer's note." I wrote that story 6 months ago. I am still free.

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