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Qualifying for Jobs and the Rabbit Story

If it hadn't been for the rabbit story, I don't know how I would have gotten through the many and varied roles I have taken on over the years.

To begin with, I grew up without a father. One of my worst memories is when I was about 10, living on a farm, and trying hard to be a successful member of the 4-H club. Every year in the County Seat, Ada, Oklahoma, they had contests for the little farm boys and girls. One of the contests was "home demonstration," in which we would memorize a presentation about some helpful farming idea. My task was to demonstrate how farmers could keep their assortments of nails and screws in handy glass jars by nailing the jar lids onto a board and fixing the board so it would rotate like a barbecue spit. The County man actually made the device and gave me the script to memorize.

In front of about 50 farmers, I gave my exposition. When it came time to screw the jars into the lids, I was still pontificating fairly easily. But I cross-threaded one of the jars and it didn't have enough clearance to rotate around. It just banged into the frame of the thing. I didn't know what to do, so I just faked my way through the rest of the verbal presentation. Another little boy who had witnessed my shame and confusion pointed at the jar afterward and said, "cross threaded." As if that explained anything at all to me. I figured out later that almost all little boys know how to screw two things together by turning them backwards a little bit until the threads match up, then screwing them tighter. Almost all little boys knew that. But they had fathers!

When I was eleven, somebody enrolled me in a 7th grade class called "metal shop." What a terrible experience! I couldn't do any of the filing, twisting, hammering, drilling, that the other boys did easily. I was terrified every day. I made my worst grade ever, a B-, and felt that I'd never live down the shame. The next year, they put me into wood shop, but the teacher kept telling the boys derisively that the class was too large and that some of us should go enroll in the sissy class, boys choir. I jumped at that! He made me stand in front of the class while he went on and on, tongue in cheek, about what a fine thing I was doing, going to the sissy class.

In Boot Camp, they tested to see what Navy jobs we could do. I qualified for everything except radio operator. I'm leading up to something here.

I tightened and loosened bolts and pipes in the oil fields as a young man. The Navy made me a radio operator. My main adult job was metal working in a machine shop.

I started working without any clue

My brother gave me a job in the Texas Panhandle oil fields when I was 15. He appreciated that I helped haul sacks of drilling mud materials (without pay) when I went to the rig with him, and he thought that hauling sacks was proof enough that I could do the job and get paid. Truthfully, I couldn't do much of anything at all. I didn't even know "righty-tighty, loosey-goosey." I couldn't even change a tire on an automobile, nor could I drive one.

On my first day, my brother assigned me to drive the gin pole truck from one drilling site to the next one, about 20 miles away. I barely got through that and other assignments and probably would have given up in shame if he hadn't, early on, told me the rabbit story. He said that Dad had told him about the rabbits when he first started. The rabbit story has propped me up over and over again since then.

The rabbit understood challenges

A cottontail rabbit is being chased by a wolf. A big jack rabbit lopes up easily beside him and says casually, "Are you going to make it, son?" The cottontail, tongue hanging out, pants, "I'll make it." The jack rabbit then lopes off at a tangent without realizing that the wolf has cut across. The wolf eats the careless jack rabbit and the cottontail gets away! Why? The cottontail made it, my brother explained pointedly, because he knew he had to!

My big brother accepted no excuses from me. It was do or die. He worked me as a floor hand until I actually got good enough to rise to the position of derrick man.

After the oil field and a 4-year hitch in the military, I mopped floors to get through business college at OU. By then, I had decided that I could do gross work, but nothing tiny or fine. I liked to think that I was good at overall "big picture" work, but would never be able to handle details. So I graduated college and began work as an accountant. While I'm bragging, I may as well add that I also did okay as a navy radio operator and was an adequate machinist.

A Great Slogan: "It's just work."

One of my earliest political task was cold-calling strangers to ask for money. I hated that work and still do. One of the first people I called was an old college professor who, I found out later, had Maoist leanings, as did a lot of people in the late 1960s. I stammered my way through the introduction and then broke down and started apologizing for being so inept on the telephone. I told the man that I just wasn't cut out to do this kind of work and shouldn't have been assigned it. "You'll do OK," he said warmly, "It's just work."

"It's just work" has stuck by me. It rivals the rabbit story as the most inspirational concept of my life. Any job can be taken on and accomplished by he/she who remembers, "It's just work!" I've done just about everything in politics, some things better than others I'll admit, and some of the things I did could probably have been done a lot better by somebody else, but I've taken every assignment and worked my way through it because I know that my previous abilities aren't what matters. What matters is getting through it. It's just work.

We don't choose the task. It chooses us

Nearly all worthwhile political activists are volunteers. As we are volunteers, we would like to pick and choose what tasks we take on according to our likes and our own conception of our abilities. I've particularly noticed people who say, "I want to use my art (or my dancing, or my music) in the cause." But that's backward. The way to choose tasks is not to start with our own tastes and abilities, but to look at what needs doing, and then figure out how to contribute. In my own case, I nearly always end up being the guy who does the data entry, the bookkeeping, and the distasteful fund raising. It's not because I'm good at it or I like it, it's because those tasks are absolutely essential to the movement and it's really hard to get anybody else to do them.

The progressive movement is full of humanities majors. Sometimes I think all of them majored in history or sociology. There are very few engineers, mathematicians and accountants in the progressive movement. Nothing makes me tireder than having someone tell me that they can't take an assignment because I could do it better than they. Oftentimes, maybe I could do it better because I've been at it longer, but that logic tends to leave everything to me without any help from anyone! If I ask someone to take an assignment, it's because it needs doing and they could do it, but most people turn me down. There's nothing I can do about it because we're all volunteers.

Shoot, if I could do what I wanted, I'd spend all my time writing and singing songs, drawing cartoons, and making speeches. I'm as creative as the next guy, but I'm also a fairly good typist, and data entry is what's usually needed, so that's what I usually do. Anything else would devalue the importance of the progressive movement and, by association, devalue me!

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