August 1992

 
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Harpending's Corners

by

Edwin N. Harris

Chapter Index

I. M. Ludington's Sons, Inc.

1956 - 1962

I was doing reasonably well as manager, working hard but enjoying it. Relations with Bob had improved, though as the company grew he felt compelled to prove his rights with irksome things like extending credit to risky accounts that I had refused, losing labor disputes that by contract we could not win, and caving in to pleas and threats from customers to cut my quoted prices that I knew would hold if left alone. It was a highly competitive business that was suffering from dangerously low profit margins. Even so I refused job offers from companies like Johns-Manville, feeling that I had a job to finish where I was, and yielded to my naive sense of loyalty to the Finewoods.

The Picture Changes

It is Saturday noon at Finewood's Ridge road office: Bob speaks: "Dick, now that you're out of the Marine Corps, I want you to get involved in the business. What do you think you want to do?"

Dick is Bob's youngest brother. "Well, Bob, I thought I would like to go up to Lexington Avenue and help Ed—ought to be better than working for you." — laughs.

Dick had briefly worked for me during his summer vacations while I was at Finewood's. He is a near image of L. B., his deceased father, taller, but with the same eyes, dark complexion, portly build, and jocular manner. Until now he had exhibited few serious thoughts to most of us.

Bob: "How does that sound to you, Ed?"

Instinct told me the scene was rehearsed, and it was only a matter of time before I would lose my cherished independence, but I amiably agreed and suggested that I could use some help in sales. Bob seemed pleased and wrapped it up with, "Just remember, Dick, Ed is the boss up there—not you." On the way home I mused, "Thirteen years with this family, how many more are there?"

For most of a year Dick gave little trouble while he learned the ropes; he, not working too hard, came to work late and left early. But it was inevitable that he, part owner of the company, would soon chafe from the tether that held him distanced from decision making. He began making little management moves while I was not looking, after which he disappeared for a day or two to postpone confrontation. I too chafed, and sensed an eventual battle that I could not win.

The end came in early January of 1962. One morning as I entered my office at seven the phone was ringing, and answering, I heard the highly agitated voice of Anthony Maletta, president of Fact Technical Service, berating me with accusations that at the moment were completely puzzling. I waited until he paused for breath to say, "Tony, please hang up, I'm coming right over to get this straight." I could still hear him screaming as I hung up.

We had been awarded a large concrete order for construction of a water treatment plant, and Tony Maletta's lab had the inspection and quality-control contract from Metcalf & Eddy, a Boston engineering firm. The day before I had arranged a field meeting at Valley's Scottsville plant with Tony's partner, Howard Christensen. My purpose was to get approval for a small concession to the specifications in the mechanical handling of coarse aggregate for the concrete. By running a plant test I aimed to prove mechanical modifications made by Valley's superintendent, Cy Resch, provided the quality control required. The test was successful but the concession was granted reluctantly because a competing supplier's similar method had been refused. Howard warned me that the less said about the matter the better. I returned to my office where Bob was seated at my desk, anxious for the days results. He was highly pleased with my report and readily agreed the sensitive matter should be treated as such.

At Tony Maletta's office on Windsor Street I listened to his story: During the night a phone call from an undisclosed person told him that he had heard, at a public place, the results of my meeting with his partner, Howard Christensen, This, Tony wailed, put everyone involved in an awkward position. As he raved I tried to mentally reconstruct the possibilities and gradually I sensed I had been mouse-trapped by loose talk. Logically, by Bob, Dick, or both.

After I met Bob at the office the afternoon before, I had joined him and Dick at Shale's restaurant about 5:30, and after two drinks with them I went directly home to prepare for a long next day's work. I could only conclude that after I departed one or both had indulged in careless boasting about my earlier success. I had suspected previous similar occurrences that I shrugged off, but now, I seethed.

Tony's anger abated as I convinced him I was not the culprit he sought and we should forget the incident unless trouble actually developed. He reluctantly agreed, and to my knowledge nothing did.

As I drove away a new peace came to me. I felt strangely calm, rested, and with a quiet euphoria, bemused, as awareness came that after sixteen years with the Finewood family, I was not returning to work on this or any future day. (Actually I stayed for two weeks.) At about 9:30 I parked the pickup behind Spike Pingio's "Pine Tree Lounge" on Lake Avenue where I often lunched. Spike, just opening to prepare for lunch hour, was startled to see me.

"Ed, what are you doing here at this hour—and what is that silly smile all about?"

"Shut up Spike, and do something useful, like making me a nice dry martini and then start making another."

Several years before I had hired Spike as a crane operator for a project in Kodak Park. That was before he got kicked out of the Hoisting Engineer's Union, Local 832, for political insurrection. But now his Greek curiosity drove him to press me. "Come on Ed, what the hell goes on with you—martini's at this hour of the morning?"

"Spiros, my friend, I have just quit my job and plan to celebrate the occasion."

Spike paced around the bar. "Ah, you guys are always coming in here with some cock-and-bull story. You've been with Finewoods forever, and probably always will be."

I headed for the phone on the wall at the back of the room. "Just sixteen years, not forever, Spike, come here by the phone and I'll let you hear my oral resignation. I think my boss should know too, don't you?"

I cheerfully gave Bob a brief statement, adding that I would stay two weeks if he wished—A brief silence then, "Ed, I want you to tell me where you are—I want to see you."

"Not today, I'm celebrating the occasion." As I hung up I heard, "Is it Dick?—I can straighten thatů?"

I phoned Esther, and perhaps for once she seemed almost pleased that I was in a bar for the right reason. To her the move I was making was overdue. She simply urged that I not get into any trouble.

Last, I called Ken Oelfke at Syracuse, asked if his offer of last month still held. It did, and he offered to drive to Rochester to meet me. I put him off until the next day with "Not today, Ken, I'm running a private celebration."

The next day Ken hired me and I began a new career that lasted eighteen years.

© 1992, Edwin N. Harris
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