The USA Years

USA Years 1975 – 1980
Alden NY 1975 -1978

First Days

It was Monday July 21, three days after our arrival in the United States and my first official day as general manager of Microtectonics; on that beautiful, sunny morning and amid the chirping of the birds in the park-like setting around the Microtectonics plant I had walked in feeling very energized at the prospect of starting this new phase of my life. I greeted everyone with a cheery smile but could not help noticing a muted atmosphere throughout and the way the people glanced at each other as they quietly returned my greeting without looking at me. Surely they were not resentful of my arrival? Finally I asked Barbara Bardonaro, an assembler who had been pointed out to me previously as a regular troublemaker, the fateful question.

“Hi Barbara, what’s the matter?”
“Haven’t you heard?” came the reply.
“Heard what?”
“Augie and his wife were killed yesterday when their plane crashed in Florida, it’s in the paper and on the radio.”

I stood paralyzed for a few seconds not knowing what to think or say; finally I could only stutter “How?”
“He was flying his plane and crashed on the last hop between Sarasota and Naples.”

I rushed outside and drove to the closest village to pick up a copy of the “Buffalo Courier-Express” to see what details there might be regarding the accident; there was not much, except that their IFR instructor had left them in Sarasota in order to catch a commercial flight back to Buffalo and a little later the Comanche which one August Pagnozzi was piloting suddenly tipped over to the left and nosedived into the ground after reaching an altitude of about 150 feet following takeoff at the Sarasota airport.

Just on Saturday, two days earlier, after getting some of our furniture and essentials like dishes arranged I had called Augie to thank him and Betty for the groceries they had left for us the previous day; he invited us to visit them early that afternoon as they were planning to leave the following day for a couple of weeks in Florida. As we sat in his house he had told me that now that I was here permanently he could afford to take the time off and attend to some of the finishing details on their Florida house; they were both pretty excited and while he poured me a beer he said he was not drinking as he would be piloting his plane next day. Oh hell!

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Winter driving in that part of the world was a test of foolishness, skill and willpower pitted against the raw forces of an icy, snowy hell. My car at the time was a ’76 Chevrolet Malibu which I had fitted out with tungsten carbide studded tires in the back and loaded the trunk with 150 pounds of sand bags to improve traction. There were times when westerly winds combined with snow created whiteout conditions which made it impossible to see more than five or six feet past the hood of the car — this became completely disorienting and without realizing it many cars regularly drove into the ditch at five or ten miles an hour quite unaware that they were leaving the road. On some particularly bad days, leaving Arcade on the way home the NY state troopers would organize convoys of fifteen to twenty cars, ordering each driver to proceed at fifteen miles an hour and not to stop for anything, while they had a car at each end of the convoy with its roof lights flashing. You just prayed that the barely visible tail lights of the car in front did not lead you into the ditch. The worst was still to come, though.

The Blizzard of 1977

The early morning of January 28th 1977 was fairly bright with just a little overcast — it was hard to believe the radio reports that a major snowstorm was heading our way. No problem getting to Arcade. During our morning coffee break around 11 o’clock, as we sat in the cafeteria whose outside wall was formed by a huge window we noticed the sky getting very grey and the wind picking up; soon the grey got darker and darker until it became virtually black and the snow began to swirl outside. I imagined that this was how the end of the world would look. Within an hour the wind had drifted about a foot of snow into the parking lot. Realizing that I was not going to make it home that day I immediately phoned “Johnny’s Motel” on Main Street, one of the two motels in the village and managed to reserve a room (at $12 a night).

In the meantime, the factory dismissed everyone around 1pm, but most people could not leave anyway and prepared to settle in the cafeteria (by now I think I could have sold my motel room for $200 or more). I met Chet in the corridor and when I told him I was on my way to the motel, which was only about a block away, he literally begged me to let him stay with me; as we sat in the room and chatted over a few drinks Chet confessed to me that seeing all that snow swirling outside terrified him, reminding him of the time he got lost and stranded in the jungle in Vietnam.

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Living and working in this semi-rural Western New York environment provided me with a whole new gamut of experiences. The folksiness I first observed in my encounters concealed a very real streak of hard-nosed materialism in the natives that ultimately trumped any illusions I initially had about their earthy openness and uncomplicated nature. I did meet some genuinely sincere, well meaning people, but I found I had to scratch hard to get past their congenital materialistic instincts.

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Troy, MI.   1978 – 1980

Bendix had a clever way of getting rid of senior executives without actually firing them and getting themselves possibly involved in large severance payments or even lawsuits. I observed this when our Divisional VP Charlie Flanagan was moved to Southfield and put on a “special assignment” — he became the Corporate Business Executive for Bendix in Europe and Japan. We had a nice going-away party for him in one of the local lounges, but in talking to him I detected less than overwhelming enthusiasm on his part at this “promotion”. A little later I found out why: his new job meant that he was spending about three quarters of his life on an airplane between Europe and Japan, leaving him hardly any time to spend with his family. Sure enough after about four months of this he quit.

We found ourselves with a new top executive in the form of Alexander “Mike” Michalowski who had been the Corporate Materials Manager in Southfield. Mike was a stocky five feet nine in height, dark hair, balding on top. On first impression his features and mannerisms suggested a primitive yet cunning make-up: a slightly puffy face, notably characterized by a persistent five o’clock shadow, and darting brown eyes that never looked directly at the person he was addressing. Though not scowling, he seemed to have his jaws permanently clenched, so one could detect his undulating pulse where the hinge of his jaw met his temple. That first impression did not take long to be confirmed after he took command of the division. We learned later about the perversely comical manner in which Mike came to be our new boss: apparently a number of Mike’s peers at Corporate had thrown their hats into the ring as soon as the news of the vacancy had been published. The story went that Mike, who was universally despised there, not wanting to miss out on an opportunity to advance his personal ambitions, then also applied for the position at EECSG; as soon as he did so all the other candidates withdrew their applications leaving him as the lone contender and so found a way of getting rid of him from Southfield.

Final Reflections

I found the five years spent in the United States quite revelatory. Although I had previously traveled extensively in the US, living there afforded an insight into the mores and fundamental social complexities that visits can never provide.  At the risk of sounding like a stereotypical European snob, I felt that while moving to Canada I had come down by one rung of civilization’s scale, living in the US brought me down a further rung:  On the broad sociological level, I found that the only brakes or limitations on behaviour were those things explicitly proscribed by law — otherwise it was OK to do whatever one pleased, regardless of how unsociable, unethical or unscrupulous. Any restraint because of it being “improper” (what an old-fashioned word!) or reprehensible was not part of the equation. In the bigger picture I saw this as being the proud manifestation of the unrestrained “freedom” to which Americans are so firmly attached. To my mind it was simply social primitivism.

In trying to understand the cause of such levels of stress in the work environment as I had never witnessed before, I noted that it sprang from the constant efforts of most people to get their superior’s or manager’s job. This led to vicious workplace politics which manifested itself in ruthless attempts to undermine not only the boss but also one’s peers while at the same time belittling subordinates by way of pre-emptive action; from my various interactions and banter sessions with my co-workers, peers and those above and below me in rank I was led to perceive this as a tacitly accepted norm. This lack of loyalty between workmates never ceased to perturb me — it was in stark contrast to my experience, particularly in the UK where such loyalty was paramount. Putting it in larger perspective I came to see it as the practical expression of the ingrained “survival of the fittest” and “winning is everything” philosophy. Several years later I felt particular satisfaction and a personal vindication of these views when I indirectly found out that within six months of firing me both Fred and Mike had been terminated for lack of performance.

As everywhere, in a one-on-one level I found most people to be cordial, fair minded and generous. What came as a major disappointment to me was that in spite of the much vaunted claim of rugged individualism the Americans at large were inordinately conformist and parochial in outlook and opinions, even the supposedly sophisticated urban ones. As a much too free spirit myself, I was initially surprised by this dearth of imagination; it came accompanied by (or perhaps as a corollary to) an implied sense of national exceptionalism. It could well have come from the mainstream media news which only seemed to acknowledge the existence of the world outside of the United States to the degree that it impacted on US interests. Things American were almost invariably couched in superlatives: “Las Vegas, The Entertainment Capital of the World”; “The Greatest Country in the World”; “The Finest Military in the World”, etc. …oh, and the “World” Series of a game that very few countries even play. In summary I concluded that while being the most entertained people in the world Americans are some of the most poorly informed. I was glad to have spent those five years in the United States; I made a good number of friends, as did Fabiola, and  in sum I found it very much a learning experience. I was also very glad to be returning to Canada, which somehow had inspired me with a feeling of belonging much more than I think the US could ever do.

Read another excerpt: The Great Britain Years

Read another excerpt: Canada 1963 to 1968

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