Memorial Day

Born in 1952, I missed getting drafted by lottery luck at a time when getting drafted likely would’ve meant going to Vietnam. Then I staggered into an Army recruiting office in Cleveland in 1973 — I had long since dropped out of college by then, and spent nearly all my time drunk — and passed their test, but when they said they’d pick me up early the next morning, swear me in downtown, then fly me to Fort Polk, Louisiana, I knew I wasn’t going to let that happen. I’d like to think I was too smart. Truth is, I didn’t have the balls to follow through.

I was aware of Vietnam, of course — I wasn’t in a coma — but I had no strong political views then, no job, no real stake in any aspect of society. I was a crook and a couch surfer, a pro-Jim Beam, pro-Methaqualone, pro-Bukowski Cleveland Jew with a loaded Saturday Night Special in my pocket and a dream. The dream was that someday I’d get laid.

I never got to know a Vietnam veteran until the late 1980s, when I went to work for a software developer in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. His name was Bob Parsons. Still is. He’s the CEO and founder of Bob hired two Senior Writers at the same time, immediately sent us to Chicago for a three-day Direct Marketing Association seminar, and fired the other writer at the end of our second week on the job.

What the hell, Bob?

“She didn’t hit the ground running fast enough,” Bob said. He never hired a replacement, and I’m sure he never intended to keep both of us to begin with.


Bob was from Baltimore. He came up hard, didn’t care much for school, enlisted in the Marines, and went to Vietnam as an 18-year-old rifleman. He was wounded there, came home, got an accounting degree, and started building businesses. He didn’t tell war stories. He talked about work. He had gone broke once, he said, selling personal accounting software out of his garage. Bob had a dream, too: money. The only thing he ever said about his time in Vietnam that stuck with me — I’d gotten laid by then, but I was still a drunk — was how awful it was to send teenagers to fight and die.

I wrote direct-mail letters, catalog copy, and magazine ads. As you might imagine, Bob applied plenty of pressure. He was fierce. He was smart. He was loud. The first time he lost his temper with me, I walked out of his office and drove home. By the time I got to my house in Iowa City, 30 miles away, Bob was on the phone, calling to apologize. I came back to work the next morning.

All in all, Parsons Technology was a good post-grad program for an alcoholic with an MFA from Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop. I learned a lot about the craft, a few things about myself, and more than enough about how failure tasted. I once wrote a full-page magazine ad for a trivia game we were selling, and — because placing a full-page magazine ad cost Bob serious money — he wanted fast results. What he got wasn’t good. He walked into the room where I worked, holding a copy of the ad, torn from a magazine, pinched between his thumb and index finger — just a corner of the ad, so that the page drooped from his extended arm.

This is a leper,” he said. “And we don’t send a leper out to meet our friends.”

When he hired me, he’d promised a $7K bump after a year, which would’ve been a 25% raise. Neither one of us was shocked or disappointed when I left a few months shy of that.


I wasn’t shocked, much less disappointed, when I found out that Bob had cashed in big-time. I’ve known three pure entrepreneurs over the years, and I find their insanity inspiring. Their implacable self-belief, their capacity for work, their relentless focus — all worth emulating, or trying to. More than anything, I admire their willingness to fail. If success has a secret, that’s the secret: Be willing to fail.


I have strong political views now, but Memorial Day is a bad time to trot them out. I’ll say this much: I believe in the concept of universal national service. I believe that every kid in America should serve — not in the military, necessarily, but in some capacity. I believe that our politicians would not be so willing to send young soldiers to die in Iraq and Afghanistan if more Americans were directly invested in those wars of choice. I think our nation would be far better off in almost every regard. I see no other way, short of disaster, to restore anything like a communal bond in a society nearly paralyzed by fear, contempt, and happy ignorance.


To my father and my uncles — Manny, Lou, and Lorry — thanks for your service. Thanks to all our fighting men and women across the globe today; come home safe, and soon. Thanks, too, to Bob Parsons, the worst boss I ever loved.