It was 1979 in Redlands and it rained steadily that fall. I thought we must have been in San Francisco or Portland. But our family of four was safe in our little Spanish style home at 540 Center Street, just below the big yellow three-story house on the corner, which to us looked like a mansion. It was owned and occupied at the time by the Carlsons, so we called it the ‘Carlson Mansion.’ Their house towered above our little one-story Spanish bungalow and was separated from our property by a small grove of orange trees. The Carlsons were the owners of Carlson’s Hardware, where you could go at any time during the day holding an item such as a particular size bolt, screw or nail and say to whomever was on duty “I need six of these” and you would immediately be led into the back of the store to watch the “Yeah, I’m pretty sure we’ve got that” expert rummage through 8-foot high shelves of drawers until he had exactly matched your item and come up beaming with “Here you are! Anything else?” Try that at Lowes or Home Depot and even if they have the item you want and can grab someone knowledgeable to help you find it, you have to buy a package of them with a lifetime supply.
Carlson’s Hardware was an important part of our team because we had purchased this cute little Spanish-style house as a live-in-while-we fix-it up project. Never having been a homeowner, though Linda had been one in her former life in suburban Green Bay, I had no idea what owning a ‘fixer-upper’ entailed. But I was in good health and able to follow directions. Linda was a great planner and coordinator of things. Robb was a strong though somewhat unreliable teenager. Eric was a hardworking and willing almost 6th-grader. My new step-father Harold and my Mom came down some weeks to help. And our friend Lance Ternasky was a general contractor at the time and volunteered his advice and sometimes his tools.
The summer before the “rainy season” we plunged into our work projects with gusto, digging up the back yard for planting grass and a garden, cutting down a diseased orange tree, moving the water heater from the back entryway to the opposite side of the house, wallpapering the bathroom, and installing a new heating/air conditioning system on the roof, after signing up for financing with the itinerant Trane salesman who was “in the neighborhood.”
That summer I also began my training as Special Agent of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company and my affiliation with the General Agency located on 2nd and Arrowhead in San Bernardino. My mentor and trainer was General Agent Keith Guise, a nice man who genuinely wanted his agents to succeed in the business, but who was not the greatest business manager. My first year in the business I made enough sales to go over the “million dollar in sales” mark which qualified me for an all-expense-paid trip to Milwaukee, NML’s home office for the annual meeting banquet and one of the last stand-up performances by Bob Hope, which is all I remember from the trip. From there on things began to go downhill for Special Agent Mellow Milan (the nickname given me by my mentor), although it would take a couple of more years for that reality to sink in.
Meanwhile our home was my refuge and the family had its own challenges. Eric started his 6th grade year at McKinley Elementary and Robb entered Redlands High. Eric thrived and Robb struggled. We were regularly getting calls from the school that Robb was not showing up for classes. We were later informed by Eric that Robb was smoking pot in the garage. We began family counseling. One day our car turned up missing. We reported it stolen only to find out that Robb had found a set of keys and taken it for a ride with a couple of his friends. So when he returned home we and a police car were waiting. We and the officer decided to let that slide. But before Robb left us the next summer things were spiraling out of control. Family and individual counseling did not seem to be working for us or Robb. He was becoming more unmanageable and belligerent. Finally his mother decided to give him another try and agreed to have him come back to Minneapolis before he ended up in jail. Ironically, the day after we put him on the Greyhound bus for the trip to Minnesota, three police cars showed up at our front door with a warrant to search the house for drugs. Apparently Robb and one or more of his friends had been distributing drugs around town.
After the summer of 1980 things settled down for awhile. I was still going to work every day although sales were not keeping up with expenses. Linda had applied for and got a job at the University of Redlands Whitehead Center as administrative assistant to Wayne Martindale, but her salary was not enough to make up the difference. Ronald Reagan was elected President that autumn and the economy was in free-fall. Interest rates were at an all-time high. Inflation was going through the roof. We were going deeper into debt and at risk of losing the house. My spirits were low but my hopes were high. There is something about being in sales that changes your whole perspective on life.
For one thing you begin to see every relationship and every encounter as an opportunity to make a sale. Then there is the carrot of the next big deal that is always just around the corner. By the time you wake up to reality, which usually requires being hit over the head with it, you may be too far gone to recover.
There is the famous story of the farmer who was telling his friend about his mule.
“This mule is one of the best-trained animals you will every see.”
“Really? I’ve never seen a mule you could train. Can you show me?”
The farmer picked up a huge two-by-four and proceeded to swing it and hit the mule right on the side of the head. Whack!
“I thought you said that mule was well-trained,” said the friend, puzzled.
“He is,” responded the farmer, “but first you have to get his attention.”
Some people might call it God, some Providence, some good luck. I just refer to it as Reality trying to get my attention! Waking up is easy, but for some people it takes a whack on the side of the head to notice that you are actually awake.