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Phil opens his door and faces the harsh cold wind. He removes the gas hose and begins filling the car with something besides fumes. I turn to look out the back window and see his hair blowing in all directions as he turns up his coat collar against the cold. Freddie and I enjoy the warmth and comfort inside the car. He's in the middle of the wide front seat. I'm next to him, on the passenger side.
There's a stack of firewood in the back. Last night we removed Phil's backseat to make room for it when we found it neatly stacked beside someone's home. We intended to remove the wood before now, but found more interesting things to do. This evening we test-marketed some girls, and consumed vast quantities of adult beverages, until a lack of funds forced us to suspend activity.
Phil stomps his feet, trying to keep warm. He's probably talking to the gas, coaxing it to move on into the tank a little faster. I light up a smoke, glad to be sitting inside on this cold November night in 1964. I know the odds are high that we'll soon be enjoying a nice fire. We just have to make it home and find the energy to unload our "borrowed" wood.
Freddie and I are somewhat melancholy with the fact that our last five dollars is going into the gas tank. It will likely be several days before we can resume our usual social routine. Freddie, about three sheets in the wind, pokes me in the ribs and slurs, "I know where we can get some cash."
The expression on his face screams intoxication. I suppress a laugh and blow smoke in his face. "Well," I say, "let's get it, old buddy."
He moves toward the driver's side door. I grab him by the arm and say, "Where you going?"
He mumbles, "To get the money."
I hold his arm and say, "What are you talking about?"
He turns awkwardly and pulls up his car coat to show me a revolver stuck in his belt. "I'm going inside and get some money from that old fart."
I glance around and note that the place looks deserted, as it should at two in the morning. Phil has gone inside to pay the guy our last five dollars. It occurs to me that Freddie is really drunk. He wants to rob the gas station!
I say, "Bullshit, Freddie. We ain't gonna rob anybody."
He starts sliding over to the driver's door again. This time I grab him more forcefully and pull him back as he struggles to free himself. The situation is escalating rapidly. It's the gun I'm concerned about. I can't allow him to get out of the car or reach for his gun. I see Phil heading back to the car as Freddie struggles to get loose from the full nelson I'm holding tightly. It looks to me like Phil is walking in slow motion as the wrestling match continues. My heart beat is way up as I picture all the bad things that can happen if Freddie gets loose.
Finally Phil opens the door and looks at us with some confusion. I tell him to get the gun from Freddie's belt. Phil spots the gun and grabs it. I yell at him to get the hell out of here.
When we exit the gas station on Poole Road I release Freddie, who calls me a chicken shit and falls immediately into an alcohol-induced coma.
If money shortage had not limited my ability to drink as freely as I would have otherwise, I would have been as drunk as Freddie — and maybe wouldn't have even cared that he wanted to pull a robbery. I could have ended up doing ten to twenty in a prison cell.
I had made many bad choices in my short life and would make many more, but that night I made a good choice. A very good choice!
Thirty-six years after the aborted robbery I retired from one of the world's largest and most prominent financial institutions and was recognized as one of their most successful managing partners. My company presented me with an inscribed award that reads, "For Strength in times of challenge, for Courage in the face of adversity, for Integrity that never faltered, with Respect and Affection."
As our CEO made his remarks to the large audience my prior life virtually passed before my eyes. I always feared that one day my company would learn of that life and fire me on the spot. I had put the past behind me and completed a remarkable journey.
The CEO concluded his remarks. I humbly and gratefully accepted the Tiffany silver plate and his kind words as well as the generous applause from my peers. In that instant I felt overwhelmed with gratitude for all the people who had given me the guidance I so desperately needed.
Now, in retirement, the time is right. I will tell the story of how I almost did not get on the path to success.
I will show how I went from a life of underachievement (and almost becoming a criminal) to achieving the respect of my peers, the confidence of thousands, and the financial and emotional rewards that come with years of sustained and productive hard work. I will offer proof that change is possible.
I believe all of us reach critical points in our lives when we are called upon to make significant choices. We are alone with our choices, yet we must make choices and must live with the inevitable consequences. We are, I believe, in control of our destiny.
I will tell this story through the shadows of my memory (which must be prodded often), making every effort to be completely truthful and as accurate as possible. I will try to avoid embellishment or the omission of any necessary information. I will fight hard not to fall victim to that old saying, 'The older I get, the better I used to be.'
I will succeed in the telling if on the final page of the book my readers agree with me on one point.
It isn't how we start the race — it's how we finish!
In my early years my life was filled with serious mistakes that I kept carefully hidden from friends and loved ones. Then I discovered, with some help, how to raise myself from the depths of despair to the top of my profession. It is my hope that my story will help others reach their potential.
Many children are blessed with loving parents who instill in them a sense of belonging, responsibility, the value of a good education, honesty, integrity, and pride. Unfortunately, many other children do not receive the nurturing so desperately needed during the formative years.
These children may have only one parent or perhaps one of their parents is physically or chemically dependent. They may have been reared in an orphanage or a broken home. They cannot help being affected by those circumstances — but only to the extent they allow!
When I accepted the fact that I controlled my education, attitude, habits, skills, values, and work ethic, my life took a sudden and positive dramatic turn. Everything in life comes with a price tag and in the beginning I chose to pay the price for failure. That period of my life came to its conclusion when I learned that the price for success is considerably cheaper.
The price for failure is living in a home you don't like, driving a beat-up car, struggling to make ends meet, and wishing you were able to give your family the finer things of life including nice vacations. The highest price for failure comes when your kids are ready for college and you must look in their hopeful eyes and tell them you can't afford it. Worse yet is the fact that you may one day become dependent on them. Who wants to pay that price?
If this is the price you choose, all you have to do is succumb to every impulse, be lazy, have no goals, lack inspiration, and deny yourself an education. You sacrifice nothing ... you get nothing!
I chose to pay the price for success. I know without a doubt which one is easier. The way to success is not a secret. I became successful because I chose to work extremely hard, to educate myself, to become well organized and goal oriented, and to develop the skills and habits required for success.
My life began in 1942 when I was born to Lib and J.B. Hogan, of Hamlet, North Carolina. They knew each other for their entire lives and were married in 1939. I was their second child. My sister, Betty, was a couple of years older.
Like most young couples, I suspect, my parents looked forward to a wonderful and happy life together. Unfortunately, their hopes and expectations never quite worked out.
After high school my father attended The Citadel, a military college in Charleston, S.C. I am told that his excessive drinking and refusal to comply with expected behavior resulted in expulsion.
He eventually found employment as a salesman with P. Lorillard, a tobacco company. Their primary product was Old Gold cigarettes. His inability to accept responsibility and his susceptibility to laziness and alcohol eventually cost him his job.
My daddy simply lacked the capacity to resist the temptations of whiskey and nightlife. He failed to accept responsibility for his family because for him life was just one big party. He chose to pay the price for failure!
Like thousands of small southern towns, Hamlet in the forties and fifties was home to many hard-working Americans. Its people were extremely patriotic, family oriented, and religious. Let me also mention that many people born in Hamlet lived their entire lives right there in their hometown.
Family responsibilities were clearly defined. The husband was the breadwinner, while the wife's role was to rear the children and manage domestic affairs. Most of Hamlet's families enjoyed the gift of a full-time mother who encouraged, supported, and helped her children with school work and taught them proper behavior.
My family did not fit this description. We were an exception to the rule.
Hamlet prospered as an important railroad town and was aptly referred to as the Hub of the old Seaboard Airline Railroad. You may ask why "Airline"? In the early 1900s the term was used to signify the shortest distance between two points.
In the forties and fifties, a great number of trains passed through or stopped in Hamlet each day. They stopped to change crews, add cars, or pick up passengers. Troop trains transported soldiers, and freight trains carried war supplies as well as domestic goods. There were regular passenger trains, coal trains, and trains transporting equipment to many points of destination in our increasingly prosperous United States of America.
Every great city has an important landmark. New York City has the Empire State Building, San Francisco the Golden Gate Bridge, and Paris the Eiffel Tower. Hamlet had the splendid 1895 Victorian-style Seaboard Railroad Terminal.
The terminal was busy twenty-four hours a day. It was where passengers stretched their legs, got something to eat or read. The terminal housed offices for railroad officials, a diner, newsstand, and baggage room.
The lobby consisted of the ticket window and rows of uncomfortable dark wooden benches where travelers awaited their trains — trains going to far bigger and more progressive towns. The clock on the wall was used by all to set their watches to official railroad time.
The mournful wailing sounds of train horns filled the air near and far. The sound seemed to surround you. The thunderous roar of steel wheels pounded and clicked on the rail joints in all directions. To this soothing symphony of noise was added the clanging bells of the switch engines in the north yard as box cars banged together all day and all night. The odor of train smoke and steel rubbing against steel as trains set their brakes was constant.
We were accustomed to the sounds and smells of those trains. If they had fallen silent, none of us would have been able to sleep.
About seven thousand of us resided in Hamlet at the time, while in our neighboring town of Rockingham five miles west on Highway 74 were about ten thousand citizens. Most of Hamlet's residents were employed by the railroad, and the others either operated or worked for businesses dependent on the railroad employees' paychecks.
In Rockingham, there were many mill workers. We referred to them as mill bats. Railroad workers were railroad rats. The residents of the two small towns did not particularly care for each other. It seemed a natural rivalry.
I attended first grade at Pansy Fetner Elementary School. The school was a two-story red-brick building with evenly spaced windows. It showed the wear and tear of sixty years of use.
I was a very active child. I enjoyed recess and lunch breaks and tolerated the stuff in between — which brings me to the story of one of my first choices.
When we first graders finished our lunch, we were allowed to go outside and play. Here was the choice I faced. I either had to eat some nasty green stuff on my plate called spinach, or — not get to go out and play!
I was unaccustomed to being forced to eat something I didn't like, but I could tell the teacher had no intention of relaxing the rules for a little snot-nosed kid. I was the only child left in the lunchroom, surrounded by empty benches and tables while the cafeteria workers cleaned up.
I made my choice. I decided to comply, reasoning that the nasty green food had not harmed the other children — who were outside playing — so it couldn't be that bad. I swallowed my pride, took a deep breath, picked up my fork, put a forkful of the stuff in my mouth and tried to swallow the slimy stuff. My eyes grew wide and moist and my cheeks puffed out in an effort to prevent the spinach from going either way. My body convulsed as the gag reflex kicked in and the spinach, along with the rest of my lunch, exploded through the air.
The teacher scowled at the mess, swiped my face roughly with a wet towel and angrily sent me out to play. I ran from the dark cafeteria into the bright sunshine to join my friends on the playground.
My sister and I were cared for by Sadie, a black woman. She stayed with Betty and me while our mother worked. Sadie was short, overweight, wore a wrap-around scarf on her head and a smile on her face. We considered her part of the family and she considered us part of hers. She fed us, clothed us, and tended to our personal needs. She spent much more time with us than our parents did.
We were no better or worse off than most of Hamlet's families. There was, of course, a social hierarchy. At the top of the heap were approximately 5% of the residents: doctors, lawyers, teachers, and business owners. Railroad employees primarily represented the middle class. And, as in all southern towns, at the bottom of the ladder in Hamlet, North Carolina, were the white trash.
My family was considered socially acceptable, but we were definitely economically challenged.
Almost all my relatives were residents of Hamlet. My maternal grandparents would later play a very significant role in our lives: B.W. and Alma Dickinson. They had a son called Bubba.
Granny Muse was my paternal grandmother. As a child I did not know what had happened to her first husband. Years later someone told me he either died of syphilis or had his skull crushed in a pool room fight by a blow from a pool stick. This information discouraged me from wanting to pursue my ancestral history.
Granny married again, to a conductor on the Seaboard. They had one son, Roy (my father's half-brother).
We called Mama's daddy Poppa. He worked as a New York Life insurance agent and apparently made a comfortable living. He started selling insurance in 1929 — and I can't imagine a tougher time for getting started in such a tough business.
Mama's mother was Mom Peg. We called her that and so did everyone else. She either owned or operated the local theater, but by the time I came along she no longer worked. She did keep Poppa busy running errands for her. No one had any doubt. Mom Peg was the queen bee, the dominant family member.
Excerpted from Choices, Chances, and Change by Joe Hogan Copyright © 2011 by Joe Hogan. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted August 7, 2011