The Retirement Speech
As a young man, really a skinny teenager, Bob got his first job at A&P.
The great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company. Grocery stores were much smaller in scale; maybe one fourth the size at best. There were fresh meats, vegetables, Coke, Pepsi, Hostess Cup Cakes, and only two isles of canned goods and staples. Bob wore a black apron, stocked shelves, checked people at the register, and packed paper bags. He did all that with a smile and positive attitude as he crammed all that activity into hours after school and on Saturdays. Sundays he had free time since stores then closed on Sunday.
There was a method to his madness for unpacking boxes and packing shopping bags, while his classmates played football. He had his eye on something more important. The girl from class that lived in a more expensive neighborhood appreciated movies, and movies were not cheap. Sandy, that’s the girl’s name, was worth it. Sandy Carson was the tiny quiet girl three rows over in home room at school. Each morning before the day of classroom changes, she would smile at Bob. Big blue eyes reflected sunlight once hidden deep in her according to Bob.
Payday arrived on a Friday in March of 1965, and he counted the hours between the clacking noise made on the A&P time clock and the Monday Morning Bell. He caught up with Sandy on the way to her first class, “Hey,” he said and swallowed hard to lock away any fear before asking, “There’s a new movie out this weekend.”
“Is that so?” She teased and found it a challenge to manage her smile, as she looked up at Bob with enough timidity to coax more from her admirer.
“It’s The Sound of Music. They’re showing it up at Willow Lawn.”
“That a fact?” She nearly whispered in his pause. “I like Julie Andrews.”
“You want to go? I mean with me?”
“Yes, I’d love to.”
Willow Lawn Shopping Center on West Broad Street was unique with a miniature shining arch made in the shape of the newly constructed Gateway Arch in Saint Louis, but far smaller than the six hundred-thirty foot symbol of the Louisiana Purchase. The Willow Lawn arch may have been more American with the bold Arial Font letters intersected within and across the span of the thing announcing loudly Willow Lawn. The shopping center was also cavalier in being an ‘outdoor mall’ where patrons dressed for the weather, as they shopped between Miller and Rhoads, J.C. Penny, G.C. Murphy and a list of specialty stores where the rich kids in the west end shopped for the latest styles Bob could not afford. The movie theater on the back side of the building was Richmond’s first to show 70mm wide screen films.
Bob and Sandy shared popcorn with extra butter through the coming attractions and slide projector ads for the barbeque place nearby. Once the opening credits rolled by, the large screen unfolded scenery of mountain vistas that took Sandy’s breath away as Bob sat mesmerized by Sandy. Julie Andrews, her flock of children and Christopher Plummer could not compete as far as Bob was concerned. This was the beginning for Bob.
Monday morning he was still buzzing when the class clown sought center stage for his own amusement made a joke about the new movie, “The Sound of Mucous.” Bob shut him down. By standing up to the joker and rebuking the insult, Bob rose significantly in the opinion of Sandy Carson. Long lasting relationships grow from encounters such as this, and it may have been prophetic since the ‘hills are alive’ rang out for a record breaking eighty-six week run; the theater’s most successful booking in its history. During that year and a half, Bob asked Sandy to be his wife, and she said yes. In the days leading up to that proposal, Bob drafted statement after statement that he thought best to influence Sandy’s decision. He felt the same choking fear he had experienced the first time he managed the tenacity to ask for the first date. Books of poems from the library fell short of the words he would choose. Long drives through Chickahominy Swamp out in Hanover County in his 1955 Chevy listening to the radio also could not deliver the message that he believed Sandy deserved. The Righteous Brothers Unchained Melody had some nice thoughts. My Girl with the Temptations had a nice melody, but referring to Sandy as a girl, much less using such a possessive statement, would not reflect the stature of the person he saw in Sandy. Elvis with Can’t Help Falling in Love was a true enough way to describe how Bob felt about Sandy, but somehow seemed cheesy and contrived. Maybe love songs would not be the best source to prepare him for such a speech. He thought there may be some quotes from best sellers, so he searched the three by five index cards at the library and some big titles caught his imagination such as West Side Story. He knew Sandy liked the movie musical; maybe a dive into the novel would jumpstart his imagination. Well, that fell off the list fast with prose that mentioned, ‘Of course there were broads...For a real bright, gone chick...” Bob realized the music in the movie was better when it came to Sandy.
Poems, music, literature all failed at the daunting task in front of Bob to craft the perfect proposal. He sat at the dining room table opposite his older brother as they made attempts at homework. Bob’s older brother was a freshman at the University of Richmond, which was up in the west end nestled away in neighborhoods with large house and rolling landscaped yards, “What are you daydreaming about?” His brother asked.
“I am hung up.”
“History, math, or what?”
“Oh,” I see said the older and wiser.
“You’re engaged,” said Bob. “How did you propose?”
“Look,” said the brother. “It’s not that big of a deal. Just ask. The worst that can happen is she says no.”
“That would kill me.”
“Well, not asking ain’t gonna’ make it any better.”
The final bell of the day rang louder than usual that Friday as Sandy approached Bob, “Movie tonight?”
“Sure. I have a stop to make on the way home, if that’s okay?”
Bob showed some unusual nervousness when he open the passenger door to his two tone 55 Chevy. It was a straight stick, so he paid a lot of attention to handling the clutch just right when they took off from the school parking lot.
“Where are we headed?” She asked.
“Something special. It may be useful in history class.”
Once explained, Bob then became very quiet. They drove out Laburnum past the empty fairgrounds, “That was fun last year she said.”
He was quiet.
“You liked the double Ferris wheel,” she added.
His focus was on the road and shifting from second to third on the column stick shift. They approached the stoplight at Mechanicsville Turnpike where Dunn’s Barbeque was a landmark, “They have good onion rings,” she said. “But, I like Bills Barbeque better. Especially their French Apple Pie.”
Bob made the left turn. Sandy looked out her passenger side window and twisted her lips to one side thinking of something to say that would get Bob talking. Small commercial buildings stacked in some Monopoly game avenue on the right offered no topic. The stoplight at Neale caught them and the site of Henrico Plaza on the left gave cause to her comment, “Another shopping center. Who has all that money?”
At that moment retail expansion was not on Bob’s mind. Someday the urban sprawl may own his thinking, but today it was all Sandy. The light changed and the scenery changed to a wooded landscape. Hardwoods and evergreens shared the ground, “I’ll bet the fall colors here are beautiful,” she said.
The big brick church on the left sat upon the edge of a drop off in the road as some landmark at the rim of some vast valley. A historic marker posted by a gravel turn off read, ‘OUTER FORTIFICATIONS. ON THE HILLTOPS HERE RAN THE OUTER LINE OF RICHMOND FORTIFICATIONS 1862-1865.’
Bob turned into the gravel path quickly making the sign hard to read, “Outer fornications?” Sandy questioned.
Finally she got to Bob, and he laughed loudly, “No, fortifications. Down the valley there was a lot of Civil War action.”
Such innocent mistaken comments endured Sandy to Bob even deeper.
“We’re stopping?” She asked.
“Great view here. Special place.”
“Here we go.”
They walked out the path to the wooded observation point, “Beautiful. The view,” She said.
“Life changing events happened here. Right down there over twenty thousand Confederate men got ready for the Seven Days Battle. Right up here, its possible Robert E. Lee looked out over the gathering.”
“Hard to imagine. All those men; boys really. All that horrible awful past.”
Bob began to rethink his choice for a scenic place to offer his proposal. Then she said, “That’s why it’s more important to think about the future.”
“True,” he agreed.
“You ever think about our future?” She asked.
“All the time.”
“Then, why don’t we just get married?”
Bob stood shocked after all that worry and preparation. Sandy made his life so much easier with just six words.
Once their plans were set, it was also decided during that year that Bob would save his A&P paychecks for college. His post war middleclass family with three brothers and a sister had no means to get him there. Bob was motivated enough with Sandy at his side to earn his degree in business and upon graduation had offers to move into finance, but he turned it down. Instead he continued to work for the grocer. He knew that a changing landscape that became dotted with more and more Willow Lawns that the food industry would embrace revolutionary change as well. Over time, the great A&P faded as new bigger stores added isle upon isle loaded with tens of thousands of products, and each of those producers fought for better shelf space and had to come to Bob. Those early lessons in the produce section at minimum wage prepared Bob for maximum success.
Years later, Bob and Sandy had more than enough money to see as many movies as they liked along with enjoying a rich and rewarding life raising and educating their children. Then the day came somewhere around the turning of centuries brought Bob to the time he would begin preparing a retirement speech. There were many subordinates busy crafting just the right message for the retiring CEO to deliver. His words would be the encouragement for nearly fifty thousand employees and remarks could drive stock prices up or down. Bob had been part of many major changes in the food industry. Computerized bar code systems, inventory management, pricing strategies, the move from bulky newspaper inserts and bulk mail circulars to online shopping; Bob was part of it all. His subordinates frustrated hours and exhausted energy on staff meeting after staff meeting to be sure the word Bob would speak would have maximum impact on stick holders.
The day came. Cameras and news crews from business channels flocked to the Greater Richmond Convention Center for the presentation at the annual stock holders meeting. Bob’s leadership in the food industry was big news and the right positioning could make or break careers of the executives in his inner circle. A big deal.
Event planners had orchestrated a massive rock star energized show. Videos filled the back drop of the stage showing the evolution from black apron to black suit and shopping carts stacked in rows, to the shopping cart emblem from the website. The stage was set for Bob’s big moment.
The lights over the audience faded. He approached center stage for thunderous applause. The noise quieted. He began, “Years ago my big brother gave me sound advice about a young girl.”
Yeah that’s a good stock tip, must have been the thoughts of sweating executives hanging on his words, “My brother posed a question about what was the worst that could happen. Then he explained the high cost of not trying.”
Bob pauses and paces the way powerful CEOs own the stage, “Then the young girl changed my life with six words when she said, ‘Why don’t we just get married.”
He smiled and nodded, “Best six words I ever heard.”
Bob walked back from the footlights, “Now, there has been a great deal of work and nerves put into this last speech of mine. I think all the worry about what to say is just that; worry. Fact is, the work you do today creates the future. Legacy of the individual means nothing. So, thank you for being here for my retirement and this is my final speech and it’s only six words. Been fun. I’m done. Gotta’ run.”