Generations

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Say what you will about the foibles of Facebook, but this deft slice of the Internet has connected me with people I had lost track of for years, as well as introducing me to some others I wouldn’t otherwise have met.

It’s this never-before-seen time shifting that demonstrates the Third Law of  sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

I experienced that magic last week.

In the late sixties, I was fresh out of the newspaper business, with a plum job at IBM.

I had been working at The New York Daily News, which in those days was the archetypal, rolled-up-sleeves, no-holds-barred, hard-driving metropolitan tabloid—enjoying a daily readership of two million, and three million on weekends.

But in the IBM marketing communications community of a thousand-some writers and producers, I was the kid. They assigned me to the company’s most important sales division, responsible for their leading computers, the historic System/360.

Leaving newspapers and joining IBM—then among the top ten largest corporations—had practically doubled my salary. But once there, I realized I had no idea of what I had signed on to. IBM writing was subtle, nuanced, persuasive, elegant. A world away from the staccato, hard-boiled style of the fiercely competitive New York City tabloids.

My first assignment was to write a brochure about a new software product. The product manager briefed me, which was as helpful as having the owner’s manual of a foreign car read to me—in a foreign language. I was clueless about software. I thought software was something you could hold in your hand.

Off I went to my windowless office to spin this dead mouse’s fur into Jason’s golden fleece.

I didn’t know what software was. I’d never touched a computer. I’d never met a sales rep. I didn’t know what a customer looked like. But the brochure I had to write was supposed to capture the voice of the IBM Corporation.

It was no surprise that the copy I turned in was, as Gene Wilder proclaimed in Young Frankenstein, caca.

That’s when Bob Nelson stepped into my life. Bob was the senior editor who headed IBM sales promotion.

At The New York Daily News, if you submitted crap copy, editors hurled curses at you across the city room. You learned fast how to write.

I was expecting similar reaction to my caca copy. But I got the opposite. Bob was nobility. He quietly sat me down in his windowed office and we had a father-son talk—about the birds and bees of corporate writing. He wasn't just a good editor, he was a caring teacher.

Bob continued to mentor my work until I became his go-to sales promotion writer. We became friends along the way.

Bob had equipped me for a career, and as years passed, I left him behind as I rolled around IBM in a series of increasingly responsible management jobs, eventually heading communications for IBM’s software division. (Yes, right back to software—the bane of my first assignment.) Bob and I finally lost track of each other.

Until Bob’s son discovered me on Facebook. His father, my old friend, was in a nursing home near Atlanta. Before he died, Bob was happy to know about me after all the years.

So you can imagine the nostalgia I felt when young Bob let me know he was vacationing on Cape Cod last week.  We met for lunch with his wife, Maureen.

You know how restaurants set a table for three? Two on one side, one on the other, with an empty chair on the single’s side?

I felt that the empty chair beside me was spoken for. Well spoken for.

I presented a copy of one of my books, and inscribed it: “To Bob and Maureen, a new generation of friendship.”

I drove home afterwards with the thought that there is a kind of bridge between generations. Not an easy one to cross, but more like one of those bridges in Asia, made of see-through material so you can clearly view the valley floor hundreds of feet below. Those who venture across feel fear, but they continue on to sure safety.

(Image: Maureen and Bob Nelson on Truro’s Cape Cod Bay beach.


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  • commented 2017-09-09 15:57:41 -0400
    I have tears in my eyes….I was hoping that was Bob Sr. in the picture. I was his secretary when you had your first day…your first sit down with Joe Marshall….the day you took the baby to 200 Mamaroneck Ave. We all welcomed you…wet behind the ears. Even Charlie Force knew who you were. AnnMarie, me and Jackie Claxton from the art department of the Henry Pugot’s were models for those sales brochures. Please tell Bob’s son that his Dad was my friend and mentor, too. To this day people think I’m a real editor – and it’s Bob that taught me everything right. Thanks for sharing this story…and all your stories. I can hear you telling them.
    Gwen