I should have been content with my coveted Wall Street job as a bond salesman, but after 19 years, I decided to recklessly toss tie to the wind for the life of a small business entrepreneur beckoned by a ghost of the past. Some people are built for institutional bond sales and some are able to fake it for a very long time. I should have realized my lack of calling during the interview process. Towards the end of my first year at graduate business school at Berkeley in the mid-80’s, I was looking for a summer job and heard of a class trip to New York to visit the investment banking firms. The tour was an open house where we were able to spend a couple of hours at a half-dozen of the Wall Street firms. I knew practically nothing about “the business” and impulsively went along. I simply listened, watched and imitated.
I noticed that several of the students were snagging business cards from some of the presenters to arrange a later interview. It seemed like the thing to do, so, I asked for a business card from a bond trader named Howard who had presented for Lehman Brothers. That afternoon, I phoned Howard from a phone booth bank at the bottom of the World Trade Center.“
Hello my name is Kurt Jordan. I was at the presentation you gave to the Berkeley Business School and would like to meet with you if you have a moment to see about how I might arrange an interview with your firm.” I marveled at how well my scripted line flowed until I heard a long silence, then a voice answering back, “Ah Jeezis. Who are you?”
“Yeah, Jurt. Look, I’ve had a bad day, in fact, I’ve had a bad week. You give me one good reason why I should let you up here. What’s your story?”
My script ran out. I was completely off guard. Everyone interviewing with the investment banks knew what “your story” meant, even me. It was a sort of sales pitch you were supposed to give explaining why Wall Street couldn’t live without you. You had three minutes to demonstrate your ability to earn gobs of money from your accomplishments and communication skills. Somewhere in the monologue you were to explain that you’ve wanted to be “in the business” from the moment you tossed your first newspaper, how you would be willing to live anywhere on the planet, and found it personally fulfilling to work eighty hours a week.
Just as I began stuttering some nonsense, there was a clicking sound coming from the phone’s earpiece and then a computerized voice, “please deposit 60 cents….please deposit 60 cents for….3 minutes.” Never in my wildest imagination would I have ever guessed that it was a toll call to phone from the lobby of the World Trade Center to the 65th floor of the SAME building. As I rifled through my pockets, all I could hear was “Ah Jeezis!” interrupted by clicks and some computerized itch who was destroying my shot at the big time, until …….dial tone.
Had I any real Street sense, I would have relied on the short attention span of a bond trader and tried again in a day or two with a slightly different intro, but instead, I gathered every bit of loose change I could find and called him right back, “Yes sir, Kurt Jordan, sorry about that….”
He quickly interrupted, “Listen, son. I give you credit for having the “bleeps” to call back after that “bleeping ableeption” of a phone call, but it ain’t gonna happen. You gotta get your story straight. Think about it. I know you’re in there somewhere just find out who the “bleep” you are and call me back no sooner than a year.” And in one breath, Howard the trader violated every one of my altar-boy sensibilities while reducing me to rubble.
Eventually, I got my “story” straight and successfully ran the gauntlet of interviews at Salomon Brothers. Before I knew it, I was working with one of the most powerful bond trading teams on Wall Street. My first bonus was a divine sign that I didn’t really fit in.
It was a handsome $30k bonus for a 27 year old and more than I deserved. I remember going out on my back deck, master of the universe enjoying the moment while smoking a cigar and sipping on Port wine envisioning my charmed future. The sweet Port attracted some yellow jackets that I slurped into my mouth just as I was daydreaming my kinship with Rockefeller and Vanderbilt. The bees stung me about 12 times as I jumped, danced and kicked like some crazy mosh pit dancer. The next day, I came back to work with a swollen tongue and could barely talk. Of course, I kept my story to myself.
Whether on the desk or attending outside events, I always felt like a square peg in a round hole when it came to the culture of highly determined AAA-type personalities. I felt privileged to work with so many brilliant people, but even the brightest knew deep down that the sand was dripping through the hour glass and chances were good that one day that a fateful tap on the shoulder would come telling them their career has reached a cul-de-sac. And, on Wall Street, you either grow or rot like a dead fish.
After four firms and a handful of morally challenging predicaments I managed to avoid, I was ripe for the change while I still had my integrity, but; I lacked the courage to actually leave. My wife, Elizabeth encouraged me to pursue a business idea we shared, but leaving the security was terrifying.
One day, while visiting my parents in Redondo Beach, I was rummaging through a box of old photos trying to get a grip on who I really was and where I belonged on this planet. I was surprised to come across a letter dated, 1947, written by a Captain Oliver Orson to my grandmother after the second war. He described how he knew her husband, Sport Jordan, as a civilian oil driller prior to the outbreak of war in the Philippines.
The letter described how the Japanese eventually overran the Philippines and both men were captured together spending three and a half years in prison camp. As the allies retook the Philippines, the Japanese put 1,619 POWs aboard a hell ship named the Oryoku Maru and set sail for Japan under the cover of a typhoon. When the storm cleared, the unmarked ship was repeatedly bombed by allied planes and eventually my grandfather, Sport Jordan, was killed. In his letter, Captain Orson mentioned a fancy silver belt buckle that my grandfather hid from the Japanese for 3 1/2 years in prison camp. A Lt. Scott took possession of the buckle upon his death and promised to return it to the family.
The letter was an excellent template for which to research the experience of my grandfather, complete with dates and locations. Before long, I was deep into a research community of relatives searching for answers.
I asked my father about the belt buckle and what he remembered of his dad. My father described the depression as the happiest childhood a boy could have. Sure he ate frogs and beans but he adds, “Think about it. You’re ten years old, your dad isn’t working and you both spend the day together on adventurous food gathering expeditions. We even got to live in a tent. What could be better than that for a 10-year old boy? ”
“Your grandfather was a dreamer and an optimist” my father wistfully said. “He had two adages, “Worry about today and let tomorrow worry about itself. And, there’s no such thing as courage without fear.” When things hit rock bottom, as they often did, dad could smile like a millionaire. We belonged to the richest family in the world.”
Sport Jordan was a horseman and rode in amateur rodeos. On one occasion, he won the bronc riding contest and the silver rodeo belt buckle he later protected as a POW. It was one of the last times father and son would ever see each other again. Sport Jordan finally landed his own lucrative dream job drilling oil wells in the Philippines in 1941, a job that would deliver his family from the hardships of The Depression. Little did anyone realize that he was headed into the teeth of a Japanese juggernaut.
I was embarrassed by my own self-pity at my unbearable predicament as a tortured bond salesman suffering through expensive client dinners above the dignity of doggie bags. I listened to my father’s heart felt story that he was revealing to me for the first time and soaked in every word.
My father knew practically nothing of his father’s war experience. As a combat soldier himself in Korea, he seemed to avoid any subject of war altogether and I never pressed. But, I became obsessed with finding answers. I poured through unpublished manuscripts, diaries, spoke to POWs over the phone and learned exactly the details of my grandfather’s experience. He was a Silver Star recipient that he earned as a blockade runner operating a supply ship through enemy waters (a fascinating story in itself).
When placed aboard the hell ship, the men were crammed into the sweltering 120-degree holds of the ship with water and food meted out in tablespoons. Conditions were so horrific that one night some of the POWs killed their brothers (40) in a desperate crazed melee to literally drink life from their victims. Slowly, through my research, I pieced together my grandfather’s story. I wrote a screenplay, and in the process learned the essence of my grandfather as I added dialogue to my story. He seemed to come alive revealing himself through my typing fingers as if I held a Ouiji board.
The resounding message he told haunted me. “You worry too much. Time to be a man. Follow your dreams and be a slave to no one, especially to yourself.” I felt I had to find the belt buckle as it was somehow the physical key to my salvation, but who and where was Lt. Scott? One day, I received an email from a fellow researcher who had located the ship’s roster, “Kurt, there were only Four Scotts on the Oryoku that were Lieutenants at the time. Only one survived. His name is Walter Scott from Grand Rapids, MI.
p.s. Good luck.
I desperately phoned every Walter Scott in Grand Rapids to no avail. I expanded my search to all of Michigan hoping a nephew was named after him or perhaps he moved to a retirement community. One Walter Scott I contacted was a retired police detective and curiously asked, “Son, what are you up to?” I told him my story and he offered to help me find Lt. Walter Scott.
A week later he faxed me a list of American Legion phone numbers and instructed me to call and ask them to check old rosters while he followed up on other leads. Little did I realize that when you call an American Legion, often you are calling a bar. But, on my 2nd Legion, I heard the bartender yell out, “Anyone know Walter Scott? “
In the background I heard a voice, “Scotty? Yeah, I knew, Scotty. What about him?”
“Some guy on the phone looking for him.”
Unfortunately, Walter Scott had passed, but the man knew his daughter’s new married-name and the detective found her phone number. As I dialed, I rehearsed my wild request about as well as I had for Howard the banker, “Gee you don’t know me but my grandfather was a POW with your father….say, do you know anything about a silver rodeo belt buckle? And in that split second……. I dreamed I could give it to my father and the rodeo belt buckle would somehow heal us both.
To my disappointment, she knew of no fancy silver belt buckle. Walter Scott, in desperation, even traded his wedding ring with the Japanese for mats to keep warm as they later sailed north into the chilling Japanese waters. Chances were that the buckle was on some Japanese mantle piece as a captured war relic.
I reported the news to my Dad who had shared so much about his father and helped me bring Sport Jordan’s magic back to life. And then, the epiphany hit me. While the facts may differ, the truth is that I did find the belt buckle and I did give it to my father through the countless conversations and revelations we both shared.
Corny as it may sound, I quit my job and embarked on the idea my wife and I developed for an alternative to porch screening. I finally chased that blue-collared spirit but still had those white-collared bills. I traded my Bloomberg for a laptop and sewing machine and we started www.MosquitoCurtains.com with a snappy slogan “The elegant, yet inexpensive, removable alternative to porch screening.”
I went from the big trades to becoming web designer, guerilla marketer, and even Mottel the tailor at times. Occasionally I will go out locally to visit a client. It is an unusual feeling to hear, “Honey, the mosquito curtain guy is here,” as if I were outranked by the plumber. Fortunately, I am viewing humility as a new challenge to my personal growth.
There is something to be said about pointing to a physical product and proudly saying, “We made that,” rather than staring to a stack of trade tickets with a cocked head trying to rationalize how you contribute to society by facilitating market liquidity. Fortunately, the business has flourished and we now have 20 employees with over 68,000 orders under our belt since 2004.
Occasionally, I get a call from a client who is “in the bond business” and we talk a little shop. Those calls always seem to translate into sales as the rapport has been well-rehearsed.
As difficult as small business is though, I am forever pleased to have muscled through the fear to rally enough courage to listen to my grandfather and live for today and let tomorrow worry about itself. Never once have I looked back and regretted my decision. I am a round peg in a round hole now and it feels great. The grass may not always be greener but now it’s my lawn. Every day, I still think about my rodeo ghost, listen for guidance, and occasionally search for his fancy silver rodeo belt buckle that he must have saved for me.