And so the Staffords landed on a foreign planet sometime in the middle of 1974. The aliens spoke a strange variation of English wherein “mom” was replaced with “ma” and the -ar in any word was spoken like a less gravelly pirate: “Ma, how far can we go in the car?” No mountains loomed on the horizon. Even pizza was a little strange.
Jim Stafford was the proud owner of a nearly new split level ranch house just a thirty minute drive from his new job in downtown Chicago. Denver was a city but Chicago was a City: three times the population of the Mile High City, towering skyscrapers, the mad rush of commuters speeding between their suburban homes and their downtown jobs literally 24 hours per day. Companies like Johnson & Johnson, Jim’s new employer, never turned their factory lights off, and as the newest maintenance manager in the plant that meant a lot of shift work for the 30 year-old father of three, one of whom was now a teenager.
Imagine that: Only three decades on, and for nearly half of his life he had been both a father and a husband. Barely out of his twenties, and Jim was already a middle-aged man: Old injuries reemerged as chronic aches–mostly in his knees–and the shift work left him exhausted. Bonnie, his wife, struggled with depression caused by a combination of being yanked from Colorado, the only home she’d ever known, and the relentless grief over losing her mother. His kids weren’t faring much better–the Chicago suburbs were pretty tough back then.
The ‘burbs were nowhere near as tough as the city, though. Every night Jim fired up his 1962 Austin-Healey Sprite, a car not much bigger or more sophisticated than a go-cart, and weaved his way into the rush of traffic headed toward downtown. Chicago drivers may have been bad–too fast, too aggressive–but we can say with near absolute certainty that Jim matched them aggression for aggression. How do we know this? Because until his last days Jim Stafford remained one of the loudest, most obnoxious drivers the U.S. highway and interstate system has ever known. He was the embodiment of road rage before that term was even coined, and he elevated that condition to an art form.
Jim played the automobile horn with an improvisational skill not unlike, say, Miles Davis. His horn might mean go faster, go slower, the light has changed, the light isn’t going to change, you didn’t signal, you didn’t signal soon enough, you aren’t paying attention to the road, or any number of other offenses both real and imagined. Often these were accompanied by color commentary from the driver’s seat: “Come on, lady, push the little pedal and make the car go bye-bye!” “Where did you get your license, in a box of Cracker Jack?” Nor was he above slamming on the brakes if someone was following too close or speeding ahead and cutting off a motorist who offended him in some way. If he didn’t apply for a U.S. patent on his “hell no why should I let you merge” technique he certainly should have.
All of which likely made it inevitable that one late night on his way into the city Jim found himself in a Spielberg-worthy freeway chase with a pickup truck hellbent on pushing his little British sports car off the road. The pursuit continued into downtown Chicago, on and on until Jim spotted a concrete culvert that he hoped the Austin would fit through. He yanked the wheel hard to the left and stabbed the gas pedal. The car zoomed through the tiny tunnel and the truck smashed into the end of the big concrete pipe with a cartoony crash.
Tough in the ‘burbs, tough on the highway: Things weren’t much different at the plant, where it turned out that the manager Jim replaced was run out of the job by his own crew. They tried the same thing with their new boss, sending Vinny to his office to tell him that he didn’t feel like working. Why Vinny? Because he was the biggest, meanest, dude in the plant, and if that wasn’t enough to keep people from messing with him Vinny had a very open secret that Jim didn’t know: He didn’t need the job. Vinny was connected. “I know a guy” connected. “I take care of things for some friends” connected. So when Vinny walked into Jim’s office and told him that he was going to go take a nap the last thing he expected to hear was, “No, I need you to get back to work.”
“Or I’ll have to write you up.”
“How about I just take you outside and beat your ass?” Vinny said.
“If you want to go outside we’ll go outside, but you’re going back to work.”
“You know I’d kill you, right?”
“Probably, but I’m your boss and it wouldn’t look very good if I let you do whatever the hell you wanted, would it?”
Vinny stared at him for a couple of seconds, and then he said, “I like you, boss. You got balls.” For the rest of Jim’s tenure at Johnson & Johnson Vinny called him “Boss.” If any of the other guys gave him grief, Vinny would pull them aside and have a chat with them and that was that. Vinny’s helpfulness knew no limits. One early morning Jim walked out of the plant and found that his Austin-Healey had a flat rear tire and his jack was missing. “No problem, boss,” Vinny said, and he lifted the corner of the little car and held it while Jim changed the tire.
Jim may have saved Vinny’s life by putting an end to his night shift naps, by the way. One night another employee crawled onto a pile of cardboard to catch a little sleep and ended up crushed to death in a compactor.
Not all of his help came in the form of musclebound meatheads, though: For the first time in his life Jim had his own secretary. She remains a shadowy figure in this rather unusual obituary. Not much is known about her beyond her initials, which were embroidered upon a handkerchief that somehow found its way into Jim’s laundry, so all we can do is speculate based on what we know about her boss:
- He was 30 years old
- He’d been married almost half of his life
- His wife was very unhappy in Chicago
- He was unhappy in Chicago
- He craved affection
- His secretary’s handkerchiefs found their way into his pockets
- He asked his wife to go file divorce papers
Bonnie wasn’t having any of it. If he wanted to divorce he could file the papers, and while he was at it he could tell the kids, too. He managed to tell two of the three kids, but never got around to the third one. He didn’t get around to filing those papers, either, but Jim quit his job at Johnson & Johnson (“You ever need anything taken care of, Boss, and I mean anything you understand, you call me,” Vinny offered) and the family drove him to O’Hare airport where he left on a jet plane, didn’t know when he’d be back again. His nine month long lost weekend featured time cruising Los Angeles in a rented Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme and eventually a new job as a maintenance supervisor in a Miller Beer cannery in Fort Worth, Texas.
During those nine months only Jim and Bonnie know what transpired, and they aren’t here to tell the story. They exchanged a lot of letters during that time, but we have no business poking our noses into those envelopes. Suffice it to say that the couple reunited and Bonnie and the kids moved to Texas, but things would never be the same for any of them.
The job at Miller was more grinding than Johnson & Johnson. Weeks of double shifts turned into months. The noise at the cannery was deafening–all that heavy machinery punching sheets of aluminum into the shapes of cans. The Johnson & Johnson plant was loud, too, but not like this. Both companies required ear protection, but even the best ear plugs can only block so much. He came home after those double shifts exhausted, ears ringing, no reason to believe that things were ever going to get any better at the cannery.
He couldn’t stand the job, and so he did what he’d already done twice in the two years since leaving the appliance repairman job he loved: He jumped ship one last time, this time for Michelin. The Staffords were on their way to South Carolina.
Will Jim wear his complimentary Miller belt buckle? Will Vinny ever get a call to “take care of that thing”? And what adventures await the Staffords in the Piedmont State? Tune in next week for part 7 of The Rather Unusual Obituary of Jim Stafford.