Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Elegy for Wild Bill

During the weekend, a beloved veteran suddenly died of a heart attack. He was only in his mid-fifties and had worked with the company for many decades. Wild Bill seemed larger than life, someone who had worked in multiple capacities in the company, working in different locations all over the land. He was always engaged in some serious work but he also played a musical instrument and was involved in all sorts of recreation committees. He was well loved and well-regarded, an American character as expressed in those television advertisements. He seemed to me like a cowboy from the old Wild West, who loved the outdoors and wasn’t afraid to engage in a scrape or two. Like those classic characters, he was fair but would not suffer fools gladly.

Almost all were shocked when the office heard the news because Wild Bill seemed to be so vibrant and indestructible. But in the way the world works, where often the good die young, or the young and innocent are struck down, one cannot help but accept the inevitability of life’s tragic surprises. One feels that it was a life unfulfilled at least for me although I had just known him for a year. But it appears that he had led a full life moving from one part of the country to another, making new friends and seeking new experiences. Most people would wish that they had his life and personality; playing his musical instrument in company events, leading major projects and being in center of most department meetings and seminars. He will be sorely missed.

Wild Bill is a character fully formed and could fit in books like Walter Issacson’s ‘American Sketches.’ It’s a good book with short vignettes on famous Americans like Benjamin Franklin, Colin Powell, Henry Kissinger and Woody Allen. Walter Issacson is a former editor in Time magazine and his book is actually filled with short articles that appeared in Time when he was editor. He follows the old Time maxim to write about a character in order to portray a certain period. For example, one writes about Harry Truman to portray the years leading to the Cold War. This was the strategy applied by Henry Luce to make Time interesting. So one would have articles about people to talk about an age like the Cold War or an event like the Cuban Missile crisis and so on. Hence, Time’s Man of the Year celebrates not only the personage’s personal contribution but in relation to his participation to the great events of the period. 

Wild Bill represented an early age of cowboy heroes who worked on company projects following the ‘seat of the pants’ methodology. He is one of those people with the rare technical skills to code a computer application as well as the communication skills and charm to deliver the application and train people to use it. He is a survivor too as the company moved towards a more efficient project management methodology, outsourcing technical work to companies in India or China. He had ridden the wave following the company transformation into the new age, all the while keeping his edge and playing his musical instrument with his cowboy hat on. He soon was working effectively with those smart technical workers from India as they descended in droves from their high tech enclaves in Bangalore. He knew about the technical stuff in detail so he could hold his own with the young geniuses from the East.

There is a contradiction in American life where someone like Thomas Jefferson could rightly be celebrated as an intellectual and founding father, but who had slaves and a black mistress and sired bastards. Perhaps that’s the epitome of the American example; where one would be a brilliant intellectual but who also lived excessively that he died bankrupt; preferring his large estate and drinking Bordeaux wine than freeing his slaves. On the other hand, people like John Adams who had no slaves, thinking slavery an abomination, and who first shouted independence in Congress before others, who died without being a bankrupt and with his son as President, is thought about as a secondary personage in history. Wild Bill is a much simpler man but with the large appetites of his people. But he also has his character that he would be remembered by those that remain perhaps an amalgam of Jefferson and Adams but with more Andrew Jackson in him, too.

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