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Give the Gift of the Government Man

First, a brief commercial.

At he risk of being accused of blowing my own horn, my book, Confessions of a Government Man, would be an ideal gift for any govie, past present and future. Check out my website for more information. www.thegovernmentman.com.

Now, for today’s blog. This excerpt from the book is about another of the unforgettable characters I encountered during my career.

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The last time I saw Calvin Coolidge Coburn he was lying prone on a gurney, unconscious and covered with a blanket. I don’t recall the exact year but the outspoken Calvin always would talk about “that Hillbilly peanut farmer in the White House” which narrows the time frame to the late seventies.

Calvin was one of those amazing characters about whom you sometimes wonder how he survived so long in business and life. Our career paths overlapped for about ten years and we worked together on a few projects, but I dare say that he never even knew my name.

He was small in stature and sported thinning grayish hair, worn in a crew cut. Word had been that he spent a lot of years with the US Army Corps of Engineers working on dredging projects in Panama and other tropical areas. This explained his propensity for seersucker suits, straw hats and to the extent that they were provided by others, Cuban cigars and Captain Morgan Rum. His favorite expression was “Don’t kill the golden goose,” and he used it often, generally when someone did something threatening to his routine, such as schedule a Friday meeting, or to endanger his appetite for anything which was free.

I had seen him stuff his pockets with sandwiches from a buffet, cheese Danish from a contractor-provided coffee break spread, and even reach into a box of cigars in a contractor’s office to put a few in his inside jacket pocket. This must be what he meant by the golden goose.

Calvin was the ultimate master when it came to stretching the government travel dollar for his benefit. When traveling, he would sleep at the local Y, fill up on finger food at Happy Hours and, since the per diem at the time was allocated based on the four six-hour quadrants in the day, he always managed to start his travel near the end of a quadrant, and end it shortly after a quadrant began. By doing this, if he managed to be away for just over twenty four hours, he would be paid per diem for six quadrants, or a day and a half. He also had this knack for imploring the motor pool dispatcher to assign him a station wagon, just in case he decided that the vehicle would also serve as a hotel room.

Calvin was an engineer. I was basically a customer agency liaison person early in my career. We worked in different offices, with different bosses who often had different agendas. I would work with our building occupants and our in-house or contracted architects to develop the project requirements. Calvin would execute the project with the contractor and often would serve the role of contracting officer’s representative (“COR”). In the projects we worked together I was responsible to determine the space needs of the job, that they were in compliance with all federal regulations, real or promulgated, and that there was funding available. Calvin, as COR, was the onsite person to assure compliance with engineering specifications and certify that payments to contractors were in order. He would often negotiate pricing for change orders after the initial bid.

Despite a few idiosyncrasies, Cal was a capable and conscientious employee during the forty percent of the company time which he actually spent working. When we worked together during the construction of a new federal building in Buffalo, New York, Calvin spent his Mondays driving from New York to Buffalo in a GSA car. He claimed to have an aversion to flying but it was more an aversion to working on Mondays. Tuesday mornings would be spent organizing the work week and Fridays would be expended by the drive home. In between there was a generous amount of time dedicated to contractor-provided “working” lunches, and a few extended Happy Hours at some of the Chippewa Street bars.

It was on Chippewa Street before its regentrification that Calvin found himself in tight quarters. While sitting in one of the blue-collar bars he introduced himself as The Man. He claimed to be “in charge of the construction project,” and was immediately assumed to be the general contractor. Times were tough in an industrialized Buffalo then (Remember Full Monty?) and with each free drink pushed his way Calvin promised a job to an unemployed tradesman.

(To be continued)

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Alan L. Greenberg can be reached at [email protected]. Confessions of a Government Man is available at bookstores, Amazon.com and other online booksellers and through the website www.thegovernmentman.com.

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