Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 8, 2015

On the Shoulders of Giants

If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. Sir Isaac Newton

Writing in 1676, Sir Ike was expressing an idea that had been hanging around since at least the 12th Century. Whatever the origin, it’s a powerful concept; we’ve all probably experienced something like it, whether our personal “giants” are figures from history, that teacher who made a difference or — for the lucky — our parents.

I’ve walked in the footsteps of giants, myself, numerous times throughout my life, and stand on their shoulders now. Whether I see farther forward is an open question, but I certainly can see behind me more clearly, and see the paths they’ve followed.

One of those experiences of mine was at the large company that gave me my first job in big business. It had been in operation for exactly a hundred years when I signed on more than 30 years ago. Its founder had been a pioneer of 20th Century industry, and over the decades the firm had been home to a significant number of notable individuals and innumerable innovations in business practices, manufacturing, business machines and the early days of computers. The job I landed, writing and directing media and video, was in a department associated with the company’s sales education center. The founder had more or less invented the modern practice of sales training, and we were literally walking in his footsteps, although our modern facility had sidewalks and spiffy new buildings instead of tents in a grove of sugar maples when he started the operation at the end of the 19th Century. He also pioneered the use of photography and motion film in training. Relatively early in the young century the company engaged a man named Jam Handy, who more or less invented the idea of the sales training film, to do work for them. My career is in a direct line of descent from that idea, and I worked there in Handy’s shadow. Giants, indeed.

In my own day, we all worked with an awareness of the company’s significant heritage, but my colleagues were, themselves, an impressive group: writers, designers, photographers and cinematographers, and — above all — some outstanding leadership. With sincere respect to my coworkers before and after that gig, I never expect to work in such a creative and stimulating environment.

Each of us, in turn, have our own giants, and today I want to describe the scene when my manager, Fitz, encountered one of his own. I was there.

I can’t start telling Fitz stories, for they, alone, would constitute a daily blog of legendary and scarce-believable tales. A son of Brooklyn, he’d gone from Dartmouth, landed in our corner of the Midwest, becoming steeped in the lore of our company history, and — raconteur that he was — loved to regale us with the company’s heritage. One day, though, his own past arose to meet him. We got word that Jean Shepherd would be speaking and signing books at our local bookstore.

Most of you will know Mr. Shepherd via the film, “A Christmas Story on IMDB” (1983), which he co-scripted based on some of his stories and also narrated. The collections of those stories, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash and Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories are required reading for any truly literate American. Shepherd was a prolific writer and performer, and there was scarcely a medium into which he did not direct his creativity during his career. To Fitz, though, Shepherd’s earlier gig as a late night radio host on WOR in New York was the touchstone. As a young man, Fitz — like countless other New Yorkers — stayed up late, enthralled by Shepherd’s bizarre, zany and inspired blend of poetry, stories, slices of life and satiric riffs on everyday life, delivered live, night after night. If Fitz had become a raconteur, Shepherd was his model, his inspiration and his personal storytelling giant.

Fitz and I went to see and hear The Master that night, some time in the late ’80s. I was already a fan, myself, and got a kick out seeing Shepherd and listening to him in person. But, really, there may as well have been only two people in the room. Watching Fitz in the presence of his older mentor and exemplar was a delight. Afterward, as we cued up to have him sign our books (be assured I still have my autographed copy of In God We Trust) the best thing was listening to Fitz as he attempted to corner Shepherd and monopolize him (something Fitz specialized in). It was a great moment: two storytellers, one the disciple of the other, together in a bookstore in a suburb of Dayton, Ohio.

I’m reminded of these giants of mine because I’m reading A Fistful of Fig Newtons, another of Shepherd’s story collections. The stories range from his time in the Army, life in New York City and — of course — his childhood in Hammond, Indiana, about which he wrote some of the funniest and most human stories ever told. Lying in bed, I laughed out loud, transported again by Shepherd’s fertile imagination; did those incredibly hilarious things really happen? They must have. They’re too real and compelling to be pure fiction. And they reminded me that those footprints I’m following are so large because they were made by giants. Thanks, Jean. Thanks, Fitz. Rest in peace. We’re still laughing.

Copyright © 2015 Brad Nixon

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Responses

  1. Good to see you back blogging again.

    Like

    • Good to be back. Good to have you reading. Thank you.

      Like


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