You really had to be there, but you couldn’t be — it was just lonesome me.
One of my poetry mentors, David R. Surette, stated at his former Poetribe venue: “No one has ever seen me write.” Whammo and Shazam! We all knew that, but had never voiced, or even realized, that truth. His co-host, Victoria Bosch Murray, followed with (paraphrasing): “It’s a lonely profession – that’s why we gather to share.”
Perhaps my favorite writings are lyrics I have written for musical scripts, allowing me to submerge my personal instincts under other peoples’ situations. Since those verses are unlikely to appear in any printed form, I will be publishing them on my website, https://georgecomeauxliterarygumbo.com . This is effort #1 of four or five (hoping to learn how to single space when copying to web site for the next effort).
The lyrics for The Adventures of Tom Watson have just been added to the gumbo as https://georgecomeauxliterarygumbo.com/scripts/the-adventures-of-tom-watson/ .
Broadway (and possibly the American “created equal” experiment) is suddenly being revolutionized by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. I recently learned I share two traits of his: doing crossword puzzles, and wanting to make a musical from any book I read. (I wanted to write a dramatic Civil War musical after reading I Rode with Stonewall by Henry Kyd Douglas, and a Viet Nam musical after reading my high school classmate William Broyles, Jr.’s Brothers in Arms.) Soon after joining IBM in 1967, I read William Rodgers’ THINK A Biography of the Watsons and IBM. That became the inspiration for my book and lyrics, and was bookended in recent years by Tom Watson, Jr.’s memoir, Father, Son, and IBM.
Besides my own limitations as a writer, tradition was one near-insurmountable obstacle: In stage or screen musicals, with one exception I knew of – Fiorello – all musical biography subjects were show business types. Miranda totally shattered that and several other standard traditions. Still, a musical biography about a business scion was (and is?) unthinkable – business stories are usually about greed and economic chicanery, not adventure, positive energy, and technological breakthroughs.
My first draft was written in 1981. IBM offered me a ten week mid-career sabbatical in NYC to explore other aspects of the company with two hundred colleagues while attending graduate school classes in subjects outside my realm. My intention was to expand my perspectives, not worry about making all A’s, and write this script (impossible at home with parenting activities). I sat through six or seven hours of classes five days a week (e.g., statistics, psychology, project management, economics), studied an hour or two, managed to attend a record twenty-one TKTS half-priced shows, plus one opera and one ballet, and wrote scenes usually from one a.m. to three a.m. I finished the first draft by the end of the eighth week.
One trusted office colleague suggested I attend an eight-day leadership class in Dallas which included a two-hour session on IBM heritage. The presenter, Bryce Ainsley, had been a new employee working with the Watsons who had been dispatched during a drought in southern farmlands to arrange a fund raiser at the Waldorf Astoria, complete with farm animals in the ballroom – the first “Farm Aid,” sponsored by business leaders of the day. (Bryce sent a photograph of the event after reading the first draft of the script.) His talk suggested a comic-relief scene, with a lyric “Clap Your Hands and Do-Si-Do,” near the end Tom Watson’s career and life.
After leaving IBM in 1993 and completing the second draft, I took a direct approach, and wrote to the recently retired CEO, Tom Watson, Jr., a fixture in Act II, asking if he might be interested in a reading. An attorney told me I needed permission to represent any living person in such a project, unless… the project was a farce or parody!?! (Go figure!?!)
His response was that he was too busy with other post-retirement projects and could not check the accuracy of the script, and if I were to proceed, make the story pure fiction, with no reference to the Watson’s or IBM. That wouldn’t be easy. No one would believe his father’s career trajectory from farm boy with one year’s education, stumbling from country to city into several failures, discovering an unlikely niche in a world that was just about to emerge, rising to second place in a leading industrial dynasty (NCR), getting indicted with its executive for illegal business practices, getting fired just as he was getting married at the age of forty, finding a new position leading a conglomerate with companies competing with each other, organizing them into IBM, and helping displace the industrial revolution with the technological revolution. (I think I related to Watson (2) – a naïve country boy, bewildered in the big city and big business – it took me a while, with my liberal arts degree, to understand business principle #1 – no profits = no company = no job!)
I responded to Tom Jr.’s letter introducing that I was a faithful employee, had patterned the texture after Tom Sawyer, treated the Father/Son youthful interactions in Henry IV/Henry V motif, and had handled sensitively the family’s most embarrassing moment – his father’s assertion, after receiving a medal from Hitler, that the world could not afford war, then returning the medal and converting IBM manufacturing facilities to support the war effort. My letter was dated December 3, 1993.
There was no need to await a response. A headline on December 31, 1993, reported Tom. Jr. had died.
Along the way, the project was revived by a series of coincidences. In NYC again for a class, at the TKTS window, I ran into a college freshman year dorm mate and learned he was also working with IBM. Our next meeting was at our twenty-fifth reunion, and I told him about my script. He responded his son was a music student in college. Eventually, I had a first draft of melodies to go with the words! However, the son was more of a researcher than I was, discovered the Hollerith machine that fueled IBM’s early success was used by IBM’s German subsidiary to help track “undesirables,” and he could no longer continue with the project. I asked a local historian where I could learn more about this, and some lawsuit by a Jewish group against IBM for collaboration, and he referred me to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. There I found one of the original Hollerith punch card machines, and a note that the head of the IBM subsidiary Dehomag was an enthusiastic Nazi. (Just reading about Kristallnacht as a preview to the Holocaust chills the spine and the soul.)
Certainly Hollerith’s punched card technology could and did aid in recording and analyzing data about people, places, and things. At issue was the official or ancillary participation by the vendor. Wikipedia relates that several considerations contributed to the drop of the lawsuit in 2001, including the possibility that payments from a German Holocaust fund to victims of persecution could be delayed; and that IBM’s payment into the fund, with no admission of liability, was $3 million dollars (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IBM_and_the_Holocaust).
(Possible considerations:1) Is a vendor responsible for downstream use of its product – Counting machines? Weaponry? Communication Equipment? 2) Is a vendor responsible when providing support for effective use of its product? 3) Is a vendor responsible when managing the project for which the product will be used?)
In my original draft, the WWII years were covered in a Watson soliloquy explaining his returning the German Eagle medal and directing IBM manufacturing resources to support the war effort. This new information led to expanding this scene to more than just a footnote, extending the soliloquy with Watson explaining (related in Father, Son, and IBM) that Jeanette had advised him of their German friends having storefront windows broken and being forced to close their business, and adding a new lyric, “A Soldier’s Prayer,” as Tom, Jr. and three colleagues leave for the war, and only three of the four return, one wounded. (Tom, Jr. was a pilot ferrying Generals overseas. He could have sat out the conflict.)
And now, for the “gist of the story” – Synopsis and “Lyrics”:
Background: Tom Watson (1) was Scottish immigrant, failed at lumbering business (another Scot named Rockefeller succeeded), settled on farm in Painted Post, New York, wanted best for his son and four daughters, the best appearing to be law profession for Tom (2), emulating leading citizen in town. Tom (2) on farm is interested mostly in horses, decides upon one year of business school.
Structure: Three parts – 1) Prologue, begins in the pivotal middle of the story, a trial accusing Tom (2) and his NCR CEO John Henry Patterson of illegal business practices (“GUILTY/NOT GUILTY”). The script will end in court again, as Tom (2) at the age of 82 is yielding the reigns of IBM, and another court appearance, to Tom (3).
2) Act I is “narrated” by Tom’s four sisters, sarcastically and lovingly commenting on big brother’s rise, quitting his one day job as a school teacher (“This is no job for me”); to “Six Dollars a Week!” bookkeeping in a butcher shop after one year of business school; to “Ten Dollars a Week!” peddling country store items – pianos to caskets – in the countryside, hired for his affinity with horses, tutored with “Latch On, Tommy” (1) mentor; then moving to big city Buffalo, NY, losing job selling sewing machines in one week, catching on (“Latch On, Tommy (2))” with fired colleague selling stocks (“One Hundred Dollars a Week!”) until partner absconds with profits; thence to buying a butcher shop and failing, connecting to NCR Corporation when cash register is impounded, and talking his way into another sales opportunity, struggling until new mentor (“Latch On, Tommy” (3)) shows him how to sell cash registers (“Ding! Ding! Ding!) – and “One Thousand Dollars a Week!” Success propels Tom (2) up to managing the Rochester, NY territory, then up to NCR headquarters in Dayton, Ohio, and autocratic president Patterson (“I Run the CASH!”), and an assignment to take a job under the radar in NYC buying up competitor’s cash registers to open the market for new NCR machines; then back to headquarters (“Three Thousand Dollars a Week!”) and rising to Patterson’s second in command, and then – INDICTMENT for illegal business practices!; in the process, courting a Dayton railroad executive’s daughter, Jeanette Kittredge (“Would You Say Yes?”). The trial brings a guilty verdict (“GUILTY/NOT GUILTY” reprise); then the cosmos intervenes, a major flood hits Dayton, NCR occupies the high ground and builds rescue boats, Tom (2) in NYC for wedding preparations sends rescue supplies and garners positive attention, upstaging Patterson, and gets FIRED!
3) Act II is “narrated” by business office staples – “Rumors,” “Whispers,” “Gossip,” and “Speculation,” who appear throughout the act. Tom (2) has several job offers, plus a new family (“Tommy!”); signs on with a conglomerate including Computing-Tabulating-Recording; learns his conviction has been overturned!; deals with Herman Hollerith, whose punch card machines show promise, and acquires his patents (DON’T HOLLER AT HOLLERITH!”); backs new loans with his own funds; expands his family (“Janie! Helen! Arthur!”); then consolidates C-T-R into “THE IN-TER-NA-TION-AL BUS-I-NESS MA-CHINES COM-PA-NY”. Tom (3) grows up and friction ensues. The Depression arrives, Tom (2) keeps the business open – no layoffs (a company hallmark until 1993 and my departure!), stock for salary (“Keep ‘Em in Motion! Motion! Motion!”); post-depression FDR’s Social Security Act brings IBM ready with work force (“Fortune Smiled on Me”). World War II intervenes, Tom (2) returns an Order of the German Eagle medal he has received from the Republic of Germany for helping their “economy” with his ‘World Peace through World Trade’ philosophy; Tom (3), a pilot, and three colleagues offer “A Soldier’s Prayer” as they leave for the military – three return, one injured. After the war, a severe drought impacts North Carolina farmland, and Tom (2) and Tom (3) organize the first Farm Aid relief effort, a gathering in the Waldorf Astoria complete with horses, cows, and other farm animals (“Clap Your Hands and Do-Si-Do!”). As Tom (2) reaches his eighties and faces another court challenge for dominating the punched card market, and considers yielding the reins to Tom (3), he reflects with Jeanette (“Do You Know What They’re Saying about You?”), hands the company and the trial over to Tom (3), and lives six more weeks, with strains of “Painted Post, New York, America” leading to the closing curtain.
(A revision suggested by my composer was that the original Farm Aid lyric, “You Can Take the Boy, Out of the Country…” was not on par with other lyrics, resulting in the replacement, “Clap Your Hands and Do-Si-Do.” I am including the original as an addendum on the web site, pride interfering as I tracked Watson’s farm-to-industry journey as similar to my Father’s.)
I was the only one there for the writing. Millions were there for the living… dying… and computing.