The head engineer was a towering, swaggering Scottish ginger. “Yer a wee bahee!” he’d shout across the cubicles, by which he meant I was a little boy, but I appreciated the comic relief as much as anyone. Take a joke, I thought. Let the good times roll.
Jobbed in through a temp agency to generate project status reports, teaching myself Lotus on the fly, I was at 24 as directionless as I’ve ever been, fresh off the bus in the big city and eager to impress. The money I was making had turned my head, too, as had the worldliness of the people around me, and I fancied myself future executive material at the international construction company whose terephthalic acid processing plant we were there to build.
One reason for my optimism, other than my impregnable self-esteem, was what appeared to be the head engineer’s decision to take me under his wing. From time to time, he’d invite me to ride with him to his apartment where he kept, or kept leaving behind, things he needed for work. The attention was flattering. Like the rest of his engineering staff, he’d be in residence for only as long as it took to finish the project, and the following year might be in Abu Dhabi building a dam or Alaska building a pipeline, a gypsy existence both exotic and somehow sad. Despite our cultural, professional, personal, and chronological differences, I thought of him as a friend.
I was incredibly naive.
Only in hindsight, do I see the “let’s get out of here for a while” field trips to his apartment for what they probably were. Only in hindsight, do I feel the awkwardness I should have felt killing time in his living room while he wandered off to find whatever thing he’d “forgotten,” let alone the oddly quiet rides back. Only in hindsight, do I believe he was waiting for a signal I’m not wired to give, receipt of which I would have been mortified to discover was the intended end game of his attentions.
Then there were the times he’d call me into his office, close the door and ask about the woman I was dating. He’d seen her in the parking lot meeting me for lunch one day and he wanted details which I, flattered again, now in the spirit of manly camaraderie and determined to match his satyric jibes blow for blow, provided. But as these exchanges became more frequent and the lewd strangeness of them crept in on me, I shortened them or deflected them, and he retaliated by trying to humiliate me. The “wee bahee” comments became overtly derisive, the work I was doing less favorably reviewed. But I dug in, as is my nature in the face of opposition, and I might have stayed longer if the head engineer hadn’t started touching me.
These were sneak attacks, an index finger pulled out of his mouth and put in my ear as I was working at my desk. I’d recoil and he’d announce to the assembled, “That’s a wet Willy!” and walk away laughing.
My immediate response was to confront him, issuing a cease and desist, but the Willies only multiplied, likewise the bahees and the general disrespect, so I quit.
I quit and promptly filed for unemployment, though the lady who took my application assured me that people who quit almost never qualify for benefits. And of course I was denied. And of course I appealed – because they’d opposed me, doncha know – and then there was a hearing.
And at that hearing, to which the head engineer had been invited, but which he failed to attend, I told my story. The six-month tenure. The two raises. The glowing evaluations, photocopies provided. Then, increasingly, the hostile working conditions. Public down-dressings by the head engineer. Work materials hidden by him as practical jokes. Otherwise erratic behavior. Wet Willies.
I remember the employment office supervisor leaning forward at this point to interrupt me. Wet what?
So I explained the finger, the insertion, the laughing and the subsequent injunctions, and quite unexpectedly, for reasons I couldn’t grasp in the moment and wouldn’t for many years, the tone of our conversation changed. What had seemed a lost cause became a slam dunk. The supervisor thanked me for coming in, shook my hand, expressed regret that people in positions of authority sometimes do things they shouldn’t, and made note of the head engineer’s now telling absence.
Two weeks later, a letter arrived. Appeal successful. Money for nothing. Ka-ching.
But was I a victim? It doesn’t feel like I was, so let’s say not, but reflecting on what happened in the light of recent headlines, from Ailes to Cosby to Keillor, I do better understand how easy it is for bright, eager people, or people of any description, to walk into compromising situations with eyes wide shut. Stupidly, perhaps, but not culpably. Which I guess I’m saying in preemptive answer to the perennial question, “Why didn’t they just …?”
They didn’t – they don’t – because sometimes, without the benefit of hindsight or the clarity of years, for an infinity of motives good and otherwise, people just … don’t. And to say they deserve what they get, easy peasy, for being naive or overconfident, even for being demonstrably stupid, is a slope too slippery for me to countenance.