Mr. Joseph Lambert Retires from Mass DEP
Well, another week and DEP will be a very different place. You are leaving. For a lot of us, you have been a connection to Earth Day 1970, someone who could bridge the generations DEP had to bridge at municipal DPWs across the Commonwealth.
I still have the artwork/poster "Your Turn" which you gave me on my own retirement party (or one of them, I seem to remember sticking to DEP's shoe like a piece of tissue). I would have loved to be there, and to present the poster back to you again, it being Your Turn now. But here I am instead, at a cyber cafe in Tucson Arizona, surrounded by tatooed artists and listening to Reggae, waiting for a ride to Las Chicas Bravas in Mexico.
So I'll post this remotely, but save my place for when I get down there. Meanwhile, I think I'll explain how I was reminded of you, thinking of you, most recently. You remember my talks in the conference room. So you won't be surprised by a sudden left turn.
While my family spent the year in Paris, as you may know, I had a wild year giving rooms of my house out to international recyclers, from Mexico, Egypt, Peru, Malaysia, Senegal, and Burkina Faso. From Burkina Faso we had a visitor, Frederic Fahiri Somda, aka "Fred", who stayed in my house for six months. His hair was short. And he was black. He was a lawyer, and a former Catholic Seminary student. But he's connected to you in my mind forever. When you hear how he changed my life, you'll hopefully hear the warmest compliment I have to deliver.
Fred arrived at the airport as "a man without a country", a bit more extreme than your situation as a "man without a job" from California. He had been the head of the Burkina Faso opposition party, the head of the military acadamy, a prosecutor general, and was revered by his clan. They are a minority in Burkina Faso, but Fred had always been chosen for high posts by members of the "official party" ... sometimes a real force, sometimes a token, but always revered by people of his area on the border with Ghana. Here he arrived, without anyone who knew his time in the trenches, a stranger, a man who could only offer to do the best he knew how.
Fred left Burkina Faso in a bit of a hurry. He had been warned a former military student that he would get an invitation to a meeting with the president, and he should not go. He was puzzled, but said that the young officer was trembling so visibly that the alarm ran into his own body like an electric shock. The shock grew when he got an invitation to a meeting with the president, the next day. He ignored the invitation, and then got a call from a military man he knew too well... the guy who did the dirty work. The guy who was not even connected in any way to the topic of the meeting, the goon, who demanded to know why Fred had not shown up.
Fred took off. He left his wife, son and daughter, and hid in the swamps, with only an 8 year old girl allowed to follow him and know where to send messages... they did not want his family to know, so that they would hopefully not become leverage for his capture. He escaped across the border to Ghana, with the help of more of former students. He went to the USA embassy, where he was known (he had been cultivated as a relationship by the US State Department), and they got him to the USA. And I was his sponsor. When I interviewed you at MA DEP, and you'd just arrived from California, I had a feeling you were "out of the box". But Fred was so far out of Middlebury Vermont's box neither of us knew what to expect from the other.
Fred was a tall thin man in his 50s. He had a quiet smile, a warm gurgling chuckle, and quick bright eyes. Although I made sure he had "legal work" to show for his resume, studying the Basel Convention, etc., every day he insisted on coming to work at my company and taking apart computers by hand, sweeping the floor, whatever work he could see to be done. And every night, Tito or I cooked him "good food", as he said, in his first English. He helped us greet more visitors and trainees, the ladies from Mexico, Souleymane from Senegal, etc. He could only show thankfulness, gratefulness, and patience. But it was going to take awhile to demonstrate his place in our company.
Over the course of many evenings, and many months, I had a chance to ask Fred many personal questions, get to know him, and the world he came from. He had never cooked for himself, he had never seen a microwave oven. He wrote with a legal pad, though I got him onto the internet from time to time. But through the evenings, I got to know his perspective on life. And that's the real connection to Joseph Lambert.
Slowly it emerged, stories he'd never brag about or act as if he thought them worth mentioning (unlike yours truly, hawking every opportunity to drop a name). How his mother died in childbirth when he was four. At five, his father, who had been a monkey hunter, was bitten in the neck by one in a trap. His father crawled back to his family's grass hut, and bled to death on the floor before his three children. Fred was the youngest, at 5. His brother and sister, 7 and 11, had a meeting with him that night, and came to the conclusion that the two of them should drop out of school and find food in the fields, and that Fred the youngest would continue in school, and be the hope for the family. He walked to school every morning with his best friend, til his friend was bitten by a snake on the path and died in an hour. Fred persevered, studied hard and did well and rose to the top. Another night, another story... His refusal to prosecute innocent people. His faith in doing the right thing, period. The right thing just came naturally to him.
Frederic Somda and Joseph Lambert? Am I communicating to some ghost of tangents yet to come?
Here's the intersection. You may know, I have a temper. In my 2os and early 30s at DEP, I got mad primarily at other people. Human beings, some of them, really pissed me the hell off. Later after DEP I transmogrified my anger towards inanimate objects. Forklift tires, buckets, keyboards. The less animate the object, the more it should fear my verbal wrath. I had to borrow 4 letter words from German, as I ran out of English blasphemy.
Somehow, however, Fred was rubbing off on my. As I learned from living with Fred, I felt I was learning a second time.
How could I feel anger at stuff?
What right did I have to indignation? With all I had, with all the luck and family and wealth and opportunity, here I was, swearing at broken pallets, and coming home to this saintly presence, this calm force, this man who shrugged at pain and misfortune with a wink and a smile.
And as I thought about my anger, and I thought about Fred's situation, that's when the deja vu hit me. I had had a presence like Fred in my life once before.
I remember driving across Massachusetts with Joseph, in a state car, on route to some municipal shindig. I liked to talk, and you were always listening. And you and I "talked" a long time (you listened) for long periods of time. And my main impression of Joseph Lambert, to that point, had been... Like, what a mellow dude. He smiles, he listens, he calls me boss. I was surounded by surly 30-somethings like myself, carrying around our outrages over budgets and perceived slights. And here was Joseph in the car with me, smiling, nodding, and calling me "boss" so much it started to feel natural. I thought, this is the zen we need with municipal officials.
I began confiding in you, more and more of my anger and disappointment, more and more of my frustration about the limits of working for the state.
You, on the other hand, felt fortunate with your job, happy with your coworkers, and happy with some new teeth. I remember, you had new teeth. But the teeth.. it kind of looked to me like they were bothering you. Like you shouldn't be liking them at all. Like, hell, they would be pissing me off. But you were getting used to them, talking with them, and completely unashamed and demonstrating you felt pretty fortunate to get them. And fortunate to have your wife, and your daughter, and your job, and all the fun you'd had in California.
And I remember you never would have told me what was wrong with your teeth, but the drive was long, and I'm a little bit of a forward prick, and I stopped talking about myself, and asked you the story. And when asked, you told me in a quiet and calm voice about driving over a land mine in your jeep in Viet Nam, your face driving into the dashboard, losing your jeep, and teeth.
And losing your comrades.
And you were like, telling me, just because I'd asked. And at that moment I felt that I really shouldn't let the dotted lines to EOEA bother me as much as they did. The more I learned about you, the deeper the water became. I knew you'd never trumpet your experiences. And I thought about how many people must walk past you. Like people walked past Frederique at the plant, bending over his tools, working quietly, so unlike an Attorney General or opposition candidate for president of another country.
I thought about you, as I got to know Fred. And as I think about you, it reminds me of Fred.
And when Fred left on his journey for asylum in Canada, I realized I had just spent a rare number of months with a man wise beyond my years, a gentleman whose soul had so much distinction in its calm and humor, that I could only hope to one day create the same impression. I realized that with all my creativity, moral force, rhetoric, and anger, I would still never stand quite as effortlessly tall as Fred. And while I'd never met anyone quite exactly like this gentleman Fred, I realized that the feelings reminded me of another time. Of working with Joseph Lambert.
Both of you were older than me, both had seen and felt things I hope never to see or feel. And neither you nor Fred ever said to me that I should grow up and stop bitching about pallet jacks or EOEA budgets. Only from your demeanor and examples did you sink in on me.
I only hope that during your time at DEP, visiting among the municipalities which cried for our scalps, that they saw the gentle waves of compassion and good spirit that I began to see in you. And no matter how smart or pretty or young or rich or dynamic the competition, that mellow smile in your heart had them beat in a way they couldn't understand.
Life after DEP has for me been a bit of a roller coaster, but I think the verdict is in. You can kick ass from the outside. Leaving DEP was frightening for me but has opened more doors than it closed. Your turn. The game is on, the ball is in the air, and if you have the spirit and luck you may find yourself like an indoor cat released into the woods, frightened by dogs and fascinated by trees to climb.
You are one of the two most humbling and Lincoln-ish of souls I've lived with. And I am confident you are surrounded by people who see that, far sooner, and far clearer, than I did.
Thanks Joseph, and good luck. Call any time. Oh, next time you read this, here is the background music I selected...