Basil

Basil was a supervisor of another section in the office where I began my Government service in 1961.  He was the only Basil I have ever personally met.  He apparently was not enamored of his given name, because he went by the name of Joe.  His middle initial was ‘V’, not ‘J’, so there had to be another reason for ‘Joe’, but I never asked him.

Basil (Sorry, he was always Joe to me, so I will refer to him as such from here on – you may substitute Basil for Joe in your mind if you are so inclined.) was 60 years old when I first met him.  He had worked in that office since shortly after the end of World War I.  His was one of the most amazing minds I have ever encountered.  He was a living walking encyclopedia of the United States Customs Service.  No matter the topic, no matter how removed from the functions of his section, he could immediately access the authoritative document.

You could bring up a problem and Joe  would say: “Just a minute.” and go to his office.  A few minutes later he would come back with documents or bound books opened to specific pages which contained the authoritative answer.  It could be the Customs Regulations, rulings of the U.S. Customs Court, decisions of the Comptroller General of the United States, the U.S. Tariff law or policy directives of the Office of the Commissioner of Customs.  He would not only have the most recent reference, but everything leading up to it.  For instance he might have a court decision from 1933, a modification from 1946, and an overturning decision from 1957.  I’m certain he could have recited everything verbatim, without the hard copy documents if he wanted to.

Joe had married in 1923.  Soon after his wedding his mother became quite ill and her doctor advised that she did not have long to live.  So  Joe and his new bride decided to have mother move in with them so they could care for her until she passed away. The doctor’s prognosis was somewhat less than accurate, because I attended her funeral in 1963!  The two women disliked each other intensely and waged a 40 year war with poor Joe in the middle.  In retrospect, it probably would have been wise to have sought a second opinion!

I don’t know how much education Joe had.  Considering his age and the fact that he had fought in World War I it is likely that he didn’t finish high school.  He was of a time when that was not all that important.  Unless one was in an affluent family and college was expected, it was fairly common to quit school as early as possible and enter the working world.  But Joe was very well read and kept up to date with sports, theater, movies, television, art and politics.

I don’t know why – I was just a kid fresh out of school and at the bottom of the totem pole in the organization – but he liked me and treated me as an equal.  At slow times he would often come into my office and we would have spirited discussions on a wide variety of topics.  He always respected my views and never put me down.  I was grateful for that.  He was one of my favorite people.

His subordinates did not share my opinion.  He was a tough boss – very demanding, and he kept his people on a very short leash.  They were always bitching about some great injustice done them by Joe.

He had a thing about sick leave – he didn’t much approve of it – except when he was ill.  If you took a sick day you had to expect a long lecture from Joe the next day.  He felt that one had to be nearly eligible for the administration of the last rites before even considering taking time off from work. Otherwise, he felt, it was an abuse of a right equivalent to stealing from the people.  I’m not joking.   I can recall his people coming in to work looking like they were going to collapse any second, just to avoid the sick leave lecture!

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