The Deserter


By W. J. CAMERON, of Ford Motor Co.

A talk given on the Ford Sunday Evening Hour, March 16, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 437-438.

ON a train several weeks ago one fell into conversation with a man who presently announced that he was giving up business. He was in appearance a little past middle age, a typical American, obviously of some experience, who for more than a quarter of a century had been engaged in business of a highly useful sort, but he was going to give it up. No, it wasn't for reasons of health—one could see that. Nor was it because of reverses—he didn't seem to be a man who had worried very much. He was just going to quit—sell out, close out or any way to get out. Didn't he like his line of business? It was clear from his reaction to the question that he did not dislike it. He had been bred to it and had been his own master in it for more than twenty-five years. Well, had he grown so rich that he could afford to retire? No, he wasn't "what you would call rich," but he wouldn't have to go out looking for a job right away—not right away. Then, why—if one might ask—why was he quitting?

Well, said he, being a businessman is harder than it used to be; there is this difficulty and that—the list he rehearsed was a familiar one. Besides there isn't so much "in it" as there used to be. Did he mean that the loaves and fishes were beginning to be fewer? Yes, that was it—there wasn't much in it" any more.

But still the mystery was not cleared up, for if a person isa singer he is going to sing, be the fee high or be it low or be there no fee at all—he is going to sing because nature made him to sing and because he must; the healer is going to heal; the maker is going to make; the born farmer is going to plant; the born sailor is going upon the sea; the born businessman is going to keep on making or distributing goods, no matter what happens. There was a mystery somewhere in this businessman who was going to quit.

Then it all came out. He did not build that business he was about to abandon. His life was not in it. Cut that business and he would not bleed. Cast dishonor on its name and he would not wince. Shove it ignominiously around and he would not bristle in its defense. His father built that business. His father's sweat and life and brains were in it. The loving labor and deepmost dreams of the son were not in it at all; it was not his chosen channel of service; it was only his source of loaves and fishes. And now that the catch was not so abundant, he was going to give it up.

Without judging this particular instance,—which may not be typical in act, however much the thought may be floating around,—it represents a retreat, retreat from a position that now for our country's sake needs to be held more resolutely than ever. Businessmen who produce, or transport what is produced, or assemble it in accessible stocks for the people's daily supply are servants of the public economy, they represent a public duty which, at this of all times, it seems positively wicked to abandon for selfish or whimsical reasons. However small the business, however seemingly unimportant its transactions or of what nature—selling a loaf of bread, or a peck of potatoes, or a suit of clothes, or a lot to a young couple planning to build, or a dining-room table, or butter and cheese, or motorcars, or books—every transaction, in pennies or in dollars, is a necessary and helpful national service, because it represents a red corpuscle in the country's vital economic circulation. If our country were in the condition of some other countries, we should see this with daylight clearness. A job today is a post of duty, and our job—whatever it may be—is our post to keep as sacredly as if we were stationed there by high authority. And, indeed, if a businessman is where his talents place him, and where his service contributes to the inter-meshing lives of our people, there need be no doubt about it, he is placed there by high authority. To quit is to desert.

About the same time as the conversation just related, it was one's privilege to address a Junior Chamber of Commerce in a Central Western City—about 800 young men, every one of them subject to the draft! Some of them were employees. Others had just started their own businesses. There is no denying it is a serious time for them. Did they think of quitting? Did they talk of selling out or closing out or getting out at all? Not they! They were planning how to keep in operation what they had built while they should be absent on military duty. Sure, it was hard! sure, there were difficulties! sure, there wasn't much "in it" for them in their little businesses!—but, because the needle of each man's inner compass pointed toward service in his particular business, he was going to keep that business alive no matter what the obstacles, and there he was going to serve when the world's war fever had abated. Where the heart is, there the treasure is.

Business never was anything but public service. Even where the motive is narrow and ignorant and selfish, still the service—the element of public service—must be there for the business to live. But how much richer is the man who has the intelligent public-spirited motive too.