When Big Jim Holt was 16 years old he wasn’t Big Jim yet. He was Jim. Just Jim. Another scrawny kid caught between worlds. He wasn’t a jock. He wasn’t an intellectual either. He was a career Army brat, who’d lived all over, most recently in Germany, maybe the only kid in the whole dadgum school who’d taken a breath outside the United States of Texas. The world wasn’t too big for Jim, but this little town in Texas, where he’d landed, was most definitely too small.
Ever since Steve McQueen jumped that fence in “The Great Escape,” well, Jim knew cool when he saw it. If he had to get away, he might as well do it in style. So one day he worked up the courage and asked his father for a motorcycle. His dad, a man of discipline, a military man who’d fought and been injured in the Pacific Theater in World War II (“dubya dubya two,” as they said it in this tiny Texas town) knew not to get his son a full-blown motorcycle. So they compromised. He got him a scooter.
Jim soon learned that if you found one of those rolling Texas hills, the ones that rise up out of endless swaths of pancake-flattened land, and you leaned into that little scooter that was a Vespa knockoff, you could go nearly 60 miles an hour. And that’s what he was doing the day he met the girl who would become his wife.
He crested a hill–the tallest object for a hundred miles–that must have seemed like a mirage the way it climbed to survey the land. Jim leaned forward, almost flat, with his legs behind him and gritted his teeth to the point that it looked like he was smiling. But truth be told, he was just trying to stay alive.
As that little scooter started picking up speed, it began to rattle underneath him, between his legs, shaking, like it just might rip apart. And it did. “I lost it,” Jim said. “I lost the whole thing. I was hurt bad.” Where he wrecked there was a farmhouse across the road.
He gathered himself, bruised, beaten, but not defeated, hitched his pants and limped to the porch where he knocked on the door and asked if he could call his daddy to come pick him up and tell him he’d wrecked the bike he’d fought so hard to get.
A woman let him in, and inside, the girl who would become his wife materialized in her slip. Bathed in white silk, “it was like an angel had appeared” to him and he knew then, even if she didn’t know it, that one day he would marry her.
The oil king
By the late ’60s, kids were apt to “turn on, tune in, drop out,” as the saying goes, but Jim spun in another direction: He enlisted in the Navy. After boot camp in San Diego, he received his orders to report aboard the U.S.S. Decatur and spent the next four years sailing the seven seas.
Because he was colorblind, Jim wasn’t allowed to do technical jobs like electronics technician or fire control technician, where distinguishing between primary colors was of grave importance. Instead, they stuck Jim down in the boiler room. “And it didn’t take me very long to figure out that the last place on earth I wanted to be was down in the boiler room on a Navy ship.”
There weren’t a lot of Leonardo DiCaprio moments with arms pumping to the heavens proclaiming himself “King of the World,” but Jim got a royal title just the same–oil king. As Jim tells it, “The oil king is responsible for fueling the ship, making sure the ballast is correct so the ship doesn’t tip one way or the other.” After four years as oil king he’d seen enough of the watery part of the world. And there was that girl in the slip …
The money man
So Jim got married to her, to Barb. He spent a year in technical school to learn a trade and when he got out he landed a job “working on the very first automated-teller machines in the United States” where it didn’t matter if you were colorblind.
Jim was lugging around a tool belt and fixing things, making money come out of machines, but it wasn’t going into his pocket. Yet he kept seeing these other guys tooling around at his company and they got his attention. “They would pull up in these nice cars and they had on these nice suits and they had a lot of money and they were traveling all over the country having a good time and I’m thinking, man, I want to be one of those guys.”
He buddied up to one of these sales-and-marketing types and the guy gave him some advice: Cut off the muttonchops and lose the bell-bottoms and the white belt. The next thing Jim knew he was a marketing rep.
A steady progression up the corporate ladder followed with nearly 40 years of climbing. Those initial steps of tinkering with ATMs were followed by stops in the payments industry, banking and finally debit card networks. And the money was good. So good that Jim retired early, still in his 50s.