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.
Although he was around money and banks, Jim says, “I’m not particularly sophisticated with investments.” Conservative by nature, at least financially, Jim kept his money tied up in CDs. Then along came an advisor. This was 2007. Jim had never worried much about keeping up with the Joneses, but, by gum, the Joneses were getting rich. They weren’t hiding their money in CDs and when they had to they were using their houses like ATM machines. Jim wasn’t going to go that far, but this investment advisor talked a good game.
This advisor got Jim in equities and mutual funds. Things were good, real good for about 18 months, then the crash of 2008 hit. Jim lost half his savings and had to come out of retirement. The advisor who put him in the riskier investments? Not a peep. Cut and run. Dine and dash. Not even a good old “hasta la vista, baby!”
Jim didn’t sit by the phone waiting for it to ring but he wondered if it would. Finally he called the advisor and set up a meeting. “He attempted to do a little rebalancing, which was kind of like rearranging pictures on the Titanic given what was going on in the market at the time.”
About that time a friend referred Jim to a second advisor, a safe-product guy who took a look at the damage done and told Jim the bitter truth: “You gotta cut your losses, buddy.” Jim swallowed hard at that prospect but appreciated the straight shooting after the roller coaster he’d endured the past couple years. The second advisor got Jim in products that promised guaranteed income.
They promised something else, too: If the market got fickle and took another nosedive, Jim wouldn’t lose a dime. Shoot, man, he wouldn’t lose a penny. Now Jim’s got a nice check coming in every month. He’s even eyeing a new motorcycle. And one other thing: There’s a little business about oil.
Return of the oil king
In 1922, Jim’s grandfather bought 600 acres of land for $3,000. “If you look at the Texas map, you’ll see it’s literally in the middle of nowhere.” Oddly enough, though the least populated, it’s the highest per capita income county in the state of Texas, Jim says. That’s because it rests on the Permian Basin, the richest oil field in Texas.
Over the years that 600 acres got chopped up and divided, but the grandfather never let go of the mineral rights. “He passed away right before they hit oil out there. He never saw a dime of that money, but I’ve got this picture of my grandmother with her arms raised in front of the first oil well.” The picture was taken in 1956 when oil was $3 a barrel. Now a barrel tops $100, which is good timing as Jim and his siblings were gifted the land by their mother earlier this year.
He says the land had gone dry under natural techniques by the mid-’90s but would later strike black gold again due to the fracking procedure, in which water wells are drilled and hot water is injected into the ground, cracking the structure and causing the oil to be pushed to the surface where it can be processed. “As long as it stays above that $80 to $90 range we’ll be alright.”
On the road again
When I meet with him, Big Jim, now age 63, sits in his Texas home office, 30 days retired (for the third and final time) and planning his next motorcycle ride, a roadtrip to DC in a pack of 25 Harley lovers for the Memorial Day weekend. He went 30 years without getting on a bike after that scooter crash. Not because he was scared.
The world had just sped up and there wasn’t time to ride. But he got the bug again when a co-worker, a six-foot-tall beautiful gal, talked him into taking a ride. “After riding on the back of that motorcycle, it was like somebody stuck something in my veins.” He was hooked and there was no turning back.
Big Jim holds up a sepia-toned photo of a soldier on a motorcycle. He loves this photo. It’s the first memory Big Jim has of a Harley and his favorite picture of his dad, who fought with Merrill’s Marauders, a precursor to the Army Ranger Division. After contracting typhus, the Army sent his father to Nan King, China, to recuperate where he was later put in charge of a 12-man motorcycle military police organization, working with the Chinese Army.
Big Jim’s had that photo all his life and when he bought his motorcycle, a 2003 Harley Davidson 100 Year Anniversary Heritage Springer, he sent a copy of the WWII photo of his dad to the Harley people “asking if they could give me any information about the motorcycle that my dad was sitting on.”
Much to his surprise he received a registered letter from the vice president of marketing at Harley Davidson asking if “I would be willing to send them the original photograph because that was the very first photographic evidence that Harley Davidson had that their Harleys were in China during World War II.”
There are other photos, too, on Big Jim’s walls and his desk. The office is bursting at the seams. Military books and historical novels flank one wall. A large-scale U.S. map leans against the wall behind him. Colored pins track the rides he’s taken so far. Life’s mementos fill a table: trophies from a chili-cooking contest; a sketch of the U.S.S.
Decatur where Big Jim was the oil king, but no photos of his wife, the girl in the slip, on a Harley or even a Vespa. He’s been trying to get her on a Harley since 2003. “She said as soon as I learn to cross-stitch or knit, she’ll get on a bike. Needless to say, she hasn’t gone for a ride.”
Big Jim checks the weather hoping for better news, which hasn’t been good of late. A massive tornado ripped through Joplin, Mo., the night before, leaving a massive death toll in its wake. Remnants of it blow through Texas.
We step outside to view a black sky hanging over the afternoon, the winds changing it all before our eyes, big brush strokes that furl and straighten out, but remain a constant ceiling. And just then a pinhole of light peeks through and I’m reminded of something Big Jim said back in his office. Pointing at the U.S. map, at no one spot in particular, he said, “My goal is to hit all 50 states,” and for that moment I have no reason to doubt him.