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Bruce Hartzell, USMC vet, Part II: In this world there are no solutions, only tradeoffs

Updated: Jun 26, 2020

Autumn 1982. I would soon be a civilian. My 3-year active duty commitment eroded into a 3-year obligation.

My cousin had enticed me into a business opportunity at the Kansas City Board of Trade (KCBOT) trading a new commodity: stock index futures contracts (e.g., S&P 500, NASDAQ). It’s just like in the movie “Trading Places” with Dan Ackroyd and Eddie Murphy with an “open outcry” trading pit. Contract bids and offers in the pit are tantamount to sounding orders across a parade deck…… all day long. It’s not for the timid or feint of heart. I started out as a floor clerk running orders to the brokers in the Pit. Traders stand in the Pit all day looking at price quotes on a TV screen and at what the other brokers and speculators are reacting to until you get a feel for the next market direction. After six months as a clerk I got a bank loan and plopped $27,000 down to buy myself a job: a seat on the exchange.

My cousin and his business partner were seasoned combat Marines in Vietnam. Both recall that their very first futures trade made their “knees like rubber” at the prospect of possibly losing everything they owned and then some. They skirted death in Vietnam but nothing prepared them for this. The pit can be utter pandemonium at times; millions of dollars transfer hands all day long. Traders could easily be up or down $100K at any given moment of the trading session. Stock index futures is a zero sum game; when somebody wins, somebody else loses. If you think the market is going up you buy, and sell later. If you think the market is going down, you sell and buy it back later. Kill or be killed. You have to earn your living each and every day.

The market is never wrong. Be sure you’re on the right side of the market. If that sounds familiar then yes, it’s like working with the commanding officer: be on the right side of what he is thinking. Commanders come and go and eventually markets. The KCBOT customers switched more and more to Chicago and New York to trade and I was on a sinking ship. It was time for a tactical withdraw from stock index futures.

Yes, my career ambitions got sidetracked, but it was just the opportunity for me to finally become a US Treasury agent. I could never live with my self unless I tried my best. I took the 4-hour, kick ass test Treasury Enforcement Agent Examination and passed. I put job applications into every federal, state and local agency I could. My finances were thinning ($200 in the bank) and then in Oct. 1987 the stock markets crashed. I needed to dump my KCBOT seat to prevent further loss in value. My $27k sold it for $10k. Having just lost $17,000 on the seat wasn’t too bad since the next seat sold weeks later for $2,000. Boy howdy!

The lesson I learned in Kansas City was that the world revolves around economics (not money but economics) and that people will always act in their own best self interest. Economics helped put into perspective much of my experiences and interactions in the Marine Corps. Generals, CEOs, politicians, they are always seeking solutions for their tasks, assignments and obstacles; they need to fix the problem at hand as if they were algebraists solving for X.

What we learn from economics is that in this world there are no solutions, only tradeoffs. Economics defined is the efficient use of scarce resources with alternative uses. Gold, oil, wheat, and your troops are scarce resources that have many different uses. But, they must be used efficiently in order for a civil society to exist and function properly.

Next stop: The Federal Bureau of Prisons, US Penitentiary, Leavenworth, Kansas. Things were looking up.

To put food on the table I took a job as a correctional officer (CO) at USP Leavenworth (not the Army Discipline Barracks), a maximum security prison. It was like being a beat cop where just about every inmate is the worst of all human beings. One thing about inmates is they all have a PhD in psychology. That’s how they survive. They have you sized up almost as soon as you walk into the room. A little bit of military bearing and spit and polish count for a lot when it comes to respect. Treat inmates with the same firmness, fairness and dignity attitude that Gen. LeJeune imparted to us. Besides, if you come off as a dick it’s just a matter of time until you leave the prison feet first. The saying: you can be friendly, but you can’t be friends worked in prison. In the Corps, on the other hand, as Plato once said, “A friend to all is a friend to none.”

After two months as CO came the Atlanta, GA and Oakdale, LA Cuban detainee riots. In the coming weeks USP Leavenworth filled two entire cell blocks (out of 4 cell blocks), 5 tiers high, with rioting Cubans. The Cubans were the most vile, disgusting, filthy animals one might ever encounter. Every day at least one was put in 4-point restraints. But hey, Marines love a challenge. I worked double shifts almost every day for the next several months until April 1988. That’s when I finally got on board as a special agent with the US Customs Service….. and brother, was I never more committed.

Bruce is a former US Marine infantry officer having served 3 years active duty in Quantico, VA, Okinawa, Japan, and Parris Island, SC. In 1983 he went on to become a stock broker and trader at the Kansas City Board of Trade, trading stock index futures. In 1987 he briefly worked as a correctional officer at the maximum security facility, US Penitentiary, Leavenworth, KS, during the Atlanta, GA, and Oakdale, LA, prison riots.

From 1988 until his retirement in 2013 he served as a US Treasury special agent (criminal investigator) with the US Customs Service, and as a Department of Homeland Security special agent with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Homeland Security Investigations. He conducted investigations encompassing drug smuggling and contraband seizures via air, land, marine and the internet.

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