If you told the twenty-year-old me that I would eventually live in Jackson, Tennessee, he would have died laughing. I wasn't even sure I would be living in Tennessee period.
Twenty-year-old me was an M1-A1 Abrahms Tank System Specialist (tank mechanic, y'all, I was a tank mechanic) that had dreams of completing a twenty-year career and retiring. And then after my retirement, I would launch some sort of startup with the security of a nice, fat check to fall back on if things didn't work out. Twenty-year-old me was married to the first of two ex-wives and had no kids. Every time I think about twenty-year-old me, I shake my head and ask myself "What if?" And then I smile and remind myself of how much better my life is than that pipe dream I fantasized about.
And I owe it all to Jackson, Tennessee. (Okay, maybe not all of it. But, man, did that line sound good or what?)
Let's go back a bit, and I’ll give you the CliffsNotes version of how I got to Tennessee in the first place.
Did I forget to mention that I am from California? San Jose to be exact. But I also lived in Illinois, Wisconsin, and California again before Tennessee became my home halfway through my sophomore year in high school. After arriving by bus to Memphis, my mother asked my brother and I if we wanted to live in Memphis with our uncle in or Dyersburg with our aunt. I hated Dyersburg; it was boring. But after a glance at a Channel 5 News’ story on a school shooting in Memphis, we changed our minds.
Let's fast forward through some of this, shall we? Graduated high school in 1995, join the Army, got married, got thrown off of a tank, had my first child, got medically discharged, got divorced, started selling cars. . . . I guess that's where it began. That started me on my path to Jackson.
You see, I was a mediocre car salesman in a small town, but I wanted more. I wanted to be top dog but knew I would never be that in a place where the same guy was top dog every month because he knew everyone. So I drove on down Highway 412 and applied for a job at Gary Mathews Motors, and I got it.
For a year I drove back and forth from Jackson to Dyersberg every day before I finally felt like I could make it in the “big city” of Jackson without falling on my face and having to move back in with my mom. I did okay, worked my way into Internet sales, and eventually made a name for myself.
But in 2009, I stopped cold turkey. When I went to work for the Golden Circle Auto Group, I decided there was nowhere to go but down from there. The people I worked for there were the best, and if I wasn't going to do Internet sales for them, I did not want to work for anyone else in Jackson doing it. So I set out to be my own boss or fall on my face trying. I had no idea what would happen next, but I was going to give it the old college try (ironic since I never attended college anywhere unless you count the one semester I did online). I was bartending one night a week, so I had a little extra money to fall back on, but it wasn't a lot, nor was it guaranteed.
And then it happened I found this place called theCO. I drove by the newly installed sign in 2014, asked myself, “What the heck is that?”, and decided to turn around and find out.
That was the moment that changed my life—the moment that forever altered my views of Jackson and people as a whole. I found a place with people like me, a place that was everything I thought could never exist in Jackson or West Tennessee at all, but there it was: a place full of thinkers and doers, and a place that has since become my second home.
theCO helped me become a functioning member of society in a town that I more or less just wanted to get by in. It gave me a place to run a business, create a second business, and to even teach others the skills I acquired over the years. In this city that I wanted to simply exist in, I found a home: a home for my kids, for my business, and for my heart. And for that I am extremely grateful. I’ll spend the rest of my years trying to give back to the city that's given me the future I never knew I wanted.
Austin Thompson is serial entrepreneur, baseball dad, founder of Thompson Industries and Random Pieces of Wood, unintentional Darius Rucker look-alike, and a lover of all things Batman. Although originally from California, he has proudly called Jackson home since 2001.