Wednesday, January 30, 2008


On June 5, 1976 the walls of the Teton Dam in southeast Idaho burst, sending a maelstrom of muddy, churning water toward Rexburg, and other adjacent communities. Miraculously only 11 people perished as the tidal wave of destruction pummeled the valley. Eight hours after the initial break the dam had completely vented it's entire contents.

Toward the end of the summer, anxious to return to Ricks College, my father approached me with an epiphany. Having followed the story, he elaborated on the extent of the destruction and recognized a great opportunity. He explained that thousands of homes had been destroyed and that there would probably be a demand for plumbers.

My Dad has always had a keen mind and sharp intellect. He had obviously been thinking three-dimensionally. Me on the other hand, well I was pre-occupied with other important things, like how to improve the structural stability to the motor connector, for the 10" aluminum wind up key fastened to the rear of my 1962 Volkswagen Bug. I was also concerned with how I was going to reattach the hose to my water pressure fire extinguisher, a device crucial to my academic success.

Dad, a Master Plumber by credential, took me aside and gave me with a shiny new red toolbox. He also gave me a new set of important plumbing tools. Supply tubing cutters, adjustable end wrench, waste tube cutters, channel lock pliers, screw drivers, sink wrench, etc., you get the drift. He told me how to land a job with a Rexburg plumbing company, and how to do get double, the then, minimum wage of about $2.50 an hour. I was initially reluctant to execute his instructions largely due to fear, but after generous amounts of assurance and encouragement, I caught the vision, embarked on my 12 hour journey to college and sought employment.

I had spent hours working with my Dad in high school and was pretty confident in my ability to “set” plumbing fixtures; sinks, toilets, dishwashers, disposals and such. But there were many things I didn't understand, mainly because I was a lazy idiot whom didn't pay attention. I didn't pay attention because I hated doing the work. Much of my motivation for completing college was so I wouldn't have to: climb in hot attics with itch producing fiberglass, crawl through freezing spider infested crawl spaces, and engage in contortion rituals under someone's midget sized lavatory cabinet. Dad also taught me that there are only three things you need to know to be a plumber. 1. Stuff runs downhill, payday is on Tuesday and the boss is a dirty SOB (whatever that means).

After arriving, unpacking my belongings in my room at the Cedars apartments, I drove through the streets of Rexburg anxious to be noticed for the spinning spectacle attached to the back of my car.

I drove to the first plumbing company I conveniently found in the US West Direct yellow pages directory, practiced my speech and confronted the proprietor. I explained a proposition, told him I wouldn't work for less than $5.50 cents an hour. He offered me $5.00, I said no and he showed me the door with a very demeaning look.

I reassessed my speech and my strategy, and soon sauntered into Hill's Plumbing. Here I met the owner Ted Hill. I rehashed the obvious events of the flood, explained my belief that his plumbers were probably swamped and outlined my formidable experience. I suggested that it might be a better use of his resources to let them do the rough plumbing and let me go behind and set the fixtures. I told him I had my own tools and transportation and could work on Tuesday's, Thursday's and Saturday's. I offered to complete job for free and that he could check my work before giving me permanent employment. I also told him by paying me $5.50 an hour this would be a great bargain for him because he would be paying much less than for a licensed plumber. He offered my 5 bucks. I took it.

Well the arrangement worked out great. Within two weeks he gave me a company truck so I could haul my own stuff told me I could use it for personal trips on his dime if I wanted. Wow. I was in starving-college-student-heaven. My Dad had once again proved his genius and I was able to keep flush on cash. Ted would constantly try to talk me into quitting college and work full time for him, but the job just served to remind me daily of why I was going to school. He was a great boss and I felt blessed to have the employment.

One day he was short handed and started sending me on service calls, something I hated because of my lack of experience. One time he told me that an old lady’s furnace was not working and that I had to go fix it. I protested that I didn't know anything about electricity, but he just smiled, handed me an Electronic Tester and told me she was a very important customer and to "just act like you know what you're doing". “Great”, I thought!

When I got there she quickly sized me up, saw that I looked maybe 17 (I was actually 22) and showed me where the furnace was located in the basement. She then established a solid foot stance suitable for enduring the millennium, clinched her jaw like a Rock-&-Sock Robot, and proceed to watch my every move. "Great!!! I don't know what I'm doing, she doesn’t think I know what I’m doing, and she's going to watch me like a hawk to prove herself right", I muttered to myself.

I was desperately afraid of killing myself and more importantly, being embarrassed. Then, a miracle happened. The wonderful words my father had spoken to me so many times before came to me like a freight train bearing down in the black of the night. "Do something, even if it's wrong". I had heard these words so many times before, but this time the words had meaning, they had depth and alacrity. It was as if the windows of plumbing heaven had been opened unto me. Grateful for the revelation, I did what any buffoon with a half a brain would do, and the only thing I could do, I faked it.

Inspired my the echos of my father's words, what happened next was frankly brilliant on my part. I became a mechanical thespian. The grace and confidence by which I carefully, slowly and confidently unsnapped the cover to the tester was inspirational. The precision by which I inserted the leads of the test wires into the tester was sensual. After carefully selecting the AC setting on the tester (to insure that it wouldn't explode if I accidently touched some high voltage) I smiled an assured grin and placed the tips of the wires across two random terminals on the furnace controls. I had absolutely no clue as to what I was doing and was praying that if sparks erupted that I would be able to close my eyes before my retinas were burned through. I didn’t know what Checking Continuity was, but I did know that that was what I was faking.

I also knew that I was faking it brilliantly. I had seen my Dad, Terry and Trevor do it a dozen times and for my performance I knew I could be nominated for a furnace Oscar. After repeating this protocol about eight times, I swear I could hear a squeak as the hinges of her jaw started to release. “Perfect”, I thought, my ruse is working. I was certain she knew less about electricity than I did. I was also pretty confident that she hadn't stuck a butter knife in an electrical socket like I had when I was five years old.

Soon the locks restricting movement to her knees we're released, her feet shuffled a few steps and she disappeared to the tunnel of light cascading from the top of the stairwell. "Alone at last", I laughed to myself as I shook my head in haughty celebration, for I had won the battle of wits. I had conquered my formidable and skeptical adversary. Sure she was probably 90 years old. Sure she was probably in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease but I, yes I, sat on the cold, porous floor, tall and proud and victorious. I was now alone, I was completely ignorant, but I was alone.

Still not, however, having any clue as to how to get the heat back on, I sought desperately for another sign. (I know the scripture about a wicked and adulterous generous generation seeking for a sign, but cut me some slack) Imagine my glorious delight when I found it. It was in the form of a small red button about the size of my index finger. Strategically hidden from the ready view of ignorant home owners, it sat, innocuous and yet so promise filled, on the dark upper portion of the cavernous mechanical monolith. I prayed. If I had been Catholic I would have genuflected and rubbed my rosary, but I only prayed. I shined the rays of hope from my flashlight onto the button, willing the light to somehow give the button magical powers. Then with the care of a Swiss watchmaker I gently, slowly, held my breath and depressed the button with my chilly finger until it would move no further, and then, I waited.

The 5 seconds that actually transpired seemed like an eon, but imagine the rapture that filled my heart when I saw the glorious amber glow of the igniter. It projected a warm and beautiful gleaming light like the sun does over a mountain crest at dawn. The vent fan started whirring like the spokes of a bicycle on a whisper quiet day. Soon the snakelike hiss of natural gas joined the chorus as the gas valve opened.

3-2-1 Ignition. I could hear a voice in my head, "Houston, we have ignition". I had done it, I had mastered the metal beast, I had outwitted the old lady, "Fire, I made fire". A comforting heat seemed to engulf the room immediately. I was ecstatic but my glee was not surpassed by the joy Tom Hanks had replicated in the movie Castaway. I celebrated deeply, fully, but briefly. As the house warmed in temperature, the emissions vented through the double walled duct work, past the roof and disapated into the sky. Yes, I contributed to global warming that day, my carbon footprint forever etched in the atmosphere, but I was few and I was proud.

Sprinting to the to the top of the stairs having already written a work order for the obligatory 1 hour minimum service charge, I approached the sinister and skeptical woman that had doubted me before. Teeth gleaming in smile, I muttered an implausible explanation, which included the words franistan, escutcheon and zimmer pin, and bid her adieu, hoping the heat would stay on at least until I had successfully escaped to my next job.

The boss later reported the woman had called to report her satisfaction, that her heat was working beautifully and to express her appreciation to him for sending help so quickly.

The years passed, gently like the subtle shifting of mercury in a thermostat switch, and I am grateful for the wonderful lessons of life. My ability to learn new things and overcome fears was instilled by my father. That suggestion and toolbox that he gave me that day wonderful day so many years ago provided a catalyst for insight that has served me well in myriad ways.


Yesterday I received email notification of my 4th Quarter Bonus Payout. This is the Big One. This is the bonus with the greatest payout potential for the year. This is the bonus with ¾ of your potential earnings for the year.

We close our big Salt Lake City book in July and then we get to wait until February to get it paid out. It’s a brilliant corporate strategy. Its part of an inspired rewards program to make you feel good for a job well done. It has something to do with Pavlov's Dog and Flashing lights. But not being a lead team member, I'm not smart enough to understand all of the subtle nuances and philosophy.

Anyway, I opened the email and I got a big surprise.
Several years ago, Brad, who is six years older than Heidi decided it, would be clever to give her a really small Christmas present, but wrap it in mega-layers of paper, encapsulated inside an enormous box. (I'm sure he must have learned this cleverness from me) This is kind of the opposite of the way Becky wrapped Amy's birthday present in a blanket (When you care enough to wrap the very best).

So, Heidi is pretty excited to get a present from her brother, ‘cause as you all know, girls just adore their older brothers. Brothers usually are not deserving of this adoration, but little sisters insist on giving it. My sisters were the same to me. So Heidi figuratively turns on pomp and circumstance while un-wrapping the box. She spends a good couple of minutes getting to the heart of the package and soon all of the newspaper in on the floor and the box is empty, no present.

I'm no psychologist, but we could all see the wheels of her brain spinning in unison. There was this healthy pause, like the pause you experience after a baby bumps its head really hard, prior to the screaming.

Heidi then stood up, and with her highest level voice, indignantly shouted to Brad these immortal words. "Nothing? Fine!" and she stormed off.

We of course were just cracking up internally because we knew there really was a gift inside that relative ream of paper scattered across the carpet. Soon Heidi discovered her mistaken assumption, and got all lovey dovey with Brad again. This was a fond and precious moment for all of us.

So yesterday was a precious moment like that for me. I opened my bonus email for work I did in July. Did I mention that already? I quickly scanned to the total bonus field and spied the rewards for months of vigorous and emotionally draining labor.

"Congratulations Doug, your bonus is $0."

I did what any self respecting management professional in the corporate world would do. I stood up, shouted "Nothing?...Fine!", and I stormed out of my office.

I'm feeling much better today. Venting is so therapeutic.


The Bradford said...

come to think of it i have used the "pretend you know what you are doing" before when i worked for dan. especially when i would talk with the customers. sorry to hear about the bonus. kinda makes me sick!

Becky said...

loved the story. Dad's can teach a lot. I too said Fine! Nothing! when I heard the other news!! But hey if I could I'd give you a bonus! You are worth it!

Amy said...

no way.