A different path
“It’s hard to believe Jeff did that.”
“Did what?” I replied.
It was 1975 and I had just started at Iowa State. Reb’s mom and I were were standing by the fence, watching Saydel play their first home football game of the season.
“You didn’t know … Jeff committed suicide.”
Reb, Jeff, and I had graduated the year before in ’74. With my parents divorced and me out on my own, it looked like life after graduation was destined to be working at a machine shop. Jeff – my best friend since Cornell Elementary – headed off to Iowa State.
He came home for Christmas break that first year. One snowy night Jeff changed my life. He convinced me to turn everything upside down and try going to college. Broke, I owed money on my car, and every pair of jeans in my closet had holes (before it was fashionable). I’d given up on much of a future for me. Jeff hadn’t.
Now I was his pall-bearer. Lost in a Lost World by the Moody Blues played at his service. That day I lowered a close friend into the ground.
Lost In a Lost World
I woke today, I was crying
Lost in a lost world
So many people are dying
Lost in a lost world
Some of them are living an illusion
Bounded by the darkness of their minds
In their eyes it’s nation, against nation, against nation
With racial pride
Thinking only of themselves
They shun the light …
– From Seventh Soujourn
by the Moody Blues
Threshold Records, 1972
The machine shop
Townsend Products was small (50 employees) and sat in a cornfield outside Altoona Iowa. Bob Townsend (rolly-polly, always chuckling) owned the place. Bob’s nephew Don (the joking magician) managed it. Everyone was like family.
I was not an apprenticed machinist, however after years of high-shool shop I could run anything from a lathe to a CNC machine. Tonwnsend was a great place … but I learned that making the same part every day, for weeks and weeks … wasn’t a great career.
The fringe benefits were good (a yearly fishing trip to Canada), the pay was not. I could make my rent and eat but not much else. I could use the shop on weekends to keep my Opel running, but my career options were pretty limited.
Off to Iowa State
As a junior in high school I had good grades. When my parents divorced, my senior year went into the dumper. I spent a month in the hospital with asthma, had several incomplete classes – I shouldn’t have graduated. I was not prepared for college.
But I borrowed money from Dad and the bank, sold/gave away everything I owned, then piled the rest into my Opel and headed up to Iowa State. A year older than other Freshmen, I had learned what Dad meant when he said “Sometimes you don’t learn what TO do, you learn what NOT to do.”
My Freshman engineering competition was a blast. Our team won first place for a project on CB radio security systems. We had working products and a detailed report, but most importantly we filled Marston Hall with our multi-media presentation. Color photos on a huge screen, trucker music (Breaker, breaker 1-9) blaring, live scenario based demonstrations; when we finished the whole room was clapping and laughing. That was a great feeling.
Back to Math 36
What was NOT a great feeling was realizing how totally ignorant I was at math. I was supposed to take Calculus my first quarter, but I hadn’t even had Trigonometry in high school!
I decided to fall behind a quarter: take Algebra II to brush up then come back and tackle Calc 120.
It was one of the lowest points in my life was when I realized I couldn’t understand Algebra II. I got scared. I mean really scared. I had no money, no home to go back to, and no Plan B if I failed college.
I thought seriously about quitting, but I made a decision. Several times when Bob Townsend had given me a $0.25-$0.50/hr raise at the machine shop, he’d written on the back of his business card to “keep pushing“. I took his words to heart and dropped all the way back to Math 36. It was Algebra I, no engineering credit, no college credit, and it put me 2/3 of a year out of sequence for most of my engineering classes.
Stepping WAY back to go forward turned out to be the best decision I could have made. I aced Math 36, then finished off Math 101 (Algebra II) Winter quarter with a strong C.
That spring I picked up Calc 120, and for the following three quarters I pushed through all my remaining math classes. I had to juggle my schedule like a circus acrobat, and often take prerequisites at the same time as core classes, but I made it.
If dropping back to Math 36 was an all-time low, then the final exam for my last quarter of Calculus put me on top of the world. I spent weeks studying at the library. When the instructor placed it on my desk, I looked over every page before I lifted my pencil. I literally knew the answer to every problem on that test! One silly mistake, but I SCORED 96 on the hardest 2-hour final I took in college. Knocked it out of the park!
Five elements of a story
There are lots more stories about college, but here’s the best one: I graduated in four years and one quarter. My job offer from John Deere Dubuque was the highest paying in my class. When I walked across the stage at graduation, and that diploma landed in my left hand, I looked up and said a silent “Thank you Jeff.”
So why did I tell you this story? Why should you care?
- It speaks to who I am. I always keep pushing.
- It’s part of a talk called Me, Inc. Dan Metz & I did for IndieConf 2012.
- It has all five STORY elements:
- S – Situation, what is the backstory?
- T – Trouble, what adversity did you confront?
- O – Obstacles overcome, how did you conquer your problem?
- R – Results, what did you accomplish?
- Y – You, why should you care about my story?
If you wanted someone to remember you for a story that spoke about who you are, what you had done, and what you could do … what would it be?
High school chemistry class
My senior year in high school wasn’t all bad. In fact, at times it was pretty fun.
Close to graduation I started wondering what pranks I could pull on a few best friends, or even teachers. Our chemistry teacher, “MadMan” Larry Dean, was one of my favorites. MadMan’s nickname was well deserved.
He was brilliant but crazy. It was not uncommon to hear explosions coming from his lab. Boom! Cakes in the Home Economics room next-door went flat. Boom-Boom!! Our gym instructor Mr. Hanson would sprint down to the lab like a firefighter ready to tackle a building on fire. MadMan was also on our principal Mr. Schmitt’s watch list. However, Mr. Shields – the biology teacher who’s room adjoined the chemistry lab – always found Mr. Dean’s antics hilarious.
I had an idea on how to prank MadMan. First, I found an old toolbox in our home workshop. Inside I placed an eight track player, loaded with Cheech & Chong’s ‘Big Bambú’ tape, attached a speaker, and installed a small battery from our garden tractor. On top I put an on-off switch. Pull the invisibly thin wire on the switch once and the player turned on. Pull it again and it turned off.
Mr. Shields grinned when he saw my toolbox, then let me into the lab late that afternoon. At the front of the classroom – close to where MadMan usually lectured – was a ventilation duct. Next to the grate covering the duct was a intercom speaker connected to the front office.
I removed the grate, set the switch, then placed the box deep inside the duct. Perfect. With the grate replaced you couldn’t see a thing. Then I strung the pull wire along the ceiling and to the back of the room.
The next day we came into class and sat down to take a short quiz. “Silence!!” demanded MadMan as we dropped our books on the lab benches. Remember my friend Jeff from the front story? He was also a volunteer in the lab. As the quiz was about to start I showed him the hidden wire. Then, (accidentally) he pulled it.
Blaring from what seemed to be the front office speaker came screams, followed by slow, deliberate, clicking Gestapo footsteps: “Zey are killing zee girl tonight old man … Do you hear zat old man? …” MadMan looked around, glared, and shook his head. “Sign zee papers old man!!”
As the tape continued playing, MadMan became more agitated, convinced it was coming from the front office intercom. Ever seen a 5’, rather rotund man with a long beard and wild, slicked back hair looking as if he was getting ready to be abducted by aliens? We did.
With the tape still playing, MadMan flipped the intercom switch up and called the front office. The principal answered “Yes Larry?” but before he did, we tripped the switch a second time and shut off the tape.
“Uhh … Mr. Schmidt … uhhh … there were strange sounds coming from the intercom … but … they’re not coming from there anymore … and … uh … “
Remember, MadMan was already on Mr. Schmidt’s watch list. This time you could tell he thought MadMan had really gone off the deep end. “Stay right there Mr. Dean, I’ll have vice-principal Knight come down.
The whole class was laughing hysterically. Jeff was laughing so hard he was crying and snorting at the same time. For some reason, MadMan frowned, steeled a look in my direction and rather calmly said “Foster, did you have anything to do with this?”
Once I quit laughing I told him what I did. Then I grabbed a bench stool, climbed up, took the grate off and pulled the player out of the air duct. With the toolbox in both hands, I turned around – and there stood the vice-principal Mr. Knight (who was a stickler for keeping the school orderly and under control).
I was busted. But as it turned out, later that day MadMan told Mr. Knight it was the funniest trick anyone had ever pulled on him and that we should just “forget Foster ever did that.” The next day in class MadMan pulled me aside. “Foster,” he said, “that was f#*&’ing brilliant. Best joke anyone ever played on me. I’m giving you an A for the semester.”
As you read in the front story, after that I graduated and a year later went off to Iowa State. What happened to MadMan? About five years later he really did go off the deep end.
He was a hobby gunsmith and his specialty was automatic weapons. One day police showed up at his house and there was a standoff. MadMan with machine guns and wife held hostage inside the house, police surrounding the outside. No one was hurt, but MadMan went off to prison for a few years to cool down – and presumable to get some well needed counseling.
Looking back, I should have been catching up on overdue homework and thinking about college instead of inventing portable sound systems. But, sometimes, especially when life feels a bit sucky – like it did when I was a senior – you need a mental diversion. The prank on MadMan was mine. Years later I couldn’t tell you what the quiz covered that day, but I can tell you I’ll never forget the look on Larry’s face – and the A he gave me.