Dan Holohan: Childhood life lessons return during early career
I was an 11-year-old Tenderfoot Boy Scout, spending a weekend at my first jamboree.
It was just a few miles from where we lived on Long Island, not off in the wilderness, but I was going to sleep in a tent with my buddies and cook on a real fire and for a Tenderfoot, it got no better than that.
I was doing all that my scoutmaster told me to do to get our campsite set up and I was learning all sorts of things. I didn’t question him when he told me to go over to a neighboring troop’s campsite and ask their scoutmaster if we could borrow their skyhook. I had no idea what a skyhook was, but I was an obedient lad and I figured the other scoutmaster would know what it was and be nice enough to loan it to us. After all, he was a grownup.
“Sir,” I said. “May we please borrow the skyhook?”
“The skyhook?” he asked. “I just lent it to that troop over there. Go ask them. Tell them Scoutmaster Doug sent you.”
So I did and for the next hour or so I walked the entire jamboree grounds in search of the skyhook that was always just this far out of my reach, forever in the next camp. Just over there.
I finally returned to my scoutmaster to give him the bad news about the skyhook and how it was nowhere to be found.
“That’s OK, Danny,” he said. “Go back to the first scoutmaster I sent you to and ask him if we can borrow the smoke shifter. The smoke from our fire is getting in my eyes.”
So I did.
An hour later, he sent me out looking for a gallon of dehydrated water.
I know. I know.
Another wild goose chase
Not that many years later, I was working for a manufacturers representative in their plumbing group. I had not yet discovered the joys of heating. We sold a line of shower valves and another line of drains. Both companies went out of business not long after. The drains were famous for their weight. Each weighed quite a bit more than those of the competitors. Quite a bit more. This never made much sense to me, drains being drains, and the extra weight drove up the price so it was always a tough sale, as their eventual demise proved, but I gave it my best when I had the chance.
Out on Long Island, a hospital was going up. At 360 ft., it would be the tallest structure on the Isle of Long. It still is. It’s not the prettiest building, but it sure is large. My boss, a believer in positive thinking, decided this was a job that we absolutely must get because it would put us on the map as serious players in the world of too-heavy floor and roof drains.
He spoke to the folks at the factory, which was in central Pennsylvania and they agreed to work on a lower margin if we were willing to do the same. We were, and we did, and we won the trophy job.
But this is the part of the story where I get to be a Tenderfoot again.
There are a lot of drains in this huge hospital and many of them are up there on the roof, 360 ft. above terra firma. The factory began shipping the needed drains in stages, as the contractor directed. There’s not much that can go wrong with an overly heavy drain so this part went smoothly. Everyone was happy and I was thinking my part of the process was more or less over. I had sold the job. The stuff was getting to the job. The contractor wasn’t complaining and all was well with the world.
But then there was this one big roof drain that didn’t arrive as expected. The factory had missed it on the order and now the contractor wanted it — now. Now! Right now!
The factory didn’t have one of those big boys on hand but said they would pour one soon.
That’s not what the contractor wanted to hear.
“We’ll get it to you as soon as possible,” I said.
“What does that mean?” the contractor asked a bit too calmly, but I wasn’t noticing that because I was young and quite stupid at the time.
“Well, when they make it. They’ll send it to you once they make it.”
When he was done verbally flaying the flesh from my bones, I promised myself I would never again say those words to any contractor.
I called the factory and begged them to pour the drain now. I explained about the missing flesh and my shattered spirits and they took pity on me. They would pour it immediately. I called the contractor with the good news and he asked me when he would have the drain. I said they would ship it on Tuesday.
“No they won’t,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“They’re not going to ship it. You’re going to go get it.”
“But that’s not my job,” I sputtered.
“It’s your job now,” he said. “If you’re a man you’ll go get it and deliver it to us. Men keep their promises.”
Well, that sure didn’t leave me much choice. I was young enough for the manhood thing to get under my skin. I put on my Oh, yeah?! face.
The factory was 4 1/2 hours away. I left home at 4 a.m., and got there without a problem. They loaded the large, overly heavy drain into the trunk of my car and I headed back to Long Island. I went straight to the contractor’s office with it. I walked right in with my Oh, yeah?! face and stood there like a man who keeps his promises.
“Why are you here?” the contractor asked.
“I have the drain for you,” I said.
“We don’t need the drain here,” he said. “We need it on the job.”
So I drove the cursed drain another 30 miles to the job site. I found the contractor’s trailer and knocked on the door. The foreman, who looked like the box it came in, opened the door and growled a “What!?” at me.
“I have your very large, very heavy roof drain,” I said.
“So, why are you bringing it here?” he said. “It goes on the roof. Take it up there.” He slammed the trailer door, leaving me standing in the mud.
Did I mention I was wearing a jacket and tie? All salesmen wore jackets and ties in those days. And shiny shoes? It made us feel important. Dress for success and all that.
I went to my car, opened the trunk, lugged out the drain and humped it across a muddy field to the construction elevator. I waited for it to come down.
“Help you?” the elevator operator said.
“I have to get this roof drain up on the roof,” I said.
“Are you an employee of the plumbing contractor?” he asked.
“No, I’m the drain salesman,” I said.
“Then you can’t ride the elevator,” he said. “Insurance won’t allow it.”
“How am I supposed to get this drain up on the roof if I can’t ride the elevator?” I asked.
He pointed me toward the stairs.
I climbed for a good long while and dropped the drain where it belonged and, as far as I know, remains, even after all these years. Not much can go wrong with a roof drain, especially one that’s overly heavy.
So, lessons learned:
- Don’t promise more than you can deliver.
- Keep your promises.
- Respect the contractor’s work schedule.
- Don’t wear fancy clothes and shoes on a job site.
- Take your lumps when you have to, especially when they’re well-deserved.
- And next time, if there is a next time, bring a skyhook.
This article was originally titled “My tenderfoot years” in the March 2018 print edition of PM Engineer.