A Formative Moment

How many of us can recall the one event in our lives that started us down the path we now follow?

My professional life has always revolved around looking at the world analytically, and seeing what others do not. Whether this ability is acquired or innate i cannot say, but I do know when it first became a part of who I am.

In the late ‘60s, I was an Air Force brat, living on Ellsworth Air Force Base near Rapid City, South Dakota. At Ellsworth, the past and the future sat in uneasy company. Shiny new B-52s practiced for Armageddon while cattle and buffalo searched out a living among the tumbleweeds and arrowheads. Overhead, astronauts carried human ingenuity to another world.

Our family travelled all over the region, from the geysers of Yellowstone to the craggy gray foothills of the badlands. And in this desolate, dusty landscape, some of my earliest memories are of visits to the Exxon station with its free maps, its tell bottles of grape Nehi, and the courteous attendant with his denim suspenders and dangling oily rag.

Today, it is hard to imagine the import that the gas station had in that time and place. Paved roads were scarce. The idea of a car running 100,000 miles before the first tune-up was science fiction. A family that drove off into the wilds and then broke down might literally never be found.

So as I sat in my mother’s lap in the front seat of our green ’65 Mustang, or on the folded-down armrests of our Big Black Lincoln, I would watch through dust-caked windows as the attendant started the gas pumping and lifted the hood to poke and prod and inspect all the magical gizmos that kept the engine going. Then he would slam the hood with a shudder, and pick up a squeegee.

This was the part that fascinated me. The Squeegee was easy enough to understand, but the way he used it caught my attention. It was always the same procedure, and even when the young assistant was there to help, he did it the same way:

1. First he would scrub one side or the other.
2. Then with a practiced hand, he would wipe off the soapy water and, at the end of each stroke, lift the tool and use his rag to wipe JUST THE TOP of the squeegee.
3. Then he would scrub on the other side of the windscreen, but when he started wiping this side, he would wipe the ENTIRE LENGTH of the squeegee.

Well of course, the reason for this is obvious if you’ve ever cleaned a windshield. But it wasn’t to me at the age of 3 or 4. I had to reason it out. And once I did, I suddenly had possession of something far more important than a mundane car care tip. I had reasoned something out that obviously those around me took for granted. It may seem cute or even silly now, but to a toddler, that was real power, and it started me down my path.