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Early in my museum career I was working at a large science center in Portland, Oregon. In order to protect their reputation, I will not tell you where specifically that was, but I understand the power of the internet will allow you to do some quick investigative journalism and put the pieces together. I say protect their reputation because I’m not sure how thrilled they are with my 17 years of service and the steep learning curve I had at their expense. I broke some things, was over budget regularly on most things, and occasionally started a fire or two by accident and ignorance. It’s safe to say that both this museum and I were left with some truly memorable moments and no less than three permeant scares.
But it wasn’t all near miss experiences. I got a few things right along the way and I am proud of my contributions during my time there. The benefit of working at a very large museum is that you get a LOT of opportunities to learn and grow professionally. As a “seasoned” chief executive today running another museum in another state, I often proclaim that I learned as much of how to do things as how not to do things at this first great museum on my resume.
One thing I learned quickly is that battlefield commissions are a regular event in the nonprofit world. If you stick around long enough you will soon find yourself with a promotion, or my favorite euphemism…”an opportunity.” One such opportunity arrived when I had the chance to sign up for and receive forklift training.
Now I should state for the record that I have an odd affinity for operating equipment of any kind. Cars are fine, and there are many that I hope someday to get behind the wheel of, but I’m talking equipment. Things that involve multiple levers, switches, chokes, clutches, etc. Does it have a glow plug? I’m in! Is it one of those things where the controls operate in a mirror direction, you know like when you turn it left so you can go right? Yes, sign me up! Does it come on a trailer? Oh hell yeah! I think you get the idea. Am I good at operating any of these things? Listen, I’m telling the story here so just buckle up and enjoy the ride.
My first encounter with operating a piece of equipment came when I was in high school. My wife hates when I share this story even though we’ve been married for almost three decades, but here we go. I dated the same girl for almost my entire high school career. The summer I turned 16 my girlfriend’s father asked me what I was going to do that summer and I explained that I was attending Boy Scout Camp, Band Camp, and that I would probably get a part time job working with my buddy at the local go-cart place because ya know…go carts. Better yet, I would try my hand at life guarding at the pool. His response was simple and clear. He said, “that’s nice but you’re coming to work for me.” That was the entire interview. I left their house that evening with not a job offer, but a job commandment.
It should be noted that my girlfriend’s father was in construction. Specifically, he did high-end home remodels. On the first day of my summer “vacation” he picked me up at 6:00 in the morning so we could head to the job site where I would spend my summer desperately trying to quit this job. The assignment? We were taking a one-story house and turning it into a two-story house. Simple enough right? My girlfriend’s dad…my boss…climbed a latter to the peak of the roof, and with one hand took his circular saw and cut a 2-foot by 2-foot hole in the side of the house. He came back down the ladder, walked to the truck, rummaged around a bit and came back with a painter’s face mask, a box of trash bags and a dustpan. All three were presented to me as if making a ceremonial offering and the instructions were given.
My task was to climb that latter, squeeze through the hole into the attic and scoop up all of the 30-year-old fibrous blown insulation and bag it up and push it out the hole. It was already 83 degrees outside making the internal temperature of my new office a cool 110 degrees…and rising.
After trying to quit this job on the drive home, my boss simply said “no.” As a 16-year-old I did not understand that your employer does not get a say in your decision to resign your position, so I prepared myself for another day of attic duty when the sun rose the next morning.
Standing outside my house at the agreed upon hour of pick up, the boss slowed his truck long enough for me to quicken my pace to a steady trot and hop into an open door. Without waiting for the appropriate click of a seat belt we sped off down the street destined for another day in the mine. Only we turned left instead of right at the end of the street. Having learned yesterday’s lesson of not asking any questions and being stuck in a nasty attic all day, today I inquired “where are we headed?” The answer was Sneeds.
What is Sneeds you ask? Only the largest equipment yard I had ever seen in my life. To be fair, it was also the first, but I have seen many since and Sneeds still holds a special place in my heart. We were headed there to rent a large “long truck” with a PTO. Basically this is a two and a half ton (load weight) military surplus truck with a pneumatic cylinder that allows you to dump the contents much like a dump truck. Isn’t that a dump truck? Fair point, but for legal and insurance reasons, no it is not a dump truck. This is important for reasons that will become clear soon enough.
After all the appropriate paperwork was signed and something resembling a key was handed over, the boss and I headed out to the yard to find our ride. Upon finding our vehicle that should have been left rotting in some far away jungle at the conclusion of a war, the boss turned to me and gave me the following instructions: “follow me back to the job.” That was it. What I was expecting was for him to drop the keys to his beat-up old Ford into my hands. Instead, I was given the keys to the long truck.
Remember, this is “not” a dump truck according to the department of motor vehicles and as a result anyone with a valid driver’s license was allowed to start the ignition and risk the lives of countless other motorists. Fortunately for the boss, my license fit the bill and with it only being a few weeks old, I was completely qualified to mount this monster and drive it through the streets of a major metropolitan city.
It’s probably not great to admit this, but I’m fairly certain I blacked out somewhere on the journey because to this day I have no idea how I got from Sneeds to the job site without sideswiping countless vehicles. Upon arrival the boss asked me if the clutch stuck at all to which I replied, “what’s a clutch.” Apparently, you can drive a large manual transmission truck without the use of a clutch, but I guess it’s not recommended.
The purpose of renting this beast of a truck was because the day’s task involved stripping the composition roofing material off the scalp of the house and hauling the debris off to the local dump. We skinned the roof in record time and the long truck was brimming with moldy tar paper and composition roofing fragments. I figured that was it for the day, but I was not privy to the schedule. Apparently, we only had the truck for the one day and we still had to unload it at the dump. The boss gave me some vague directions on where the dump was located, just a short 19-mile drive from where we were standing. I was to drive there, unload (dump) the truck and then return to Sneeds where upon he would pick me up and I could file that day’s resignation letter.
Please keep in mind that this was in the day before cell phones. There was no GPS in the truck, and I was an independent driver for all of two weeks. To this day I must think hard about how to get home at the end of the day in a city I have lived in for ten years. Orienteering is not my strong suit. With a quick driveway lesson on the proper use of a clutch I was sent on my way in the long truck.
I made the 19-mile drive in just over three hours and 12 minutes. There was no traffic. The pattern went something like this: wrestle the clutch to get the long truck into gear (so much easier without the clutch), get the great beast up to speed, panic about breaking at the next light, blackout from panic, come to, and repeat.
When arriving at the dump I was met by many an astonished face. I was surrounded by serious looking men driving serious looking machines. I must have cut quite the figure in my army surplus long truck and my brand-new driver’s license. The gentleman tasked with directing traffic at the dump was literally speechless when I rolled to a jerky stop and asked where I was supposed to go to empty, not dump (remember, this is not a dump truck) my load. After regaining his composure, he pointed me to a mountain of debris and off I went.
After a few cycles of panic, loss of consciousness and coming to I maneuvered the long truck into position. Upon exiting the vehicle, I realized I failed to receive a critical part of my training. How the hell was I supposed to empty this thing? On the side of the truck there was a series of three levers. When manipulated in the right series of combinations, they would activate the hydraulic cylinder thus changing the angle of the bed of the truck and allowing physics to take over the unloading process.
I did the math and with three levers each with three different positions, there was a possible 1,230,400 possible combinations so I got to work conducting the orchestra. The truck made MANY sounds but none of them involved the tell-tale hum that was coming from the other vehicles around me that were seamlessly emptying their loads onto the debris pile. Fortunately for me, one of my equipment operating brothers took mercy on my soul and sauntered over to see if I needed any help.
Pride had not yet taken hold of my brain so I was more than eager to take any assistance I could get. While I didn’t know for sure, I was beginning to suspect that my boss might be worried about my absence at Sneeds. I would learn later that in fact he was NOT worried and in fact briefly forgot that he sent me on this errand. In any event, the man with the union card said to me “son, you got to know up from down.” Sound logic, but a concept I felt I had a pretty firm grasp on by high school. Of course, he was referring to the PTO lift cylinder in the truck and without any further instruction he manipulated the levers, and the giant leviathan raised its back and a 30-year-old roof slid out the back end and onto the pile. The man slapped me on the back and sent me away with a heartfelt “good luck and stay in school.”
With my task completed I jumped into the cab of the truck, deftly slipped the beast into gear, waved off the current bought of panic and began to make my way out of the dump. People there were so friendly. Everyone was waving at me. I think a young man putting in a hard day’s work was inspiring to them all. Or…it could have been that I was driving with the bed of my truck still fully erect in the air. We’ll never really know.
I was stopped by the dump traffic control officer a solid three feet before I clipped a power pole and thus narrowly avoiding disaster. Another quick lesson was given on the lowering of the bed of the truck and off I went to retrace my steps and return my steed to the stables.
I cut my return trip in half and made it back to Sneeds in a little less than 90 minutes. The boss was there waiting and when I slid the long truck back into its parking spot he inquired how things had gone. I had several answers to choose from but what I settled on was “fine.” After returning the keys to the rental counter I asked if I could drive the old Ford home and was told “I’m not giving the keys to MY truck to a 16-year-old kid.” Wait…what? I just drove a multi ton dual axle machine of war for half a day but I wasn’t skilled enough to handle the awesome power of a 1980 Ford F 150? I quit!
Regardless, my love of equipment was born that day in the Sneeds rental yard. So imagine my delight when a decade passed and I was now given the opportunity to get some real training on driving THE most coveted piece of equipment known to man; the forklift. You could not hold me down I was so excited. In the proceeding years I had driven and otherwise controlled various pieces of equipment and vehicles, but the forklift is the holy grail. It’s the Ferrari of equipment.
I’m not one to brag, but I graduated at the top of my forklift driving class. I only had to take the written exam once while the rest of my cohort had to retest multiple times…using the same test. Now I’m not one to question the authorities but in retrospect I’m not sure the training lived up to the academic rigor that was advertised. I mean some of my classmates had NO business behind the wheel. They certainly wouldn’t be able to handle a long truck…I’m just saying.
With my new forklift certification on my resume, I was able to seize one of those special museum opportunities. We were about to take receipt of a traveling exhibit from the world-famous Field Museum in Chicago. “A T-Rex Named Sue” was arriving on our loading dock and three tractor trailer trucks of crates had to be unloaded. One of our regular guys was out on leave with a new baby and I wasted no time squeezing into the seat of one of our museum’s forklifts.
With the precision and ease of a neurosurgeon removing a tumor from a brain, I slid the skids of my forklift smoothly under one crate after another. There were spots where mere centimeters (plus or minus a foot) spelled the difference between disaster and success. While I no longer work at that museum, I understand they still talk about that one guy that one time who did that thing on the forklift. Yeah…that was me.
After completing the offload, we set about assembling the 39 foot long 16-foot-tall world famous “T-Rex Named Sue.” Apparently, I had not yet acquired the necessary seat time to be behind the controls of the forklift as we dutifully unpacked the crates and began to assemble what would be the most amazing exhibit we had ever hosted to that date. It was a special experience that I cherish to this day.
Fast forward another two decades and I was once again in a situation where I could work with my friends at the Field Museum. This time I was serving as the President of a mid-sized science center in northern Nevada. Again, for their sake I will withhold their name. And again, the power of the internet will tell you that it’s the Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum. Oh damn, I think I just let the cat out of the bag.
“Sue” was ending her 20-year global tour and we had the opportunity to be the last museum stop before she made her way home to Chicago. When I thought about her big toothy grin, I got butterflies in my stomach. It made me feel the way I felt when I didn’t attend my high school reunions. Will she remember me? Does she still look the same? Will we have anything to talk about? All my anxiety melted away on opening day and it was like old times, being reunited with this beauty. But I’m getting ahead of the story.
Once again multiple tractor trailers were headed my way and would need to be delicately unloaded. In a mid-sized museum resources are a bit more limited. As a result, I was one of two people with any forklift experience and training. And the best part, the other guy didn’t exactly love operating the forklift. One might argue, as some members of my board at the time did, that as President and CEO of the museum my time and hourly rate were not best served on a forklift. Fortunately for me they caved and once again I operated with the precise skill of a surgeon unloading Sue.
When exhibits are loaded into museums like ours, they typically come with a one or two person crew to oversee and direct the installation of the exhibition. Sue is no exception, and her keeper was a short little man with a long career at a world-famous museum. He was in charge, not me. He is also a person whom I would call a friend and an acquired taste. We’ll call him Mike because that’s what his mother named him.
Mike is a very nice man. He’s travelled the world with Sue and set her up and packed her away countless times. He takes his stewardship of this priceless artifact VERY seriously, as he should. I really like Mike and was excited to work with him during the last install of Sue’s tour. I was also excited because at this point in time I had acquired all the necessary seat time to drive the forklift needed to assemble Sue.
Now for a few critical points of the story. First, Sue would be assembled in full view of our visitors in a big open atrium. There would be no margin for error. Second, traveling dinosaur skeletons travel mostly assembled already and articulated on an armature. Assembly consists of putting five or six pieces together not hundreds. For Sue we start at the feet and work up. Sue stands 16 feet tall at the hips and this is actually the most critical step.
The torso is brought in carefully slung underneath the skids of the forklift. That means the boom of the forklift is raised to more than 20 feet in the air and ever so slowly brought down for a pipe to slide into its receiver. Two men, Mike and our exhibits guy are on 12-foot ladders on each side of the hips guiding the torso into place. This was it; this was my moment. Almost 30 years of equipment operating experience brought to bear at this critical juncture.
I said earlier that this was happening in full view of all our visitors…you remember that part, right? At this particular moment I have dangling at the end of a 20 foot boom a priceless artifact, guiding it into a 2-inch bulls’ eye of a target. I am an experienced and certified (top of my class) forklift operator. Directions are being given by our man Mike. “Down an inch…Wait…ok, down an inch…WAIT!” This cycle repeating itself as small adjustments are being made. Oh yeah, forgot to mention this thing is heavy. The waiting was partially for the purpose of stopping the torso from swinging around on the sling. “Down an inch…WAIT.”
As we approached the target the crescendo in Mike’s voice grew in order to provide greater authority and importance to his directions. Tension was mounting. My exhibits guy shot me glances that translated to “are you sure you want to be the guy sitting in that seat.” My return glance said “of course I do, I don’t trust anyone else with this and I’ve been waiting 25 years to do this…also I graduated first in my forklift operators class.”
On more than one occasion Mike called off the approach and I was directed to go up a few inches where upon we would reset and try our decent again. This happened multiple times. I share this because it is important to understand there was a lot of up and down directions being given. During one such sequence I was directed to “go up a little.” My now sweaty palm grasped the corresponding lever and rather than going up a little, I came down a smidge.
Our man Mike from Chicago, standing on the last step of the ladder that says don’t stand here, whipped his head around and SCREAMED at me the following: “YOU GOT TO KNOW YOUR UPS FROM YOUR DOWNS!” Many of our visitors who had gathered to bear witness to this special moment shared looks of horror and humor. I was shaken to say the least and oh yeah, still had a priceless artifact dangling from a 20-foot boom. I was literally pushing the blood to my brain to avoid blacking out like I did in the long truck.
And then I was transported back to the dump and the union man standing there saying “son, you have to know up from down.” All my years of experience, all my training, all my careful due diligence to learn my trade craft and for a brief moment I was no better than the 16-year-old me who had no business operating a piece of equipment.
In that moment with Mike screaming at me, my exhibits guy parallelized with fear and confusion, visitors boring a hole into my soul, I was reduced to a humiliated lump of a man. I wanted desperately to hop out of my seat and let Mike take control but that wasn’t an option because his particular skills and experience were needed at the top of a ladder guiding the puzzle pieces of Sue together to form a priceless T-Rex. And my guy was smart enough to avoid eye contact. Sure, he could have operated the forklift and probably much better than me, but who in their right mind at that moment would want that assignment? No, he was just fine where he was on the other side of a T-Rex hip.
So there I sat, watching Sue’s torso swing 20 feet in the air and I had a choice to make. Recover from my error and get back in the saddle or run and hide to lick my wounds. The good news is that nothing was damaged apart from my ego. Sue was fine and Mike recovered in a matter of 3 seconds, at which point he said to me “down an inch…wait…ok, down another inch…wait…”
An hour later Sue was standing proud and we moved on to the next phase of installing the exhibit. My favorite ride was parked quietly in the corner and exactly no one said anything about my slip up. It was as if nothing ever happened. A few years later and it is a regular refrain in the office anytime I make an error. Everyone has a good chuckle at my expense, including me, and we are all reminded that mistakes don’t always end in catastrophe.
Much like my adventure with the long truck from Sneeds, the near disaster on the forklift with Sue left a permanent mark on me. A few years later I was in Chicago and was visiting the Field Museum on business and caught up with our friend Mike. I retold the story of him screaming at me and he had no memory of the experience. And that’s the kicker to this lesson. Mike and the union man so long ago had the same message to me; you have to know your ups from your downs. It’s a pretty simple thing to learn but the moral of the story is that you have to know your basics and you always have to go back to the basics.
There I was, the hot shot CEO doing all the things and being the man driving a forklift on full display and I forgot the basics. Being the expert or the most experienced person in the room doesn’t amount to a pile of roofing debris if you forget the basics. But there’s another lesson to be learned here. When you make a mistake, recognize it, own it, and get back in the seat of the forklift.
Since my near disastrous forklift incident, I am pleased to report that I continue to seize every opportunity I can to drive a forklift. We’ve loaded in and out several more exhibits since that time and every time, the joke comes back to life. There are new faces on my team since then, yet the story lives on, and even those who don’t know the origin of the joke are thrilled to remind me that I need to “know my ups from my downs.” It’s a humbling reminder and I wouldn’t have it any other way.