In high school, I had the perfect job. I was a bench technician for Petaluma based, Ross-Holm Company. My job was to repair milk pumps and meters from an automated dairy system the company manufactured. Apart from the occasional pump that had blown seals and filled its innards with smelly rotten milk, it was the dream job of any kid who thrived on taking things apart, fixing them and putting them back together. My management loved my work except for days when I missed and opened a pump full of rancid milk only to fill the whole office with toxic lactic acid fumes. On lactic acid days, I was regaled with details of different methods of slow death I deserved.
On this job, I was constantly in violation of what would become future EPA regulations because they let me work with actual silver mercury switches – I mean the kind that used small glass tubes with a couple of electrodes and about a quarter teaspoon of actual molten mercury. When the switch was tilted back and forth, it would make or break the connection by gravity rolling the bead of mercury into or away from the contacts. When these switches went bad, I was instructed to chuck them into the garbage – and no one thought anything of it. And, just to make sure I was in violation of future OHSA regulations, I didn’t throw them into the garbage, but collected them until I had about 30 and then I carefully snapped off the top of each glass bubble and poured the mercury into one of those cute little shot-size vodka bottles. Thus I had my own small collection of molten mercury to play with.
Whenever I got bored, I would pour the mercury into my cupped hand and just play with it. It was cool – because, you know, who else had their own mercury collection? I liked how heavy it was and how cold it felt even though it was really dense melted metal that could suck the heat from you like an ice cube. I would also pour it out into a rimmed lid and float small metal parts on the heavy fluid to see what would float and what would sink. Almost nothing sinks in mercury. Those special effects in the Terminator 2 movie brought back lots of fun memories of playing with my mercury collection.
I kept that old bottle of mercury for years until I read somewhere that it is, uh-oh, poison. Really? Nuts! Into the garbage it went. Just an update: I’m still alive and able to hold a pen steady enough to write so most of my neurology appears to be intact. It seems that only mercury fumes are toxic, not the room temperature stuff I enjoyed. Oh well…
Back on topic; working at the same company was the lead service engineer and he became a close friend. He installed and serviced full dairy systems and I was fortunate enough to go with him on many calls to dairies around Sonoma County. I used to love going out on these calls. He taught me how to build up electrical panels and basic hydraulics and all kinds of fun things related to the equipment. When he and I were done, one person could clean, feed, milk and eject 6 cows at one time. Automated milking of cows – yea – I never would have guessed it either, but I was there and it was true.
My friends name was Claude Grey, and he unintentionally made a huge impact on me. Many of you who grew up near Petaluma and Rohnert Park, California would recognize his daughter, Donna, who gave me permission to share this story, so here goes.
One day, Claude came to my bench and sat down with a grave expression on his face so right from the start he had my full attention, because I’d never saw him look like this. Being serious just did not come naturally to him. He preferred laughing his way through the day so something was definitely troubling him.
“Gary, I have a favor to ask you.”
Now, I would have done almost anything for Claude. He was that kind of friend. He had invested lots of time into training me and I trusted him. He would not to ask me to do anything illegal, immoral or (so I thought at the time) dangerous.
“Sure,” I answered. “What can I do? Need to borrow some mercury?”
Just kidding. I didn’t really offer him my mercury. Even great friendships have limits.
Claude sighed deeply; smiled to relieve some deep tension and asked me one of the most stunning questions I’d ever received. “Gary, if I paid for your tux and other expenses, would you take my daughter to her prom? I really hate the guy she wants to go with and I trust you.”
His question threw my mind into a battle of conflicting thoughts. I knew his daughter slightly and frankly would have paid him for the privilege of taking her to the prom. Guys, I think you will understand what was going on in my brain.
- She goes to a different school than me and I don’t have a girlfriend right now,
- I know a little about her and she …
- … is knockout cute. Way above my pay grade.
- There is very little chance that I’d ever get a date with her any other way.
- Taking her to the prom would be like winning a lottery that I didn’t even have a ticket for.
- Her own father wants it to happen and…
- She’s gorgeous…
- and he’s wants to pay for it!
- Bummer for the guy she thinks she’s going with, but all’s fair in, umm, whatever this is – it’s fair.
- So – heck yes! Let’s do this!
I am so glad I did not say any of that out loud because it was quickly followed by an annoying thread of logic in my decision making system. Gals, I bet you are already trying to wave me off. It took me a few seconds to get there but my next thoughts were about how Donna would receive this change of plans, and it would go something like this:
- ” Dad wants Gary Wilson to take me to the prom?
- No way! I’m am going with [never heard his name] and …
- … who the heck is this Gary Wilson?
- I’d rather both pillory both Dad and this presumptuous Mr. Wilson, but only after sound beatings!”
Gals, don’t you agree that both Claude and I would still be licking our wounds some 45 some odd years later…?
My amazing opportunity was unraveling without ever getting off the ground.
- And what if she finds out about the whole paying my expenses idea?
- Ugh! She would be horribly hurt and angry.
- Maybe, if I paid my own expenses…
I was not any kind of expert on teenage girl psychology, but I had two sisters at home and just knew Donna would never be happy with any version of this plan. My thinking continued,
- There is no way that she would be willing to dump her preferred date for me and,
- if her dad forced the issue via parental fiat – it would get ugly.
- very ugly.
- Claude would have an epic melt-down argument with his daughter,
- who would already have a reward offered for my head on a stick.
The undeniable conclusion has to be; if I ever want to have even her friendship – I couldn’t agree to this idea.
- unless I can get rid of the other guy and pay my own way… hummm.
Okay – I did not seriously consider that last point, but it did run through my mind by way of due diligence. After a few desperate moments of trying to assemble a solution that would make this might work, I gave up. “Claude – you know she’d kill us both – right?”
We talked about it a bit, but there really were no solutions to the multiple systemic problems with the idea.
Claude was desperate to send his daughter to her prom with a young man he trusted. I really – really wanted this to work but the risks to mind and body were too big, so the idea never got out of my shop area. Claude left despondent and I felt horrible. I told no one about this for years.
I actually did get one date with Donna later by more traditional means, but beyond friendship, we did not click. Nice girl, nice guy, no real chemistry. Now we know. No foul. Life goes on.
However; this whole event crystallized to become a pivot point for me. Claude gave me a glimpse of something that took me years to really figure out. It was all wrapped up in his statement about wanting his daughter to, “go with someone he trusted.”
Really? He trusted me…? With his daughter?” I have to tell you – I thought long and hard about whether I even deserved his trust.
Recall that I did not know Donna well. I certainly wanted to know her well but at the time, I knew her only by her (very nice) looks and could not have told you what was in her heart and mind.
Claude only knew me from work. He knew I was a good employee, a quick study with needle nose pliers and mercury switches. We had worked and laughed together, but somehow this was enough for him to trust me?
He could have no idea how I related to girls, and trust me – mercury switches made much more sense than girls, except, of course – they are a lot less fun. Claude must have balanced his limited knowledge of me with the degree of distrust of that other guy and decided that his daughter was safer with me than that other guy.
Regardless, it was a huge compliment!
But what a huge tragedy that I couldn’t find a way to make it work.
Anyway, from this event I decided that I wanted to deserve that kind of trust. Now I recognized that the parents of any girl I went out with were judging whether I could be trusted with their daughter so I tried to get to know them and be a guy worth trusting. Thus, Claude made me a better man and I remain deeply in his debt.
Many years later, I came across his Donna via Facebook and asked, “Are you Claude’s daughter?
“Did he ever tell you what almost happened with your prom?”
“Say what? No!”
So she got a private retelling – and she confirmed that I had been right. She told me she would have been devastated. It would have been a disaster on many levels – lots of injuries, really bad memories and still-smoking craters scattered about the emotional landscape.
Her words back to me were priceless, “You’re a wise man. I would have been crushed to find out he had PAID someone to take me out, and he was an equally wise man not to have told me that he couldn’t even PAY anyone to take me out.”
I asked for Donna’s permission to write this up and she graciously granted it. She even reviewed it before I was willing to share. I see that you’re reading this. That means I secured her permission.
So, today I remain thankful for the man who forced me to think this whole trust issue through. I posit that young men need more mature men like Claude who loved his daughter enough to think up a wild idea like this. Okay, he also gave me one of the wildest near-emotional-death memories that I could have ever imagined, but left me much more trust-worthy than he found me.
You just can’t make up stuff like this. Except for the whole mercury sub-plot. I think I could have made that up – but I didn’t, and I wish I had kept that bottle of mercury.