How do you teach people to do the right thing?
by Brooke Allen (Q4Colleges.com)
The unspoken contract when you are hitch-hiking is that you need to be more interesting than the radio. One summer (circa 1973), Debra and I decided to see how far away from New Brunswick, New Jersey we could get when all we had was $49 and three weeks.
We knew that repeating your own life story over and over gets repetitious so we used a little trick. We would ask each person who gave us a ride to tell us their story and then we would tell the next person the previous person’s story.
It turns out that listening to a story intently, knowing you will be repeating it soon – and then actually repeating it – is a good way to burn things into your noggin’.
Here is the story of the man in the pick-up truck who took us from central Minnesota to just west of Fargo, North Dakota.
I’ll call him Jeb. I don’t remember his name, but during Prohibition he used to bootleg whisky, so Jeb sounds like a good bootlegger’s name, don’t you think?
He said the pay was good and it was exciting work because the cops were always chasing you, but it wasn’t very intellectual. The only creative thing he learned was the Bootlegger’s K-Turn. He left the Interstate for a side road to show us how it is done. I’ll draw it for you:
One of the best ways to put distance between you and the police is to reverse directions after a curve on a narrow road where the cops miss a turn-around and have to back up or go a long way to another one. In the normal K-Turn you pull into a driveway on the opposite side of the street (A), back up (B), and then hopefully wave at the cops as you wiz past while they are still trying to cock their guns.
But the problem with the normal K-Turn is that the cop cars have a habit of crashing into you at point B. But with the Bootlegger’s K-Turn at point (B) you’re in the opposite lane from the cops so you have less of a chance of a crack-up.
For Jeb, the good times ended when Roosevelt took office; damn him! His first act was to legalize alcohol, and there went a well-compensatin’ career.
The only work Jeb could find was as a drill-press operator in a factory and for years he drilled holes in stuff over and over and over. To entertain himself he would think of ways the machine could be improved.
After a few years he screwed up the courage to ask the owner, “May I ask a question?”
The owner laughed, “You don’t need permission to ask a question?”
“Is it OK if I suggest an improvement,” Jeb asked meekly.
“You don’t need permission to suggest anything.”
“May I show you what I had in mind?”
The owner was beginning to get irritated, “Get on with it; show me already.”
It turned out Jeb’s idea made the drill-press much more efficient. Jeb was about to go back to work when the owner said, “Why don’t I put you on another machine and let’s see what you come up with.”
In short order he’d invented all kinds of better ways of making things and soon he was even inventing whole new things to make. The owner gave him piles of money and Jeb was very happy.
His pickup truck was littered with samples of his inventions. A new way of manufacturing razor blades; a way of silk-screening watercolors on paper; an attachment for a combine to convert it from harvesting corn to sunflowers.
Debra asked him, “Exactly when did you know you were an inventor?”
“I never asked for permission to be a bootlegger because I knew it was the wrong thing to do.” Jeb laughed.
“But,” he continued, “I didn’t become inventive until I leaned that I don’t need permission to do the right thing.”
Our next ride was from a guy named Frank. Frank is not his real name. I remember Frank’s real first and last name but if I use Frank’s real name, assuming someone hasn’t killed him by now, he might kill me. As you will see, whatever has happened to him, Frank is not the type to die of natural causes.
At first Frank said he was a roofer, but after we told him about Jeb, and he pulled off the Interstate so we could show him the Bootlegger’s K-Turn on a side road, he loosened up and finally took us in his confidence and told us he was a con-artist.
We knew that a convict was someone who had been convicted of a crime, and an ex-con meant someone who was now out of jail, so we figured a con-artist was an ex-con who considered himself particularly artistic. Frank corrected us. Con-artists play the “confidence game” which involves getting someone to take you into their confidence by first confiding in them, and then stealing from them; hopefully in a way that doesn’t technically violate the law.
Frank considered himself exceptionally creative and Deb and I would have to agree. He took us from North Dakota to Seattle,Washington, driving two days and a night. The entire time he told us about all his businesses: a tax refund service, an advertising agency, some convenience marts, a toy store, even a pet cemetery … by now it blurs into one. All his ideas had some sort of trick to them that was usually hard to figure out.
I asked him if there was an authority you could ask to see if a new idea was legal. He said, “Then they’re on to you. Don’t ask; just do it.”
He dropped us in Seattle but not before conning us out of $11 as a point of professional pride. Although I’m embarrassed at how he did it, I am willing to tell you (but you’ll have to buy me three pints first).
Later, in Centralia,Washington, Deb and I were stuck on an entrance ramp for an entire morning so we made a sign that said “Just Married” and tied some cans to our backpacks just to see what would happen.
That afternoon a reporter and a photographer from the Tacoma News Tribune stopped and said someone called in a newlywed couple and they wanted to do a Sunday feature about us.
I said, “We’re not really married.”
The reporter called to the photographer, “There’s no story here.”
Deb said, “Give us a ride and we’ll tell you about Frank.”
They took us half-way to Portland.
That trip was nearly 40 years ago and the lessons still stay with me.