Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Air Conditioning and the Art of Engine Repair

Mid-summer in the Midwest is its own special breed of hot. The end of the day is the worst. After a long day of the sun beating down without a cloud in the sky, you can feel the heat radiating off of rocks, streets and buildings. With the high humidity, it becomes hard to breathe; you just want to race from your car straight into the cool embrace of air conditioning.

It was in a generic hot summer like this one when I found my first job - a wire editor and designer at a small newspaper about two hours east of St. Louis. I was young and eager to make my fortune while leaving my mark on the world.

After a month of poverty, lies and small-town living, I was convinced God was punishing me for some long-forgotten sin.

I worked in an historic building, one that was nearly 100 years old. Its brick walls were like a kiln in the summer - unless you happened to work in the one fully air conditioned office in the building - the production office, which I did.

On any given day, I was the first person in the office. Generally, the newsroom (next door to my office) was abandoned - reporters and editors escaped the hot office and crashing computers until later in the evening, when their deadlines loomed. Since I was the only person there, I head to head into the newsroom in order to start queing up wire stories for the evening run.

As I sat there, reading about the Unabomber, Mars Sojourner and Monica Seles, the phone rang. I looked around and answered it.

"Generic Small-Town Paper. This is Brian. How can I help you?"

"Brian? This is Dan." Dan was the paper's business manager. "Can you do me a favor?"

"Hey Dan. Sure. What do you need?"

"Can you tell Rick when he turns on the air conditioner that there may be a hole in the exhaust line, and he needs to make sure there's nothing flammable around it?"

"No problem." I hung up the slick receiver and zipped down to the press to relay my message.

Later, back in the cool of the production office, I began thinking - always a dangerous proposition. So I mentioned my conversation to Lisa, one of my co-workers; I also mentioned how I didn't think air conditioners had exhaust hoses.

"No one told you about the air conditioner?" she asked. "I thought everyone knew about that."

"Can't say they did," I replied. "What's the story?"

"Well, really, the whole building is air conditioned, but it doesn't work well. They have the special units set up for in here, and the rest of the building is on a separate system. They had to do it this way, because when John had someone come in to examine the building to install air conditioning, they determined the building would need to be strengthened structurally in order to put the units on the roof. So John came up with another solution."

"Which is?"

"Since we have the new Macs in here, this room has its own dedicated unit, and the rest of the building is only air conditioned intermittently. But they couldn't run the necessary power lines, so it's run off an old truck engine in the basement."

"The basement."

"Yep. The basement."

"So we could be caught in a fire or die of carbon monoxide poisoning."

"Yep. Pretty funny, huh?"

I navigated the maze of dark hallways and corridors down to the basement, where in one corner was a room I never went into. And sure enough, there was truck engine - all eight cylinders chugging away, powering the air conditioning (but not doing a good job of it, I might add).

When I have a bad day at work, I think of this story and smile - because no matter how frustrated I become at work, I realize I could still be there, probaby running the show by now. And in this case, I'd rather serve in purgatory than reign in the asylum.

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