Ben Oostdam story # 330


by John K. Nixon

The late Ron Werthner was an engineer and an eccentric soul.
A chain smoker, he had a penchant for stovepipe trousers and a reputation for being accident-prone.
Rumour had it that he periodically resoled his shoes with pieces of discarded conveyor belting.
The story is told that on one occasion he walked into his bossís office holding a cup of coffee.
Realizing that his shoe lace was undone, he propped his foot on a chair and promptly lost his balance,
toppled over and finished up hunched in the knee-hole of his supervisorís desk,
from which awkward position he needed help to regain his feet.
Reputedly he accomplished this impressive feat without spilling a drop of coffee!

Ron worked for a consulting engineering company and soon had established a reputation as a
singular source of unintended entertainment.
On one occasion Ron was attending a long drawn out project meeting, chaired by the Clientís
representative, in which the attendees had just paused for refreshments.
Ron was sitting to the immediate right of the Client who, clad in a dark pinstripe business suit,
had launched into a long monologue punctuated by frequent arm waving and hand gestures.
Meanwhile Ron bit into a cream puff and was mortified to see a blob of cream shoot out sideways
to attach itself to the Clientís outstretched coat sleeve.
While his neighbour continued to gesticulate unaware of what had happened, Ron carefully folded
a piece of paper into something resembling an ice cream cone.
He then proceeded surreptitiously and with limited success to use this as a scoop to remove the
offending blob of cream from the sleeve waving beside him, in the process dislodging
part of it which landed in his lap.
Stealthily removing an outsize handkerchief from his pocket, he attempted to
mop up the errant blob from his trousers.
It was not until observers on the other side of the table could no longer contain their mirth
that the Client finally became aware of what had transpired.

Humorous incidents such as the above provide a welcome respite from the tedium of
long engineering project meetings.
The humour is not always unintentional as illustrated by an episode that occurred in a
weekly project progress meeting that I attended in Santiago, Chile some years ago.
The meeting was chaired by Logan, the Clientís Project Manager, and included four Canadian
and three or four Chilean engineers seated around the table.
Logan was a South African who delighted in needling the expatriate Canadians present.
As an example, at some point in the meeting I referred to the fact that we were following a
design practice that had been approved by a well-known Canadian mining company.
At this Logan scoffed that, regardless of what some "Mickey Mouse Canadian mining company" did,
on this project we would do it his way.

The following week, when Logan entered the room to chair the weekly meeting, he was confronted by the four Canadians seated solemnly in their chairs, each sporting a Mickey Mouse tie, purchased the day previously at a Disney supply shop in Santiago!

Interestingly, after the Chilean project was finished, Logan went on to work for no less than
two separate Mickey Mouse Canadian mining companies in Canada!

A master at creating a strategic diversion during engineering meetings was the late Al Gatto.
Al was an inveterate pipe smoker in the days when smoking in the workplace was widely tolerated.
He was older than the rest of us, very European in dress and demeanour, with a bald head
and silver goatee, and a fondness for wearing safari jackets with a dozen or so pockets,
each closed with a buttoned flap or zipper.

During one memorable project meeting in Spain Al was asked a pointed question by the Clientís representative.
As the eyes of all present turned to him to see how he would respond, Al looked thoughtful for a moment,
then with his right hand slowly reached into one of his myriad pockets, extracting his pipe which he
carefully laid on a piece of paper before him.
With his left hand he produced from another pocket a curious little tool
with a short stubby wooden handle and a wicked metal hook at the other end.
As all around the table stared in fascination, Al proceeded to scour out the bowl of his pipe,
tapping it several times on the paper to dislodge any residue.
Satisfied finally that the bowl was clean he sucked momentarily on the stem,
before reaching into a third pocket to withdraw a rolled up package of tobacco,
which he carefully laid beside the pipe.
Unrolling the packet, he extracted a tuft of tobacco between two fingers and
proceeded to stuff it into the bowl.
With the blunt end of the tool he tamped down the tobacco, adding two more tufts
until he was satisfied the bowl was full.
Inserting the pipe stem into his mouth he deliberately drew a lighter
from a fourth pocket and lit the tobacco in the bowl, drawing on the stem at the same time to aid ignition.
After a few draws on the pipe, he took the stem from his mouth, exhaled several smoke rings,
sighed and, turning to the client, asked: "what was the question again?"
By that time, to no-oneís surprise, the Client had forgotten the question too!

The all time showstopper prize however goes to the luckless Ron - he of the stovepipe trousers.
Legend has it that Ron was present during a tense and lengthy meeting with the Client
in which various shortcomings on an ill-fated project were being discussed
around the conference table at long and gory length.
Ron was slumped in his chair with his arms looped through the armrests and his hands thrust deep
in his tight fitting trouser pockets.
As the meeting dragged on Ron slumped deeper in his chair and began to doze off.
At some point someone on the opposite side of the table called to Ron
to pass over an engineerís scale on the table before him.
Jolted from his reverie, Ron tried to sit up and lean forward to pick up the scale.
For some reason he could not free his hands from his pockets.
After two more attempts, Ron staggered to his feet, tortoise-like,
with the chair glued stubbornly to his posterior.
He then attempted to shake the chair loose, but to no avail.
It was as though his arms had gone into a state of rigor mortis.
The more he tried to extract his hands from his pockets, the more his arms
remained locked in the arm rests of the chair.
By this time the meeting had broken up and Ron was surrounded by the attendees,
all suggesting various strategies to free the hapless prisoner.
One obvious solution was to use a pair of scissors to cut his hands free
from the pockets of his beloved trousers, a suggestion that Ron strenuously resisted.
Finally, while two men held onto the chair, a third, by repeatedly tugging at Ronís arms,
managed to extract his hands from his pockets, ripping one pocket in the process!

So for all those engineers and designers who, beset by demanding budgets and impossible deadlines,
are forced to endure interminable project review meetings, hereís hoping that there are more
Als and Rons out there to provide the necessary comic relief and touches of absurdity,
without which the workplace would be a dreary place indeed!

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