Editor: Here "Accidental Designer" tells us the epic tale of how he backed into a career in designing and building by discovering something no one else had. We won't tell you the name of our protagonist for now, as we don't want you to Google him yet and find out how the story ends. Just sit back, enjoy, and see how a man with no formal industrial design training launched into a career many of us would envy.
I knew that I'd screwed up, but knowing it didn't make it any better. I was made to stand up in front of the class, where thirty pairs of wide eyes all stared at me, afraid of what was going to come next, yet glad that it wasn't one of them up there.
You see, before I had any inclination that design was going to make me a success, and before I even learned how to design, I learned how to build. I read in a previous True I.D. Story that the designer learned how to build in his grandfather's woodshop as a kid. Well, I didn't have a kindly grandfather teaching me: Instead I had a hard-ass I'll call Mr. Barkington, who ran the Wood Shop class in my high school. And I thought he was a complete asshole.
Wood Shop was a mandatory class, and Mr. Barkington was quite the ball-buster. For our first assignment, we had to make a checkerboard—pretty basic, cut squares out of two different colors of wood, then put them together in an alternating pattern. Well, I forgot to account for the kerf, the thickness of the blade, when I cut my pieces up. Add up a 3/32" kerf across the entire board, and by the time I got it all together the damn thing was a couple inches too short on each side.
Mr. Barkington called me out in front of the entire class. "Take a look, everybody," he said, "take a good look at what this fucking idiot did! Jesus Christ!" He held my board up so everyone could see. "Does that look right to you? Hey asshole, do you even know what a kerf is? Jesus, Saint Mary and Joseph!"
As you Millennials can probably tell, I went to high school a long time ago, back when it was perfectly acceptable for a teacher to say these kinds of things to a student. Today Mr. Barkington would probably have been fired, but back then, I dunno, I think we didn't take stuff so personal, or we learned to endure it for our own betterment. When he humiliated me in front of the class, sure, my cheeks were burning, but I didn't cry, or go tell the Principal (who wouldn't have given a shit) or go whine to my parents. And no, I didn't throw the checkerboard out; it became a cutting board for my mom.
Instead, I resolved that I was never going to make that mistake again. Every time Mr. Barkington chewed out another student, I took note of what they'd done and resolved not to make those mistakes either. He became that authority figure whose respect I wanted to earn, and I threw myself into Woodshop with a passion.
Later in the semester, we had a project considerably more complicated than a checkerboard: A coffee table. I slaved over that thing. I had learned to "Measure twice and cut once." There were a few times I was about to drill a hole or glue a dowel in, but something nagged at me and I went to double-check the dimension, and I caught several errors before I made them, then made the corrections before I'd ruined the project. And I gained the satisfaction of doing something well. It had only been a few months since I'd first stepped into the woodshop, but now I was a markedly better builder than I was before.
Finally I had the thing all together. I don't mean to pat myself on the back, but boy, this thing was as perfect as I could get it. "Mr. Barkington," I called out, across the busy classroom, where everyone was working on theirs. "I'm ready to show you my table!" I picked up a heavy metal toolbox, to move it out of the way so he could better see it. I was excited to show it to him; there was nothing he could possibly—
The toolbox slipped out of my hands—
The toolbox landed point-down, dead-center on my coffee table top, smashing a triangle-shaped dent into the surface, then bounced off the table and sent tools across the floor. I couldn't believe it.
Mr. Barkington was now standing next to me, looking down at my table with his hands on his hips. I braced my ears for the tirade that was about to come out of his mouth—but instead I heard his footsteps as he turned and walked away. He had walked clear out of the room.
I slowly began picking tools and my self-esteem up off of the floor. By the time I had the toolbox back together, Mr. Barkington had re-entered the classroom. He was holding something heavy in one hand and a rag in the other. Without a word he walked over to the sink to wet the rag, then came over to my workbench and placed the damp rag over the dent on my coffee table. The thing in his other hand was a steam iron, and he plugged it in. Then he showed me how to run the hot iron over the rag to steam the wood fibers.
"That's enough, take it off now," he said after a few moments. I put the iron aside and slowly peeled the rag back—and the dent had disappeared! It was like magic! My table, my beautiful table now looked perfect again, and I turned in search of what I hoped would be a satisfied expression on Mr. Barkington's face...
...but he had already walked off to critique another student's work. "Jesus, Flanagan, look at this rickety piece of shit!" he exclaimed. "I wouldn't burn this sonuvabitch for firewood if I was dying of frostbite!"
Yeah, Mr. Barkington was not a praiser. But I still use that wood-steaming trick to this day.
I soon learned that woodworking was actually fun, particularly when you got it right. I'm not the most book-smart guy in the world, and to be frank, I rode the short bus to school. In that age, before they could diagnose something as simple as A.D.D., they put me together with kids that suffered from mental retardation and autism, because to the school, we were all just kids that didn't fit in, and they warehoused us in a homeroom where they treated us like idiots; but I found that when I applied myself to woodworking, I got better and better at it. By senior year I'd even become a class T.A., expected to lead and teach the novices.
And Mr. Barkington gave us a HUGE project that year: One morning we showed up to school and there was a goddamn 40-foot boat sitting in the parking lot on a huge trailer. It was what they call a "stinkpot," a fishing trawler type of boat, and this thing was maybe two weeks away from sinking.
Mr. Barkington had purchased the boat for us to work on, and our job was to get the thing seaworthy again. I eagerly threw myself into the project. For the rest of that year, I crawled in and out of that boat more times than I care to remember, as my classmates and I removed, duplicated, and replaced rotted out planks, removed machinery and re-secured it with better fasteners, sanded, painted, you name it.
I never thought we'd get it finished, but by the end of the year it was done. There were still some minor things to be fixed but overall it was deemed ship-shape, so one Saturday morning we students all showed up at the marina in Redondo Beach. The boat was bobbing in the water next to a dock, and Mr. Barkington was standing on it. "Let's go, numbnuts," he yelled, "we ain't got all day!"
We boarded, and cast the lines off, and Mr. Barkington steered the boat out into the water. It was unbelievable. This thing had been in such shitty shape that some days I showed up to school expecting to see it had sunken into the asphalt of the parking lot, and here it was cruising through the water. Because me and my classmates had fixed the thing.
I'd ended up in Wood Shop because it was mandatory, then threw myself into the work because I'd wanted to earn Mr. Barkington's respect. But along the way I'd fallen in love with making things.
Standing on that boat, 18-year-old me looked out over the ocean, over the Pacific, and I had no idea that one day, I'd see my dreams coming towards me across that ocean, from the other direction, strapped into a container ship. And it was what happened to me next that set me on the path.
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