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The Special Project

Once upon a time, I was an engineer. Eons ago, I supported a large avionics electronics repair shop at Robins Air Force Base. My facility was spread across three buildings, each filled with skilled technicians, engineers, software types, and support staff.

I completed some elaborate projects when I worked there, but today, I’m sharing a rather silly one.

Jerry was my boss’s boss’s boss, or rather my Division Chief. He was intelligent — a bright bulb — and quiet. He often skipped over two levels of management to assign projects directly to me.

“I have a special project for you,” he said one day after summoning me and the facility’s plumber to his office.

“Here’s the problem,” he continued. “We installed those fancy automatic flushing toilets in the front office bathrooms. Sometimes in the morning, when I go in there to relieve myself … and I sit down … well … if I move wrong … if I adjust myself slightly … if I lean forward … the toilet flushes before I’m finished … and that’s not a good thing …” He inhaled deeply, then exhaled.

“I don’t want it to flush until I’m done,” he emphasized. “I don’t want it to think about flushing until I’ve stood up and stepped away from the toilet bowl, understand? I want the two of you to work together and make sure that every toilet in this facility is adjusted correctly.”

It was an easy fix, though not an engineering task. Each of the devices had sensitivity adjustments. All we had to do was change the sensitivity and/or adjust the angle of the sensor eyes. And so for the next several hours, the plumber (cloaked in coveralls) and I (dressed in a business suit, hosiery, and heels) went from stinky toilet to stinky toilet making fine adjustments. Afterwards, I poked my head in Jerry’s office and said, “We’re done.”

“You aren’t done until I say you’re done,” he said, pushing himself up from his desk.

He went into the men’s bathroom as I waited in the hallway. Five minutes later, I heard the flush. He came out and said, “Good job. I thank you, and every man who uses this bathroom thanks you.”

The other engineers heckled me that afternoon. They teased me saying that not only was I the teacher’s pet, but that Jerry saved all his poop projects for me, but they didn’t use the word, “poop.”

Years later, I sat at the conference table with Jerry and told him of my decision to leave the Air Force Base and take an engineering job with OMC ( Johnson and Evinrude boat motors). He told me that he hated to see me go and offered to hold my job open for a little while just in case I changed my mind.

Then he said, “You know, about once every two months, someone comes in this office and complains about you, and I tell them to get out of my office.”

This comment threw me for a loop. I prided myself on doing good work and getting along with the folks, and I was stunned that people had complained about me.

“Complained? Why?” I asked.

Jerry laughed.

“Hundreds of people work in these buildings,” he said. “Most of them? I don’t know them, don’t know their names, don’t know what in the world they do all day … But I know what Amber Nagle does. I see you in the shop every day. Everyone knows you. They complain because you are always out there doing your job, and making sure they are doing their job, too. Most of the other engineers sit in their cubicles day after day, keeping to themselves, doing as little as possible, waiting to go home, and no one knows them, sees them, or complains about them.”

His comment was still hard to digest, but I realized that it was a compliment.

“When I want something to get done, get done quickly, and get done right, I have about six engineers out of dozens I rely upon, and you’ve always been one of them,” he continued. “Even if it is a silly, poop project.”

He didn’t use the word, “poop.” He laughed, slapped me on the back, and wished me good luck.

I never saw Jerry again, but I think about our final conversation a lot. There was a wisdom in his words that day — a lesson. Whether as an engineer, or as a writer, or as the girl who supervised the poop project, my goal has always been to do a good job and make a difference in this world. And yes, occasionally, I step on a few toes, but at least I’m out there trying.

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