Rack ’Em!

(The following is an excerpt from Knocking Bolts, a new book by Christer Idhammar.)

Sometime in the late 1980s, I worked with a large pulp and paper mill in Mobile, Alabama. As usual, I was viewed as the consultant, wearing a shirt and tie, carrying a briefcase, and for me, speaking with a foreign accent—I was typecast. After nearly 20 years in the consultant role, I knew the mumblings amongst the craftspeople. “What does he know?” and “The roughest part of his workday is probably when he gets a paper cut.”

So, when one of the supervisors asked me to have a few beers with him and some millwrights after work one day, I accepted. It was an excellent opportunity to get to know them better. After all, it was they who would carry out the work I would recommend after I finished my audit. I could tell they were looking for a rouse, and they exchanged glances as if saying to each other, “Let’s take him to a real rough place!”

And, they did. We arrived at a pool hall at the end of a long dirt road. The kind of place where you’d only be welcome if you knew the right people, and you had to know a special knock to get in. It was rough—calling it a dive bar would almost be glorifying it. As soon as we were let in through the red door, it got quiet as the patrons shot me suspicious glances. When they saw whose company I was in, the huddled conversations resumed. The whole place stunk like old, sour beer, and the tables were sticky. The supervisor and the millwrights didn’t know it, but for me it was nothing new. We had a few beers. They drank Budweiser and I my usual Heineken (I don’t drink the watery American beers), probably adding to their view of me as some tenderfoot European. Then, they challenged me to a game of pool.

“Rack ’em,” one of them said, so I rolled up my sleeves, put all the balls in order, and racked them tight. At that point, I think they realized their little experiment wasn’t going according to plan (me, horrified and standing in a corner). I ended up winning the game.

That night, like so many others, I thanked my lucky stars for my curious personality, my many years at sea, and my many encounters with people from all over the world. What the guys didn’t know about me was that by that time, I was a global soul. Not only had I done my dog years in the confinement of a ship, covered in grease below deck in boiling hot machine rooms through storms and other near disasters, I had also started as an apprentice—the absolute lowest on the totem pole. I wasn’t always an engineer and a consultant, and I had stopped my jaw dropping a long time ago.”

The fact that I recognized this dive bar after a while, realizing that I’d actually been there once in 1963 as a sailor, helped things too.

When the world is your “office,” you’ll be exposed to all sorts of things. The one thing that has helped me a lot in my career is my ability to adapt and listen as well as the fact that I have a pretty accepting personality.

I started traveling in January of 1961 and haven’t stopped. I’ve visited many countries and worked in 52 of them, so I’ve been exposed to many different cultures. I have also worked or rubbed elbows with people of all sorts of socioeconomic groups. I saw how people worshipped cows in India and elephants in Thailand, I experienced the spitting and farting in China, I understood how “no” never meant no in Ethiopia (they said, “yes, tomorrow,” which had a tendency to mean “no”), and how in some Asian countries they avoid the word “no” altogether as it is considered impolite.

Then there was the time when I flew with Angolan soldiers in a Soviet aerial warhorse, Ilyushin IL-76, from Spain to Cuba to do some consulting. The IL-76 was designed to carry a payload of 40 tons for 5,000 kilometers in less than six hours. It was also developed to manage in the worst weather conditions (think Siberia) and had an extraordinary ability to land and take off from unprepared landing strips. Mainly a freight plane, it also had a few rows of passenger seats, maybe 60 tops, and in true Soviet style, they were covered in plastic. Along with the Angolan soldiers were a few other civilians, though they were not on business trips like I was. On my return flight, one family was leaving Cuba without anything, even leaving their wedding rings behind. Each little thing on the flight cost money (unlike the amenities of a commercial flight), so I paid for their food and drink once I understood that they had no money at all.

That flight, like so many other experiences of mine, was pretty surreal, but somehow I always landed on my feet, and I attribute that to adapting my listening skills to various people and situations. In my early years, I didn’t flaunt this. I did not always keep a low profile, but preferred to let my work show what and who I was. Walking the walk is always better than just talking the talk.

They say that your environment shapes you, and I’d be willing to agree with that. So, if you want to become a successful maintenance consultant on an international scale, you need to move about and expose yourself to different cultures and customs whenever you have a chance. Just as a better vacation experience is usually found outside the hotel pool and bar, real life is happening out there away from the office.

The only time I got wigged out was once in Africa when a business acquaintance grabbed my hand as we walked down the street. It was a common custom there for men to hold hands, a sign of respect and friendship. However, with my cultural heritage, it felt very awkward. In trying to be understanding of different cultures and customs, you have to draw the line somewhere, but figure out how to do it gracefully. Trying not to offend them, I had to figure out a way to avoid it, like sneezing and then quickly, but nonchalantly, keeping my hands in my pockets.