Sunday, June 21, 2009

Hangin' With Dad

On Father's Day I think about the lessons Dad has taught me… As I have no offspring onto which to pass the wisdom, I try and tell the stories and teach the lessons to my nieces and nephews. I also suppose, by sharing the stories on my blog, I am passing these lessons onto you.

Hang-out with my father for any length of time and you will learn something. It may be that you will learn the horrible secrets of my past that he is so willing to tell to my friends at parties no matter how hard I have tried to hide them.* He may teach you how to brew beer or ferment wine. (He's still much better at this than I am.) He may teach you to cook, he may teach you an important life lesson.

One of these life lessons hangs on the wall of my office. It takes the form of a poster-sized photograph that my father took years ago when working for the railroad. I've always called it "Object Lesson: Pay Attention To Details." The picture is of a railroad grade crossing somewhere in southern Florida. It was taken on a rainy night and it shows the crossbucks, the gate arms down, and the warning lights flashing.

The story Dad has told me (and as with all Dad's stories, take this one with a grain of salt) goes something like this. The grade crossing, which I recall as being located in West Palm Beach, was the site of an accident where a motorist was hit by a train. The motorist claimed to be sitting at the gates when the train hit him. The railroad contended that he must have been illegally crossing the tracks and wending his way through the closed gates.

The picture was taken as evidence that the gates worked and the lights worked and the crossbucks were present. The problem is that the picture, while showing all of these statements to be true, also shows that the railroad was definitely at fault for the accident. It is not obvious when you look at the crossing itself, but when you look at the entire picture. You see, when you look at the crossing, you notice that the lines on the street are white (in the US, white lines are used to indicate a division of traffic lanes that are travelling the same direction), more damning is that the signage over all four lanes of the street that crosses the railway are facing my father. Each lane has a sign over it telling where they go (US 1, A1A, Beach Drive, etc.).

Then if you look at the gates, the story becomes clear. The city had re-configured the road since the crossing was built. What had once been a two-way road, was now a one-way road. The crossing gate, however, were never changed. The right-two lanes were protected by an arm that lowered on this side of the crossing, but the arm on the left side of the crossing was on the far side of the rail line. It was protecting traffic that no longer came from the opposite direction. So the drive, who believed himself to be safe because he had pulled up to the gate, actually had his front wheels on the tracks.

Friends of mine have looked at that picture for the longest time and even knowing what the purpose of the picture and the story behind the picture was failed to see the problem that the picture revealed. Very few of them ever see what the problem is until it is pointed-out to them. To be honest, Dad had to tell me too, as I recall.

I use this lesson all the time. When I am designing software, or planning projects, or thinking of how I will spend my vacation time, I usually spend a lot more time because of this lesson… Look for the obvious flaws in your plan, and look for the things that may no be obvious in the plan.

Wherever you are today, I hope that you'll call your dad and wish him a Happy Father's Day!

Don Bergquist – June 21, 2009 – Lakewood, Colorado, USA

*By the way: To my friends at that party, and you know who you are, I still deny that that was ever my nickname!

Editor's Note:
I have just been informed by my sister (who has read this post six months after it was posted) that the photo in question was not taken on a rainy night as I had always more-or-less assumed. Apparently my father paid the fire department to wash down the street so that it would be wet and reflective. Mary does not report why he did this, but I must assume that it was because the night the accident occurred it had been raining so he wanted to show the scene as it had been that night.

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