When I was very young my family sometimes took the train from DC to New York to visit my grandparents. I still remember the swaying and rumbling of the cars and the smell of oil and a certain kind of grime. It always seemed to be raining. The tracks were naturally laid through the industrial backyards of New Jersey and when you weren’t looking at mountains of used tires headed for disposal or recycling you tended to see sights like this:
Vent flares gave the scenes a hint of animation — and menace. I didn’t know what was going on out there in the dark but it seemed adult and happening, and yet somehow very far away, as if I could never grow up and be a part of it.
Years later I’d gone through college and the military and finally found myself in Shawinigan, Quebec, walking through a paper mill, tracing a pulpmaking process across the sheaf of drawings I’d brought. The last drawing showed the steam regenerator. It was eighty or a hundred feet high and I found it outside in a gap between buildings. I was on an elevated walkway about halfway up and just stopped to marvel for a bit. Eventually I looked around and saw a single light fixture, a flood lamp mounted in a protective cage something like this:
Then it hit me. The whole paper mill wasn’t too different than the oil refineries I’d seen way back when. There were hums and lights and columns and pipes and jets of steam and big things happening. The smells weren’t the same. The weather was nicer. It was daylight.
But I knew I was finally where I was supposed to be.
These days I’m just as happy in a customer’s office or diagramming away on a whiteboard as I would be at any industrial site. As long as I’m figuring out how to make a process better, and as long as I get to work it out with smart people, I’ll still be right at home.