You Can’t Always Get Kismet, But You Can Avoid Terrible

Sometimes things just come together. You end up with magic. Kismet. And maybe a nice trophy.

And sometimes you don’t.

My fraternity at Carnegie Mellon was rarely any good at Buggy (also called Sweepstakes) but we were always competitive in Greek Sing and Booth. My big brother in the fraternity was booth chairman my freshman year so I always got cranked up for that event. The goal was to build a booth that was decorated to match that year’s theme, incorporate an engaging game, meet all the requirements specified in the rules, give away clever prizes, and maybe make a few quarters.

Come the spring of my junior year we learned that the theme for the year was “Adventure.” That was pretty generic so there was a lot of leeway. The previous years’ themes had been “The Wild West” and “The Lure of the Sea” (where the tagline was, inevitably, “It’s better when it’s wet” — we killed us…). One night a few of the brothers and I were sitting around shooting the breeze and bouncing ideas around. I think I was the one who came up with the idea of doing “Around the World in 80 Days,” though I can’t remember for sure. And when you think of that title what is the first image that pops into your head? The story involves several modes of transportation but many people’s minds will jump straight to the hot air balloon. A Google image search sure does. A big. round. hot air balloon.

That got everyone in the room excited right away. What could be more Adventure-y than that? OK, then what? Well, you ride in a balloon over the countryside and drop things and try to hit targets or get things to land in holes or whatever. Hmmmm. How to make the countryside go by? How about a green conveyor belt with some props on it, with the balloon and gondola suspended above it? I don’t know… might be hard to implement. Then I remembered something I’d seen in a random mail order catalog within the previous couple of days:

Four 4x4s could hold up a nice, square gondola and a pretty good-sized balloon. Two of the turntables could be mounted on L-brackets on one of the legs to support a half-sphere representing the northern hemisphere of the Earth. It would be about eight feet in diameter and close to four feet high. We could map out the continents and mountains with papier-mâché and dot the globe with famous landmarks onto which, someone else suggested, people could drop soft rope rings from the gondola.

And we were off…

Word spread around the house and people were starting to buzz. A little while later I heard that one of the Architecture majors had suggested changing the spherical balloon to an elongated dirigible that could stretch from corner-to-corner of the 12×15-foot plot we were allowed. That would give us the longest possible feature that would catch people’s attention as they walked along the midway. The pieces and proportions added up to exactly the 25 feet in height we were allowed so that was perfect, too. Someone, I think one of the other Architects who ended up being co-chairman with me, suggested surrounding the “world” with cotton to make it look like it was floating in clouds, and erecting some theater flats in back painted to look like more sky and clouds. Somewhere along the way we figured out that we could add fluorescent highlights to the landmarks that would glow when they went under the black light mounted under the gondola, which created a bit of a day-night effect as the world rotated.

As exciting as all that was there was still a major obstacle: the theme-and-placement lottery, which worked like a snake draft in football. All the organizations drew numbered lots and got to pick in order either their desired theme or their preferred spot on the midway (the far end down near most of the rides was prime real estate, for whatever reason). If we had drawn a high number somebody would have had the chance to grab our theme.

Fortunately my co-chair drew number four.

It was barely enough, out of about 25 organizations. The three groups ahead of us had different ideas and when we announced our theme there was an audible groan from the back of the room… from the group holding ticket number five. Another bullet had been dodged. We picked our location almost last and still got a coveted spot down near the end.

The next obstacle was the weather, which was lousy for much of that spring. I got the 4x4s and the gondola platform and top frame up easily enough, and then I got the frame of the half-sphere mounted and turning. The world’s shape was defined by bowed 1×3/8ish-inch slats that were wired to a top ring supported by the upper turntable and the outer edge of the lower disk supported by the lower turntable. That frame was covered in chicken wire and then a flat layer of papier-mâché. Onto this I laid out lines of latitude and longitude I used as a guide to freehand in the outlines of the important land masses and islands. The continents were all built up using thicker layers of papier-mâché and important mountain ranges were eyeballed in.

I must say I learned a lot about the northern coast of Russia that way. It’s funny how often you can look at maps and just not “see” certain things. Oh, remember that weather, and how lousy it was? Yeah? The thing about the papier-mâché continents and mountain ranges was that they were all built up while it was snowing outside, and while I was lying face-down on a ladder running from the ground to the gondola platform. I made sure to use warm water or my hands would have been in rough shape. The guy who built the dirigible was also stymied by the snow. His shape was built from hoops made out of the same-sized slats I’d used for the world, each of which was mounted on a vertical and horizontal support that was itself fixed to a central spar. The whole thing was covered in bedsheets a nursing student had gotten as donations from the hospital where she worked. The girls tried to dye the sheets but they wouldn’t take the color consistently, so a couple of the guys just painted the whole thing with an industrial airbrush. (Alas, one of the other guys ended up having to rub the overspray off the paint job on his car. Sorry, Tim…) I used that same airbrush to paint the landmasses to match a vegetation map I had in an atlas. I used a couple of clamped slats to hold the atlas open and flat so I could read it with one hand and paint with the other. One of the guys said he got a great picture of me doing that but I never saw it.

Most of the landmarks were made by one of the brothers who got completely into it. He spent weeks coming up with all sorts of buildings and items in creative shapes and with different features. He made the Great Pyramid of Giza out of a small section of 4×4 (it proved to be the hardest to land a ring on; it usually happened only by accident). Our fraternity house marked Pittsburgh, and it included a picture of the guy busting through the big plate-glass window in the dining room during a game of beer pong just a few weeks previous. The Titanic was sinking in the North Atlantic and a multi-looped sea serpent plied the North Pacific. Oil derricks in Alaska faced off against nuclear missiles in Siberia. The Eiffel Tower looked across the English Channel at Big Ben (which sits proudly in a curio cabinet to this day). I forget what else he came up with but a lot of the obvious highlights were hit. I think I can see the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Taj Majal in the picture. The Sears Tower rose in Chicago and the Gateway Arch probably marked St. Louis. A volcano marked Hawaii.

I had gone out of my way to be accurate in painting the vegetation on the continents and had intended to do the same thing for the different depths of the oceans and major seas, but I never got to it. The night before the open I was grateful to see two of the guys painting away with aplomb. They were using brushes and weren’t getting the light blue and dark blue laid out the way it was in the almanac, but they were on it and I was both thrilled and grateful. A couple of Little Sisters and girlfriends weaved slats of brown wrapping paper to flesh out the gondola’s basket. One of the guys added 1×6 kickboards around the inside bottom of the gondola so no one would accidentally kick through the paper weave. Somebody made a nice sign which included mileposts to various locations around the world. Someone else made sandbags. Someone made the loading platform and the two stairways. The guy who had diligently made all the landmarks spent hours nailing cross-pieces in underneath the floorboards on the gondola platform to make the floor feel more solid.

A big part of building any booth was getting it from the House to the midway. In previous years the whole brotherhood picked up the structure as a single unit and carried it across Forbes Avenue and down the midway. This structure was made up of smaller pieces so that wasn’t going to be necessary. Most of the pieces were easy to move but the dirigible proved to be a major challenge. We flagged down a utility truck with an extendable boom and the driver was good enough to schlep the thing over to the midway, but the boom couldn’t extend far enough to get it high enough to secure it to the top of the main frame. Then the guys got creative!

We ran a couple of tall ladders from the hill just behind the booth, across the top of the backing flats, and right up to the top of the frame. The guys then muscled that dirigible up those ladders and somehow got it mounted while some of the other guys quickly got it fastened down with nails. It snagged on some of the bunting and we had to cut it free with an Exacto knife. In the rush I wasn’t as careful as I needed to be and I cut one of the guys’ hands. (Sorry, Jay…) It’s a wonder that was the worst of it. The bizarre thing was that after we got it mounted I had to run off to give a short presentation on the design of touch sensors for a robotic hand for Mech E Seminar II. I think I still have the overheads for that.

Was that the end of the adventure? Of course not! The midway opened on schedule on Thursday evening but the weather had prevented most of the groups from getting the finishing touches put on. The Carnival Committee therefore decided that we could keep working after the midway closed at midnight. Ugh. But, work we did. Four of us stayed up all night to get all the details right, including the application of strands of white Christmas lights around the balloon. The way we used pairs of ladders in A-frames to secure lights and ropes to the ends of the dirigible was ludicrously ill-advised. The highlight, finished just as the sun came up, was something we did to enhance the day-night lighting effect. I won’t tell you what we did and if I’m ever asked I’ll deny everything. I will, however, extend many thanks to Rich Wilkinson, Mike Shenck, and Tom Rieger. That night was magic and I’ll never forget it.

Our work completed we grabbed a quick shower, got some breakfast, watched the Friday heats of Buggy, and headed back to the midway to keep an eye on things. One of the girls expended quite a bit of energy barking the passersby to get them to try out our game. She was really sweet and it seemed to work. As a student of Architecture my co-chair was used to dealing with public critiques of his work so he handled the judges when they came by that afternoon and evening. In the afternoon on of the judges decided he was going to test out the floor of the gondola to see how solid it was. He stomped in place from side to side like a football player’s calisthenic exercise, and then declared himself satisfied. One of the brothers told me later that he made sure he was standing on the one loose spot on that platform so the judges wouldn’t feel it.

Seriously, the whole project was like that. A million things needed to go right and a million things did, and it happened because everyone got excited and jumped in and got things done when they needed to. It wasn’t all planned out; it just worked. It also didn’t hurt that of the five or six really beautiful booths that were our actual competition, one spent more than the maximum allowable two hours in downtime (we racked up all of three minutes!) and another had tried to write an overly ambitious computer game and failed. The House usually budgeted a sizable amount of money for the Booth competition. It wasn’t about making money, it was about winning the prize. The financial results turned out to be as special and surprising as everything else that year. We spent only a bit over $700–and made over $500. That’s over 2000 plays in only 24 hours and a net cost of barely $200.

Some people already knew the results when the awards ceremony rolled around on Saturday evening at the close of Carnival, but I wasn’t one of them. It was therefore a surprise and a relief when we found out we’d actually pulled it off. First place! We’d been killing ourselves for years in Booth and Greek Sing and had always come up short, but finally the house had won a major award and the seniors and everyone else had a great memory to take away with them. There was a mixer that night, but I was spent and crashed and burned by 11:00pm. The score sheets I saw later showed that we were near the top of every judge’s ranking but I especially enjoyed the perfect score we received from the stomping judge!

The next year’s theme was “Time Machine” and the idea that jumped to mind was a Polynesian pagoda-like structure against a background of a volcanic island and a game that involved a lagoon, small volcanoes, and ping pong balls. We discussed making different shapes and colors of cellophane flowers with little lights inside. It would have been beautiful and would ideally have evoked a feeling like the movie “Avatar.” I got myself nominated as booth chairman again but the magic didn’t happen. We drew a high number in the lottery and the Chinese and Japanese themes were snatched up whereupon the guy running the meeting was only too happy to suggest that there shouldn’t be any more pagodas. Well, there darn well should have been and I should have gone with the initial idea (technically it would have been more like an open air nipa hut), but instead I went with Land of the Lost (the classic old Sid and Marty Krofft show, not the execrable recent rehash of it), and we ended up building a big, ugly fiberglass cave with a dinosaur on top. It had a little lake that leaked, a waterfall, and some big Styrofoam lettering meant to evoke the feeling of Busch Gardens in Tampa. I delegated the game a team of good guys while the rest of us worked on the structure, but they couldn’t get it to work and I had my hands full. They put together a different game which wasn’t as clever or visually interesting. Some people volunteered to add little touches like hanging bats and whatnot but the excitement never really caught on the way it had the previous year. Fortunately one of the underclassmen got a little bit excited by the whole thing and he carried the torch forward with good results, but that begins a whole different story.

Over the years I’ve thought about what I might have done differently to get a better result the year after we won. I tried to get people involved in coming up with alternatives in case we didn’t get our first choice, but some of them got mad we didn’t run with their entire idea. It was seen as one person’s project rather than something that grew organically. Some people came and helped and added their efforts here and there but the overall level of excitement was less. I tried to point out and publicly talk up the folks that had contributed ideas and efforts we used but some people weren’t happy with that. Maybe if I’d had the presence of mind to adapt the right theme (one of the pagodas ended up winning and deserved to) it would have been more interesting to people. I know there was some excitement brewing that we didn’t get to leverage. I’ve beaten myself up enough for my own mistakes and have tried to learn from them but I also accept that sometimes things don’t gel. You have to do the best you can with what you’ve got, try to learn from it, and come back the next time and try again.

Out in the Real World the goal is to do things more purposefully. You don’t want to rely on luck or enthusiasm or Kismet; you want to make damn sure that all the bases are covered, that everyone is talking to everyone else, and that you capture every good idea you have from everyone who has them. I’ve seen that done well and get good to excellent results and I’ve seen it done poorly and get highly variable results, ranging from OK at best to very, very not OK at worst. You may not always get Kismet if you do everything right but in project and product work, like investing, you limit your losses. In engineering the whole point is to include a safety margin against losses, sometimes up to 6-to-1, as is the case in passenger elevators. Being conscious, proactive, and purposeful helps limit losses and helps generate more wins.

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