June 18, 2012
The heat bearing down on you in the middle of an Oklahoma summer day quickly reminds you of the beauty of an air conditioner. It was a luxury I didn’t experience much that summer as I worked mostly outside for my dad as a maintenance man and janitor at my high school. However, I was seventeen years old and the extra money was nice to have.
My typical summer day consisted of waking up by 6am so I get to work at 7am. My school was close, but I had to eat breakfast each morning to keep me going until lunch and through my 8 hour day. My school wasn’t huge, but the 1,000 students in K-12 required a large enough campus to keep a crew of 5 very busy. Typically, I was the yard guy and kept very busy mowing the lawns and weed-eating, but I when I was lucky I would get a plush inside job moving furniture or mopping floors.
There was one job I loathed more than most others. It wasn’t picking up trash, weed-eating, or even cleaning toilets. It was replacing the bad heat exchangers on the school’s HVAC units. The school had a network of 10 or so buildings that spanned 70 years in age. Needless to say, there was also a patchwork of HVAC units that loved to fail on the hottest of summer days… just when they were needed most.
Luckily for the school, my dad previously hired a former air conditioner repair man as a maintenance man who knew just how to fix them. Unlucky for me, he needed an assistant because it wasn’t easy work. His name was Jimmy, and he was a former bull rider who had the beat up body to prove it. His injuries were only outnumbered by his stories which he loved to tell. He was the brains behind the heat exchanger replacement operation, but I was the brawn.
Sometimes I thought he could do the work by himself, but he requested help because he would get too bored up on the roof all by himself. When it was necessary to change a heat exchanger, we would usually get to work early because we knew it would be a long day. The only thing worse than being outside on a 100+ degree day or fixing a bad heat exchanger is fixing a bad heat exchanger on a 100 degree day while working on a hot tar roof! The 100 degrees quickly felt like 115+ when you combined the black roof with the direct sun.
My memory of how long it took to replace is somewhat blurred because my mind has since repressed the pain! However, when I do a quick Google search, the results tell me it takes 5-6 hours for professionals. We were a professional plus an amateur, so we maybe qualified as semi-professionals, but that time seems about right.
Changing the heat exchange required an especially large amount of patience as you had to practically take apart the entire HVAC unit to get to it. The puzzle was disassembled by removing 50+ screws, motors, and many sharp metal plates. It always nice to get the heat exchanger in place, until you realized the hard work was just beginning. Reassembling the unit was usually even harder because you had to get everything aligned perfectly when screwing the plates back in.
Did I mention yet that I was seventeen years old? Do you know any seventeen year olds with patience?
Needless to say, I got very frustrated during this process! It was so hot, exhausting, and dirty, and I already knew I didn’t want to be an HVAC repairman when I grew up! There was no benefit for me to go through except to realize I had to succeed in college so I never had to do it again! I thought so anyway.
As the heat of the day set in and the work got the most complicated, I was usually right at the peak of my frustration. When this happens, it doesn’t take much to put one over the edge. The climax was usually caused by a single screw that wouldn’t align no matter how much force I’d try to use. It happened and things began flying through the air (a combination of tools and words). At this point, Jimmy popped in with a line I still remember to this day. He’d say, “It’s only metal, you can let it beat your mind.”
Dang. Why was I allowing myself to get so worked up over an inanimate piece of metal that wouldn’t listen to me?
It was only metal, that already proved it could be assembled. It would only take the tenacity and patience of a human mind to mend it.
Til this day I still think about that metal every time I walk out of the cool air conditioning and hit the baking heat outside. However, I also think about it when I start to get frustrated, even though I’ve gone from working on HVAC units to working on spreadsheets and presentations. The metal wasn’t able to make me frustrated, only my mind could do that. This was one of my most important lessons in learning to work smart.