Productive Waiting

I hate to be idle. Even when I’m not doing anything, I like to be busy. A relaxed busy, but busy and productive. So whenever I have to take my car for service, as I did yesterday morning, I face the challenge of finding something productive to do with my time; otherwise, I feel as though I’ve wasted that hour or whatever.

I’ve tried reading the magazines in the waiting room, but few of them interest me. Most of them seem to be geared toward females. Or auto mechanics, which I’m definitely not. I’ve tried taking my own reading material, both physical books and books on my Kindle. But there are just too many distractions. Other customers who talk on their phones (to people who obviously are either deaf or far away because they always seem to shout to them over their phones). A blaring TV. Technicians who come in and out, calling for customers and discussing all the things that the customer absolutely must have done to his or her car today (even if they don’t really). People coming and going to the coffee machine. If it will distract, you’ll find it in the dealership’s waiting room.

I need something that doesn’t require a lot of focused concentration, yet something that is mentally challenging–and that will give me a sense when I leave the waiting room and get my car that I’ve not wasted my time. And yesterday I hit on what just might be the thing. Crossword puzzles.

I’ve always enjoyed working crossword puzzles, and I’m actually pretty good at it, if I so say so myself. Not nearly as good as my mother, of course, who could work them with an ink pen and hardly ever make a mistake. I still use a pencil–and a lot of eraser. I don’t like the too-easy ones or the New York Times-hard ones. The Premier crosswords by Frank A. Longo seem, as baby bear famously said, “Just right.” They make me think. They enlarge my vocabulary. And they give me a sense of accomplishment. I’ll admit, however, that I have some trouble with the clues that involve rock stars, modern actors, and Latin terms, but the older stuff I can usually manage–because I’m old, I guess.

Yesterday, I relinquished my car to the technicians for an oil change and tire rotation and entered an empty (!) waiting room. I brewed myself a cup of coffee in the dealer’s high-tech Keurig; walked past a wall-sized TV that was blaring some dark, sinister sci-fi movie; and nestled into a chair at the far corner of the room. I pulled out my crossword puzzle and went to work. An hour or so later, I finished the puzzle just as the tech came in to tell me that my car was ready. My greatest surprise was that he didn’t even try (as they usually do) to sell me on any repairs–other than replacing the battery on my key.

As I age, I’m becoming more aware of the threat of dementia and Alzheimer’s, especially so now that I find myself forgetting more and more things. (I almost panicked recently when I suddenly realized that I had forgotten to turn off the microphone I was wearing for the narration of the Christmas cantata at church just as the congregation started to sing the closing carol. That assuredly would have been a most grinchly sound!) But my ears perk up whenever I hear a news report that says something helps to prevent or slow the onset of the diseases. Like drinking coffee, eating dark chocolate, and working crossword puzzles. So I’m doing all those things–sometimes all at the same time.

Now, where was I–57 across? “See 68 Down.”

Copyright (c) 2017, Dennis L. Peterson

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His Time Saved Lives

Sometimes a man takes the initiative and makes history. At other times, other people thrust a responsibility on someone and he makes history by fulfilling that responsibility and doing it well. The subject of today’s blog was of the latter sort.

The catalyst for Webb’s claim to fame was a tragedy. But Webb learned from that tragedy and acted upon what he learned, and his actions led to the saving of untold lives. Webb was just a small businessman, a jeweler, who was called upon to do a job. But he took that assignment seriously, and, because he did, people escaped tragedies similar to the one that resulted in his getting the assignment in the first place.

On April 19, 1891, in Kipton, Ohio, a train wreck occurred in which eight people were killed. Investigators pieced together the chain of events and searched for the cause.

Two trains, one a fast mail train and the other an accommodation train (a local that stops at nearly every station along a line and therefore moves slowly), were approaching each other on the same track. The accommodation train was ordered to run onto a siding at Kipton to let the fast mail go through on the mainline. Earlier, the engineer of the accommodation train had dropped his watch in a puddle, and, unknown to him, it had stopped for four minutes. But while he was washing it off, it had restarted, but it had lost four minutes. When the engineer received the order to go onto a siding, he had looked at his watch, which indicated that he had seven minutes to get his train onto the siding. In reality, he had only three minutes. The last few cars of the accommodation were still on the mainline when the fast mail, which was right on time, slammed into them at full speed. Both engineers and the people in the mail car were killed.

Investigators and the Superintendent of the Lake Shore and Southern Michigan Railway sought out Webb and asked him to find a way to avoid future such accidents. But why would a railroad approach a jeweler to solve a railroad problem?

Webb, who had grown up on a farm, had earned a reputation as a hard worker and a reliable watch man during an apprenticeship with a local jeweler and as business manager for the Deuber Watch Manufacturing Company. Then he had opened his own small retail jewelry and watch shop, and it grew into a modestly successful business. That’s when the Lake Shore and Southern Michigan contacted him following the Kipton tragedy.

For the next four months after that, he investigated the details surrounding the Kipton train wreck. He learned that it was common for engineers’ and conductors’ watches to disagree. Station clocks often showed yet a different time. Webb’s solution was to standardize the timepieces of everyone working for the railroad–from the engineer to the conductors to the station masters and yard workers. Every person’s watch and every station clock must read the same identical time at all times.

Webb established a list of minimum requirements for every timepiece and recommended that every timepiece be approved and inspected regularly. The “official” time was to be determined by the U.S. Naval Observatory, which sent out the correct time every 24 hours. All timepieces used by the railroad were to be accurate, guaranteed not to lose or gain more than 30 seconds over a two-week period. Unreliable timepieces were either to be repaired to meet the standards or replaced by timepieces that did.

The railroad liked Webb’s ideas and mandated that they be followed. And they named Webb C. Ball to be the Chief Time Inspector for the railroad.┬áSo successful was Ball’s time requirement that other railroads began adopting his standard too. It became known as railroad standard time. The job was so demanding, however, that Ball subcontracted the job to local jewelers throughout the railroads’ service areas. He also contracted with various watch makers–including Elgin, Hamilton, and Waltham–to manufacture the necessary works that would meet his exacting standards. He then set those works into his own cases, which were marked with his company’s name: Ball Watch Company.

The new standard led to the widespread use of the phrase “Get on the Ball!” If anyone wanted to know the exact time, he asked for “railroad time.” Now users of the railroads could depend on the printed timetables to be accurate and realistic. But most importantly, safety on railroads improved dramatically.

There’s no way of knowing how many accidents the accuracy of Ball’s watches prevented or how many lives were saved because the railroads were using standard railroad time. But it all was possible because one man was conscientious about his work, demanding high standards of himself, his workers, and the companies who contracted to do work for him. The work ethic of this exemplar holds important lessons for us all, especially the youth of our nation.

[Copyright (c) 2017, Dennis L. Peterson]