Thursday, February 3, 2011

Atlanta Trip Part 1

In 1999, at the age of 44, I decided to change vocations. I became a beginner inventor. This story is true in its entirety. The YankATank can be seen at

 After watching a TV show about a guy who sold propane and propane accessories, I decided to get in the business. I bought a few tanks but ran out of money before I could buy a boom truck to move the tanks around.

Without a boom truck, I could see I would need some form of mobility to set my tanks where they needed to go. I needed a YankATank. 

 Penniless, but imaginative, I invented it. At least my confidence level was high enough that I was sure I could concoct a workable prototype. I was absolutely positive it would work since I had it all drawn out inside my head.

 Furthermore, I decided to take a giant step toward the edge of the entrepreneurial cliff and market it to the masses of propane dealers out there. Since it would be such a hot item, I should start looking for a venue to take some pre-orders. 

 Why not take another step and go all the way? I made a call and signed up for the world’s largest propane show. It cost me $5,000 (all on charge cards) to gear up with the entry fee, airfare, hotel, and all the trimmings. Naturally, I would pay them off after the show with my expected large YankATank income. The show was in six weeks so I decided I probably ought to get moving and start inventing an as-yet imaginary YankATank. It would be a piece of cake.

 Unfortunately, I was majoring in Confidence and minoring in Comedy. I had just flunked out of Introduction to Realism 101.

         Nightmare City became my new address. Inventing was not as easy as I had envisioned. I built cart after cart. No worky. Cut, weld, hammer, swear, chuck in the junk. Out with the old, in with the new. Cut, weld, hammer, swear, chuck… get the idea. 

Work all day, worry all night. The show date was looming like a 1,000 gallon loaded propane tank rolling straight at me. My self esteem had gone from 60 to 0 in 5 weeks flat when … 

                Eureka! I got it! The single most welcome cart of my life emerged late one night just a few days before D-Day. I slapped a coat of paint on it and packed my bags for Atlanta. I knew it still had some bugs, but I was not going to get the Raid out at this late date.

 Since I still had a few hours before the plane left, I decided I needed a video of the thing in action.

  Continuing on down that same road of brilliant ideas, I figured I could save some bucks by being a TV transporter-upon-the-airlines innovator instead of shelling out big bucks for a TV rental unit at the show. I also decided I could save a few more pennies in freight and slip the YankATank (complete with 6 tires) on the plane as part of my luggage.

To keep my packages within size and weight limits I made many modifications to the cart. After disassembling into many small clock like parts, I made my show model fit in a box. Big unit crammed into a little box.

 On the spur of the moment and in one more poorly-thought out whim, I decided to invent a small base/roller assembly to carry my boxes and duffel bags around the airports I soon would be cruising through. 3 pieces of muffler pipe with matching caster wheels were the ticket to my saving 3 bucks so I didn't have to rent an airport cart.

When I went to check my bags, I could dismantle the roller thingy and place it in a duffle bag along with the concrete blocks I had stored there. I erroneously thought I might need the blocks to set the propane tank on for demonstration purposes at the show.

I did not realize at the time that this was going to impact the entire weight and balance calculations of the flight crew, not to mention the way it kept dislocating my shoulder as I drug it through the airport.

 Three days before I was to leave I finally started on my promotional material. I hired a high school kid to help me with the technical stuff. I got some hair-brained ideas about what we were going to film and we were off to the races.

We started early and worked late video taping tanks getting YankATank’d up on trailers and pickups and YankATank'd down in residential yards. I built and wrecked two sets of ramps.

I now understand that beginning an advertising campaign on an untested prototype that keeps falling off a trailer with a propane tank hooked on it creates major stress.

One day was wasted building rickety plywood ramps with no usable video footage. My mom and dad (who are in their 70’s) came around that night and mom started trying to give me advice on how to get the tank on the trailer. I was so stressed out by that time I think I told my dear mother to get lost. The YankATank had taken me over the edge!

             The next day went better. We spent the day videoing, picture taking, inventing, picking up, hauling, moving, losing a camera, demonstrating the Yank and setting tanks. We were finally rolling! 

In fact, we did in one day what a Hollywood production company would spend months on. We didn't have quite the same quality only because we didn’t have a  Hollywood timeline, starlet or budget to work with. (I tried to get my wife to be the starlet but she refused. I asked a neighbor lady but she said she wasn't going to be my YankATank girl.) 

 My helper and I got the brochure done and that evening (the night before my flight) we started trying to get the video transferred over to a VCR tape. Things were not working. It wasn’t happening. I didn’t have a clue as to what was going on or how to help. My contribution was stewing, sweating and fretting.

             About 1:00 that night (or morning) with no success in sight, I started wondering just what the proper procedure was for a propane man to commit Hari Kari. My carefully made, albeit rushed plans were quickly vaporizing.

Around midnight, I started calling people who I thought were friends and asked if they knew anything about how to transfer a YankATank from a hard drive format to video. Lots of hang ups. No help. Finally, late into the night, the transfer successfully occurred. Whew!

A couple hours later I left in my pickup for Seattle. The YankATank paint was still wet when I stuffed it in the cardboard box before I left home. I stopped in Ellensburg to buy some paint so I could touch it up after I got to Atlanta. (this was wasted effort as later I forgot the paint in my pickup at the airport.)

At the paint store, my pickup started spewing brown, steamy water. After a brief scan underhood, I could see my water pump had crashed. I couldn’t stop now. During the observation process, I burned my hand and got dark brown radiator water spots on my nice white bellbottom pants. Every exit thereafter was used to search for water as the engine kept heating up. I pulled into the airport garage a little later than planned and my transportation monster was belching steam like Mount St. Helens.

I was 45 minutes late according to airline recommendations. I hurried and loaded the two 80 lb. boxes on my 3-wheeled cart and topped the combo with two heavy duffel bags. I tried pushing the top-heavy load and before you could say "Timber!" over they went. Three little crazy wheels mounted on a triangle of tubing ain’t exactly the best base. This was right in front of the elevator at SeaTac International Airport

 People were coming and going, looking at this idiot frantically fighting with cardboard boxes, duffel bags full of concrete and a funky looking 3-wheeled cart made out of muffler tubing. Not exactly designer luggage.  Oh, and don’t forget the pickup still spewing steam and clearly visible from my trauma center.

I finally got the load in the elevator and eventually up to the counter. Already sweating and trying to be inconspicuous, I started whistling and did my best to hide the rusty brown radiator coolant stain on the white pants. I don’t think it worked.

 There was hardly anyone at the soon-to-be bankrupt TWA counter while the other lines were packed. I understood why as the trip progressed. The guy threw my boxes on the scale and said I was overweight which I already knew as my wife and doctor have told me that for years. “That will be seventy-five additional bucks, payable now”.

I didn’t have cash like that! I pulled out my newly-issued credit card from CircuitCity. The electronics store had provided me with the card since I had depleted my cash reserves when I bought the TV for the trade show. 

 His machine wouldn’t take it. It hadn’t been authorized. I borrowed his phone and spent the next 20 minutes in the front of the line getting the authorization. People were grumbling behind me. I next went through the beeping x-ray machine. They stopped me to ask what the concrete block and all the pipe was for in my duffel bag. I told them it was a newly-invented and highly popular luggage carrier and ballast system and they better get used to it. I assured them soon everybody would have one.

 I finally made it on the plane. We sat and sat and finally took off  an hour late. The pilot announced the baggage handlers were a little slow in getting the luggage loaded. I worried my overweight cardboard boxes had slowed the loading. Or maybe it was because they were worried about getting their next paycheck from bankrupt TWA. 

I wasn’t too worried about the extra hour as I figured I would still make my connecting flight and if not, I would take the next one. I got to St. Louis and ran to my connecting flight lugging the very heavy duffel bag filled with pipe and concrete, YankATank tires, order sheets and brochures. I didn’t know 

I couldn't believe St. Louis was this hot in March! Sweating was becoming a permanent problem on this trip. I ran up to the counter and they informed me that my plane had just left. I was exactly two minutes late, THEIR plane from Seattle was the culprit and MY connecting bird had left without waiting 2 extra minutes! I couldn’t believe it.

I asked when the next plane to Atlanta took off and she said 9:00 the next morning, arriving at 10:20. The show started at 12 and I knew that was cutting it close. They sent me to a hotel for the night. The last plane out for the night and they couldn’t wait 2 minutes after they had held us up for an hour in Seattle. Bad night. Bad dreams. I couldn't shake the feeling things were going to get worse.


Lisa said...

Way to keep us hanging Ben. I've read and heard the story first hand and I'm still bugged that the whole thing isn't there. :-)

brentandkashann said...

I have no idea what really happens next. But I am guessing that you are about to hit the road in a rental car with your fancy new luggage carrier.

Brian and Jennifer said...

Oh, the suspense is killing me! You need to post the rest of the story very soon!