Several years ago I was invited to be the after-dinner speaker for several hundred crop-dusters and their trade associates. It was the Annual Meeting for the Texas Agricultural Aviation Association, held at the Omni Bayfront hotel in Corpus Christi.
What does one say to such a group? How does one get and hold the attention of a large group of guys who fly small airplanes at a speed of 140 MPH while flying 60-feet above the earth’s surface? Guys who don’t pause to fret when flying under high-line wires, or buzzing major highways. That was the sort of questions that rattled around in my mind for several weeks leading up to the event.
After being formerly introduced to the members, I walked to the podium and opened with a great quote from Tennessee Williams, which was “God bless the man with a wild heart who does not have to live in the box,” and I said that I believed Mr. Williams had just such a group as them in mind when he originated that great declaration. I have taken many speaker’s classes over the years designed to teach speakers how to read an audience and understand group dynamics (body language). Everything I had been taught told me that I had their attention . . . well for the moment, but how to keep it? From what I had learned about these dudes, I was of the opinion that most of them struggled with some attention-related issues.
I laughed and talked about the challenges their parents surely faced in raising them. I mean the struggles of rearing a kid who was determined to push the envelope to the max at every opportunity. A lad you wanted to think outside the box, but to then, pretty much stay in the box. I had some fun with that, and they chuckled as they recalled a parent in total exasperation, desperate to understand the boy and the behavior. Of course, these dude’s question had never been about coloring outside the lines . . . they questioned why the lines were even needed, or desired . . . or why the lines had been so placed.
I discussed the great cost of the equipment being put into service and the business formula developers employ to determine the cost per day/hour/minute the depreciable equipment was in use (for these guys it was an air tractor engine and the formula was designed to establish the true cost of the time the engine was running). The model factored in debt-service and the equipment replacement model together with the life expectancy of the machine, as well as the chemical cost factor and how it ought to be applied in the pricing for services delivered (the Association’s ED had asked me to address such issues from a developer’s perspective and said the guys were great, fearless pilots, but poor businessmen and struggled with the financial part of their businesses). As I recall, I believe the number I came up at was something close to $150 per hour, without the costs of chemicals or burdened labor cost factored into the equation. The group expressed some amazement at that business model.
I recall using the illustration that their industry was similar to the railroad and its history. The railroad had been the great people mover in its early existence. I suggested that as new technology evolved and discoveries were made (e.g. flight), the railroad companies ought to have been smack dab in the middle of all of that and assimilated it into their work of moving people around from place to place. As we know, the railroad companies ignored flight and missed a grand opportunity . . . why? Simply because they failed to grasp sight of their true mission . . . they just wanted to be a railroad. I recall asking the group if anyone had taken a vacation that involved travel by train over the past year . . . none had. I then asked if anyone had taken a vacation that involved flying commercially . . . the majority had. I then challenged the group to think about how differently those two questions would have been answered if asked of such a group 50 years earlier.
I told the joke about two guys meeting in mid-air . . . a couple of hundred feet above the ground. One fellow traveling upward and the other was in a free-fall earthward. As they passed, one fellow shouted out, “Do you know anything about a gas water heater?” The other fellow responded with a question of his own, “Do you know anything about a parachute?”
I then challenged the group to think about how they as a trade association could best meet the membership’s needs and run interference in the marketplace. I spoke some of my years of involvement with trade associations . . . both as a trainer and as a board member. I told them that my philosophy had always been that, “All of us are better than any one of us.” I encouraged them to not allow their Board elections to ever simply become a popularity contest, but to elect a Board of Directors and Officers who brought skills, wisdom, and leadership to the Association.
As I closed, I told them how I had always been amazed at and admired their work and enjoyed watching them work a field as I traveled around the state. I told them that over recent years I had started the practice of pulling off of the road, finding a safe place to park my car, and as I watched them buzzing the ground that I prayed for them . . . their safety, their families, and employees. I told them that I would be the dude standing by the black suburban, waving as they passed overhead.
The next week as I traveled up State Highway 59 headed to Houston, I saw a pilot servicing a field around Edna. As I stood by my car, I heard the pilot rev the engine a couple of times and as I looked up the dude actually dipped his right wing at me. To use a phrase of an old Indian chief . . . that simple gesture . . . that acknowledgement of recognition and appreciation . . . caused my heart to soar like an eagle in flight!
Those dashing young men in their yellow machines are certainly guys who live outside the box . . . but they always have been. As toddlers, they climbed out of the crib and jumped off of the coffee table . . . as kids in elementary school they were often standing outside the classroom door as a disciplinary action by an irritated and frustrated teacher . . . as kids in Junior High they were the ones who climbed up the highest places in the tree as everyone watched on in amazement, convinced that the fire department would have to get him back down . . . in High School they always had the fastest cars . . . and it was regularly put to the test. They were guys who lived life without inhibitions . . . their very existence as adults gives testimony to The Lord’s watch care over and protection of His wildest children!