The first time I broke the sound barrier, the accident was so startling that an image was seared into my mind: I was looking up from the ground, still seated in the chair that had toppled over; papers were floating in the air; my laptop was mid-flight, about to skitter across the floor; and globs of soda were frozen in space as they rained down from the ceiling.
The sound was the same as a whip’s, only magnified a hundred times.
I lay there in stunned silence, ears ringing, long after the papers had fluttered to the ground. Coca-Cola was splattered all over the walls of the tiny break room.
It was after midnight. I had come into the office late to do an “urgent” repair on a computer for my boss. This job was a part-time, off-hours gig for me, and Tim had given me keys long ago so I could come and go as I pleased. On this particular night, I had decided to work in the break room so I could spread my books out on the empty table and study during down time.
It had taken me a couple of hours of wrestling with the disabled computer, but I’d finally gotten it working again. I’d filled out the paperwork and returned the computer to the shop. Then, as I gathered up my tools, I must have caused the can of Coke to explode somehow.
At least, that’s what I initially thought—that the can had exploded.
But as I lay there on my back, my attention was drawn to a slow but steady drip coming from a joist in the ceiling. It was the remains of my soda can, embedded in a heavy wood beam that ran across the center of the room.
What could possibly have caused an explosion of such ferocity that it could launch my drink with that kind of force? The beam was splintered around a perfect circle, the bottom of the can still visible, two inches deep in the wood.
I was amazed at how much of a mess so little fluid could make. The can couldn’t have been more than half full, but it had managed to cover everything in the room with a sticky brown mist: the table, the floor, my papers, the appliances, even the walls.
Standing up, I surveyed the tabletop, expecting burn marks or other damage. But other than the fact that everything had been misted with soda, there was no evidence of the violence that had just occurred. The heavy wooden table was a sticky mess, yet otherwise unharmed.
Soda continued to drip slowly from the beam, so I gathered a dishtowel from a drawer under the counter and placed it on the table. I removed another towel, dampened it in the sink, and began wiping down the cinderblock walls.
As I worked, I considered the source of the explosion. The room smelled like it always did, no hint of smoke. There was no source of fuel that could cause an explosion, like gunpowder or gasoline. I saw nothing on the table could have caused the explosion. There was very little even there: a closed plastic case containing a set of miniature screwdrivers for electronics; a small magnetic toy that people on break could fiddle with to make little sculptures; and my two textbooks, New Venture Management and Corporate Strategy in a Global Economy.
I had already put away the extension cord that I’d been using to run power to the computer I was working on. And I had put away the computer, eliminating the last possible source of any stored energy from—
My heart leaped into my throat as I remembered knocking my laptop off the table during the panic of the explosion.
Dear God, please tell me it still works!
I snatched it off the floor, placed it on the freshly wiped table, and carefully lifted the lid. An instant later it requested my password. A wave of relief washed over me—followed immediately by irritation. The upper right-hand corner of my LCD was cracked. Further inspection showed that the outer casing of the laptop was dented on that corner.
I typed in my password and ran a few tests. Other than a nasty black blotch in the corner of the screen, my computer worked just fine. I was annoyed at the damage, but overall realized that it could easily have been far worse. And I was overdue for a new system anyway; I’d just been waiting until after next month’s graduation. I figured I’d have a real job soon enough; might as well wait until I could afford something nice.
My thoughts returned to the mystery. My computer had indeed been on the table. But clearly the laptop hadn’t exploded. And it had been sitting a good eighteen inches away from the soda. Whatever had shot the can upward had to have been directly beneath it.
I continued cleaning, turning my attention to the floor. A thirty-page printout of a project I was working on had been sitting on the table next to my laptop. It was a formal business plan for a new company I had created for class. It was also the worst work I had ever churned out, so I was planning to gut it and start over as soon as I finished repairing that computer.
The pages had been scattered all over the floor. As I picked up the last of them, I found a multimeter buried underneath. I abruptly remembered precisely what it was I’d been doing at the exact instant the Coke can had left the table.
I’d been cleaning up, preparing to switch over to schoolwork. I had gathered up all the small screwdrivers, placed them back in the kit, and reached across the table to pick up the multimeter. I was pulling it toward myself so I could wind the leads around it and…
I was pretty sure I knew what had happened. Even though it made zero sense. One of the leads on the multimeter, I wasn’t sure which, must have touched the can when I’d pulled it back across the table.
But where did the energy come from? Multimeters are simple devices that use next to no power. They don’t store or deliver energy; they simply measure and monitor the electricity in other electrical devices—circuits, electrical components, wall outlets. There was no way that a little handheld multimeter could contain enough energy to cause such an explosion.
This particular multimeter was digital, and had a small nine-volt battery that powered the readout. I lifted it gingerly to examine it, taking great care to ensure that the two leads touched nothing. It was turned on and set to Ohmmeter, to measure resistance. The display read “000”.
My brain struggled to wrap itself around the problem. I’d repaired the multimeter the previous week, but that hadn’t been anything special. One of the techs had stepped on the unit, breaking the plastic case, and hadn’t been able to get it to work again. It had taken me only a few minutes to find a loose wire, solder it back on, and tape the case back together. Voilà, good as new… if a bit redneckified for the duct tape.
Since then, the other techs had been using it without complaint. I had used it several times myself with no problem. So how the hell had it blown up my can of Coke?
It was then that I decided to try replicating the event.
I grabbed a fresh can of Coke out of the company fridge, and was about to grab the multimeter, when I thought of safety. Leaving the multimeter untouched on the table, I went out into the shop to gather up safety goggles and earplugs. I took these items, plus the can of Coke, outside behind the building. I made a separate trip for the multimeter so I could be sure it touched nothing.
Standing outside in the dead of night, I surveyed the small fleet of service vans. It still amazed me whenever I saw them all together, lined up like that. Tim had turned this little venture into a robust business. It had been pretty impressive to watch it happen, and I was proud to have been a part of it, even if I’d mostly been along for the ride.
Tim Carithers had started this business in his garage five years ago and had quickly turned a profit. I was his very first employee—hired on as an assistant. It was a great fit for me. I’ve always had a knack for all things electronic. As a kid, I would regularly scrape together every penny I could to buy RC car and plane kits.
I was a senior in high school when Tim hired me. I was looking for a straight way to make some money and he was willing to take a chance on a kid he knew nothing about. For the first few months I did little more than hand him tools and watch him work, but he was a good teacher, and I was an eager student. I picked up on computer repair quickly. As the business grew, he began diagnosing simple repairs and then handing them over to me. It wasn’t long before he trusted me to both diagnose and repair with very little supervision.
Tim had no family and I had no father. I suppose we filled those voids for each other. When my mom passed away right before I graduated high school, Tim even offered to take me in. But I was eighteen and ready to get out on my own.
I’d spent my high school years as a ‘B’ student, mostly due to lack of interest, but had tested very well. My SATs were high enough to get me into the elite Goizueta School of Business at Emory University. Still, Emory is a very expensive private institution and I would never have been able to afford it, had there not been a special program available to employees. My mother had put in twenty years of mopping floors and wiping tables.
So after graduation, I sold my mom’s house and moved into a little apartment near campus. I continued working with Tim on a part-time basis while I was in school.
Tim’s business flourished, and eventually it outgrew his garage. After an extended search, Tim finally decided to buy an abandoned firehouse on the north side of Atlanta, in an industrial section of Doraville—right down the road from where I grew up. I spent the summer of my freshman year hanging sheetrock, painting, and otherwise restoring the old cinderblock building. When it was done, Tim reinvented the marketing of his company, renaming it 911 Computer Services, inspired by the old firehouse location.
Now I looked at one of the clearest signs of Tim’s success: six service vans bathed in the light of a full moon. And for better or worse, Tim was as corny as he was brilliant; each of the vans had been done up like an ambulance. Tim had even gone so far as to raid Big Jim’s Salvage Yard for real (but non-working) ambulance lights.
A distant dog sang to the moon as I cautiously peered about the gravel lot. My nervousness was unwarranted. The lot was surrounded by a ten-foot fence, which was topped with a spool of razor-sharp barbed wire. It was a tough area, and the insurance underwriter had insisted on serious security measures.
I was all alone as I spread out the components of my little experiment on a picnic bench near the back door. The can of soda sat in the middle of the table. I carefully laid the multimeter on one side of the table, then took the positive lead and walked it over to the opposite side. The lead was attached to the multimeter by a twenty-four-inch red wire, and the can was now roughly at its middle point.
Satisfied, I put on the goggles and pushed in the earplugs. Squatting down beside the multimeter so that most of my body was below the table, I slowly pulled the red wire toward me. Slowly, slowly, slowly, and then…
The lead had touched the can, clear as day. I stood up, grasped the positive lead in my hand like a pencil, and boldly poked the can.
It must have been the negative lead that had sparked the explosion. So I laid my experiment out again, only this time using the black wire. I squatted down once again and slowly began to draw the wire toward myself.
Damn. I was sure that was going to work. I poked the can with the negative lead, to no avail. Maybe both leads had to touch it?
I picked up the can and sat it back down on top of the negative lead, pinning its tip to the wooden table. I was even more cautious than before as I draped the positive lead across the table—I was pretty confident this was going to work. Crouching down again, I cringed with anticipation as I began slowly pulling the red wire toward me.
Nothing? What could be different? The only obvious difference from before was that this time I’d intentionally left the can unopened, not wanting to get sprayed again. So I popped the top, dumped half of the contents into the bush, and then repeated the series of experiments again.
Still nothing! It was almost three a.m., and I was tired and extremely frustrated.
Looking back on it now, I wish to hell I had just surrendered at that moment. I could have gone in and crashed on the couch in Tim’s office. Life would have gone on its merry way, and so many horrible things would never have happened. And someday, somewhere, somebody else would have made this discovery. Anybody but me.
Unfortunately, I remembered the magnetic toy sitting on the break room table.
A few minutes later, I had the first experiment set up again—with the can in the middle of the table and the red lead draped across it. Only this time I was going to drag the wire over the magnetic toy as I bumped the can. I eyed the now open and half-empty can and briefly considered going in for an unopened soda, but that seemed like too much trouble. Slowly I pulled the wire across the table.
I was covered in soda once again. Shit.
The can had not shot up into the sky. Instead, it had collapsed onto itself, slammed straight through the table—splintering a gaping hole in the wooden surface—and buried itself into the earth below. And, of course, it had once again sprayed sticky soda all over me with the force of a compressor-driven power spray.
I was both annoyed and elated.
I had peeled my shirt off and was holding my head under the faucet in the break room sink when I had a realization. The can going down into the dirt was the exact opposite of what I had expected to happen. And I’d touched the can with the positive lead. So what if I used the negative lead?
A moment later I was back outside with wet hair, no shirt, and a fresh can of soda. I lay my experiment out, only this time with the negative lead and an empty can of soda. And I had to move down the table a bit, to avoid the damaged section.
Despite the earplugs, the noise was extremely loud. My whole body felt the concussion of the blast: a sudden escape and return of the air around me.
I had been staring right at the can with deep concentration, yet I wasn’t sure what had happened. The can was simply gone. It seemed to have just disappeared into thin air. It was there, then not.
I rushed back inside and returned with the half-empty twelve-pack. This time I decided not to open the can. If it exploded, then at least the evidence would be painted all over my body, even if it happened too fast for me to see. Besides, another dousing would be par for the course.
But the result was just as confounding: a deep boom, a concussion, and a disappearing Coke can—but no spray.
So… no explosion, per se, just a super-loud bang and a disappearing can. I felt fairly sure the full can must have stayed intact, though, which meant the cans were traveling upward at a faster rate than my eyes could track.
Of course, there was no way for me to guess that I was launching cans of soda out of Earth’s atmosphere at nearly three times the speed of sound.
It wasn’t long before it occurred to me to try changing the settings on the multimeter. It was set to two million ohms, so I dialed it way back twenty thousand. And this time, when the negative lead hit the can, it shot off at high velocity… but no BOOM. And unlike the previous launches, I actually heard the can hit the roof of a nearby warehouse as it returned to earth.
I gulped down the last warm sip of my final Coke can, dialed the multi down to two thousand, and hit the empty container with the negative lead. The can flung itself straight up into the air at about the same speed at which I could throw it, peaked at about forty feet, then clattered to the ground right in front of me.
The lowest setting on the multi was two hundred ohms, so I tried it. When the lead touched the can, it popped up a few inches and fell over. I tried it a few more times with the same result.
At this low setting, nothing was exploding or shooting off violently. The event seemed so innocuous, in fact, that I even worked up the nerve to steady the can with one hand while I touched it with the negative lead.
I felt no shock, nothing: just the can pushing upward. When my palm was above it, the can would push my hand up about six inches. In fact, it insisted upon rising up off the table. If I pushed back down, the can crumpled—and refused to be pushed any lower than about six inches above the table.
It was then that I discovered that, if I continued to touch the can with the negative lead, the can would levitate indefinitely.
I’m convinced that my mother’s heart was holding out for my acceptance to Emory. Going into my final high school semester, I had graduation in the bag and acceptance letters from all three of my backup schools, but no word yet from Emory.
Emory is world renowned for its schools of Medicine and Law, but the School of Business quietly competes at a very elite level with far less fanfare. Though my SAT score put me in the top 99.9% of those who took the test, my grades were average at best, and I hadn’t participated in any school-sponsored team sports or any of the other stuff, like volunteer work, that college-bound kids did to pad their applications. I figured I was doing well just to stay out of jail.
So knowing how elite the school’s business department was, I never got my hopes up. But Mom seemed to believe it was my destiny, so I applied. Having little else to point to, I focused my application letter on the fact that I had taken a Silver Glove when I was fifteen, and a Golden Glove the following year.
Despite my pessimism, two days before midterms I received an invitation to join Emory University’s Boxing Club. The next afternoon I arrived home to find my mom holding my acceptance letter, tears of joy rolling down her cheeks.
And the following morning I found her lifeless body crumpled on the kitchen floor.
I arrived at Emory with a spiritual directive: I was on a mission to live the life that my mom had envisioned for me.
At times like these—huddled in a hallway with a bunch of nervous, sweaty over-achievers—I wondered if this was precisely what she had in mind.
Professor Treadwell—or “Tom” as he preferred to be called—had scheduled New Venture business plans to be presented over three marathon days, ten presentations each day. We were each expected to present our business plan in ten minutes, which would then be followed by a five-minute Q&A session. This was the first day, and ten of us sat in the hall, waiting to be called in.
Greg nudged me. “Check out Kermit.” I looked up, and he nodded down the hall.
Jessica was smiling broadly at the wall in front of her, her lips moving ever so slightly like a crazy lady at a bus stop, clearly practicing a speech in her head. I shared a nervous chuckle with Greg.
Every class has one. Jessica was the first to put her hand in the air the moment a professor stopped speaking; was frequently spotted coming out of a teacher’s office; automatically volunteered for any kiss-ass endeavor; and would probably melt down completely if she ever received a B.
She was very tightly wound, and somewhere along the line somebody had pointed out that her ass was probably as water tight as a frog’s butt. Thus the nickname Kermit was born.
When it came time to schedule the presentations, Jessica, as usual, had volunteered to go first. Then, when no one else volunteered, Treadwell said the rest of us would go in alphabetical order.
Lord, I hate that.
With a name like Dale Adams, you get used to going first whenever teachers “randomly” decide to go in alphabetical order. I’d been putting up with that for my whole life. So thank God for Kiss-Ass Kermy or I’d be going first yet again. I was still second, but hey, small victories.
As I watched Jessica rehearsing her speech, a large, white-haired man in a suit came lumbering down the hallway pulling a briefcase on wheels. He passed through the middle of us without even acknowledging our existence, and when he stopped at the door to the conference room, I had a sudden thrill of nervousness. His late arrival must account for why nobody had been called in yet… so maybe the stay of execution was over.
The nervous chatter ended as everyone else in the hall realized the same thing.
Suddenly I was acutely aware of how much I hated wearing suits. The collar chafed my neck, my pants felt bunched up on my crotch, I was hotter than hell, and the jacket was driving me crazy.
But this was the life I had chosen. If professional baseball players could be comfortable in tight pants, then surely I could come to terms with business attire.
Finally the door to the conference room opened, and Mr. Treadwell popped out. “Ms. Osgood?”
“Yes, Tom?” came the cheery answer from down the hall. Jessica stood up quickly and made her way forward without waiting for an answer.
“I don’t envy you having to go after Kermit,” commented Greg. “I’d rather be the only non-Asian in a calculus class.”
I couldn’t help cracking up. “Yeah, well…”
Treadwell ignored the other students in the hall as he ushered Jessica in. He was a tall, thinly built man, and wore dark slacks and a white suit shirt, but no tie. The disheveled hair, too-long goatee, and casually undone top buttons on his shirt told the world that he had earned the right to take leave of corporate norms. He had no one to impress. This was further proof of Treadwell’s mantra: “I ain’t some ivory tower professor.”
And it was true. The guy was a rock star in the business world. He had a weekly column in the Atlanta Business Chronicle, had written three books, and his op-ed pieces frequently showed up in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. He was a regular guest commentator on Money Line and other news programs. Twice he left our class early because he was due across town at CNN’s studios.
Competition had been fierce when it was announced that he was teaching one MBA and one undergrad class, with only thirty slots available in each. The undergrad class had been limited to graduating seniors, and within that group all interested names went into a lottery. I was elated to get in. Not only was I a graduating senior, but this would be my very last class. Talk about going out with a bang.
From the beginning, Treadwell had told us he had no interest in attendance—if we didn’t show up, it was our loss. He didn’t care about grades, either. On the first day of class, he told us, “You’re all getting an ‘A’ in this class. Merry Christmas.”
There would be two tests, a midterm and a final. All we really had to do was sign our names to them. “Yes, I will still grade the tests,” he pointed out, “but that will only be to satisfy my curiosity.”
The only work we had to do was come up with a business idea, support it in a detailed formal business plan, then present it to real investors.
This presentation was truly a testament to the epic magnitude of getting into Thomas Treadwell’s class. This exercise was pointedly not some theoretical simulation dreamed up by an academic with no real-world experience. We were presenting our ideas to real venture capitalists and angel investors.
Suddenly the conference room door swung open, and Jessica burst through. I glanced at my watch: twelve minutes exactly. What the…?
Jessica stormed past, nose in the air, tears streaming down her face, right down the middle of the hall without so much as a glance left or right.
Treadwell’s words came back to me: “These guys aren’t coming here for the fun of it. I told them you’re the very best Emory has to offer. One of you is going to give them their next big venture. They’re coming because they want to make money. This is the real thing. If you come in with a half-assed idea that you aren’t prepared to defend, they will rip you to shreds.”
Statistically speaking, just getting a raw idea in front of a group of serious venture capitalists is pretty rare. Rarer still is one of those raw ideas actually getting backing and being brought to fruition through VC. Sure, someone might fail to get VC attention, go off and scrounge up a bit of capital, put things in motion on their own, and then—once some promise is on the table—maybe bring in VC at a later stage. But a VC almost never wastes their time on a raw, unproven idea.
“During a pitch to investors,” Treadwell had said, “there are two forces at work. First, the VCs want to make money: they want ideas worthy of investment. Second, and more important, the VCs do not want to lose money. You guys will be given precisely ten minutes to make your case, and precisely five minutes to defend it during a vigorous discussion. And that’s only if you’re pitch is worthy of conversation. Your job will be to convince some very cagey people into giving you money, so come prepared or you will embarrass yourself. And me.”
As I watched Jessica’s figure retreating down the hall, Treadwell’s warnings became very, very real.
Turning back, I found all eyes on me, wide with fear. Treadwell had used the word “vigorous” to describe the Q&A, but…
After what seemed like a million years, the door opened again. “Mr. Adams?”
Now I questioned the wisdom of coming in here with a less-than-half-baked idea. I had dropped my original business plan two weeks earlier, the same night that my can of Coke exploded, and rushed to build a new plan. Then, a mere two nights ago, I’d scrapped that plan, too, and started over. Two days’ prep time. Two months wouldn’t have been enough.
I mustered what courage I could, stood up, and made my way in, lugging a duffel bag with me. The room was long and narrow, with a large, shiny oak table in the center. There was a computer off to the side nearest the door and a large screen on the wall. On the screen was a PowerPoint slide reading “Questions & Answers.”
Jessica left her presentation on the computer? Wow. The queen of composure must have been completely dismantled by the end of her presentation.
Mr. Treadwell took his seat at the end of the table, directly facing the screen, and I walked over to the computer. My hands shook as I removed Jessica’s thumb drive and replaced it with mine.
It took me a few moments to queue up my PowerPoint presentation. All the while, silence. No chitchat. No recap of Jessica’s presentation. No nothing. Just silence.
I looked up. The guy closest to me had been watching me intently… but suddenly he yawned and looked away. Seven bored faces, no emotion. One was slouched in his chair, tapping his pen on the table, staring at the ceiling. Another shuffled through some papers in front of him. No communication. In fact, no one was looking directly at anybody, except for Treadwell, who was watching me with a patient half smile.
There was no emotion here whatsoever. Not even a hint of residue left from whatever drama had brought Jessica to tears.
What was it that felt so familiar?
“Mr. Adams, we don’t have all day,” came the uncharacteristically stern admonishment from Treadwell.
I knew exactly what this was. I was at a beer-soaked game of poker in a frat house. The stakes had gone uncomfortably high because they all had good hands. But they were trying to act like they didn’t care. These guys were old chums. They were planning to chew me up and spit me out. The only thing missing was cigar smoke.
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