Monday, June 6, 2011

Decision time

Decision time

By Bobby Neal Winters

An old friend of mine rolled into town the other day and we headed over to one of the local upscale coffee shops to get a designer coffee.  There are a lot more decisions involved in getting coffee now than there were in the days of old.  I’ve subverted the system by simply getting the same thing every time.  It is a beverage I like to call “coffee.”  The barista knows what I want when I asked for it, and  I can then put cream and sugar into it--or not as the availability dictates.
My friend is cut from a different bolt of cloth, and he explores permutations making decisions according to what he’s tried before and giving preference to the new and different over the old.
“I like to try new things,” he told me after putting his lips to his latest concoction.  When he sat down his cup, he was left with a whipped-cream mustache that he wiped away with a napkin.
“I am glad,” I said, sipping at my tried and true, no-nonsense coffee. “You can explore for the rest of us.”
My friend, who has been in the business world since graduation, looked sort of wistful.
“You know,” he said, “I sometimes wish that I had the sort of freedom to explore new ideas in my work that you guys do at the university.  In business, most of our decisions are determined by policy and there is not much incentive for exploration.”
He’d caught my attention when he said this, because I teach hypothesis testing as a part of my Elementary Statistics course, and I am always looking for real-life examples.  
Hypothesis Testing deals with creating schemes to make decisions.  The hypotheses that the students are given are quantitative statements that are either true or false but which, by their nature, you can’t ever be certain. You can’t know whether its true or false but you  set a procedure to decide whether or not to treat the statement as true or false.
I explained all of this to my friend while contemplating the possibility of a second cup of coffee and maybe a muffin to go along with it.  I was hoping to be able to get my friend’s opinion of whether the sort of examples I use have any sort of connection with reality.  He’d opened his mouth and was about to say something when I heard a voice coming over my shoulder.
“Yes-sir-ee, sometimes decisions are hard.”
The voice had a pronounced Texas; the word “decision” was pronounce DEE-cis-zhun. The voice was attached to a person whose appearance wouldn’t lead one to expect anything else.  From the wrinkles in his face, I  judged his age to be anywhere from 70 to 170. He wore a new, clean cowboy hat made out of straw, a spotless white shirt, and what I took to be a brand new pair of blue jeans.  In Texas, Oklahoma, and similar places, there is a subculture in which such an outfit will work for church, doing serious business, or, apparently, getting a designer coffee.  How he’d made it to this part of Kansas, I couldn’t guess.
I was going to just smile and ignore him, but I guess he caught my friend’s interest.
“So you’ve made some hard decisions?” he asked.
“Well,” the old man drawled, “I guess I have.  I guess that anyone who’s lived as long as I have would’ve made some hard decisions, some good, some bad.  I ain’t never had a class on it though.  I was just thinking about the first time I ever rode in an airplane.  It was almost the last.”
Usually, I am a good listener, but I couldn’t see where this connected and I was more interested in listening to what my friend had to say than whatever this rustic, old fellow had to say, so I attempted you re-engage my previous conversation. I turned to my friend, looked him in the eye and spoke.
“You were saying...”
My friend’s attention had been captured, however.
“Oh, I wasn’t going to say anything important,” he said. “Just some business stuff.  Let’s listen to what this gentleman has to say.”
So we listened.

I’d been following the wheat harvest from west Texas up though western Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska.  I’d gotten tired of all logging all of those miles back to visit this girl I was trying to spark back home, so I thought that I’d want to learn to fly one of those airplanes.
But I figured I wanted to ride in one first before I flew it.  It just sort of made sense to me.  So I was talking about it with a fellow by the name of Jack “Hot Shot” Burns.  Jack was a good old boy.  He’d spent some time out west fighting forest fires in the mountains.  He’d fly his plane out over the fire, drop a big load of water, and put it out.  
It’d kind of got to him though.  He was as fearless as any pilot that ever was, except when it came to fire.  When I was talking to him, I lit up a cigarette, and he about come unglued.  I had to stamp it out right away and put my lighter out of sight.
Anyway, Jack and me and Floyd Jumper was talking over beer and I said that I wanted to learn to fly, but I figured I’d better go up in a plane first.  And they said it was a good idea.
Floyd had been a parachute jumper in the Army and he and Jack had a thing going where they’d take people up and teach them how to jump.
“I don’t want to learn how to jump,” I said. “Just how to fly.”
They said that they wouldn’t make me jump, but, as they were doing that all the time anyway, it would be easy to take me up.  So we finished our beers, went out to the airstrip, and took off.
Now, you fellows probably are used to those airports like they have in Kansas City or Tulsa.  This wasn’t like that.  It was an airstrip out in the west Texas plains.  There wasn’t anything but wheat or grass or cattle as far as the eye could see.  We got into his airplane which was barely big enough for the three of us, I tell you.  
I could see that it would be a good plane to parachute jump from because I wanted out of it from the minute I got in.  Jack sat in the pilot seat of course; he had Floyd sit in the back; and he had me sit up in the seat usually reserved for the co-pilot so that I could see better what flying was like.
Then we look off.  
It was something.  After we climbed to about 10,000 feet, I got over the pure terror of being up in the air without anything but a thin piece of tin between me and eternity and I got to thinking that maybe I would like to fly one of these machines, so I started looking over the console.
There were a lot of gauges, nobs, and lights on the dashboard and it struck me that it would be a lot to keep up with, but I figured that was something you’d be able to learn.  It all looked good to me but I saw a red light on, so I figured I’d ask a question.
“Jack,” I said. “What does this light mean that says ‘FIRE WARNING.’”
Jack didn’t answer.  He just got a crazy look in his face and went berserk.  I’ve  never seen a man so panicked.  He tried to climb out of the plane over me, and when I turned him back, he opened the door on his side of the plane and just stepped out.  No parachute, no nothing. Jack was gone.
Floyd hopped into the front seat and closed the pilot’s door.  He then leaned over and looked at the light.  He called me a name I can’t say in front of polite people like yourselves.  Then he tapped the light.
“That says ‘TIRE WARNING.’”  And he called me the name again.
I couldn’t see that this was my fault because Jack had made a poor decision.  I don’t know about you, but it is going to take more than one person’s word to get me out of an airplane without a parachute.
There was a period of awkward silence when Floyd appeared to be doing a lot of thinking.  I couldn’t take much of that so I asked a question.
“So, I guess you’ll be landing the plane now so we can tell them about poor old Jack.”
Floyd looked at me pretty serious then.  
“I don’t guess we can do that,” he said.  “You see, I don’t know how to fly a plane either.”
Since then, I’ve heard stories about folks being in situations similar to ours and having people on the radio talk them down.  We hadn’t heard of any of that, and we didn’t think about it because the radio in the airplane didn’t actually work.
Floyd finally got figured out whatever he was thinking about, and he turned to me.
“Fella,” he said, “I don’t know how to fly, but I do know how to jump and I can teach you.  Usually, we have some classes on the ground first, but now there’s not time.  You can either learn or crash with the plane, but I am jumping before we get too much farther from the airstrip.”
Now you’d be surprised how fast you can learn when you have to.  He talked me through all of the procedures, and then we were ready.
“We’ll jump at the same time,” he said.  “You count to ten and pull.  When I see you are okay, then I will pull.”
Jumping out of an airplane is hard even when you know it’s going to crash, but I did it.  And I counted to ten. I actually screamed my numbers.  Then I pulled and that parachute opened with a jerk.
Floyd looked, saw that I was okay, and even gave a little nod.  Then he pulled his rip cord.
And nothing happened.
Again, being it’s such polite company, I won’t tell what I saw next, but I will say I won’t ever forget it.

“So I guess the moral to this story,” he said with a grin, “is that when the stakes are high unless you’ve got pretty good you’d better stand pat.  Jack didn’t follow that rule.  If there is another moral, it’s that sometimes you can make the best decision possible and still wind up flat. That’s what Floyd found out.”
My friend was totally intrigued.
“What did you find out?” he asked.
“Nothing beats luck,” the old-timer said. “I went to the place where poor Floyd landed and found oil.  That was the first of many wells.  I am a billionaire today.”
Then he left. I looked at my friend and shook my head.
“The decision I have to make is whether to believe a single word he said.”
I heard another voice.  This time it was the barista.
“I’d believe him if I was you,” she said, holding something in her hand. “He just tipped he with a Canadian Maple Leaf.”

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