I think it was that mental image of Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) driving down Highway 1 in California in the convertible – a freshly minted “Graduate” blasting recklessly through life on the stunning coast of California. That was the subliminal push that caused me to turn down a compelling but low paying offer to teach English and coach football at my high school alma mater. Fresh out of college and with no particular vocational calling or direction, I received an alternative offer. It was an out of the blue call from my gregarious uncle in California and his offer was to join him in his startup company, building and marketing his invention: the “Tripper”.
Uncle Russ had textbook Irish charm, particularly when he was selling, which explains the success he had at building a used car sales business in the San Joaquin valley. “Pardner… (that’s what he called you during the sale)… I’ve finally made a breakthrough on the best idea to hit the car industry since a hard top. It’s a car camper that slips right in your trunk and over the car top, pops up to sleep up to 4. It’s called the Tripper, and we are going to make a ton of money selling these babies. Got my plant open in Santa Cruz and you are welcome to join us here and take the Tripper to a national market.” I looked at a map and saw that Santa Cruz is on the ocean – surf’s up! “I’ll be there, Uncle Russ”.
I have to admit that the Tripper was pretty cool and a very unique alternative to towing a camper with your car. It was cozy and was my personal quarters during my stay in CA. These were the times of big lumbering U.S. made cars that could easily accommodate the weight and bulk of the fully decked out Tripper, complete with a mini kitchen. It took trust, some help and ingenuity to remove the trunk lid and then to have Tripper inserted and attached. (Problem 1.) Tripper was also totally hand crafted of wood, fiberglass and canvas – labor intensive. (Problem 2.) The plant, not really in Santa Cruz, housed a mix of “craftsmen” that Russ had assembled for his production team. I met them all on the first day. John Brown, an industrious Mexican who insisted he was pure blood Native American, was Russ’s trusted right hand man from the car business. Rex, the out of the closet talented fabric installer, had been a seamstress to the stars, including Annette (my favorite star). Then Russ introduced me to his carpenter, Nevada Coates.
I was stopped in my tracks, motionless, and hesitantly held out my hand to the most bad-ass looking person I had ever encountered. Nevada Coates was all of 6’5”, crowned with a sweat stained, crumpled Stetson. The right arm that reached out was lean and muscled, adorned with a tattoo of a long dagger. “Love” was tattooed across the right knuckles and “Hate” on the left. Despite his black beard you could see the traces of wear and weather in his face, which also sported an aged 4 “scar. But it was his eyes that held me in place – they were dark and penetrating. We shook hands, he smiled (thank God) and proceeded to roll his next cigarette. I noticed the long hunting knife tucked in his boot.
Nevada Coates came straight from central casting, except he was the real deal. As I gradually got to know him over breaks and lunch, the stories emerged. His career unfolded through a series of jaw dropping tales of his life as a hunting guide in the mountains of Montana and Wyoming. He ran trap lines over those and in the High Sierras. His scrapes with animals and humans generally left him on the winning side but with evidence of the struggles etched on his body. I didn’t believe it all until he brought out the photographs and clippings. In the off season he ran a fishing trawler out of Santa Cruz. And the best part, for his 50 plus years of age, was his 20 year old wife who was a princess in the Cheyenne Nation. His outlook on life and surviving in the wilderness was an inspiration that left a mark on me. You could call him my first mentor.
It was a Friday night and Tripper Industries had made one more payroll. So with some cash in hand I landed at a local cowboy bar called the Little Rail. It was a busy night and the place was filled with cowboys, most headed that weekend to the big Salinas Rodeo. Olympia beer was cheap and I soon found myself with sufficient courage to put my money on the rail for the next pool game. I didn’t know how to play pool, didn’t know the rules. But I did see the money there for a possible lucky win. Sure enough, when my turn arrived my opponent proceeded to clear the table but scratched on the 8 ball – looking around it dawned on me – I won! Scooping up the cash, I searched for the door and headed that way, only to see the path quickly fill with several rough looking cowboys armed with pool cues. The liquid courage started to fade as they moved forward with sleeves rolled, insisting I put the cash down. I saw no way over or around, but was still stupid enough to hold onto the cash. It was at that height of danger a big arm, emblazoned with a dagger, wrapped up my shoulders. Nevada Coates then said calmly “Now you cowboys know this gringo won that money fair and square. So we’re gonna walk out now. But first, Jim, buy the boys a round and then we’ll leave.” The Little Rail was quiet, the cowboys graciously moved aside, and I, graciously, bought a round.
• Always know the rules & etiquette of the game.
• Have an exit strategy.
• A good mentor can make difference in your life and your career.
• As for The Tripper – Successful great ideas require more than Irish charisma, more than good execution, more money than planned, and constant adaptability to a changing marketplace.