Can I Borrow Your Space Suit?
When I was a teenager, my dad directed a team of HAZMAT specialists that control and contain hazardous and toxic spills. He had all kinds of neat safety equipment like foam, ropes, respirators, and suits. Due to safety regulations, Dad would often have to retire old or used equipment. It was one of those retirement occasions that I borrowed one of what I called his “space suits.” The suit was perfect! It was light blue with a large hump on the back for an air tank, shoes and gloves attached to the body, and a head with a large plastic face shield for easy viewing. Anyone who put it on looked like the robot in the old TV series Lost in Space. In order to wear it—and live—you had to have some sort of breathing apparatus, because once you were zipped in, it was airtight. When I first got the suit, I wasn’t fully aware of this minor yet significant detail, but I can now confirm this with full authority and experience. (Children, do not try this at home.)
Later on, when I was in college, I tanned animal hides to use as a teaching tool for children. I didn’t want to kill the animals, so I used my most bountiful resource, Interstate 85 and Highway 123 in Clemson, South Carolina. The highways and back roads were my canvas, and fresh roadkill was my palette. I collected just about every known animal that was stupid enough to walk in front of a car: beavers, woodchucks, deer, opossum, foxes, and rabbits. If you could kill it at 60 miles an hour without it exploding, I got it. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a skunk in my repertoire. So when the door of opportunity opened, I pulled over.
It was a beautiful sunny afternoon as I was traveling down I-85 to York Place Children’s Home when I discovered my first skunk roadkill. Being the “always-on-the-lookout-for-roadkill” kind of guy, I was prepared with three large plastic bags. I discovered the freshly killed skunk on the edge of the road and quickly pulled over to wrap my treasure in the bags. It’s actually a skillful art, to not draw attention to yourself as you pick up a dead skunk off the side of a major interstate. Proud of myself, I tossed my prize in the backseat of the rental car and continued down the road. It was precisely 4.3 miles before I became respectfully amazed at the absolute potency of a dead skunk in a confined space. My drive from Clemson to York took about two hours. The skunk enjoyed about six minutes of it.
Not only was I frustrated and angry with myself that I had to toss out my prize at 75 miles an hour, but I had also ruined the fresh “like-new” smell of the rental car. “It was horrible! I almost died!” I told the rental store. “I’ve read there was a rabid skunk in the area. Just my luck to have a crazy skunk jump in my backseat.” I guess I should consider it a blessing I made it out alive.
The smell that permeated out of my skin for days only strengthened my resolve to find another skunk. I vowed next time to be prepared. In a stroke of pure genius, I remembered my dad’s space suit. Being the intellectual college student, I logically deduced, if nothing can go out, then nothing can come in . . . thus making the space suit the perfect skunk suit! I excitedly drove to Spartanburg that weekend, grabbed my dad’s suit, drove back to Clemson, and awaited the scent.
It wasn’t long before the intoxicating aroma of a freshly killed skunk was in the air. I found my long-awaited prize, and, now wise to plastic bags, tossed the carcass in the back of Ole Bessie, my prize-winning-roadkill pickup truck. I pulled up behind my apartment at the pig farm and found a cozy little place in the woods. I had already anticipated all the complexities and scenarios of skinning a skunk, but I had not entertained the thought of explaining to someone why I was hiding in the woods, on a pig farm, wearing an E.T.-looking space suit, while skinning a skunk. I doubted anyone would find me, but I thought the camouflage face paint wouldn’t hurt.
Between my held breaths of air, I quickly prepared the final touches of my makeshift skinning table. Once all was in place, I rushed inside to the smell-safe haven of my room. I zipped myself securely in the suit, making sure all openings were totally closed to prevent the smell from coming in and interrupting the processes. I then waddled my way to the skinning table and began the procedure.
Finally, after all this time, I was about to have a skunk in my repertoire. Life was good and I cherished the moment. I felt pretty good knowing that as I stood there in the space suit breathing my fresh air, there, just millimeters away was a smell that could gag a sewer rat.
Everything started off fine, but the suit was beginning to get a little hot. About five minutes into the procedure, flies and bees were everywhere, and condensation began to form on the inside of the face shield. Ten minutes passed and I began to get lightheaded. I thought it was odd that I was having a very difficult time concentrating on what I was doing. I tried to work faster, but it was hard to see through the water droplets that now totally covered the shield. The only way I could see through it was by pressing my face against it and using my nose as a human windshield wiper. I felt very sleepy, but at the same time, I couldn’t stop laughing at the hissing and wheezing sounds my breath made as I tried to inhale. I had the oddest sensation that I couldn’t breathe.
I’m not sure where the voice came from. I don’t know if it was God—maybe it came when I started answering questions the skunk was asking me, or maybe it was the rock I hit when I lost consciousness—but all I know is that I heard a still small voice say, “Uhhh, uhhh, Thomas? Just want you to know, you’re, uhhh, suffocating.” In my half-comatose state, I was able to get up off the ground, stumble to my feet and reach the zipper by my head. In a desperate act of survival I quickly yanked the zipper down. I turned my face toward the opening and with all my might, I sucked in what I thought would be a rush of sweet spring breeze. For one glorious tenth of a second, it was the richest, freshest air my lungs have ever enjoyed. And then it hit me like a Mack truck. The liquefied putrid skunk smell began to flood into my gasping lungs. The potency of the odor was so strong it burnt my eyes like a cut onion, my nose like a whiff of ammonia, and my throat like a shot of Rock and Rye. Then everything went black.
When I came to, I found that my body had fallen on top of the skinning table and my face had landed neatly on top of the skunk. I felt skunk, I saw skunk, I smelled skunk, and I tasted skunk. I do not like skunks; as a matter of fact, I nearly vomit now when I do smell one. In the end I just wrapped everything up and put it in the freezer. There it remains to this very day.
It is that still small voice that we choose to listen to or not in times of decision. Your character is created and shaped by what you’ve done or haven’t done when you think no one is watching. We must choose to do right with the little or “hidden” things in life so as to prepare ourselves for the large and public decisions.
A leader’s focus is grounded on a foundation of character and moral integrity. If you have integrity, nothing else matters. If you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters. The more integrity you have, the less paperwork you need. Character is not formed in times of adversity, but it is revealed. In fact, Abraham Lincoln once wrote, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
If you hold a full glass of water and you get bumped, what comes out? The water, of course! Likewise, what’s inside of you is what comes out when you get “bumped.” For example, if you always tell the truth, you never have to remember what you’ve said. Without a well-grounded character, life gets out of balance, and it doesn’t take long for things to fall apart. Remember, character is a lot easier kept than it is retrieved. Jim Rohn, an American entrepreneur, author, and speaker, states it well: “Character isn’t something you were born with and can’t change. It’s something you weren’t born with and must take responsibility for forming.”
In the end, our thoughts control our decisions, our decisions control our character, and our character controls our actions. Ultimately, our life is defined by the actions we take or do not take. People want to be led, not managed, and you lead them first with your character.
Many companies try to find customers first and then hope to build a relationship. A more viable way of business, however, is building a relationship first then hoping they become a customer. Any lasting relationship is built on service and character. If you are selling a product, people will always remember the quality and service long after they forget the price. If you can provide a high-quality product with great service built on indelible character, there is no limit to its success.