Thank God for Swimming
I graduated from high school in 1972 at age 16, because I had skipped the second grade. Even after skipping a grade, I was always the biggest kid in my class. But I also became a mediocre student. People seemed to expect more out of me socially than I could deliver. I remember a group of guys coming up behind me and saying, “Big like bull, dumb as a refrigerator.” I now know that every child has their insecure moments, but it didn’t feel like that then. I felt alone in that experience. My insecurity manifested as my inability to be social at school.
Before the ’90s, almost all cartoons, TV comedy, and parodies focused around the dumb blonde girl and the oversized, unintelligent male jock. Both these scenarios created a lens through which the general population saw the blonde and the big football player. Eventually, I learned to use this bias to my advantage. People assumed I was unable to comprehend complex ideas. I played dumb until I was 30 as a tactic to learn what I otherwise wouldn’t have been exposed to.
Thankfully, my social life at the swimming pool was thriving. Fifty percent of the swimmers were girls who became my absolute best friends – I even considered them to be surrogate family members. Through competition, we lived and traveled with each other for years. Some of the girls I swam with went on to become Olympic athletes. Our coach, Ted Thomas, became Canada’s Olympic swimming coach and my other coach Les Cosman became a surrogate father of sorts.
What I learned of female drive and competitiveness came from these friendships. One thing that struck me was the girls’ constant complaints of strap location and rashes developing under their armpits from thousands of stroke rotations. The girls were always coming up with new ideas for strap designs, but there was never anyone at Speedo to whom they could share these ideas.
When the time came to move to university, I had a couple of swimming scholarships to consider. These were critical as my parents had no money to offer me. By that point, I’d reached a turning point in my time as a swimmer. I was six foot three and about 220 pounds – 150 percent the size of an average swimmer at that time. This meant that I had the body of a sprinter. Competitive swimming had for a long time been mainly 50 and 100-metre events, but was then changing to consist mostly of 200-metre and 400-metre events, especially in the lead up to the 1976 Olympics. Without enough events for a sprinter being offered, I knew my competitive swimming career was ending.
There was also a big part of me that didn’t want to be told what to do anymore, having spent much of my life in a highly-structured training routine. I decided not to take the scholarships.
University of Alberta
I went to the University of Alberta in Edmonton, 200 miles away – far enough away from my parents for independence, but not so far away that I couldn’t get my laundry done and have a home-cooked meal every now and again.
Once I started at the University, I played football. I still swam, although the swimming was on my own terms now. At the varsity level, swimming and football were an unusual combination of sports. I’d go into the football season in August weighing 240 pounds, then football ended in November. By February, I would have to be trimmed down to 190 to be ready for the swimming nationals. Once the nationals had finished, I’d have to lift weights and eat like crazy to get back up to my football weight. But that’s what you can do with your body when you’re 18 years old.
My major in university started off in science electives because I loved biology. For a time, I thought I might pursue a career as an ocean marine biologist at Scripps in San Diego. Unfortunately, it didn’t take me long to realize there was no way I could afford to study at Scripps.
The Pipeline in Alaska
I was close to the end of my second year at the University of Alberta when I realized I had no passion for anything outside of athletics. I didn’t know what I would do with the rest of my life. Then one day I was at the Edmonton Airport, coming back from Calgary, and I ran into the mother of a friend. We struck up a conversation.
“I’m going up to Alaska,” she told me. “My husband is a project manager on one of the five sections of the Alaska oil pipeline. Too bad you’re not American,” she added, “or you could go up and work there if you were interested.”
The Alaska pipeline was an 800-mile steel pipe through the heart of America’s last untouched wilderness. It was one of the biggest and most expensive private enterprises in global history. It was also something I’d never thought of before, and, unbeknownst to my friend’s mother, I was American, as I had dual citizenship.
The day after my second year of university ended, I found myself on a plane headed for Alaska. I got to US Customs in Fairbanks, thought about it, and decided to tell the US border agent I was Canadian. The agent went through my bag, and it was all construction workwear, safety boots, and the like.
“I think you’re coming here to work and to take an American’s job, so I won’t let you in,” he said to me. This was a problem. I had no money to fly back. All I had was my dual citizenship. So, I tried again, this time telling the agent I was coming into Alaska as an American. “Great,” the agent said. “Step across.” I did as I was told and stepped over the line into American territory. “Report to your draft board first thing tomorrow morning,” he added.
Oh God, I thought. This is precisely what I had been trying to avoid when I told the border agent I was Canadian. This was the mid-’70s, just after the end of the Vietnam War, and I did not understand where I might end up if I reported to the draft board. So, I never reported to the draft board.
A couple of weeks later, I was working on the pipeline. Much of it was hard labour in deep cold. The camp, consisting of about 200 to 800 men, was in the middle of nowhere, several hours east of Fairbanks. I often worked as a high-rigger, which meant climbing to the top of a crane to connect it to another crane in minus 30 degrees Celsius temperatures.
For my last year, I worked way out at a junction in the pipeline, monitoring a fan to make sure it didn’t run out of gas. This task led to long, long days, with nothing much to do but read – I’ll come back to that. Life in the base camp was good, almost too good. Alaska, like Calgary, was going through an oil boom. That meant we had steak and snow crab nearly every night, movies to watch, and many other distractions – not all of them healthy. I worked with men mostly from the deep south; even today, if under the influence of a couple of beers, I have a decent Okie accent.
There was also a man in his 50s named Billy O’Callaghan, an unrepentant Irish alcoholic whose only goal was to eventually die in the arms of a young woman at the Mustang Ranch in Las Vegas (this was an era when there was no political correctness). Billy kind of took me under his wing, and whenever I did something correctly – some task, repair, work, or whatever – Billy would say, “Fine as wine, partner, fine as wine.”
Billy’s motto, fine as wine, stuck with me after that and became something I mentally connected with quality craftsmanship.
I didn’t plan on being there for two years. At first, I thought it would just be for the summer, then I’d go back to school come the fall. On the other hand, I’d only made $3.50 an hour in Calgary doing various odd jobs, while on the pipeline I was making $13.50. I was also pulling 18-hour days, seven days a week, since there wasn’t much else to do. Anything over eight hours was double-time, triple-time on holidays and Sundays. My first three days I made $600 working a holiday weekend – which was more money than I would’ve made all summer back in Calgary.
Besides the money, there was another experience that would shape me in later life. In the base camp, I was surrounded by a lot of drugs and alcohol, and a lot of men going through hard phases in their lives.
The Top 100 Novels
Around that same time, my mom sent me an article from the New York Times. (I believe the author was named Art Buchwald.) The article drew connections between the human body and athletics and how the brain worked. There was research showing the brain improved from mental gymnastics in the same way the body improved from athletic conditioning – say, from swimming drills, for example.
You had to train the brain, Buchwald suggested, as you would your muscles, for it to work at full capacity. Even as a 19-year-old, I understood this clearly. For 1975, this was radical thinking.
I could use my time in Alaska to not only earn money but to train my brain as well. So, I stopped smoking marijuana and brought my teenage drinking to an end. I set myself a goal of reading a novel a day. There was more than enough time in which to do it.
I started off with a list of the top 100 books of all time that I had seen in a newspaper. This under- taking made me likely one of the best-read 19-year-olds in the world. Two books in particular, stood out: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, a comedy about living in the moment, and Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand.
(Full disclosure: I could not get through James Joyce’s Ulysses. Also, as I hope becomes clear throughout this book, I wish I’d had a chance to read Sun Tzu’s Art of War and Machiavelli’s The Prince while in Alaska.)
Atlas Shrugged is about a lot of things, but to put it most simply, it tells the story of a few visionary innovators on a quest to be great people and to produce a great product. There’s Dagny Taggart, the professional woman in her early 30s who keeps her family’s railroad empire running (despite her brother’s incompetence). There’s Dagny’s love interest, industrialist Hank Rearden, who invents a new metal alloy stronger than steel and who must overcome the schemes of politicians and relatives who, unable to create greatness of their own, suck the life out of Hank.
Then there’s John Galt, the mysterious engineer and philosopher who remains mostly unidentified through much of the story. The question, “Who is John Galt?” is a major recurring theme in Atlas Shrugged and is a phrase that has since become a cultural touchstone of its own.
Atlas Shrugged was my first major introduction to the idea of elevating the world from mediocrity to greatness through individual creativity, dedication, and vision. I did not understand then what kind of a theme this would be for me in the years to come.
Atlas Shrugged also brought into focus the many inefficiencies of the unionized labour system. I had a union job on the pipeline – which was exactly why I had so much time to read. But there were times in Alaska when I saw a simple task being performed by three people because the union required one guy to drive a machine, a different guy to flip a switch, and a third guy to make sure the machine didn’t run out of gas.
There was no room for innovation or individuality. I saw socialism at its worst. I saw union bosses ensuring work was mediocre, so the company could hire more people, so the union could collect more dues. I saw an underside to people who would rather strike than work – people who wanted others to create, invent, and risk and still pay the union workers untold amounts for mediocre work.
This was a valuable lesson as a young man because finding out what I wanted in life was sometimes distinguished by finding out what I didn’t want – another concept I wouldn’t fully understand for several more years.
At any rate, I was saving money, and I was focused on training and developing my brain. Knowing I would not stay in Alaska forever, it occurred to me to start laying out some goals for the years to come. For one thing, I recognized that my work on the pipeline was me trading my life for money.
Swimming had given me a decade of goal-setting experience. For each age group, there was a de- finable record time I had to beat, and I felt I had to beat it by my birthday before moving into the next age group.
Looking further into the future, I set the goal of owning my own house by 20, running my own business by 30 and being retired by 40 (meaning I would be 100 percent in control of my whole life). Running my own business was in my blood because I had so many ideas and I wanted to find out if the world wanted what I wanted. At the very least, it would mean I wasn’t trading my life for money on someone else’s terms.
This might seem like the daydreams of a 19-year-old working in the middle of nowhere, making good money for the first time in his life – but to me, my goals were a serious, authentic way of envisioning the years to come.
Back to Civilization
I left the pipeline almost 18 months after I’d arrived, and by then I’d made about $150,000 (over $700,000 in today’s money).1 With the opportunity to earn that kind of money, it’s natural to wonder why I didn’t stay in Alaska longer.
The reality is, I was grinding my teeth. Plus, the longer I stayed on the pipeline, the longer it would take me to reintegrate into society. I had to learn not to swear with every second word, and I didn’t know how to have a conversation without bringing up some pipeline story.
I recognized it took many – if not most – people to work until they were 40 to earn a nest egg like the one I had. If I could start off at 19 or 20 with that kind of money, what could my life be like? I found that question fascinating back then and still do now. If everybody in this world was given what I had and didn’t have to work until they were 40 to get it, would they later have the same successes I did?
I wondered if other people had the drive and desire and the willingness to suffer in the moment for long-term gain. I wondered if my drive was genetic or if swimming had taught me the rewards of working hard in the present to fulfill a long-term goal. Was I really anyone special in this whole thing, or was I just lucky to have met that woman at the airport who’d turned me onto the job on the pipeline?
Meanwhile, I’d achieved one of my goals – I’d bought a house before the age of 20, sight unseen. The house had three suites. Even though I had money in the bank, I took out a mortgage at 19 percent, not yet understanding how I should have paid that mortgage off with my money in the bank that was collecting 3 percent interest. My first lesson in cash flow. I was a landlord, and I was only 19.
Leaving the pipeline base camp was as big a day as I could imagine – it was like driving home from the hospital with your first child. I drove to Fairbanks and got on a plane to fly home. Most of the other men there would work eight weeks and then take two weeks off and go home for a visit, but I’d worked for 18 months, often 18-hour days, with only a few days off. The only way I could keep myself motivated was knowing every hour I worked would mean I could stay two days in a bed-and-breakfast on Accra Beach in Barbados.
Back in Calgary, the first thing I did was inspect my new house. I soon found myself looking at one of the ugliest, oldest buildings I’d ever seen – an original farmhouse now in the middle of the city. The house was on a hill and had great views of the surrounding city, but the views and a small stand of fruit trees (some of the only fruit trees in the city) were the only things the house had going for it.
I’ve always been a very non-materialistic person, but I also love quality. In 1976, it was not American quality that impressed me, but German or Japanese. On my return to Calgary, as soon as I’d recognized the house I’d purchased was anything but quality, I bought a Mercedes Benz as a present to myself. At the time, there were very few Mercedes in Canada, but those vehicles were the epitome of the quality with which I wanted to surround myself.
Now I found myself with these two possessions. My house was basically falling over, costing me massive amounts in cash flow just to keep it standing. And then, I had this beautiful car. Despite the high-quality nature of the car, any time one little thing went wrong with it, the dealership would have to fly in a piece from Germany, costing me hundreds upon hundreds of dollars for some routine repair.
Owning these possessions was a lesson in business. From then on, I only wanted to buy cars I knew were reliable, would seldom break down, and wouldn’t cost much to run – a Honda Civic, for example. I also promised myself I would only buy houses I knew were built with solid craftsmanship. I would always make sure the windows were double-paned to keep winter heating expenses down.
A short-term tenant at my house was Frank Troughton, a new friend I’d made on my return to the University football team. Frank was 21 and newly divorced.
“Chip didn’t really have a penchant for football,” says Frank, “because as big and as strong as he was, he just wasn’t mean enough to be a football player. He was stubborn but also incredibly easy going. He was a tall, blonde surfer who walked around Calgary in shorts, flip-flops and no shirt once the temperature got above freezing. I always knew Chip was a little bit different. He was the entrepreneurial type, and I was sure he’d find his way in life.”
Frank also has one especially funny recollection that sums up our life in that place. “I was actually living at the house Chip had bought with the money he’d earned up on the pipeline. I was working security at a bar downtown during Stampede Rodeo Week. Well, I was a bit of a wild man back then, and I ended up getting into a confrontation with a couple of biker guys. I must have pissed them off good because they followed me back to Chip’s place and let me know that they’d be back with a bunch of guys from their gang.
“The bikers took off, and I ran upstairs to wake Chip up – it was around 3 o’clock in the morning by this point. I said: ‘Hey, we have to get prepared. We’re going to have a situation on our hands here.’ I grabbed my shotgun and went downstairs to the porch. There was Chip walking around the house, stark naked, brandishing a golf club. This is how he would greet a motorcycle gang that was ready to unleash hell.
“The situation was serious enough that a SWAT team was dispatched to the scene and, as luck would have it, those guys arrived at around the same time as the bikers. And there’s Chip, still naked, a golf club in his hands, ready to go down swinging.”
When I look back on my early life, I feel like the luckiest guy in the world. As things turned out, I lived in that house until 1985. Still, these events were just preparing me for the next phase of my life.
- “Value of $150,000 in 1976.” Inflation Calculator, Saving.org, accessed February 19, 2021, https://www.saving.org/inflation/?page=home