My last two stories introduced my mom, dad, and childhood. It’s time to examine my character. I’ll attempt to explain how I perceive and interpret my archetypal relationships with family, friends, clients, celebrities, heroes, and anti-heroes. I plan to share my insights and understanding of our symbolism as our relationships and lives unfold.
When I graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a B.A. in Industrial Design in 1969, my parents assumed that I’d be designing for someone else. “It’s time for you to go out and find a job”, they announced. “A job? Not me. I’m going to be an inventor.” “What will you invent?” they asked. “Ways of making a living.” I replied. They assured me I had their mental, emotional, and spiritual support. I thanked them and immediately put on my thinking cap because my greatest challenge was not having any money.
My chronic lack of finances motivated me to ponder my dilemma on a macro and micro scale at the same time. I had become a craftsman and model maker, specializing in fabricating objects from wood, soft metals, and plastics. I would easily survive. I figured that if someone could make a fortune creating and promoting a “pet rock”, I could surely invent something that would provide me with a good income and creative freedom.
There were not many novelty coaster sets on the market at the time. I cut seven circles and a square from wood and replicated a Big Mac hamburger, staining and painting the individual pieces to simulate ingredients. They actually looked pretty appetizing. I felt confident that MacDonald’s would go for the idea. We could injection mold individual plastic pieces and imprint them. I presented the idea to product management at MacDonald’s corporate headquarters and suggested they call it a ‘Big Mac Coaster Set’. I encouraged them to market it with box tops or give it away with a certain size order. They weren’t interested. So I went directly to upstairs department stores with my hamburger coaster prototypes. Buyers liked the idea and wanted to purchase small quantities to sell, but not enough to pay for tooling and minimum production runs. My hamburger coaster idea went on a back burner. Eventually, someone else produced hamburger coasters and profited.
I launched my first real business venture with a fellow industrial design graduate and several hundred dollars. We were determined to be successful. Basic column, taper, and votive candles ‘ were staples in the marketplace at the time. We envisioned pioneering a niche for uniquely scented black light candles, ice cream candles, recycled can and bottle candles (Earth Day #1, Aries 1970), and sand-cast candles. Combining unique methods, materials, and manufacturing processes, we produced limited editions of high quality handcrafted products at wholesale prices. For several months, we trekked a waxy trail between my partner’s living room and kitchen, ruining his stove, pots, pans, and wooden floors. Although my partner was creative and passionate, he was unreliable due to his alcohol dependency. I threatened to abandon him and his two alcoholic mutts (Michelob and Budweiser) and finally deserted them following several ugly and untimely binges. Meanwhile, we’d established a small market for our products in head shops and gift stores.
I promptly relocated to a three thousand square foot warehouse space with a new partner who was also an industrial designer. We borrowed a few thousand dollars each and labored like a couple of obsessive-compulsive maniacs to create equipment, set up manufacturing systems, and generate more substantial orders for candles. This time, my partner deserted me. He ran off to Brazil after his wife was violently killed in an automobile accident. We were under tremendous pressure and he couldn’t handle another drop.
Graciously, my partner apologized and donated his half of the business to me. While he became a tourism guide and fisherman, living with fresh air and water, I tried to hold on to my sanity while sweeping floors, keeping books, purchasing raw materials, and making and delivering orders that were way too large for a small crew of people working full time (let alone the two of us).
Coca Cola was threatening to drive me out of business for recycling their discarded soda cans into candles. They’d rather have seen them incinerated or land filled than let me use their logo for free. I tried fighting, but quickly learned that it’s futile to fight with a god, so I reused everyone else’s cans.
Despite my setbacks, by the end of my first eighteen months in business, I had acquired nearly ten times the warehouse space, and was buying wax by the barge load, essential oils by the barrel, and artificial dyes by the drum. It was a lot of hard and dirty work, but I figured that eventually I’d be able to pay other people to do the dirty work for me.
One morning I awoke to find that an electric immersible heater malfunction had transformed my factory into the largest candle in Pittsburgh’s history. Smokeless flames over one hundred feet tall had leapt passionately into the night sky. Seventeen fire engines and many firemen worked all night, but were unable to rescue it. While sorting through the rubble, I imagined Hiroshima. Large steel beams had sagged and aluminum molds had melted like ice into puddles. Everything else was charred to a crisp. That was my first really intense experience with pollution. Not just environmental pollution, but a psychic pollution that occurs when you owe a lot of money and have none. After a year of legal battles, as I frantically scrounged to support a life style that I could no longer afford, a jury awarded me a financial settlement in an insurance lawsuit over my landlord’s (third partner’s) faulty sprinkler system. Bill collectors, like unrequited stalkers, finally let go when I settled with my creditors and investors for ten cents on the dollar. I got nothing.
I hadn’t a clue about my symbolism at the time all this chaos was happening. In hindsight, I realized that I was destined to be an inventor, a rebel, a pioneer, a communicator, and failed businessman. I was forced by circumstance to understand what I value, how I think, what I feel, and believe. My candle factory fire and many other disasters and catastrophes that were to follow in my future were also meant to be so that I could become who I was meant to be. I’ll explain as my story unfolds.