An Inventor's Maxims For Twirling to Success

Mr. Tulley said aluminum twirlers would be his path to riches. He owned a motel on Highway 66, a cluster of small white cabins set back from the road and surrounded with squat palm trees. He said he liked living in Duarte among the orange groves, but that he had always had a big itch to make a pile of money and live the good life by the beach in sunny Balboa.

I lived next door where my mother and father owned a Swedish restaurant, and my infatuation with Mr. Tulley's dream was a kind of harbinger for a slow summer. The time was 1953, a California summer. I was just turning into a teenager, and economically speaking, it was boom time in the Golden State.

``These,'' he said, slapping one of the aluminum pieces on the workbench with a pop, ``will be on every used-car or new-car lot in the state.'' Mr. Tulley was a lanky, hungry-looking man, single, a foot soldier in World War II.

Ever the progressive inventor, Mr. Tulley had created a vertical twirler out of pieces of aluminum sheeting. The twirler was a foot in length, maybe five inches wide, and curved at the vertical edges with a tiny cap on top and a small clamp at the bottom edge. Slipped over the radio antenna of a car, the twirler spun in the wind like a siren call to the good life behind the wheel.

Imagine a car lot filled with twirling twirlers, all painted in bright colors, said Mr. Tulley. ``Dynamite,'' he said, showing me how to spray paint the twirlers for $2 an hour plus all the soft drinks I wanted from the soft-drink dispenser between two of his cabins. ``You make 'em,'' he told me, ``I sell 'em.'' He called me his ``associate.''

The best in Mr. Tulley was an irrational hope that lighted up his eyes - the glow of greed perhaps. He saw himself as an executive. He liked to share encouraging maxims, slogans, and homilies with me. ``The world will stand aside for the man who knows the arrow of his direction,'' he would say. Or, ``No venture is impossible if you break it down into small steps.''

The worst in Mr. Tulley was his faulty grasp on follow-through, the necessity of life that has bent many a spear thrown at the target of success. And he couldn't do anything about natural forces, either.

I don't know what he sold the twirlers for, but while I painted them red, blue, yellow, and white - as fast as I could - he spent every afternoon with a back seat piled high with twirlers stopping at all the car lots within a 50-mile radius.

Southern California was in the midst of a post-war boom. Nowhere else on earth were cars being sold any faster from larger and larger car lots. At first the twirlers sold like hot cakes; then car dealers wanted different colors and shapes such as barber-pole stripes, polka dots, shapely women, oval shapes, and finally strips of fluttering plastic on the twirlers.

Every afternoon, Mr. Tulley pulled away from the motel in his four-door Ford, the rear of the car dangerously low from 600 pounds of aluminum trying to push through the car's floor. He had taken the back seat out and piled the twirlers there.

When Mr. Tulley returned in the evenings, he met with Luke, the night clerk for the motel. They would sit by the adding machine, tallying up the new orders and payments while Mr. Tulley, spinning somewhere in the entrepreneurial cosmos, would talk of hiring more workers, leasing a building, and making me plant foreman. ``We need some trucks,'' he said. He wanted to be the CEO of his own company.

Reality was quite different. I told him that the more custom-made each twirler became, the longer it took me to make each one. I was fast and organized, but one of my older brothers told me I was a good example of worker exploitation. Sensing my discontent, Mr. Tulley raised my salary by 50 cents an hour and installed a fan in the hot work shed where I labored with the radio on all day, listening to rock-and-roll. On the wall he nailed a sign that read, ``True success is overcoming the fear of being unsuccessful.''

Mr. Tulley always said he'd hire another worker, but somehow another worker never materialized. He would put a hand on my shoulder and say, ``Anything one man can imagine, another man can make real.'' He started wearing ties.

A month after the twirlers hit the market and I was faced with back orders until the year 2000, a rare market force took over. Late on a Friday afternoon, the heat in Duarte began to rise; this is the infamous dry heat that rolls in from the California desert.

Mr. Tulley was somewhere in Glendale. The Santa Ana wind picked up quickly, dry and fierce, blowing heat and high desert wind. In the work shed, the fan was useless while I dripped. Outside, the palm trees were flapping like the wings of vultures.

And in car lots all over Southern California, aluminum twirlers were lifting off car antennas and becoming airborne. They clattered against a thousand cars, nicking and scratching the paint and windows. In the corners of car lots where scrap paper and refuse gathers, twirlers came to rest in solemn piles.

When Mr. Tulley returned that afternoon he was ashen at first. He said he was driving on Glendale Boulevard when red and blue twirlers blew past him. ``It was like an animated film,'' he said, ``but naturally I wasn't amused.''

The next day he shut down the work shed and gave me a layoff notice. ``Struggle is what inspires me,'' he said soberly, promising to redesign the twirler and rehire me.

Weeks later I saw him in the workshop, bending the remaining pieces of aluminum into U shapes, hoping his new lawn game with a ball, called ``Green Zoom,'' would be the next croquet without a mallet.

It wasn't.

Eventually he sold the motel, and moved to Indio instead of Balboa.

I think of Mr. Tulley fondly, wishing I could share two maxims with him: ``The mark of a true executive is usually illegible'' and ``Maturity consists of no longer being taken in by oneself.''

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