Most of my life, I've done a fairly decent job of staying under the radar in groups of people. In school, we did one of those rankings where you voted for Most This and Most That among your classmates. There were about 125 in my class and I finished in second place in the voting for Most Shy, between two special needs students.
Twenty-some years ago, a group of pork producers were going to visit a fellow producer's new building to see what his design was like. It was a few hours from home, but the other guys in the group mentioned the name of the architect from North Carolina who had designed the building. They couldn't remember the producer's name, though. I quietly tossed it out and they were shocked to discover that I not only knew his name, but I had been in his building already.
Silence has value
One of them piped up and said, "You mean you don't just know the guy, but you've already been there? You know, we've been going to meetings with you for a few years now, and ______ (the guy's brother) and I always figured you were a mute, because you never say anything!"
Guilty as charged. My kindergarten evaluation even says "Jeff doesn't participate in discussions unless called upon."
Children are to be seen and not heard, was my feeling. Having a driver's license and the ability to vote was no reason for that to change over time, I figured. So I stayed quiet.
When I graduated from Iowa State University about 25 years ago, a local feed salesman was out with a new district salesman for the area. The two of them stepped out of the salesman's truck as I walked over to see them. My salesman said, "Jeff, I'd like you to meet our new district guy . . ."
That's when I broke into the conversation and recited his name, which caught both of them off guard.
"Well, uh, yeah, I didn't know you two knew one another," the local salesman said.
"We were in a class together at Iowa State," I explained.
"That must have been one of those big lectures in Kildee Hall," the new guy said, clearly trying to figure out how I knew him, but he didn't know me.
"Nope, it was Sheep Production with Dr. Youngs. There were 11 of us in there," I said.
New Guy was running all of the handy Dale Carnegie sales technique maneuvers through his head that he had learned in his training right about then. It was mildly satisfying to watch him squirm as he tried to remember me.
Dr. Youngs was my advisor for the final one of my eight semesters at Iowa State. My previous advisor had to ask what my name was every single time I went in to see him. I signed up for my last semester of classes and needed him to approve my paperwork. He still didn't have a clue what my name was.
I explained that to Dr. Youngs when he and I were visiting after class one day. He just shook his head in disgust. He was new to Iowa State that year, and only had freshmen for advisees, so he asked if I'd consider being his first advisee to graduate.
I took Dr. Youngs up on his offer. He and I still get along great, more than 25 years after my time at ISU was done. We've even worked on a project here at the farm with him and his grad students.
When I went to a not-so-near hospital for some lab work a couple years ago, I took a seat in the cavernous waiting room until my name was called. One of the nurses came out and called a name that caught my attention right away. One of my older sisters has a classmate from high school by that name, and her sister is a classmate of mine. It wasn't a terribly common name, so I figured the odds of that name not being hers, were fairly low.
No one ever came forward in response, even after repeated calls. My name came up a bit later. As I walked out when my lab work was done, the patient by that name walked by me as I headed out and she looked for a seat. I tossed out a casual, "Hi, Jane" a split-second before the town crier announced her name.
I could tell Jane's mind was scrambled as we met. It looked to me like she had no idea who just called her by name and kept on going.
Catching up with Jane
While on an errand this week, I decided to stop by Estelle's Eatery & Bar in nearby Harmony, Minnesota and see what the special was. Chef Matt usually posts them on Facebook, but I hadn't looked yet that day. There's a high percentage of flavor home runs at Estelle's, so I didn't feel like I was risking much.
That day's special was a Flyin' Hawaiian. It was ham and cheese with mango salsa and coleslaw on some kind of bread that slips my mind right now. The picture will make you wish you'd been with me that day.
As soon as I sat down at the table at Estelle's, Chef Matt said Hi and brought me my usual Diet Coke. He walked by again with a plate with the special on it headed to another table and told me it was a Flyin' Hawaiian. That didn't ring any bells right away, but it lit a fuse for me visually, so I told him to bring me one.
That's when I got comfortable in my chair and realized that the table of two ladies off to my far right, looked familiar. Whatdyaknow, the one sitting kind of perpendicular to me a few rows and tables away was my friend from the lab-pass-by-identification-and-skeedaddle years before!
The place wasn't full at the moment, but my back was pretty much to their table, so I figured I wasn't going to be recognized. That's when the wheels started turning in my head. I couldn't walk out when I was done and say "Hi, Jane" without being noticed. Instead, I decided to make Chef Matt my accomplice.
When I was done with my lunch, I had requested two orders of pork nuggets to go. One would be delivered to my folks. Another one would go to a neighbor who staffs a recycling truck in nearby Kendallville until 2:00 each Wednesday. His wife had a post on Facebook about being at Estelle's a couple weeks before that, so I had asked him when I dropped off my recycling if he enjoyed the pork nuggets.
"What are pork nuggets?" he asked. "I didn't get to go along on that trip."
Pork nuggets are pure food genius. Chef Matt takes a pork loin and cuts it into inch to inch-and-a-half cubes. Then they are marinated in teriyaki, soy sauce and ginger before being battered and deep-fried. They are served in a pool of that same concoction. It is an incredible use of pork.
Think Chicken nuggets, except with meat and flavor.
I told my neighbor I'd bring him some pork nuggets on my way back. He was fine with that.
My to-go order was almost ready when I texted a picture of the Flyin' Hawaiian to Sherill. Her response didn't take long: "Carry out?"
Now the clock was ticking. Chef Matt's wife, Heidi, had just walked into the restaurant and took a seat at the bar to do some paperwork. I walked up and sat down to her left, to keep my view of Jane and her friend blocked somewhat. Chef Matt put in my order for "a Flyin' Hawaiian on wheels" and then went to Jane's table. Thankfully, he managed to talk them into French macaroons for dessert. That may buy me enough time to sneak out before they left.
I pulled a business card out of my pocket and told Chef Matt I wanted his help on a project. (Thanks, Jill!) Then I told him what my connection to Jane was, and how I'd blown her mind at the lab a couple years before.
Me: "Take this card and hand it to her, Matt."
Matt: "Right now? No problem."
Me: "No! Wait until a minute or two after I leave, then just set it on their table once I'm gone. Her husband is also a classmate of my sister's and grew up not far from me." (He bought a load of hay from me at Fort Atkinson years ago, which was another adventure in itself.)
Matt read the back of my card and beamed. "You got it! I like your style, my man!"
On the back of my card was a short note: "Tell Mark Hi for me, Jane!"
The French macaroons were still being enjoyed at the far table when my to-go order was placed in front of me. I got my stuff together and headed out the door to my truck parked a few spots away.
I was just shutting the door after putting everything in the passenger side when I heard a shout from the restaurant.
Jane was heading down the sidewalk toward me.
She gave me a big hug as she got to me and said, "I wondered if that was you when you walked in. Then when he handed me your card, oh my gosh, that was so cool!"
Turns out Jane had been in Cresco that day for a lecture at the hospital. She had a couple other things to do after her lecture when her other friend suggested they do lunch when Jane was finished.
"Do you know Annette? She said she wanted to take me to this place in Harmony, and I'd never been her before. Oh my gosh, this place is just . . . "
That's when Jane and I reviewed the culinary gem that Estelle's has become. I have a hunch she's going to be back.
I'll probably be at a back table, maybe facing the wall.
Guy No. 2