Dean Clough

January 3, 2024

Portico Darwin: Depart Hoboken + A Boy Becomes a Man


<4 Minute Read

Later today, we leave glorious Hoboken after an amazing 3 weeks and return to equally glorious SF.  There's a reason I bang on and on about how fortunate I am.

I'll demonstrate that when I publish my first-ever Addendum, providing new and/or updated information to last year's Metro NYC Travel Guide.  It's coming soon and the excitement is palpable.  Right?

In the meantime, I bet many absolutely nobody is sitting there thinking "Gee, going into 2024, it would be great if Portico Darwin regaled us with one of his long, narcissistic stories.  You know, something that means a lot to him, but so little to anyone else!"

Oh, OK, but only if you insist. 

Today I will tell the story of how a 25-year-old man-child was welcomed to the business world via shock therapy. 

Typical Darwin hyperbole? 

Well, there was an epic panic attack, my first six-figure sale, a loudspeaker guru, a top-secret government installation, an arrest, and yes, even a night in jail.

This is the true story of my stint with NTE during my first year in Albuquerque, in 1988. 

NTE, short for Non-destructive Testing Equipment, owned the North American distribution rights to a gee-whiz laser device (an electronic speckle pattern interferometer - got that?) that could measure vibrations on the surface of an object in microns.  This product, made by a Norwegian company, was offered then at $100,000 ($250,000 today) and had applications across a variety of industries, including manufacturing, computing, speaker design, and aerospace.

The appropriate person to travel nationally to demonstrate and sell this product would have been a senior sales engineer.  More specifically, an engineer of some flavor who's also a sales pro, adept at selling big-ticket, complex items to Fortune 50 companies.

Instead, they hired me.  And then, I was pointed toward a travel agent and sent on a national demo tour.

I'm exaggerating, but only slightly, and let me be clear:  "wet behind the ears" doesn't begin to describe me at the time.  Yet all the founders (two retired Air Force officers) and their minions did was provide a basic explanation of the science, and show me how to do a demonstration.  That was my training, and it lasted about a week.

Are you fucking kidding me?  I knew nothing about engineering, "non-destructive testing," or sales.   While I graduated with a 3.4 GPA from the University of Colorado, my major was Information Systems, with a minor in Myers Dark Rum & pineapple juice, skiing, and doing bong rips.  Indeed, I was just learning an "engineer" did more than drive trains.

I also think I had been on one business trip up to this point and barely knew how to rent a car.  But I did own both a peach tie and a purple pocket square, as evidenced by this grainy photo from that year.

So join me now as I revisit being forced to become a man - whether I was ready or not.  It's spring of 1988 and I traveled a good portion of the US, over perhaps 2 months.

Cadillac - Detroit

This trip was memorable because I got to visit Detroit right before its collapse.  And wow, maybe they brought on their own demise?  This is a 1988 Cadillac Eldorado.

And a Fun Fact:  that sports jacket I'm wearing above - a Giorgio f'ing Armani, thank you very much - was purchased on this very trip.

Goodyear Tire & Rubber - Akron

Conversely, by the time I went there, Goodyear had already started off-shoring and Akron was a shell.  It opened my eyes:  until then, I had always thought my hometown of Albany to be the nadir of urban decline. 

It wasn't.

Polk Audio - Baltimore

There was a time when people built and ran companies.  There was also a time when Polk Audio was a big fucking deal.  I spent an entire day with Matthew Polk, in his company's laboratories, during that time.

Fun Fact:  I was so impressed, that I was soon the proud owner of a pair of Polk Audio Monitor 5's.  I wish I still had them.

Ford Aerospace - Palo Alto

Before they exited the business, Ford was a major player in the Military Industrial Complex, and they were headquartered in Palo Alto, coincidentally enough.

But that's not why this trip mattered.  In a demo to 20 or so big-time science guys, all in lab coats, the laser device did not work. 

So I had the first of the many panic attacks I would have in my life that day. 

I was sweating so profusely that one of the PhDs offered me a towel.  This was nothing and it's a very true and painful story.   

GE Aircraft Engines - Dayton

No real tale here apart from that now, I always check out whether it's a GE or Rolls-Royce engine on the plane on which I'm flying. 

Penn State Applied Research Laboratory - State College

This is where the Navy does some of their most hush-hush nuclear submarine development, and I frankly don't know how I was allowed anywhere near it:  I had zero security clearances.   I do remember the demo occurred in a laboratory full of big pools, and I guess it must have occurred in a public area. 

Jail - Manhattan Beach
Wow, did this blow.  The managing director of the Norwegian manufacturer of the laser product, Conspectum AS (true!), was here for some of the trip.  Arvid Strand was a very cool guy, turned me on to Akvavit, and he also bailed me out of jail.

What?  It's true.

The night before the Hughes Aircraft demo (below), we drove down Highway 1 from our hotel, the typical-for-the-time Doubletree El Segundo, to a sushi bar in Manhattan Beach.  Don't get all gooey because this stretch of Highway 1 is a stroad.  None of that matters.

Arvid and I ate, had some sake and a few beers, and I drove home.  I did not feel guilty - heck, I may have been more buzzed yesterday afternoon.  But I was pulled over for speeding:  I was driving 55 MPH on a 35 MPH stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway. 

We were also literally outside the entrance of our hotel. 

No matter.  After not performing a field sobriety test to the officer's satisfaction, and despite my begging, off to jail I went, booked on a DUI.  On a business trip, in business clothes.

OK - it was more of a police station lock-up, vs. Sing-Sing.  And my urine test at the station revealed a blood alcohol level of .08, exactly the limit in those days.  That helped later in getting the charge reduced.

But I still slept overnight on the floor of a jail cell on one of the first business trips of my budding career. 

Hughes Aircraft - El Segundo

It's a shame I don't have any photos, because this was where I (oh, OK, and Arvid) made NTE's only sale!  The demo I performed onsite after being released from jail resulted in them sending an honest-to-goodness purchase order to our Albuquerque HQ.  It was a big deal. 

But it also couldn't save the company.  

That was because an owner, a retired U.S. Air Force Captain, insisted on drawing a healthy salary from NTE, which meant we could never do a tour like the one above again.  No on-site demos equaled no sales, and the end of NTE thus came relatively quickly. 

Takeaways?  Well, U.S. Air Force officer or not, some boys never become men - drawing much of a salary as an owner of a start-up was/is a no-no.  I also learned that panic attacks suck.  And that jail sucks.  

I would also come to understand the above is nothing compared to what others have overcome.  As I've said before, being born white, male, and middle-class in America helps an awful lot.

But wow did I mature in that one year.  Good thing, too:  I'd meet my future wife in less than a year.


Check out Elizabeth "Polly" Michaels with the cosmic wisdom!  This came in via the modern telegraph, and it's almost like she had been hanging with Alden and me.

Thought your blog today about closure was spot on.

I often think about our brains being like a garden, and how important it is to pull the weeds (or truly close out a chapter) to make room for more productive thoughts and actions.

10 Seconds of Seriousness:  "Polly" knows of what she speaks, and there are few people I admire more in terms of being able to move on from the worst of challenges.  

Thank you for reading this newsletter.  


Here is Boyz II Men Khruangbin, with their 2023 Portico Darwin Award Record of The Year runner-up, the Diamond Certified and oh-so-chill The Universe Smiles Upon You.

About Dean Clough