Klosterman’s “Eating the Dinosaur”

By, Steven L. Athey

In his essay collection Eating the Dinosaur, author and cultural commentator Chuck Klosterman poses an interesting question:

“Suppose you had the ability to make a very brief phone call to your own past. You are (somehow) given the ability to phone yourself as a teenager; in short, you will be able to communicate with the 15-year-old version of you. However, you will only get to talk to your former self for 15 seconds. As such, there’s no way you will be able to explain who you are, where or when you are calling from, or what any of this lunacy is supposed to signify. You will only be able to give the younger version of yourself a fleeting, abstract message of unclear origin.
“What would you say to the 15-year-old you during those 15 seconds?”

Would you try to warn yourself about some mistake you made and wished you hadn’t? Or would you tell yourself about some opportunity you now know would be the right move, like buying Microsoft stock in 1986?
I found myself intrigued by the question.

I spent some time working in the woods in the Northwest and a year or two flipping eggs in Denny’s, but I was always working the ambulance part-time, and since 1975, I have done nothing else. I love my career, but having some guidance based on my own mistakes would have made the journey so much easier. What would I say to rookie me, with the benefit of hindsight, if I could talk to myself 30-plus years ago?
Not looking to take the easy way out, I would stay away from easy choices, like buy Apple, avoid Beta technology, and don’t build on the base of Mt. Saint Helens. I would try to give myself some advice that would make my life path easier. With apologies to Klosterman, I would need more than 15 seconds. But here is what I would say to 15-year-old me:

Don’t rush the monkey, and you’ll get a better show. That quote from famous Texan T. Boone Pickens could have been talking about my early career. The time spent in the ambulance industry (it wasn’t EMS when I started) was memorable, and I enjoyed almost all of it, but it seemed to fly by. I took every opportunity and was always looking for the next step, promotion or move. Consequently, I moved every 3.1 years for two decades, and I didn’t take the time to enjoy each step.

Working as a field paramedic is the most fun I ever had (while being paid), and I rushed my way out of the field way too soon. Today, when I tell stories to people who are not in the industry, they are stories from the street, not the desk. I’d tell myself, “Take your time, Steve, and enjoy the ride.”

Keep your pride and your ego in check; when you think you’ve done that, check it again. Back in the early days, being on the ambulance as this industry was gaining prominence was really heady stuff, and the results of that hubris could be dangerous. Battle lines were drawn with nurses, firefighters and just about everyone else who was not “us.” As damaging as those relationship issues were, “ego” on an ambulance can be fatal. “We all have calls we’re not done running,” Janet Smith of On Assignment has said to me during some long, soul-searching conversations. The call that flows through my consciousness to this day — when I am in that state between dreaming and waking — happened while I was a First Aid cardholder working as an ambulance attendant in a rural Calif. town in 1975.

I was six months into this part-time job (called to the station by pager for $5 a call), and at 22 years old, I was pretty sure I knew just about everything I needed to know about running ambulance calls. After all, I certainly knew how to recognize a drunk when I saw one. One afternoon, we responded to a wreck that didn’t seem that bad and transported a man who reeked of alcohol non-emergency due to his “back pain.” He was acting irrational, thrashing about so much I really couldn’t get a good set of vitals, because, after all, he was drunk, right? We arrived at the emergency room, and when we passed the front entrance, the ER doc sitting at the desk reached over to the rotary phone and called in surgery — STAT. The patient died in the elevator.
When I realized what had happened, I was sure I killed him, so I quit the squad.

The doctor — God bless him — called me at home and had me come to the ER. He sat me down and convinced me that if the accident had happened in front of the hospital, he couldn’t have saved this man with his massive internal injuries. But he did tell me this: “Learn from this. On any call, irrational behavior is hypoxia until proven otherwise.” If rookie me had heard that earlier, it would have saved me a lot of pain.

Middle age is when you choose your cereal for the fiber, not the toy. If I had known that 40 is not old when I was 18, I would have done some things differently. I would not have waited until I was 31 to go to college; I would have gone right out of high school. I was in such a hurry to work before I got “old” that I felt I had to choose between higher education and work… and I chose work. Well, if I had known 40 is not old, I would have gone to college first and still had plenty of time to have fun as a paramedic.

I also would have better prepared myself for retirement, maybe choosing jobs based on retirement packages instead of slightly higher pay. I would have maxed out my 401k and taken advantage of every employer-matching opportunity. I would have sacrificed and saved! Instead, I felt I needed as much income as I could get while young, because who has fun while they’re old (and of course 40 seemed really old)?
In a way, I have already had the chance to tell the younger versions of “me” all of this advice — I have three adult children and three grandkids, and I have tried to impart to them much of what I have learned often through my own mistakes.

They listen, they smile. And with that look that comes from youth-based confidence, their eyes say, “Thanks, but I’ll have to make my own mistakes.”

About the author
Steven Athey is the president of the EMS Consulting Firm, Health Care Visions. Steve has worked in the ambulance industry since 1971 and has managed large and small EMS organizations. Steve holds his undergraduate degree and his MBA from Texas Wesleyan University where he holds an adjunct faculty position in the School of Business.

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