Just Saying “Yes.”

If they ask if you can do something, just say ‘Yes’ and come on home; we’ll figure it out,” my dad used to tell me.

Saying “Yes” and “Sure” to get a job and then figuring it out was the way that at least three generations of Nelsons made it through some tough times. It’s been a pretty successful strategy.

When dust, drought, the Depression, and finally, the banks drove even stubborn Scandinavian immigrants off their land, my grandparents, Carl and Dagny, piled their eight children and a few other belongings in a vehicle and headed out of Flasher, North Dakota, for the coast.

A Hooverville

My dad, though young, could remember and describe the Hoovervilles, cardboard camps, and Steinbeckian misery along the way. That’s probably why none of the Nelsons ever had time for people who badmouthed Roosevelt.

The family of ten arrived in Ferndale, Washington, with eight dollars. Other Scandinavians helped them out, and years of work — real work: back-breaking before dawn to after dusk, try-to-survive work — ensued. It would take a small epic to tell. They got few breaks.

But one of the breaks came when my Grandfather applied for a job at the Blodell-Donovan saw mill. A crowd of desperate men had shown up, but most had never worked in a mill and were turned away. “Have you worked in a mill before?” The interviewer asked. “Yes,” said Grandpa. “Can you be a sawyer?” He inquired. “Sure,” Grandpa said. “Come back on Monday,” said the man. My grandpa went home to figure out what a sawyer was.

In the mill.

A sawyer runs the saws in the mill. It requires a lot of skill. I don’t know what my Grandpa did to figure it out, but he must have done it well: he was soon the Chief Sawyer — the guy who starts the process and determines the best use of the log in order to get the most lumber out of it. It’s kind of like the guy who makes the first cut in a diamond, the cut that determines whether the investment is worthwhile or worthless. They do it by computer now.

My dad had similar stories, like when he got a job at the Bellingham Shipyard. He, said, “Yes,” and “Sure,” and eventually ended up becoming a Journeyman Loftsman by the time he was in his early twenties. A lot of the Nelsons have stories like that: aunts, uncles, cousins, and kids.

A loftsman lays out full-sized plans for building the ship.

The thing about the strategy, however, is that you have to be able to back it up. When the time comes for you to do what you said you could do, you gotta be able to do it. You can’t really use it for something like, “Can you fly this airplane?” or “Do you know how to do an emergency appendectomy?” And even if you don’t apply it to flying or surgery, the strategy of saying “Yes” and “Sure” can make for some harrowing moments.

One of mine came when I applied for a Rotary International Fellowship to go to Rome. It was a long shot, but I really needed to spend some time in Rome studying the manuscripts that were part of my dissertation.  It was a big scholarship, enough for a year.

The only problem was that, like a Fulbright, you were supposed to be conversant in the language of the country you studied in. I wasn’t. But I couldn’t get the scholarship without it. So I checked “Yes” on the application anyway.

I got an Italian tutor and bought a set of Italian tapes. I played the tapes as I walked the mile walk to the bus stop and repeat the phrases: SOno mOlto liEto di fAre la sUa conoscEnza (“I am very happy to make your acquaintance”). PArlate lentamEnte, per piacEre (“Speak slowly, please”). People along the road probably thought I was a lunatic, especially when they heard me going or coming in the dark.

I had to submit an essay in Italian along with the application. I got a dictionary, a book of idioms, and a guide called “Italian is easy if you know Latin.” When I showed my essay to my tutor, Flaminio, he was initially impressed, but then burst out laughing. I had tried to say that I could “converse and socialize with many different kinds of people” and instead implied that I could have sex and become a socialist with them. While some Italians might might be impressed, Flaminio said, the Rotary probably would not be. I revised and submitted my application. I made it to the interviews.

Fortunately, none of the dark-suited committee of silver-haired Rotarians spoke Italian.  After a long and ranging interview, one asked me, “Are you confident that you can communicate the ideas we have been talking about here today in the host language?” “Sure,” I said. I got the scholarship.

However, one final hurdle remained. Before I left, I had to pass an Italian proficiency exam at a Foreign Service Level II. If I didn’t pass the exam, it was over. I was cramming Italian into every possible waking moment on top of graduate school. The exam was only two months away. It was time to back up my claims.

When, the day came. I drove to the Berlitz office in downtown Seattle, playing my Italian tapes in the car all the way. My examiner, a youngish woman with shoulder-length black curly hair, began the conversation. It started out easy. I relaxed a bit. Then, it got harder. She spoke faster and asked more complex questions. I started to sweat. The questions went on, and on, and on, until I couldn’t have held a conversation in English without stammering.

Finally, she asked me something that I didn’t understand in the slightest, and paused to let me answer. My head was swimming. I had no idea — absolutely no idea — what she had said. But it sounded like an open-ended question. She was sitting like a cocker spaniel, head slightly cocked, waiting for me to respond.  My mind raced, searching out in all directions for a slight recognition of a word — any word — that she had used. Nothing came back.

The catch is, eventually you have to be able to not fake it in order to really make it.

But I couldn’t give up. Not now. Not so close. So I pursed my lips and bobbed my head like Flaminio did when he was thinking things over, and finally said, “Non sono securo, ma certamente spero di si” (“I’m not really sure, but I certainly hope so”). “Bravo!” (“Well done!”), my examiner exclaimed, and the exam was over.

I walked out of the office, and into a remarkable phase of my life. The risk of taking on a challenge and the work required to be ready to take it on by the time the rubber met the road paid off, was to pay off in life-altering dividends that I had yet to imagine.

But that’s another story.