Fifty-one years ago I sat in the movie theater with my 17-year-old girlfriend at the time, who really didn’t want to be there because this was a sixties film and she was more of a fifties person. I pleaded and she gave in, though, which was one of the very few times that ever happened during that long-gone relationship.
The film was “The Graduate,” and early into the film there’s this classic scene where a very young Dustin Hoffman’s character, Benjamin Braddock, fresh out of college, is at a cocktail party. The grownups are pressing him to explain what he will do with the rest of his life. “That’s a little hard to say,” Benjamin said.
I love that line.
I looked over at the then-girlfriend, who rolled her eyes. She thought his answer was ridiculous. Everyone should know what they were going to do with the rest of their lives at that age. Everyone.
Enter Mr. McGuire, clearly an elderly businessman. He smiles down at Benjamin, takes him by the arm and walks him out to the pool.
“I want to say one word to you,” Mr. McGuire said. “Just one word.”
“Yes, sir,” Benjamin said.
“Are you listening?” Mr. McGuire asked.
“Plastics!” Mr. McGuire said.
“Exactly what do you mean?” Benjamin said.
“There’s a great future in plastics,” Mr. McGuire said. “Think about it. Will you think about it?”
“Yes, sir. I will.”
Mr. McGuire held up his finger. “’Enough said!” he concluded. “That’s a deal.”
So the girlfriend and I lasted another year, which pleases me as I tell you this story because that year, 1968, also was the year Thomas Engel figured out how to make chemically cross-linked polyethylene, which he would call PEX. He sold the rights to that remarkable plastic to Wirsbo (now Uponor) and they introduced it to the European market four years later when it went into a snowmelt system at Olympic Stadium Munich. And that was a first.
In 1984, Apple introduced Macintosh during the Super Bowl by having 17-year-old English athlete Anya Major swing an iron sledgehammer and let it bash though a massive TV screen on which a dictator was droning. That job called for iron.
That same year but much more quietly, Wirsbo introduced Engel-method PEX to the U.S. market and promoted it for radiant-heating systems.
Nothing has been the same since. Mr. McGuire was right.
But not everyone jumped on board right away when it came to plastics. It took some time.
Don’t use that word
I was at a trade show in Brooklyn, New York, some years back when I overheard a conversation between two plumbers, both of whom looked like Joe Pesci. And we’re talking “Goodfellas” Joe here, not “Home Alone” Joe. They were looking at a display of toilets. The conversation went something like this.
Oh, and please feel free to insert numerous F-bombs at all the appropriate places. They sure did.
Joe 1: “Look at dis.” He points to the plastic toilet-seat bolts.
Joe 2: “Yeah. Dere killin’ our business, dem tings.”
Joe 1: “You ain’t kidding. Used to be we’d get what? five, six toilet replacements every weekend. Now we get stugots.”
Joe 2: “Yeah. I miss dem steel bolts. Miss ‘em bad.”
Joe 1: “Yeah. Da dopey homeowners would bust their toilets trying to get dem steel bolts off. We had the ‘lectric saw. Dey didn’t. We’d go in dere. Zip, zip, zip. Get paid and get out.”
Joe 2: “Yeah, dem days are over, dough. The homeowners can cut these dings with a steak knife.” He pokes at the plastic bolts.
Joe 1: “Dere killing our business with dis here plastic. I hate it.”
Joe 2: “Yeah.”
In those days, I worked for the Bell & Gossett rep in New York. B&G decided to replace the steel spring coupler on its Series 100 circulator with a plastic coupler. This happened not long after it replaced its cast-iron coupler with that steel coupler on that same circulator. The plumbers at the time all believed cast iron was better than steel because it looked tougher and it was heavier. They also believed steel was better than plastic because plastic was, well, plastic.
My boss told me not to say the word plastic when explaining the new coupler, but rather to describe it as a glass-impregnated polymer.
“Impregnated?” the plumbers said, raising their eyebrows.
“Yes,” I said, nodding. “Yes.”
Well, that didn’t work.
And to make things worse, B&G decided to use a red, glass-impregnated polymer instead of a black, glass-impregnated polymer.
“Why didn’t they use black?” I asked at the time. “Black would look like steel. Black looks tougher than red. Red looks like a toy.”
“Red is the company color,” my boss said. “The rest of the pump is red. Deal with it.”
“Deal with it!”
So I showed this new coupler to a plumber at a supply-house counter. He said, “That looks like one of my kid’s toys. I don’t want it.”
“But it’s impregnated with glass,” I said.
“Nothing I can do without that,” he said, taking one of the bagels I was offering that day. He then walked away.
So I got this idea. The guy at the factory told me the glass-impregnated polymer could take really hot-water temperatures, hotter than boiling water, in fact. And that was hotter than anything the circulator would ever see, let alone the coupler, which wasn’t even in the water. Why a coupler would need to survive super-hot water was beyond me, but I embraced it anyway because it was all I had to hold.
I went to the store and bought an electric hotplate and a small pot. The next day, I was doing the counter thing at another distributor’s place. I set up my hotplate and put a pot of water into a furious boil. I dropped the red, glass-impregnated polymer circulator coupler into the water and waited.
A paunchy plumber walks in. He smells my bagels and comes over. He looks into the pot. There’s steam spewing off the surface of the roiling water and the coupler is bouncing around like a poked frog.
He reaches in and tries to grab the coupler with his bare hand. He immediately lets out a shriek that even the guys in the warehouse heard. And then he breaks into his dance of pain.
“That’s (insert adjective) hot!” he yells at me.
“Yes,” was all I could say. “Yes.”
My daughter bought my grandson, Sully, a lightsaber. Do you know what a lightsaber is? If you have kids or grandkids you must know. It’s basically a 3-ft. length of plastic pipe, which could be PVC, but I’m not certain. It’s stiff and white, but I don’t think it is PEX or even a glass-impregnated polymer. It comes with a fancy Star Wars hilt and it lights up and makes noise when a kid presses the button. It’s massively annoying and it hurts when you get hit with it.
I know this because my dear daughter’s gift turned Sully into a lurking ninja who couldn’t miss a target as large as my butt. The kid popped out of everywhere, swinging and screaming.
But I suppose it could have been worse. That lightsaber could have been made of steel. Or, worse, iron.
You know. Like in the old days?
This article was originally titled “Plastics!” in the May 2018 print edition of Supply House Times.