Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1754:

by John H. Lienhard

Today, creativity and recognition. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Creativity is the ability to recognize ideas out of context. When Louis Pasteur said, "Chance favors only the prepared mind," he meant that we must be ready to react to that chance glimpse over the fence we've built around ourselves. When we learn to do that, dross becomes gold, enemies become friends, and a drab monochromatic world takes on form and color. That came home very powerfully to my wife and me this Thanksgiving.

Since our children grew up and moved to distant cities, we've learned something new about Thanksgiving. It's a day when people move indoors, and the outer world takes on a poignant, soul-settling quiet. We've found that if we drive the empty Texas back roads on this particular day, serendipity usually awaits us.

One year, we found remnants of the early twentieth century scattered through Wharton County -- aging grain elevators, a fire station with a 1936 fire truck, and the roadside kitsch of the abandoned TeePee Motel. It was the America we'd known as children.

Another year, on the quiet Galveston wharves, we walked by a huge rebuilt Russian tugboat. A sailor unexpectedly invited us aboard and gave us an ad hoc tour of all the sonic oil-exploration equipment that now formed the heart of this old workhorse.

This year, we went for the Texas barrier islands, which run along the Gulf, almost all the way from Louisiana to Mexico. We began our island-hopping at Galveston and headed south (actually leaving the road for a while to drive the beach itself). As we neared Freeport, my wife said, "There's that nice restaurant where I ate lunch when you spoke at Dow -- wonder if it's open."

Mr. and Mrs. Ivan StathopoulosI went to the door. A woman opened it and said, "We're not really closed, but we're not open, either. We're feeding Thanksgiving dinner to the kids from the Brazoria County Youth Home." I thanked her and started to leave. Then she said, "No, wait; you'll eat with us." And there it was -- one more mystic nexus-with-the-unexpected -- a gift not to be turned down.

We said, "Why, thank you!" and were soon surrounded by twenty-five children from families broken by various pernicious forces abroad in the land -- along with their housemothers, the director, and the fine restaurant people who were providing the feast.

The BCYH housemothers
The housemothers

We joined two boys at their table -- sixth and seventh graders who immediately made family of us. They told us all about school, life in the home, and the things they especially liked to do. Fishing and reading Harry Potter were high on the list. They mentioned college offhandedly -- something they expect to do.

So the Texas byways continue to yield their largess. The corner of the eye catches what the direct gaze misses: lives being mended, the gift of food, creative recognition of strangers out of context. The day was about children, elderly travelers, and ideas -- all being grasped in that instant when they unexpectedly appear.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

The restaurant featured in this episode is the Red Snapper Inn, 402 Blue Water Hwy., Surfside Beach, TX, 77541. The kind proprietors were Mr. and Mrs. Ivan Stathopoulos. The Brazoria County Youth Home in Freeport, TX is run by Ms. Ann R. Huey.

Excellent dinner companions
Two excellent dinner companions

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H. Lienhard.