The flagman

What’s sometimes interesting about old stories is how they don’t make sense upon further reflection. One example is a funny story my dad used to tell about one of his experiences as an insurance salesman in rural Wisconsin.

One day on his way to an appointment with a farmer, he came upon a flagman guarding a one-way section of road. Now I should explain (as best I can) how it used to work in the days before walkie-talkies and cell phones. When the construction crew wanted to close one lane of the road, they would place a flagman at each end of the construction area. Somehow they would get the process started and then alternate traffic flow through the area. One flagman would stop traffic at his end while the other guy let his traffic through. After letting a sufficient number of cars through, the guy allowing traffic would hand a flag to the driver of the last car in line, telling the driver to hand it to the flagman at the other end. That way the other flagman would know that he could now let his traffic though. After a time, he would hand the flag to the last driver in his line and the process would repeat itself.

On this particular day, dad was the last one in line and was handed a flag and told to deliver it to the other flagman. Now this was a particularly long section of blocked road and the other flagman was nowhere in sight. To make matters worse, dad found the farm he was visiting before he got to the other flagman. So he pulled into the driveway and proceeded with his appointment, which probably lasted a couple of hours. After delivering his sales pitch (I don’t know if the farmer bought an insurance policy), dad continued on his way.

Now here’s where the story starts to get a little fuzzy. Apparently, dad didn’t go back the same way he came. After “getting turned around” he drove up to the same flagman he had seen earlier. Again, dad was the last car in line, but just as the flagman was about to give him another flag, dad reached out and handed him the flag he had been given earlier that day. (“So he’s about to give me a flag, and I hand him one instead.”) This was the punch line, and it was always followed by copious laughter, mostly my dad’s. I have always appreciated the humor in that strange scene, as well as the situation my dad created by never showing up at the second flagman, but I have never satisfactorily understood how it happened. And why didn’t dad at least try to remedy the situation by continuing on to the second flagman, albeit outrageously late?

Clearly, dad didn’t continue on to the second flagman because that guy would either be expecting the flag, or he’d be waiting to give a flag to the last car in his line. If he had a flag, then traffic would have been coming in dad’s direction, causing all sorts of problems. If he didn’t have a flag, then his traffic would have been stopped, and getting a flag from dad would have been “normal” (Ignoring the fact that it’s been several hours since he last let his traffic through). The story only makes sense if dad somehow loops around on another road and comes back to the same place he originally encountered the first flagman. I guess this is possible, but where’d the guy get the second flag? Did they carry spares? And more importantly, how did they deal with the problem my dad created?

Unfortunately, dad isn’t around any more, so this will never be resolved. I think I did try to ask him about it years ago, but either his explanation wasn’t clear or I forgot it. Still funny though. Picture this flagman, about to hand dad a flag, and instead dad hands him one. Whaaa?

DadMemories09/07/06 2 comments


David • 10/08/06 11:11 PM:

Okay, I’m confused. For Grandpa to have encountered the same guy twice, he would’ve had to go out the same way he came, or the guy would’ve had to move to the other position (which maybe he walked all the way to the other side, after never getting the return flag or any return traffic). Either that, or did Grandpa loop all the way around and come past the first guy while driving in the same direction as he did in the morning?

Still, it’s funny.

Dad • 10/21/06 8:35 AM:

Of course you’re confused. I’m confused too. The more I think about it, though, the more I think that dad probably just returned the way he came and handed back the flag to the original guy. Maybe he noted a surprised look on the guys face and forgot that he was going the wrong direction to receive a flag. So he embelished the story a little bit by saying the guy was about to give him a flag.

Wait, I just thought of another twist. In the time that dad was inside the farm house, they might have finished the work on that segment of road and set up another single lane section further down. In fact, it would not be unusual for the starting point of the next section to be the ending point of the previous section. So the same guy could still have been at the his post, but now he would be stopping traffic going the opposite direction. They would have given him another flag to replace the “missing flag” in dad’s car. Now when dad approaches, the incident could have happened exactly as he recounted. Anybody still confused?

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