There is an old joke about three men condemned to death by guillotine. On the scheduled execution day, the first, a priest, lays his head obediently on the platform and awaits his fate. But the guillotine malfunctions, and he is set free. “Praise Jesus!” he shouts, happily walking away. The second, a rabbi, has a similar experience. “Glory to Yahweh!” he cries as he, too, is released. The third is an engineer. He lays his head down and, once again, the guillotine blade fails to fall. The engineer peers up into the mechanism. “Wait!” he exclaims, “I think I see the problem!”
Are you laughing? Me too. Well … usually. Except when on vacation with my beloved husband of 17 years, a civil engineer.
You see, a peculiar kind of madness grips a sightseeing engineer. Everything – I really do mean everything -- must be prodded, explored, and explained. That beautiful sunset that you see is not just a sunset; it’s a manifestation of the refractory quality of light in the presence of modest precipitation. The spectacular waterfall? It’s the result of termination of a moraine at the edge of a glacially carved valley. The rock that glints in the sunshine? It demonstrates the response of sedimentary formations to igneous pressure. (For the uninitiated, that means the rock got really hot and changed.)
Then there are the stops. Lots and lots of stops. Now, tell the truth, ladies. Haven’t you always dreamed of examining the foundations of every dam between Texas and California? One year, I’d had enough and began making references to “the dam visitors’ center.” I am married to a man who – I’m not making this up – once took numerous photographs of a 3-inch crack in a parking lot at Yellowstone National Park, carried copies back to the office, and showed them to all his friends.
I thought I was alone in this until one day I was at the bedside of Charlie,* a 90-year-old retired structural engineer that I’d been visiting, as a nursing home minister, on a regular basis. When I mentioned my husband’s vacation proclivities, Charlie’s daughter chuckled. “Oh, yes,” she said, “when we were on vacation, we never just drove over a bridge. Nooooo, we had to stop and examine each one. V-E-R-Y carefully.”
This situation generates family conversations that others might find, well, unusual. They go something like this:
Child #1: “That glacier looks like it’s melting!”
Husband: “Yes, the dark spots are underlying rock that has been exposed in series of random processes. See the wedging effect of the plants on the underlying cliff?”
Child #2: “I have to go to the bathroom. And I’m hungry.”
Husband: “These glacial formations are phenomenal. Say, there are hanging valleys!”
Wife: “Dear, you’re driving next to a three thousand foot cliff and this is a narrow highway. Perhaps you shouldn’t be looking at the hanging valleys.”
Child #3 (whining): “When are we going to stop for lunch?”
Husband (excited): “LOOK at the fractal patterns in that rock!”
Wife and children (loudly, in unison): “LOOK at the ROAD!”
Most families probably don’t sound much like ours. And, okay, we’re a little strange. But really, could I ask for anything more?
After all, as a mom, I have always hoped and prayed that my children would grow to appreciate the wisdom beyond all human knowledge that is our Lord’s. Where better to see it but in His magnificent creation? And who better to teach the utterly unspeakable glory of that creation than a man who understands, even a little bit (and much better than his wife), just how complex it all really is?
So go ahead and tell those engineering jokes. (And keep them coming; it’s fun to retell them at parties.) Our family will keep laughing … together.
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