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How Real Stories are Told, Keynote by Craig Lindvahl

It’s easy to think of life in terms of “I had an idea, and then I made a whole bunch of money, and now here I am.”It’s easy for things to sound like that. And when we tell the story of our lives, we say “I did this, and then I did that.” There’s way more to it. I just want to share one story.

Many of you have heard me speak before, so many of you have heard me talk about some of the things I’ve done with my life. One of the things I did as a band director was take kids to the Marshall Islands, which is way out in the Pacific.

When I tell the story about it I say, “We did this, and then we did this and went to the Marshall Islands and produced this documentary.”

But here’s the story. Because I want you to know that life does not go like that; it goes like this….

So we started with the idea that we were going to make a music video and send it to every leader of every country in the world. You are not limited by who you are or where you are or what you do. I just want you to know that.

So as the band director at a school of about 300 kids or so, I thought it’d be cool if we made a music video and sent it to every leader of every country in the world. Like any good entrepreneur, one of the things that I did not think about was, how many countries are there?

This is pre-internet, by the way. Does anybody know how many countries there are?

If you count Taiwan, it’s 196.

But in the days before the internet, kids would say, “Did you check the encyclopedia?” Encyclopedias don’t work like Google. You can’t go on a page and look up, how many countries are in the world? You have to go through all of the encyclopedias and look for names that look like countries.

So we found out how many countries there were, and then the question was, “Who are the leaders?”

Well, I didn’t see anything wrong with just calling the White House or calling the State Department. They hooked me up with a guy from the CIA because the CIA put out a book every Wednesday with the names of all the leaders of every country in the world.

Great! Everything is not fixed because the book of names was like this long (very big). And you don’t know what order to put them in or how to address them. So I called the State Department and I met the lady who handled all the groundwork for the Secretary of State of the White House. She had a heading for every leader in the world.

So, great. This is back in the day of VHS tapes. Then, we found out another issue. You could not send a VHS tape to most of the places in the world because they couldn’t play it. So I called an operator in New York. I said here’s who I am, here’s what I’m working on, here’s what I need to try to find, can you suggest anybody to me? A couple of phone calls and about $3000 later, we found a company that specialized in transferring tapes to formats that could be played around the world.

So we did all that, and we heard back from about 50 of the world leaders. We thought that was great. At the time I think there were about 170 some countries. I don’t know if you’re aware, but the number of countries changes fairly regularly.

175 countries or so. 50 of them answered, that was great. And I thought, you know what would be cool, what if we went to Washington when one of these leaders was in Washington, and met that world leader. So I called my friend in the White House and said, “Who is coming to visit?” And she said if it is a public visit, you can’t know anything about it, but if it’s a private visit, I can tell you.

Does that explain anything about our government?

I found out that the leader of the Marshall Islands was coming to Washington to open an embassy. The Marshall Islands was a new country, at the time, first opening the embassy. So I called the embassy, talked to this lady, and she told me it’d be cool if I brought the kids out.

There’s more to every step, as I say, but we went to Washington. We spent a couple hours with the President, and the two things he said were, “I wish I could see you again,” and “I wish people knew we existed.”

So we got about two steps out of their embassy, right outside the front door, and started saying to each other, “You know what we ought to do? We ought to go and make some kind of documentary. We could send it to kids. How cool would that be?”

So. We did.

The Peace Corp has a program called Worldwide Schools where they make documentaries and workbooks and send them out to schools all over the country so kids know more about the countries the Peace Corp serves.

I called the lady in charge of that, and she could not have been nicer or interested in everything we had to say. That all went really, really well. We made our travel arrangements, figured out which kids were going, made hotel arrangements and flight arrangements, and then she stopped answering my calls.

And then when I finally did get her on the phone, she said, “Well, it’s not as easy as just saying yes or no. There’s a great many layers of bureaucracy we need go through before we can even come close to making a decision about whether you can come.”

Granted, I’m only a band director in a little itty bitty town, but that just didn’t seem right. I didn’t want to see the kids miss the opportunity.

So I called the embassy and said, “Here’s the problem. We’ve already made all the arrangements, and now they are cutting back on us. I don’t see what the thing is because there is no downside to this.”

Well, it just so happens she used to work on Capitol Hill. So she called all her buddies. For about a half a day this lady at the Peace Corp got call after call after call from Senators and Congressmen saying, “Why are you in the way here? What is the problem with this?”

Then, all of a sudden, she was brightness and cheery. And said we’re totally in. She asked me when she finally met me, “What do you do for a living?” She thought I was a litigation attorney. When I told her I’m a band director of this little tiny town of about 1500 people, I said, “That’s what entrepreneurs do. They don’t realize they shouldn’t be doing stuff like that.”

So now everything is great. We go to Honolulu, where is things start to go haywire. Because just when you think you’ve got stuff lined up, that when things start to go off course.

Three days before we left, the camera man called me and said, “By the way, I’m not going to be able to make it.”


Well. I don’t know how to film, and this is supposed to be a television documentary.

Then he said, “I’ve got someone to go in my place. He does a lot of filmmaking with sports, he has a lot of experience. He’s going to be fine.”

Okay, so this guy goes with us. We get to Honolulu and it’s Saturday night; we’re leaving at 3 a.m. Sunday morning. He says, I’d like to set up something and use this camera, I’m not familiar with the way it works.

At the time, some of you won’t understand this, but at the time, we were in the transition between where you had a camera and a recorder. So it ate the tape. Immediately.

I call back here. The guy said, “Well, it’s 4 a.m., I don’t know what you want me to do about it.”

So. We found a rental place in Honolulu, and we found the owner, who was at a drive-in movie.

We tracked him down, got him out of the drive-in movie, and he came back to his shop. He was happy to rent us a camera. Everything was cool. Except. The tapes that we brought didn’t fit the camera that we rented. So now it’s close to midnight, the night before we’re leaving, and we don’t have tapes for this camera.

So I got the phone book out, and started looking for the television station. I called the television station, said here’s who I am, here’s why I’m here, I’ve got this group of kids, we’re getting ready to go to the Marshall Islands, and we don’t have any tapes for this camera.

Finally found a guy. Now that I’m older and wiser, I realize he probably stole these tapes, but he said if you have $200 cash, I will meet you with the tapes.

It’s 12:30 at night and I’m standing (near buildings on a beach). He pulls up with a car, gives me a paper bag with the tapes, I give him $200. Now that I’m older, I’m not sure I’d handle things exactly the same way.

But now we’ve got tapes, we’ve got a camera, we’ve got a camerman. We go to the airport. On our way to the Marshall Islands. We took a half cargo, half passenger plane. So you had to be there at like 3:30, 4 a.m. or they’d fill your seats with cargo.

We take off, and make all these stops. The plane goes back and forth from (Honolulu) to Guam almost continuously.

Now we’re here. Things are good. What could go wrong? It’s a beautiful place. We’ve got everything we need. Right up until right about 5 seconds into the first shot, when the camera stopped working.

And I know now what happened. We stayed at a hotel on the island. This is right on the equator, so it’s warm and humid. The cameraman put the camera in his hotel room, and cranked up the air conditioner. So when he first started shooting, this was at a time when camera did not have moisture sensors in them, and I’m sure that’s what happened.

There were four phone lines in and out of the Marshall Islands, so to call back to Honolulu to get another camera involved dialing the operator, saying I need to call Honolulu, hanging up, and waiting for the operator to call back. This took two days.

So we had eight days to film this thing, two days are gone trying to get a hold of this guy in Honolulu. He said, “I’m so sorry about that. I’ll put a camera on the next plane. It’ll be there tomorrow.”

Everyday we go looking for this plane. And everyday the guy would open the plane and say, “Maybe tomorrow.” We spent eight days waiting for this camera to arrive. It seemed to me like it was taking longer than it should.

So I called the embassy, and talked to my friend, and said, “It just seems odd to me that an airline can’t get a package from Honolulu to the Marshall Islands when it goes through here everyday.”

She called her friends on Capitol Hill. Then for about half a day the guy at the airlines received calls from Senators and Congressmen saying, “Hey, what seems to be the problem with your company here?”

So I received a phone call from the airline saying, “At every stop we will touch the camera to make sure it is on there.”

I will never forget the flight that arrived because our kids were supposed to leave the Marshall Islands on this flight. But it was the flight that the camera arrived. Four of us stayed behind for two days. My wife and parents took all the kids back. But my most vivid memory of all the things we’ve ever done as filmmakers is watching my wife, who is about the size of that shadow, waiting for the camera to get off the airplane. She would not get on the flight until she saw the camera.

That, my friends is how the show, “Destination, Marshall Islands” was created. It did go out to 5000 schools, it was on the Learning Channel.

I just want you to know that is the story of behind everybody. Everybody has that story to tell in one way or another.

So when you hear somebody say, “Oh yeah, and then I did…,” go for that, ask for that, and realize that that’s part of your story.

And you young people in the room, you’re building your story. Nobody’s story goes, “I had an idea, and then I made a bunch of money and now here I am.” Nobody’s life goes like that.

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