Randy Koch

It had been nearly three days since my discharge from the U.S. Air Force in the fall of 1983. I was ready to dive wholeheartedly into my new freedoms, and my newly formed heating and cooling business. Just the day before, I had taken out the name of “Koch Heating and Cooling”; now I was facing the stairs of an old, well-manicured house - my first-ever customer.

Completing the paperwork and forming the backend of the business was a small chore; the ad in the local paper reeled in my first customer almost effortlessly.

The gentleman who greeted me at the door was in his early 90s. He must have thought they were sending teenagers into the field. It was easy to discern his displeasure at my arrival, but at 23 years old I considered myself a seasoned veteran. Heck, I had just spent four years of my life working on many of the latest Air Force commercial systems. In my mind, there wasn’t much the residential market could throw at me.

I should have guessed something was up by the half-amused look on my customer’s face when he described the problem as “a real hair raiser,” and that a measure of caution was in order … but what could be dangerous about a small furnace? The fact that he chose to control the thermostat upstairs while I investigated the furnace in the basement was probably another clue.

Looking back, it seems that someone as concerned about my age as he was would have been more interested in keeping an eye on me throughout the repair process. His final word to me, as I removed the front panel to his furnace, was, “Whale of a fire in that tube.” This warning also fell on deaf ears.


There comes a time in most of our lives when the simple wisdom of age and experience takes a firmer grip on the way we approach the world. This seeming teacher of all usually guides us best when our eyes and ears are open. (Some people require more patience.)

As I looked down the single-barrel burner supplying 150,000 Btu of natural gas into my customer’s ancient converted coal furnace, I was initially concerned with the amount of time it had been since I first heard the gas valve open. But maybe I was wrong; the sound of an opening gas valve can be hard to discern, and besides, the pilot was burning tall and strong.

To this day it’s hard to describe the experience in any better metaphor than my customer’s own words: “a real hair raiser,” and “whale of a fire in that tube.”

The last thing I remember before feeling his arm as I attempted to stand upright was a bright flash and a sudden sharp pain at the base of my skull. After a moment of dizziness it occurred to me that the face starring into mine was completely devoid of facial hair - no eyebrows, no eyelashes, no mustache.

As I rubbed my own burning eyes to regain focus, it started to come home to me. Where were my eyebrows, eyelashes, and mustache? The next morning when I woke up, it took the better part of an hour to open my eyes.

Other than feeling kind of lucky, one big thing stands out. Quite often customers have valuable things to say. Sure, it can sometimes be just as well to listen with a grain of salt; however, even an untrained observation can give us clues.

“Whale of a fire in that tube” means a lot to me, even after 27 years.

Publication date:02/14/2011