HUMINT: Ambassador McDonald

Many years ago on a long back country hike I was following a winding trail that loosely traced the path of an old creek. Every mile or so, the path would cross the creek and I’d get another chance to wade through the cool mountain water. I’d been hiking that trail since sunrise and had crossed the creek at least thirty times. It was getting late in the day and some angry looking clouds were rolling toward me overhead. I could hear cracks of thunder in the distance. It wasn’t easy to see the sky through the thick canopy of trees but I could tell rain was coming. The woods seemed quite. Only a few hundred yards ahead I knew the trees were going to open up to a little field about an acre or so big. The small field was gorgeous. It hugged the banks of a large lake.

My plan was to beat the rain to the field and set up my tent, open my book and read while listening to rain falling 10,000 ft onto my ripstop roof. I planned to build a campfire after the rain stopped and cook my dinner. All that hiking had made me very hungry before I arrived. I clearly remember hoping for a short squall. I may have even prayed for it, but if I did, I don’t remember what I said to God. Anyway, in situations like those, God always seems to have more important things to worry about than selfish requests driven by a hiker’s empty stomach.

When I got to the small field, the tent went up smoothly. I gathered up some wood for my dinner fire and tossed the logs under a small tarp I was carrying with me. If I couldn’t keep the logs dry during the storm I knew it would be hard to get my dinner fire started later that evening. As I was collecting wood, big rain drops started hitting the landscape like artillery fired at my LZ by some distant army. Where ever they hit, the surface turned from dry to dark wet. Fortunately, I finished in time. When I crawled into my tent the drops were hitting about a foot apart. My cloths and gear hadn’t been hit hard enough to be wet. About fifteen minutes later, after getting situated inside the tent, the rain outside started coming down hard. The sound of it hitting the roof of my tent was deafening. It was time to kick off my boots, read and wait out the squal. I pulled Zen and the Art of Motor Cycle Maintenance out of my pack… Pulp seventies philosophy had captured my attention in the book store earlier in the week because I thought it actually had something to do with motorcycle maintenance…

It really didn’t but I found the book interesting enough to keep reading without the technical motorcycle jargon I was looking for. The big ZEN idea of the page I was reading was about a “country church building with an electric beer sign hanging right over the front entrance. The building had been sold and was being used as a bar.” … “a number of people had complained to the church officials about it. It had been a Catholic Church, and the priest who had been delegated to respond to the criticism had sounded quite irritated about the whole thing. To him it had revealed an incredible ignorance of what a church really was. Did they think that bricks and boards and glass constituted a church? Or the shape of the roof? Here, posing as piety was an example of the very materialism the church opposed. The building in question was not holy ground. It had been desanctified. That was the end of it. The beer sign resided over a bar, not a church, and those who couldn’t tell the difference were simply revealing something about themselves.”

The book continued pontificating about academia and its purpose as an institution of learning as opposed to its material manifestation. It was interesting but I remember drifting away from the authors narrative and creating my own of a similar vein. Listening to the rain outside I started to disagree with the author and contemplate the deeper meaning behind tangible buildings that serve customers like restaurants and bars. The Catholic Church may be spiritually superior to the bar, and maybe that’s what the Catholic parishioners were missing when it officially transformed into a bar. However, their needs are independent of their neighbors’ needs that prefer a bar to be where the church once was. At that moment a common denominator was revealed to me. The relationship between the bartender and the priest in this context is customer service.

In the back country mountains, in a small field, under the rain, on the shores of a beautiful lake with an empty belly; I couldn’t help but think about the importance of customer service and the role it plays in society. Indeed, democracy is all about customer service. Can you have a democracy without a society that respects good customer service? I doubt it! Out there in the wilderness, I was on my own, serving myself. I had no expectation of help from anyone else. My only concerns were about large animals that might take my food or break my gear or try to make a dinner out of me. Facing nature with what you can carry on your back develops a new perspective, especially after an all day hike. In a community of citizens that make a democracy work however there is an expectation of, if not appreciation for, customer service. In every civilized society there exists an ecosystem of services, the best of which succeeds over eventually eliminates poorer services fulfilling the same need. In an environment where there were no stores for miles I was thinking about free market economics and their influence on democracy.

Restaurants are, in a sense, pews in the church of democracy (I was thinking to myself as the rain continued to fall and my stomach began to growl). Restaurants demonstrate the interdependencies of citizens whereby the best customer service attracts more customers. Employees of a restaurant are campaigning to keep their customers and customers vote with their wallet and presence every time they choose one restaurant over another. Based on the sheer volume of raw “democratic” interaction occurring, a successful restaurant may be more representative of American culture and society than any other American institution.

Is it any wonder that there are more Chinese restaurants in the United States than there are in China? That implies (by this back country social scientist metric) Chinese society is capable of being more “democratic” than the government of China is currently allowing its people to be. Is it any wonder why McDonalds (for example) has served more than one trillion meals? That’s over one trillion (meal) votes for McDonalds! McDonalds is doing an incredible job servicing its customers and is rewarded with returning customer. Why? Set aside the employee uniforms and the Golden Arches. Set aside all of the branding and look at what McDonalds means --- and to how many people it means it to. McDonalds, on the subject of food, may be the most democratically appreciated restaurant in the history of mankind.

The rain outside my tent finally stopped falling. I left the tent to prepare for my primitive dinner. The moon was out and peeking through some clouds. Everything was drenched but the wood for my fire. After making a small ditch down wind and a safe distance from my tent, I surrounded it with large stones I collected from the lake shore. After that, I broke up some of the smaller pieces of wood for kindling. The fire started quickly and before long the rocks around it were warm and dry. I remember kicking one of the larger rocks away from the fire and replacing it with another rock. The warm dry rock I had kicked away from the fire would be my table and chair for the evening.

Remembering that hiking trip I am struck by how much I enjoyed the juxtaposition of primitive experiences of nature and self sufficiency and the civilized interdependencies that develop naturally through free citizens democratically choosing good customer service. I felt like I had proved McDonalds is more than just a successful restaurant. I’d decided it represents what Americans want at home and abroad. McDonalds represents what any restaurant can hypothetically do if the society that it thrives in and the government that it thrives under value customer service. Americans definitely do value customer service and that makes McDonalds a valued American Ambassador at home and abroad. But I don’t think I would’ve realized that without an empty stomach, a back country hike, a storm and pulp philosophy book.

Thank you Ambassador McDonald. Super Size me!

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