By James R. Van Liere
Special to The SUN
When most people hear the words “beer keg” or “beer kegs,” visions of hot summer days, picnics, hot dogs, hamburgers and, of course, beer, come to mind — but not for me. I am only reminded of a crazy incident that happened about 40 years ago, when I was starting my own consulting structural engineering business.
I have worked on many unique and interesting projects, including Christo’s Running Fence in California and a geodesic dome to serve as a barn for horses, but the beer keg project sticks in my mind as one of the most unusual.
This incident started as one of those innocent situations that anyone can somehow become involved in, not thinking much about it at the time, but, in retrospect, wondering, “How did I ever get mixed up in this mess?”
In this case, a gentleman who had an office down the hall, and whom I occasionally met in the elevator, stopped by one morning. While engaging in casual small talk, I sensed he had something on his mind, but was reluctant to discuss it. After a couple of minutes, he asked if I made drawings and did drafting in my business. Because this was one of the essential tasks in any engineering business, I told him yes, all the time, as a matter of fact. Again, he hesitated briefly, but finally got around to asking if I could make a neat, small drawing of a beer keg if he provided the dimensions.
He didn’t want anything fancy, just a simple but clear layout of a beer keg showing the top and side views with its basic dimensions, and he would pay me for my time and expenses. Because this was obviously a simple task, I told him I would do it for him, there would be no charge,and I could have it ready right after lunch, thinking it wouldn’t take more than about 30 minutes.
Of course, I was slightly curious as to why he needed a drawing of a beer keg, but then it wasn’t my business to pry into his business. In the structural engineering business, one never knows what the next client will bring in the door as a project. Although deeply involved in the design of a large office building at the time, I managed to put together a nice little drawing of the beer keg in about 20 minutes and gave it to him right after lunch, as promised.
He liked it, and then hemmed and hawed around again, finally asking me if I could figure out how high a beer keg would float in water if it was empty. I told him I would need to know the weight of the keg to make that calculation, which he immediately provided. Fifteen minutes later, I returned with the answer and, of course, by now I was dying of curiosity, so I asked him what this was about.
He explained that he was a broker and had a contract with the local brewery to purchase outdated aluminum beer kegs, which he intended to resell at a profit. Unfortunately, his contract was due to expire in 30 days, and he still didn’t have a buyer for the kegs. He went on to explain the kegs could no longer be used to transport beer because the law now required beer kegs be made of stainless steel. Of course, I had to ask him how many kegs we were talking about and he answered 300,000.
“Got any ideas what they can be used for, besides beer?” he asked.
“Are you kidding?” I answered, “I haven’t the faintest idea what someone would do with 300,000 illegal, empty beer kegs!”
“Well,” he said, “if you have any ideas, let me know. So far I’ve only had two thoughts — cut them in half and make barbecues or sell them as dune buggy gas tanks. Anyway, this is why I needed your drawing, so I can fax or mail a description to potential buyers.”
After this conversation, I decided to get back to work. I had a deadline to meet and didn’t have any more time to spend on this beer keg foolishness.
A couple of days later, my friend came by the office to see if I had any ideas on how to use the beer kegs, and I didn’t.
“Well,” he said, “if you find a buyer, I’ll split the profits with you.”
“Oh, really? How much would that be?” I asked.
He then went on to explain that he thought the kegs could be sold for $5 or $6 dollars apiece, and after deducting his cost of one dollar and another dollar to grind off the name of the brewery, the net profit might be $4 per keg, or $1,200,000 split two ways. Wow! That was hard to believe. I could make $600,000 for selling a few beer kegs. The only problem was I didn’t know anyone who could use 300,000 outdated, illegal aluminum beer kegs.
“Keep trying” he said, “maybe you’ll think of someone.”
It was back to work for me, but in the back of my mind, I was trying to think of someone who could use those darn kegs. I called a few friends and acquaintances in the construction industry, but no luck. Finally, I called the last person on my list, who I was sure would have no use for them whatsoever. Much to my surprise, he thought he might know someone who might know someone who would be interested. About 30 minutes later, he called back and told me to expect a phone call from, of all places, a boat off the coast of Florida.
Sure enough, 10 minutes later I received a call from someone who refused to identify himself, but wanted more details (and in the background, I could hear seagulls). After explaining the basic arrangement to him, he insisted on knowing the name of the brewery, because he didn’t think he should be required to pay the broker’s fee; he would deal with the brewery directly.
When I refused to name the brewery or the broker, the voice on the other end said, “Well, a couple of guys with baseball bats could take care of a few knees if some convincing was required.”
At that point, I told him to forget the whole thing and hung up. About 10 minutes later, this person called again to say he found the name of the brewery (which wouldn’t have been too difficult) and called it directly. The brewery confirmed it had the beer kegs and they were for sale, but he would have to go through the broker if he wanted to buy them. At this point, he said he was no longer interested and hung up. By now I was completely exasperated with the whole idea, so again I just went back to work, relieved to know I was done with this beer keg nonsense.
A couple of days later, Julie, my part-time secretary on a work-study program from one of the local high schools, noticed the drawing of the beer keg on my desk. Of course, her curiosity was raised and she wanted to know why I was making drawings of beer kegs. I told her the story up to now and then went back to work, not thinking anymore about it.
About a week later, Julie came to work and mentioned that her dad had a buyer for the beer kegs.
“What! You must be kidding. Who is he selling them to?”
Her reply floored me. “He was selling them to the Peruvian navy.”
“Really,” I said, “what would they do with 300,000 used beer kegs?”
“Well,” she said, “I think they want to use them for practice depth charges.”
I still could not believe this was happening, but I had to ask her if she knew how much her dad would be selling the kegs for.
“Ten dollars apiece,” she said, and her dad wanted to know if we could meet Saturday morning to discuss the details of the sale.
“Sure,” I said, that was fine with me, but let me check with my friend the broker first. Of course, he was ecstatic with the news and would probably agree to about anything at this point.
On Saturday morning, we met at my office: Julie, her mom and dad, the broker and I. Needless to say, we were delighted that the kegs were leaving the country because that meant that we would not have to have the name of the brewery ground off the kegs, especially if they were going to be blown up.
The only questions remaining were how much it would cost to ship the kegs to Houston, Texas, and how we were going to split the profits. We estimated our profit would be in the range of $7.50 per keg, assuming shipping charges at $1.50 and the cost of a keg from the brewery at a dollar. Thus, our total profit would be in the range of $2,250,000, which we agreed should be split three ways: one-third for the broker, one-third for Julie’s dad and one-third for me, or $750,000 apiece.
I felt a little uneasy splitting the pie in this manner because I felt that Julie was entitled to something also. After all, if she hadn’t mentioned it to her dad, this big sale would not have occurred. We agreed that each of us would give Julie $20,000 out of our one-third so that she would have a total of $60,000. The meeting adjourned, with Julie’s dad agreeing to follow through on the shipping arrangements, and the broker and I would talk to the brewery about finalizing details of the sale. We all left the meeting with visions of “sugar plums dancing in our heads,” dreaming of life on easy street.
As for me, I could see paying off the house and putting enough money in the college fund to ensure a good four-year education for both of our daughters, and taking my wife to Hawaii for a much needed vacation.
A few days later, Julie came to work looking a little down and out, which gave me a strong hint that a glitch had developed in our big sale to the Peruvian navy. I guess the whole idea was just too good to be true, because the Peruvian navy had decided to scrap the idea. All I could think of is what my mother used to tell us when something went wrong, “Ah yes, the best laid plans of mice and men …”
After this disappointment, I let the project go. A couple of years later, I ran into my broker friend, who, shortly after this incident moved across town to another office building. Of course, we had to reminisce about the great beer keg project and how close we had come to being millionaires. He never did sell those darn beer kegs and a recent phone call to the brewery confirmed that they were no longer around. But every so often when I drove by the brewery, I couldn’t help but wonder what life would have been like if we had sold those kegs, or if I could have just found a use for them. What a mental exercise.
So, what would you have done with 300,000 used aluminum beer kegs?