That's a lot of lawnmowers

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(Unsplash / Ross Parmly)

The flight attendant squeezed down the narrow aisle with her tightly engineered refreshment cart. She got to me, and I accepted a cup of ice water. Delicious.

I placed the cup and napkin-coaster on the tray table and continued reading. Every now and then, I'd look up or out the window or around inside the cabin. It was just that aimless activity one often does while on an airplane.

I happened to glance at the cup of water on the tray table before me and noticed some writing on the napkin-coaster. I could see the wording indistinctly through the water, so I picked up the cup to read the napkin: "Ideas are best pursued with 280,000-horsepower engines. Keep climbing."

Immediately my attention focused on that 280,000 number. That's a lot of horsepower! I consulted the safety card in the seat pocket and noted that I was traveling in a CRJ-900, a small regional jet with 90 seats.

How to understand the magnitude of 280,000 horsepower? Let's see, what image do I understand? Well, an average walk-behind lawnmower has roughly 5 horsepower. I already knew that. Dad made sure all of us kids, including my sister and me, knew some basics about home-upkeep duties. Each of us could run a drill press at age 5, and then we graduated to cutting out simple shapes on the jigsaw in dad's woodworking area of the basement.

About one-quarter of our basement was devoted to areas mom frequented, like the laundry and the fruit room, where the canned fruits and vegetables were stored, and about one-eighth was devoted to our play area, which was a combination of school and grocery store, complete with a variety of empty cereal boxes and food packages. We even had a large green chalkboard on the wall. The rest of the basement was dad's tools and woodshop; he designed and built our home when he was only 32, so his tools were well-used and increased in number over the years.

We girls mowed the grass just like our brothers did, and we all pitched in around the house, so a lawnmower with 5 horsepower is something real to me.

Horsepower has science behind it to a point, but real horses are different sizes and different strengths. I know that a rating of 1 horsepower does not equal 1 horse. I'm not a farmer and so don't have a grasp about how inventor James Watt demonstrated the power of his steam engine compared to the number of horses doing that same work.

I'll think in terms of lawnmowers. If you believe the airline napkin's claim of 280,000-horsepower engines, I calculate that to be 56,000 lawnmowers with 5 horsepower each. That's a lot of lawnmowers.

Yes, keep climbing, regional jet.

[Nancy Linenkugel is a Sylvania Franciscan sister and chair of the department of Health Services Administration at Xavier University, Cincinnati.]