Archive for the ‘Stories I remember’ Category

Indoctrination Day at the Naval Academy, 29 June 1970 (Caution: jargon alert)

Wednesday, July 1st, 2015

I received my acceptance to USNA via a yellow telegram on 16 June 1970 at 11:55am. “pleased to announce that you are fully qualified for my principal appointment to the Naval Academy.” Russell B. Long US Senator. Quite the achievement considering it was nearly the height of avoiding the draft where nearly no one volunteered for a billet in the military.

I informed my supervisor at the Pelican Ice House that I would no longer be the carpenter’s helper, thinking to myself that some other fool desperate for $50 a week could go up and down those ladders in the haze of ammonia vapors from 730am to 4pm. Of course, 50 simoleons weekly seemed large when my first year pay as a midshipman reduced my walking-around cabbage to $50 per month. The carpenter, a retired Army sergeant, was incredulous upon hearing my story of an appointment to an Academy, thinking that I was ducking-out of hard work. I brought him my telegram to prove my assertion. There were a few times that I considered immediate alternatives to the likes of tyrannical upperclassmen, YP training, P-rades, EE anything and Brigade Seats when I would then consider the worse of the two evils beingthe heat, tedium and bone-tired exhaustion of those few weeks in the Pelican Ice House. Of course, until I qualified as EOOW.

After my Western Union missive, my first thought was “how should I pack?” How much underwear does one need for four years away from home?! Fortunately, I went to camp for a few weeks one summer to learn that two pair is all that one needs for a journey of every duration. Steve Frick’s brother was home from West Point and advised me that you will need nothing as they “issue it all to you.” Issue seemed like a weird description, but I figured it had something to do with being in the Army. So, I packed a small suitcase.

My less than two weeks remaining at home were carefree (home of record for 18 years; dissolved in less than two weeks). Don’t get me wrong. I never believed that I’d last more than 6 months at the United States Naval Academy, home of scholars, athletes, future war heroes and Roger Staubach. I did figure that a few months there was better than my immediate prospects of no other college acceptance (my plan was to enroll at LSU later in the summer, although Tulane University offered me an NROTC scholarship……in late August of plebe summer (college began after Labor Day in those days). I was sort of getting the drift that I being invited to join things after every other possible candidate had either said ‘no, thanks’ or had died unexpectedly. The only other tales that compare to mine are Jimmy Schreiber who had a four year NROTC scholarship to Stanford, then the hippies burned-down the NROTC building in protest over Vietnam which suspended the ROTC program and retracted Jimmy’s offer. He graduated 56th in our class, P-3 NFO, Harvard Law School and now a senior IBM patent attorney. A level headed chap, for sure, unless he dives into that second martini where tales of opportunity missed and what could have been a la Stanford surface to the level of that olive. The other late to the party mid was Robert McCabe who joined our plebe class in late August after enough had mustered out to make room for him. He became commanding officer of at least 3 ships.

My high school friends had a surprise party for me. The ruse was that we were off to see the Woodstock movie but forgot the tickets. We returned to my home to be greeted by more than I imagined who I suppose were curious what a future dead person would look like (Vietnam, right?!). My girlfriend’s father was even more nice to me and eased-up on the curfew and the instant greeting at her front door after a date. I still want to see that Woodstock movie.

On Sunday 28 June, we had an afternoon dinner at my girlfriend’s home; they were Italian and this is what they did after church every Sunday. I tried to find this house about 8 years ago. Gone due to Hurricane Katrina. After dinner, we drove around, bemoaning our impending separation and promising to write every day. Letters, remember those!?

Gerri Rotonti 1971

We picked up my mother and drove to Moisant Airport in New Orleans. Two memories are vivid: my mother gave Gerry and I a few minutes alone, then misunderstood the actual departure time of the flight. We never said goodbye in a traditional way, which was fine, and maybe lots of deep-seated meaning could be assigned to this twist of fate and my resultant shortcomings as an adult. The other memory is that I had $20 in my wallet.

Arrived at Friendship Airport around 2200. Me and my suitcase packed with underwear; soon to be replaced by a B-4 bag. I find a Blue Diamond cab at the curb. Ask for the fare. Am told $20. I say that all I have is $20. He agrees to $12.

We get to USNA at the old main gate. Mr. Jimmy Legs directs me to the Field House as I am in search of my overnight accommodations. I was supposed to find a rack in Rickets Hall I later learned. I never saw Rickets Hall except through the eyes of a sleep deprived plebe-to-be. Here’s why. No one, and there was only one or two people around the Field House, knew what to do with me. There were no rooms, no racks, no reception area, no sign-in; just me asking where to go to join the Naval Academy. Others had passed through earlier in the day, yet this gent had no idea what became of them. Somehow, somewhere he found a room or a waiting area where I was welcomed to stay for the night. Seemed odd to me, but then again, I was from New Orleans. Odd is normal there. So, I slept on a two person couch as best as I could.

In the morning, very early, I was roused by an official looking guy in a kakhi uniform who checked my name on some list on his clipboard, commenting that ‘they had been wondering about me.” This was to be the theme of the day.

I recall the breakfast in the mess hall. Lots of chatter and talking and camaraderie, even with this guy who was a senior or first-class as he put it. Cracked me up. 1st class. Like some cabin on an ocean liner.

I’m not sure of the order of the day but the (mis)adventure began for me at the issue of our gear in the serpentine corridor below Bancroft Hall outside the Midshipman Store. Two moments of that afternoon are emblazoned in my mind’s autobiographical movie. One, I stood in line behind a future Federal prison inmate who regaled me with stories of his impending success due to his family’s military heritage (his dad was a commander, as if I knew what that was). He enjoyed a sterling career from beginning at USNA until his crash-landing as commanding officer 20 years later for falsifying travel documents and misspending ship’s funds in order to routinely visit his GS-15 paramour.

The second vivid memory of that day, and it had to be a living dream, was that I could not find my way from the Midshipman Store along the tunnel, up a ladder to our rooms in the 6th Wing. I dragged my issue up and down that tunnel for several hours. I kept getting referred to a ladder up to the a placed called the Rotunda (RowTundra?) which would lead me through a series of passageways, to a wing and up a ladder to my deck. I was bewildered. I transversed the same ground dozens of times, dragging my seabag and laundry bag of issue, sweating in discomfort, strung-out from the near all-nighter at the Field House and delirious with frustration that no matter how many times different people told me a different way to get from here to there, I couldn’t figure it out. I’m sure that I spent, at minimum, 2 hours trying to just get where I was supposed to be. Irony Alert, indeed!

Maybe the universe was trying to tell me something? Somehow, I found the rabbit hole or the Stargate to the 6th Wing. I believe that someone led a couple of us there. Upon arrival, many members of Hotel Company were in the ‘passageway’ standing outside of the doors to their rooms. I and we were greeted, actually reamed-out, for being late and making my new classmates suffer due to our /my tardiness on station.

I am not clear about how I got into my new white-works uniform; when was the oath-taking ceremony; or much else beyond finding room 6332. The Pelican Ice house, Gerry Rotonti, Woodstock all seemed so very, very far away.

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In Obtuse Memory and Honor of John Paul Jones: a letter to Naval Academy classmates

Tuesday, June 9th, 2015

Disclaimer: contains references to time and jargon long past.

We just elected our board of directors for the local alumni chapter with representation ranging from the classes of 1974 to 2010 (I can hear the the clacking footsteps of the Grim Reaper chopping down the passageway near the mate’s desk) including grads from 80, 81, 87, 93, 08. Such a gathering divides the brigade into interesting demographics such as all-male Academy or the University of Navy; summer cruise destinations; mile run or not; steam vs gas turbine; Isherwood and Melville Halls; June Week or Commissioning Week.

Do you recall that as President Richard Nixon delivered our diplomas on that stage in the stadium and that the custom at the time was for each acknowledged company to offer a worthy collective comment. I remember that one company threw cassette tapes into the air. When 23rd was announced, only soon to be Ensign David Sharpe arose and clapped insincerely.

Related to 1971 graduation, I remember the stern warning issued to the Brigade by Admiral Coogan, Commandant, that ‘if you did not like the cut of a man’s jib, then you are obligated to tell him so in person.’ He referred to the standing-boo that Rolio Golez, 23rd company, received from the Brigade at his graduation in June 1970. Mr. Golez, Brigade Boxing Champion for 4 years, heads the PI Alumni Association Chapter. From the self-promotion at his Wikipedia site, I’m trusting the wisdom of the Brigade.

As our alumni chapter alums relayed vague memories of the final days on Severn River, I mentioned the good deal / red ass of completing exams then heading home for leave…then heading back for June Week. The collective response was, “we didn’t have leave after exams, we had Dead Week.” D E A D W E E K !!!! I exclaimed. I had not thought of or heard of that term in ding ding ding 46 years. Hell on the Hudson! D E A D W E E K !!!! Then the untagged valve of related memories, which hadn’t seen a PMS check in 4.5+ decades, unwound and out drained recollections of Drag Houses, June Week rentals, girls from Hood College, ladies from New Jersey, Wagon Wheel Restaurant, a locker somewhere in some wing of Bancroft Hall where we were supposed to stow our gear for the summer, the smell of starched TWLs, the eyeball liberty in T-Court of the drags dressed for spring near the cannons behind the Brigade Staff at formation, the p-rades for the tax-payers, the Ring Dance and the incremental, nearly contrary to every theory of relativity, the seemingly reverse passage of time. June Week was like the First Circle of Hell. Get me out of here. D E A D W E E K !!!!

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BTW, Yorke Warden, at the end of Youngster Year, tried to fake-out the ‘stow your gear for summer movement order’ and sent all of his clothing and uniforms to the laundry & TSP on the final day in the halls. This is not an HO. His laundry bag occupied nearly the entire two man desk. Clever was he until the return of the Brigade in September, his gear was nowhere to be found nor delivered. He had to submit a long, lost laundry chit where he was invited to the laundry facility outside of the Yard where he was able to introduce himself to the OiC at the Laundry who wanted to meet this wise-ass. Yorke got all of his gear back.

I’m still talking about D E A D W E E K: Mary Nadolski set me up with Betsy Walters of Hood College during this June Week just before second class summer. She was great and we had a great time at some drag house on the other side of town, Eastport or such, which was like a set of islands that one only heard about but never actually saw because the only transportation we had was on foot and usually up and down West Street.

Unfortunately, town libs ended at midnight for Youngsters and we were on the other side of town at about 11:45. Making muster looked highly improbable. Plus, we were drunk. I also recall that Bob Fretz was one of my running mates for this escapade which is odd because Bob and I never hung-out. We got to the center of town near the sailboats and before that market was built, realizing that All Head 2/3 was insufficient and that more steam was needed. We still weren’t going to make it back to the third wing in time. A green, Oldsmobile 442 pulled up with an upperclass mid at the helm offering our crew a ride back to the halls. Piling into his car, he navigated around State Circle, down Maryland Avenue to King George’s Street. As we turned right on King George’s Street, the road was a sea of red tail-lights making little headway. We’re were definitely not going to make it back to the Halls in time. Editor’s note: I had just been fried 50 and served my 10 tours for returning late from DC one Saturday evening. ’50 more’ I thought and suddenly dear Betsy didn’t seem as attractive as she did about 3 beers ago.

We tacked down King George Street only fast enough to maintain headway. We were going to be fried. Without encouragement or question, our upperclass helmsman/OOD, executed a sudden left rudder, right rudder maneuver that put the Oldsmobile 442 in the opposite lane of traffic, heading down the up lane or driving on the side of the road that would have seemed familiar to every British driver. Then he punched it i.e. all ahead full; the four barrels of the 400 jumped on-line and we began to pass the other vehicles in their stationery queue. We could not believe his audacity; we were thrilled; we were wide-eyed as we arrived at the head of the line. The Jimmy Legs waved us in; we motored to the entrance near the Mid-Store and scrambled up the ladders to the company area in time for John Goodrich or George Fessler or other naval hero to mark us present for muster. I don’t know how Betsy got home, although we did continue to date so she didn’t run-off with the knight in the 442.

To this day, when I think of bold action, taking a risk, the foolish courage of youth and He Who Will Not Risk, Shall Not Win, I smile in the fondest recollection of that unknown, unmasked man flying down King George Street.

Best for Memorial Day. Let’s remember all of those who’ve gone before us who, in little and large ways, helped us get to where we all needed to be.

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Ready on the left, ready on the right, ready on the firing line

Sunday, May 3rd, 2015

I was born in Vienna, Austria in July 1952. I am eligible for the Presidency and have a letter from the Library of Congress to support my campaign, if necessary.

As a member of the 796 Military Police Battalion, my father opted, actually begged, for this European assignment rather than be ordered to Korea in 1951. He found himself in this predicament because he used his GI Bill to attend Loyola University in New Orleans where he joined the Army ROTC program for a few extra bucks. The GI Bill benefit resulted from his service as a Signalman Third Class on a sub-chaser in 1944 and 1945. He enlisted on his 17th birthday because his mother, my grandmother, would not permit him to enlist any sooner. He never dreamed that he have to serve in combat after college having been mustered out of the Navy in 1945.

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One of his initial assignments as an MP was to supervise the firing-line at Camp Gordon, Georgia qualifying infantrymen for their own assignments to Korea. He described with some relish and a good deal of relief of the early weeks of that duty where the men were not doing particularly well in their qualifications as Marksman, Sharpshooter and Expert. Apparently, the word was that if you didn’t qualify, you would not be sent to Korea. This backlog was such a problem that his superior officer counseled him that if the scores didn’t improve ASAP that he’d find someone who would improve the situation, reminding my dad that MPs were needed “over there as well.” Dad convened immediately his own rifle range staff which consisted of senior enlisted men, most with combat experience in WW2. Threatening and cajoling, my father was in desperate need for an immediate program improvement process. One senior sergeant, without much explanation, volunteered that he’d ‘take care of the problem.’

The next morning as the long line of shooters adopted their prone positions, aiming at the raised targets down range, ready to commence fire, my dad observed the senior sergeant pause from his inspection walk down the line and literally kick one of the prone-positioned shooters out of ranks. This sergeant took his place on the line in a prone position like the rest of the shooters. As the firing commenced, sarge shot bullseyes into the targets of those suspected of purposely underperforming. My dad described the responses as stunned and immediate. If a shot was wide of the mark, the sarge shot through the center of the target and the score was announced as a bullseye by the spotter. At first, the firing infantryman was made incredulous by the outcome; after several repeated episodes, he would inevitably zero-in his weapon and fire with purpose. The word spread rapidly up and down the firing line that no matter if you qualified or not, the Army was sending you to Korea.The scores improved immediately; the daily and weekly through-put goals were achieved; there was never such a problem again.

Of the innumerable evolutions during our Naval Academy Plebe summer: PEP, forming-up in T-Court, lectures in Mahan Hall, marching in circles through and around the Yard, memorizing rates, chow call, folding laundry, the sailing and YP classes, my favorite or the one that I remember the fondest compared to all of the ones that I despised was the two weeks on the pistol and rifle range. I have no idea today where those facilities were located, although I recall that a daily Mike boat ride was part of the program. I qualified as an expert with the .45 pistol and as a sharpshooter with the M-1 rifle. Irks me to this day that I was but one errant shot away from being a double expert. My left eyebrow aches thinking about it.

Six or seven years later after that summer of 1970, I had the collateral responsibility as the security officer aboard the USS Joseph Strauss, DDG-16. We may or may not have had nuclear capable weapons aboard, and we sure had plenty of procedures for protecting them in case that we did. These procedures included qualifying 20 to 25 sailors of every above decks rating, e.g. no engineers, as weapons-carrying members of the Security Alert Team (SAT) and Back-up Alert Force (BAF). This is when I-realized how privileged that we were on the rifle and pistol ranges at Annapolis.

Larry Sobel was my partner for the .45 pistol qualification. Our instructor was enlisted Navy, tall, laconic, friendly, patient and capable. His match-quality weapons were polished, well-balanced, easy to handle with the smoothest of trigger mechanisms. I learned this because the standard issue from the Joseph Strauss’s armory were none of these. So good did we get at handling and firing these weapons, that on one live-fire for time and grade, something like a full clip of 7 rounds in 20 to 30 seconds, before the target rotated 90 degrees to present the bullseye, Sobel fired, hitting the side of the target, the thin edge initially presented. You could see where the bullet hit the ‘side’ of the target.

I fired and fire a side-arm in my right hand. I fire a rifle from my left shoulder. I also bat right and throw left; I play golf right and putt left. One office colleague commented, “you may not be left-handed, but you certainly act that way!”

In the second week of our range qualification, after the days of fam-fire and clicking-in and learning how to sight, breathe and squeeze, we got our chances to fire the 7.62mm rounds from these gas-operated, air-cooled, semi-automatic shoulder weapons. An odd recollection is that we’d each possessed such a weapon, unlocked in our rooms for 4 years, and never again fired an M-1 while at the Academy.

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Given the expert instruction and the match quality of the weapon, hitting the target down-range at 200 yards was merely a plug N chug exercise. Sight, breathe and squeeze. Except my routine was sight, breathe and squeeze, ejected heated cartridge hits me about an inch above my left eye since I shot left-handed. I am able to point to the spot right now. Somehow in the heat of the qualifying competition and having had dozens of hot, brass casings ricochet off of my brow, I was not the expert as I was with the .45. I even tried a clip or two from the right shoulder without satisfactory results. I qualified as a Sharpshooter.

Like everybody else, I wore the blue marksman ribbons with the E for expert and the S for sharpshooter next to my National Defense Ribbon on my service dress uniforms. After a year or so aboard ship, I stopped wearing them as I didn’t feel as though I was still the same shooter that I was 5 or 6 years ago on the range.

I mentioned in a previous note that I transferred on sudden notice, like 30 days, from San Francisco to the Joseph Strauss in Pearl Harbor to relieve as Anti Submarine Warfare Office, the Brigade Commander from our plebe year. Let’s just say that his files and records and the overall condition of his nuclear weapons safety and security program were not of 6 striper quality. I believe the material and administrative conditions as well as the pending annual inspection of the ship’s Nuclear Weapons program, NWTPI, caused the sudden back-problems that necessitated his medical transfer from the ship.

I was also in charge of the ship security force which we tested daily by issuing M-14s, riot shotguns and .45 caliber pistols. Live ammo, of course.

To maintain morale amongst these security teams, e.g. have them fire the weapons in case, well, they ever had to fire the weapons, we reserved the Hawala pistol range one morning. We signed-out weapons and ammunition from the Strauss’s small arms locker, 15 or so sailors and I headed by launch to the Halawa Pistol Range. Nothing dramatic occurred except that the safest place to hide would have been as near the targets as possible. These .45 caliber weapons were old, stiff and out of calibration. Targeting was accomplished by shooting first to see where the round landed, then walking the rounds to the fixed target. These were not the match grade weapons of Plebe Summer and I was not an expert instructor. A testament to the standard issue M1911 was that despite the nearly terrifying short-comings in the marksmanship of the shooters, I don’t recall that a single weapon jammed or was otherwise required to be taken of service.

We returned to Strauss, returned the weapons to the Duty Gunner’s Mate and decided that the riot shotguns would probably be the weapon of choice if we truly needed to deploy tour security teams.

To pass time and enliven a Sunday afternoon while peddling across the Pacific on deployment to Japan, we slowed to headway only, toss the large bags of accumulated cook-out trash over the fantail, laid-out the M-60 machine gun – the ultimate weapon in our nuclear weapons security arsenal – and gave those huge bags of paper plates, plastic forks and hamburger debris the full nine yards. You are correct. The safest place to hide would have been sitting on top of this trash as the belt-fed, high velocity 7.62 mm rounds sailed into the far distance or shot-up the water just aft outboard of the life-lines. Would have been no problem for that Army sergeant.

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Resurrecting Easter Memories

Sunday, April 5th, 2015

Growing-up in Catholic New Orleans offered one a potpourri of holidays uncelebrated by others in our country. Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday (Alka Seltzer Wednesday); King Cake parties in grammar schools on 12th night complete with the concealed porcelain baby Jesus; May Day crowning of the Virgin Mary in the corner of the school yard; and the long holiday for Easter which began on Wednesday at the Holy Name of Jesus Church (my elementary school of the same name) with a seance of sorts termed The Stations of the Cross. Boring! And we knew that after the hymns, incense and ritual, Easter would begin. Four days away from the Sisters of Mercy and their co-conspirator Jesuit priests of Loyola University. The floating holiday was usually replete with good weather, bike rides to and with friends, sports, preoccupied adults and the jackpot of Easter Sunday, except for the mandatory muster at Mass. Easter Monday was a holiday also. I’m not sure why. Maybe the apostles needed a few minutes to figure-out exactly what happened: here, there, gone, now missing. Someone’s got to write this down!

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Easter Leave was equally special at the Naval Academy, mainly because it gave us a chance to act like and to be with other college kids. Everyone goes home for Christmas and our summers were consumed with a sequence of training programs which permitted us only 30 days of summer vacation (Leave in the vernacular, but you had to come back).

I recall with relish a couple of the Easter Leaves, especially the one to Wauchula, Florida in my green van with Charlie Cannon, Roger Smith and Billy Ellis, circa 1973. We drove non-stop in 2 man, three hour shifts. Ate out of a cooler, slept in the back. Underway from USNA at 1600, shift to Florida shore-power (arrive) at 0800 the next morning. Charlie’s sister, Sara, who latter married Tom Fargo the future Commander of all naval forces in the Pacific (CinCPac), introduced us at the beach to her friends, females, several each, who worked at Disney World. Mids Gone Wild!

The advent of spring directs my thinking to the May opening of the pool at our tennis club. A cold beer at the pool after a tennis match can be a delight of adult refreshment. Of course, spring leads to summer where real blue water, aka the Atlantic Ocean, is but a 2 hour, 2 red-light journey between my home and the closest beach of North Carolina.

I’m fond of seaports: New Orleans, Baltimore, San Francisco, even London, Marseille and Stockholm (three via the Navy and three via IBM). Regardless of my genetic predisposition to water (born in July as a Cancer), bodies of water bring to mind swimming in pools without deep-ends and bursting with flash-backs of the frog-kick, side stroke, breast stroke, 30’ tower jump, inflating my cotton khakis and the exercise in drowning classified as the 40 Minute Swim where 300 midshipmen swam the perimeter of the Olympic-sized pool in uniform minus shoes. I’ve seen Pandemonium. My eyes are beginning to ache in chlorine memory as I recall the dash across the red tiles in the cold air between Bancroft Hall where we lived and McDonough Hall which contained said natatorium.

I passed several classes that I should have failed, escaped demerits even when the paperwork was completed (I’m advised that in today’s Conduct System, the demerit form is delivered electronically. A kind of AOL-like “Ding! You Have Demerits.”) and there is an reasonable argument about the decision for graduating me into the bosom or bosun of our Navy.

I did not escape the Swimming Sub-Squad (the official process for recovering from failure). I recall fearing the 50 meter test, and in a panic, ending-up three lanes over after turning 135 degrees shortly after leaping from the edge of the pool at the commencement of this time trial. I suppose that I didn’t realize how much stronger was my right arm stroke than my left one. Driving while texting is dangerous; swimming with both eyes closed is, shall we agree, highly disorienting.

Anyhow, I mustered for several afternoons at the natatorium to improve my sub-squad strokes. Actually, the deal was that you showed-up at 3:30 pm, impressed the duty lieutenant that you were ‘taking a strain’ and after 4 or 5 sessions, you passed the test.

By the way, the nautical value of the free-style 50 only ensured that if you ever fell overboard in the North Atlantic or somewhere in the Pacific 1,000 miles from both Pearl Harbor and Japan, that you could swim 50 yards at panic speed before drowning in the sea state that hurled you overboard in the first place. No one goes overboard in calm waters unless they miss the gangplank returning from liberty (twice I saw this on the Joseph Strauss while on quarterdeck watch in Taipei).

There you have it, I am fully qualified at the 50 yard freestyle so long as direction is not critical. Had I fallen overboard, I probably would have swam (swum, swimmed?) 25 yards west of the amidships and then returned 25 yards to the east. Probably a good flight plan in assistance of the Man Overboard team. Probably a Famous Naval Bad Idea if my launch was inspired by an abandon ship command.

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Aboard my second ship, USS Joseph Strauss (DDG-16), in an attempt to spice-up the Oscar / Man Overboard Drills, we inflated a life-sized, anatomically correct rubber doll as purchased by the Supply Officer in a Hong Kong R&R shop, clothed her in a life preserver (now the term Mae West begins to mean something) and threw Rubber Rhonda, her stage name, overboard. The bridge watch team would sound 3 Prolonged Blasts, the Bosun’s Mate of the Watch would announce, “Rhonda overboard, port side (we usually got this correct) and the Gay Jose’ (an actual term of endearment by the crew of the Joseph Strauss) would dispatch its crack man overboard team to the amusement of the entire crew, including officers. This drill would occur about once per week as we ambled across the Pacific conserving fresh water and husbanding our aging engineering plant.

Nothing good lasts forever. One sunny day in the middle of the Pacific, the MOB crew motored out to Rhonda. Amidst conflicting instructions to the helmsman regarding from which side to approach her, he maintained a heading of 000 relative. Rhonda met the 5 bladed, spinning brass propellor and struck her colors. Actually, she lost her air. This scene was both diliriously funny to all aboard and simultaneously regretful, especially when we each realized that it could have been one of us overboard meeting the prop. These drills were never again as well executed (ignoring Rhonda’s murder).

Remember how I began with that natatorium in McDonough Hall. I’ll end there also. Now that I am the certified 50 meter free style Mark Spitz of the Brigade of Midshipmen, I join Lenny May in enrolling for scuba diving qualification. Color me Lloyd Bridges, father of Jeff aka The Duder. We take these classes after evening meal and more importantly after the sun goes down. Therefore, it is cold in January on the way over to class and super FillInYourFavoriteExpletive cold on the way back to our dorm rooms in a wet bathing suit and a gym shirt. I won’t protract the conversation except to say that I really, truly, nearly drowned as one of the requirements of the class was to tread water for 10 minutes while holding afloat your buddy who acted immobile. I was not Louie Zamperini-like; my partner-victim was Lenny the starting tackle on the varsity football team. Me at 150 pounds, fresh from the sub-squad where I could barely keep myself afloat, kicking like a desperate crab trying to keep both Lenny’s and my head out of the water. I am certain that to those on the side of the pool it looked as though I was trying to climb up on top of Lenny as if he were the nearest island. He was spouting like the Trident Fountain. Somehow, we passed this test.

My scuba career ended where it began in a submerged rock quarry in Pennsylvania one Sunday morning in February. All went according to practice until I cracked my wet-suit to let the water in that my body was supposed to heat to provide the required layer of insulation. What an Urban Legend! Then I descended through the black, mucky water, hands on a rope stretched between a buoy and weight at the bottom of the quarry. 50 feet down, up, pause, regulator shut-off, restore air flow, mask removed, clean, drain, restore mask to face. I’m trying not to vomit in panic. As I neared the light at the surface, I took one, not too long look around my ice box of a sports adventure, declaring that this would be not only the first, but also my last time in scuba gear. This is one promise to myself that I’ve kept.

On occasion at the tennis club and just before enjoying a beer and the scenery, I’ll thrash along a couple of lengths in the pool designated for lap swimming. Thanks to the plastic lane buoys and my investment in waterproof goggles, my tacking to the other side is not so pronounced as it once was. I still do not float well and expend much of energy trying to stay on top of the water. Whenever I regret what a weak swimmer that I am, I remind myself of how it could be worse in a wet suit.

PS the CO of the Strauss nixed the idea of a proper burial at sea for Rhonda. She departed Strauss via the fantail along with the weighted bags of trash and message traffic.

Retiring from IBM 4: Accident & Emergency at Heathrow Airport

Friday, December 27th, 2013

I am a person of routine and habit. Such surprises some who know me well and most who do not. The devil of routine is travel which I both enjoy and, over the past five years, endure with frequency. I read that the airlines consider charging we passengers for carry-on luggage.

Prior to leaving London recently, I stocked my backpack in the airline lounge with two small cans of pineapple juice, an apple, and packs of crackers and cheese that I would wave away anywhere else. I bring my own pillow, eye shades and entertainment. If I am to be charged for my carry-on luggage, the irony will be that 75% of these items simply replace what the airlines use to offer. Such a charge for carry-on items will be the Tom Sawyer Fence Painting Con at 30,000 feet. “Well, Huck, ya kin hep paint this here fince, but it’ll kost ya $2.” ‘I’m gonna hav ta charge ya for the handbag that I’ma makin ya kerry-an-bord thisa here air-o-plane’.

International flights are long ones. I admit that its fun when heading easterly, usually back to the States, to rewind my watch instantly regaining four hours of my eclipsed life. Kind of like my personal episode of Lost or Groundhog Day. ‘Let’s do noon again. I’ll have that baby portion of faux cheese lasagna instead of the fake chicken pot pie.’

As we know, the body has its own routines guided by its own timing mechanism: a couple of mine are breakfast upon awakening, lunch about 5 hours later, dinner after dark, sleep at 10 pm in addition to other insundry, necessary and not-to-be-mentioned-in-public personal activities, unless one is French. One of my unspeakable routines occurs about 6:30 am daily. Adjusting for British Standard Time, this is about 10 minutes before American Airlines flight 173 departs London’s Heathrow Airport for its 8 hour journey to the USA.

Like a school student, I can usually wait until I get home. Last November, I could not even though I waited too long to calculate my urgency. Be alarmed not, dear reader. This will not be gross.

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As I meandered past the numerous Airline Lounge facilities, all of which seem to elevate the unexceptional to the extraordinary by simply deflating the expected and customary to a variant of a visit to the dentist, I spotted the Air Emirates Lounge on my way to my departure gate. I knew that I could not get into the AE lounge. I did conclude that their departure gates must have excellent personal facilities befitting a high rolling, oil sheik, Airbus flyer. I changed course and headed in that direction. I found the AE gates, but only their gates?! As time was not on my side, I asked the courteous lady at the AE boarding counter for directions to the men’s facilities. She recommended the way back where I came from, near the center of the concourse! Like Columbus, I was not to be deterred by a slight navigational miscalculation on my part and a lack of inspiration on hers. I thanked her and carried-on my initial route.

Spotting the international symbol for personal convenience above a broad door- and this polished portal was configured to handle wheelchairs- I cautiously turned the handle and was granted entrance. All my own. Spotless. Vast. This chamber was the size of the sum what all of the accommodations on my pending airplane flight would equal.

I’ll spare you the details, certainly. Everything proceeded according to plan and habit except for the conclusion. May I be quick to say that I am used to all manners of plumbing actuation, aka flushing: levers, knobs, switches, sensors, manual, semi-automatic, automatic and magic. I could not figure this dude out. Nothing looked like anything that I ever used before. And I needed to get back asap to my own departure gate. Confronted with a cord from the ceiling and a one inch square, illuminated button in the wall, I opted for the bright, shiny button and pushed it in.

This actuated the Call For Help light, at least on my side of the locked door. It was one of those moments when you are so frightened that everything moves slowly and you are aside yourself watching yourself behave. “I wonder what Chris is going to do now?!” Of course, I took some of the precious seconds available to me to wonder what will be the consequences of my greed, deceit, disrespectful and insulting behavior. I wondered if the Emirates had territorial authority in a handicapped bathroom? What language would my attorney need to speak? Would I suffer an incarceration similar to that dope-runner in Midnight Express?  Seriously though, I did envision a SWAT team in desert garb blowing the hinges off of the door to rescue what they had to perceive was the desperate soul pleading for assistance. As I stared at the amber, flashing light and enjoyed the melody of its whirring alarm, my only option was to try what works with computers and computer software. If one click makes it go on, maybe the same click will make it go off. I did. It did. Instant quiet and monochrome illumination.

I like to think that those assigned to rescue the truly needy in such situations don’t alert immediately the airport ambulance as false alarms are a common or not uncommon occurrence. Kind of like the aggravating car and home alarm systems.

Now that order was restored, at least on my side of the door, I squared my shoulders, channeled my best 007 look of aplomb- you know, while the bad guy’s vehicle burns, Bond slips into a taxi initially hailed by a beautiful woman and they head to the casino. Just as Mr. Evil’s car explodes into vicious flames, James quips, ‘that’s one way to be fired from your job’- and pushed open my door.

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To my relief, there were no Balaclava-clad men kneeling with weapons drawn- which I thought might be standard procedure for a false alarm; there was no gurney poised with an Accident and Emergency team; there was no one. I walked away as slowly as my desperate to run legs would allow me.

At the check-in process for my own flight, I was especially polite and thoughtful in answering the questions related to my journey and personal details. I was prepared for the Columbo retort,” thank you sir; have a good flight.” “Oh! By the way, where you the one in the handicapped restroom near the Air Emirates gates?” I would try to run and would be tackled by a dozen plain-clothes Bobbies and MI-6 types meandering nearby in disguise as fellow passengers.

I boarded alone and seemingly unobserved. I sat in my window seat. I ate and drank everything offered to me. I complimented the flight attendant on the quality and quantity of food. I paid for in-flight WiFi service so that I could email the Chief Executive Officer of American Airlines with a list of members of the flight crew that I felt should be immediately promoted. While online, I donated my frequent flyer account balance to charity. I purchased 4 bottles of Duty-Free scotch. I’ve learned to change my habits.

You Don’t Want It, Monsieur; It Wants You.

Tuesday, December 24th, 2013

No longer permitted business-class air travel, even to Australia, India or a morning client meeting after an overnight flight to Europe. Since the 2008 financial crisis, employees have had to absorb ever more of our own business-related expenses. We pay for our own Internet access from home; our mobile phone allowances are capped. The company suspended the Thanks Award program where an employee could grant a nominally valued gift to a fellow employee. Instead, we can send e-cards.

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I had a premonition of what would be because I played tennis in 2002-2004 with a veteran employee. He began in the heyday of the mainframe when Miss Connecticut, the beauty pageant winner, was automatically offered the receptionist job at the branch office in Hartford. This afforded last year’s Pageant winner a promotion to Assistant Marketing Manager. Don Draper would understand. As my tennis pal plotted carefully his retirement, “seven years and counting” (at that time, I wondered who worked anywhere for 7 years), he offered me some poignant career advice: “I never argue with women managers; I never argue with accountants; and I never, ever argue with a female accountant.”

Early in 2008, I travelled to Belgium to meet with the executives of a Brussels-based bank who wanted to spread the aura of innovation from their personal offices down the halls and around the building to those eager to think for themselves. I visited in June for two workshops. My first meeting was in their executive building, 11th floor, manned by two women attired in the blue company uniforms complete with Hermes scarves. The walls hung recognizable art; it was the largest office space I’d ever seen for so few occupants. I learned that these guys were the bank of record for a European government agency. After the bust later that October, the government rescued the bank, sold the art work and co-located all of the employees, except for these executives as they were no longer employees.

June weather in Belgium can be warm; absent air-conditioning, it can be hot. After the bank briefings and before spending the next week in London, I toured Brussels. The food is delicious, the architecture is interesting and there are battlefield monuments nearby ranging from Waterloo to Bastogne.

On a Sunday, I meandered about the the Grand Place in search of simple souvenirs that I could afford. At the chocolate boutique, I asked if the milk chocolate pralines would travel well. “Of course, sir” was the reply. “If you will keep them in the packaging on the floor of your car, they should be fine when you arrive at your hotel.” I asked, “how about the flight back to America?” Heathen-alert! I received the retail store version of the Terminator’s stare whenever they conclude that you don’t have what it takes to either appreciate or afford their goods. “Non, Monsieur.” End of pitch, conversation, dialogue and meeting. Au Revoir, Monsieur Mars Bar.

I am compelled to return with souvenirs when I am away from home for more than a few days. I feel that this helps to include the family in the journey and procures a measure of good will for the next extended trip. Although I do notice that the days of my departures are met with upbeat, hearty well-wishes from my son and wife as they make a list of places where they plan to eat-out in my absence.

Amidst the stone buildings and sea of outdoor cafes in the Old Town, I spotted a jewelry shop on a rounded corner of sturdy fortress-like building. I’m willing to buy dishes, linen, coats and even shoes for my wife. Jewelry is out of my comfort zone as I’m not confident that I understand the relationship between price and quality. I fall prey to the shiny object syndrome and am unsure of neck length, ear lobe size, width of brow, subtle eye color when queried by the sales clerk. I usually say, “she likes blue and green. Gold is good, too.” Then I ask for directions to the shoe department.

The windows of this particular jewerly shop, aka boutique, were decorated, as these upscale sort all are with the the tasteful, overt message that EU Ministers, Foxcom Moguls and Kim Kardashian welcomed.

The door was ajar. I peeked in to see a handsome woman; a small, rotating fan; and a bottle of champagne. Immediately, she beckoned me with a sincere wave and an entreaty to enter. “Entrez Vous, Monsieur, Entrez Vous.” As I ventured across the threshold, she switched to English because she recognized immediately Mr. Hershey Kisses.

She apologized for the warm air in the shop explaining that the air conditioning unit was ‘out of function.’ “Please join me in a glass of champagne” – the bottle in silver bucket on the counter. I guess that she was in her mid-50s, dressed as someone who not only purveys jewelry but also knows how to wear the rocks too. I am not sure about other men on the road, but I’m easy prey when afar for a glass of champagne, decolletage with a french accent, in a spot where Lady Gaga might stop-by.

One has to pass the time when sipping fine wine. Madame showed me a few baubles, asked me a few questions, slid open a couple of concealed drawers, re-filled my glass. She introduced me to her friend of the same profile who dropped-by to complain of the heat – maybe she was summoned by a we’ve-got-one-on-the-hook button beneath the counter. They asked about my wife’s interests and qualities. Is she tall? Does she have fair skin? How does she dress?

The more they spoke, the more I realized that women have many facets. Or it could have been the 2:30 pm champagne buzz. At any rate, it was revealed to me by my new BFFs (Belgium Friends Forever) that the purchase of a bracelet designed in Austria would restore to my marriage an element of joy and mystery that I did not even realize was either relevant or missing.

I felt like a Beaux-Arts dandy amidst their well wishes of Au Revoir, Bon Voyage, Merci with hands waving their golden bracelets. Yep, got the cheek kisses before I left, too.

The lacquered, outsized shopping bag with the gold threaded, blue crinoline ribbons was probably worth more than most of the other downmarket souvenirs that I’d purchased on prior adventures. I still have the branded, telescopic pen that Madame gave to me after I signed the credit card statement impressing my investment with the gravity of an international treaty ceremony.

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There are ways to save money and there are ways to make money. What Madame understood is that the best way to turn a few Euros is to have the customer feel as though he is part of a singular, lifetime achievement. I didn’t buy an expensive bracelet in Brussels; my wife possesses a souvenir of an experience that I never want to forgot. A Votre Sante’.

Steve, Cher & Daycare: a memory upon retirement

Sunday, December 22nd, 2013

We live in an academic community in the small city of Durham, North Carolina; could be named Dukeham for the significance of Duke University to our local economy. Sometimes referred to with the “New Jersey of the South” moniker, but I’ve heard that as many students come from Florida. I don’t believe it.

As a consequence of the influx of these out of state, private tuition sources, Jersey or Miami, $58k per year per student including room and board, high achieving professors are recruited. Throw into the pot the doctors and scientists from the Medical Centers (only two cities have two such large and renown medical centers, ours with Duke and UNC, and the Bay Area with Stanford and Cal Berkeley) and pre-school for infants and toddlers costs plenty around town.

In the beginning, we carted our infant son to the other side of Chapel Hill, a 90 minute round trip twice per day, because that’s where the best-we-could-find pre-school was. Foolishly, we had waited until he was born to solicit invitations for our son’s attendance and our related funds. This is like trying-out for the middle school soccer team in order to get some exercise, have some fun and learn an internationally popular sport. One would be lucky to get an orange slice as a booby prize before a squadron of mini-vans with insulted parents escorted you from the field.

For awhile, we enjoyed the variety from routine and the car-time with the Howard Stern radio program. Then the call came that Our Child (OC) fell from his high chair, cut his head and ‘needed us to pick him up.” “Can’t we meet you at the doctors office?”, Mother implored. “Uh, no. We don’t have a car seat for a baby.” Quite the memorable occasion was the next hour as we motored over to the school then to the Emergency Room. Turns out, OC was ok – a few stitches now hidden by an eyebrow. Mother recovered also.

We dug out the phone book (remember? still had those in 1997) as well as the related tip sheets so that we could renew the begging of day-care directors. We found a sincere program at a Catholic school that was well managed and very diverse, although nobody was like us. Couldn’t enroll OC until he was 2, three months from now / then, and as spots in the “program” were going fast, our chances of securing one later were kind of like walking-on to that aforementioned middle school soccer team.

Luckily, I attended Holy Name of Jesus, a Catholic school in New Orleans, and felt that I should employ this ADMG connection. Knowing the lingo of the Vatican, I asked, “can we start paying now and send our child later, after his second birthday?” Our request was processed up the chain of command or being. By the time we got home, we had a positive reply, i.e. acceptance, with address for the check, recorded on our answering machine (still had those in 1997).

Alas, not enough natural light, the diversity was too diverse – gratefully, no high chair flights- so, with much guilt (Once a Catholic, Always a Catholic), we met with Miss Rosa, the school’s Director, to confess and to accept the blame (O a C, A a C). She understood, suggesting that we contact The Lakewood Avenue Children’s School as that program seemed to be more like us. Our kind of market regulated diversity as we were about to learn.

We followed this advice, met that Director who became a dear friend, and enrolled. $900 per month in 1998 dollars moving to $1,200 over three years. We later learned that we were given a Disney-like Golden Entrance Pass bypassing the application queue as the wait list exceeded 100. Maybe she was moved by the sight of a begging mother and her clueless to the ways of the world husband.

LACS was quite the set-up: in a renovated home, large back yard, vegetable garden, rabbit hut, fox predators :( 6 teachers, 32 children in 3 grade levels and parents ranging from big time science prize winners; plenty of doctors; former and current lovers; trust fund hippies; the mayor. Once for a party game, we counted how many different last names identified the kids. I recall circa 18 and there were twins and siblings in the program. It was the kind of pre-school that you wish your college had been like.

Now for the good part. The teachers were smart, kind and capable. Turn-over was slight as they paid above the average with health benefits. LACS won a national recognition award and a citation in the Wall St Journal, pre-Murdoch the Fox.

Of our six teachers, Steve was the sole male. Fit in well with the rest of the teaching team and was especially popular on the days that he brought Mr. Happy, his pet snake, to school. I was content because mom was happy and OC was buckled in.

One spring day, Steve announced his resignation from LACS. Selected parents in the know, yours truly excluded, were atwitter- meant something different then. OC’s mother had seen Steve perform in Raleigh, the state capital on the other side of the Research Triangle Park. His celebrity impersonations were so good that Las Vegas made him an offer that he could not refuse. With minimum fanfare and less explanation, he cordially and, in high regard, headed West to what I’ve come to classify as that hell-hole in the desert.

About the same time that Steve arrived in LV, I did, too, as IBM negotiated a multi-year contract for thousands of off-season room-nights. Consequently, seemingly every sales conference and many client events were hosted in The Venetian, at Treasure Island or The MGM Grand. A couple of times it made sense for me to stay the weekend there because I was due back the following week. After 6 or 8 seemingly surreal, week-long trips there, I shaped my own Rat Pack world of dinners at Brennan’s, exercise at the Canyon Ranch Spa and roaming the Frontier Mall. I never managed to feel like James Bond at the baccarat table. “I bet $15.00, Goldfinger” doesn’t have the requisite aplomb.

Somewhere in the middle of this period of professional purgatory, I stood in the long, incredibly long taxi line at the Vegas airport for the short ride to The Strip. Arrival at that airport is like being sent down a chute into a perverse wonderland of big luggage, odd people, glittering advertisements, exits without identity.

Anonymity amidst the chaos begins upon airport exit with thousands of riders queuing for hundreds of taxis. Oddly or maybe perversely, for Vegas, the dispatcher solicited passengers headed to the same locations. Bellagio? Mandarin? IBM conference? were examples of his sorting pattern. Things happened fast at this point. Two of us were paired and pointed to taxi down the queue. “Which one did he say,” asked my newly assigned companion. I replied, “the one with Cher on top, that’s was my son’s pre-school teacher.” I think he replied “nice ass” as this was him/Steve/Cher in her Bob Mackie outfit. Arm in arm with Steve in the mobile billboard atop the taxi were Judy Garland, Joan Rivers and Mariah Carey. How’s Mr. Happy, I wondered.

I caught Steve’s act three or four times during my Vegas incarcerations, usually joined by an adventurous or equally desperate IBM colleague. He always provided me with front row seats, once next to the bejeweled and bewigged Joan Collins. Astounding and fun were the impersonations and at every visit I was invited after the show to have a drink with Steve-Cher-Celine (he did her too) and “Michael Jackson” from Greensboro, NC. Just guys making a buck.

Steve and his partner lived away from The Strip, a necessary survival technique it seems. By day, Steve had resumed his work in pre-school education. Vegas, Baby!

It worked out for us, too, back in Durham, especially when OC entered kindergarten in the public school system. We added the former Lakewood tuition to the mortgage payment for our small home in Forest Hills- the mortgage payment was the smaller of the two- enabling the purchase of a much bigger place in Duke Forest adjacent to – irony alert – Duke University’s West Campus. Actually, next to their golf course and their Inn which is next to their West Campus.

Steve is still out there with the same gig at a different venue. I hope that Cherilyn Sarkisian,The Other Cher, finds a program for eternal life, or lifts, so long as it’s good for Steve. Owen will be off to college soon; I’m retiring from IBM at the end of the month. The beat goes on.

Since you ask:

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15 Rounds with IBM: Proposals, Prom-Mobiles and Phones

Saturday, December 21st, 2013

I wrote this on my 15th anniversary with IBM, November 30th. There will not be a 16th as I / we agreed to an 18 month separation process in June of 2012 cleverly titled Transition to Retirement (TTR). Our contract stipulated a 3 day work-week with a reduction in pay and the agreement that I, and others in the program, would not be subject to possible ensuing Reductions in Force (RIF), aka lay-offs. I kind of expected to receive a jar of blue blood that I would dab in the doorposts so that the RIF-Wraiths would know to pass me by.

Honestly, it feels good to go with a handshake and the semblance of a healthcare plan and not with a box and security guard escort, although I work from home. Maybe there is a business opportunity similar to the common working space / rent an office locations where one would just go to meet the actual boss and then be walked-out to the car. Might create employment opportunities for sad-seeming colleagues with the looks of shock and schadenfreude; the impassive security guard just doing his duty; the potted plant vendors and cardboard box suppliers; the gossip-around-the-coffee-mess distributor.

Isn’t it true that relationships can often be characterized by the way that they started?! Here’s how ours did.

In mid-summer of 1999, after traveling anywhere at any time to see nearly any customer, I was informed that I was the employee in the division with the second highest travel expenses. For a second, I thought that I was being encouraged to go for #1. This notion was dashed by the phrase, “And nobody wants to be known for that.” After 8 months, the team that I signed-on with, was organized out of existence as the cost could not be justified (n.b. trend developing). While scrambling to find a new team, I was assigned to manage a proposal process (RFP) for a promising deal with a German telecommunications company in Lake Mary, Florida.

I here learned that the support of your 6 degrees-of separation colleagues is related directly to the depth and width of the charge code or budget that you are able to offer them. We established a command center in the Atlanta Innovation Center- now gone which indicates who has the mightier sword, Accounting or Innovating. RFP support came from everywhere and in every form, including a software sales rep from Dallas in 5 inch powder blue heels. She relayed that her boyfriend played in an Atlanta rock band. I guess to stop the ‘what are your dinner plans?’ inquiries.

Encouraging was the wealth of information that each team, unit and division supplied to ensure that their product was specified as an essential element of the proposed solution. Less attractive was that nearly none of this information was directed towards the requirements of the client’s published requirements. Kind of like being tossed the dictionary and told to find the novel of choice. We cobbled together six binders of facts; factoids; paragraphs from other proposals; bios of experts, including many still with the company; graphs; architecture maps; web site addresses; and executive statements of commitment to partnership. Then they all caught the next flight from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (note this location) leaving the entire RFP package, including printing, assembly and shipment in the custody of one individual whom I recall was a former National 10k Walking Champion (cue the organ music).

In our favor was our status as a major client of this customer. Helpful may be for you to know that once upon a time, in a land far away, IBM itself got into the telecommunications business. There are still Rolm phones on desks at the RTP facility, usually next to the skeleton of the COBOL guy whom we thought retired prior to the last facilities consolidation. IBM sold this telecom division to these guys in Florida. Can you spell Quid Pro Quo? We couldn’t.

After reviewing our 40 pound proposal, the client informed us that of the 3 competing companies, they would have ranked us 4 of 3 if the laws of arithmetic permitted.

As you would expect, how the helping hands from Corporate HQ descended upon us now that they were poised to renew a contract for a warehouse of this client’s phone equipment, switching gear and PBXs, while the client’s sister division was poised to toss us off the bus of brotherhood!

Our corporate support earned us a reprieve or Your Final Last Chance which came in the form of a mandatory meeting to better explain our proposal. This meeting would occur nearly immediately at the Atlanta Customer Innovation Center with the stipulation that another customer had to join this meeting to offer an in-person reference for our self-described relevant talents, skills and experience.

Who better to supply a reference to business executives from a German company based in Florida than an IT executive from a Japanese company based in New Jersey. He flew down in exchange for travel expenses and a company logo jacket.

Young, new to the company Dan flew from California to join the briefing as the German Telco in Florida was his account to manage. At dinner the night before the reference-infused briefing and after an afternoon of prep where we orchestrated the color, gender, charts, projectors and seat assignments, I asked Dan “have we arranged for transportation tomorrow from the airport to the briefing center for the visitors from New Jersey and Florida.” “No,” he replied, “and two additional guests will visit from California, so we have three flights to meet.”

This was one of those innocuous moments in the movies when attention is paid to the wrong clue or ignoring the thrown-away statement. I took the action to figure-out how to meet three sets of executives at different times at a large, busy airport while Dan reserved transportation with the agreement that an executive limo would do. We agreed to meet after breakfast and with plenty of time to arrive at the distant airport to corral all of our guests.

I stepped from the lobby into the 9am morning summer sun of Atlanta looking for our limo. As I walked in the direction of the expected and presently parked black Lincoln Town Car, it drove away revealing a 120 inch (10 feet of interior space), white in color, dated in age, what my sons would take to the high school prom limousine. Standing next to the prom-mobile was Dan. No comment. No explanation. No apology. Off we went in the Anytime Anywhere Limo.

Our driver was an older chauffeur, Quido (I swear) in a checked jacket, vintage 1970s, with a not Gone With The Wind accent. The back of limo could accommodate an entire wedding or prom party as it included bar, fridge and television. With just Dan and me, it seemed as though we sat in an empty swimming pool as we bounced along I-85. The shock absorbers on the car needed replacement and had so since the early 1990s.

We arrive at the airport, parked in the limo lot and were informed by Quido that another driver would relieve him for our journey back to the Windy Hill Innovation Center.

Inside the Airport

The German executives from Florida arrived first. Dan met them. The New Jersey American customer reference arrived second; I met him. While waiting for team three from California, we 5 sat around a table for 4 enjoying styrofoam-flavored cups of coffee and looks-like-bagels. The conversation was sparse and awkward, mainly me conversing and no one taking the bait. Finally, at long last, thank heaven, team 3 arrived. I didn’t offer a coffee and bagel break. As we paddled our way through the crowds and their luggage to the limo, no one said much beyond introductions and grunting about the quality of their flights. Funny, though, was how similar the three teams of visitors looked as if we’d chosen a uniform of the day: black trousers, white shirts, no jackets, black computer bags and brief cases decorating an assortment of head shapes, facial hair, ages and heights. Could have been an Oceans Eleven promo.

I found the correct exit to the limo parking lot. No small feat if you know me. Then the real party started. The prom-mobile was even easier to spot than might be thought because a Fulton County police car was parked at 90 degrees to and 3 inches from our white whale’s front bumper blocking the vehicle from exit. This tactic reminded me of crossing the tee in the age Admiral Nelson: “Give ‘em the full broadside, lads.”

As our party approached the T-boned cars, we enjoyed the theatre of a short, round, anglican, female police officer – gun, mace, cuffs, nightstick, radio – the works – conversing with a tall, well proportioned, male, African-American limo driver. If for no other attribute, he was notable for the pigtail, rattail in the vernacular, that extended from its usual inception point, his head, to the middle of the back of his white shirt. They did not seem to be either high classmates catching-up or just two of us trying to make a living at the airport. I could tell this by the way she pointed her finger at him and the sound of his voice which you’d probably call shouting.

Team Calif-Fla-Jersey stopped so as not to get closer. After a couple of minutes in the heating sun, they looked about, spotted shade beneath a meager parking lot tree and sort of back-peddled towards this oasis. “Where do you think you’re going?”, asked the officer declaratively. I guess that she wondered if George Clooney’s pals were fixin’ to bolt.

I seized the opportunity to quell any misunderstanding by approaching our warring couple. Identifying myself as an IBM employee, hoping that she would think Executive and not ‘man whose role is prom-mobile coordinator’, I asked if anything was wrong?

I wanted to ask if now would be a good time to run for it. She replied that ‘this driver AND vehicle are not authorized on airport property, Fulton County or in the state of Georgia.‘ Me: “what should we do?” She: “Are they with you?” pointing at the trifecta in the shade. Me: “Yes, Officer.” She: “All of you, get into your car.” Us:
I motioned; they came; we did.

We splayed about the 10 foot cabin in silence without even the hum of the air conditioning unit. I thought to myself that I had figured I would, at least, be with IBM for one year before the company figured me out. Other visions and thoughts went through my mind mainly because nobody was talking to me or to anybody else. We occupied ourselves watching the officer deliver a sheaf of tickets to the guy with the pirate hairdo. Kind of like tv with no sound and a failing picture tube.

Prom Mobile

After a couple of hundred hours, probably 15 minutes, the officer and the driver separated. She motored off in her patrol car. The new driver fired-up the prom-mobile and away we bounced, just like a noble galleon on the high seas.

I stared at the empty faux-crystal liquor bottles on the side-board at my end of the entertainment cabin lamenting their dry condition. Not even I knew what to say about anything.

Unfortunately, our limo helmsman punctuated the silence with the his analysis of recent events by saying, “she’s lucky that I didn’t have my gun with me.” He might have used a vulgar substitution for ‘she’, but this is close enough.

Right on cue, all heads snapped in my direction as I was seated in the back seat at the back of cabin. Mustering all of my naval leadership training and bridge officer watching-standing command presence, I spoke for the group in reply, “I wish that you hadn’t said that.” Of course, I really wanted to scream for my mother, but fear makes cowards of us all.

We fought the seas of Atlanta traffic for about an hour back to Windy Hill. At one point near the end, the white, stretch prom-mobile, after bouncing on its former shock absorbers, so struggled up the hills of Windy just as our harbor was in sight that I would swear that we were passed regularly by joggers and moms pushing those jogging strollers.

We disembarked at the revolving door to the briefing center. I walked directly to front desk to order rides back to the airport at the end of the meetings. I received a longish look from the receptionist when I asked for a description of the ordered transportation.

Rolm Phone

This briefing went well and we were invited back into the ‘competition.’ I’m not sure who was awarded what or how many phones equal how many computers in a corporate horse trade. Ultimately, the Germans got out of the telecom game and sold their Florida facilities. The Japanese firm outsourced its IT department; Dan left the company and California.

My employment will conclude in ten days. I wonder what I could trade for a Rolm phone as a retirement souvenir.

Politics, Sausage and…suits?

Thursday, June 20th, 2013

I read yesterday that the founder of Men’s Wearhouse, George Zimmer, was booted from the board of directors where he served as Executive Chairman. One never knows the real ‘why?’ in such matters. Doesn’t much matter in this case as GZ cashed-out several years ago continuing aboard to remain as the face of the company. USA Today described the dismissal as “Men’s Wearhouse no longer likes the way that George Zimmer looks.” A reminder to get it while you can for fame is ephemeral.

I met George at a Duke Business School (Fuqua) function in 199X, Pre-Internet, where he was the keynote speaker. My story has two parts: 1) he arrived so late on Friday evening, the night before the Entrepreneurial Conference sponsored by our local CED, that the Director of CED, Monica Doss, offered me his room at the Washington Duke Inn. One man’s loss etc. Unfortunately, George did arrive very late that night becoming displeased that someone else was sleeping in his bed. I guarantee it. I learned of his furor the next morning at the pre-conference speaker’s breakfast which is part (2) of my story.

Tom Keller, the accountant who elevated Fuqua Business School from a name to a brand, was Dean at that time. He and I and Jill greeted GZ and his assistant on the Saturday morning of Conference. I introduced myself; GZ replied, not gracefully nor with humor, “I know who you are; you’re the guy who slept in my room.” Mildly befuddled, Dean Keller reviewed the events of the day describing in detail the keynote role that GZ was asked (I think hired or, at least, paid) to play.

A lull ensued between the end of this speaker briefing and the time for GZ to head to the auditorium. Well mannered Tom K. asked New Jersey George what advice would he give to business school students as they consider individual post graduate careers? In so many and not many words, the son of the tailor from New Jersey replied that they ‘should quit business school and get real jobs where they could learn something about something.’ Not a quote and not far from the actual and intended message. A moment or two lasting an eternity or two passed then Dean Keller led our party of bed-snatchers and clothing moguls to the auditorium.

Mr. Zimmer impressed the audience with the candid tale of his entrepreneurial path encouraging perseverance and concentration of purpose. He was a hit even if the moment didn’t suit him.

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Saul Steinberg, Alfred E. Newman, Amelia Earhart and the Joseph Strauss

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012

I just didn’t want to lose these.

Mad Magazine and Johnny Carson supplied my irreverent laughs in those late grammar school and early high school years. In the modern time of Kindles and digital newspapers, it’s a charming memory to recall riding my bicycle with Spencer Hayman to the venerable New Orleans drug store, Katz&Besthoff, on Tuesdays, to purchase, I think for 12 cents, the latest edition of Sgt. Rock and Superman comics. How we would pore over each page. Oddly, I was never attracted to the offers of drawing lessons or Charles Atlas muscle building programs in the back of each issue. It’s a pleasant and comforting trip to the past to learn that Mad retains its singular, clever point of view even when its siblings such as The Onion appear faster and more hip.

At first, I thought that my connection to Ms. Earhart was my recollection of Apple’s Think Different advertising campaign of the late 90s. Much is expected of those to whom much is given; as well, I suppose, from those who achieve much. I think that the Mapgate furor is alot about a little, yet so seldom does Apple seem to stumble, stumble it does.

Now that I think about it, I do have tangential connection to Amelia Earhart. The proud ship, Joseph Strauss, DDG-16, anchored in Saipan in 1978 with yours truly as the navigating officer. In preparing for this visit, I became acquainted with a young lieutenant who commanded our Coast Guard station on this former battlefield of an island. His hobby was searching for and often finding artifacts of World War 2 including complete underground hospitals, rusted tanks and cases of 45 caliber pistols still coated in Cosmoline, MIL-C-11796C Class 3 for those in the market. He even established a decent sized museum for these artifacts all about the Loran Station’s grounds. One evening, as I asked for details about his discoveries – “I never go into the jungle without finding something,” he said- he offered that a persistent rumor about the island is that the Japanese kept Amelia Earhart prisoner here at the local jail. Of course, You Tube substantiates this supposition.

Having seen where 25,000 Japanese civilians committed suicide rather than surrender to our Marines, I can believe nearly any story about that island at that time.