Saturday, March 23, 2013

Fear and Loathing on the way to Montpelier (1)

In early 2011, I had a phone call from someone I used to work with regarding a contract position as a business analyst for a company in Montpelier, Vermont.  She worked for their IT outsourcer, and I had worked for their Dallas based subsidiary. I had taken the job in Dallas after my much larger corporate client had severe financial problems, and I felt like I had to take it.  After a year, I could not handle working there any more, and left.  I hadn’t had any nibbles until this phone call.

I thought it would be sort of fun to go back to that company as a consultant, especially at the parent’s headquarters.  So I expressed interest.

Another person called me, from the business area of the company where I would be working. We hit it off well, and she indicated I would need to come up there for a face-to-face interview with several people.  Okay, fine.  She set it up for a day in early March.  They were okay with my obscenely high billing rate.

To get there from where I live (near Dallas) is challenging.  Montpelier, while the state capital, does not have a commercial airport.  The closest airport is in Burlington, a small city overlooking Lake Champlain. Burlington is about 30 miles from Montpelier. There is a surprising amount of air service to Burlington, considering how small a city it is, but the region has a lot of activity, lots of colleges and such, and I learned later that people come down from Quebec to take advantage of cheaper airfares (and pretend not to understand English when it comes to boarding zones).

But basically, to get to Burlington, I would have to connect in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, New York (LaGuardia), or Washington D.C. The airlines serving Burlington included Delta, United, Jet Blue, Continental (still around then), and US Airways. It seemed as though US Airways had more options available than the other carriers, and although everyone on the various travel podcasts I listen to universally despised US Airways, I decided it would have to do.  I don’t know that it would have made any difference in the long run, because the time I was going back and forth to Vermont included a very stormy spring both in the Northeast and here.

I looked into other ways to get to Montpelier where I wouldn’t have to connect.  There were three: Hartford (Bradley International), Boston, and Montreal. The closest was Montreal, but the service there didn’t provide reasonable choices.  Also, I didn’t know what the border situation was like; would you be stuck for hours in a line waiting for US Immigration and Customs to let you in. And it would confuse the crap out of the Canadian immigration authorities when I, obviously a businessman, said I had no business in Canada and was leaving immediately. 

Hartford was the longest distance, but only by a few miles over Boston. I did not consider Boston an option; I went to college there and have driven in Boston enough times to know that it could take three hours just to get out of Boston if conditions were unfavorable, and even if they weren’t you could still die trying to get out of there.  Hartford looked like a three-hour drive.  But for now I accepted the necessity to (gasp) connect, a frequent flyer’s recipe for disaster.

My first trip was for the all-day interview.  I had emailed an old family friend who lives in Vermont about all this, and he was all excited and offered to pick me up and have me stay at his house.  Later I found out he lived a good distance away and it would have been painful, but the company was putting me up in their guesthouse.  I was supposed to leave at 11 A.M., and if all went according to plan, arrive in Burlington around 5, and a driver would meet me there.  I would stay in the company guesthouse, interview most of the day, and catch an early evening flight to Washington Reagan and then to DFW.

The day I was leaving, I got an email from my friend who lives in Vermont. Basically he said there had been a huge storm and there was snow everywhere, with drifts up to seven feet. Another friend from the company posted a note on Facebook that the Burlington airport was shut down.  So I was dubious about this, but I had agreed to go, so I felt like I should at least make the attempt.

I left the house as planned and headed to DFW Airport.  On my way the phone rang in my car, giving me a chance to use the hands-free, which I barely knew how to use.  It was my contact in the business area, asking where I was.  I replied I was driving to the airport, but wondered if I should turn around.  She said, oh, no, they are really good at cleaning off the roads around here and there should be no problem.

So, I continued on to DFW, to the unfamiliar confines of Terminal E.  I got a sandwich and put it in my bag, and waited.  The plane was an unfamiliar type, an Embraer regional jet, ER-190.  I was not impressed by the condition of the plane – it looked fairly beat up.  The seats were two by two, so no middle seat. My seat was toward the rear – with no status on US Airways I was in a bad boarding zone. My bag was a carry-on that fit underneath the seat, so I was good to go.  It was my first experience with this airline in a while, and they seemed efficient, but a little bit low-rent. It was like a low-cost airline, but without the low costs.

A few hours later, we landed in Philly.  I turned on my iPhone, and it went berserk with text messages and emails from US Airways.  My outbound flight had been cancelled.  I phoned the lady in Vermont and told her.  She said the storm had been really bad and the roads had NOT been cleared as she expected.  When I checked with US Airways stranded passenger desk, the guy, who looked like he must have been an Allegheny veteran, told me everything to Burlington was cancelled for the next two days. I asked if he could get me home.  He checked, and wrote out a paper ticket, with the machine that you slide, that makes an impression on the ticket. Hadn’t seen one of those in 20 years.  Here’s to US Airways. (I had a heck of a time getting that flight added to my Dividend Miles account, because their computer didn't know I was there.)

I called my contact in Vermont and told her I was going back to Dallas.  She couldn’t really say anything – I couldn’t hang around Philly for two days.

I got back home at 10 or so, having not set foot in Vermont. I did get to have my first ride on a ScareBus, an A319 from Philadelphia to DFW. I also failed to choose the best place to eat in PHL, Vino Volo, but I didn’t repeat that mistake a second time.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

“Sometimes God is on your side”

During the summer of 1970, I spent a lot of time playing golf. I had just graduated from Boston College, and was awaiting either a) going on active duty in the US Navy, or b) getting accepted to Officer Candidate School in the US Coast Guard and going there. My mother thought I should get a job at Friendly’s or something but I didn’t want to just start working somewhere only to leave immediately afterward.

So, I used to play a lot of golf. But there were no golf courses near where we lived, in Ridgefield, CT. (There is a nice municipal course there now.) My Dad and I looked all around for a course, and the easiest one for us to deal with was at James Baird State Park, in Pleasant Valley, NY, almost to Poughkeepsie. It was a Robert Trent Jones design, not too difficult, but reasonably well maintained and it was cheap.  I would drive my Dad to the train station in Katonah, NY, and then drive up the Taconic State Parkway to the golf course, usually arriving just as it opened at 7 AM.  This would be ideal; I started right away, and no one was ahead of me, so I never had to wait.  The only bad part was that the heavy overnight dew would make the greens play really slowly.  (I have seen some incredibly negative reviews of this course recently, which, I assume, are attributable to New York's budgetary problems. It was well maintained when I played it.)

So I would do this a few days a week, and while my game improved, it didn’t improve much. I had what amounted to half a set of clubs, and sometimes I just didn’t have the club that was called for. But I didn’t mind, it was still fun.

One morning I got there just as the course opened.  I teed off on the first hole, a short par 4 (345 yards) and hit a decent shot for once. Never warming up was a bad habit. I hit my second close to the flagstick, and managed to sink the putt for a birdie. I had never before even parred the hole. So now, for the second time in my life, I was under par for a round, if it was only for one hole.  The second hole was a modest par 5, 475 yards or so, and I strung together three good shots and made a second birdie.  The third hole was a very short par 3, only a 9-iron, and with the confidence I had from the first two holes I tried to hole it.  I didn’t succeed, but the ball was on the lip.  A tap in birdie and I was three under after three holes.  I had finally figured this damn game out.

The fourth hole was a longer, but still not long, par 5, which I had always played well before, probably because by now I would be warmed up.  I hit my tee shot well, and as I walked to my ball the first sprinkles came down.  By the time I got to the ball, it was a storm of biblical proportions.  I had no rain gear.  I was drenched to the skin in no time. It was freezing.  I stood under a tree for a while, and finally gave up.  I slogged back to the clubhouse, could not get a rain check, and got back to the car.

It was about an hour’s drive to home. I was not a happy golfer – getting rained out of the first (and only) time I was actually playing well.  I had never broken 90 at James Baird, but I was probably going to that day.

I got home and got out of the wet clothes, put on dry ones.  Then the cramps started.

I had abdominal cramps that were quite severe, followed by vomiting, followed by stuff coming out of every orifice simultaneously.  I had an intestinal bug, and I was incredibly, horribly sick.  After a while I started shivering uncontrollably, and all I could to was go back to bed, in between trips to the bathroom.  I continued this way most of the day.

My mother was working part time at a bank over the state line in New York.  She came home to find me in this state, and was obviously very concerned because being sick was something that never happened to me.  I told her the story, and then it occurred to me that if I hadn’t been rained out, I would have been out on the golf course, by myself, when this happened.  I don’t know how I would have worked it out, but it would have been a hell of a mess.  I might have ended up in an ER in Poughkeepsie.

My mother put her hand on my forehead, checking my temperature, which was up, and said, “Sometimes God is on your side”.