Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Frantic and Sad Week

Manassass VA 2010 04 036  

 (Names have been changed to protect the . . . well to protect someone . . . )

Well, where to start this one . . .

This week I was supposed to go to Fishkill NY to install a system for a huge customer of ours there. I was supposed to fly out Tue, spend Wed and Thu working with the customer, and be on my merry way home Friday morning. All of that went out the window though when I got a call from my manager at 4:45PM Monday night as I was driving home from a local customer.
“Hey boss, what’s up?”
“Matt, the whole world just fell apart.” He replied and I could clearly hear the depression in his voice.
“No worries, what’s up and how can I help to make it better or at least not make it worse?” I asked with a laugh, trying to shift gears in traffic and not drop the phone.
“Your not going to believe this, but ‘Ted’ did it to us again.” he said and left it hanging there. He knew he didn’t have to say any more than that because I knew exactly what he meant.

A few months back, “Ted” had gone to a huge customer of ours in Manassas VA to upgrade a system we had sold to them years ago. He got as far as taking it apart and then apparently snapped and just abandoned our customer, leaving our system in pieces and the customers’ tool unable to operate without it. For those of you that don’t work around semiconductor manufacturing, you will just have to take my word for it that a tool not running can cost a company tens of thousands of dollars every single hour in lost revenue. 
Ted has always been one of our very best field service engineers, very intelligent, hard worker, and at the risk of bragging, he was the only other individual in my entire company that knew as much about as many products as I do. To say we were shocked when he walked out on one of our most significant customers just doesn’t do the feeling justice. Needless to say, I found myself on an airplane to pick up the pieces and try and restore our customers faith in us. When the immediate crises was over, people started looking for someone to blame and some way to appease our customer’s anger, and of course upper management was going to fire Ted. The good news for Ted is that he had impressed so many people, so many times over the years, that every single engineer and sales manager that had ever worked with him rose to his defense, to include myself. I even went so far as to give our manger hell, reminding him that I had told him over and over that the upgrade job he had sent Ted to do was not a one man job, but required two. Being cheap and trying to save money, they kept sending Ted to do these upgrades by himself, putting him in a no-win situation. Anyway, management was convinced to give him another chance and agreed to send two people to do future upgrades like this. I did another one with him so their decision lasted at least a month or two before they again sent him on his own this week. Once again he had snapped, doing exactly the same thing. He took the tool apart, freaked, and packed his tools up and abandoned the customer, and now my manager is telling me to drop or cancel anything I have scheduled and get to this customer yesterday, if not sooner.

I started yelling at my manager, pissed off that they had sent him alone again after all that had happened, and after my repeatedly telling him that it was a job that required two men. He let me vent for a moment and then interrupted me.
“Matt . . . Matt . . . hold on a sec. . . “ he asked. It took me a second to stop yapping and then he continued.
“What you don’t know is that he begged me to send him alone. He kept saying that he was deeply embarrassed and ashamed about your having to go pick up the pieces, and that having you work with him on these upgrades makes him feel ashamed over and over again. He begged me to let him do it alone and I gave in and agreed.” I could hear the depression in his voice and the clear anguish of a man who was now going to have to fire someone he respected. It was also the anguish of a man who had stuck his neck out to save the guy once already and would now probably be held accountable for having made what had turned out to be the wrong choice.

I hung up the phone and drove on in shock, because I knew this meant that Ted had just lost his job and probably his career. Ted is more than a co-worker to me, he is a friend. I’ve spent the night at his home and have met and adore his wife who shares his sarcastic sense of humor. They make an interesting couple with their sense of humor, and with him well over 6 feet and her under 5 foot 2. I knew that at this very moment, he and his wife’s lives were being decimated. I wont tell you a lot more, because it would reach the point of gossip, but I have since found out that it is a drinking problem and he is already in treatment. Keep your fingers crossed for a good man and good friend of mine would ya’? I know he wont be allowed to do field service again, but maybe my company can find someplace for such a valuable guy that they have invested over a decade in.

I had to make the flight to Manassas drab, because I had to go right from the airport to the customer where I worked until late at night to get them back up and running. I suppose I could have gotten a flight out the next morning, but under the circumstances we decided I should stick around the following day just to follow up and be sure the customer was pleased, and so I had the vast majority of the following day free.

Manassass VA 2010 04 028

I had been contacted by Sheri, another Vanity Club member, and she said she was pretty close by, and so we agreed to meet that evening at the mall. Well, having the entire afternoon off, I hit the mall and checked out the sale at JC Penny’s that she had told me about many hours before she arrived. It was a “Buy 1 and get the second for 88 cents” deal. I tried on half a dozen tops, looking for something that might be a little different from my usual, but in the end I got two tops that are very much along the lines of my usual favorites. In the Manassas Mall, I stopped at the Hershey’s Ice Cream shop and got a shake to try and cool myself down. The man behind the counter bent over backwards to be helpful and friendly, calling me “Miss” several times and telling me to please feel free to have a seat and he would bring it to me when it was ready.

I spent several hours shopping there in the mall, but still had over two hours before Sheri was to meet me, and I so I went to see a movie to kill the time. I watched “Alice in Wonderland” again because it was the only movie starting then, and it really was an adorable movie anyway. Apparently the theater I went to is about to go out of business because they had a sign up talking about reduced hours due to lack of patronage and I was literally the only person in the movie. That’s kind of a weird feeling by the way, to be the only one in a theater . . .

After the movie was over, I returned for my meeting with Sheri who was coming from work and so was drab. Still, we didn’t have much trouble picking each other out where we had agreed to meet. Sheri is one of those lucky ones that looks fantastic both ways – male and female. We spent an hour or so browsing through a couple of stores were she proved herself to be quite a good shopper I thought! It didn’t take too very long at all before I knew that I liked her. With any luck, we will get the chance to meet again, and hopefully under better circumstances.

Fishkill NY 2010 04 004

The next morning was yet another very early one for me, getting an early flight from Manassas VA to Fishkill NY where I was going to try and take care of the customer I had originally been scheduled to work with. The install I was there to do was supposed to be a two day deal, but I was going to have to try and get it done in one.
I was wearing a long peasant skirt that I love because it is very light and floaty and tends to swirl and whirl around my legs as I walk making it look as though my legs are wrapped in clouds. As I approached the United Airlines self check-in Kiosk, I can see a customer service rep looking at my skirt, and she walks up to me as I am checking in.
“Well don’t you look so pretty! That’s a such a lovely skirt!” she said.
“Thank you! You know that was sort of the look I was going for!” I replied with a smile.
“And ya’ did good too! Let me give you a hand there.” She said as she starts to push buttons on the screen. “Do you have your itinerary?”
“Nope, but I can get it if I need to!”  Remember, my carefully planned trip had been shot to hell by the need to divert to the other customer, so I had nothing printed out with me and would have to get it off of my laptop.
“How about a confirmation number?” she asks.
“Flight number?” she persists, giving me a mock exasperated look.
“Uh uh – nope!” I told her with a grin. “But I DO have this!” and I handed her my Silver US Airways Elite card.
“Oh! Well that will do very nicely!” she said, taking my card and swiping it through the machine.
“OK Ms Huddle” she says, reading my name off the screen. Then, just as she hits the “next” button, I see her eyes widen. “Hold on, some thing is not right. Did that say ‘Matthew’?“ she says with a surprised tone while hitting the “back” button and returning to the original screen. This time she takes her time and reads the full name and looks at me with an honestly shocked look in her eyes.
“Your Matthew?!” she almost whispers.
“Shhhhh. . .. “ I told her with a smile and a wink. I gave an exaggerated look to the left and then to the right. “don’t tell anyone!”
“Oh my God, I never would have known!” she tells me while reaching a hand out and puting it on my shoulder.
“Awe thanks!” I told, feeling very pleased that I was apparently passing so well today. After she looks at me for a couple more seconds, she recalls that had been in the middle of checking me in and returns to the computer screen. Soon, I’ve made my way through security and decide to hit up the first coffee stand I see. I decided to try an iced coffee in the hopes that it would cool me down as I am feeling uncomfortably warm and I can feel the perspiration building on my forehead and threatening my makeup.
“If you will step just to your left there, we’ll call you when your drink is ready sir.” Says the guy behind the counter as hands me back my change. Wow, not ten minutes ago I stunned the lady at the airline counter when she discovered I was male, and then this guy pegs me. I went from hero to zero in absolutely nothing flat. Oh well, such is life I suppose. . .

It was still mid morning when I landed in Newark. I still had an hour and a half drive to Fishkill, but I had all day to make it in, and so I figured I’d hit up a Goodwill along the way. That turned out to be a waste of time though, as it was one of the older Goodwill stores that didn’t have much of anything that anyone would want to buy in it. Disappointed that there would be no inexpensive treasures found today, I headed north for Fishkill NY – a relatively small town with not a great a deal of anything of interest in it. The company I was coming to work at is probably the only employer of note there. (there will be no prizes for those who figure out who my customer was – it is just too easy).
I notice two things as I pull in to the Holiday Inn parking lot – there is a strip mall across the street with assorted shops and a movie theater, and my phone indicates a missed call. When I check my voice mail I find that it is from “Bart”, another one of our field service engineers. He tells me that he is at Fishkill temporarily covering a service contract on a different product line we have there. Well, so much for being free to be Kimberly for the majority of my time there, but I know and like the guy. In fact, I’m a large part of why he works for our field service group as I had convinced my manager to hire him away from our depot repair center and take a job with us several years ago. He is also friends with “Ted”, the guy that has just screwed up so bad, and so I know that we have much to discuss. Once I checked in to the hotel, I realized that it is still pretty early, Bart will be working several more hours, and so I hit up the strip mall and a movie. This time I watched “The Green Zone” – a fictional account of a US soldiers frustrated search for WMD in Iraq. It was a good movie, worth the seeing, and it passed the early afternoon. After the movie, it only took me a couple of minutes to discover that the strip mall didn’t have much of interest, and so I returned to the hotel where I went from Butterfly back to Caterpillar. Some times it’s hard to go back to being plain old ‘Matt’. When I’m doing the female thing, I feel happy and confident, and yes, even pretty. As Matt, I feel like a bird that has had his wings cut off and stuffed in a cage where he can’t fly. Sigh . . . 

I had dinner with Bart, and of course we spent most of the time talking about Ted and his wife. While never quite coming to the point of tears, we were both more than a little emotional talking about the trouble with the peer that we have liked and admired so much. Both of us have spoken to his wife multiple times, trying to give her the feeling that she is not all alone in this. It’s heart wrenching to hear a good and lovely woman sobbing as her life and marriage are suddenly rocked.
I had had tentative plans to meet with two TG’s while in New York, but with the other engineer being here, and both of us so involved with the guy that had just trashed his career, I just couldn’t see bailing out on him and leaving him alone so that I could go socialize. Regretfully I inform these two that I can not meet them after all. Exhausted from two very long days filled with more stress than I like, I am back in my room and headed for bed by 10PM.

The following day I headed off to my customer where I was to install a system that I had never seen, and train the customer on its use. This isn’t the first time I’ve been in that situation, and it wont be the last. I’ve talked to enough other people in my sort of career to know that it is actually fairly common to be sent out to work on things you have never seen. It’s assumed that you know the basic concepts of a technology and should be able to figure it out. I don’t mind this so much when it comes to repairing a failed system, but there is a little anxiety in doing in installation where the customer expects that he is getting an expert.
Fortunately I did get the chance to acquire a softcopy of the manual for the system and so had read up on it before going. While I’m sure I didn’t stun my customer with my brilliance, I did get it installed and did him trained on its use. We hit several snags along the way, all caused by their connecting the plumbing from our tool to theirs incorrectly, but this isn’t a hell of a lot of stress on my part. Once I prove the fault is not on my end, I get to watch the customer scramble trying to figure out where HIS problem is. I always help in this, but the weight of the responsibility for its resolution is on his shoulders and not mine. Things had been going so poorly on his end, that I was just about to make the call that I would have to stay the weekend to continue working with him the following Monday. Fortunately he got his act together at the last minute, and at 5:45PM he was satisfied that my tool was operating well, and so I was on the way back to my hotel feeling good about myself. Once again I had dinner with Bart and we both grasped at straws, looking for something other than our mutual friend to talk about. Ladies, don’t ever let a guy convince you that women gossip more. I’m here to tell you that guys gossip every bit as much as women do, and we traded quite a bit. Toward the end of our dinner, I mentioned that the Holiday Inn had given cards for two free drinks in their pub, and Bart started to laugh so suddenly that he almost spit his beer out.
“You know, the guy I’m working with at IBM told me that the bar in the Holiday Inn is a gay bar.” He said, his eyes twinkling with amusement, and still watering from his effort to swallow the beer he had almost spit across the table when I’d brought it up.
“No kidding?!” I said, more than a little amused my darn self. “You know what? I don’t give a shit. Gay bar or not, they owe me two free drinks. Wanna join me?” I asked. He busted up laughing and agreed that he would. Soon, we reached the point where there was an awkward silence where neither of us had much to say. He looks up at me and grins.
“All right, let’s go get those gay beers!” he tells me. Having already had two beers, we both thought this was the height of humor and laughed so loud that the folks at the table next to us turned to look.
As we enter the hotel pub, I can see that there is one guy sitting at the bar, and no one behind it, nor anyone else in the room at all. The guy sitting at the bar turns to look at us as we enter.
“I can see the joint is really hopping!” I said him.
“Oh yeah,” he says, getting off his chair and walking around to get behind the bar. “You guys should have been here ten minutes ago. We had 10 playboy bunnies in here on the way to a photo shoot.” He says. Bart and I just looked at him, shocked that we missed something so interesting by mere minutes. Then I noticed that while the  bartender isn’t smiling, I can see a twinkle in his eyes, and I was about to call him on it when Bart spoke up.
“That’s pure bullshit, but if they DO come back, your gonna come get us right?” he says, laying the New Hampshire accent on strong.
“Oh sure!” the bartender replies, voice suddenly thick with a New York accent. “Ya know they said they really dug the joint and would be back in later tonight!” There was several more moments of this New Hampshire / New York back and forth bull shitting, with lots of laughter, before Bart and I found ourselves looking at all of the liquor behind the counter and thinking of our friend that had just that day entered a treatment facility for alcoholism. Suddenly it didn’t seem like so much fun to be in a bar. . .
I kept thinking back to when I had been so much younger and in the Army at Ft Sill Oklahoma. One of our female soldiers and a good friend of mine, had gotten in to trouble over alcohol several times, and it was finally mandated that she would either go in to a treatment program or be thrown out of the Army.  The treatment facility was a couple of hundred miles away from us but still several of us made the trip to see her when she was at last authorized to have visitors. God help us, we thought we were being good friends and smuggled a bottle of booze in to her. She looked at it, looked up at us, and with tears in her eyes she told us that she was so lucky to have such good friends that would take such a risk for her, but that no, she didn’t want and wouldn’t take the bottle. I was only in my early twenties at the time and it wasn’t until many years later that I realized what a horrifically awful thing we had done. When I think of this, and that’s often lately, I thank God that she declined. My guilt is already massive over the event and I can just imagine how much worse I’d feel now if she had accepted that bottle. I’ve done a lot of bad things in my life, but that one still haunts me.

Fishkill NY 2010 04 008

Today (Saturday) I’m flying home to Austin kind of late in the evening. I wont get home until after 9:30 PM and I will miss taking my daughter to a friends birthday party. My wife has also let me know that she is not pleased with how often I am gone on the weekends now. I have no idea what I am to tell her. My willingness to go where I’m needed, and when I’m needed there, is why I still have a job while so many others don’t. Just a little more guilt and anxiety I suppose.

So far on my trip home, mostly I’ve seen are huge smiles as people check me out. The young black lady that checked me in at Avis was cute as a button, with dozens of long braids in her hair, and she grinned from ear to ear the whole time. The lady at the US Airways counter in Newark was also drop dead gorgeous, with bright green eye shadow and big brown eyes to die for. She also had a huge smile the entire time we talked.

Fishkill NY 2010 04 012

I did manage to get a free upgrade to first class, and that’s always nice. As I was sitting there waiting for everyone to board, the flight attendant brought a young man from coach up in to First Class. It only took a second of watching and listening to figure out that they had moved a soldier up to the first class section and given my history, this just impressed the hell outta me. US Airways had some empty First Class seats and so they gave it to a young soldier on his way back to the middle East. That just moved them way up the list of “Airlines I want to fly on.” Way to go US Airways!

Fishkill NY 2010 04 010

So I am sitting in the food court of the Charlotte NC airport, chowing down on a breakfast/lunch/dinner from “ManchuWok” as I type this. Sitting about ten feet from me is a man and his wife, and the husband is facing me. It took me a moment to realize that is staring at me, and so I smiled at him – he didn’t smile back. Instead he continued to stare at me for a moment and then turned and said something to his wife, and then took another pull on his beer. He is short, squat, all muscle, and looks about as sharp as a sledge hammer. She waited all of 20 seconds and then turned around backward to look at me, then faced her husband again for a few more words. In a second, they both pick up their trays and carry them to the trash can next to me instead of using the one next to their own table. Both look at me with out smiling the entire time they approach and dump their trash. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out what that conversation was about.
“Hey ma, look at the tranny over there, eating that damned China man food and typing away on that new fangled type writer. . . “

Oh, and just to top off my perfectly horrid week, when I landed in Austin there was a raging thunder storm. Ever try to pull a large 50 Lb suitcase, a 48 Lb tool box, and a 28 Lb back pack AND hold an umbrella in a raging thunder storm? Yeah, it doesn’t work so good and so by the time I got to my truck I was 100 percent soaked and miserable. . .

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