One of my colleagues on the west
coast got himself hurt somehow. No one knows how he is hurt, or how he got hurt, because he won’t tell anyone.
My guess is that it must be a pretty embarrassing story if he won’t share it,
but I suppose that is beside the point for the purposes of this story. Let’s just suffice it to say that he is out of
commission for a while, and so I was asked to take an install in his region –
Portland Oregon. I got really excited
about this when I realized that Portland was only a three and a half hour drive
away from where my son and his family are stationed up in Silverdale
Washington, and so it looked like I was going to get a company paid trip to go
Here is something that I don’t get to
say often – something new happened to
me going through the TSA check point in the Austin airport! I had just placed
my stuff up on the belt for the X-ray machine when several of the TSA
inspectors started shouting and running back and forth. I noticed that at the
outlet of the check point, there were a good half a dozen TSA folks there
stopping everyone from leaving the inspection area to enter the main airport. There
was a TSA inspector standing right next to me and so I casually asked him what
was going on. It’s not that I was concerned, I was just curious about it, as
after all if this time, it’s kind of rare for something in an airport to
surprise me. The man just looked at me though. He didn’t frown, and he didn’t
smile either, he just looked at me and didn’t say a word.
‘Well all righty then!’ I thought to
myself and turned back toward the area where all of the excitement was. Soon,
everyone was calmed down, and we were moving again. Now on the other side of
the check point, I was sitting there putting my things away when all of the
shouting and running around started all over again. Before I knew it, there was
a TSA inspector standing in front of me and blocking my way into the airport.
“Will everyone please stay put for a
moment! This will only take a minute and then you can be on your way.” He said
loudly and confidently. It was pretty clear that it really wasn’t a request,
and so I nodded my agreement to him when he looked my way. In less than five
minutes he had given the go ahead to leave the area, and I walked past him as I
“So what was the deal?” I asked as I
passed by him. “In all of the years that I’ve been traveling through here, I’ve
never seen y’all do that.”
“Oh, it’s nothing!” he said with a
laugh. “We are just doing some training.”
Since my flight was only set up the
day before, long after US Airways awards free upgrades, I did not get an
upgrade to first class and so got to ride in the back with the other sardines
on both flights. The plane from Austin to Phoenix was filled to capacity, but
the flight from Phoenix to Portland had quite a few empty seats. Once the
flight was boarded and they were closing the door, I grabbed my things and
moved back to take a seat in the completely empty exit row. Feeling kind of
smug with my cleverness at grabbing the empty seat that would give me more room
and freedom, I was just getting comfortable when the flight attendant
“Ma’am, I’m afraid that you will have
to move back to your assigned seat. You have to pay an additional fee to fly in
the exit row.” He told me, not sounding in the least bit apologetic.
“Really?” I asked him, “I’m Gold
preferred with you guys and exit row seating is one of your free perks for it.”
“You are welcome to leave the plane
and take that up with the gate agent if you like? Otherwise, you will need to
take your assigned seat.”
“No worries!” I replied, grabbing my
things and moving forward to my original seat. The man in the seat next to mine
looked as disappointed as I was when I started putting my things away and took
the seat next to him again.
“Yeah, they threw me out of the exit
row.” I told him with a grin. He was also gold preferred and so he and I both
talked and laughed about the situation for a moment.
I got just a touch of affirmation as
I was leaving the Avis Rental car lot at the Portland airport. On your way out
of the lot, you have to stop at a small guard shack and show them your driver’s
license where they look up your information, print out your contract, and
you’re on your way! I handed the attendant my license, and watched him make his
way around my car to inspect it. When he got back to the front, he printed out
my contract, but hesitated before handing it to me.
“So is this your husband’s license?”
He asked me. I grinned, basking in the small victory of knowing that at least
one person today had not caught on that I was male.
“No sir, that’s me.” I replied, still
“Oh! OK. I get it now!” He replied
with a small laugh. And then I was on
Never having been to this particular
customer before, I decided to drive by their factory on the way to my hotel so
that I would know how to find them in the morning. It was only about three miles from my hotel,
so that was easy enough and only took a moment. I did have a bad moment though
when our sales manager for this region called me as I was sitting in the
customer’s parking lot. Right after I
told him I was scouting it out, it occurred to me that if he suggested I go in
and talk to the customer, things were gonna get real awkward, real fast.
Fortunately he made no such suggestion and so I headed for my hotel.
As always, the clerk at the Holiday
Inn was very friendly and talkative. The fact that they are consistently
friendly is a major factor in my choice to stay at Holiday Inns, and so that
was no surprise to me. I was a bit surprised
a moment later during our conversation though, when she told me two or three
times that I could feel free to park in the rear and use the back door if I
wanted to. As I was walking to the elevator, I thought that this was a little
bit odd, because the entire front parking lot was empty and there was no reason
in the world I’d want to use the back door or parking lot, but she had
mentioned this three or four times. Then it struck me! She was trying to let me
know that if I wasn’t comfortable walking past people to go in and out of the
front door, I had the option of sneaking in and out of the back one! I didn’t
know if I should be offended or amused at the thought of being offered a way to
slink in and out of the back door, but in the end, I was grinning as I hit the
elevator button. I’m pretty sure that my days of sneaking in and out of hotels
are way behind me.
The install that I was there to
perform turned out to be a bit of ‘political’ land mine. The customer owned
four very old Ozone racks that were
built in Germany. The company that had built these systems was bought by a
company that my company had later
bought. In other words, they were built so long ago, that the original company
had changed hands twice in the intervening years. Anyway, when they had ordered
a new Ozone system, these old antiques were what they had fully expected to
get, and instead, they got my system.
This became a bit of a problem, because all of their cabling and feed gasses
were set up for the obsolete system, and so were not appropriate for mine.
There was lots of back and forth about who dropped the ball where, who had not
done their home work, and who was responsible for making it work now that we
were stuck with the situation. Ultimately it turned out that their counter
parts in Japan were responsible for the foul up as they had spec’d and ordered
the system, but had not informed their local people that it was not the same
kind of system that they had owned before. Since we were dealing with a
language problem (several of their engineers in charge were from Japan and
spoke little English) I found myself explaining what we needed them to provide
to our system over and over and over. Just when I thought that I was done, they
would tell me that there was yet another Japanese engineer that needed to hear
this from the horses mouth, and “can you please come back tomorrow and explain
this again to smith-san”? Courtesy of the US Army, I have lived several years
in other countries where I did not speak the language, and so I have nothing
but compassion, admiration, and respect for these men who were in that same
situation. There is no question though, that it really made the task a lot harder than it had to be. I had hoped to
be on the road to see my son Friday afternoon, but instead, I had to stay in
Portland so that I could go in to the customer again Saturday afternoon to
explain the situation to the third
Japanese engineer that had apparently not been present during the many other times that I had explained it
all. I was not a happy camper . . .
Saturday morning I entered the lobby
on my way back to my customer’s factory for a meeting, and much to my surprise,
there in the lobby sat all of the engineers involved in the installation.
Apparently their engineers from Japan that were here to help install their system,
were staying at my very own hotel! We laughed, and I recalled to give a modest
bow to their lead engineer, and then we went ahead and had the discussion right
there in the lobby. In fifteen minutes I was in my rental car and on my way to
visit with my son and his family!
The drive there was absolutely
beautiful, and I was reminded of the positive effects of a climate that had so
much rain – lots of huge and gorgeous trees! I did indeed get to see my son,
daughter-in-law, and my granddaughter and spent the night in their home. Apparently their cats are poor judges of
character, because I spent the night with at least one purring fur ball
sleeping on my legs or chest at all times. It kind of made me smile as I’ve
missed cats. We can’t have them because my daughter is so allergic to them that
the last time we had brought cats into the house, my daughter ended up in the
children’s ICU for two weeks.
We spoke of this and that, and then
went to see the new “Riddick” movie. As far as I was concerned, I didn’t care
what we did, as long as I got to be with them for a while. The next morning we
walked through a cute little town where we stopped for breakfast. We had a good
laugh as everyone in the small café noticed a young man trying to parallel park
a HUGE F350 pickup with a lift kit and knobby tires directly outside the plate
glass front. By his fourth or fifth attempt, he had everyone’s undivided
attention, and was the sole topic of discussion. After a good seven or eight
attempts, and I’m not exaggerating, he at last got it right and he and his
girlfriend made their way into the café. As soon as he opened the door, the
entire café erupted with applause for his tenacity and ultimate success with
parking his land yacht. He didn’t seem fazed in the least when someone shouted
“I think you need a bigger truck!”, but his girlfriend looked like she wanted
to crawl under the table and die.
|My Daughter-in-law, Son, and their critter|
Soon enough, I had to tell everyone
goodbye and head back for Portland where my flight was scheduled to depart from
the following morning. On my way south, found myself grinning when I saw the
signs for Ft Lewis. It had been a long time since I’d been in the Tacoma
Washington area, and I found myself just a bit lost in my memories as I approached
the main entrance. Apparently sometime in the last twenty five years they had combined
Ft Lewis with McChord AFB and now call it a joint base. Call it what you will,
I had a lot of history there.
(Cue the flashback scene)
|A much younger man . . .|
In 1986, I had completed my first
three year obligation to the Army at Ft Sill Oklahoma and I had decided to get
out. It was a stupid thing to do, but I had listened to all of the older guys who
had bitched and complained and convinced me that the Army sucked, and that life
as a civilian would be SO much better. I was so excited to be going home, that
I drove all of the way from Ft Sill Oklahoma to Southern California non-stop.
Once there, I spent a good week or so just getting reacquainted with my family,
and just being delighted at being back around them all again.
It didn’t take too long though,
before I found myself in a bit of trouble, because getting a good job wasn’t
turning out to be anywhere near as easy as I had hoped. I sought several jobs
as an electronics tech, but I never managed to even get a personal
interview. The few phone interviews that I managed to get all went pretty much
the same, including one with Martin-Marietta, the company that had made the
very missile that I’d worked on.
“What kind of job were you hoping
“Well, I was trained in electronics
by the US Army and was hoping for a job along those lines.”
“And what did you work on while you
were in the Army?”
“I worked on the Pershing and all of
its support equipment.” I replied, thinking that this was going to help me
since they had made the darn thing.
“The Pershing?” the interviewer
asked, clearly never having heard of his own company's weapon.
“Yes, it is a mid-ranged, mobile,
“I’m sorry son, we don’t have any
nuclear missiles here . . . “
It didn’t matter that I was trained
in electronics, as soon as they heard that I had spent three years working on a
missile, the interview was over.
In a month, I was getting desperate
to start earning a living, and ended up going to work with a company that
installed fencing. All of the guys that I was working with were snorting speed
and other things up their noses every morning and then working like dogs all
day in the desert heat. Over and over they offered me some, and over and over I
declined, not about to start such a bad habit, but trying to keep up with these
guys was killing me. I’m not proud to admit it, but after three months of
trying to keep up with all of these speed addicts, I eventually let my
curiosity and desperation get the better of me, and one morning I said “Yeah,
I’ll try it.” Oops. . .
It wasn’t long before I was on the
same vicious treadmill that they were on.
-Start the day sniffing shit up your
nose so that you could work harder and faster.
-Bust your ass off in the desert heat
all day, carrying pipe, digging holes, and carrying buckets of concrete when
you couldn’t get a wheelbarrow where you needed it.
-Go home exhausted. They would all
get stoned and I would get drunk.
-Get a paycheck to pay the bills and
to buy that shit that you sniff every morning so that you can keep up with the
-Start Cycle over
One morning I woke up, I mean really woke up. I was on a bare mattress
placed on the floor of the empty back room of a house that I was renting with
about half a dozen others who also could not afford to go it alone. I sat there for a minute, looking at the
mattress, and then looking at the bare room who’s only furnishings and
decorations were my clothes piled up against the wall.
“Wow!’, I thought to myself, “Only
six months ago I was a respected soldier. I was an electronics technician
working on the US Army’s premier nuclear weapon system. I had a Top Secret
clearance and the United States of America trusted ME to maintain its nuclear
missiles. Now look at me. If I’m not a drug “addict” yet, I’m awful God dammed
That very afternoon I made my way to
the local US Army recruiter and re-enlisted.
They told me that they had a position
in my career field up at Ft Lewis Wa for me, and I told them over and over that
they were making a mistake. My career field only went to maybe three or four
different places – Germany, Ft Sill OK, Redstone Arsenal, and maybe White Sands
NM. I explained this to them several times, but they insisted that there was a
job for me there, so I had them write it into my contract that I would be given
a year there.
When I arrived, I was proven to be
correct, and it had been a mistake,
but they couldn’t ship me off because I had been guaranteed a year there in my
contract. Most people are assigned to their new unit in a day, but I sat at the
Ft Lewis Reception station for two weeks before the most exhausted looking
staff sergeant that I had ever seen approached me.
“Specialist Huddle, can you type?” he
asked me. I thought about the ramifications of the question for a split second
before I lied through my teeth.
“Yes Sergeant, I can!” I told him
with a grin. I spent the next year doing clerical work, which was a LOT easier
than my usual job.
Anyway, there was a LOT more to this
story, but suffice it to say that after a brief plateau after coming back into
the Army, I again resumed my plummet toward self-destruction. I wasn’t about to
mess with drugs while on active duty, but alcohol was entirely legal and a very
large part of the Army way of life and culture. Pretty much if I wasn’t at
work, I was falling down drunk. I’ve had years now to look back and analyze
things, and I think that the most significant contributing factors to my self-destructive
behavior were my gender issues and the growing conviction that I would be
lonely for the rest of my life because of it. I hated who I was, I hated what I was, and I was absolutely certain
that I would never find someone that would fall in love with and marry me.
I became fairly obsessed with the
idea of ending it all, and I contemplated suicide pretty much every day until I
at last decided that I was going to do it – now the only question was when and
how. I told no one as I wasn’t out to make a statement, I wasn’t looking for
attention, and I wasn’t looking for “help”. I just thought life sucked, would
always suck, and I’d rather not, so thank you very much, I’m checking out now!
This was my frame of mind one
Saturday night when I was sitting drunk in my barracks room and playing the
guitar. I had just finished recording a guitar track on my little multi-track
recording deck, and when I took my headphones off, I heard someone pounding on
my door. When I opened it, I found Jerry, one of the few people that I
considered to be a friend standing there.
“What’s up?” I asked him.
“You have got to come downstairs and
see the girl on CQ duty. She is really
cute!” He didn’t wait for an answer; he just grabbed my shoulder and pulled me
out of the room behind him, still carrying the guitar that I had been playing
before opening the door. When we got downstairs, it quickly became evident that
Jerry was setting me up, because one of the cutest girls I had ever seen looked
up as we approached and called him by name.
“Hey Jerry!” She said to him, making it clear that she
knew him. I just kind of gave him a “I’m gonna so kick your ass later” look.
“Hey Dawn! This is Matt. Matt, this
is Dawn . . .” and then he just vanished. Honestly, I have no idea when he left
us, but it sure seemed like he vanished. All I knew is that I was fairly drunk
and had just been introduced to a very pretty girl, so my head was in a bit of
a whirl. I had always been incredibly shy, and could count the times in my life
that I had spoken to a pretty girl on the fingers of one hand, but this time I
was too damned drunk to care about that. We made small talk, and eventually I
got around to asking her what she was writing, since she had been busily scribbling
in a notepad when Jerry and I had interrupted her.
“Poetry.” She told me, looking just a
bit bashful herself.
“No way! You write poetry?” I replied
like an idiot. She lifted an entire binder full of writing in reply.
“I like to write songs myself.” I
told her, lifting the guitar that I was still carrying.
“Can I hear some of your poetry?” I
“Can I hear one of your songs?” She
She read me her poetry, and I sat on
the stairs and played my guitar for her, and that was the start of our
family! About six months later, she and I
were married and on our way to Germany where we had our first child. I’ve never
felt lost and alone again!
I hadn’t planned to stop, but as I
passed the freeway exit that led to the main gate of Ft Lewis, I just had to do it. I was
in the wrong lane, but managed to dive across traffic and make it just before
it was too late. No one honked, and I didn’t hear any locked up tires or
breaking glass, so I guess it’s all good! A year or so ago, I had stopped at Ft
Sill and they had allowed me in, so I was kind of hoping that I might receive
the same courtesy here as I pulled up to the guard at the gate and handed him
my driver’s license.
know, I’m not going to bullshit you, I used to be stationed here and
thought I’d stop since I was driving by. No worries if you can’t let me in
though, I’ll just turn my happy ass around!” I told him. That got an honest
laugh from him, but still he shook his head ‘no’.
“I can’t let you in this gate, but if you will turn around,
go under the bridge, and then stop at the visitor center behind you, they’ll
give you a pass.”
“No shit? They’ll let me in?!”
“Sure! Have a nice day!”
With my heart in my throat, I turned
the car around and headed for the visitor center, trying to pull up 25 year old
memories to recall how to find the barracks where my wife and I had met. I
figured that I wouldn’t have a chance in hell of finding them, and resolved to
call my wife as soon as I got the pass and got through the gate. She has a
great memory for that kind of detail, and even two and half decades later, I
was willing to bet that she could tell me exactly how to get there.
When I entered the visitor’s center,
I found a couple of bored looking soldiers behind the counter and headed toward
them, but one of them waved me off.
“Would you please grab a number off
of the machine behind you?” he asked. I stopped, and returned to the machine that
he had pointed out, tugged a tag out of it, and made my way back to him. Once
again, I found him shaking his head at me.
“You have to press one of the buttons
on the machine.”
That was when I looked down at the
tag that I had taken from the machine and discovered that it was blank.
“Oh, so you mean this whole process
would go a lot better if I just pulled my head outta my ass huh?” I asked him
with a laugh to make sure that he knew I was kidding. Both of the soldiers
behind the counter laughed, and assured me that I wasn’t the first to make that
I returned to the darn machine again,
and pressed the button that said I wanted a visitor pass to “Visit Ft Lewis”,
and this time I was gratified to see a number printed on the tag, and
immediately heard a recorded voice calling my number up to the window.
“What is the purpose of your visit?”
The still grinning specialist asked me as I handed him the tag I had just
“Way back about the time that you
were born, my wife and I were stationed here. I just happened to be in the area
and thought that it would be neat to take a look around again.”
He looked at me for a few moments,
clearly not wanting to say what he had to say.
“I really am sorry, but I can’t use
that as justification to let you on post. If you had come yesterday, you could have used visiting the museum as an excuse?”
He said this in such a way as to make it obvious that he was giving me a
suggestion for the future. The problem was, he had no way to know that I lived
a thousand miles away and may never be in a position to be there again. Considering that this had been a whim, and
nothing but a spur of the moment
decision to try and take a walk down memory lane, I was actually surprised at
how much it hurt to know that I wasn’t going to get on post after all. I guess
my crushed feelings must have shown, because the young man spoke again.
“I really am sorry. . . “ he said
with a kind tone.
“No worries. . . “ I told him as I
turned to leave. Well, no need to call my wife for directions now . . .
As I approached my hotel in Portland,
I noticed Mt Hood off in the distance, and it struck me – I had seen three
volcanoes in one day. Mt Rainier, St Helens, and now Mt Hood. Funny, while I
had taken the time to photograph the other two, I wasn’t in the mood to take
photos of Mt Hood. . .
The only thing interesting that
happened on my flight home was when I entered the "Premium Passenger"
line to go through the TSA check point at the Portland Airport. When you either
fly First Class, or fly so much with an airline that they give you
"premium" status, you get to use your very own line to get through
security in most airports, and in this case I was doing both since I'm Gold
with US Airways AND was upgraded to first class. Usually they have someone screening
the folks entering the premium lane, and this was time was no exception – they had
a woman about my own age checking everyone’s tickets. I handed her mine and was
surprised when she handed it back and told me to get in the normal security
line. You know, the line that was at least ten times longer than the premium
“Hey, hold on now! I’m preferred
with the airline AND I’m flying first class. Why can’t I enter the premium
line?” I asked her. She took my ticket back and made a show out of checking it
“You’re ticket doesn’t show that you
are premium.” She replied. I didn’t say anything, and just pointed to the place
on my ticket that clearly said “Gold Preferred”.
“Well you’re not first class!” she replied in a huff, but still allowed me to
enter the correct line now. I didn’t bother showing her where it said “First
Class” directly under “Gold Preferred” because I wasn’t sure I could trust myself
to stay civil if she didn’t stop being a snot.
|Mt St. Helens|