Thursday, September 12, 2013

Three Volcanoes and a Memory

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 see family!

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 was leaving.
“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 approached me.
“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 grinning.
“Oh! OK. I get it now!” He replied with a small laugh. And then I was on my way.

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.
My Daughter-in-law, Son, and their critter
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.

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 for?”
“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, nuclear missile.”
“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 other guys.
-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 close!”
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 asked.
“Can I hear one of your songs?” She asked, laughing.
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!

(End Flashback)

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.
“You  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 mistake.
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 printed out.
“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 line?
“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 again.
“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 Rainier

Mt St. Helens


  1. Sounds like quite a trip, you certainly seem to have had the full range of good bad, friendly and nasty. I do like that red outfit, but it sounds as though it was lucky you weren't wearing it when bumping into your customers in the hotel lobby.

  2. Thank you for sharing your trip down memory lane with us. That was a wonderful story of depression and salvation.


  3. I am in Spokane and frequently go to the coast of WA for work. I pass by the joint base, get a great view of Mt St Helens, and your story brought back memories for me. Oh, and the outfits in your 2 photos are GREAT!

  4. Kim, the photo of Mint Rainier is the same one I took while flying my N3N from Olympia back to Ohio. 4 days across America... The Cascades were gorgeous in April as well as the Dakotas and Great Plains. No better way to see America than from the seat of an open cockpit! Thanks for sharing your story. I always enjoy ready g about your adventures. Huggs from the Glass City!

  5. Kim that is a really hot maroon outfit you are wearing! *wolf whistles*
    i can remember riding up st helens with a friend of my mom's the year after the eruption at st helens . she forgot she only had a 1/4 tank of gas as she started up and turned around to return to the gas station at the foot of the hill. LOL when we arrived at the top the previous years devastation was still evident and yet there were neat perfect rows of tiny evergreens growing at the top. yet the ranger said they had not planted them they just grew naturally.
    the next day she took us to mt hood where although it was almost 100 degrees in july in portland or. and we were in shorts and short sleeve shirts yet it started to snow as we went up mt hood and we stopped to have a snow ball fight on the way up. when we arrived at the lodge they had a fire going in the fireplace LOL and said that if summer arrives on a weekend they have a cook out LOL.

    portland or. is also where i learned to like salmon. she and her husband brought a grill up to the pitchart mansion park at dusk and we had fresh salmon steak at dusk looking down on the city of portland! they had forgotten to bring my hamburger left behind defrosting in the microwave LOL so it was salmon or nutin' for me and wow was it good! YUM YUM! portland is soooo beautfull with all the city fountains many in animal shapes. ahhh fond memories of my travels across country via amtrack. thanks for helping me to remember them.

  6. Wow! Both outfits are fantastic! As is the woman wearing them.

    As to your story of depression, it's a story that rings so true to many of us. GD is so painful to endure. Many of us, as you know, don't survive it.

    But your story has a happy ending, and we are all happy when you share your adventures with us!

  7. Thanks Kim, really enjoyed that one.


  8. That must have been one trip to remember. Love your outfit, wish I looked good enough to go out but will have to leave that to you and others. I too have seen that view of Ft. lewis and the mountains. Thanks for the memories.

  9. I have been to Portland, Tacoma and Seattle lots of times and love it there, I have a great picture of one of the mountains from the planes window from one of my visits there. I *LOVE* your shoes in the first picture and I really love your leather skirts too. I am so jealous of you being able to buy off the shelf sizes, I am a size 26+ and can never find flattering things and even harder with size 13/14 feet :-(

    Hugs n Stuff

    Courtz xxx

  10. I've been only been following your posts just a year or so and I enjoy what you have to say and admire your courage to travel "pretty." Don't think I would ever have the courage to fly in girl mode. One thing that is really interesting is that my wife and I are in the process of moving to the Bremerton/Silverdale area. Well she is already there while I wrap up things in Utah to include selling our house.

    1. My son and his family just left that area and have now moved to the OTHER coast. lol

  11. Wow. :-) That's quite a move