Saturday, May 17, 2014

That's where the REALLY wierd people are from . . .

My job has been “interesting” the last couple of weeks, and by “interesting”, I mean it in the fashion of the Chinese curse "May you live in interesting times." Almost 19 years ago, I left the US Army and was almost immediately hired by the company that I now work for. I don't know that I personally impressed them during the interview process, but the engineer that interviewed me had worked with others before me that had been to the same training and held the same job that I had in the army and they had impressed him. Since I had graduated as distinguished honor graduate from that somewhat prestigious school, he figured that I must be hell on wheels. He was wrong, but I wasn't about to correct his opinion since he was erring in my favor. I recall that as part of the interview he drew an assortment of schematics and drawings up on the board, explaining how a capacitance manometer worked, and I just kept trying to look as if I had a clue. I had no idea what the hell he was talking about, but I kept nodding and making non-committal "uh huh" sounds whenever it seemed appropriate to do so, and what do ya know - they hired me! Funny thing - I'd come looking for a job as a calibration tech, but instead they hired me to build and manage an entire service center. When I started working there, my "repair center" consisted of an empty room, with an antiquated 286 computer and a DOT matrix printer sitting on the floor. For the first few months that I worked there, I told my spouse not to bother unpacking all of our boxes, because I had no idea what the hell I was doing and it was just a question of time until my company figured that out.
Well, despite my pessimism, I quickly learned the ropes, and within months I was turning out three times as many repairs as the only other single person service center in the company. I worked very long hours trying to get up to speed and turn around repairs in a short time, and often found myself getting to the office at two and three AM in the morning, and then reading manuals at home until late at night. I had worked damned hard to succeed and I was extremely proud of what I had done and what I had built, and so it came as a shock when several years into it, I was told that I was not making enough money, and that I was not turning around repairs fast enough. I was making twice as much money as the only other single person repair center my company had, and yet I was told that it was not good enough, and so they were going to send down the manager from our much larger service center up in the Dallas area to take charge. I had met Joe, the manager of our Dallas repair center, and thought he was a pretty decent guy, but I knew for certain that he and his employees had been cutting corners for years in order to turn around repairs faster than our other service centers could. As an example, most of our instruments require at least four hours to warm up and reach operating temperature before you can calibrate them, and they were not doing this. As a result, the incoming calibration data that they were sending their customers was complete crap. They were cutting other corners as well, but I won't detail all of that dirty laundry here. Let's just suffice it to say that my honor, and my ethics, would not tolerate doing the job this way. The customer was paying for accurate calibration data, and that was what I was going to give them, or I'd rather not have the job. So it was in this atmosphere when I was informed that Joe would be arriving one Monday morning to take charge of the facility that I had built and had managed for years. “Angry”  does not even come close to describing how mad and hurt I was, and so I replied to our director via email with one sentence:
"If Joe walks through my door Monday, you may consider that my two week notice."
Funny thing, he didn't show up and I'm still here fifteen years later. . .
I came to know Joe pretty well over the years after that and admired him in many ways, but I still wasn't about to run my shop the way that he ran his.
Several years after this, my service center had grown, and I had three people working for me, but I grew bored with it. Day after day, it was the same thing - calibrate the widget, send it back to the customer. A year later it was back for another round.  Over, and over, and over, to the point where it got to be like washing the dishes after a while - there was no challenge, there was no excitement. Then one day, I noticed that there was a stranger in our conference room who appeared to be interviewing people. When I asked who he was and what he was doing in our office, I discovered that he was interviewing for a field service position working on the Residual Gas Analyzers made by a company that we had just bought a few months back. On a spur of the moment impulse, I asked if I might throw my hat into the ring, and so with no preparation, and no knowledge of that product line, I sat down for an unscheduled interview. The very next morning I was told that the job was mine if I wanted it, and thus started my career as a road warrior.

Now, many years later, things have sort of flip flopped. I've been in field service for a long time and am generally considered one of our better engineers because I can work on the vast majority of products that our company now sells. Joe, the manager of our Dallas repair center? He has become the victim of the economy and of his own corner cutting. After a decade and a half, it started getting around that he was cutting corners, and some customers were complaining about the data that they were getting. It didn't help him that he was putting out twice the volume and making twice the profit of our corporate service center, thus making them look bad by comparison. When it came time to close down a repair center in order to save a dollar, it was his that was closed. Now, a man that had been managing our most efficient and profitable service center for more than twenty years was suddenly looking for a job in field service. . .
So it was that I spent the week before last training the gentleman that almost cost me my job so many years ago. I have to admit that training someone who was a successful manager until just a couple of months ago to do my job was one of the most uncomfortable things I've ever had to do.  It did give me the chance to get to know him better than I had though and I learned a good deal about him during our lunches together.
He was born in Vietnam where his father had worked for the US Government. When the US abandoned Vietnam, Joe and his father were both placed in work camps by the communist when they took over the country. It seems that they weren't real fond of Vietnamese who had helped the Americans. When he was almost dead, and could do no more than lay on a cot gasping for breath, his sister managed to more or less purchase his freedom for $2,000. They figured ‘what the hell, he’s dying anyway’, and so they loaded him up on a gurney, carried him out of the gate, and then dumped him in the dirt in front of his sister. Much to the communists’ great annoyance, Joe failed to die as they had expected, and his sister actually managed to nurse him back to health. Apparently this pissed them off, because they came looking for him, but he managed to escape by walking through two entire countries. The bad news is that he jumped out of one fire and directly into another, because the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia captured Joe and about fifty others who were running with him. The Cambodians were about to shoot these fifty people when the Red Cross showed up and begged for their lives. Joe said he remembers huddling in a ditch, bullets flying over their heads, and yet a tall blond woman with the Red Cross arm band was standing in the midst of the bullets, counting Vietnamese and shouting at the Cambodians not to kill them. He had to take his glasses off and wipe the tears out of his eyes as he described the woman and her bravery to me. Ultimately she bought their fifty lives with several large bags of rice. That’s twice that His life has been bought and paid for. . .
 Now I had to take off MY glasses and wipe MY eyes. After many more months under the care of the Red Cross, the US arranged a flight for him to America, where he arrived in New York in November, having nothing to his name but the shorts and sandals that he wore in a place so much colder than anything he had ever experienced before. From such humble and horrible beginnings, this man had become a respected engineer for a high technology company. Yeah, I'll help train him, and do all that I can to help him succeed, even if it means that he will be competing with me for work when there isn't enough to go around. If he doesn't succeed in field service, it sure as HELL won't be because Sgt Huddle let him down. . .

This past week I set off on two service calls - one to Saginaw Michigan, and then straight from there to South Carolina. On my way to Saginaw, the lady sitting next to me in the plane was a bit of a talker. When she found out where I was going, she told me that the son of her best friend was a police officer in Saginaw. I just laughed and asked her to please forgive me if I fervently hoped that I wouldn't be meeting him while I was there.
When I fly pretty, I make it a point to do a bit of an inventory of clothing bag when I arrive at the hotel. If I've forgotten something important, like, oh, say pants for example, I want to know that I need to make a trip to the store BEFORE I wash my makeup off! To the best of my memory, I've never actually forgotten anything significant when it comes to clothes. My bag has been lost and delayed, but I've never forgotten to pack what I needed . . . Until this trip! Fortunately it wasn't a show stopper though - I had just forgotten to pack any socks. I got my shower, and then I took my bare ankled ass to the store where I bought a package of 'em.

I'd have to admit to a little trepidation when it came time to fly back out of Saginaw, because this is a itty bitty airport, and I wasn't at all sure that they might have ever interacted with a cross dresser before. Would they know how they were supposed to treat me? Were they likely to make any kind of fuss? All of these worries were for nothing though, because they treated me just like the bigger airports do - with respect and professionalism. Of course this is what I expected, but there is always that little doubt in the back of my head. Everyone that had to inspect my ID took a nice long look at it, but ultimately passed me through.
I had to almost snicker when I heard two older women sitting next to me talking trash about a woman that had entered the gate area wearing four inch wedge heels.
"How can she walk in those things?" One said to the other while shaking her head.
"I don't know. I never could walk in heels like those! And through the airports at that!" The other replied.
If they had only seen some of the shoes that I had worn on 18 hour days through airports. . .

When I landed at the Raleigh-Durham airport I received a surprise – our travel agency had blown it  
and failed to make either a car or a hotel reservation for me. I discovered this while waiting for the Avis shuttle bus, because I was looking through my emails for my reservation numbers and couldn’t find them. Fortunately I used to make all of my own travel arrangements and so still had all of the web sites and phone numbers that I needed for making my own reservations.
It was all that I could do to keep from laughing myself sick when the Avis bus driver insisted on grabbing my bags for me, because the poor man couldn’t actually lift them. He had to drag my tool box up the steps, and after seeing this, I didn’t have the heart to leave my even heavier suitcase to him, so I lifted it up into the bus myself. I had to hand it to him though, because he didn’t give up. When we got to the Avis lot, he came back and insisted on getting the bags off of the bus on his own, and so I watched the poor guy drag both of my bags down the steps and then gave the poor man a tip.

The woman behind the Avis counter struck up a conversation with me as she was getting a car together for me.
“So you’re from Texas huh?” she asked me as she was typing away on her terminal.
“Yep! It seemed like a good place to settle down when I got out of the army.”
“Are you from Tyler Texas?” She asked me, briefly looking away from her computer to look at me. Tyler is one of those odd little places where it seems like they are subject to more than their fair share of shootings, murders, wing-nuts, etc, so I was pretty quick to deny that charge.
“Uh no, I’m not from there. That’s where they keep the really strange people, and that’s saying quite a bit under the circumstances!” I replied with a laugh, while pointing at myself. Since she had my driver’s license in front of her, she was well aware that I was a male dressed as a woman, so my claiming that other people were stranger apparently struck her funny bone and she laughed like hell.
“Yeah, I have a cousin that lives there and you are SO right! They are a bit off there, aren’t they?! They are all highly religious too.” She said, then she stopped typing to look up at me before she quietly added, “Of course they are all highly religious here too.”  
The way that she said it left me wondering if she was trying to give me warning or something. . .