Recently, many of my friends and colleagues have taken the grand leap and entered upon their retirement years. My finish line is still just a bit down the road, (but it is closing rapidly,) I recently had some time to contemplate my over 46 years of work experience. It all began by delivering papers and I have held more jobs than I could have possibly imagined when I tossed my first paper on a wind-swept porch, so many years ago. Some of my employment choices were great, many very poor, and a few, well, they just never should have even been attempted. However, as I pondered all of those jobs, a smile slowly appeared on my face as I recalled the many business trips I was required to make over the years.
First, you need to understand that business travel is not exotic. Many people, mostly those who never had to travel, believe that traveling on the company dime is a fun-filled way to work; with one fantastic experience after another. As anyone who has racked up way too many hotel and airline points will tell you, business travel is anything but a joy.
There have been a few times, however, when my business trips have brought some measure of satisfaction to the hustle and sometimes terror of journeying someplace that your boss tells you you need to go. Please allow me to share some of my most memorable moments from over four decades wandering this remarkable country of ours.
I have visited most of our 50 states, from Maine to Washington and Minnesota to Florida. I have seen the hottest days I could ever imagine in South Texas and the coldest morning of my life in northern Minnesota. I have flown west on the 4th of July and witnessed a seemingly endless display of fireworks as the airplane raced the sunset west. I have also watched in wonder as a lunar eclipse unfolded, from the window seat of a 757 flying over the Rockies at 35,000 feet. It was a far better view than the movie being offered in coach.
I have visited large cities and sampled the best foods that New York, San Francisco, Dallas and Chicago have to offer. I have joined the “Around the world in beer” club in a small town in Wisconsin, during a two week stay conducting classroom training for a major retailer. (I attempted to sample all of the beers, alphabetically, and never got past the “C’s”) Management informed me that 4 thirsty souls had sampled them all, although I wondered if any of those lucky 4 patrons still remained sober enough to tell the tale. What I did learn was that to find the very best places to eat in any city, all you had to do was ask the hotel bartender and then tip him or her very well. I have never been disappointed by the recommendations I received from these marvelous individuals.
I have been to St. Patrick’s day in Boston where they brought out the mounted police to drive the crowd home at closing time. I have experienced Savannah with a “local” and traversed many of the same adventures that the hero had taken in “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” I even had the opportunity to converse with the local Sheriff who told my friend and I that we simply had better go home now, since his town could not provide us any more fun that evening. (I quickly took his advice.)
Many of my training sessions involved team teaching with another instructor and sometimes, the local group would take both of us out to dinner to celebrate their “graduation.” On one of these trips in Dallas, they took us to a comedy club where offending patrons were asked to step down into “The hole,” a trap door leading underneath the stage where their guest would stay for around 10 minutes while the comedians made fun of the remaining guests. Needless to say, we did not go back. We did retrieve all of our friends, however.
I have also been taught how to line dance in Dallas, Nashville and Tampa. In every city my training simply did not “stick” once the real music started. Those who did learn are truly talented and there really is nothing like the sight of a large number of people moving in unison to a memorable country western tune. It is a talent I just do not have. What I did learn, however, one evening in Tampa, along with the entire group of people we were there to train that week, was how to 2-step. That dance step, I could learn and immediately put into practice. In fact, my partner and I actually won the dance-off that followed the training later that evening. It was a contest where the audience helps determine the winner and the band leader goes onto the dance floor and taps the losing couples on the shoulder and tells them to leave the floor. When only 2 pairs remain, the audience takes over the voting and since our entire class remained to cheer us on, we naturally won; although I seriously question if we were truly the best. I still insist that the 2 step is actually 3 steps, but maybe that is just the “Yankee” in me.
I also remember the days when there was a smoking section in the last few rows of every plane. During one flight from Philadelphia to Dallas, I was seated in the back with 3 businessmen who almost drank the plane completely dry of alcohol. (Times were certainly different back then.) They told terrific stories and laughed all the way to the gate in Dallas. These fine businessmen gave me the names and locations of Dallas restaurants I frequent to this day, but their advice on all other matters was suspect, at best. The sure could drink, smoke and eat.
I have also survived one very frightening flight. As our flight was nearing our destination of the Detroit airport, the captain made an announcement that he was not certain that the front landing gear had locked into into place. He thought the gear had come down and was going to circle the tower to see if they could determine if the wheels were down. The tower said they were, but the captain came back on the intercom and said the indicator still told him the wheels were not locked, but he really could not be certain. So the plane circled for what seemed to be hours, dropping fuel, while the flight attendants drilled us on how to assume “The crash position.” (I think they really need to come up with a better name for that position.)
When the fuel had all been dropped, we too, began losing altitude. The captain informed us that we should not be afraid, the wheels were most likely down and locked. He also said that they had “foamed down” a runway for us and to not panic when we saw the foam and the fire trucks chasing down our plane from behind. His final words to us were,”Let’s give this a try,” and the runway and the fire trucks quickly came into view. We all assumed the crash position” said a prayer that the wheels were indeed locked and the aircraft entered into its “final approach” (Another term that really needs to change.) The plane touched down and, as it turned out, the wheels were most certainly locked. As we rolled to a stop on a very distant runway and the fire trucks loudly chased us down, a cheer went up from every passenger. We had made it! (And yes, I did fly again, although many folks on that plane vowed never to do so again.)
Most of my trips were far less adventurous than that plane ride and I met some outstanding people over the years. I have discovered that almost every person really wants to do the right thing and nearly every stranger I met tried to make me feel comfortable during my travels. I have had lunch with a candidate for the House of Representatives from Minnesota and flown to Phoenix seated next to the owner of a major sports team. I have dined with football players, Olympic cyclists, hockey players and minor league baseball players. I have met a Prince, who is much more of a gentleman than his public image portrays and may have also sat next to a Princess on a flight from New York to Los Angeles.
You see, I often made up roles for myself on flights, if I felt the person seated next to me was either trying to sell me something or if I simply could not get them to stop talking. While I assumed these fake identities, I also practiced my listening skills, which I frequently taught during my classes. On that cross-country flight, I found myself seated beside a very talkative woman, who, at one point, claimed to be a Saudi Princess. I thought that was so outrageous a claim that I quickly assumed the identity of a Protestant minister, hoping that would discourage further conversation. (It did not.) In fact, she continued on and on, since a “man of the cloth,” was just what she needed at that point. (I fear I will have to answer for taking on that role at some point in the future.) This woman spun a dreadful tale about her treatment as a female in Saudi Arabia and she complained to her father so loudly that he was sending her to America to “teach her a lesson.” I really needed all of my listening skills to just get through that flight.
When we landed, while I was waiting for my luggage to find me at baggage claim, a group of 4 very large men approached her and told “princess” that they would handle her luggage, as her limo was parked right outside the door. And there, parked next to the curb, was the largest stretch limo I had ever seen. It was white in color and appeared to be several blocks in length. The princess offered me a ride to my hotel, which I politely refused. She may have been a Princess after all, but then again, maybe not. Either way, my own transportation was the very best option.
However, it was in South Texas, where I was on a long-term assignment, that I met some of the finest people I ever encountered during the course of my business travels. It was a long assignment and I was away from home far too much. I rented an apartment about 50 yards from the Gulf of Mexico, where I walked almost every morning. I joined a church and was warmly welcomed by the local priest, who immediately had me volunteering. In that church, I met a retired high school football coach who had the strongest handshake of anyone I have ever met. He and his wife made me feel right at home and he once told me that I was the finest ‘Yankee” he had ever met. (I think that was a compliment.)
I also frequented a local pub that had a collection of characters who would make the cast of “Cheers” proud. There was “Mr.Dick” the 75 year old retired golf pro. The owner, who everyone claimed was a former CIA operative, could spin yarns with the best of them. The local college administrator, who could never seem to find his wallet, became a friend because I often bought him a beer. There was also a small group of regulars who always wanted to talk and play fantasy football. I enjoyed the live music that was offered up almost every night and the conversations that simply made me feel welcome. They were quite a unique mix of people from all over the country.
However, it was at a different bar, that I met a remarkable musician who almost immediately became my best friend. He was a guitar and harmonica-playing musician from Baltimore who had arrived in South Texas to take care of his sickly aunt Dorothy. I would listen to him play in a few different venues over the course of a few months. He had an unbelievable talent and a collection of the finest friends you could imagine. These folks quickly became my friends, too, and I was no longer alone on the island. He soon met a wonderful woman, wrote his only love song for her and they enjoyed an eventful year together as man and wife. And then, cancer found him, he suffered for about 6 months and died. I had left South Texas about a month before his passing, but I can still hear him playing, especially when I travel.
When people ask me what has been most memorable of my travels, I relate to them the story of my musician friend and also two other moments that I will never forget. One involves a fish and the other is all about American history. Let’s start with history.
A friend of mine and I were team-teaching a seminar in Williamsburg, Virginia. Along with our client, we went to one of the many fine taverns with the waitstaff dressed in full colonial garb. At one of the taverns, actors, portraying historical figures from the time of the revolution frequently show up and sit along with you at a common table. This particular night, Patrick Henry entered and sat down at our table of 8 and began to regale us about the evils of the British and the necessity for revolution. Well, my friend and I, both history majors in college, many years ago, decide to take the side of the British. For over an hour Patrick Henry, my friend and myself debated the merits of the revolution versus the need to stay British. The other members of our table, a family from North Carolina seemed stunned, most likely believing it was part of the show. We talked louder and louder and people pulled their chairs up near us to listen. When it was all over, no one had really “won” the argument, but we did receive a loud round of applause from the crowd. Patrick Henry even tipped his cap to us as he left, stating that he still had a lot of work to do.
Finally, my most memorable trip involves a fish; a rainbow trout, to be exact. I was on a business trip with many others from the company, to visit the ranch of one of our suppliers. The suppliers ranch, hundreds of acres in size, was high up in the Rockies, containing some of the most beautiful land I have ever seen. Our group was asked to decide on two activities to pursue for two days. We could choose golf or fly fishing. All but two of us chose to golf. My friend and I elected to fly fish. I had never fished before, let alone fly-fished, but I was assured that our guide, a retired ranger, could easily teach me how. I think she regretted ever making that statement.
The three of us boarded an all-terrain vehicle and climbed ever higher into the Rockies. We drove for about a half hour until we came upon a babbling stream, containing the most pristine environment I had ever encountered. I could hear countless birds singing, insects flying past my ear and the most vivid colors ever imaginable. What I heard was silence, save for the sounds of nature. I felt as if I could spend the rest of my life right here in this spot. My friend, an expert fisherman, loped to the far side of the stream and immediately began casting for the prized trout. The ranger began trying to teach me how to fly fish. She stated that since I had never fished before, she would not have to ‘unteach” me how to cast. After about a half hour of practice casting, I was deemed able to perform as instructed and so began my fly fishing adventure.
I was unsuccessful for most of the day. The three of us came back together for a late lunch and, of course, talked about fishing. I discovered that fisherman really do love to spin tales. The fishing in this area was all catch and release, so whatever we caught would go immediately back into the stream. My friend claimed to have caught a dozen fish, the ranger, twenty. My catch total stood soundly at zero. The ranger told me she would switch out the flies that she had given me and to see what would happen later in the day, when she claimed the fish were more hungry. (I suspect she was trying to make me feel better, since neither my friend or her had any problems landing fish.)
After about two hours of non-success for me, she returned, offered some more advice and sat down behind me. After one more tepid cast, it finally happened. I had hooked a trout! A rainbow trout. She continued to give me advice and slowly, after what seemed to be forever, I brought the trout to shore. I picked him up, removed the hook and gazed at him. I could see why they were called rainbow trout. His colors contained most of the colors of the rainbow and he glistened in the sunshine. The ranger smiled, my friend gave me a ‘thumbs up” from across the stream, and I gently released my trout back into the water. I never caught another fish, not then, not now.
What I did manage to catch that day was a memory so strong that I can still hear the sounds, smell the flowers, see the sights again in my mind’s eye and hear the water lapping constantly at the shore. I can still recall the magnificent beauty of the colors in that trout. I can still see that cumulus clouds that so often covered the sun about every half hour and the majestic mountains,seemingly surrounding us at every turn. The absolute quiet was a welcome relief from the busy and noisy days of my job and I had just accomplished something I never thought possible. I had fly-fished in the Rockies and really caught a fish. My father would never have believed it. I find it difficult to believe myself. I am so glad I did not choose golf.
As my travel days are now coming to a close, I can always recall what I have lived, learned and endured on my trips. People frequently ask me what I have learned from my travels and I will relate two things every time. The first lesson I have learned is that travel is a whole lot more pleasant when somebody else is paying for it. The second lesson I have learned, and this is the most important thing, is that people, no matter where they call home are really very good; or at least they want to be. Sure, there are a few rascals and scoundrels out there, always have been always will be. But, what I have found, is that almost everybody really wants to help a stranger and they will help you every time, if you just treat them as you would want to be treated if they were visiting you in your hometown. Listen, learn, ask for advice, compliment often, smile, really hear what they have to say and quite literally, the world will soon be yours. “Seek and you will find. Knock and it will be opened to you.” Travel well, my friend and remember…… always take the time to truly listen.