Blast From The Past

A blast from the past, a past that predates not just blogging, but the World Wide Web itself, a past in which I was a field engineer. or those of you who are non-technical, a field engineer is not a guy who moves dirt around. Once upon a time it meant a person who was an engineer who traveled around solving engineering problems, but later everyone who was a field service technician would carry that title. I was a little of both, or a lot of both. Officially, I ran the service department for my employer, a manufacturer of what’s known as solid state power systems — big machines that took in whatever the local electrical utility provided, which might be clean electrical power or might be polluted with spikes, surges, brown-outs, or even total failures, and put out nice, clean, reliable, highly regulated AC power. Sometimes we changed the frequency, too, so that with normal North American 60 Hertz power on the input side there might be 400 Hertz power (as is used on ships) on the output. Or something else, maybe 50 Hertz that allowed US manufacturers to test products for overseas markets. You get the idea.

One fine Tuesday afternoon I received a frantic telephone call from a vice president kinda guy from IBM in Poughkeepsie, New York. This was back when IBM still made things, and Poughkeepsie was where they made mainframe computers. IBM had scads of vice presidents — every fourth guy in a tie in the Hudson Valley was an IBM vice president. This guy was somehow involved in the research and development angle of IBM’s mainframe computers, and being a high powered executive kinda guy he’d originally called to speak to our company president, who was unavailable. The vice president of our company, the only vice president we had, told the guy that whatever his problem was it would be up to me to decide how and when it would be addressed. IBM’s vice president didn’t like that one bit. It was beneath him to talk to non-executives.

Anyway, to hear this guy in a tie tell it, one of our products had failed and threatened to destroy their entire celebrated R&D facility in a massive conflagration. I figured he was exaggerating, but I humored him. After hearing all about the threatened conflagration and how powerful a company IBM is and how many zillions of dollars were at risk, I asked him if I could talk to someone who’d witnessed the catastrophic event. He said that he had seen it with his own eyes, and it was a big fire. Seeing the potential for both
evidence tampering and big litigation coming, I assured him that I’d be there the next morning and would appreciate it if he’d start clearing the way so I could get past their security and into the facility in short order. I also cautioned him that if the fault was not within our equipment it would not be a warranty service call and IBM would be liable for all of the costs, which offended him as much as if I’d suggested that he were continuing a family legacy of inbreeding. Poughkeepsie in January was not my idea of a good time, and I had troubles on the home front that were sure to get worse in my absence, but such is the life of a field engineer. Duty calls, you answer. Fuck my life.

I red-eyed it out of LA that night and copped a few Z’s at my hotel before dragging my jet lagged ass to the IBM facility. Mister Vice President hadn’t cleared the way for me to get in quickly. It was about 3PM before I was allowed to enter… I was one unhappy heathen after spending most of the day struggling to stay awake in the lobby while their security dorks sorted things
out.

Long intermediate portion of the story short: I’d expected when I left that I’d be skying howeward Wednesday night, but through a comedy of errors I found myself at 4AM on Sunday morning trying to figure out how to get into my rental car which was covered in almost an inch of solid ice. IBM’s call wasn’t warranty service after all, and I got to make Mister Very Important Vice
President squirm at the prospect of a huge bill that was beyond his signature authority.

But on that Sunday morning when the whole of the Hudson Valley was blanketed under ice, I didn’t spend much time relishing feeding crow to the bastard. My first problem was getting into the rental car, and my second problem was getting said rental car to the Dutchess County Airport, preferably intact, in time to catch my early morning flight out of that frozen hell.

Fortunately I’d been paranoid enough to take my field service tool kit into the hotel with me, so I had various implements of destruction at my disposal including a ball peen hammer and some small chisels. By 5AM I had the car open and running, and without even damaging it. I considered that a minor miracle and evidence of superior field engineering skills. The next trick was to get to the airport on ice that would have put the NHL to shame. I managed that, by pinballing the car off of curbs and luckily not getting hit, though two other drivers came awfully close — one I almost T-boned when he slid through a red light, the other almost T-boning me when she slid through a red light. It was just plain dumb luck that I had the green both times, because there was
nothing I could have done to stop or steer. I just wanted the hell out of there.

When I arrived at the Dutchess County Airport I thought I was home free. Just park the rental car, get into the terminal, and from then on it was someone else’s turn to drive. No such luck, and nowhere near it. The first challenge: The entry into the rental car return lot was across a slope. I idled the Hertz rental car, dragging the brake lightly, keeping the thing just barely moving in the hope that it would stay on the slope. It didn’t. The front end drifted around and ended up crunching up an Avis rental car. Fuck it. I got loose of that, got the car kinda sorta close to where it ought to go, and just set the parking brake and shifted into Park. Where it stopped was where I’d leave it, and to hell with anyone who didn’t dig it.

Getting into the terminal was another challenge. The entry was all uphill, and no one had bothered to clear the ice. The sidewalk was obviously a no-go, and walking alongside it on the grass was impossible with my luggage in tow. I put on my amazing field engineer thinking cap, and came up with a solution: I took out my 25′ extension cord, tied it to my luggage tote, and walked up the
slope on the crunchy grassy area. Then I pulled the tote up to me, made my way to the top of the slope, and pulled the tote again. It was like climbing fucking Everest even though the total vertical rise was maybe ten or twelve feet. But it worked, and I helped a couple of others the same way before putting the extension cord away again.

Into the terminal to fill out the accident report… but no one was at the rental car counter. So I just put the key and contract into the drop box and thought that every now and then the outrageously priced Collision Damage Waiver was worth the cost. On to the ticket counter to get my ticket changed, but no one’s there, either. Uh-oh. I could smell the foul stench of blanket flight cancellations. And there I was with just one last cigarette to keep me sane all the way to LA.

That would never do. I found a cigarette machine, with a price posted on it that made me seriously consider quitting. Quitting living the law abiding life and just ripping that motherfucker open to get inside it, that is. I got some change at the little semi-restaurant establishment, and went back to the machine only to find that it wouldn’t accept any coins. They went in, they fell out again, and that was that. I did all of the usual vending machine tricks, to no avail. I was seriously considering opening the toolbox when one
of the maintenance crewmen stopped and offered to take me with him to a convenience store on the far side of the runway. Talk about an offer one cannot refuse!

As we rode along in his plow truck I asked him how the runways were looking. He said they were just great, ice-free from end to end and side to side, just waiting for someone to land on them. They’d been out there all night, he said, de-icing and plowing constantly, and could handle all of their scheduled flights… If they weren’t canceled. The problem, he said, was that the other airports further upstate probably weren’t able to launch any aircraft because of the weather. NOT what I wanted to hear. I got my smokes, some coffee and snacks, and a magazine. We got back to the terminal to find that the ticket counter was still unstaffed. A very bad sign indeed.

I called the airline and was told that all flights in the Hudson Valley were cancelled due to the weather. The friendly woman on the phone assured me, though, that if I made it to JFK my connecting flight would be on time. Fat lot of good that’d do me! I called an airport shuttle service, and was told that they were already overbooked, but if I didn’t have a lot of luggage I might talk my way onto their van. Their van that didn’t ever get near Dutchess County Airport, whose nearest pickup point was back in town. Fuckety fuck fuck fuck. I called for a taxi, and then tried another shuttle service only to get the same story.

Well, hell. I was standing there in front of the terminal, freezing my nards off, and thinking that there was just now way that I, Mister Excess Baggage, would ever get on that damned van. I’d have been willing to pay someone a hundred bucks to give up a seat, but there was no way that anyone who’d just braved that weather to get to the pickup point was going to give up a seat. So
I decided that when the taxi arrived, I’d tell the driver that my destination had changed and I was going to JFK instead. I don’t know how it worked for those guys, but back in LA the cabbies would kill for a fare like that — they leases their vehicles and took all of the risk that they might not get fares enough to pay their leases. When they had a good shift, though, they could make good enough money. It seemed a pretty sketchy way to make a living, to me.

After what seemed to be several hours but surely was only about a half hour, the taxi pulled up. At last, something had gone right! Then the driver got out. He looked like a hybrid between my father-in-law, whom I detested, and coincidentally (or not) the guy my wife was fucking on the side who looked a lot like my father-in-law, too, and was closer in age to my father-in-law than to my wife. (Mental much?) This guy was dressed like the one fucking my wife. I found myself wishing to cave in the cabbie’s face with the corner of my heavy briefcase, but then I forced myself to not hold it against the driver that he looked like two pseudo-men that I detested. Did I neglect to mention that the guy my wife was fucking was a cab driver?

I told the driver that I was going to make his day, and was going all the way to JFK instead of just back into town. I thought he’d be thrilled, but he looked hesitant, then nervous. He said he wasn’t sure about that, and I told him that if he didn’t want to take me then surely another driver would be happy to. No, he said, that’s okay. I’ll take you. We loaded up all of my luggage into the back of the station wagon and hit the road. I was looking forward to napping on the ride as I’d had about 12 hours sleep in total since
I got off the plane late Tuesday night. I got settled into the back seat, and did a little paperwork documenting my changed plans and expenses.

We’d were just into town when the driver got on the radio to ask his dispatcher for directions to JFK. Uh-oh. It’s a straight shot, one road all the way to the city, then follow the signs from the exit to the terminal. Surely everyone over the age of 30 in Poughkeepsie knows this. But not this guy. His dispatcher told him that another route would be faster and better, crossing over into New Jersey to make the turn south. I didn’t care, as it was a flat rate fare so a few more miles didn’t cost me anything. A minute or so later, the driver turned the cab into a parking lot and handed me his clipboard and pencil. The pencil was sharp and
the tablet on the clipboard unused. I thought that odd. Then he asked if I would write the directions down if he got his dispatcher to repeat them.

Oh shit. An illiterate cab driver. I asked him why it was such a big deal, and he explained that he’d never in his entire life ever been outside of Poughkeepsie. I said I’d be glad to do it, and asked him if he’d be able to read what I wrote. He assured me that he would. So we got the directions repeated, I wrote them down in big blocky letters, and handed the clipboard back. Being kind, I said that sometimes my writing is hard to read and asked if he could read the directions. He said he could, no problem, so off we went.

We’d just got into New Jersey when I nodded off because I didn’t have any more choice in the matter.

I was awakened by a loud “Oh shit!”. I started awake, and looked around. Though my travels in that part of the world were limited, it didn’t look like eastern New Jersey to me. Not at all. I asked the driver what was the matter, and he told me that we’d just passed the exit we needed. I was satisfied with that for the moment, and didn’t intend to think any more about it. Then he
told me that he didn’t know what to do. Suddenly I intended to think a lot more about it. I told him to get off at the next exit, and we could turn around there. He didn’t get it. I explained that it was very rare to find a highway exit that didn’t provide a way to get back on the highway in the opposite direction, so we’d just get off, get back on in the opposite direction, and take the exit we’d just missed. He though that sounded dandy.

We got off at the next exit, out in the middle of nowhere by northeast standards, and stopped at a country store. The driver went in, and came out a moment later with a restroom key. I thought it best to provision for the ride, so went in and got some coffee and salty snacks. At the counter, I thought even better, and grabbed up a map of New York. The guy who obviously owned the
joint said, “I think you need a new cab driver, but a map is a good start”. I unfolded the map and laid it out on the counter. The guy on the other side folded his arms. I asked him, “Since I’m unlikely to get a new cab driver this morning, would you be so kind as to put your finger down on this map to show where we are?”. He just looked at me, apparently amused. I looked back at him, giving him plenty of time to have a change of heart and take pity upon a wayward traveler. Nuthin’ doin’. Exasperating, I asked, “What? You want me to pay you or something? What’s the problem here?”. He just said, “Not on that map.”

Oh shit. We were in New Jersey. I said something about having just woke up, folded the map properly and put it back in the rack, and hauled out a New Jersey map. I unfolded it, turned it toward him, and said, “So now would you be so kind as to put your finger down where we are on this map?”. “Can’t do that” was all he said. I was nearing the end of my patience, with the week I’d just had and a cab driver who couldn’t help that he looked like two guys I wanted to beat the shit out of — never mind that beating shit out of either of them would have left nothing more than a skin bag. “So now what’s the fucking problem?”, I asked. He grinned, and said, “Not on that map, either”. “So”, I half-demanded, “which fucking map can you put your finger down on to show me where the fuck we are?”. He reached out and plucked a Pennsylvania map out of the rack.

What the fuck were we doing in Pennsylvania?

As I refolded the New Jersey map, he unfolded the Pennsylvania map. Then he put his finger down, and said, “We’re right there”. Way the hell out in the middle of the state somewhere. I said something about being unable to believe my tremendously bad luck, and he went on enjoying the hell out of it. “You came in that cab there, from Poughkeepsie?”. “Yep, sure did”. “You really do
need a new cab driver”. “Tell me something I don’t already know”.

I got directions from him, bought all three maps, and went outside to get into the cab. I was trying to regain some calm so I wouldn’t bash the ignorant fucker in the face with my briefcase as I’d initially wanted to do. The driver came out of the restroom and went back into the store, and I thought it wise for me to also use the restroom ahead of the long drive to the airport. I went
in, got the key, and when I returned it the store owner again said to me, “You really do need a new cab driver”. Yeah, I knew that already. “The one you got, the one who got you lost, he’s never been here before in his life. He asked for directions, I gave them to him, and he argued with me that I was wrong”. I said, “You know, I think I need a new cab driver”. He laughed.

I went out and got back into the cab, into the front seat. I told the driver, “Neither of us has ever been here before, the weather is shitty and the roads are even shittier, so howzabout you drive and I’ll navigate. I’ve got all the maps we might need right here”. He said that he thought that was a good idea, started the car, and stuck it into reverse. We were greeted by that unmistakeable growl of a flat tire. Fuckety fuck fuck fuck. 

We got out, and there she was bigger’n shit, a flat rear tire. We hauled all of my luggage out of the back, lifted the trap door, and there where the spare tire should have been was a big rusty hole the size of a spare tire showing the parking lot beneath. That really threw the driver for a loop. He had no idea what to do. I suggested that we call out a mobile tire repair truck, get the flat fixed, and get on down to the airport before my flight left without me. He didn’t like that idea at all. I told him that I wasn’t prepared to establish residence in Pennsyl-fucking-vania so we didn’t have any other option.

He went and got on the pay phone to call his dispatcher. I went back into the store to refill my coffee because it was really damned cold out there. The guy behind the counter looked even more amused. I told him, “I think I need a new cab, too. Got any around here?”. Nope, no taxi service way out here, he said. But there’s a motel up the road if you end up having to stay.

The driver was waving at me from outside, and pointing at the phone. I went out, and he said his dispatcher wanted to talk to me. Mentally, I held that asshole partly responsible for the predicament I was in, sending me out with an illiterate who’d never been outside of Poughkeepsie in his life. I got on the phone, and the dispatcher asked me, “So, what do you wanna do here?”. I was hot. “I want to go to JFK and catch my fucking flight, man, just like I wanted to do when your driver picked me up all the way out there in Poughkeepsie this morning”. “Okay, put my driver back on the phone.”

What did he expect I might say? That I wanted to settle down there in Pennsylvania, bring my family out, and get a job in the nearest truck stop swabbing toilets? Fucking jerk.

I went back into the store, and after the driver got off the phone I walked back out. He said that a mobile tire repair truck was on the way, so I went back into the store to stay warm. The guy behind the counter warmed up to me, and we talked a bit while I drank several cups of coffee trying to drive the chill away. The tire truck showed up, fixed the tire, and put it back on. I went back outside and started loading my luggage back into the station wagon, but the driver stopped me. “Now what the fuck?!” I demanded. “You’re not riding in this cab any more”, he told me. I thought he was ditching me way out there in Bumfuckt PA. I was just about to beat him senseless and steal his cab when he explained that another cab was coming all the way from Poughkeepsie to get me — three plus hours out. I told him that he wasn’t going any fucking where until that other cab arrived, and if it didn’t show in four hours his cab was going to JFK whether he was in it or not. He assured me that he was going to wait there until the replacement cab arrived, so I went back inside and watched the idiot like a hawk. If he went for the car I was going to yank him out and beat him. I was pissed.

A few minutes later he came inside the store, and sat at the table with me. I told him to get away from me, and not speak to me. He looked hurt, but he moved to the only other table, behind me. I bought another magazine, read their local paper with nothing more interesting than the high school football game report, and fumed. Finally the other cab arrived, and as I got up to go
outside the original driver said to me, “I hope you’re happy. This has probably cost me my job”. What the fuck? I wasn’t behind the wheel. I was asleep in the back seat when he fucked up! So I told him, “You’re not really very good at it anyway”, and left.

The replacement driver reeked of gin. It wasn’t on his breath, but it was exuding from his pores. I volunteered to drive. He said he couldn’t let me drive, but he understood my concern. He explained that he wasn’t drunk, but he had been drinking all night as this was supposed to be his day off. I proposed a compromise: He starts driving, but if I get nervous he lets me drive. He agreed, and reassured me that he was good to go. We loaded my luggage into his car and off we went. He told me that the night before had been his brother’s bachelor party so he’d tied one on, and ordinarily wouldn’t have been drinking so heavily with a shift coming the next morning.

He turned out to be a nice guy, and capable of controlling the vehicle, too.

After a while he brought up the receipt, and wanted to know how much to make it out for. I told him, “Get me on my flight and make it for the full fare plus a hundred bucks. Get me there late, and it’ll be just the fare and you can try to get the tip out of your boss who sent me out here into the cold with an imbecile.” He said that was fair enough and he’d try his best to get me on my
flight.

We got to JFK without a minute to spare. I ran to the ticket counter, and he followed along with my luggage. The ticket clerk told me to run to the gate, and she’d call to hold the plane. I gave the driver the full fare plus a Benjamin, thanked him, and hauled ass. I was the last one on the plane, and after I took my seat I saw the baggage handlers loading my luggage into the hold. I’d thought it certain that my luggage would be on another flight, delivered to my house later. But there it was, my personal luggage and the
field service toolkit, brought out on all by itself on a dolly and loaded into the plane. Ah, time to relax, more than 12 hours after I’d started chiseling my way into the rental car. Finally!

After landing at LAX I learned that on the baggage dolly at JFK would be the last time I’d ever see that field service tool kit. Some LAX baggage handler ganked it — they were worth $250 at any pawn shop, if they were complete. Mine wasn’t, as others who’d come before me had lost things from it. But Delta Air Lines replaced it with the next better version when they paid my claim. 🙂

I called it my seasoned traveler, frequent flier upgrade.

This trip is one of the reasons I get such a kick out of the movie Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. I can relate. I don’t do business travel any more, not when I can help it, and when I must I travel on the ground because I don’t want the TSA looking up my ass. Pay for a nice rental car or a sleeper berth on a train, at your option, but I am not flying, and I’m not staying in the Motel 6 when I get there. So I don’t often travel on business these days, and I’m just as happy for it.

7 thoughts on “Blast From The Past

  1. solberg73

    I read all 4000+ words with relish. I’m envious of your great memory for details and timelines, since most of my episodes, equally gruesome exist as a blurr, a comedy/tragedy of erroneously-recalled errors., The route to JFK in those days, and even now, is fraught with dangers at every missed turn
    A great story, a match for anything in your ex-xanga archives. That NY length-wise corridor was also my playground for several years; hitch-hiking back and forth in freezing weather. It’s a wonder, a miracle, that either of of emerged alive and well.

    Reply
    1. happierheathen Post author

      🙂 I couldn’t name all of the places I went over that decade-plus if my life depended upon it, but that one had all of the ingredients for the making of long-term memory. I hope never to see New York again!

      Thanks for the flowers, my friend.

      Reply
  2. whyzat

    Holy crap! I would have emptied my xanax bottle if that happened to me! I guess you survived and didn’t get injured, so you got new tools and a great story out of it! Congratulations for not taking the tire iron to that driver!

    Reply
    1. happierheathen Post author

      🙂 Thanks! I seriously considered beating the guy enough to take his keys away in the moment when I thought he was trying to just dump me out there. But it worked out just fine in the end.

      Reply
  3. Roadkill Spatula

    I saw a movie with Jack Lemmon many years ago in which everything goes wrong and then at the end when everything has been solved and he and his wife are on a plane, it gets hijacked. I didn’t enjoy it and have always avoided similar movies since then. Real life is bad enough. I’ve never had any travel fiascoes as bad as this one, though.

    Reply
  4. g.

    I started out feeling a bit cheated I didn’t get to hear what happened with Mr. IBM, but the rest of the story was so much better. Pure suspense. I’m glad you wrote this out and I’m *very* glad I read it.
    g.

    Reply

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