Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Closing Time: Delta Flight 191

In the summer of 1985 I took a vacation.

I had worked for IBM for 17 years by that time and had never taken more than a few contiguous days off at a time.

I need to point out something.

By the time I had gotten organized enough to do the job of a Marketing Representative I had changed radically from the person I had always been.

For the first time I was succeeding at something that was hard for me to be good at - or even understand sometimes - but I was savoring every moment of it. Its very foreignness to everything that I had ever thought to be meaningful had caused every little success that I experienced to be an event of consequence.

“Workaholic” had been a term of opprobrium in my usage.

Nonetheless it accurately described how I went about what it was that I had begun to do for a living.

What could be opprobrious about being excited about working the normal work day and then working after that work day thinking about all the interesting things that went into the job and about all the interesting things that needed to be done, or to be avoided, or to be said, or not said, or the letters to be written or the appointments to be made, that would move the pieces on my business chessboard where I wanted them to go?

How could that be bad?

That was exhilarating.

But I wasn’t a unidimensional being.

Off duty, I had become an avid boater and water skier and fisherman and, in the autumn, bird hunter. But I didn’t need vacations to do any of those things. A long weekend was plenty. And long weekends were all that I ever took.

Even during the three years when I was a Marketing Manager in Jefferson City – a job that put my exhilaration into another dimension – I never took anything but long weekends.

But then I had gotten myself promoted to Boca Raton.

Actually, the term “promoted” was a fiction.

It was a fiction that managers who had successfully performed in “the field” utilized to describe the job they took to compete for the job after that job.

“The field” is what we called that place where IBMers actually had daily contact with customers and had revenue generating and revenue protecting responsibility. IBM, believed in constantly stirring the pot, and not allowing anything or anybody to get too comfortable with anything. Therefore, in order to get a job that one might actually consider a promotion – a job one might actually want - the company required those with ambitions to take jobs they really didn’t want in places that they really didn’t want to live. It was thought that the process allowed one to prove oneself, or go down in flames. If one proved oneself it might then be possible to get a job one actually wanted that was in a place one might actually want to live. The job necessary to succeed at to get a job one actually wanted was almost always a staff job, and a non-manager’s job. The promotion fiction had come into use as a sop to the ego of the departing successful manager. It also may have had something to do with the fact that if one succeeded at that next job, rather than going down in flames, one might actually get a job that could be described as a promotion.

I had chosen Boca Raton as the place to exercise that next opportunity to succeed or go down in flames.

That choice had had three reasons.

First, the IBM Personal Computer had been announced in August of 1981 and had become an immediate rocket to the moon success. The engineer –Don Estridge - who had led the team that had developed the PC had become almost overnight a Division President. The unstructured and unbuttoned-down manner in which the product had been brought to market had become legendary. If ever I had heard of an environment in which I ought to succeed – I had always been considered to be “one brick shy of a load” by IBM formal standards – the PC business ought to be it.

Or so I had thought.

Second had been the fact that a number of my friends from my time in Atlanta had already moved there and had all uniformly succeeded. They had all been promoted very quickly back to manager’s jobs, albeit in place in Boca Raton in direct opposition to the normal IBM way of moving people every time they wanted to prove themselves to be promotion worthy.

The third reason for Boca Raton as my next destination was that my wife Mysti had gotten promoted there from her job in the Atlanta Education Center.

We had moved together to Atlanta from Portland in 1979 when I had been overcome by a desire to go and prove myself so I could get the job I really wanted. Of the various options available at the time – San Francisco, Boca Raton (they were developing an amazingly slow and high priced small business computer there at the time) or Atlanta – Atlanta had seemed the least objectionable.

It had even seemed slightly attractive.

With the money we could expect from the sale of our Lake Oswego house we would be able to build a mansion in Atlanta.

So IBM moved us to Atlanta.

We were both Marketing Representatives in Portland.

I was the one who had gone on interviews and had gotten the job I wanted in Atlanta: instructor in Sales and Systems School.

Sales and Systems School was the final class of a multi-class year of training that newly hired sales and systems engineering employees went though.

It was thought that a couple of years of working with those entry level employees would verify that an instructor was qualified to be a manager.

Or that he or she was not so qualified.

It was the opportunity to succeed or go down in flames preparatory to that first real promotion – first line manager.

Mysti was being moved because we were married, but she also needed to find a job in Atlanta.

She found one in education development.

She developed education in support of products which had not yet been announced.

During the two or so years we spent in Atlanta we bought a six acre lot in Cameron Crest Farms; we built a house; we built a stable for Mysti’s horses (we got horses in Atlanta; we hadn’t had any previously) and we went about our respective jobs and got at so cross purposes to one another that divorce had seemed the only logical next step.

The only thing that prevented that taking place was the great unknown of where and when exactly I would be promoted to Marketing Manager.

It seemed tidier to stay together until I had to move.

That way we could most easily and gracefully split our biggest asset, the house, stable and all.

The horses would have been exterior to any property split.

As it turned out this falling out had probably been a good thing. As it turned out when my promotion offer came it was to go to Jefferson City Missouri.

The one thing I had vowed after leaving the Air Force and Omaha was that I would never let myself get sent to the Midwest ever again. Now I was jumping at the chance. That was where the job was so that was where I would be. That was the way all good ambitious IBMers approached things.

That would have been a real problem if Mysti and I had continued to be happily married, because while I had undergone some sort of lobotomy about where I was willing to live, she hadn’t. And Jefferson City would not have been a possibility.

The IBM promotion game had a covenant that said you didn’t have many rights of refusal.

In fact you really had none, but the game was played in a way that obscured that fact.

If I had said no to Jefferson City, time would have gone into slow motion for me and my career’s future.

I would have become shopworn as a candidate and the next offer – if indeed one ever had come - would probably have been the last. And the chances would have been excellent that it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as attractive as the first.

The first offer was always one that had been finely tuned to take a requirement in the field and fulfill it with a person who had been given a great deal of management evaluation, and analysis. That first offer was one that was, as closely as the IBM system of doing such things could provide, a real opportunity, and one which was calculated to accommodate the weaknesses and strengths that the candidate’s manager had perceived in the candidate.

That offer was Jefferson City.

The second offer, if I had pushed it to that would have been the system’s way of getting me pretty officially and permanently off the list.

“If he takes it great; if he doesn’t take it great; at least we don’t have to worry about a third offer.”

Given my personal circumstances I had been able to jump at the chance to move to Jefferson City.

The day I packed up the car, hooked up the boat and left the house for the last time was one of those overwhelmingly sad to the point of tears episodes that are apparently mandatory in modern human life.

After I moved to Jefferson City, Mysti got herself moved to the Education Center and had gotten embroiled in the activities of competing for the next promotion.

In 1983 she achieved that promotion. It was a move to Boca Raton with a manager-level code and every expectation of making manager soon after.

For some reason, she had never actually filed the divorce papers.

The years had passed; I had sent the amount of money we had agreed on that she needed from me every month and Morgan visited me regularly.

Morgan is our daughter.

Mysti even visited me a couple times in Jefferson City as I did her in Atlanta in the house she had bought after the sale of our Cameron Crest Farms home.

So all of a sudden it was 1985 and we weren’t divorced, and while we had a relationship that wouldn’t have been described as the ideal marriage, we had a relationship that had more substance to it than many actual practicing, living-in-the-same-home marriages.

So the ultimate reason for my acceptance of a promotion to Boca Raton was that it had been a way to get IBM to pay for putting my family back together.

It had never occurred to me that there wouldn’t be anything to do in Boca Raton.

How could that have been possible at the epicenter of the Personal Computer universe?

But it was possible.

When I went to Boca Raton to interview I had talked to managers in both sales and marketing. I didn’t realize it at the time but that was the first time in my IBM career that I was dealing with the proper meaning of those two words. In my first job my title had been Marketing Representative, but as often as not I had described myself as a salesman when talking to people about what I did for a living. Salesman was the more accurate term, but Marketing Representative had a much better sound to it. So later I had become a “Marketing Manager” when “Sales Manager” would have been a much more accurate title.

In Boca Raton, which architected everything to do with the Personal Computer there actually was a “sales” function concentrating on the newly created IBM Personal Computer Dealer Channel and “marketing” which concentrated on requirements for existing and future products and which included the actual nature of those current and future products and the new or additional channels that might be needed to “sell” them.

All of this had totally eluded me.

I just knew that the personalities of the people in sales that I was interviewed by and the things they were saying made no sense to me. None of them had backgrounds similar to mine, and what they were in charge of doing were things that I had no experience with. I totally missed the fact that all the action was in the Dealer Channel and in the IBM Sales function responsible for its care and feeding. That fact alone, had I perceived it, would have told me that “Sales” was the place to be for someone like me who was coming to Boca Raton to do the job that would get me the next job, not to retire on active duty in Florida.

However, I didn’t perceive that vital fact.

Heath, a friend of mine from Atlanta who had gotten promoted from Marketing Manager to PC Sales in Boca Raton tried to tell me, but I thought that he must be wrong. Denny, his manager tried to tell me, but I didn’t believe what I understood of what he had said, and I hadn’t understood much.

On the other hand, the guy I talked to in “Marketing” just made more sense, including the fact that he had a background similar to mine so we were able to immediately have common ground to talk about. I totally missed the fact that he was in the process of retiring on active duty in Florida and that a prerequisite for that was that he had to build up a big enough first line organization that he could be promoted to second-line manager.

Having once achieved that promotion, given the abstract nature of “Marketing” – an abstraction that I had not yet perceived – he would never have to really do anything ever again.

He would have been able pursue a life of getting on airplanes every Monday for various IBM headquarters of interest in the Northeast, attending never ending meetings, discussing endless variations of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, and coming back every Friday for the weekend in Florida.

Anything that might have actually required attention in the abstract world of marketing in Boca Raton could have been attended to by his first line management apparatus.

His name was Mike and I had fallen into his trap, becoming one more incremental body toward his promotion to second line manager.

That was January, 1984.

The nature of working in Marketing in Boca Raton seemed to appeal to most of the people who were allegedly doing it. At least there were a great number of them already in place taking up office space.

And more were arriving every day.

And they all seemed excited to be there doing whatever it was that they did.

I never figured out what it was that they did and never did much of it myself.

What I did do I tried to execute with the same intensity that I had developed as a Marketing Representative, Instructor and Marketing Manager.

But it was different: those other jobs had been challenging, but they had also been obvious.

A Marketing Representative had a quota and a customer set. Each year he or she was expected to make or exceed quota without pissing off his or her customers and with reasonable administrative cost to the IBM Company. If he or she did that often enough, the company was likely to ask him or her to accept more responsibility and move up in the corporation.

An Instructor was expected to teach and entertain entry level IBM employees while occasionally performing with precision various staff related tasks, all the while getting positive critiques from his or her students and positive evaluations from his or her manager. If he or she did that successfully for a couple of years, the company was likely to ask him or her to accept more responsibility and move up in the corporation.

A Marketing Manager had a quota and a customer set. He or she also had the added dimension of having Marketing Representatives assigned to him or her through whom he or she was expected to achieve quota without pissing off the Reps, his or her customers or the administrative staff. He or she was expected to be a sort of talking spreadsheet whenever his or her manager or his or her manager’s manager asked him or her how he or she was going to finish the hour, day, week, month or year from a quota viewpoint. He or she was also supposed to do everything possible to develop as much of the potential as was possible in his or her assigned employees with the objective of moving them up in the company. Since knowledge is power, one of his or her first lines of developing those personnel was to keep them as up to date on the objectives, plans and inner workings of the IBM Company as was humanly possible. If he or she did all that often enough, the company was likely to ask him or her to accept more responsibility and move up in the corporation.

Boca Raton Marketing was different.

There were no quotas.

There were no people to develop.

There were no customers to think about.

There were no apparent cost constraints or objectives – an outsider would have assumed that the measure of success of a manager, or one of his or her employees was how much they could spend in a year on fruit plates in the never ending meetings, or how much they had personally spent on air fare.

As an insider, I was hard-pressed to find that appearance to be inaccurate.

Since knowledge is power, and since first line managers who were attempting to become second line managers needed all the power for themselves, information was rationed and colored and distorted.

And the things managers did that might have been mistaken to be work were things related to secondary and tertiary turf war driven agendas in the massive competition to be the head of as large an organization as possible.

And the first rule of life was that no one was allowed to admit any of this to anyone, even to themselves.

In the absence of any real mission other than that of managers building huge organizations to advance their careers it was nevertheless necessary for people to do something with their days. These were, after all, people who, previously in their IBM careers, had been successful, high energy salesmen, systems engineers and managers. That energy had not departed. It just had been re-deployed.

So there were meetings.

There were meetings about the size and shape of the box in which a diskette was to be shipped to the Dealers.

There were meetings about the exact hue of the blue bars that would appear on the IBM logo on the letter that went into the box in which the diskette was to be shipped.

There were meetings on the time of day that the delivery of the box and letter with the logo would occur.

There were meetings to coordinate the outcome of all the other meetings.

There were meetings to decide on the upcoming schedule of meetings, and meetings to co-ordinate that schedule with the people who might attend the meetings.

There were meetings to discuss who it would be appropriate to invite to attend the meetings whose schedules were being decided and coordinated.

There were meetings to argue about the results of the sum total of all the other meetings having occurred in any given time slice.

There were meetings to normalize the agreements concerning the outcome of the meetings concerning the results of all the other meetings having occurred in any given time slice.

There were meetings to discuss and or agree to or agree to disagree about what the time slices would be for the normalizing and coordinating meetings.

There were meetings to define the meaning of the term time slice.

There were meetings to define the meaning of the word co-ordinate.

There were meetings to define the meaning of the word meeting.

And these meetings were all hugely attended.

The sign of status of a non-manager was how many meetings he or she attended in a given time slice.

There were whole departments under some third line managers devoted to evaluating meeting attendance of the other members of their organization.

There were even contra departments devoted to keeping secret the whereabouts of the meetings, or of disseminating inaccurate times and places for meetings.

This tactic was especially useful to third line managers who wanted not only to keep their own employees from finding out what was going on – no matter how absurd what was going on might have been – but also to keep their adversary managers as off balance as possible.

That tactic also created a sort of personnel static or entropy that created a self-feeding need for more employees to disseminate bogus information about meetings.

There were, of course, meetings to discuss and evaluate which of the schedules for the upcoming meetings might be valid.

Often meetings would spring up spontaneously from a group of people who had showed up at a wrong time or wrong place. These were often the most useful and well attended because the attendees spent their time deciding what the subject, time and place should have been if they had been at the right place or time. Often they would attempt to ascertain which third line manager was most responsible for the misinformation which had brought them all to that time and place.

Based on that information one could ascertain which third line manager was on the rise.

Based on that information one could know which organizations one should aspire to be moved to in pursuit of one’s career advancement.

It was a well-known fact that just being in the presence of one of the really successful organization building third line deities could advance one’s career. Being asked to speak by one could act as the catalyst one needed to be taken seriously as a person on the rise.

The inward churn to a third line’s department created by the really successful spreading of disinformation had even been known to create that most august form of manager, the Director.

An advantage of being a Director, in addition to higher pay, was that Directors were expected to conduct themselves in a manner similar to the Wizard of Oz.

An astounding fact about these meetings was how well attended they were. Many times meetings moved from an initial, smaller, venue to a larger one. Sometimes even a second move was required to an even larger venue. Sometimes meeting subcommittees were spun off to discuss and evaluate alternate larger venues.

These ad hoc committees were assigned the task of getting back to the meeting of the whole with recommendations for larger places to meet. Being on one of these meeting spin-offs could be a real feather in one’s cap.

Often all the chairs in a meeting, no matter how large its room, no matter how many its chairs, were taken; on those occasions people without chairs were left lining the walls.

When the meetings were over - and it was easy to tell when they were over because that was when no one was still yelling at the top of his or her lungs about the mind of Don Estridge - people wandered off in hope of stumbling upon another meeting.

This was usually no problem since meetings and their subcommittees were everywhere, either in session or wandering to new venues.

The main beneficiaries of these meetings were the local caterers.

No meeting could occur without, at a minimum a huge fruit plate.

Real meetings had, in addition, a cheese selection.

If the meeting occurred anywhere near breakfast, sausage biscuits, vast quantities of them, were added. This was usually in addition to huge platters of bagels and cream cheese and custard Danish.

If the meeting occurred anywhere near lunch, turkey and ham and beef and vegetarian sandwiches on Kaiser rolls were added.

In any event, for all occasions, gallons of coffee, tea and soft drinks were present.

There were no meetings after four o’clock, so the caterers never got the opportunity to provide dinner fare.

By five o’clock the huge buildings that provided daytime shelter from the sun and elements to the IBMers of Boca Raton were all empty.

The daytime inhabitants of those buildings were by then at the various bars believed to be the evening habitat of third line managers and Directors.

One could really advance one’s career if fate happened to post one on the barstool next to a Director.

There were occasionally some meetings held on time, at the appointed and accurately publicized place, and with known subjects.

These were rare however.

And that was good, because no matter how vicious the activities in most of the other meetings might have been, none of them were burdened with any real business oriented purpose.

Those rare meetings with a real purpose, on the other hand, always related to something to do with the business – such as, were we selling anything through the dealer channel or what was the current status of the next - hoped for - blockbuster product.

Due to their serious content these meetings were only attended by managers, Directors, and occasionally a Vice President. If a non-manager had been asked to attend, which happened upon occasion, that person was treated with awe ever after by his or her peers.

In reality, at the point that such a person emerged he or she no longer had peers.

With an invitation to that type of meeting a step had been taken toward divinity that could never be retraced.

Those meetings were amazing to watch.

A clear-cut issue might be the subject, such as how many of a given model of PC might be sold over a given period of time.

In my previous IBM life a subject like this would have received the best thoughts about the answer to that question that the participants in the analysis session could muster.

This was not so in the Boca Raton meetings.

The direction of the discussion in those meetings depended upon the mix of third line managers, Directors and their particular functional responsibilities, and the answer to the question was ultimately the result of the confluence and clashes of their functionally driven political objectives. Since this type of result was at best neutral and more likely detrimental to the business interests of the IBM Corporation it was good that these meetings were relatively few in number.

Then there were the review boards.

Before anything new could be done it needed to be agreed to by all affected areas. In theory, these review boards made sense. They had evolved from the very early days of the PC project when Don Estridge - the engineer that the IBM Executive Committee had put in charge of bringing a personal computer to market as quickly as possible - and a few other engineers got together, when needed, to evaluate their progress and to identify problems before they occurred, and fix any they hadn’t avoided in previous reviews. Since all the reviewers shared the goal of getting a product to market as soon as possible, and in a form as high qualitatively competitive as possible, these review meetings were brief, concise and oriented to the common goal.

The IBM PC went from concept to announcement in 18 months, which was astoundingly short for IBM.

Most other products took years to go from design to announcement.

But what had worked for a few engineers working very closely and communicating daily, all of whom had a shared a vision and goal of their direction had become a goat rodeo for a group of thousands with various conflicting objectives, most of which had nothing to do with any identified IBM product or program.

Initially, in the early days of the IBM PC business, the review process had continued to work pretty much as it had originally, and had allowed some important product additions like the PC XT to get to market quickly and flawlessly.

The success of the XT, piled atop the ongoing success of the initial diskette-only product opened the floodgates of IBMers into Boca Raton.

Where originally there had been only a sales function made up of a few people in charge of figuring out how to sell through the dealer channel, a couple of administrators with a System/34, a heavily modified version of MAPICS and a couple of lawyers and the engineers responsible for creating and building the product, there developed huge hoards of new people, all armed with personal ambition, personal opinions and knowledge of the way IBM did business in the pre-PC world.

Sales got a vice president and a sales force to work with the dealers. Myriad sales-like requirements were perceived and they spawned myriad sales-like functions with myriad sales-like employees and myriad sales-like managers. One could come to Boca Raton as an employee in PC Sales and be a manager in weeks.

An alternate career path for that hoard was to accept an offer to go to work for Compaq, a new born competitor that loved to hire IBMers in those early days of the PC business.

Unfortunately for IBM not nearly enough of the hoard received or accepted such offers.

Marketing had sprung up from nothing overnight into several hundred people and a Director.

Administration blossomed into full glory with all of its myriad functions and features, even if none of them applied to the PC business. (After all, the PC business had just started, so who was to say what applied and what didn’t?) The only vestige of the original PC administration function was the System/34 and FOE MAPICS. Nobody could figure out how to use the traditional IBM AAS system to run the PC business, so the System/34 remained. It was probably the biggest business in the world ever run on a System/34.

The lawyers remained fairly few, probably because there were relatively few lawyers in IBM and they all had jobs that satisfied them, so they were prone to stay where they were – mostly in the New York area, or Chicago or San Francisco or Los Angeles.

Just to name a few of the departments and functions that had blossomed almost overnight, there was Dealer Operations, Sales Operations, Business Analysis, Channel Development, and Software Requirements. There were countless others. The IBM Boca Raton organization chart and telephone directory grew daily and was reprinted weekly. Once the only agenda had been to move the ball forward; soon the agenda became to argue about the existence of the ball. By the time I arrived on the scene moving the ball had been eliminated from consideration. The only real considerations had become protecting the turf upon which the ball had once rested, career advancement and, for many people, how to work as few hours a day as possible.

Then the Review Board grew into a multi-headed monster. A network of review boards, some ad hoc, some on-going, emerged. Some were even fictitious, created to draw energy out of a competing camp. They all accomplished the same function: keep everything in limbo.

A friend and fellow worker, Al, once described the environment best.

He had been at a Review Board meeting and I encountered him immediately after its termination.

“It was amazing,” he said. “They went around the huge table in the room and each one in turn jumped up on the table and urinated on the proposal.”

Al was a wordsmith.

There was even a Review Board in the sky, so to speak. As if to emphasize the futility of the multiple dueling review boards in Boca Raton there was the corporate edition in White Plains. It held weekly meetings. I once met a guy who was sitting next to me on a plane whose only job was to get on an airplane Monday morning to LaGuardia or Newark, go to the meeting on Tuesday and kill time until Friday when he got back on a plane to West Palm Beach or Fort Lauderdale.

He had dropped into a crack in the system and he really liked it.

And he was not alone.

The major career alternative to meetings that IBM Boca Raton offered was flying on airplanes. Actually this was a sort of technologically enhanced form of attending meetings. It involved scheduling attendance at business shows, dealer meetings, technical briefings and technical conferences, preferably on the West Coast, or at least as far away as Dallas.

In the early PC era there were huge numbers of these events, and most upwardly aspiring managers created slots on their manning documents for personnel dedicated to attending them. Some of the more successful of those managers were able to grow the function of attending meetings and conferences to departmental size, with follow-on first to second or second to third line management implications.

This was the era when Portia Isaacson was able to create a multi-million dollar business with two or three graphs that showed either forty five degree or ninety degree growth curves. She carried these around to all the meetings and conferences and used them to discuss all aspects of the PC business. It didn’t matter the aspect, one or more of her graphs applied. All she had to do was adjust the words to the needs of the particular audience.

IBM paid her a lot of money to present to IBM on numerous occasions.

Bill Gates was also an ever-popular presenter at various conferences and meetings. This was long before he had become the IBM slayer and the richest man in the world. He was just a well-known young techie with a nasally whiny voice who needed a haircut and who had to keep pushing his sliding glasses back up his nose during presentations.

With all the meetings and the attendant IBM participation, on any given day the air between Dallas or San Francisco, or Los Angeles or Seattle was likely to be full of IBMers. Since a prerequisite to employment with IBM in Boca Raton was to be a Delta Frequent Flier most of those IBMers were likely to be on Delta Airlines flights.

Rather than being in an IBM in which I woke up every morning excited about what I wanted to do that day, looking forward to its known and unknown challenges and happy to work ten or twelve hour days I had transitioned to a place where useless dysfunction was the rule and it was nearly impossible to find enough useful things to do to occupy an eight hour day. I had gone from an environment in which vacations were three-day weekends to where vacations appeared to be the only way to stay sane.

For me IBM had become frighteningly similar to the military.

By December of 1984 I had managed to make enough friends at the office and find enough ancillary things to do that I could pretend to work eight-hour days and forty-hour weeks. And the occasional trip to a meeting broke the monotony. It wasn’t remotely similar to what I had spent the previous fifteen years loving to do, but it had, I had begun to think, one major advantage: my old inability to take a real vacation was gone.

With the amount of accrued vacation that I had I could have taken a year off.

So Mysti and I had decided to take a month in the upcoming summer and go to Oregon.

On the afternoon of 2 August 1985 I had just checked into a motel in Portland. It had been a couple of weeks since we had flown to Portland from Florida.

The Delta flight had been wonderful.

Since Mysti and I were both Delta Frequent Fliers we had been able to upgrade to first class. At that time first class was still fairly special.

Morgan my daughter and I sat next to each other and Mysti sat across from us. Morgan and I asked for a deck of cards and started playing poker using safety matches for chips. The matches had been provided by the friendly flight attendant. She had taken a liking to us – father and daughter having fun on a transcontinental flight – and she kept my champagne glass full. She was the classic Atlanta variety of the Southern woman. She had the hair do, the makeup, the drawl, the “y’all” and all.

I asked her where she was from, expecting to hear “Mayretta” or “Atlanta”. I knew she couldn’t be from any farther away from Atlanta than maybe Birmingham.

“Eugene” she said in unaccented, pure Pacific Northwest American.

“Oregon?” I said.

“Oregon” she said.

When we got to Portland after a stop in Salt Lake City we needed lunch. Since this was the beginning of a first of a kind occurrence – an actual vacation – we decided to go to Portland’s most special daytime restaurant that we knew of, even though we knew that we would have to take a number and wait on the benches outside the dining area for quite a bit of time.

It was worth it.

The brandy sauce on the mushroom omelet was spectacular as always. The Dutch Baby was monstrous and delicious. The bowl of raspberries was huge, delicious, and from a farm a few miles from where we ate them. The small buttermilk pancakes that accompanied the omelet were the kind that poets write about. The toast was made of perfect bread and was perfectly toasted. The coffee was perfect. The service as always was impeccable.

I have always thought that if one conducted a contest for best restaurant in the world, disregarding type of restaurant, but based on perfection of what it was that they did, the Original Pancake House in Portland would win.

After lunch and a trip past our previous home in Lake Oswego and a walk on the river in Iron Works Park we checked into the downtown Marriott on the river. The next several days were filled with visits to see my parents in St Helens, going to the coast, taking Morgan crabbing in Nehalem Bay and trout fishing in my secret spot on the Siletz River, and generally having a good time.

At the end of that time Mysti and Morgan flew to Idaho to see Mysti’s mother. I stayed in Portland and checked into an acceptably low priced motel.

It was the second of August.

I turned on the television to see what was going on in the world as I unpacked.

After a few minutes of the usual news drivel the newscast was interrupted. Delta flight 191 from Fort Lauderdale had crashed in Dallas. The item was accompanied by footage of the remains of the Lockheed 1011 smoldering in a field adjacent to the Airport.

“I know I know some of those dead people,” I said to no one in particular.

It wasn’t until I got back to Boca Raton later in the month that I learned the truth of my comment.

Two of our summer interns had been killed. Six IBM family members had been killed, and three of them were relatives of people I knew, including the daughter of Denny the guy in sales who had interviewed me for a job the previous year, and the wife of one of the guys in the department I worked for.

And Don Estridge and his wife were among the dead.

This was death of a new type to me.

It was sudden, massive and involved people, whom, although I didn’t know well, I knew nonetheless.

They had been only a few members of a fairly large human community, but their size had been expanded by the violence of their departure.

The grinding grief I had felt personally about Annie was being applied to an entire community; it was being applied to a group of people who had just died suddenly and without warning. The result was an almost visible gloom. There seemed to be a dark cast to the brilliant Florida sunshine. It was as if those dead people were in the land of not yet gone and were still in the area trying to do whatever it was that they were supposed to do so that they might be able to leave permanently. And in the process of trying to do whatever it was that they needed to do they were drawing energy and even light out of the place they were trying to depart.

The overall effect was to make a place I had always found to be depressing to become almost unbearable.

My friend Al came into my office early in the day of my return. He welcomed me back. I said something. He looked at me for a moment and did an about face and left my office without another word. A little later he came back and asked me if I was all right. I said something. He said that he sensed that I was suicidal.

That was how bad it was.

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