I am grateful for the chance to tell you a little about my story here at Florida Hospital and the Bartch House
My adventure in getting a new heart started in October. I had left Panama, where I lived on my boat and had prepared to sail around the world. I flew to Tampa on business, and passed out while driving. I had surgery to replace a leaky heart valve, had an allergic reaction to a drug, which resulted in a massive heart attack and coma. I came to, weeks later in November. My son, Sam and my former wife, Barbara, who is now my good friend, had flown down from New Hampshire and were with me.
I had no idea where I was. Sam said I was in Orlando, which confused me. I thought I was in Tampa. I asked a few questions, such as how I got here (it was by helicopter) and the date. I had been unconscious for three weeks. My skin was hanging loosely from my body, my hands were gloved and tied to the bed, and I had tubes everywhere. I looked around, wondering what had happened and they told me how close I came to death; that the doctors at the Florida Hospital had saved my life.
Sam asked if I wanted to know who won the presidential election and the World Series. I kept looking around, still confused, and said, “Just tell me who won the World Series.”
I have to tell how much I came to actually liking being in the hospital and the Bartch House. I can’t think of another way to put it. Yes, I want to get out and to get on with life, but I like it here. Florida Hospital and the Bartch House are not just about my physical health. I know the importance of a spiritual center, and I work on it. As a transplant patient, I know I am responsible for my own recovery, and spirituality is key. Florida Hospital and the folks at the Bartch House make it easy. I like being treated as a spiritual being here, not just a patient. In the initial stages of recovery, there was a woman who came to my room every day to clean, and she held my hand and prayed with me. That is as important as meeting with the best doctors and nurses. The woman who drives the shuttle bus, a Haitian refugee, said she will pray for me.
When I made my first outpatient visit to the Transplant Institute, one of the nurses looked at me and said, “Mr. Allen, look at you! You look wonderful! And to think how sick you were just a few weeks ago!” I stood at the desk talking with her and a few other people. One said, “Mr. Allen, you are part of our family now and you will be for the rest of your life.”
Do you have any idea what that means to me? Do you have any idea what it meant to my son, who sat with me day after day, not knowing if I would live? The Bartch House family is part of that. I am grateful, and so is every other person who stays there.
The Bartch House is becoming a spiritual center for transplant patients and just as important, their families.
I am now waiting for “The Call” for a heart. I got the first one a few weeks ago. I hung up the phone, and was ecstatic. I would live! Then, I was annoyed with myself. Someone had died that day, someone much younger. His family, in the toughest day of their life, had seen their way to provide a stranger with the gift of life. I prayed for him, then as calmly as I could, made my way to the hospital. I must say, I was not in the least bit afraid, but I did pray until I was sedated.
I came to a few hours later, and thought, “Wow, there is nothing to this heart transplant stuff. I feel great.”
Then I was told that the donor heart was 31 years old with advanced heart disease, and rejected. The person who told me seemed more disappointed than I was. “Well,” I said, “They don’t make them in a factory.”
So, now, I wait for “The Call” once more. I always have my phone with me and if it rings now, I will have a look to see who it is.
This is the message I want to convey. The Bartch house kitchen, dining area, living area and the beautiful porch have become important places for people to meet. This is where people help me wait. This is where I have made friends with whom I will share a bond…for life.
There are women and men with loved ones with whom they spent a tiring day in the hospital. They come to the Bartch House tired, and possibly sad and frightened, and might be offered some tuna casserole made by another guest. All of them, to a person, talk about the care they receive.
More than once, I have heard a person say, “Where does this hospital find such good people?”
Some guests are frightened, but they find someone to talk to and share their story. A woman waiting for a lung transplant met another woman who had one a few months prior, and is doing well. By the way, she has become famous for her jigsaw puzzles and is now known as the puzzle queen. There are 11 completed puzzles now on the tables you have provided. Whenever someone checks in, we ask them if the front desk told them that they have to put in two hours a night on the puzzles. It isn’t the puzzles that matter. It is the talking and sharing that happens when we do the puzzles.
I also met a woman with six kidneys…a man who got a heart and kidney, another man whose wife has waited for years for an organ, and and how kind they are to one another. It’s there for all the people at the Bartch House to see. I met two men who had bone marrow transplants and I now communicate with one by email. I have made a few friends for life.
Soon, I will share the important gift, the treasure of a new organ that keeps so many of us alive.
Gratitude is what the Bartch House is all about. It is a place to share stories, and a place of comfort. It is a place where the staff is generous with their time, and as kind as the amazing people who work at Florida hospital.
Waiting for a new heart involves a bit of gallows humor. You just cant help it, but the fact is, someone younger than me will die, and will generously donate a heart which will become mine. You might read this and just think it’s interesting. Waiting for a heart which will keep me alive brings this theoretical paradox to reality. When I received the first call for a heart, I was in my car, and felt excitement, and relief. I would live! Then I chastised myself; someone had died that day, someone younger than me. I said a prayer of gratitude for him. It turns out, he was much younger; 31 years old. When I came to in the recovery room the next day, my first thought was, “Wow. There is nothing to this heart transplant stuff. I feel great!”
While still in a groggy state, someone, a nurse, I guess, told me that the donor had advanced heart disease. As Lucille so aptly said, it was a clunker. Now, I wait for a new one. It has been a few weeks, I think, and each day at the top of the list seems longer.
The chaplain who later visited me in the hospital and mostly listened as I pontificated about this paradox gave indication that she wanted to leave when she said, “Let’s pray for a new heart for you.” I said, I couldn’t, and would rather pray for the donor who lost his life and whose heart could not be used. How noble of me. My nobility is waning.
I was in the Fresh Market at the fish counter on Ash Wednesday, standing next to two women in their late 70’s or so, each with the sign of the cross on their foreheads in ashes. They asked the guy behind the counter about the salmon. I interrupted and said, “Don’t buy that. Its farmed fish, eats corn full of chemicals and antibiotics and has to be colored to make it look like salmon.” They were a bit shocked at my interruption, and asked what they should buy instead. “The Copper River Salmon. Look at it. It’s rich in color and the best you can buy.”
They were shocked at the priced difference. The farmed salmon was $6 a pound, vs. $19 for the Copper River.
“We are nuns living in the convent. We can’t afford that.”
My lingering Catholic guilt came to bear on me while standing there with no ashes on my head, and having skipped church for more than a few Sundays…many more. I went into a diatribe of elementary school, Sister Mark, who was as mean as a snake, and Sister Bernadette who as kind as a woman could be. They laughed as I told them of the paddling I had received from Sister Mark. The fish guy waited with his elbows on the counter.
“I will buy a pound of the salmon for you,” I said.
“No, we can’t accept such a gift.”
“It’s not a gift. We are making a deal.”
The fish guy then weighed out a piece that was almost a pound and a half, looked at me with a sly grin, wrapped it and handed it to the nuns. It was nearly $10 over what I had planned on, but the nuns were cautiously pleased.
“I am waiting for a new heart at Florida Hospital. I will trade the fish for a prayer for a new heart, since you two have a direct link to God.”
They took the fish, smiled, and said they would say much more than one prayer. I thought, my heart is on its way, and the hell…I mean, to heck with the nobility I had displayed to the hospital chaplain. I wish I knew where the convent is. I am still waiting.
Today, I took a more direct approach. I was back in the same Fresh Market today, where the nurses come wearing scrubs. There was one picking oranges from the same bin as me.
“Do all the nurses stop here for food on the way home?”
“I am on my way to work, just picking up a few things for lunch.”
“I am on the heart transplant list at Florida Hospital. Dr. Silvestry is my surgeon,” I said with a bit of pride.
“I have heard of him, but never met him. I am in the neuro ICU.”
“What’s that mean?”
“We deal with brain trauma. Many of the transplant donors come from our ICU. They are brain dead and we keep the organs functioning.”
“Well, its Bike Week and Spring Break here in Florida. Maybe I will have a heart soon.”
I should be working now, instead of sitting at my desk on the boat writing, but frankly, I am a bit tired and a little sad. Don’t worry, I will get over my sadness. I just have to be grateful for all I have, how lucky I am, and, that I am even alive.
I think of you often, Mom. I am, for the most part, doing well. You would be livid over our new president, but I doubt we would be arguing politics, as we often did. All I can say is, that he is not a gentleman. I didn’t vote for him, but I was in the hospital in a coma, so I cannot take the high ground. It reminds me of the comment I made when you were in the hospital when Jimmy Carter ran against Ronald Reagan, and I told you that God struck you down so you couldn’t vote. I never said I was sorry, even though you kicked me out of your hospital room.
February 6, I had a reserved slot to pass through the Panama Canal, spend a few days in the Las Perlas Islands off the coast of Panama to wait for a weather window, then make the long, twenty five-day sail across the Pacific to the Marquises, then on to French Polynesia, the Solomon’s and Australia and, countless other islands in the South Pacific. I had hoped to sail north to Japan, then to Alaska, and down through Puget Sound and stop in San Francisco. It takes a long time to prepare, and Ariadne, my boat, was ready. My Aussie sailing partners, Karen and Dave Pratt on S/V Amokura messaged me today, telling me how they will miss me. I will miss them as well. The Pacific this time of year is long swells, beautiful sea, and the wind behind the mast day after day. My boat is ready for this long adventure. My body is not, and never will be again. I told Mark, whom as you recall, has been my friend since I was 12, that I was disappointed and a bit sad that I would miss this adventure. Mark said, “You have had far more than your fair share of adventure in this life.” I have.
I came to Tampa on October 12 to buy a few things for Ariadne, planning to go on to Ohio to teach a seminar with David. I was driving north on I-275 in Tampa in heavy traffic on my way to the airport, plenty of time to spare. I felt dizzy, then immediately passed out. Don’t worry, Mom. I didn’t hit anyone or anything. The car veered into a ditch, hitting no other cars, and doing no damage. There were two good Samaritans who came to my help and called the police and an ambulance. I said, “Yes” when the policeman asked if I could walk up the embankment, I stood, threw up, and collapsed. The cop carried my then 190-pound body up the hill and placed me on a stretcher. I was taken to St Josephs, a mile or so away, examined, and found to have a defective heart valve. Two days later, I had open heart surgery to replace it with a valve from a cow. After surgery, my sailing plan was still intact. I would be back on my boat in no time at all.
Two days into recovery, my world changed forever.
I came to in a room full of machines. Barbara was sitting next to me and Sam, in the doorway, tubes in my mouth nose, legs, chest…and every other place you can think of.
“Hey, Dad, you want to know who won the World Series and the election?”
I rolled over and passed out again, thinking he had a poor sense of humor. The elections were not for two more weeks, I thought, not knowing I had had a massive heart attack from a drug reaction, been in a coma for three weeks on life support machines, lost 26 pounds and flirted constantly with death. Nor did I know that the doctors in Tampa had no idea what was wrong with me, and helicoptered me to Florida Hospital in Orlando where the heart team there saved my life.
I thought a lot about this today. I remember when you came to me in a vision while I was in a coma, and said I would get a new heart on February 4. It has come and gone, Mom. Did you mean February 14? I hope so. I recall how you looked when you appeared to me. You were about 50 or so, younger than I am.
Lucille has done more for me than I can say, Mom. We have become close. She was present for all the important things that happened in the hospital and made decisions for me when I could not. Christine has called me nearly every day. She is a wonderful grandmother. You taught her well. Diane and Mary Ellen have kept in constant touch. Diane and Chris talked all the time when I was in a coma, my life in the balance, and cried, thinking I would die. I love it that they cried for me. I am glad I survived, so that I could find sort of a perverse pleasure in how many people were crying, and praying for me.
Ariadne is for sale, which breaks my heart. I loved living on a boat and the sea. I loved being in Panama, a place where I stayed longer than I wanted to, because I fell in love with a beautiful woman whose parents were from China. She was fun, laughed a lot, and could fish better than I could. I wanted her to sail with me, but she got miserably sea sick. I didn’t do the right thing by her. I have not done well in love. In the years that have long past, I told myself and those who would listen that my family was certainly first. That was delusional. My work and my ambition was first.
Now, I am tethered to a medicine bag, waiting for a new heart. Do you think you could have a chat with God? I don’t want someone to die to save my life, but would you please help those who make these decisions to see that there is a heart for me? On February 14, if that’s not too much to ask?
I miss you, Mom. I was close to being the first to come to see you in heaven, but I suspect I would have had to spend some time in purgatory with Dad before God let me into heaven.
Her name really wasn’t Chicken; it was Gai, which means chicken in Thai. Thai women have given names as long as your arm, often difficult to pronounce, so most end up with one-syllable nicknames, such as Lek which means small, Dang, which is red, or We, Oi, or Kung. Kung means shrimp. I don’t know what We or Oi means.
The Story of Chicken was told to me by my brother a long time ago over a period of a few months. I never met Chicken. I wish I had, but I have met many other good people with the same determination in life. My brother met her on a plane from Bangkok to San Francisco. Her plan was to get a high school education in the United States, a strange goal for a woman in her early 30’s. Bob became friends with her, and helped her in California, and over time, learned her story.
I have to fill in a few parts of the story I barely remember, but I remember the important bits. I told the story the first time at the Wentworth Country Club in Rye, New Hampshire to a friend who told me his son was getting an undergraduate degree in business administration. I suggested a month with Chicken would be time better spent.
Chicken knows business. She is an expert. I think she could teach at either Stanford or Harvard MBA program. She started life being poor; not poor like an American, but desperately poor. Like a few other people I have met, Chicken came to make an early commitment to work her way out of poverty, and to never be poor again. She wanted to live a life free of economic terror. Chicken knew the harshness of poverty. She knew hunger and starvation, dirt and filth. She also knew the kindness of strangers.
Chicken was orphaned at a young age. Before she was ten, her mother and father were killed in a motorbike accident in Bangkok. If you have been to Bangkok, you would wonder why more bikers aren’t killed. Chicken became a street urchin, a dirty ragamuffin, the kind you see with ratty hair, no shoes, filthy clothes and fingernails. Some have fear in their eyes, some a determined passion.
Chicken, like many of these children, made her way buying trinkets, candy and gum and selling to people stuck in Bangkok’s massive traffic jams, knocking on the windows with tourist’s in taxi’s, pleading with those in open tuk-tuks as they clutch tightly to their purses. Chicken knew at an early age the importance of buying and selling. She learned that nothing happens until something is sold, a lesson most Americans never experience. Whereas Americans want someone to give them a job to lift them out of poverty, Chicken learned to work for herself to get out.
A stranger, a woman, took pity on Chicken when she was a street child, and took her to live with her in a house of ill repute. Her savior was a prostitute, like Mary Magdalen. I pass gentle judgment on such a woman. I am not up on the bible, but I have wondered why Mary Magdalen had a last name, while most bible characters have only a first, possibly followed by the place they were from. I don’t know much about Mary’s life, other than her profession, and that Christ forgave her. Was she a mother? Did her husband say, “I divorce you” three times, casting her to the street? Was the life of a harlot safer than one of wife to a man who abused and beat her? Did he die, was he killed, leaving her with no recourse to feeding her children? Did Mary Magdalene have no family to turn to for help?
I was with my son in Bangkok one night, also years ago, at a sidewalk café when a young Thai woman walked by holding the hand of a man who would have been about the age of her grandfather. He was Caucasian, wearing brown wingtip shoes, short pants, black socks from which stuck an ugly pair of skinny legs, fish-belly white. It was late, and it was clear what was happening. I asked my young son what he thought of her.
Then I asked, if his mother would ever do anything like that. He got angry, and responded with a harsh, “NO.” Of course not.
“You might be surprised what she would do if it were the last resort to feeding you. Don’t judge harshly. She might have children to feed. Maybe she picked that guy because he is old and harmless. Maybe she can get him to pay a bit more if she is kind to him.”
For several years, Chicken worked in a bar where women of negotiable virtue plied their trade, in exchange for a place to live, and food. When deemed old enough, she took on that life as well.
After a year or two, it seemed as if she had found a way out. A man in his early 50’s fell madly in love with Chicken, promised to save her, marry her, and take her away to the Promised Land somewhere in Arizona. I suppose the other girls were happy for her. Chicken married, got her Green Card and a U.S. passport, and was on her way to a new life! Chicken’s life of ease, however, was short lived, as her savior severely abused and beat her, as she struggled to find her way in a new and strange culture. Somehow, she escaped, gathering enough money to buy a ticket back to Pat Pong in Bangkok, where she resumed her former occupation, keeping herself just barely out of the grim reach of poverty, but free from her abuser.
Chicken had seen a better life, and wanted it, but on her own terms. She promised herself that she would make her way out of poverty, out of this life, and never be poor again. Chicken was determined, saving every Thai baht she could. She spent only enough to get by, living a frugal life. She was a hard bargainer for her wares. She had no apartment, and slept where she could, but she was clean and pretty.
There are a lot of poor people like Chicken, but you can’t tell by looking. They might be poor, but they know the dignity of cleanliness and work; people who pull up their pants, get to it with a smile, living life on life’s terms, without anger or rage.
I have seen such people in the factories around the world where I have worked, among other places, China, India, and Mexico; especially Mexico.
People like Chicken know that you can’t look to the government to save you. They know that every government does two things well: take your money and kill people. A few more can keep order, and build roads and bridges, but few can even do that well.
Chicken continued to save, and soon had enough to buy a 7-11 convenience store in Bangkok. Now she had employees, and inventory to buy and track. Chicken was no stranger to commerce, no fool who was easy to cheat. Chicken knew the fundamentals of business and what she didn’t know, being smart, clever and determined, could figure out fast. She had learned to do quick calculations in her head. Her reading might have been poor, but her math wasn’t. Chicken was an entrepreneur, now with two occupations; working all day at the store and half the night at the oldest profession. Soon, she had enough to buy a second store. Chicken didn’t have a degree, but she could be a professor.
Chicken continued to save and work, but she felt something was missing in her life. She wanted to go to high school. That’s when she did something that to this day, I don’t understand. She sold her two stores, got on a plane to San Francisco, where she sat next to my brother. They became friends. He even took her to visit my parents, neither ever knowing the full Story of Chicken.
Chicken got her wish. She somehow went to school, then back to Thailand. Now she owns and runs a fleet of taxi cabs and lives in a nice house away from Nana Plaza. She had two children by an Australian man. Last I knew, he was still living with her. No, she didn’t marry him. She doesn’t love or trust men enough to marry one. But she loves her children.
If you ever go to Bangkok and need a ride, let me know. I will get the number of her taxi company. Be prepared to pay full price. Chicken gives discounts to no one. She didn’t learn that in business school.
I was having coffee with a couple of close friends a month or so ago. I forget the context, but one, a very close friend, said, “I am not a gay man. I am a man who is gay.”
I thought about it at the time, and have been thinking even more about it lately. I think there is an important message in what he said. I want to know how I am like someone, no matter their culture, race, or what they do for a living. What do we share? What can we talk about? If we can find how we are alike, then we can talk about how we see things, and why we see them as we do. As Congressman Trey Gowdy asked, does unity matter more than diversity? Truth more than freedom? I seek truth and unity. I value liberty.
Now, I have known this man for a long time. I admire him. He has done many things with his life that I wish I had done. He is a good friend to many people, where I am not. He was born in New Hampshire, went to undergraduate and graduate school in New Hampshire. He left, as his career demanded, lived in a few places, then returned to his home. He has a home, whereas I don’t. He does important work now for free. He is with the same partner, and has been for longer than I managed to stay married. I envy his stability in life which I have not found.
We have many things in common and only a few that make us different. I have seen him as a man who is gay, not a gay man for many years. Since he said it over coffee, I have thought more about it.
When I was a boy, there was a girl who lived across the street who looked more like Mick Jagger than Mick Jagger. C could play the guitar better than Jim, Joe or Bill, and made it a career. I knew C was different. I was looking at C’s web site recently. Why, I have no idea. C’s name was spelled different. I thought it was an error. But I read the blog, and C had undergone a sex change. Well, not really. C is and has been, a man. I knew, in my little boyish mind, that C was more like me than any of the girls. C was one of the guys, and could play better than any of rest of them. If I can put it in a crude way, C was a man without a penis. And I don’t care that he doesn’t.
Now, this has very little to do with sexual preferences. It has to do with things I have in common with others, which is the basis for any relationship. It has to do with unity.
I am in Southeast Asia now. I don’t carry my phone. I use a real camera when I want a picture, but mostly I like to see and write about what moves me. To me, words are better than a picture; at least, they make a picture more powerful. I am avoiding the constant electronic interruptions in life. I don’t need to have NEWS FLASH after NEWS FLASH, especially now. I like life. I am a lucky man. News flashes impinge on my ability to find common ground with others who are very much like me.
There was a blog post I read yesterday that moved me, Make it Stop by Jon Carrol. It was beautifully written by a man I can find common ground with. I can also find things he wrote that I don’t agree with. So what? He expresses the sadness and insanity of the death spiral we, as Americans, find ourselves wrapped in. He talked about stupid people talking about stupid things. I hope he would pass positive judgement on what I am writing.
Just as I see a man who is gay, I wish to see a man who is black, not an African-American. I wish to see a man who is from Mexico, not a Mexican. I wish to see a man who is Muslim, not a Muslim. I am not interested in an African-American President, but a President who is an American man who has an African father.
I watched a video on You Tube yesterday, a speech by Trey Gowdy. It also moved me, and I hope to be a better man for it. Congressman Gowdy said that if you want to persuade a person to see things your way, do it without insulting him. He said that a good relationship can only survive in the absence of insults. Today’s social media is based on insults. I do it. I have reposted insults to Hillary Clinton. I insulted my ex-wife, thinking I was smart and witty, and said I didn’t mean to hurt anyone. I am good at insults.
I write this because I was moved to do so by a man who is gay, Jonathon Carroll, and Congressman Trey Gowdy. Contrast that with the constant barrage of insults in the news and social media, with Facebook leading the way. They only make me angry. They insult me if I disagree, and I insult those with whom I do not agree. Its easy. Just copy and post.
From now on, I am going to do my best to seek common ground, to find unity, especially with those who share my American heritage.
If you post or repost insults, even if it is about Trump or Clinton, I will message you, telling you that I am going to ban your posts. If I violate my own intentions, feel free to call me on it.
I will try to persuade others to see the world as I do, a beautiful place for those who seek liberty and freedom from government. I will avoid those who run for office based on a campaign of insults. I won’t be voting for a Democrat or a Republican in 2016. I will vote for Liberty, only if the campaign is free of insults. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter who is elected anyway.
Ah, jeez. Chicken feet. I hate chicken feet. They are worse than eating dog.
We were on our way to look at some land in Laos to lease for project I am working on. Let’s just say that it is a bit of land, and unbelievably cheap. Thanks to the Communists, I guess. Before we went to have a look, we had to stop to see the village chief. I like that. He was noble looking enough and smiled. His wife served the food while we sat on wobbly plastic chairs on a cement floor, sort of like a porch. The kitchen and bathroom (the outhouse) are always outside. There were pigs, goats and chickens running around. There was one pig in a pit next to the eating area, where food was prepared. I guess he was dinner for next week. There was a goat watching me, front legs on the upper step, looking ready to charge. I kicked a chicken out from under the table like it was a cat.
I like these kind of adventures. Its more fun than hanging out in a fancy restaurant in New York City with a bunch of Republicans making a deal. But when his wife put the bowl of chicken parts in front of me I would rather have been anywhere else. I try my best to eat whats placed in front of me in situations like this, but I have gagged on chicken feet in the past. Dog, horse, monkey, bugs, live fish; I have tried it all. To make it worse, there was a chicken head just under the foot, split in half as if a viking warrior had come down with a blow of his sword and split his skull cleanly in half. Oh, stop whining. You just have to read it. I had to eat it.
The toes are the worst part, so i decided to start from the ankle and work my way down. Jesus, Mary, and St. Joseph, pray for me. Help me get through this day and I will go to church again. Chicken feet are like chewing on someone’s nose. I gnawed down a way, then couldn’t do any more. The Chief watched me, as if it were a test of manhood. I hope I passed. The Thai people looked in admiration. (For the record, I never eat fast food or factory food. They think Falangs can only eat McDonalds and KFC, and can’t handle spicy food.) I found out later, they had brought some Thai food along, just in case I couldn’t eat. The sticky rice was pretty good, but everyone reached in with one hand, and ate it with the other. I watched carefully so I wouldn’t use the wrong hand.
Just as I thought I was finished, the chief’s wife brought out a bottle of something that looked fierce, and I suspected was some sort of Lao white lightning, but it was red rather than clear. She poured some in a glass, handed it to the person on her left who drank it. She refilled it, working her way around the group, same glass. That shouldn’t bother anyone. No germs could survive. The drinkers all tossed it back, turned red, started to sweat, and then reached for a bottle of water. The guy who was two over from me tossed his back like a pro, and I asked, him, what it tasted like. “Gasoline.”
Now, everyone who knows me well who reads this knows I don’t drink and haven’t for a long time. Those who are the Facebook friends from days long ago might think, “That makes sense. He shouldn’t.” I wasn’t going to drink that stuff, custom or no. I looked at the Thai person in charge, and signaled, no way. He waived the chief’s wife off, and I was saved. I escaped, off by myself, as they started the second time around with the bottle. I went past a pig or two on the way to the outhouse, which I have to admit was about as clean as you could get an outhouse. I walked around the village a bit, stared at by kids who had likely not seen a white man. I liked it. I always do.
After a bit, the whole entourage came out, in a wagon pulled by a rice plow, everyone standing inside. It was like a hay ride, but the wagon was small and I had no idea what was in it last. I walked behind the wagon for as far as I could. When we got to the point where we turned to head through the rice paddies before heading up into the jungle, I climbed into the back. That didn’t last long, as the wagon got stuck in the mud, and everyone had to get out and walk, me in my new sneakers, no hiking boots.
Well, we saw what we needed to see. Life is just one adventure after another.
Life was easy back then. It wasn’t simple, but it was easy.
I am in my mid-60’s now, and grateful. I worked through one of the most interesting and transformational periods in the history of the United States. I think there were two periods, and they ran sequentially, without a break. My father lived through one, and I, through the next. Now, I think we are on the edge of a third. The first was built on blood and steel, the second on the wave pushed up by the first, sustained by silicone and software. The one to come, I think, will happen as the wave crashes and falls. I hope as it dissipates, the released energy will power our growth instead of smashing what lies in its path. I am not confident.
I can’t see any historical period where so much happened so fast to those who invent things, and those work in factories making them, and those who fight to preserve, and take them away. I was lucky, and lived through the best of it. I worked with fascinating people in Asia, the U.S, Europe, South America and the Middle East on interesting projects in plastics, automotive, aerospace, foundries, steel, smelters, electronics and mining. I learned a lot in spite of myself. I Have earned enough to consider myself fortunate, lost it all, then earned enough back; not nearly what I had, but enough.
I thought I was lucky to see the world while helping engineers. What I really saw was an evolutionary change that few are aware of, but everyone is feeling and fears. My father saw the beginning.
My father was educated in a one-room school house in Colorado, near the New Mexico border. His family was poor, but it was a good family. The one room adobe school was at the end of a dirt road at the base of a rock-strewn mountain. There was no electricity until the mid-30’s, and kids from a long way off walked or rode horses to school, including a girl who was a descendant of Kit Carson, who my dad had a crush on. Nearby, my father and his brothers took a horse-drawn wagon to a spring to fetch water for the school and their home. After the three of them left for the war, my grandmother, Mollie, and my grandfather, Sam, had a hired man fetch water with a truck. As a boy, Uncle John was charged with chasing the skunks out from under the school. He got twenty-five cents for each pelt if properly tube-skinned. My dad lit the stove while John shot skunks, as he knew how to drop them with a .22 round before they sprayed.
The twenty or so kids had the same teacher from grades 1-8. She clearly did a good job. These kids went on to do well in engineering, medicine, and life, but there was a war to fight along the way. Uncle John, joined the Army Air corps, my father went into the Navy, and Uncle David, the Marines. Between them, they had over 25 battle stars, my father and Uncle David, for Iwo Jima, while David landed on the beach and my dad was on a battleship 1000 yards off shore, his younger brother running up that deadly beach. Uncle John flew over Asia and Europe. They were the first Allen’s outside the United States (unless you count Texas) since the first one set foot in North Carolina in the 1660’s. My grandfather, Samuel Ross Allen, was born in Belton, Texas, in 1888, and, to the best of my knowledge, never went beyond Texas, New Mexico, or Colorado. He was a poor dust bowl farmer with a large family, and died at 58.
I was nothing like my father.
I knew little of his life and his culture. I didn’t ask, and he didn’t volunteer. I knew nothing about hard work at an early age, and I knew nothing about working for food in a dusty field. I knew nothing about thinking that a war was a way to get out of chasing cows on the back of a horse in a snow storm, wearing nothing but a flannel shirt stuffed with paper in a futile attempt to keep warm. My generation went to war under justifiable protest, and his, because it was the right thing to do. There was a wedge between generations, generations that came to look at the the same things, but never to see them the same way. Mine is arrogant enough to think it is always right, never taking the time to imagine what it was like to walk a mile in their shoes. We are, frankly, selfish and narrow minded, no matter how much we prattle on about diversity, inclusiveness and more day care centers and money for education, without ever asking how and why a one room school house worked so well.
Compared to him, I was weak. I grew up feeling that I deserved things. Life came easy for me and my generation, but I thought it was BECAUSE of me. My father and I didn’t get along well. We fought a few times. I was hit with an open hand a few times, took it and stared back. Once, he hit me with a fist, and I hit him back. Then I took a beating. I don’t remember what it was about, but I was hard to handle. The time came for me to keep my head down, then get away. I was 18, and a week after I finished high school, I was in the Navy. It was 1968.
The U.S. Navy had modern submarines and ships, but an aircraft carrier, two battleships, and a few destroyers were left over from World War II, with plenty of ammunition to fire from 5 and 16 inch guns into Vietnam.
I was a good submariner, but not much of a sailor. I learned a lot, the technology was easy and interesting, but like most things, it took me years to figure out just what I had learned and its value. I was a boy running a nuclear power plant. When I look back, I am surprised at the effectiveness of training which can teach boys to do such things, and do them well. The United States Navy had the best and most effective training I have ever seen. I tried to emulate what I had learned to teach engineers as I moved on. It became part of me. I hope the training is as good today. I suspect it is better, as today they teach kids like my niece to run machines on ships at sea far more sophisticated.
It was hard to be a good sailor or soldier then. It was difficult to wear a uniform that set you apart from those who had been your peers, but whom you could never be like again. You saw things different, but I never saw them like my father did. I respected the Navy, loved my country and its people, but have come to fear my government. I learned that governments do two things well; take your money and take your life. I have seen man’s inhumanity to his fellow man. It is independent of race and culture. There are a few tasks we are stuck having government do. I prefer to keep it to as few as possible, because I expect little, and fear the motive. I trust people in a factory far more.
I left the military, went to college, got an engineering degree, mostly paid for by the G.I. Bill, a bill intended for guys like my father and his brothers. I deserved it, I thought. I was able to make my way through school without taking any money from my father, but it was easy to get a part-time job that paid enough to get by, and to drink plenty of beer on weekends. A good education was cheap back then. You didn’t have to borrow money. A few years later, I spent more on day-care than I had on college tuition. I thought it was the way it was supposed to be, but had no idea it was because of guys like my father, and a post-war economy that wouldn’t last. In retrospect, I feel naive, but at least I think about it more than the people we elected. I know; that’s a low bar.
I graduated in the spring of 1977, looked in the local newspaper, The Erie Times, circled a few ads, applied to about ten jobs, and was offered more than one. Getting a job was easy back then. I took a job at an interesting company, for $13,000 a year. I bought a car, with payments of $79 a month. I rented an apartment, and by the time I was 30, bought a house for $32,000, and was soon earning $30,000 a year. Earning your age meant you had “made it,” that you were on your way. This reinforced that I was getting what I was due. I deserved it, by God!
I was smart, and learned quickly, but so were a lot of other guys. Smart guys were easy enough to find. Yes, it was guys. There were hardly any women running factories in those days. There were a lot of black guys working in them, but few were helping to run them. One black guy, the next door neighbor when I was a boy, had a high level job at GE. He was an extraordinary man, in a world of smart guys. He had to be. We should have found a way to include minorities before the government got involved. We would all have ended up much better off. A good capitalist should have done it for no other reason than minorities and women buy stuff and see things in a different way. Seeing things different from the way I do is interesting to me. Even today, I don’t spend much time hanging around guys like me. What’s the point? Seeing things in different ways has become part of me.
If you just showed up at work back then, put in a little effort, you could make a good living. I was making my way up the middle class, a place I thought I deserved. There were workers in the factory who could support a family, maybe not so well, but the work was dependable even if some of it a drudge.
My first job was an easy place to work for me, but once again, I didn’t know it. We mostly made plastic milk crates in several cities in the U.S., with a few clever twists, and knew we would make a few more every year. Brad, the guy who took the company over from his father was strange, but clever. He was also smart, but clever matters more than smart. He was a good man, but haunted in more ways than one. Life has taught me that haunted people are often the most clever among us. So has history.
Brad was one of a very few haunted men, who I think, clever enough to develop a good idea, hire a few smart guys, build a factory or two, and keep it going. He thought he had something to prove to himself. You try to prove something to yourself, do it, then change the criteria. It’s nigh impossible to do enough to prove enough to ourselves if we are haunted.
There were lots of guys like me, smart, young, who were able to keep the place running, week after week, and year after year. We didn’t need to be clever. We just wanted a little more.
The older I get, the more fondly I think of Brad, and what I learned from him. He certainly is unforgettable. He hired people who could really sell, and he knew how important it was. I remember, one day, sitting in his office in Los Angels with a few other guys talking about ways to spend his money on some silly project. Brad half-listened, jumping up and down, sliding the glass partition open and shut to order Suzie to do some damn thing, breathing hard, and snapping his teeth. The harder he breathed, the closer he was to saying something.
“Nothing happens until something is sold.” That’s all he said. I had no idea what in hell he was talking about at the time. I do now. Go sell it, whatever IT was, then do it. Sell it first.
Now, in my own little company, I try to get a purchase order for one dollar. If I can do that, I can get another, and another. I watch others flail away trying to make a million dollars, while I want to earn a buck. Way back then, I resented the sales guys. After all, they weren’t as smart as I was. They just dressed better, and were all better looking guys. But they could sell, and nothing happened until something was sold. If they didn’t sell, there was nothing for me to do. Brad knew it, and knew how to hire the right guys to sell. To me, I still thought in terms of what was fair…fair to me.
Brad had a few other clever ideas. One was crazy. He decided to buy a business that was making components for hard drives in the days when it was a new product. He was also crazy enough to give me the most senior manufacturing management job. I had no idea what in hell I was doing, and was too foolish to admit it. If I had, there were guys to help, like Tim and Mike. However, I was lucky, and learned a lot, especially from a couple of guys in the tool room. I was able to put what I learned to good use in the next few years. I was lucky.
We were machining parts for one gigabyte hard drives back then, that were as big as apartment-size washing machine, selling for $40,000. Today I can give away a 128 gig thumb drive with my company logo for customers to hook onto a key chain.
In Brad’s primary business, the one before he decided to buy the company that made hard drives, you could project sales for the next year based on the last. It was easy, and you weren’t likely to be far off, so at the end of the year, you could easily congratulate yourself about how smart you were.
I was just learning to use an electronic spreadsheet back then. I remember working with Alan to figure out what it meant to “replicate” numbers and formulas down a column. A year or so before that, I was using thirteen column green accountants paper to project (guess) at budgets. The speed at which you could make a change was based on how fast you could use an eraser, pencil and a calculator.
Electronic spreadsheets are something my father never learned. It involved typing and he wanted nothing to do with it. When I was in about the 9th grade, I signed up for Personal Typing. When my father found out, he said, “No son of mine is going to learn to type,” and threatened to pull me out. How was I supposed to know that Real Men Don’t Type?
Nothing came of it, but I made sure I didn’t get a good grade. I only took the class because Jim, Mark and I thought there were lots of pretty girls in there. I think my father must have feared that any desire to learn to type meant that I was sweet on Jim or Mark. Years later, when Dad took a job in San Francisco for the Southern Pacific Railroad and had a gay secretary, I reminded him of that episode. He was far more tolerant at that stage in his life, but clearly had hoped I had forgotten.
Neither Brad, Mike nor I had any idea that everything we were machining for hard drives would be obsolete in 6 months. We had no idea that the business, that business in general, would change so fast. We should have. The sales and profit projections on that new spreadsheet thing were silly. Not only did we need to learn to make and sell things as they were being invented, we had to have access to clever people, and lots of them, to do it. Then it wasn’t the sales guys that mattered as much as the engineers who could change the factory around on a dime, and make a profit with increasing competitive pressure. We didn’t have it. I didn’t know it then.
I think Brad learned, slowly, to face his own shortcomings, and came to depend on Mike to compensate. Brad came to trust Mike, who was smart, and worthy of Brad’s trust. Mike became clever. Mike didn’t gossip with those who didn’t matter. He had a level of humility, or at least exhibited it, that was beyond his years. Clever, I think, is latent, not learned, but must be developed and fostered to flourish. Mike pulled it off. I wonder if he knew what he was doing at the time. I didn’t.
Manufacturing and industry were on the cusp of a revolution. The products made in the USA were going to change and change fast. I had no idea what was to come. I don’t think Bill Gates, Andy Grove or Steve Jobs did either. They had clever ideas; extraordinary ideas. Were they also haunted? Jobs was. It was to be the best of times, and the worst of times. Things happened, and a lot of people suffered while many got rich. Although techies got rich, not many got into the middle class as a result of what was to happen. Politicians took credit for the best, and blamed capitalism for the worst. It happened fast. I know what happened, and why. Politicians don’t.
I was in the deep end of the pool then, in over my head, at least then, and so were a lot of other people. I was escorted to the door, lucky or smart enough to know some of what I didn’t know, determined to move on, to learn and to protect myself. I did learn or develop this thing called clever, and ultimately find my place. Maybe clever comes from failure. I did fail, but learned to fail and fail fast, then move on. My place was in the factory, a place I liked, and learned to be among the best in a very narrow field. I was no manager, no general manager. I am a specialist, in a field that has only a few. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to be the best, it was that I liked factories, liked making things, liked making them run better, and and was liked with the people who worked there. Factory people are special. They are the reason there is a middle class. They really do add value. I know it, and I help.
We got good at it. It was fun. We got to be the best.
Chapter 2 A Japanese Machine Tool Company soon
Chapter 3 An introduction to Consulting a little later…
Chapter 4 Founding a Consulting Company..after that..
Chapter 5 The New Science of Fixing Things A project or two
I live on my sailboat in the Caribbean. Now I am in Panama.
I asked the local maintenance guy to change the zincs (sacrificial anodes) on my boat, a task for a diver. There are zincs on the end of the prop, the rudder support, the prop shaft and the bow thruster. The diver was from Spain, and the guy he dives for is from South Africa. There is an Englishman on the next boat over with an accent so thick, I just nod and agree with him.
I handed the South African boss the zincs and he asked if I had spare stainless steel bolts. I said I did, and fetched them. He asked if the boat, an Island Packet 445 made in the USA, used that “stupid American measuring system.”
I replied, “It’s not American system. The damn English gave it to us before we threw them out. And the bolts are metric.”
The Englishman, who was drinking beer because it was just past noon, jumped in, “At least we had enough sense to get rid of it. You Yanks will never be able to do science as long as you keep it up.”
I made a comment about the French having start it with Napoleon, which starting a series of trading a few more offensive and politically incorrect shots.
The Spanish diver came up, and said one of the bolts he was trying to reuse was bent, and he needed a new one. He handed it to the South African. I looked down from the deck of my boat, and asked, “Is it an M6?”
He gave me a dirty look as if I didn’t know bolt sizes from afar. “It’s an M4.”
It was dusk. I was walking through Bocas town with Toni wearing short pants and a t-shirt, a ball cap, and my backpack with chancleta on my feet. Willie stopped his rusty old bicycle next to me and said, “Weed, Weed?”
I find it a bit odd that he even asks me, a man in my mid 60’s. Then again, why not? Lot’s of gringos still smoke dope. “Look, Mate, give it a rest. No, I don’t want any weed. You ask me every night, and I tell you the same damn thing. That was in another lifetime. Don’t you recognize me as the guy who always says, no?”
His broad white smile opened across his black face. “And I always tell you white people all look the same to me.”
His lack of prosperity doesn’t say much for the drug trade, but he has reached a level of infamy, as everyone in town knows him as Weed Willie.
I like nicknames. Maybe it’s because I never had one. Maybe it’s because I have a hard time remembering names, but never forget a nickname. With a name like John, you would think I would need one to differentiate me from others in a place where there are a lot of John’s and no one knows your last name. When I was in the Navy, I was called by my middle name, Ross, but that’s not a nickname.
Here in Bocas, there are those who are great friends, and have been great friends for years, but don’t know your last name. I like that.
There is Hostel Heike, who owns a hostel, of course. That’s a good nickname. It speaks to her character as well as what she owns. I bet she is from Germany. There is a hostel in town called Hostel La Vista. That’s a great name. It sticks with you. I wonder if Hostel Heike owns Hostel La Vista. That would be perfect.
Chris Fish sold fish, of course, but he can’t get fish anymore from Panama City, so now he makes sausage. I wonder why he isn’t called Fish Chris, or if he will be called Sausage Chris before too long. Its too bad about the fish. I liked him. He was careful to make sure he only had fresh fish from the sea. He told me not to eat tilapia, junk fish raised in tanks fed chicken waste, or the trout, farmed in Chirique since they are fed liver pills loaded with chemicals.
There is also Wifi Gary. He installed the wifi in the marina, and is always fixing it and upgrading the equipment. Gary is about my age, clever and friendly. He is clever enough, I guess, to keep getting calls to fix it. I wonder if he bills by the hour. Gary is building a grocery store on Red Frog to expand his empire. I wonder if he will get a new nickname.
Last week, I stepped onto the water taxi to town at the Red Frog Marina dock. DC was coming down the dock (that’s his real name) asked where Gary was. One guy said that he was on his way to Almirante in another boat.
I said, “Which Gary?”
DC said, “Wifi Gary.”
“I just saw him up in the villa reception area on the phone.”
Nicknames are much better than last names. They set you apart, especially when no one knows your last name.
A few days ago, someone asked me if I saw the infection on Skinny Bob’s leg. No, I hadn’t, but I have no interest in Skinny Bob’s legs when he DOESN’T have an infection. However, the reference to Skinny Bob was all I needed to get the picture. Here in the tropics, you really can get an ugly infection. Skinny Bob had such a bad infection, he put out a call on the local radio for help in getting anti-biotics. I haven’t heard about him lately. I hope he is OK.
There are sailors here in Panama from all over the world. The people from New Zealand have the same nickname. You guessed it; they are all called Kiwi. There is Kiwi Dave, who is a great welder, if you can find him. Now, I hope no one gets offended, but I never met a Kiwi or an Aussie who wasn’t at least half crazy, but in a good way. Actually, I don’t care if you do get offended.
There is Diesel Jeff, who is the best around if you need your engine fixed. Jeff is short. Nowadays, no one gets nicknamed based on size or shape. People get too easily offended. Years ago, if you are a big guy, you might get nicknamed Tiny. No one would want to be called Tiny Tim.
When I was in the Navy, I had a good friend named Shelby Berryhill. He was an Indian, the kind with feathers, not dots. He was called, Chief, of course. Back then, all the Indians were called Chief, just like the Juicy-Fruit chewing Indian in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
I subscribe to a weather service for sailors. A guy named Stormy does the forecasts. See? I can remember his name.