June 3: The State of the States

So, I ended the last email on a bit of a cliffhanger. Did I go to Germany? Did I refuse, and get fired? Where in the world am I, and am I having as much larcenous fun as Carmen Sandiego? To resolve these questions in order: no, no, Georgia and probably not, as she looked like someone who really knew how to live life to the fullest. I’m doing fairly well myself, but I think that the only law I’ve broken so far involved shipping the chemicals for my gas mask home in my luggage, which I think I wasn’t supposed to do since they might explode. That might only be a rule, though, and anyway they didn’t explode, so it all worked out.

The potential Germany trip actually got resolved later the same day as the email. I got an email from my company confirming what Atreyu, my coworker, had told me, and after a brief exchange in which I made sure I was understanding them correctly, sent them a letter stating that their plan to ship me off to a different continent on six days notice was, in a word, unacceptable—and that, in six more words, I would not be doing it. I never got a response to this email, but when Atreyu got home eight hours later, he mentioned that they’d called him to let him know that I wouldn’t have to go to Germany after all. I was a bit miffed at the fact that they hadn’t seen fit to actually mention it to me, but after a bit of reflection concluded that that was a battle entirely not worth fighting, and let it go. I actually didn’t hear anything from my company at all on any topic until two days later, when I received an email asking me to pass a message on to Atreyu. Perhaps there’s a new company policy to never talk directly to the person you’re attempting to exchange information with. I’ll have to figure out who to ask about this, so I can ask someone else to ask them for me.

Anyway, the reason that I didn’t send out another email immediately was that it seemed silly to send out one announcing that everything was now hunky-dory when, judging by historical precedent, I was actually just about to enter the most problematic leg of the journey: the transportation portion. I figured that I’d give it a week, and write to you once I’d avoided all of the pitfalls—or fallen into them, whichever. I actually have no clear preference on transportation going right or wrong. If it’s the former, I get where I’m going on schedule and can carry on with plans. If it’s the latter, I get to complain endlessly and hypothesize about the possible environmental and genetic reasons for others’ shortcomings. It’s pretty much a win-win situation, really.

So, now that everything’s resolved, here’s how it played out. I successfully made it to the Kuwaiti airport, after convincing our contact that I really did have to be there at 6:30 AM on Wednesday, and that therefore sending someone to pick the car up Wednesday night was not going to work. I told him that he was welcome to let me drive myself and leave the car in valet parking, so he could get it at his leisure, and his expense. He then decided it would be better to send someone to get me at 6 AM after all. I spent the ride to the airport wondering about the wisdom of giving my car and apartment keys to someone who showed up outside my door with no credentials and no real shared language—but as I got to the airport, I suppose it was the right choice.

I detoured through Boston to get my body armor, which I had left there for safe-keeping. Theoretically, I was meant to take it to Kuwait, but it seemed really heavy, and the odds of me getting shot at seemed low, so I ditched it in the States before I left. As my checked luggage returning from Kuwait was 66 pounds even without the 50 pounds of body armor, I think this was an excellent call. It was much more likely to cause an injury than it was to prevent one, as I demonstrated by bruising myself with the bag while carrying it around the airport.

This was all the easy part, though. It was the final day that had the most potential for failure. I carefully designed the itinerary in keeping with my theory that if you set things up so that any minor mishap will cause a cascading failure of the entire system, everything will go off without a hitch just to be contrary. The very last day before I got home looked like this: land at the Atlanta airport at midnight, collect the pre-ordered rental car, drive the two hours to Columbus, check in, grab possibly as many as three hours of sleep before mustering at 5:30 AM, go through the redeployment process, make it back to Atlanta for my 4:40 PM flight out, catch a transfer through St. Louis that was scheduled to leave exactly thirty-five minutes after my Atlanta flight arrived, and be home in Richmond in time for dinner.

And—like a tightrope walker performing without a net—I’d be doing all this without a cell phone, so that if things went wrong, I wouldn’t even be able to easily contact people to sort it out. And like a tightrope walker performing blindfolded on a line strung by someone not known for their competence or commitment to excellence, I didn’t actually have any real information on how long the check-in process was going to take. Rumor had it taking anywhere from two hours to sixteen, but all that the official site would say was that it was a “one-day” process. I figured that as eight hours was a standard workday, that was a safe bet. Also, the 4:40 flight out was the latest one there was that would get me back to Richmond, which sort of removed the option of booking a later flight to be on the safe side.

My biggest fear was that the airlines would lose the items I had to turn back in. Even if they put them on the next flight out, they weren’t going to be in Atlanta by 5:30 AM, much less in Columbus, which would make the entire Georgia trip a waste of my time. This, fortunately, did not happen—to me. It did happen to two of the other guys who were redeploying that day, though. They had to drive back out to the airport to get official forms stating that the airport had lost the bags, and were looking for them, and then hope that when the bags showed up, the guy checking off their stuff didn’t overlook anything and bill them for missing items. I hadn’t trusted them not to try to pull a fast one on me and use a different checklist on the way out, so I’d saved the copy I’d gotten on receipt of the stuff. I noticed that although it had all of the same items on it, the final price—what I would owe if I lost everything—was almost $300 higher. Who knew body armor appreciated so quickly? It’s beating my stocks for returns so far this year.

My second concern was that the rental agency would be out of cars, or closed, or I would be in some other way unable to obtain a vehicle. This also did not happen, but it was close. When I showed up to get my compact car, the salesman told me, “Oh, we’re all out of small cars, so we’re giving you a free upgrade to a Toyota Tundra.” A Tundra, if you’re not aware, is a four-door pickup with a full backseat and a bed big enough to store the car I’d reserved. It’s also a major gas hog. I asked the agent exactly what sort of mileage it got, and he claimed not to know. I asked him if 15 miles to the gallon sounded about right, and he allowed that it did.

“So your free upgrade,” I concluded, “is going to cost me about $50 in gas.”

He looked unhappy. “How about if you bring it back with a half-tank, instead of full?”

I was happy again, and quickly restored his happiness by leaving, so I feel that solution worked out well for everybody. Interestingly, it worked out well for three random soldiers who were redeploying with me that day, too. The official way to get to and from the Atlanta airport is by the Groome Transportation van, at $36 each way. When I heard that those three were heading up that way, I looked at my ridiculously oversized vehicle and offered to give them a lift. We piled all the bags in the bed, everyone stretched out in the cab, and I had conversation for the ride back. Also, one of them paid for gas, so instead of each of us paying $72 for the round-trip, I paid $33 for the rental, one of them paid $20 for gas, and the other two got off scot-free. Everyone won, except for Groome, which serves them right for their abysmal organization on my last trip out there.

As a side note, the army base was the site of an interesting new game called “Speed Limits: Advanced Version.” This was especially challenging since I was fresh back from a place where speed limits were largely optional entirely. These signs often had four or five lines of text. “SPEED LIMIT 45 TRUCKS 25.” “SPEED LIMIT 15 WHEN FLASHING OR JOGGERS ARE PRESENT.” “SPEED LIMIT 20 BETWEEN 0700 AND 0800 MONDAY THROUGH FRIDAY, AND 0900 TO 1100 ON SATURDAY.” “OKAY YOU CAN GO 55 AGAIN NOW, HA HA JUST KIDDING, SIMON DIDN’T SAY.” These all had the effect of making me slow down, but that was just so I’d have enough time to read all of the text. I swear some of these signs had tables of contents and appendices.

Anyway, once I escaped from the base at a speed not greater than 42 mph, but not less than 38, except for 11:17 AM—”free driving”—I headed back to Atlanta with the army guys, who had earlier flights than I did. This meant that I ended up at the airport several hours earlier than I’d intended, so I went on standby for an earlier flight. While the attendant was printing my standby ticket, I made her confirm about eight times that if I didn’t make the standby flight, I’d be able to get my original ticket back. Eventually, she said, “It won’t affect it, but there is basically no reason why you wouldn’t be able to get on this earlier flight.”

Unless, of course, another plane suffered complete mechanical breakdown and the airline suddenly had to figure out how to get a hundred people crammed in on other flights. I was napping at the gate when I suddenly saw a herd of people descending on the desk. I cut to the front of the line and, harassing the clearly overworked woman behind the counter, asked if this meant I wouldn’t be making this flight with my standby ticket. She was surprised into a short laugh, which I took to mean, “Please come back when the line has died down so that we can put you back on your original flight.”

When I saw that the line was down to one person, I wandered back up to wait, and was privy to a truly astonishing exchange. The airline representative was attempting to book this woman on a flight to St. Louis, which the passenger was—for reasons that I could not fathom—refusing. First, she was offered a connection through Chicago, which she turned down, saying she needed to get straight to St. Louis. Then a direct flight on a competing airline was offered, which she also refused, on the grounds that it arrived too late.

“Ma’am, these are what I can do for you. I have no other seats on any other flight to St. Louis.”

“Well, they’re no good! You’re not giving me any options.”

“I am giving you all the options there are. You just don’t like them.”

This went on for several minutes, and eventually involved a second representative independently verifying the information before the woman finally accepted the transfer ticket. I thought about offering her my seat if they could find a different path for me to get home, but I decided that I didn’t want to encourage her apparent belief that by being stubborn enough, she could warp reality to her will. She seemed to believe that if she just demanded with enough insistence, a seat would appear. Interestingly, there ended up being an empty seat next to me on my flight to St. Louis, so maybe she was right after all, and if she’d just stuck with it for long enough, she’d’ve been successful. Of course, it’s equally likely that the empty water bottle sitting in the seat that I took to be trash had actually bought its own airline ticket. I decided not to give it to the attendants to throw away, just to be on the safe side.

Our plane was late getting to St. Louis, of course, and I was just starting to get stressed about catching my connecting flight when they announced the gates for connections, ending with, “C22 for Richmond, where you’ll have the same flight crew, just on a different plane.” While I’m sure the airline would have happily stranded me in another city, I figured they probably wouldn’t be going anywhere without the pilot, so I strolled to the gate and watched the other passengers getting antsy as they wondered why we weren’t boarding yet. I thought about alleviating their concerns, but decided to smirk at them instead. I was rewarded for this by being seated in front of a goblin-child who kicked my seat all the way back to Richmond, which I deserved.

I’m now back, and my job status has gone from “we promise you’ll have a job, but don’t know what it’ll be” to actual employment, complete with offer letter and new salary and everything. Things are basically as I left them, and three people have already remarked to me that it’s just like I never left—which I’m not entirely convinced is a good thing, as the comments seemed to have undertones of “I’d just started to forget how annoying you can actually be.” I take this as a compliment to my needling skills, of course, but I’m aware that it might not really have been meant as one.

I feel I should have some sort of a pithy summary here about what I’ve seen and done and learned, but if I tried, it would probably end in puns. I figure, though, that any trip on which I was on excited to embark, during which I enjoyed myself, and from which I was happy to be home, was a trip well made. There’s not a lot else to ask from an adventure.

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