Bad flights: Boston, Seattle, San Antonio, Kansas
There was a period when I was travelling for work when there were a lot of airline strikes, especially BA as I recall. One time I had to fly to Boston there were flights being cancelled daily, and I checked before leaving that my flight was OK. Just as I walked into departures, someone was adding my flight to a list of cancelled flights on a whiteboard (no digital displays in those days). So I had to wait a few hours then take a flight to New York, then catch the shuttle to Boston. In those simple times there was a shuttle from New York to Boston, and another to Washington, that ran once per hour. You didn't have to book, just turn up and they guaranteed a seat, if needed they laid on another plane. Even so, I had to wait a while before flying to Boston, then picked up a hire car. For some reason Racal had booked me into the Boxboro Sheraton. This was a very nice hotel with a huge reception area, ceiling about 50 feet high supported on massive tree like pillars, with coffee shop, restaurant and heated swimming pool all inside the area. But it was about a 40-50 mile drive from Logan airport out on the Mass Pike, then around the 495 outer ring road. By the time I checked in, it was around 9 PM, so 2 AM UK time. I had a light snack, then headed for bed. At some ungodly hour in the night (or so it seemed to me) the phone rang. It was security telling me they had seen someone trying to break into my car - did I want to check it, they might have broken the lock. They seemed slightly surprised when I muttered 'It's a hire car, no I don't want to check it', and sank groggily back to sleep.
Another time I was flying with Dave Ellis back from Seattle, having been at Boeing for a while. Instead of a direct flight, we had a connection at Chicago (not a good idea). O'Hare is always busy, and we had to stack for ages; as we circled for the nth time, I saw a BOAC 747 taking off below us. 'That's our plane' I said to Dave, and sure enough we had missed our connection. So we had to take a later flight to New York, where we had a hotel room for a few hours before getting a flight to London. By this time, we didn't really know what the local time was, so when they gave us a voucher for breakfast we decided to eat it before going to bed. We had to get up at 5 AM local time, so only a few hours sleep. Then they detected a warning light on one of the engines, so we had to sit on the runway at New York for a few hours before finally taking off for Heathrow. The whole journey took about 24 hours, and when we got there we couldn't pick up our luggage as it had travelled without us. I was somewhat cross. It had to be delivered to us a few days later.
Another interesting flight, though not that bad, was when I visited a company in San Antonio, Texas (South West Technical Products as it happens). I had been in Boston, and had also visited HP in Cupertino in Silicon Valley. I remember watching humming birds outside the window when I had lunch in HP’s very smart staff restaurant. There was no direct flight to San Antone (as named by Johnny Cash), so I had to change at New Orleans. As we descended into the airport there was a huge thunderstorm going on; at one point there was a flash and the planes lights went out, then came back on. The pilot came on the PA and said we had been hit by ‘an electrical discharge’. Blimey Charlie I said (or words to that effect), we were hit by lightning. Of course, as any student of electromagnetism knows, this isn’t actually dangerous because the electricity stays on the outside skin of the plane. But it was a wee bit scary. I enjoyed my time in Texas, and sampled some good Tex Mex food, though when I took a drive outside the city I went for about 50 miles and saw nothing but tumbleweed.
The last of my gruesome flight tales relates to a journey to Kansas City in February 1987 (not a good time to chose) when I was at Dellfield, to visit a company called North Supply. They occupied a huge somewhat green building, which was known locally as 'The Emerald City', because we were, after all, in Kansas. There wasn't a direct flight to KC (incidentally, KC is only half in Kansas, the other half is in Missouri), so I had to connect at Houston. Having a few hours there, I decided to kill the time by having a decent meal. The flight to KC was only a few hours, but half way there the pilot announced that we had an engine warning light, probably nothing, but we had to return to Houston. The funny thing was the American guy next to me was asleep during the announcement. Shortly after he woke up and spent some time staring out of the window at the sun. 'We're flying the wrong way' he said. I explained about the engine trouble, but he simply refused to believe me (I've noticed this problem before with Americans), and had to seek out a flight attendant to confirm my story. Once back at Houston I had to wait for another flight, and eventually got to KC about midnight local time. It was dark and snowing heavily. I then found out the hotel I was booked into was near North Supply, but about 40 miles from the airport. I had intended to get a hire car at the airport, but did not fancy driving 40 miles at night in thick snow after such a long journey, so took a taxi, which absorbed almost all the dollars I had with me. As I arrived at the Holiday Inn at about 1-2 AM, the receptionist greeted me with a cheery good morning. 'No it isn't' I grumped. Next day however dawned bright and sunny, and the snow was quite pretty, for Kansas. I was amused to notice that the hotel had a heated outdoor swimming pool that was gently steaming surrounded by deep snow.
A long time ago, around the mid 70s, Racal Redac opened an office in Munich. We were doing a lot of business with Siemens, BBC (Brown Boveri) and others. I was involved in setting up the computers, so went there quite a lot, including six times in one summer. I enjoyed Munich, especially the food and drink. Quite fortuitously I went once during Octoberfest (not actually in October, just like May week in Cambridge is actually in June). Other times we spent happy hours drinking in the famous Hofbrauhaus, where you sit at long tables and benches drinking Lowenbrau or Paulaner from litre sized handled glasses - a Mass. Waitresses built like Panzer tanks march round at speed with four of these hefty measures in each hand, if you get in their way you are likely to be flattened.
One time I flew to Munich to set up a new DEC computer, only to discover that it had not actually arrived. I was told to catch the next flight back to the UK, so I returned by the evening in time, as I recall, to go to a party in Cheltenham. I flew out again a couple of days later when the machine had been delivered and stayed a night. So that made twice in one week.
White water rafting
During one trip to DEC I met up with Dave Ellis, who was living there full time, for a Sunday trip white water rafting. We started early, and stopped for the obligatory breakfast, then drove for miles through western Massachusetts to the Green river. I had never done this kind of canoeing before, so Dave took the stern paddle for steering, while I sat in the front and tried to avoid the rocks. It was good fun, and the river was so warm I swam in it when we stopped for beer and sandwiches.
In November 1974 we were installing a complex system for Sony at Atsugi, a suburb of Tokyo. Dave Ellis had been there a while when I was sent out to help him. I knew about this some time in advance, so I planned to use my full price ticket to do some travelling on the way back. I spent three weeks there, which was an interesting experience. I found it to be the most alien country I had ever visited, with a completely different culture. One thing was the food, with ‘Ramen’ shops selling a variety of noodle soups often containing lumps of fishy tasting rubbery stuff. Then there were the sea urchin eggs, lots of raw fish, and fish skeletons. Some of it was nice, the Sony canteen did a nice Miso soup, and I liked Teppanyaki, Shabu Shabu and Tempura. The Yakitori we had in a local bar were OK, and the grilled Sakana (fish) was, except they never gutted it. Opposite our hotel was an open space between shops with a pile of large smooth boulders. We never found out what this was, because when we asked our agent if it was a boulder shop, he simply smiled and said ‘aha, yes, boulder shop, aha’. You could never tell what they really meant, and of course they cannot say ‘no’.
I had shown an interest in a national park, so on the first weekend they drove us out of Tokyo to their traditional Japanese house out in the sticks. It was only about 100 miles away, but it took us 4 hours, 2 just to get out of Tokyo. Then they drove us further into the mountains to the national park, with lovely scenery. Up high it started snowing and they had to put chains on the tyres.
After we had been there a while, and travelled around on the underground, we got more adventurous and decided we wanted to hire a car for the weekend. Our agents were very reluctant; I think they felt they had to look after us. Anyway we persuaded them, and drove to Mount Fuji, where you can get near the top.
Before we left, we stayed in the hotel Okura in Tokyo, very posh. Dave wanted to come with me on the trip I had planned on the way back, so we spent about 2 hours in the JAL office in the hotel. The young woman there had to leaf through several huge timetable books – no computerised systems - and write out tickets by hand which overflowed onto another ticket book. We flew via Bangkok, Colombo (Ceylon as it was then), Bombay, Tehran, and Beirut. We had to spend a day in Bombay, where Air France put us up in the famous Taj Mahal hotel (don’t think you would get that these days). We also had to connect via Rome. Seven flights in all, and I was glad to get back at the end, but it was quite an adventure.
Bangkok was, as usual, boiling hot; we took a boat trip to see Wat Arun and the Golden Buddha amongst other things. We ate in a little local restaurant and discovered the delights of Thai food, loaded with lethal bird’s eye chillis. Then we flew another 6 or 7 hours to Colombo where it was also hot, but not quite so ferocious. We stayed in a colonial B&B in Colombo, with enormous bedrooms and bathrooms, and a ‘boy’ – about 70 probably, who carried our cases. Being young, I tried to protest at him carrying them, but the landlady told us that he would feel aggrieved if we did not let him. We then took a rickety train up to Kandy where we stayed in a government place with white gloved waiters and took breakfast on the veranda with boiled eggs and bananas, and an ancient hand written receipt. Kandy was lovely, and we went twice to the wonderful botanic gardens there where we saw trees full of fruit bats. We also saw fireflies on our evening stroll, which I found enchanting. Finally we took a coastal train down to the south west, running along the beach with fishermen employing their nets. I believe this was the train which was wrecked later in the tsunami. We were in the edge of the monsoon season, and every day at around 5PM it rained with tropical heaviness for a short while. We bought local umbrellas which I kept for many years as a souvenir. We took local buses in Colombo, and they were so cheap we had difficulty in finding small enough coins to pay, probably about a farthing.
Onwards then to Tehran, with the day in the Bombay Taj Mahal, where we ate a splendid Indian buffet for lunch, accompanied by a Palm Court orchestra. The front of the hotel was magnificent, with marble reception and splendidly dressed staff. Looking out at the back from our hotel rooms gave a totally different picture of total squalor. We walked around Bombay a bit, but were too tired to take up the offer of a taxi driver who promised to show us all that life had to offer.
Further to Tehran, which was totally different, much colder, with street sellers displaying braziers of baked beetroot. It was cold enough to need heating at night, with a very primitive oil heater in our room. I bought an ‘Afghan’ style wool hat to keep my head warm. We were befriended by a local Doctor who took us around the city, and showed us where to eat Chelo Kebab – delicious grilled lamb with raw onion, rice, pickle and yoghourt. We swapped addresses with him, and he sent me a post card later, but that was all. We went inside lovely mosques, and saw where the women washed the locally made carpets and dried them on the river banks. We had to get up at about 4 AM to catch our next flight, this was getting a bit tiring.
From Tehran we flew to Beirut where we were met by my uncle Mitri. For the first and only time in my life I was called for to go directly through customs. Mitri used to work as a customs officer, and so knew the customs people at the airport. Made me feel like a VIP. I stayed with Dave at aunt Najla and Mitri’s place in Rue El Hamra, central Beirut. While there we took a coach trip to the grottos; we were supposed to also go to a costal town, but the traffic was so bad we had to give up. Aunt Salwa and her doctor husband invited us to a slap up feast with various other relatives, including Suheil, who I remembered from my previous stay in Beirut. Before I left another uncle came to see me; he spoke no English at all, but was very affectionate. He had seen me as a small child, and wanted to see how I was then; he brought a tin of very delicious Lebanese cakes that I took back to England.
Raytheon at Wayland
One of my trips to the States was to Raytheon in Wayland, MA. The guy there in charge of their CAD efforts was Gene Marsh, who later ran Redac’s office in Massachusetts. We had sold them a complex system with numerous old and new programs mashed together to form a big system. Several people went out there to install and debug it. I was due to go out and help, but discovered the night before the flight that my US visa had expired. The company driver (Don Reggate) drove me to the US embassy, and I queued up to get it renewed, but it couldn’t be done that day because I was born in the Lebanon. So Don drove me back and Dave Ellis went out instead. He was still having problems with several programs, so a bit later I was sent out as the last resort. Dave was staying on, but I was there a bit over a week. I worked really hard and got all programs going, and Dave and I had a good time together, eating Maine lobster and drinking Jack Daniels. I learned a bit more American speak when Gene called one of the guys working for him ‘slow as molasses’. He also like to talk about someone ‘getting tangled up in their underwear’, a US version of ‘getting their knickers in a twist’.
One device I had trouble with was a Xynetics plotter, state of the art and costing about $100,000. It was made in Los Angeles, and when I rang the tech guy there on a Friday afternoon, he asked if I could get a magnetic tape shipped out to him. I asked Bill Mcmanus, the head of department, if we could do this. Sure, he said. Someone got a shipping package for the tape, I wrote the mag tape, someone else got an airway bill number from the shipping department, and Bill volunteered to drop it into the shipping terminal at Logan on his way home. The next morning (Saturday), I was phoned by the guy in LA who had driven to LAX, picked up the parcel, and had a look at the mag tape. Over 2500 miles from Friday night to Saturday morning; no way could anything like that happen anywhere else in the world.
The Master's Lodge at Trinity College
When Michael was ‘installed’ as master at Trinity in 1990, we went for the day with Tom and Dan and stayed the night. Being installed was a long process, with him knocking at the gate and giving the porter ‘letters from the Queen’ which had to be inspected before he was allowed in. Then formal process with speeches, followed by a feast in hall. I sat on the high table, with Julian Huxley next to me, and Ben Okri opposite. I didn’t know much about Huxley (except he was Aldous’ brother), so I asked him what he had done, and he explained about discovering the signalling method along nerve fibres: ‘that is what we got the Nobel prize for’. I knew Ben Okri had written ‘The Famished Road’ which won the Booker prize, but I chatted to him about evolution, which I was very keen on at the time (still am), and I told Huxley to read Lovelock’s ‘Gaia’. The master’s lodge is huge, like a stately home, with three living rooms, the largest can hold 350 people at sherry parties. There are three staircases and a lift. We stayed in ‘The west wing’, which had seven bedrooms. Michael was master for seven years, so I stayed there a few times, on my own and with Bev. The last time was when Michael was 80, and the college put on a feast for him. They do this for fellows who reach 80, and then for ‘each ten years thereafter’. Michael was no longer master; the new one was Martin Rees, but he was not using the lodge as he had a house in town. We were met by the new housekeeper, now a butler, resplendent in grey morning suite, who had previously butlered for the Queen. He told us he would make porridge, just like he used to for the hunting parties at Sandringham. At dinner I sat next to (Sir) Alec Broers, who was then master of Churchill, my old college. We stayed in the Judges servant’s room, pretty grand even for the servant. Trinity had the privilege of providing lodging for the travelling judge.
Buckingham Palace twice
I have twice been to Buck Palace, the first time was in about 1980. Racal Redac had won the Queen’s award for industry; actually we won it twice, once for export, and once for technology. I was invited to go as a company representative, along with the MD Eric Wolfendale, and one of the ‘hardware’ guys, Bob Rackstraw. We were driven up in Eric’s Jag by the company driver; there was a complex procedure at the palace. We were dropped off, and then the Jag was driven off to park in the Mall; it was called back when it was time for us to leave. We were treated to drinks and nibbles (whiskey and cashews), and then lined up to shake hands with the Queen and Prince Charles. It was a long line, we were near the end, so I said to Charles ‘not long to go now’, and he guffawed as he does. We then mingled and chatted with various bigwigs, the Duke of Kent, Keith Joseph, and, not least, Margaret Thatcher. She was surrounded by a wary circle of men, pontificating on the economy and the state of the pound. I joined in and unwisely said that the Germans didn’t seem to worry about a strong currency, she stared at me with penetrating black eyes that seemed to go right though me; ‘Oh, but they do, they do’ she said. I shut up after that. Scary woman. After we left, Eric took us to a fancy expensive restaurant in a boat on the Thames. I don’t know how much the wine cost, but it wasn’t cheap.
The second time was when I had been a mentor for the Prince’s Trust; I entered a draw for a ticket, and to my surprise won. So Bev and I took a train to London and went to the Palace for tea (along with a few thousand other people). We were lucky in that it was a lovely summer’s day, so we walked through the parks from Paddington to the Palace. Numerous big names were there: Martin Clunes, Susan Hampshire, Brian May, and lots of others. I must say that the food was good, all from the Royal supplies (Duchy estates etc.), and a selection of class teas (of course). It was a most enjoyable occasion, and we went back on the train very content.