Friday, September 30, 2011

Road Trip Observations

Last week I took a road trip with wife and youngest son to see middle son participate in the Black River Stages Rally, west of the Adirondack Mountains in New York. It was a great time, and I came away with a few observations, some of them automotive.

Glorious roads. Part of our journey took us from Ticonderoga through Lake Placid and out NY 3 to the flat lands beyond the mountains. What a drive! It didn’t hurt that their foliage was ablaze. The gorges, the mountains, the forests and the waterfalls all made for a spectacular backdrop. For the purpose of this observation, though, the real treat was the driving experience itself. The road conditions were excellent, and the routes were a joy. Lots of curves, many properly cambered, helped to keep us focused and involved. Better yet, especially when compared to the ridiculously low speed limits of New Hampshire, was that the speed limits were such that I almost never needed or wanted to exceed them. As a rule, given the realistic nature of those limits, I saw no cars driving excessively fast. True, a 9-5 Linear SC is not a barn-burner, but it still enjoys a bit of up-tempo push. We were never hampered in our progress, and never felt like we were holding anyone else up (not that there that many on these two-lane highways), because at every mountain ascent there was an additional lane to allow everyone to find their appropriate place in the velocity hierarchy. I would like to return to those roads someday, perhaps in a convertible, top down in spring or early autumn.

Roadblocks. I had never seen roadblocks like we saw in New York. We saw three—two on I-87, and one on a two-lane highway. We were stopped in two of them. The first was manned by State Police. We didn’t think to ask what they were looking for, but they looked at us and waved us along. On our return, we were stopped by Homeland Security Border Patrol on I-87, and after waiting in a substantial queue, we had to inquire as to what they were looking for. Border and immigration violations, we were told. A noble cause…but wouldn’t you do that at the border, and not a few hours south of there? Besides, I never realized that we were suffering from an influx of undocumented Canadians.

Maps. Remember those? All messed up, impossible to refold and clogging your glove box and seat pockets? Then we got Map Quest, Google Maps and GPS. No more maps. Because I’ve learned not to trust GPS to get the big picture right on a long trip, I try to map a route on Google Maps first, and rely on GPS for the local navigation. On this trip we were doing fine with our paper turn-by-turn directions. Then Google made a mistake and caused us to miss an exit on I-87. Since the next exit was ten miles up, rather than double back, I pulled out the GPS unit (we call her Jill) and asked for assistance. As I expected, she put us on a course that was essentially westerly, which should eventually intersect our original route. My assumption was correct. However, because we did not have a map, we didn’t realize that Jill was making our route much more diverse and interesting than it needed to be. She would have us turn off the highway, onto barely paved by-ways with no markings, no center lines, and no civilization. Why? Was she retaliating for being neglected? Perhaps it was that the speed-limit reader in her was getting bad information. New York has a state speed limit of 55 mph unless otherwise posted. Jill indicated a speed limit on some of these back roads of 55, and I can assure that nobody except Sebastian Loeb would dare begin to approach those speeds, and in fact some of the roads were marked with 30 mph signs, contradicting Jill. While we found our destination, we did secure a map for the return trip and put Jill back in the glove box.

Panamera. On the return, we stopped in at Fort Ticonderoga at the heel of Lake Champlain to take the tour and eat a picnic. I noted the presence of, and took a moment to admire, a Porsche Panamera Turbo in the parking area. This is a car which elicits strong opinions. Mine is all affirmative. If Porsche was to build a sedan, it had to be the Panamera. It is the only current Porsche I have not driven. I would like to. More than anything, I like looking at it. Much like the Maserati Quattroporte, it eschews the styling norms that define other large sedans, and makes the A8L, the S-class and 7-series look dreary and dull. Upon my return to work, our GM stopped in and he was driving the same car—a black Panamera Turbo—for he was on his way to a Porsche event (Dan also manages a Porsche/Audi store and two Volvo stores). I had a chance to sit in the car, and it did not disappoint me at all. Though I would prefer a Saab seat (Porsche owners will feel right at home, though), I very much liked the rest of the interior. It felt rich and masculine. If not driving the car, it seemed like a nice place to enjoy a fine cigar and small batch bourbon. That sounds like an impossible dichotomy, but that was truly my first reaction.

Devastation. Much of Vermont is still out of order from the August floods. The state highway website did an excellent job in detailing which routes were opened, closed or opened with delays. Traveling east-west meant dealing with delays or not going at all. We chose US 4, which parallels the Ottauquechee River. The delays from ongoing road work were handled well, and frankly, we didn’t mind the stops because it gave us a chance to take in the destruction and the massive effort of the army of heavy equipment all along the river. In some stretches, aside from the total-loss damage to buildings along the banks, the river looked somewhat normal. However, to see houses, bridges and cars still in the river bed in other areas was unsettling. Vermonters are fierce bunch, and certainly they will put their beautiful state back in order. I would suggest the best way we can help them out is to “buy Vermont.” Perhaps cheese, Ben and Jerry’s, and at $40 a gallon, maple syrup is a relative bargain.

Friday, September 09, 2011

A 9/11 Rememberance

September 11 changed everything. Its tentacles are so vast, think of the “butterfly effect” on steroids, as to have effected even the substantial business changes I had to make this past week, in the foreshadow of the tenth anniversary. September 11, as it is for many, one of those seminal moments in life when everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing. The only other memory I have of something so momentous was the assassination of JFK, when I was a child, though my recollection is more of the profound grief of my grandparents as they watched the news unfold, than of any understanding of the situation itself.

Because observance of this day means so much to me, I knew that I had to get a post in place, even at the dereliction of some other pressing matters before me. I had hoped to reprint, or borrow widely from an article that appeared about my September 11 story in Fort Worth Weekly magazine, but alas their archives only stretch back to 2002. Fort Worth? Yes, I’ll explain that one later.

Monday, September 10, 2001. Along with fellow travelers Cory Bumpus and Carl Pasquarosa from elsewhere in our dealer group, we boarded an AirTran plane at Logan Airport to fly to Dallas-Fort Worth for some information system training. The same Logan Airport from which the WTC bound American Airlines planes would embark the following morning. Funny how innocuous events take on greater meaning after seismic change occurs. When we boarded the plane, which was one of those no frills one-class carriers, Carl, who is a perpetual cut-up, immediately engaged the flight attendant in jocular banter. We were right at the front of the plane, and he joked of being in “fist class.” Then, he earnestly told the attendant that he was a close and personal friend of the captain. She played along with Carl, and went forward and got the captain to come out of the cockpit and say hello, and invited us forward to see the cockpit. Perhaps we were the last airline passengers ever afforded this courtesy.

That evening, after settling into our hotel, I drove to Fort Worth to see Paul, a university and conservatory roommate, and meet his new wife, Beth. She was, like me, a cellist, and also a freelance writer, often writing for the Fort Worth Weekly magazine. After a quiet evening I returned to the hotel and retired.

I was up every early on Tuesday, September 11. The time change hadn’t registered, and I have been waking at 4 something for years, so my day started early, with not much to do. At about 7:30am Dallas time (8:30 eastern), perhaps because of the reminiscing the evening before with Paul, I took out my phone book and called another friend from my university days who lived and worked in Manhattan. I recall that the news was on in the background, sound off: nothing of importance that I hadn’t already seen already that morning. At about 7:45 (perhaps a few minutes later) I finished my chat, and decided to head to the conference room off the lobby of the hotel since class started at 8:00. When I exited the elevator, I saw that the television in the lounge area had a news flash about a “small plane hitting the north tower of the World Trade Center.” It was compelling enough that a few, including me, stopped to watch. Looking back, while I don’t know the exact moment I hung up the phone with the friend in New York, it has occurred to me that I was talking with her at the moment that tower was hit.

Just before the class started, people in the lobby were shouting about the second tower being hit. The class emptied for a time, and then everyone came back. But not for long. As news of the Pentagon attack reached us, and the scope of the disaster widened, to the consternation of the instructor everyone left the classroom to join in the collective observation of the horror and chaos which were unfolding. I think that the numbness that took hold of me precludes any specific recollection of the events, but I’ll never forget the nauseating feeling, and the crippling impotence I felt being so far from my family. We all remember the excruciating helplessness and bewilderment that befell us that day.

Cory, Carl and I, having long put aside the notion of participating in training, eventually decided we had to make plans to get back to Boston. I believe that we were originally scheduled to fly on Thursday, but it was becoming clear that nobody was flying anywhere anytime soon. We investigated trains, not possible. Same with buses. Then we called Enterprise to see what the cost would be to drive the rental car we already had back to Boston. We were advised that if the car left the state it would be reported stolen. I will admit that as things got more desperate, I had devised a scheme whereby we would exchange the license plates with another rental car, report ours stolen and drive back on exchanged plates. It never got that far.

Fortunately, the folks in Boston were hard at work trying to get us home. Tony Bartolotti, then of Boston Volvo, arranged the purchase of a new S80 with a Dallas dealer. When the world started to right itself, money was wired and we were able to purchase the car on Thursday morning, and straight away we made our way toward home. Carl took the wheel first, and we had decided that we would make as few stops as possible. I was on the second leg, so I tried to sleep in the back seat and discovered that the rear headrests in an S80 were very uncomfortable.

Our first stop was in Arkansas. I don’t recall the town. We stopped at a family restaurant and had dinner. Carl, in his inimitable way, had the waitress laughing the entire time as he poked fun of her, and of us Yankees. After dinner, Carl continued on to the Tennessee border, where, well into the evening, I started to drive.

I wanted to get a cup of coffee. Nothing special, just a good cup of coffee. Even an OK cup of coffee. Where in the northeast we can’t go a mile without driving past a Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks (or two, or three), we had no such luck in Tennessee. Thus, at a roadside stop, in lieu of coffee, I tried my first Red Bull. I can attest that one can kept me up and alert all night!

In the pre-dawn hours of Friday morning, I handed the wheel off to Cory. I remember my apprehension as Cory tore through a thick fog in the mighty S80. She was determined to get us home as quickly as possible! Later that morning, as we were in New Jersey running parallel to Manhattan island, we could see the smoke still pouring from Ground Zero. The low resolution photo does no justice to what we witnessed.

North of New York, just before the Connecticut border on Interstate 95, we experienced a moment of levity. There were strange sounds coming from the chassis of the S80. I heard it. Carl heard it. Two service managers concurred that there was something wrong with the car, so we pulled off to investigate. We both poured over the tires, suspension and undercarriage. While doing so, an attendant from the gas station where we parked came over to check on us. When we told him what we were doing, he laughed and said the noise was from a weirdness in the pavement, that lots of cars made that noise and plenty of those stopped in his gas station to check on it. Slightly embarrassed, we left.

A few hours later, about 30 hours since we had embarked, we arrived in Boston. I dropped off Cory and Carl at Boston Volvo and then went to Charles River Saab. There, learned that among those who perished, a passenger on one of the planes that hit tower one, was Anna Allison, a long time customer of Charles River Saab. After spending a bit of time with our employees, I finally was able to finish my journey home, finally able to have a sense of relief in being with my family.

While you may see some smiles on the faces in these photos, I can assure you that none of us was happy. We were immensely relieved to have a way home, and perhaps a little giddy with the anticipation of seeing our families. I will always think of Cory and Carl on September 11. Their fellowship was invaluable in staying emotionally sustained during that trying time. It is my sincere hope that none of us, no matter how directly or indirectly affected by the events of that day, ever forgets what happened.

As a post script, in an effort to make some sense and feel of some assistance to the victims of September 11, I wanted to do a fund-raiser. Where it seemed the emergency response victims were well spoken for, I came across a group looking to assist the under-served survivors of those who perished in the Windows on the World restaurant: The Windows of Hope Family Relief Fund. Thus, with my wife and a few friends, supported by the Village Automotive Group, we performed A Concert of Hope where admission was a donation, and were able to offer a nice sum to that charity. Though I hadn’t performed publicly in years, it seemed the least I could do.