Ralph Olson shares his experiences of an unforgettable 1994 trip on which he mixed a little business with whole lot of pleasure.
It all started in Santa Maria on the Central Coast of California. I was working on a temporary assignment helping a civilian company land a major military contract. Being an avid space and aviation junkie and living in Palmdale at the time, I knew I would be away for two weeks, so I brought a large portion of my collection of postcards with me. I began collecting aviation post cards depicting all things aeronautical at a very young age, probably even before Neil Armstrong dreamed of going to the moon. The trunk of my small compact car was packed with folders of cards collected over the years neatly packed in plastic binders. Ah, I anticipated the quiet evenings and a huge empty king size bed at the Hilton for a great place to stretch out and spend time with my collection; something I always had trouble doing at home. Little did I know that in the next few days I would be saying goodbye to my hotel room in order to fly 6,000 miles in 32 hours.
When I walked into my temporary office on the morning of day four of my assignment I did not even have time to put my briefcase down before being summoned by the big boss. Slightly bleary eyed and in need of coffee, I was led to an overstuffed chair in his office. “What the hell is this?”, I thought, “am I in trouble?” starting to wake up. The big boss had already had his coffee and started to speak. “Last night after you left we re-read the contract proposal instructions and discovered that our package of proposals is due for delivery to the Air Force on November 23rd by 4:00pm east coast time. After that time they will no longer be considered and we lose our shot at this 238 million dollar contract. Since today is November 22, we worked all night to finish it and we are almost ready to put on the final cover sheets. We want you to hand carry the proposals to Dayton, Ohio. You know the area and the base. You will leave late this afternoon and be back here late tomorrow night. Just keep your room at the hotel. We didn’t want to disturb you last night because we figured you’d need the rest. Don’t expect to get much sleep for the next 30 hours or so. Any questions Ralph?” Well, being fresh retired from the military and a man of few words, I replied, “well, no I guess.”
About 30 seconds later, while still trying to absorb this new task, the big boss’s secretary walked in and handed me my airline tickets and itinerary from Santa Maria to Dayton, Ohio and return. I glanced at the schedule which took up a full page and a half. Remember that November 23 is the day before Thanksgiving and is always our country’s busiest travel day of the year. The company had a heck of a time finding me a seat on any flight. I was to leave Santa Maria at 7pm that evening. This was the plan:
Santa Maria-LAX (change planes), LAX-Denver (change planes), Denver-Cincinnati (change planes) Cincinnati-Dayton.
Once I arrived in Dayton I would have 2 hours and 45 minutes to rent a car, drive to the base, deliver the proposals and get back to the airport for the return flights. I would arrive back in Santa Maria at 11:30pm on November 23. It sure looked good on paper, but I knew that this would be a real test of the airlines on-time performance not to mention my own endurance.
I knew I had to keep myself busy and tried to sleep when I could and be awake and alert at all other times. Right on time at 7pm I boarded a nice shiny Metroliner commuter plane at Santa Maria and had a great 40 minute flight to LAX while watching a beautiful sunset. It was too early to crash in the terminal so I stashed the two large bags containing the proposals in a locker and proceeded to explore LAX. Having been there many times, I knew there were nine terminals and dozens of gift shops. I must have visited them all. In 90 minutes I got only two new cards and put about 2 miles on my well broken-in Nixes.
With the proposals stashed in the overhead bin, I was off to Denver on a red-eye flight. It seemed that every other seat had an infant and I did not get even one minute of sleep. Tail winds got us there a little early and most of the shops were still open. I scored some cards of the new Denver airport which was scheduled to open in 1995.
My flight from Denver to Cincinnati pushed back from the gate at 2:33am local time and we got a great tail wind push again. Just after landing in Cincinnati I could see the false dawn just visible in the east. Every gift shop was closed of course, but I had so many cards from this airport anyway. The sun was just coming up as I boarded another commuter aircraft for the short flight up to Dayton. I looked in the seat pocket in front of me and found a complimentary collection of brand new postcards of the Delta Connection aircraft fleet. Wow, Cincinnati has paid off after all!
When I touched down in Dayton, I was pumped! I knew I had a tight schedule and this was no time to be tired. I did an OJ Simpson sprint to the rental car counter and scored a first in line. “What kind of car would you prefer?” asked the cute young lady. “The car closest to where I am standing right now”, I replied smiling. She smiled back and handed me the contract. I threw the proposals in the back seat and proceeded down Interstate 70 to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. I was stationed there 3 years ago, and knew that gate 2 usually allowed entrance with only a military ID card. When I arrived at Gate 2, I pulled out my ID card and to my surprise I actually recognized the Air Force sergeant who was working the gate that day. He said, “Hey, good to see you again”; we both waved and I was cleared on to the base.
I parked in the same parking lot where I used to work and walked into the building where the proposals were due in just under 4 hours. The proposal receiving office was about to close for lunch, but I squeezed in just in the nick of time. The government clerk had a business-like attitude as I unloaded the proposals onto his desk. He looked them over, nodded and signed a receipt of acceptance. At that moment with the receipt in my hand I felt like the B17 bomber “Memphis Belle” after it had just dropped its bombs. My mission was over, now I just had to get back home.
I was out of there like a bolt of ball lightning, but remembered a little gift shop downstairs; surely it would still be there. I headed down the stairs and was amazed that the little gift shop had turned into a major store, and I thought the military was downsizing! I found some great new cards of the base and the nearby Air Force Museum.
Back on Interstate 70 the pre-Thanksgiving traffic was beginning to show its ugly head. I was in a slow moving, endless line of traffic moving at about 15 miles per hour. The normal 20 minute trip from the base to the Dayton airport took just over 55 minutes! I managed to get rid of the rental car with what was called an express return, which worked very well. By now it was just after 2pm and my flight had already been called once. Dayton airport has tiny but beautiful little gift shops and always had one of the nicest selections of aviation cards in the country. This is probably because the Wright Brothers were from Dayton, and the city is known as the birthplace of aviation. I spent over $40 and got about 50 new cards; worth every penny! But I had little time to look them over, as I had a hot date with an airplane.
The flight from Dayton to Atlanta was not even half full, which surprised me on this supposedly heavy travel day. I thought, “maybe everyone is already where they want to be”. But that was soon proven wrong when I arrived at Atlanta where thousands of people were walking, running or sprinting everywhere and in all directions. I had to practically fight my way to the gift shop where lines and lines of people were buying toiletries, newspapers, magazine, books and stuffed animals for their nieces, nephews and grandkids. It took me nearly an hour to pay for the two new postcards that I found. It was time for a beer!!
I dozed off for who knows how long and almost missed my next flight to Salt Lake City. I was the second to last passenger to board and noticed a lot of unfriendly stares. It must have been my messed up hair and general appearance as I had not slept for nearly 24 hours. But I was flying in one of my favorite airliners, the Lockheed L-1011 Tristar which was a quiet wide-body and I had a great window seat. As comfortable as my seat was, the flight itself was pretty bumpy so it was impossible to get any sleep. The terminal at Salt Lake was busy but nothing like the zoo I had left behind in Atlanta. I quickly spotted a nice looking gift shop and scored two new cards.
At 8:40pm mountain time I boarded the seventh aircraft for the leg back to LAX. The cooler nighttime air provided a very smooth flight and I enjoyed my second sunset of this very long trip while approaching the west coast.
When I got out of the plane at LAX I realized that I had arrived at the same gate that I had departed from some 22 hours ago. Was I really back? Was this all a dream? It was 9:50pm Pacific Time and I was feeling dog tired. I still had another hour to kill at LAX and considered looking for more gift shops, but my body was saying “No Way!”
The stairs of another shiny new Metroliner commuter plane welcomed me and I settled in for the last flight back to Santa Maria. The weather was crystal clear and I enjoyed a beautiful view of the nighttime California coast. We were the last flight into Santa Maria that night and as the pilots shut down the engines, I began to unwind just as fast as the propellers.
The hotel was a fairly short walk from the airport and I enjoyed the still and quiet of the night. I reached my hotel room which was untouched except for a few chocolate mints left on my pillow. Anyone else would have gone to bed and died, but I poured myself an adult beverage, gathered all my new cards and tried to piece the last 32 hours together.
I ordered a late dinner and flipped on the television. The hit movie Trains, Planes and Automobiles was just starting. I loved that movie and was looking forward to seeing it again. But that must have been my last thought, because when I woke up the sun was shining, the lights were still on and the TV was now showing the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. It was turkey day!!