Lord, I Was Born a Travelin’ Man

            With the dreary end of my Air Force tales now safely behind us all, I feel almost compelled to pen a few more tales that may be a bit lighter in nature than the excruciating recounting of my pursuit of some chick I was fooling myself about. As my droll title suggests, this time I intend to ramble on about some of the amusing adventures I had while employed in the capacity of a Field Engineer for my company; or at least the first one for this telling. While my domestic forays are no doubt considerably exciting to all, I’ll spare everyone a 10 page yarn on how I got stuck next to some fat guy while flying to San Jose or the odiferous rug stain in my Comfort Inn room in Georgia. No, for a tale this big a passport is required.

            I had been with the company for almost a year and was quietly sitting at my desk in the shared office area right outside the big boss’s interior office. Dick Betz, a new hire into the department and brought on board to manage the support of a poorly documented and little understood product line we annexed from a Queen’s NY firm who used to be our main competitor, strolled behind me to go confront Tim. I heard some impassioned pleading, didn’t care, and concentrated on whatever I was doing that might pass for work. Moments later Dick and Tim came out, looked around and saw only me; the greenest fish in the bowl.


Tim sighed, “Wanna go to Germany?”

Me, “All right.”

Tim, “Very good then! Get a ticket and go there. Dick here will give you the details.”


            I followed Dick to his office and got the aforementioned details. My mission, as accepted before hearing the considerable number of downsides, was to travel to the tiny town of Geilenkirchen where a NATO facility existed. Once there I was to meet with the commander of the facility and proceed to troubleshoot and fix their system. They apparently had been yelling breach of contract for sometime and wanted immediate expert assistance to get it back up and running for some vital mission or another. Dick tried to get one of the residual Queen’s folks who hadn’t yet been laid off but they all told him to stick it.


“So, what exactly is this thing anyway and what’s wrong with it?”


“I dunno. It’s this one of a kind simulator or something that’s all digital and I guess it isn’t working right or something.”


“So… is there anyone who can tell me about this? Is there a manual? Drawings? Any engineering documents?”


“Well, Brendon in Queens might know something but all the documentation got thrown away by that pissed off CM manager who got tipped off she was being let go.”


“Will the customer be any help?”


“No, you can’t go there. They are really pissed off and need to think you are the resident hotshot. No pressure.”


“Uhhhh…… huh”.


            After some amount of pleading to Tim by Dick and myself, he finally authorized me to go to Queens for a day for “fact finding” and to try to pick this Brendon fellows brain and maybe scare up some documents that were laying around. So, I got my ass on a plane to Bethpage and made my way to the old ASD facility in hopes of getting a clue to what this immensely complicated supercomputer was. I found Brendon Reilly right away and was immediately sorry I came. Long reddish hair in a pony tail, tense wiry frame, and granny glasses. He looked like a hippy but responded like a Marine wearing underwear considerably too tight.


“I’m busy! ..[snarl]… I’ll try to look for something later. Out!”


            He then went back to his Solitaire game which was clearly and conspicuously visible to me. He reminded me of Knaus on beer Thursday’s. I wandered the dank basement facility and took on the looks of fear and hatred thrown at me by the resident population. My company and theirs had once been mighty rivals until both were acquired by a larger organization. A battle for control erupted with my company’s management winning out. As winners, they made a concentrated yet failed effort to kill off the old competitor’s product lines. When I entered the picture 80% of them had already been laid off and the rest awaited the axe. None were overly anxious to help.

            Having nothing to lose but perhaps my head, I bugged Brendon until he finally hurled a book across the room and got up angrily. I adopted defensive karate like stance before he strode past me with an aggravated motion to come on.


“Yer going to Geilenkirchen, eh? Ha! You’re fucked! System’s fucked! Last guy who went there helped build the goddam thing and he even fucked it up more! Ha!”


            I already had a bit of uneasiness about the trip and this certainly wasn’t helping. The only thing keeping me calm was the supreme amount of cockitude I held regarding my perceived ability to fix anything. I probed for some information.


“So, were you around when they built this thing?”


“Yeah. Motherfucker was a bitch to integrate. But we did it.”


“Can you uh, tell me anything about it then?”




            Despite a half-assed search around the cluttered premises, we found nothing whatsoever about this thing, which was apparently a Digital AMES II and a bitch to work on. I boarded my flight back to Buffalo that Friday evening if anything less informed then when I came. My flight to Germany was scheduled for Monday morning. I had the weekend to brush up on my acting skills.

            I touched down in Cologne with plans to drive up to Geilenkirchen with my bullshit Mapquest directions that were likely based off of old WWI Allied invasion maps. I went to the German branch of Budget to pick up my car.


“Ah, ein Amerikaner! We have very good car for you I think!”


            I took the keys and made my way to the parking slip indicated on the form, but was able to tell from a distance which one was mine as the rear of it jutted out a good 5 feet past its neighbors, whom it crammed allowing about 6 inches to slip into the door. My eventual understanding was that the proprietor probably got a good laugh thinking of the American trying to maneuver around the old-timey streets in the most humongous boat in all of continental Europe. Indeed, I found at times that in order to get around cars parked in the street, I actually had to go up over the left hand curb. On one street I made it most of the way down before encountering cars parked on both sides necessitating an Austin Power’s style 98 point turn.

            I went to the base to check in with my customer before making my way to the hotel. Following the tradition of every security entry point, the gate guards acknowledged absolutely no foreknowledge that I was coming by despite following all visit request protocol so the commander, Major Wright, had to personally come down to escort me on, adding I’m sure to his irritation of us.


“You know, we’ve been really pissed off at you guys,” was his greeting as he shook my hand, “hope you are good!”


            With several of their engineers, I was escorted into a huge lab area dozens of pieces of very similar looking rack mounted equipment. I searched frantically for a familiar logo or something but was unable to discern on my own which piece of crap I was there to work. That would not be an acceptable disclosure to either the major nor the German engineers who seemed about as jolly and forgiving as whatever stereotype you have conjured up. Hell, even if I knew which one it was, I had no idea how to turn it on! I thought fast.


“All right, since I’m here, I want to take the opportunity to observe how you are bringing up and initializing the system. We’ve seen a lot of sites doing this incorrectly, so I’m documenting on a site by site basis.”


            They jumped over themselves eager to comply with my request and demonstrate their acumen to the alleged expert in the room. I still contend this was probably the smartest idea I ever had, and probably ever will. I was led to system comprised of 3 racks of circuit cards with dozens of cables feeding data from it to various other pieces of equipment and a crusty old VMS/VAX interface control computer. I never would have guessed this was it. I took careful note as to how the powered up, logged on and brought it to the start up menu.


“Excellent. No problems at this site! Nice to see operators who know what they are doing.”


            They beamed with pride, yet stayed close as I fumbled through the various menus under the guise of “getting the lay of the land as every system is different”. They bought it and gave me leeway. I asked them about the specific problem I was called out for and they gave me a top level description I did not understand, probably as I was still unclear as to what this thing was. I complained bitterly about the profound effect of jet lag on my ability to think clearly and all agreed that it was best to pick up in the morning. Ordinarily I would use the time to call back and get advice, but with jolly old Brendon being my only option, I decided to give it a pass and wing it the next day.

            I originally tried to book a room at the fabulous Hotel Geilenkirchen but found them closed for remodeling. That’s right, the whole damn place closed for remodeling. Idiots. Maj Wright was able to hook me up with a room at another hotel that for some reason didn’t come up in my on-line searches and graciously led me there. We parked, he in his peppy little Smart car and me in the behemoth, in front of a three story tavern. The sweat rolled down face as I struggled to pull my bag from the trunk. I was gussied up in a long sleeve shirt and tie during the worst heat wave this part of Germany had seen in decade; the temperature on the nearby bank reading 30C which translated to Fahrenheit, is damn fucking hot. I wondered where the hotel was.

            I found out soon enough as we entered the tavern and attempted to converse with the barmaid who naturally spoke no English. Apparently the bar rented out rooms up top. Classy! I somehow made clear, probably through the presence of my suitcase, that I wanted a room. Naturally they didn’t take my company issued AMEX leaving me to front the bill on my personal credit card. Before slogging up to my room, I enquired as to whether it was OK to leave my car parked out front and was delighted to discover that it certainly was not. 15 minute parking or they tow ya. I decided to dispose of my suitcase first and was instantly enamored with the closet sized room with no AC, a tiny window up against a brick wall and an ambient temperature in the upper ‘sweat-your-balls’ off range.

            As I had remembered northern Germany to be overcast and cool in the summer from my high school foray there, I packed up my carry on with nice warm long sleeve shirts and a pair of jeans. Thus bedecked, I made my way into the blistering heat to find a home for the whale that was already drawing attention. I asked the bar maid where I could park and she shrugged her shoulders in casual indifference, muttering something in German along the lines of ‘Amerikaner schweinhund’ or worse. I wove the monster in concentric circles drawing ever farther from the flophouse in search of free parking. I attempted to engage some of the locals, who contrary to the impression we all have that everyone learns English in school, effaced no knowledge of what I was saying while looking smug and superior the whole while. It was der Stadt das Thies.

            Eventually I found an apartment building with attached garage and ignored the menacing looking signs that indicated I was not allowed to park there. The spots didn’t have reservation markings and I detected no tell tale stickers on the vehicles that denoted membership to the exclusive club. I decided to risk it on the assumption that Germans were too anal to consider breaking rules and that the signs were enough to discourage locals. It was about a mile and half walk back to the saloon where the same group of sots at the bar raised their glasses to me in greeting, as they were to do every time I passed through, morning, noon or night.

            I was ravenous and went wandering about looking for food and drink; wishing not to give any more money to the “hotel” than I had to, having already given too much to the snide little hussy behind the counter who knew damn well what I was saying. I wandered up and down the block and discovered that I had forgotten to change any money before coming and that most of the mom and pop shop took neither dollars, AMEX or even Visa. I was getting seriously pissed. I was directed to a bank, which was closed by then, and found the one ATM in walking distance to be out of order. In defeat I slunk back to beg directions to anywhere that would take my card and feed me.


“Schteak haus.” she stated and pointed down the avenue.


            I assumed this was a steak house and made my merry way down the block only to find that it didn’t open for another half hour. What the hell was with this place anyway? Stores and banks close at 4 but restaurants don’t open till 7? Complete bullshit! I sat on the curb chain smoking and waiting for the door to open and the methodical host to hem and haw for 10 minutes where to sit me in the empty cavernous establishment. I assumed it was due to a heavy reservation schedule until the point came where I paid and left and only one couple had come in and gotten the same treatment. The food was terrible.

            The next few days were spent with me rising at the crack of dawn, showering in a closet, picking bits of meat and bread off of a room temperature tray of continental delights, the ‘breakfast buffet’ if you will, and making the long haul across town to get the damn car. Each day I was still unrecognized at the gate by the same simpletons who didn’t recognize me the previous days. Work was good, however, and through running a series of tests and noting that a circuit board wasn’t seated right, managed to not only fix their problem but convince them they needed a major upgrade. That will be a different story.

            The only other highlight of the trip was that I finished early and got to visit Aachen, Charlemagne’s original capitol, and looked at a lot of historical shit I’m not going to bore the rest of you with. More exciting foreign adventures to follow, some of which even eclipse the ridiculousness of this one in terms of local rudeness, though I will mention that I came back the following year to the same site. That time I got a tiny car and stayed in Maastrict; a fantastic Dutch city but a stone’s throw away but never considered as a recommendation by my hosts. The Germans, you see, find it unconscionable to reside more than 10 minutes from one’s place of business. Unbelievable.