Written by Bill Collins


Three Memorable Travel Stories

Continental Breakfast at the Waldorf

It was a thrill to have a technical paper accepted for publication in the early 1970’s. Taking a job with Vought after college graduation, I had been assigned to work in the then-new field of computer simulation. My paper provided documentation of portions of that work, and was to be presented to an audience of industry experts at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City in December, while the city was preparing for Christmas.

My plane from Texas landed at Idlewild Airport. It was a helicopter ride from there to a landing pad atop a Manhattan skyscraper, followed by a taxicab to the hotel. The lobby of the legendary hotel was as impressive as anything a young Texas boy had ever seen. Entering the hotel elevator on the way to my room, I was joined by Joe Namath, quarterback of the New York Jets. He was accompanied by Jim Mckay, the reporter from ABC’s Wide World of Sports. I recognized them both, but was nonplussed about what I was expected to do in the presence of celebrities. Nothing in the company travel rules covered this situation. Should I ask for autographs? Try to act nonchalant? Ignore them? Before I could figure out my strategy and overcome my panic, they were off the elevator and on their way to the NFL banquet that was their destination.

Breathing a huge sigh of relief, I found my room. While nicely furnished, the room was smaller than I expected. But I was grateful just to be there. The company had agreed, somewhat reluctantly, to allow me to stay in the hotel since it was the location of the conference where my paper would be presented. But Vought generosity didn’t extend to permitting breaches of the company daily per diem allowance for food, and I was famished. A quick glance at the hotel menu made it obvious that Waldorf prices were out of my reach. But it was already late, and I had an ace in the hole.

As a conference author, I was invited to a continental breakfast the next morning. Having visions of a hearty Texas-country-style breakfast with bacon and eggs and ham and all the trimmings, I determined to skip dinner that first evening and save my per diem expenses. I’d make up the hunger the next morning at the author’s breakfast.

By next morning I was truly wasting away. Trying to find to the breakfast room I made another discovery. Absolutely none of the Waldorf staff I stopped in the halls could give me directions. This seemed to be because none of them either spoke or understood English. Or maybe my Texas twang couldn’t be deciphered by them and we had the classic failure to communicate. By sheer luck and perseverance I eventually found the breakfast location.

The authors breakfast seemed to be located in a two-room suite. Arriving late, I found a group of people more or less milling around in what seemed to be an anteroom of some kind. There were coffee urns, fruit juices, and rolls on trays. Being hungry beyond reason, I could hardly wait to be admitted into the larger room where I was sure the real breakfast would be served. The coffee and juice was nice, but couldn’t qualify as breakfast where I came from.

Soon the door to the larger room opened and we filed in. I was puzzled. All the room contained was some chairs and a small podium. We sat down, a conference organizer gave us some instructions for our presentations, a few questions were asked, and we were dismissed.

Where was my breakfast!

As everyone left the room, I heard one of the other authors comment on how nice the continental breakfast had been, and the awful truth slowly dawned. And I wondered how long it would be until lunch.

! * !

The Black-Tie Dinner

There was a time when many Vought employees had military backgrounds, and well-understood military customs and traditions. This was a good fit with the company business base, which was almost exclusively Navy, with some Air Force, and allowed Vought to interact with customers from a foundation of knowledge and understanding.

But this employee demographic was changing in the 1970’s, when Boeing commercial subcontract work was assuming greater importance, and fewer Vought personnel had military experience on their resumes. Although I had served in the Navy, my time had been spent as an enlisted man in submarines and my knowledge of the ways of officers was limited.

Determined, however, to represent the company as well as I could, I was pleased to be assigned a role on an engineering committee that was part of an aerospace industry association. The committee met several times a year in various locations around the country, and was preparing a report for the Department of Defense on support of aircraft and other military hardware in the field.

One of our last meetings before completing the report was scheduled in Washington, D.C. The meeting had been timed to coincide with a black-tie dinner for some high-level Defense Department and industry executives. I’d never been to such an affair, and put on my rented tuxedo with a certain amount of trepidation.

The hotel ballroom was as elegant as anything I’d ever imagined. Beautiful women in flowing evening dress floated by in the dim light, seemingly propelled by the soft music from the orchestra on a small balcony. White tablecloths were set with crystal and silver and accented by fresh-cut flowers on each table, and serving waiters circulated with trays of drinks of all descriptions. During the reception period before the dinner started, everyone mingled freely and moved from group to group, talking ever more loudly as the general noise level rose.

The scene was impressed on my mind as I tried to make sure I didn’t commit any grave social sins or embarrass myself or my company. Observing closely, I made every effort to detect the manners and graces that the occasion required and to incorporate them into my own conduct.

All the men in the group were in formal evening attire, other than the serving waiters. But I soon noticed something strange. Some of the servers seemed a little old for the job. And some of them didn’t actually appear to be carrying trays. Looking more closely, I was surprised to note that some of these servers were not only engaging people in conversation, but were themselves the center of small gatherings who seemed fixated on whatever the servers were saying.

Determined to get to the bottom of this mystery, I moved closer to one of these gatherings and hovered on the fringe where I could hear what was being said. Sure enough, the elderly server was speaking quite knowledgeably about military matters, and was receiving and answering polite questions from those standing about.

What was going on here? Was this some secret Washington ritual, complete with wandering minstrels who dispensed the latest news and gossip to the general throng? Were these the modern-day equivalent of town criers charged with educating the masses? Were these gentlemen seeding the informational clouds to produce a torrent of conversational rain when all were seated at dinner?

A clue was finally provided when one of the circle addressed the gentleman server as “General”. In a flash I realized the servers weren’t servers at all, or at least not in the sense I had imagined. Working my way closer in the crowd, I was able to see that military insignia glistened on the shoulder boards of the man at the center of the group.

Edging slowly backwards to safety, I looked with renewed interest at the other “servers”. They were all senior military officers in formal uniform dress, which I had never before seen and had assumed to be that of bellboys and waiters.

Armed with this newfound knowledge, I enjoyed the remainder of the evening, confident of my ability to distinguish a true server from one who merely looked like one.

! * !

Lunch in Louisville

In the mid-1980’s we were involved in several research efforts for government organizations located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. A program review was scheduled at Dayton during a period of winter storms in February. Since we would be carrying two large boxes of program information, and there were five of us making the trip, the company decided to charter a private aircraft.

The airplane was a Beech KingAir, complete with two pilots. It boarded us in early morning at the company flight tower and taxied out to the Dallas Naval Air Station runway. A north wind was howling, blowing rain and low clouds straight at the airplane as we struggled into the air. The ground instantly disappeared as we were swallowed in dirty dark fog banks.

After breaking into the clear over the weather, most of the trip north was uneventful. But the cockpit door was open, and we could see the brilliant colors on the weather radar as the storm systems moved over the countryside. When we neared Ohio, the pilots began to concentrate on local conditions. It was soon apparent that we wouldn’t be able to land in Dayton, and the search started for an alternate airport.

Eventually, it was determined that the closest possibility was Louisville. We made a pass down the runway at Louisville as the ceiling closed down, and had to abort and go around. There was one more chance before the weather closed the airport, and the two pilots planted the airplane firmly on the runway and ran us up to the terminal just as swirling storm clouds began to spurt torrents of rain and visibility dropped to near-zero.

So here we were in Kentucky, and our meeting was waiting for us in Ohio. The weather didn’t look like it was going to improve anytime soon. Decision time was upon us. It was decided that the two most senior members of the party would rent a car, take the boxes of program information, and drive on to Dayton. The rest of us would have lunch at the terminal restaurant and wait for a break in the weather.

After a pleasant meal and casual examination of the many Kentucky Derby paintings on the restaurant walls, we were treated to a mid-afternoon rainbow as the clouds began to part. Our two pilots soon reappeared and we were back in the air headed south. Our landing at NAS Dallas came near our normal workday quitting time. We somewhat puckishly waved our badges through the aircraft windows at the Vought guard as the KingAir taxied through the gate onto company property.

I arrived home at about my usual time. When my wife asked me what I’d done at work that day, all I could truthfully tell her was that I’d had lunch in Louisville.