Copyright © David C. Hay
David C. Hay
In 1995, Dave Hay, the President of Essential Strategies, Inc., attended his thirtieth high school reunion in the small western Colorado town of Grand Junction. Here is the speech he would have liked to give:
Good evening. I’m Dave Hay. For those of you who don’t remember me, back in 1965, I was that incredibly handsome, athletic guy who was breaking the hearts of young girls all over the school.
For those of you who do remember me ... uh, that's too bad. I was hoping to get away with that first statement.
Wow! It is hard to believe that we have turned into this bunch of old farts reminiscing about things that happened thirty years ago!
I don't think there is anything in the world more offensive than an old guy . . . who is my age. I distinctly remember that you are all about 18. I have pictures here to prove it!
Not that I want to be 18 again. I was decidedly goofy looking — not this handsome rake you see before you now. Actually, I just looked at the yearbook again, and, truth be known, some of you looked pretty goofy, too, and you all look great now!
Thirty years ago
Thirty years ago! That phrase used to mean ancient history. In my freshman year at college, the school sponsored a seminar on the nineteen thirties as a historical period.
They invited a number of people to speak on the depression and its effects, what life was like, and so forth. One panel discussion that I remember in particular was with several people who had actually been in Franklin Roosevelt's cabinet!
It was hard to believe that there were still people alive who had personally known FDR!
Guess what folks! The thirties were thirty years before 1966 when I saw that panel discussion. Guess what's thirty years ago today.
The future foretold
Can you imagine going back to 1965 and having a little chat with yourself from back then. In my case, I’d have a thing or two to say . . .
OK, Dave Hay of 1965. Here's what’s going to happen: You’ve never really been out of Grand Junction, and you never really believed you ever would. It is incomprehensible that you are now going to Los Angeles to go to college.
But guess what! You will not only live in the Los Angeles, but you will ultimately live in New York City, New Jersey, and Houston.
The day before you graduate from college, you will marry a California girl, hitch-hike cross-country, and settle in the slums of Manhattan's lower east side.
When that marriage doesn't work, you lead the high life of a New York bachelor for a while.
Well, sort of high. As high as you can live in New York without much money to spend.
[You’re kidding, right?]
You were raised as a child of the cold war -- assuming that there is an evil world "behind the iron curtain", that of course no real person will ever see.
Yet you will spend two months wandering around behind the iron curtain — on your own — where you will have incredible experiences in major cities and exotic places you've never even heard of. And from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, you will be treated like a long lost relative by strangers everywhere you go. You’ll make friends everywhere.
Did I mention friends? A year later you’ll go back to Poland and marry one of those friends.
That’s right, in Poland you will meet a heart-stoppingly beautiful young woman who will smile at you — yes, you, personally — and in that gesture will ruin forever any dreams you may have had of a happy bachelorhood.
The following year you will conclude that the absolutely most reasonable, obvious next thing you must do with your life is to take a month’s salary, go to Warsaw in Poland, and marry a girl you have known for exactly three weeks. And it won’t even seem like a hare-brained idea!
[No, that’s not possible!]
Now, granting that she might have been unduly influenced by those three weeks you spent wandering the streets of Warsaw's old town in the moonlight, along with the time you spent enjoying the beautiful parks along the river — the fact of the matter is that even after she learns the truth about you, she will still be willing to stay married to you for over twenty years!
This means that your children will have grandparents, an uncle and dozens of cousins in Poland, and a great grandmother in The Soviet Union.
Until now, the only foreigner you’ve ever met was the Canadian you met when you were twelve. But in the years to come, you will meet and work with people who now, in 1965, are graduating from high school (or its equivalent) in India, Australia, Poland, England, Japan, China, Thailand, Nigeria, the The Soviet Union, Viet Nam, and South Africa, to name just a few.
Worse yet, you will also be working as colleagues with the children of such people.
You will be lost in the subways of Brussels, Chicago, Budapest, London, New York, and the Atlanta airport — also to name but a few.
Yes Dave Hay of 1965, this will happen to you.
[You're makin' this stuff up, right?]
Oh, yes, you will have a series of jobs dealing with these recently-invented gadgets called computers, but you can't be told now what the jobs will involve, because in 1965 neither the gadgets nor the jobs have been invented yet.
Computers will become so small and cheap that you will use one on your desk and carry another around with you when you travel. You will commonly send documents to distant corners of the globe via telephone, and while Dick Tracy's wrist radio won't happen for a few years, the twenty-five dollar computer on your wrist will not only tell you time with incredible accuracy, but it will also provide you with a stop watch and a kind of electronic abacus.
Oh, and for a while it will tell time with numbers. No more big hand and little hand! But then people will decide that they still like some of the old ways, and clocks with hands will come back into fashion.
You will be able to carry the telephone around with you, but if for some reason you choose not to do so, a machine will answer it for you and take a message.
Vinyl LP's will be replaced by small plastic disks that can be played by vibrating beams of light over them. It will be possible to put on a pair of goggles and a set of gloves to experience being in a room that doesn't exit.
When you pay for something, you will pull a plastic card through a machine that will automatically move money from your bank account to the store’s account.
[I had too much pepperoni on that pizza last night while I was reading science fiction, right?]
That war that’s been fermenting in Southeast Asia will get much worse. Two and a half million Americans will fight there and over fifty-eight thousand will die at it. It will define the character of all our college careers and the years that follow it.
In a dramatic shift from the usual American attitude toward the wars this country fights, Americans will actually question the wisdom and necessity of this one — boisterously. This will put the country through tremendous convulsions as our "baby boom" generation comes of draft age.
You and half a million of your closest friends will converge on the mall in Washington DC one Saturday afternoon to try to persuade your president to stop that war. When that doesn’t work, you and this small group will try again two years later.
Women will leave home and family to go to work in huge numbers, dramatically changing both the nature of the average home and the nature of the average work place.
The civil rights movement will reach its culmination with riots in northern cities, but Negroes will finally begin to participate in large numbers in the American dream. They will take many different kinds of jobs never before available to them — and two successive justices of the supreme court will be Negroes (in addition to the two women.)
For the participants this will happen very slowly and painfully, but as a historical phenomenon, it will be revolutionary.
[At least that sounds promising . . .]
Oh yes, and one day the Berlin Wall will simply be taken down – without a shot being fired. And a year later, the Soviet Union will quietly go out of business and its component republics will go their own way.
When this happens the world will discover what you will have learned fifteen years earlier in a very personal way — that the big uniformly red area on our maps, referred to variously as "the communist world", or "the evil empire", is a lot more heterogeneous — and a lot more interesting — than we’ve been led to believe.
There are a whole bunch of countries in there that we’ve never heard of. And far from providing a united front, it turns out that many of them hate each other far more than they ever hated us. In fact, these countries are all full of people who are quite friendly to Americans. They would do anything to make an American visitor feel at home there.
Khruschev’s son eventually will take up residence in the US.
[I’ve gotta cut out that late-night pizza! You’re telling me that this stuff is going to happen?]
Oh, and Ronald Reagan will one day be elected president of the United States.
[Ronald Reagan? The Borax guy? Now that I don’t believe!]
This stuff really happened . . .
The fact of the matter is that these things actually happened. (Well, maybe not the Reagan bit. That’s too far-fetched to be true!) I could never have made stuff like this up.
Like meeting a Czech woman on a train to Prague in 1973, who, in the course of our conversation invited me to spend a day with her in her home town of Pilsn, a hundred miles or so to the west of Prague. (It turned out to be not only her home, but also the home of the original pilzner beer — Wonderful beer!) During the course of a lovely day wandering around this small old town (and seeing the beer museum), she invited me home to meet her family.
Now it seems that is customary in Czech houses to remove your shoes when entering. This I did, only to discover, to my horror, that — after all, I had been on the road for a while — I had holes in my socks! But as she greeted me, the lady’s mother proceeded to swoop down upon me, and 15 minutes later I no longer had holes in my socks!
I could never make up stuff like the fact that when I take a plane trip, I now open up my computer on my lap, and I do the company accounts, or work on my book, or complete a project plan.
I could never have imagined that my intimate friends would be scattered all over the country — indeed, all over the world — but that this would not prevent me from speaking to them and commiserating with them on a regular basis ¾
just as I always have with my friends.
I could never make up the fact that even though I live with my family in Houston, I report to work every Monday morning in a different part of the country. For a few months it was Rochester, New York. Then for a little over a year it was New York City. Then it was suburban New Jersey.
Who would have thought that I ¾
Mr. Grand Junction homebody ¾
would actually live almost ten years in Manhattan?
While your stories may not be quite this exotic (although some may be more so), I assume that they are equally unbelievable. Real life has turned out to be much more interesting than fiction. Whatever your stories, I wager that you would not have believed anyone who tried to warn you about them.
Life was complete
Thirty years! An awful lot of stuff has happened, so I suppose that the size of that number isn’t really so remarkable. What is remarkable, however, is how vivid my thirty year-old memories are. It’s as though those things happened only last week.
Like the day after school that Bill Hyde and I, in our royal "Mouse that Roared" costumes swept down the hall arguing "YES!", "NO", "YES"...at the tops of our lungs — seriously startling all in our path.
Or the Saturday of the drama festival that several of us arranged ourselves at opposite ends of the long hall between the library and the gymnasium, and as various schools with great seriousness put on their productions in the auditorium — we rolled a marble back and forth the full length of the hall.
(No, we didn’t have a reason. It just seemed like the thing to do.)
There was Mr. Born's’s physics class and Mr. Walley’s chemistry class. I still remember the first day of that chemistry class, when Mr. Walley wrote on the board what he said was the sole piece of information he wanted to impart to us that year: "Chemistry is fun." He succeeded, too.
It was Mr. Born whose physics demonstrations occasionally were more spectacular than he intended. Remember the time he tried to show us the comparative evaporation rates between water, alcohol and ether? We didn’t actually have to call the fire department, but it was close!
And there is no way I can speak to this group without paying tribute to Mr. Carmichael. He was our stage crew sponsor, our debate coach, our drama director. But more than that, he was mentor to a whole group of us long before any of us ever heard that word. He was simply the best adult friend many of us ever had, and I for one will never forget him.
The forbidden word
So, we have (gasp!) matured.
We vaguely remember that our high school days were concerned with classes, grades, football, band, and so forth. Part of each of us remembers high school that way. The honest part, though, remembers that those days were really concerned with the thing which, at that time, we were not allowed even to say — sex!
Thanks to our hormones, relationships with each other had an intensity that we never experienced again. Some of you girls seriously disrupted my equilibrium. That skirt working its way up that wonderful thigh in geometry class almost cost me my grade.
Some of you were kind enough to go out with me. Others of you thought less highly of me. (Ah, but then how could you have known . . . ?) Probably the most irritating were those of you who simply ignored me. Ah, well. That's part of the education process, too, I suppose.
(And to those of you that I may have ignored. You now truly have my apology.)
Some of you were very close friends. Some were casual acquaintances. In truth, some of you were — well, how can I say this politely? — twits. (Yes, I know: one or two of you (certainly not more than that!) thought I was a twit as well. Fair enough . . .)
Friend or foe, though, my recollections of each of you had an intensity that has never been duplicated in my relationships with people since.
I realized this at the twentieth reunion, when I saw how that intensity had disappeared. You now are the sort of men and women I might meet anywhere, at a conference or in an office. I greet you and you me with the same sort of casual dispassion. Our reactions to people will never again have the piquancy they had then.
I have probably worked with several hundred people by now. Certainly I have known several thousand. After awhile, if they don't become exactly interchangeable, they at least certainly seem to come and go. Yet each of you is an original.
I also know this intensity to be an adolescent characteristic when I look at my own children. I see it reproduced in their relationships with their friends and acquaintances. Is it hormone induced, or is it just that this is the first time they are — we were — getting to know people in all their variety? When I knew you, there were no other people. You were all I had to go on as to what humanity was like.
It was startling at the twentieth reunion to discover that I was not the only person in the high school who had felt "out of it" — I was not "popular"; that girl didn't like me (at least not the way I wanted her to like me); I was not part of the "in" group.
I have been surprised to discover that a lot of you (most of you?) felt exactly the same way.
As it happens, I was blessed with some very close personal friends when I was at Junction High. I have cherished them and our memories ever since, and I have come to realize that they made me more fortunate than many. To you guys — and girls — I must say that to have you as friends means that I did very well in high school, thank you.
How different was the life I came to lead, from the one I knew growing up in Grand Junction. The ironic thing about that is that in Grand Junction, I already felt that life was complete.
Life was good, and I was happy. Yes, it was hard being a geek and a nerd when these words hadn’t been invented yet. But life had its pleasures and its excitements, and I couldn't imagine that there was really more than this. . . .
Time and Space
Time and space were different then.
As adults, we have to "use our time wisely". In my business, as in many of yours, I charge for my time by the hour, and I have to make sure that as many hours as possible are billable.
How sad it is that the closer we get to the ends of our lives, the more panicky we get about not wasting a moment — so we waste them all.
Back then it was different.
Then time was a river to float down, not a resource to be parceled out by the hour. Time flowed — but it was also permanent. The sensation of drifting peacefully would never go away. Sure, this year wasn't like the last. Sure, we got older, and school years and summers always ended eventually. Especially in high school, we were aware of the progression from freshman to senior year.
But time was never an issue. Each day was a gem, to be savored — not desperately, in fear that there wouldn't be another, but with pleasure that there was that one. We enjoyed today, and that was all that counted. There were no schedules, faxes, or voice mail to tell us what to do next.
As for space, Grand Junction was like Brigadoon. To live here was to have everything you needed for a complete life — bounded by the Mesa, the Bookcliffs and the Monument, and it was easy to go for years without seeing anything else.
The world outside seemed to have no effect on us. I did envy those of you who had visited the outside world. Some of you had even lived there. But I had no ability to imagine what that might have been like.
For most of us, the world we heard of in movies, on television and in the newspapers was just a fiction — different in form than Moby Dick, perhaps, or The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, but a fiction nonetheless.
Not only was Grand Junction the totality of our lives, but the rest of the world was different. At the height of the cold war, the world was divided between the "free world" and "the communists".
Even the rest of the free world was suspect — Our images of western Europe were a hodge-podge of Grimm’s fairy tales and World War II movies. China was where you would get if you dug a hole too deep, and most of the rest of the world was full of places with impossible to spell names — and who'd want to anyway?
( I mean really — do you know anyone who had ever heard of Uzbekistan, or Bosnia-Hertzogovina?)
And then there were the really evil places, like Texas, New York, and California.
Above all, Grand Junction was safe. I could ride my bicycle anywhere in town, and Mom never gave it a second thought. I would leave the house in the morning and be expected home for dinner – but adults never bothered me or my friends in between. There was no one around to tell us that what we wanted to do was a hare-brained idea. We got to figure that out for ourselves. We never learned to be afraid of anything. The closest my friends and I ever got to the seamier side of Grand Junction was in high school, when we discovered the railroad bridge across the Colorado, just downstream from fifth street.
To clamber over that towering steel structure in the dead of night fired our imaginations of industrial power, history. Our imaginations, launched by the sillouettes of beams against the dark sky, took us to cities around the world. We imagined all kinds of adventures — maybe a villain was hiding in the bushes there somewhere.
Where the sections come together on a pier, there is a space under the tracks that was just big enough for us to gather in the dark when a train rumbled deafeningly overhead. And if you lay on your stomach, you could get your body under the cross beam and look down into the dark water raging below.
It felt dangerous and forbidden — but, hell, that was as dangerous and forbidden as anything ever got in this town.
In short, the eighteen years we spent here were a full life. Who could want anything more? We had each filled our heads with as many memories as we could imagine possible.
If anyone had suggested that the future would hold for us not only one but dozens more "complete lives", I don't think any of us would have believed it.
And then I left Grand Junction . . .
. . . and then I left Grand Junction . . .
I was excited as I set out for college. I knew it would be more than I could imagine, but that didn't keep me from trying to imagine it.
I started packing in July.
I spent hours anticipating what I would do when I got to Los Angeles: how I would take the bus to my motel in Montclair, about 30 miles to the east of LA, next door to Claremont and my college. That was exciting. It was the first time I'd never been in a motel by myself.
My mind was full of as many details as I could dig up or imagine for this trip.
By the time I finished packing my "essential" belongings the night before I was to leave, my luggage consisted of a trunk weighing in at 70 pounds, and a suitcase weighing close to 50. (You wouldn’t expect me to leave my calcium carbide miner’s lamp behind, would you?) And at that, there was not a single cubic centimeter left for my jeans. I wound up stuffing them in the liner of my raincoat.
September 17, 1965 was a tranquil, warm September afternoon. The sky was as clear and blue as it can only be here in Grand Junction. Even the airport was quiet. I boarded the plane.
I have never been as thrilled as I was when I climbed the steps to board the (to me) giant United DC-6 for my first plane ride.
Three hours later, I emerged from it, somewhat airsick. But I did not descend stairs back to the ground.
No, I walked through the door of the plane directly into a small hallway that lead straight into the middle of Los Angeles International Airport ... at five o'clock ... on a Friday afternoon.
(Actually, that was not the phrase I used, but you get the idea.)
However prepared I thought I was for Los Angeles, I was completely unprepared for Los Angeles International Airport.
I looked down the big hall to my right. I couldn't see the end of it.
I looked down the big hall to my left. I couldn't see the end of it.
There were what seemed to me about three thousand people around me -- all proceeding purposefully as though they knew exactly where they were going.
My mind went completely blank.
I had not a clue as to what I would do next.
If you had asked, I could probably not have told you my name.
If the letters hadn't been a foot tall or more, I would never have noticed he sign that said "information".
Ah! I could use some of that! I followed the sign, but I was crestfallen to be presented not with a friendly face, but with two telephones — a white one and a pink one. There was an inscription over each one, distinguishing it from the other, but they might as well have been in Chinese for all the sense they made to me. I closed my eyes and picked one.
"May I help you?"
A human voice! (She sounded friendly ...)
"Hello. I just got off a plane from Grand Junction, Colorado, and I think I want to go to a place called Montclair. HELP!"
The voice laughed. "Well, probably the first thing you want to do is to pick up your luggage..."
Right! Luggage! (I knew that!)
Only at this point did I realize that I was surrounded by signs directing me to the baggage claim area. The nice woman at the other end of the phone line continued by telling me that I could get the bus I wanted at the baggage claim area.
(I knew that, too!)
As instructed, I gathered my belongings, (all 120 pounds worth) and waited for my bus.
As I stood there, with my raincoat (and jeans) under my arm, I saw a sign for Sepulveda Boulevard. I had heard of that. That was a Los Angeles name. That suggested that I might really be in Los Angeles. After a bit of a wait, but still in shock, I boarded the bus for Montclair.
Now, that was an interesting day.
It turned out to be but the first of a whole collection of interesting days. Through the years I have found myself ¾
through various combinations of ineptitude and dumb luck ¾
immersed in one totally strange place after another. Each time, I have been completely out of my depth ¾
and only rescued from disaster at the last moment by the incredible kindness of strangers.
While your experiences may not have been quite as dramatic, and I am sure that you handled them with much more coolness, I am also sure that your lives have probably not been the same since then either.
. . .
It took the better part of two years to recover from that afternoon in LAX. Interestingly enough, I eventually developed something of a taste for this business of dropping myself into a completely alien land. By the time I graduated from college, the obvious thing to do was to move to New York City. . .
New York City
I got married on a Saturday, graduated from college on Sunday, and we set out for New York City on Monday. We rode part of the way with my family, part of the way in a borrowed car, and we hitch-hiked the rest of the way.
My new bride and I arrived late the night of the fourth of July, ready to start our new, post-college life. The fellow who’d given us the last ride into the city had planned to crash at the apartment of a friend of his, in a strange-sounding neighborhood called "the East Village."
Before going there, however, we stopped to see his sister in Greenwich Village, who was concerned about our safety in that neighborhood. So she suggested that, since she worked nights, and this was her night off, she and her brother should spend it together at a local cafe, catching up on old times. As for us, this woman, who had never laid eyes on us before in her life, suggested that we take her apartment for the night. She tossed us the key and told us to give it to the guy in the deli downstairs when we left in the morning.
This was our introduction to hostile, unfriendly, New York City.
As it happens, we wound up living in that "East Village." Something about the cost of apartments in good neighborhoods in New York. We started by renting a closet there for our stuff ¾
only to discover later that it was, in fact, the entire apartment.
The first week we were there, our apartment was broken into and pretty much everything we brought with us was stolen.
Not to worry. The next week we received our stuff from California — but of course, the apartment was then broken into and pretty much everything we brought with us was stolen.
We got a third shipment from Mom in Grand Junction the third week — but the apartment was broken into and pretty much everything we brought with us was stolen.
The forth week we didn’t have much left. I half expected one evening to come home from work to discover that the apartment had been broken into yet again. This time, however, I would find a note that said, "There’s nothing here. Why are you breaking off our relationship?"
The marriage only lasted a couple of years, I am afraid, but those were good and exciting times. And the excitement didn't end with the marriage. It continues to this day!
By the way, if you are going to start your career in New York City, I strongly recommend arriving there with no money, no job, no experience, and a degree in philosophy. This is far and away the most interesting way to do it!
Three periods . . .
The thirty years since 1965 actually divide rather neatly into three parts:
The first ten years were spent plummeting. Through life. Every time I turned around I was in a completely alien place. I spent most of the time being completely lost and overwhelmed — and thrilled. First California, then New York, then Eastern Europe.
I discovered a world infinitely larger and more varied than any of us in Grand Junction could have imagined. It was incredible! And wonderful! And terrifying!
And troublesome. I stumbled across an old journal a couple of years ago, and it turns out that my private thoughts at the time mostly concerned the question of what exactly I intended to do with my life.
Here I was supposed to make my mark in this wonderful new world I discovered, but I didn’t actually know how to do anything. There were lots of things I would have liked to do, but there were far too many of those for me to pick just one!
I met Jola during my visit to Poland in 1973, and a year later, returned to Poland to marry her. Then, in 1975, just ten years after leaving Grand Junction, I got my MBA. At this point, Jola solved my career dilemma — She insisted that I actually get a job! Now I had to settle down and stop whining. It is amazing how acquiring a family focuses your thoughts.
For the next ten years, my life was dominated, as was most of yours, by the problems of moving to the suburbs, finding a place to live, raising children, and figuring out how to get the household budget to cover it all. Kind of boring, I suppose, after that first decade, but it was also comforting. I learned a lot and I can't complain. For ten years I worked for large corporations, learning my trade, and taking home a regular paycheck.
(I did manage some more travel to Europe, though. I wore a suit now, and stayed in decent hotels. A business trip isn't quite as much fun as bumming around, but it is a lot more comfortable, and I ate a lot better. I even got to fly the Atlantic First Class a few times. (That's how I met Lola Fallana. We spent a lovely ten hours together!))
At the end of 1985, my life changed again, when I got into a serious disagreement with my boss and decided that corporate life and I simply weren’t compatible. I tried my hand as an independent consultant, failed miserably, and finally went to work as a consultant for a software firm.
This company was venturing into something called computer-aided systems engineering, which turned out to be a field that required people who had a twisted view of the world. At last, a career for me! I stayed with that company for a while, set out on my own again, and have had a modicum of success since then as the proprietor of my own consulting firm. (I've even written a book!)
Starting my own business turned out to be an emotional experience not unlike that of hitch-hiking. It has that same mix of "Oh my God, what have I done?" "Wow, this is fun!" and "Am I ever going to get a ride?" In my experience with both situations, I had substantial doses of all three emotions — often at the same time. In one sense, the business venture was easier than the hitchhiking — because I was no longer troubled by the young person’s angst, and I could simply enjoy seeing all corners of the country and the world.
In one two-month period shortly after setting up shop, for example, I saw the cherry blossoms in Washington, DC, went sailing in San Diego Bay, walked through a beautiful park overlooking the Mississippi River, saw "Phantom of the Opera" in the Los Angeles Music Center, and went surfing off the coast of North Carolina. (Actually, I lie. I didn’t surf myself. But I was there, and I watched others who did!)
Provincialism and traveling
Among the things that shocked me when I moved to New York — that world capital of sophistication — was the number of provincial New Yorkers.
People grow up, work and die in their neighborhoods. To them "the rest of the world" is defined as the area on the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge. They are every bit as isolated as we were growing up in Grand Junction!
It is ironic that, as someone new to the city, I made it my business to see and absorb as much of it as I possibly could. You’re looking at someone who knows Manhattan (and the rest of the city as well) better than most people who had been there all their lives.
I’ve had breakfast at Tiffany’s, and worked in offices overlooking Park Avenue, 42d Street, and Wall Street. I have skated in Central Park, and bicycled over the Brooklyn Bridge.
(How many New Yorkers, I ask, for example, have been on the Staten Island ferry at one a.m. with a pretty girl on each arm?) (Don’t ask. It’s a long story. . .)
In every place I go – all over the world – I find people taking comfort from the familiarity of their home town and neighborhood, and very few ever have any inclination to leave.
Perhaps this business of measuring the world by our own neighborhoods is more general than I imagined.
Which actually raises another point: When I was traveling in Eastern Europe, I was so exhilarated, I couldn't imagine why everyone didn't take off and travel around the way I did.
Then I realized that if everyone did, my experience wouldn't be the same. To travel far from home is not only to see an exotic place — it is to be exotic for those you visit. "Tell us about America — Colorado...New York," I was always asked.
This only happens if they haven’t already been to your house.
You can take the kid out of the country . . .
By the way, lest you get the wrong idea about my newly found sophistication and worldliness, I suppose I owe you the following story:
Imagine Paris. Fortune has found me dining la Cupole, a large bistro formerly haunted by the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway, and other famous literary figures. I work for Pfizer, the pharmaceutical giant, and I am having dinner there with my boss, his wife, the Director of Operations for Pfizer France and his wife, my counterpart at the European Management Center, and assorted other executives, wives and friends.
Being Mr. Cool, I decide that under the circumstances, perhaps I should try escargot. You know — snails. What is life if not worthy of the occasional risk?
Now, for those of you who have not tried them, you should understand the little critters are served with tiny forks which are used to remove them from their shells, and little tongs to hold the shells when you do so. The tongs are made of a kind of spring steel (very strong spring steel) wire and are normally closed. They only open when you press them together.
A small piece of flat metal keeps the wire from digging into your fingers.
The flat piece of metal on mine was kind of loose. Did I mention that the spring steel was kind of strong?
That sucker ricocheted off my lapel and landed about two tables over.
I died right there.
. . .
Then, of course, there was that rainy, miserable night when I found myself standing,by myself, with no transportation available, outside the gates of the American Embassy in Brussels. Now as most of you know, Brussels is approximately in the center of Belgium. My luggage was in a hotel room in Bruges, on the western edge of the country, about a hundred miles away. And on the eastern edge of Belgium, in a train station in a small town on the German border, was my sport coat. Now, losing a sport coat wouldn’t be that big a deal, except that this particular sport coat happened to contain:
- my passport,
- my traveler’s checks, and
- all my cash
. . . except for the two coins in my pocket that were worth together about 15 cents.
Don’t ask. You don’t want to know how I got there. (See, there was this really pretty English lady . . . never mind.) Suffice it to say that my thoughts for the evening were, "Ok, Hay, given that you will eventually get out of this mess, it's going to be very interesting to see how . . ."
The world is getting smaller . . .
And of course, folks, whether you have been traveling or not, the world is changing. We are rapidly eliminating the idea of foreign countries. The opening of MacDonalds in Moscow may prove to be the real turning point in the twentieth century. I can’t help but wonder if we aren’t the poorer for that.
You can’t imagine how exciting it was, when I was in Eastern Europe, to be in a part of the world unvisited by anyone I knew. I encountered cities of several million people, whose beauty rivaled that of Paris or London – that nobody I knew had ever heard of. It was with mixed emotions that I watched the fall of Communism. Poland, The Czech Republic, and the others are being described in guide books now, letting everyone know about those places that I discovered!
(Now everyone will know that there is a Winnie the Pooh Street in Warsaw!)
When I watched the news stories about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, they had an aura of imagination about them. This was not a real place to me.
But when I watched the demonstrations in Tienanmen Square in Beijing a few years ago on television, this was not in some fictional, remote place. This was taking place in a city my wife had visited, where people I worked with at the time had relatives. The rebellion was in part supported and received nourishment through faxes and telephone calls dialed directly by friends and relatives in the United States.
Contrast that with the time when my brother was at Stanford in the early '60's, and it was a very big deal for him to call long distance from California to Colorado.
(Do you remember the time before we had dial telephones, when the operator said "number please"? I still remember my telephone number — 2810-J.)
(That was back before the day television arrived in Grand Junction. Remember that?)
Yes, the world is different, now. It's not what we knew in 1965, and that’s not just because the television news is now in color. Where can we go now to experience that feeling of discovering something that is not merely new, but that is beyond what we could ever have imagined it would be like?
Never again will there be a part of the world which has that wonderful combination of being completely outside the consciousness of the general mind — but which turns out to be an incredibly wonderful place for one with imagination and nerve enough to visit it.
Oh, there are still such places, I am sure, but like the rain forest, they are fast disappearing.
And I suppose that now I am much too old to have imagination or nerve enough to visit them...
Grand Junction has changed too . . .
I used to think that the changes I felt were because I left Grand Junction. I moved to Los Angeles, things were different, and I was changed by the experience. I moved to New York, and things changed again. Grand Junction of course stayed behind, and I expected to return to find it just as I left it. It never occurred to me that Grand Junction would go through changes, too.
In some ways it is as it is just as I left it — in many of those ways that still distinguish it from every other place on the planet. The air is still crisp and clean (most of the time), and, as my father once told me, there is no place in the world with bluer skies than here. There is still a dry taste of dust in the air, and a silence about the valley that you can cut with a knife. I hope these things never go.
But Grand Junction has changed too. To be in the mall on 25 Road is to be in Houston or Paramas, New Jersey, or Waterloo, Iowa. The Winery now serves decent shrimp and lobster. You can rent the same video tapes here that you can anywhere. TV programs are no longer tape-delayed for two weeks, and we get all three networks, plus PBS! As with many small cities, the mall has made main street a little sadder, crime is up, and it’s not clear what this year’s high school and college graduates are going to do for jobs.
The oil shale boom replaced many orchards with developments, but unfortunately the death of the boom has not returned the developments to orchards.
All those faxes and cheap phone calls have brought Grand Junction into the modern world whether we like it or not.
In one sense, what happened to me has in fact happened to all of us — even those who never left Grand Junction.
For those of you who didn’t go to the world, the world came here. The world is no longer an alien place for any of you. It’s there for all of us, whether we like it or not. All of us have had to come to grips with the fact that a whole passel of assumptions we grew up with are just that — assumptions. Other people don’t make those assumptions. That’s what still gives the world variety, but it is also very troublesome.
Other people’s worlds are not square mile after square mile of desert with little bits of habitation spotting it here and there. California, for example, is square mile after square mile of suburb, with little bits of park spotting it here and there. (And the high mountains are on the North, for crying out loud!)
We have been forced to realize that other people experience all manner of other things alien to us growing up in Western Colorado — war, poverty, surfing . . .
And other people have not had the benefit of our isolation from the world’s troubles. My Polish mother-in-law spent her adolescence under the World War II German occupation of Warsaw. My father-in-law was a child in the Soviet Union, when Stalin's thugs knocked on the door and took his father away, never to be seen again. The parents of many of my friends survived the Nazi death camps.
And all too many of our generation experienced war in Viet Nam.
These things really happened. To have learned that they (and many other things) are not fiction, but real, has affected the way we all think. It is no longer possible for us to imagine the world as remote and irrelevant to our lives. We are the grown-ups. The President and Vice-President of the US are our age. We are the ones who have to clean up the mess the world is in.
Recapuring the feeling
I often wish I could return, if not to that time and place, at least to that feeling of timeless isolation that we felt in Grand Junction when we were young.
The closest I have come to recapturing that feeling was summer a few years ago, in, of all places, Wales. I spent a few weeks there on a project. For those of you who’ve never seen it, I must say that Wales is one of the most beautiful places on the face of the earth. It has a tranquillity which took me back, if not to this physical town, at least to that wonderful feeling of time and space that I had growing up here.
It is carpeted with fields separated by hedges that are 800 years old. I saw a Shakespeare play in a castle that was already 400 years old when he wrote it. To be there is to forget about the rest of the world — and time itself. Every village has a pub and you can’t enter one without getting into a conversation with someone.
No one there is in a hurry. Time there is that unhurried river we knew. To be there is to feel that splended isolation from the world’s troubles.
Once I was driving on the motorway (what they call the freeway) and I wanted a cup of coffee. I stopped at an inn and asked for a cup "to go", expecting a Styrofoam cup that I would drink from as I tooled along at 65 miles per hour.
Well, this inn didn't do coffee to go. (Or even "to take away", as the Brits call it.) If I wanted coffee I had to accept a cup and saucer and sit a spell — to drink it in a civilized manner.
I was properly shamed into interrupting my rush, and I enjoyed one of the loveliest cups of coffee I have ever had!
Life is good
You can probably tell that, in spite of some pretty dodgy times, I am pleased with how things turned out for me. Or maybe it is because of the dodgy times. Over and over again, I was forced to remember my motto:
There is nothing so bad that you can't at least say, "Man, what a great story this is going to make."
I credit any good fortune I may have had to luck as much or more than to talent — and I must give the most credit to the people who have helped me along the way. I will never be able to adequately thank those people — family, friends, colleagues, and
complete strangers who gave me a hand — without whom I would not be where I am.
I also credit more than a little of whatever success I may have achieved with the fact that I grew up in Grand Junction, Colorado, USA in the 1950's and 1960's.
Its isolation from the world’s problems allowed me to grow at my own pace, finding adventure on my own, and learning to savor whatever came my way. I didn't have to fear crime, and I was not exposed to drugs (or sex either, alas, but supposedly I am better off). I grew up assuming that all was well in the world and that it would continue to be so.
This, in turn, gave me a tranquility in my temperament that has helped me weather some pretty severe storms.
Tragedy is a ringer that strikes randomly. Whether it is the death of a loved one, economic hard times, or an illness that keeps us from living the life we want to, if your number is up, you get to learn about your character to a degree that most of us would just as soon skip. I have been fortunate enough to miss experiencing real tragedy, but it is a sad fact that some of you have had to endure a lot. For that I am truly sorry, and wish there were something we could do to ease your pain.
The rest of us have been more fortunate. Even the most fortunate of us, though, have all had to assemble that random assortment of daily trials and tribulations we are given, into something that works for us. This is a matter of figuring out how to select the best and make it cover for the other stuff. This is what life is about, and I suppose that this is where the art of life comes in.
I do believe that the culture here in Grand Junction contributed to my conviction that what is important is not what happens to you, but what you choose to do with it. And to all of you ranchers, doctors, submarine captains, lawyers, and the rest of you — all of you who have taken life by the horns, grabbed it, and made a success of your lives on your own terms, I salute you.
Twenty-eight years later . . .
A couple of years ago, when I was walking around the streets of New York at midnight, I came across the entrance to the 59th Street bridge. You know, "Slow down, you move too fast . . . Feelin’ groovy!" Well, at midnight it looks a bit more sinister than you would imagine from the song. It has an immense superstructure towering overhead. There was a lot of construction around, a lot of cars lumbering across (yes, even at midnight!) and a lot of dark, sinister shadows.
But I nosed around a little, and discovered that if you go around, underneath the roadway, through some very dark corners, it looked as though you could get to the one roadway that is closed to traffic.
It was just sitting there waiting for me.
Now if I’d been younger, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought before striding right out onto the center of that bridge.
But I was 46 years old now. I was a grown-up. It was dark and scary. What if a mugger were waiting in the shadows? Besides, grown-ups don’t do that sort of thing.
So I gave it a second thought . . .
. . . then I strode right out onto the center of that bridge.
It was wonderful! The bridge is high above the East river, with an incredible view of my personal New York skyline. The night was clear, so you could see the jewelled necklaces of the other bridges, from the Brooklyn to the south all the way to the Throg’s Neck in the north — which leads from Queens up to the Bronx and Connecticut. The World Trade Center, The Empire State Building, The U.N – it was all laid out there just for me.
The superstructure over my head completed the picture.
And what did I think of as I looked at the beams of that bridge sillouetted against the night sky in the most exotic, sophisticated city in the world? I thought of some friends of mine and another dark, towering bridge — long ago and far away. I’d come a long way since then — but then, perhaps not so far after all.
About age . . .
I get brought up short every time I realize that I am almost fifty. I do miss some of that enthusiasm and excitement of my younger days. It was disconcerting a few years back to teach a class of bright young consultants – all decked out in suits and ties (the men were well-dressed, too), and realize that these folks were all conceived the year I was a senior in college! These suits were the fruits of the sexual revolution!
But if I were to be younger than 48, I would have to give up some of those 48 years.
Which ones? The years my children were born? The years they entered school? The year I discovered Eastern Europe? . . . or New York? . . . or California? The year (ok, years) I got married? No, I wouldn’t give them up for anything. There were a few relatively uneventful years stuck in there, but even they were valuable too.
No, I wouldn’t give up any of them. Forty-eight is just fine, thank you.
Even after all these years, I don't know much, but I do know that I can't think of a thing that I have ever done that I regret. (Ok, Jola, I am sorry about that . . . but never mind . . .) I only regret the things I never got around to doing – or worse yet, the things I never had the nerve to do.
And what lies ahead now for us? My powers of prediction have been pretty well discredited, but I can only assume that life will continue to surprise and excite us.
And a word to Pamela . . .
This year my daughter Pamela just graduated from High School.
Children are a great opportunity to recapture the parts of life you missed the first time around. Both my children are much better at being adolescents than I ever was. I envy them for their sophistication and am grateful for the opportunity both to enjoy their social skills vicariously and to share in the fun they are having.
Thirty years from now, when Pamela goes to her reunion, she'll share as memories the things she's experiencing right now.
Then, many of us won’t exist. Fifty years from now almost none of us will. For the most part our children will, though, and they will have to lead their lives without us. But they will have memories of us, and with luck, these memories will make a difference to them, giving them strength and helping them through life’s troubles.
Now thirty years ago, when we were in high school, they didn’t exist. How nice it would have been, when we were suffering the trials and tribulations of youth, to have had future memories of the children who would one day cheer and inspire us.
This is a very short window we have each been given for our lives. No one knows, of course, where we came from, or where we are going. No one knows why we happened to show up for this particular piece of human history. All we can do is take this piece that we are given and make the most of it, so that our children – and their children – will have good and helpful memories of us.
That is the ultimate homework assignment. We have none other.
It's great to be here! I love you all! Even the twits!
. . .