Business trips are a necessary evil for most careers. Young and single, I had been out of Oklahoma and its neighboring states less than the fingers on one hand before entering the work world. I’m going to get paid for a free vacation? It was unheard of!
My first trip to Houston with my co-workers was exciting. Sure the flight left early in the morning from Saint Louis, most of them do. Once the plane landed in Houston after a non-stop flight, we transferred for the second leg on an aircraft that a friend of mine later dubbed a ‘flying Velveeta box’ to Clear Lake, Texas. While we were on the ‘box’ my co-worker, Al, would always make a deal with God promising to stop drinking if we landed safely. The deal usually expired about the same time as happy hour started. After flying on this wobbly, propeller driven plane a few times, we quickly replaced this second leg of the trip with a rental car and drove the forty-five minutes or so to Clear Lake.
I always anticipated an evening of sightseeing after working away from home. As most of my business trips have been with men, I’ve gotten used to the fact that they always want to rest first after work and eat sometime after seven. I don’t get it. Let’s change those travel clothes and hit the road. Checking in with your wife should take five minutes tops. What else is there to do? Watch the news? Star Trek? Why does it take so long to get going?
Early on, I discovered the magic that happens on business trips. Love? No way. I’m talking about eating! Like a kid in the proverbial candy store, a new visitor to a city has a whole plethora of eating choices. Just about every ethnic group has a restaurant and then there are steaks and seafood, presented in all kinds of atmospheres and themes. Mom and pop restaurants, local dives, franchises unheard of back home, and fancy eateries all beckoned to the traveler carrying a corporate credit card. I gained ten pounds in the three months I spent in Houston. Mostly I blame eating after seven o’clock. Those darn guys!
One of my favorite trips took me to New Orleans. Four male co-workers and I planned a three-day trip with one mission: to tour a plant located a few miles from the French Quarter. We were designing a similar plant to be built in North Carolina in what amounted to a replication of the Louisiana facility.
Our plan was to spend the daytime biking around the plant, spread over several hundred acres, observing current design of equipment and piping, talk to some of the engineers at that plant and, most importantly, make plans for that evening’s activities. Yes friends, this is what is known in the business as a boon doggle.
Two nights in New Orleans, five engineers, no managers, cell phones, or email, we were on our own. I was one of the younger and less experienced engineers being led into the den of boondoggle-dom by those who were leading our expedition. But I have found that even after a long career, the occasional boondoggle is something that you do look forward to; not a vacation because after all it is business, but not really work either as you typically listen or observe and no one even so much as asks your opinion, much less wants to even hear you speak.
Or it may be a class that the company has deemed to be mandatory. I’ve been on several of those, usually tagged to the corporate mantra of the year: Deming’s quality approach, American businesses finally wised up to this guy after shunning him and he took his crayons over to Japan and taught them a thing or two about quality. Note that Ford and Boeing don’t manufacture after a GM production model; it’s a Toyota model that they favor.
Then there was Steve Covey’s Seven Ways to Live, or something like that. That was an interesting week. The class learned how to conduct self-exploration and discovery for the good of the company and for your home life; happy family equals happy employee. The only thing I discovered: I was OK and everyone else was screwed up.
Our first night in New Orleans, after the guys made their calls to home, we headed to the French Quarter. Our oldest member was in his fifties, and, like a lot of male engineers, was somewhat introverted. New Orleans at the time had a bit of a criminal reputation but I was relieved to be the lone female with this group of males who would surely come to my aid if needed. I clung close to the group.
We meandered down Bourbon Street taking in the ambiance of the music and the smells and the sounds of that enchanting area. Strolling along, a tall person dressed in a mini skirt walked past us. I could hear the guys whispering about how cute she was. Why do guys always think good-looking girls would give them the time of day? I started laughing. “What’s wrong?” they asked. “That she was a he.” I could not believe that these guys actually thought this lanky, mini-skirted, at least six foot five inch tall person was a woman. We headed to a bar so they could wash out their mouths and their indecent thoughts.
We made it to Pat O’Brien’s, advertised as a must-do, and consumed a hurricane or two. This wonderful drink had the sweet flavor of a daiquiri but more punch to the sip. We took our time, sipping our drinks and taking in the ambiance. Around midnight we made our way to a restaurant and had a great seafood meal. Back to the hotel we went, hitting the bed around two in the morning. The next day was a bit of a drag, but I managed to find energy for bicycling around the plant, listening to the plant workers, and working to keep my eyes open and conjure up that eager look that says I’d rather be here than any other place in the world.
Finally it was time to head back to the hotel, or at least it was close enough to time to go back. A couple of us played a little tennis on the hotel court; it was good to be me back then! Cleaned up for another round of French Quarter, we met in the hotel lobby before departing. Our eldest member told us he was going to stay in that evening and for us to have fun. Now that I’m the age of that guy, I can understand why he begged out. He probably collapsed into bed, poor guy! In those days, I just couldn’t believe someone wouldn’t make the most of a trip to a city as exotic as New Orleans.
Off our merry group went back for another night of frivolity; drinks, food and a late night dinner. The guys got me back for ruining their fantasy the night before. There is one thing that I absolutely refused to eat: oysters. Grey and slimy, it just didn’t appeal to me and I often refused to partake in their appetizers. On the other hand, heaven to the guys was a plate full of oysters.
I’m walking along Bourbon Street with them and they stopped at a place, holding the door for me to enter first. I walked on in, never suspicious of their chivalry I hadn’t really seen before. It was an oyster bar. A long bar-like table stretched down the narrow room and on top of the table was nothing but slime, grey and shells. I turned, expecting to find my group and found they had all stayed at the doorway, waiting for me to realize where I was and laughing out loud at the joke. I’ve still not eaten an oyster to this day. It’s just not going to happen.
Up the next morning, we headed back to the plant for a half-day. Then it was time to go home. At the airport we found a lounge for our particular airline. One of the guys was a member so he was able to get all of us into the lounge. We had several hours to wait for our flight. I stretched out on a sofa as they turned on the television in the lounge. A soap opera was on, the Young and the Restless.
I had watched this show religiously during college and kept up with it from time to time on days off. It is so easy to keep up with soap opera’s. The basic storyline and characters come from watching the show for a couple of weeks and then you can get on the quarterly plan: watch it once every three months to keep up with the plot. Y&R was like that. The guys were interested in the show. I set them straight on good guys, bad guys, and who was doing whom and went to sleep. A few hours later we boarded a plane for home. Tired, dragged out, a souvenir hurricane glass in my suitcase, it was good to be home. The boondoggle was over and it was Friday!