The first thing I noticed when I was done kissing the ground after Jeff and I landed in Mobile, Alabama was how quiet this airport was. My only experiences with airports were Logan Airport in Boston “The Middle Finger City” Massachusetts, and the airports you see in such fine documentary movies such as “Airport,” “Airport 78,” “Airport 79,” etc. These movies primarily featured explosive devices, and people getting sucked out of airplanes by sudden decreases in cabin pressure and were not particularly encouraging to me. It is because of a similar movie called “The Poseidon Adventure” in which a big oceangoing vessel gets flipped upside down with Shelley Winters and Ernest Borgnine aboard, that I will probably never travel by sea.
The second thing I noticed was that we were in a strange place and everybody was friendly to us. At least I think they were. I had a difficult time understanding anybody that had a thick southern accent, which in Alabama is everybody. When I politely pointed this out to the clerk at the Rent-A-Car desk by repeatedly saying, “What?” to every single thing she said, she even more politely pointed out the fact that it was Jeff and myself who had the accents. Jeff smartly decided to take care of the car rental while I noticed how laid back everybody was. There was no hustle and bustle. It was a nice change. Then the peace and quiet was broken by the Rent-A-Car clerk trying to give us directions to our motel. This should not have been too difficult, but she may as well have been speaking Swahili. She and Jeff were nose-to-nose, and she was screaming as if she could make us understand by sheer volume. We didn’t have a clue what she was saying, and she was obviously getting frustrated by our constant use of apologies for not understanding her. I couldn’t understand how we were speaking the same language, yet it sounded so foreign.
The company that we worked for had made reservations for us at the Holiday Inn. We asked the desk clerk where the University of South Alabama was, and she explained that it was “somewhere nearby,” which I thought was delightfully descriptive. We then asked her where the Holiday Inn was, and she said it was “real close to the airport, and only a few minutes away from The University of South Alabama.” With these remarkably detailed directions, we figured we would be driving around until roughly the next passing of Halley’s Comet trying to find the Holiday Inn. We finally got the desk clerk to show us the location to the Holiday Inn on a complimentary area map. Of course the actual road to the motel was not on the map. She had to pencil it in, so us stupid Northerners could get some sleep before we tried finding our way around in the morning. The Holiday Inn was about five miles away from the airport. Jeff drove.
When we got to the Holiday Inn, we were looking forward to getting to our rooms and relaxing a little. We strolled up to the desk, and told the man we had reservations. He asked about what. We then explained that our company had made reservations here and we would like our keys, because we had to get up early for a class the next morning and we didn’t have time to goof around with him. Of course he couldn’t find my name, Jeff’s name, the Company’s name or anybody else’s name that we might have had reservations under. We played this game for a while, when suddenly he brightened. He said, “Maybe they made the reservations at our other Holiday Inn!” He made a quick phone call, and confirmed that we did indeed have reservations at the Downtown Holiday Inn. When we asked how far away it was, he said about half an hour’s drive. Both Jeff and I thought that it was really an idiotic, bone-headed idea to book our reservations at a Holiday Inn that was a half hour away from the University, when there was a perfectly good Holiday Inn only minutes away, so we switched our reservations and asked if we could receive a wake-up call at 6 am. We were assured that this was no problem.
When the morning arrived, I was awakened by a obnoxiously loud ringing noise. I somehow ended up plastered against the wall with my heart pounding, and my eyes bugging out of their sockets. I then marveled at how effective the wake-up telephone call was. It was really thoughtful of the motel staff to put the telephone on the desk right by the head of the bed at full volume. I think I got the better of them though. They’re probably going to have to throw those sheets away. From that point on, I had the distinct feeling that there was a hidden camera in the room watching for these moments, and I never quite felt comfortable again. I showered and got ready to go. It was 7:00 and classes started at 7:30. We had plenty of time.
The promotional brochures for the course that we were taking, had a map of the University and the surrounding area included in it. The map itself was about the size of a postage stamp and had microscopic writing. Since Jeff was driving, it was up to me to navigate us through this strange land. By squinting really hard, I was able to make my right eye go into a spasm, but I still couldn’t read the map very well. I finally read the words “golf course” and determined that there was a golf course right next to the University. We were looking for the University of South Alabama Brookley Conference Center which was located “in a retreat setting on Mobile Bay” the brochure claimed. I didn’t see a bay, but I couldn’t see the map very well either and it was right in front of me.
Jeff was able to follow the signs without my help, and he had no trouble finding the University of South Alabama. I had decided to stop trying to navigate so we could be on time. We had passed the golf course on our right and there was the University — right where it was supposed to be. It was 7:20. All we had to do was locate The Brookley Conference Center. After circling the parking lot about eight thousand times, we came to the conclusion that we’d better ask somebody for guidance before we ran out of gas. Jeff went into the main building and came back out about ten minutes later with an odd look on his face. He had been told something really bad by the looks of his expression. “We’re going to be a little late,” Jeff explained to me. “We are at the wrong University of South Alabama. There’s another one at the other end of Mobile.” It was 7:32. We were officially late.
The directions that Jeff had received from the person at the University were adequate enough to allow us to get to a road that had signs for the University of South Alabama for us to follow. We were both kind of tense at this point. Jeff was driving with the intensity of somebody who was trying to overcome a bout of constipation, and I was gazing out the window. Neither of us spoke much, with the exception of some light remarks about how funny this will be later on. I did notice that there wasn’t a single Dunkin’ Donuts during the half hour drive. I thought that this was odd since there are roughly six thousand of them per square mile where we live. There are actually entire neighborhoods made up of nothing but Dunkin’ Donuts in some areas. However, there were many stores called “Piggly Wiggly’s,” which without a doubt is the silliest name I’ve ever heard. It was 8:05 when we passed the golf course across from the University of South Alabama. We drove around the University about three dozen times, once again looking for the Brookley Conference Center. I was beginning to think we would spend our entire week in Mobile, Alabama searching for a mythical Brookley Conference Center, much like people search for the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot. Once again, Jeff got out at the main building and asked for directions. We weren’t too far away this time — it was located down a side road, and was about the only thing down there. It was 8:20.
We both ran to the Brookley Conference Center building as if the extra two minutes we’d save by running would make up for the fact that we were an hour late. We walked into the building, which had a huge foyer. It was really very nice. There was a big fireplace and some overstuffed, comfortable looking chairs. A single sign in the middle of the room had the courses that were scheduled for that week. Ours wasn’t on the sign. We asked several faculty people about the class and they all scowled at us as if we’d leaped up and shouted the “f-word” in church. None of them had any idea of what we were talking about. As they were poking around through huge piles of paper trying to find answers for us, a cleaning lady type person put her mop down, came over to us and asked, “Can I help y’all?” When we told her what we were looking for, she brightened. “Jus’ go right up them stairs.” We thanked her, and went up the stairs thinking that she should be in charge of the place because out of everybody we had met since we got here, she had, with the fewest words, helped the most. It was 8:45.
We opened the door to the class and the instructor stopped speaking right away. He looked at us and said “Glad you could make it, gentlemen” in a sarcastic tone of voice. Everybody laughed except us because we were extremely embarrassed. Both Jeff and I blushed so hard that the heat from our faces was causing objects that were within three feet of us to burst into flames. A very nice gentleman broke the awkwardness by suggesting that we get a cup of coffee. We went to the table where the coffee was, and saw the sign that stated “25 cents per cup please.” One thing I was certain of was that the brochure for the course said “Lunch is provided daily from 11 am to Noon as part of the registration fee. Refreshments are served mornings and afternoons and include coffee, soft drinks and a danish.” Figuring that the 25 cents per cup charge was a penalty for showing up late, we paid it. There were two empty seats — one right up front near the instructor, and one directly behind it. Jeff and I both lunged for the seat furthest away from the instructor, and as we ended up, I was sitting on Jeff’s lap. A brief fist-fight ensued, but I was pulled away and had to sit up front.
The instructor looked slightly amused by these antics, and asked us to please take the cards in front of us and write our names on them. I turned around to see if everybody else had these cards and they all did, but something wasn’t right. I put my name on the card and Jeff did too. (He actually wrote his name on the card, not mine.) Each person in the class had two large red loose-leaf binders in front of them. Since I got bored the second I sat down, I started rooting through the binders to preview the material. Mine was full of alien-looking symbols and words such as “bridge rectifier PY-40” and “relay latching spdt.” I turned to Jeff thinking I had the wrong binders. Mine had the title “U.S .Army Electrical Engineers” on it. This was the same thing that I noticed on the name card I had just put my name on. Jeff’s binders had the same title on them. It was then that I started to panic.
I turned around again to check everybody else’s name cards. They all had the same title:”U.S. Army Electrical Engineers.” We were at the wrong course. We were sitting right up front by the instructor at a U.S. Army Electrical Engineers Course where we clearly did not belong. (My experiences with electricity started and ended in the sixth grade when I made a strobe light with a Xenon tube. I don’t know how it worked, but I did find out that you are not supposed to touch the Xenon tube while the strobe is flashing or you will get roughly seventy million volts traveling through your body, making you whinny like a horse randomly for several hours afterward. Although this provided great entertainment for many other sixth graders, it often resulted in detention for the person doing the whinnying.) I had to think quickly to get out of this “U.S .Army Electrical Engineers” course, so I told the instructor that I just ruptured my spleen. I picked up my coffee cup and name tag and bolted out of the room leaving Jeff to fend for himself. He came out after trying to convince the instructor that his brain had begun hemorrhaging. Ten seconds later he was standing next to me in the hallway with his coffee and name tag. We had paid 25 cents for the coffee and didn’t want to leave it. We also didn’t want to leave any evidence of who the two stupid young men with the accents that disturbed the class were.
When we got to the bottom of the stairs, one of the faculty members said “Oh, there y’all are! The class that you are supposed to be at has been changed. You need to go to the Holiday Inn in Downtown Mobile. The course is being held in the conference room there.” We got directions and left. As it turned out, we had passed the Holiday Inn on the way to the Brookley Conference Center. It took us about ten minutes to get there. Jeff said, “You realize that this course is being held in the conference room of the same Holiday Inn that we had reservations at to begin with, don’t you?” I told him to shut up.
I was marveling at how convenient these “mistakes” had been. Who could have known that there were two Universities of South Alabama? Who could have known that both Universities would have golf courses next to them? Who could have known the class location was changed? Who could have known that there would be two empty seats at the U.S. Army Electrical Engineers Course? Who could have thought we would be dumb enough to listen to the cleaning lady? I guess what really bothers me is the ease of which we got into the U.S. Army Course. We could have been terrorists or something. We just walked right in — no questions asked. I was getting very suspicious.
We pulled up to the Holiday Inn in Downtown Mobile and found a parking space. We found the sign that welcomed everybody to the Fundamentals of Management Course. It was our course. We were at the right place. It was 9:50. We were two hours and twenty minutes late for our first class. We found the conference room and entered. Once again, the instructor stopped speaking right away. I experienced a distinctive feeling of deja-vu. I didn’t want to be laughed at again. The instructor must have really wanted to make an ass out of me, because he looked at me and said, “Are you Richard or Jeff?” Although it wasn’t a very difficult question, I felt I could make an ass out of myself quite effectively without any help from him. I stammered “Richard.” He then said to me, “Richard, tell me something about Jeff.” I wasn’t expecting this, but without missing a beat, I said “Jeff has red hair and freckles and he drove and that’s why we’re late.” As the room erupted into laughter, I put my head down on the desk and hoped that the rest of the day would get better.
The instructor that we had on the first day was Paul Pietri. His wonderful sense of humor made the class go by quickly. The dinner was very good and the afternoon portion of the class went by with no further embarrassing incidents. My favorite part of each day was at the end of the class. The Program Director, Patricia Miles, came to us and gave us each a free ticket to get a beer at the lounge after class. During the class, I spoke quite fondly of beer, explaining how I’ve tried many different types, and actually make my own beer. The people in the group that I was placed in did not drink beer and gave me their tickets for a free beer. There wasn’t really much of a selection beer-wise. I had Killian’s Red on draught. This happened four nights in a row. I could get to like Mobile, Alabama.
After the class, Jeff and I headed back to the Holiday Inn where we were staying. We didn’t know what there was to do in the area, so we decided to just go swimming for a while and then go out to eat. We went to a restaurant called “Darryl’s” which in addition to being within staggering distance from the Holiday Inn, also had their own brand of beer brewed for them. It was a sixteen ounce bottle called the Pig Pounder — After a few of these, I got a great idea. Jeff is the type of person who blushes very easily. I pretended that I had to go to the bathroom and went directly to the hostess who had seated us. I explained that Jeff and I were from Lawrence, Massachusetts on a business trip (which was true), and that it was his birthday (which was not true). My plan was to have the hostess assemble a batch of waitresses who would go to our table and sing Happy Birthday to Jeff. It was just the “jerk” in me that wanted to see his reaction. Don’t ask me why. Unfortunately, they couldn’t do it for some reason. I wanted to stay a little longer so I could think of something else to do to embarrass Jeff, but due to the fiasco of that day he felt it would be a good idea to head back so we would be coherent in the morning. After all, we had made a mess of the day while sober. We went back to the Holiday Inn to go swimming again.
There were absolutely no people at the pool earlier in the evening when we had gone swimming, and there were none there now either. Jeff said he wanted to call his girlfriend briefly, and I told him I’d wait in the pool for him. As Jeff had his “brief” three hour conversation with his girlfriend, I understood why nobody came to the pool at night. At first I thought it was a trick of the moonlight, but I then realized that there were cockroaches the size of water buffalo running around out here. Although I had only seen one, my first instinct was to scream like a girl and yell for help. Once my senses took over, I realized that: a) the cockroaches wouldn’t be able to get me if I stayed in the water, and b) nobody in their right mind would leave the safety of their rooms to save a half-naked, wrinkled man that was screaming (with a New England accent) about water buffalo.
After a while I figured I’d eventually have to get out of the pool. It was either that or stay in the pool until the sun came up in the morning. Another problem was that once I had seen a single bug, I felt like they were crawling all over the place. Once I got out of the pool, I started slapping at nonexistent bugs and scratching myself like I had the mange. This also would not help my chances of being rescued. When I finally mustered up the courage to sprint down the sidewalk that led in the general direction of my room, I knocked down an elderly couple that was out for an evening stroll. In times of chaos, everybody must fend for themselves. Then I passed Jeff on his way out to the pool. There was no way that I was going back there without a high-powered rifle or a really big can of Raid. Besides, I needed some rest. I had a feeling it would be a busy day tomorrow.