On Sunday, June 26, I flew to Dallas/Fort Worth. It made sense to be in the air, because it was exactly the 50th anniversary of my first airline flight (The Huffington Post has published my essay on a half-century of flight, here). Arrived DFW at sunset, and hopped in a cab to the Gaylord Texan, an enormous hotel a few miles north of the runways. Along the way, a nice conversation with a Somali taxi driver who lived in frigid Minneapolis for eight years. At the hotel, I met Jay Shelat and his colleagues from consulting client SmartKargo, and a handful of customers; the company was holding its first customer forum, and I was there to give a short talk the next day, and to schmooze a bit. The group had been at a baseball game that afternoon, and were having a late dinner. I opted to stay at Jay’s house rather than have a roommate at the hotel, and at 10:45 we departed. Spent the next day and evening in meetings and socializing, and another night at Jay’s.
I was headed to Europe in two days, so rather than fly home for a day I spent Tuesday in Fort Worth and Dallas. Jay dropped me at the airport, I picked up a rental car, and headed west to Cowtown (Fort Worth). Took a nice drive around downtown, which I had not seen in years, and was happy to see a core in great shape. The prominent Bass family began to invest downtown more than a quarter-century earlier, and the fruits of their commitment were obvious; retail was mostly gone, but dining, entertainment and cultural facilities are shiny, as are tons of condos and apartments. It’s an impressive place. I then motored into Mistletoe Park, Park Hill, and a couple of other historic neighborhoods south of downtown, and was reminded that when we first visited these districts in spring 1988, a few months after moving from Minnesota, Linda and I agreed that we probably should have moved there! Wonderful old bungalows, Spanish Colonial, and other styles, and lots of trees.
Just before noon I met a couple of former AA colleagues and long friends, Al Becker and John Hotard, both veterans of the PR team (which I led 1996-98), for lunch at the Paris Coffee Shop, a Fort Worth institution. Tucked into a vegetable plate (collards, mashed potatoes, black-eyed peas, and creamed cauliflower) and yakked about the old days and the new days with a couple of great fellows. Motored back toward the airport, pausing to do a bit of work at a Starbucks near AA corporate headquarters. As I have noted, sometimes strangers initiate a Talking-to-Strangers conversation, and while sipping an iced coffee a fellow tapped me on the shoulder and asked “Is your last name Britton?” Yes, I replied, offering my first name. It was John Gleason, who said he worked at American but “was kind of a nobody.” “No one’s a nobody,” I said, and we had a nice chat about the company, his work, and mine. It was a sweet moment.
Time to meet the next set of friends, Randy Essell, longtime airline scheduler, and Ken Gilbert, like me an airline jack of all trades, at 4:30 at On the Border, a longtime hangout for AA people a few miles east of the airport. We had a beer and a lot of laughs. Ken and his wife Peggy were hosting me that evening, so at 6:30 we made fast for North Dallas. Dropped my stuff, greeted their swell dogs Papi and Bella, and we headed out to MesoMaya, a Mexican restaurant near their house. Wonderful meal and great chatter – I hadn’t seen Peggy in almost two years.
Out the door next morning, north through Richardson, pausing a couple of times in the neighborhood where we lived for 20 years. “A nice place to have raised a family,” I said to myself. At 8:00 I met yet another long friend, fellow Lutheran John Laine, who introduced me 20 years ago to the joys of building wheelchair ramps. I stayed with that project until we moved to Washington, and since 2006 John has worked tirelessly to establish ramp projects all across Texas. He is a righteous person.
Drove again through the former ‘hood, past the kids’ elementary and high schools, then out to DFW. Flew to New York Kennedy, then on to England for the first teaching of the fall term, or else the last of the spring semester. Landed in Birmingham at 7:15 Thursday morning, and hopped on a train to Bristol, a city I had long wanted to visit (I am gradually making my way to all of Britain’s secondary cities, and was not due in the classroom until the next day).
I had a precise schedule laid out between 11:00 and the train to London at 3:30. Hopped on the #8 bus west to Clifton, along the way a nice T-t-S with a Bristol University student; the convo pretty quickly gravitated to Brexit, then over to U.S. politics – as I did several times that trip, I tried to reassure worried folks that The Donald was not going to win in November. Jumped off in the Clifton neighborhood, towing my wheeled suitcase up a hill (there were no lockers nor bag storage service at Bristol Temple Meads, the main railway station) for a good view of the Clifton Suspension Bridge, a brilliant piece of 19th Century engineering that spans the River Avon, which is navigable to the ocean – before Liverpool, Bristol was a main port for ships plying the Atlantic and beyond. Snapped some pics and headed down the hill to the Pump House quay, then onto a wonderful little city-run ferryboat that plies the inner harbor. I was pretty excited to be in Bristol, and had in the first hour taken a shine to the place, best described as “hilly and curvy.”
Alighted at the SS Great Britain, like the bridge a product of the clever mind of English engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1803-59). Brunel is well-known in England but not overseas. As a Transport Geek, I learned about him years ago, as the brains behind the Great Western Railway, the network that runs west from London to Oxford, Bath, Bristol, Plymouth, and all the way to Land’s End at the tip of Cornwall. The ship, launched in 1843, revolutionized sea travel in many ways, not least an iron, not wooden, hull, and a screw propeller rather than paddles.
I knew I was going to have a great visit from the start, when the people at the ticket desk said “no problem” to me leaving my suitcase and backpack. First stop was the Drydock, below water, to learn how they built her, touch the hull, and get an overview. Next, a thorough museum tracing the ship through time – she did a lot of different jobs in her 90-year life of service, from posh transatlantic crossings to carrying emigrants to Australia, to hauling cargo, and finally serving as a floating warehouse in the Falkland Islands. That’s where someone who cared found her in about 1970, and began raising money to return her to her native Bristol and restore her.
Then I did something I promised to do since seeing the offer on the ship website: for £10 (on that day a lot less than before, $13.65, because of the vote to Brexit exactly a week earlier) I could climb the mast, up 85 feet to the crow’s nest, then out 20 feet on a spar. Shannon, a young staff member, helped me into the harness, showed me the ropes (so to speak!), and up I went. Along the way, John, a fellow visitor from the Midlands, kindly took pictures with my iPhone – while waiting to ascend, he, wife Barbara, and I had a wonderful T-t-S conversation, which began with Barbara saying she wouldn’t let John ascend, too old at 75 she said. I tried to convince her otherwise. Whooping and hollering on the way up, across the crosspiece, and down, it was just a blast.
Next stops were below deck, where they had restored first, second, and steerage classes, the engine room, and more. Volunteers dressed in period costume helped explain. I had a nice chat with one, a retired aerospace engineer, who knew a ton about Brunel, the engines, and more. I surveyed two decks twice, looked at my watch, and knew it was time to leave – I could easily have stayed for hours more. In a country known for outstanding presentation of things from the past, it may well be the best example. Just stunning.
Hopped on another ferry, gliding toward Temple Meads station and chatting with a London and his pathologist partner. At City Center quay, I made fast east to the train, bought a sandwich, and hopped on the 3:30 Great Western express to London. After a quick and welcome lunch, I worked most of the ride, thanks to free wi-fi. We arrived London Paddington, a Brunel-designed terminal, on time at 5:15, but instead of heading to my customary digs with Scott and Caroline, I got on the Tube and headed west on the District Line to Kew (near the famous botanical garden of the same name), and two blocks southeast to the home of my Imperial College host Omar Merlo and his partner Carolyn. Omar is a swell fellow, and I was glad for the invitation. Rang the doorbell and in no time was friends with his kids Sophie and Freddie, 7 and 5, and his dear mother-in-law, Maureen, visiting from Australia (The Swiss Omar got his Ph.D. and taught for some years in Melbourne).
The family had just moved from a smaller house, also in Kew, and were getting settled. Carolyn, a lawyer with the BBC, was still at work. Omar ordered take-out Indian food, and showed me around the new house. A keen musician and fan of all things musical, he took special pride in showing me a 1920s Capehart jukebox and a Swiss-made portable record player (“the 1920s iPod,” he said). It was like being in a museum! Carolyn returned (I had not seen her since a month before she delivered Sophie), we sat down to dinner and a good yak. After helping clean up, we watched a bit of telly and I collapsed, well before ten.
Up Friday morning, and as at home the first task was to walk the kids to school, Queen’s, a Church of England school a few blocks away. Maureen and I shepherded the scholars, and had a nice yak along the way. I then peeled off, onto the Tube to Imperial College Business School and a lecture to the Executive MBA program. Before the talk I had a coffee with another Aussie, Mikhaela Gray, who I described in these pages last year – she studied at the same school where I taught as a visiting lecturer in 1981.
After the talk, Omar and I grabbed a bit of lunch with two of the students, then headed home. I changed my clothes and headed out on one of Omar’s bikes, south to Richmond Park, a vast green field. I had been there years ago while attending a meeting at a hotel in Richmond, a pleasant suburb on the Thames, and not far from Heathrow. Omar’s mountain bike was terrific, and I circled the park 1.5 times, then back into Friday-afternoon traffic, 21 miles. A great ride. At home, Omar was cooking dinner, and Maureen was helping prepare for a summer fair at the kids’ school. Sophie’s friend Olivia had arrived. I yakked a bit with her, learning about a mum from Idaho and a dad from Northern Ireland, another example of the combinations largely enabled by the jet airplane!
After dinner, Omar and I watched a great UEFA European Championship soccer match, Wales upsetting the 2nd-ranked Belgium 3-1. After tiny Iceland beat England a few days earlier, and Brexit woes, it gave the British something to cheer about.
It gets light well before five in summer, and I was awake early, out the door a bit after six for another 17 miles, this time along the Thames, upstream and downstream, pausing for a big mug of coffee and tub of yogurt in “downtown” Kew. Carolyn, Maureen, and the kids departed for the fair, I suited up, grabbed my suitcase (I really didn’t want to leave such a convivial home), and headed back to Imperial for a lecture to a big (65) class in the Weekend MBA program. Check and done, and Omar and I headed back to the Tube. I hugged him and peeled off, east to St. Pancras Station and onto the Eurostar for Paris.
As I have written before, I am unhappy about the huge ($245) UK departure tax, so often head home from other nearby places. This time Paris made sense, and for a specific reason: after the attacks of November 13, I committed to visiting the four bars that ISIS attacked. A beer in each in the spirit of solidarity and, more important, to show those assholes that I am not afraid. After a late lunch, short nap, and moments of panic about a misplaced wallet (it was in my suitcase, exactly where I put it when changing into blue jeans in the train restroom), we rolled into Gare du Nord just before six. Put my stuff in a locker and headed south, less than a mile to Le Carillon, one of the four bars (15 dead and 11 injured). The sidewalk tables were nearly all full, but I found a small table, got a small beer, and quietly prayed for the dead and toasted the living. After paying, I headed inside to pee, and when passing the bar, I spoke with my waiter. His English was as bad as my French, but he understood “last November” and “solidarity.” Shook his hand and headed south a few blocks to bar #2, Bonne Bière (5 dead and 8 injured). Shortly after I arrived, it began to rain hard; my table was mostly under an awning, and it was fun to see street life in the rain.
The shower lasted awhile, and I realized I was behind schedule. Walked a mile briskly south to the third, Le Belle Équipe, (19 dead and 9 injured) stopping briefly at the Bataclan Theater, scene of the worst carnage (89 perished). I found another open table on the terrace, and tucked into a nice plate of fish. La Belle Équipe, which reopened on March 21, was perhaps the liveliest of the three, and all that life made me smile. The joie de vivre in the joint contrasted with the four soldiers I passed enroute, 400 meters from the bar. If my French were better, I would have thanked them for keeping us safe.
While watching the lively scene inside the bar and on the street, I finally hit upon the best, quickest way to express my feeling. Connected to the bar’s free wi-fi, I typed the following into the Google Translate box on my iPhone:
I was working for American Airlines on 11 September 2001, so it’s important for me to express solidarity with the staff and customers at Le Belle Équipe. We are not afraid.
When I departed, I showed the screen to my waitress, who murmured the French equivalent of “Awww.” I hugged her and left, making fast for the Metro, collecting my suitcase, and heading out to the airport. The last shuttle to my hotel departed the airport train station at 11:30, which kept me from visiting bar #4, Le Comptoir Voltaire. I’ll get there next time for sure. A promise.
Head hit the pillow just before midnight, up at eight, back to the airport and the Silver Bird home to Washington. Another splendid trip.