Long Walkabout, Part 1: Seattle

Seattle, from a Washington State Ferry bound for Bainbridge Island

On September 10, I began a 16-day trip, one of the longest in decades.  It was a challenge to pack clothes into the rollaboard suitcase, but I did it without having to sit on the bag to zip it.  First stop, Seattle for a trade show, to demonstrate our AURA inflight entertainment system, which had evolved remarkably over the summer, from a prototype we showed in Hamburg in April to a full production version.  I had not been west in awhile, and the view from above was delightful, especially the last 90 minutes, over Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, the Columbia River above Grand Coulee Dam, the Cascades, magnificent Mount Rainier, and a vast Puget Sound.  What a country!

Sound Transit's Link light rail in an innovative underground station combining rail and bus

I hopped on the Link light rail, which now connects Sea-Tac Airport with downtown.  Thirty-five minutes later, I was ambling up the hill to the huge Sheraton Hotel.  To my amazement, my room was ready before 11 a.m.  I don’t watch much television, but a scene on a TV in the lobby caught my eye, coverage of the dedication of the (United) Flight 93 National Memorial in Somerset County, Pennsylvania.  As happened the night before, watching Tom Brokaw reprise stories from September 11 (the 10th anniversary of which was the next day), my eyes welled with tears.  I took an elevator to my room, and turned on the TV, to see Presidents Bush and Clinton give remarkable speeches in praise of the citizens on board UA93.   President Clinton compared the fallen on Flight 93 with the Spartans defeated at Thermopylae and the soldiers at the Alamo – all of whom knew were going to die, and went through with their valiant efforts anyway.  But then Clinton noted the key difference: “At the Alamo and Thermopylae, they were soldiers, not civilians who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Vice-President Biden spoke: “My mother used to say, ‘Courage lies in every heart.’ And she would go on to say, ‘And the expectation is that, Joey, one day it will be summoned.’ Courage lies in every heart, and one day it will be summoned.  On September 11, 2001, at 9:57 a.m., it was summoned and 40 incredible men and women answered the call. They gave their lives and, in doing so, gave this country a new life.  We owe them. We owe you a debt we can never repay.”

At noon I walked across downtown to pick up some printing at FedEx Office (their Print Online service is pretty cool), returning by way of the Seattle Public Library, designed by superstar architect Rem Koolhaas.  Had a nice T-t-S moment walking north on 4th from the library; Tyree was an aspiring comedian about to try to make it in the big time of L.A., but that sunny day he was focused on more important stuff: getting to his nine-year-old son’s football game on time.  It was a nice exchange, with a handshake on parting.  I dropped the printing in my room and headed back out, this time on the South Lake Union Streetcar, riding a mile north through the nicely redeveloped Mercer Corridor (Seattle has always struck me as a well-planned place).

Seattle Public Library

On the ride, the iconic Space Needle, built for the 1962 World’s Fair, came into view and it made me smile and wander back in time, nearly a half-century.  We lobbied our dear dad to take us out there, and for a bit he actually considered a road trip west, rationalizing the distance with a possible stop to see his brother, a county sheriff in Montana.  In the end, though, the traveling salesman opted for a shorter journey to his favorite Greenwood Lake in northern Minnesota, and my rendezvous with the Space Needle was deferred until my first visit to Seattle in 1974.

The Space Needle from Puget Sound

A nice collection of old boats, Lake Union

Hopped off the streetcar and admired a new park and museum district on the lake, which was teeming with kayakers, sailors, and even swimmers.  Seaplanes came and went.  It was a wonderful scene.  My destination was West Marine, a chain of stores for sailors, where I bought a 2.2-pound boat anchor to use as a prop in our demonstration room (in our promotion, our ultra lightweight AURA system is compared with older technology above the slogan, “weigh the anchor”).  That task done, I hopped the blue streetcar back to downtown, grabbed a quick late lunch and a tonic nap.  Then up to the gym for 16 miles on a recumbent exercise bike.

Thirsty in the land of microbrews, it was not hard to find the Elysian Brewing Company, a mile east of the hotel in the Capitol Hill neighborhood where I stayed on my 1974 visit (high-school pal Mark Hennessy was working temporarily that spring).  Enroute, I detoured down Melrose St. after spotting a sign “Taylor Shellfish Farms.”  Ambled in to admire local oysters, clams, scallops, crabs, wow.  Seattle is, as you may know, also a place for locavores, and the store identified the genus, species, and provenance of every shellfish they sold.  Admiring the produce, the clear thought surfaced: maybe we Americans should focus on less quantity and more quality.  Just a thought on a Saturday night.

Qualicum Beach scallops from Fanny Bay, British Columbia; in this land of locavores, you know the origins of what you eat

Sat at the Elysian bar and perused the beer menu.  They had no fewer than three pale ales made on premises, and I opted for the super-hopped one, practically green with hops.  Yum!  But back to Capitol Hill: a very funky and mixed neighborhood, skewing young, but some oldsters too.  On the way to ale, I walked past a bar with a rock band playing every track of a Led Zeppelin album (of course, dear readers, I did not know that – a fellow on the street ‘splained it to the greyhair).  Having been in Seattle nine hours, I also noticed that people on the street make eye contact and speak to you, if only an amiable nod and “howyadoin’?”  A very agreeable place indeed.  Joey the bartender extended that, yakking for a bit, joshing with the folks on stools net to me.  Nice!  Refreshed, I walked down the hill to the hotel, and met my boss, Martin Cunnison, who had just arrived from Vancouver.  We ambled over to a great restaurant, Dahlia Lounge, for a late dinner and a catch-up.

On the way, I had to educate Martin, a go-forward Londoner, in the “West Coast pedestrian code,” which I learned almost four decades earlier on my first visit to Seattle.  From there to San Diego, drivers have historically been far more respectful of foot traffic than almost anywhere else in the U.S.  The quid pro quo is that in Washington, Oregon, and California, pedestrians obey the traffic signals, and do not jaywalk.  I have long regarded this as a wonderful and endearing aspect of West Coast life.  My supervisor was a bit slow to learn, but he seemed to be catching on!

Sunday, September 11 dawned clear.  I was up early and out the door for breakfast at Starbucks, then to the 8:30 service at Plymouth Congregational Church, a large urban parish just a block from the hotel.  I had earlier found a Lutheran congregation only a mile or so north, but Plymouth was closer, and was a welcoming and agreeable place.  The service was in a small round chapel and we were enthusiastic participants.  The pastor, Jane Sorenson, was a gifted homilist, speaking simply about forgiveness and mercy.  After the sermon, she delivered some wonderful remarks about remembering September 11.  After the service, I introduced myself, mentioned that ten years earlier I was working for American Airlines, and offered a few thoughts, to which Jane replied simply, “there are no words to describe what happened.”  Amen to that.

The September 11 anniversary observances were hard for many of us who have worked and continue to work in the airline industry.  Our mission since the first plane carried paying passengers ten decades ago has been and will always be to bring the people of the world together, quickly and safely.  That those assholes perverted the mission will make me angry until the day I die.  And sad.  I wept more than a few times that weekend.  And thought back to that day, to the first word, colleague Susie Williams on the phone saying “Have you heard about a plane hitting the World Trade Center in New York . . . oh my, oh no, I gotta call you back.”  And how could I ever forget daughter Robin calling at the end of the day from the University of Southern California, where she had just enrolled; sensing that our business could be ruined, she offered to quit and come home, to which I replied that I would scrub floors before that happened.  But we move forward, always.

I met Martin after church, and I suggested late breakfast at Pike Place Market.  Fortified, we walked back, he headed to his room to work, and I thought a ride on the water was in order, so I headed down to Pier 54 and bought a $7.10 round-trip on the Washington State Ferries to Bainbridge Island, 35 minutes west on Puget Sound.  While waiting for the 1:10 sailing, I called Linda, who reminded me that she and I rode that boat years ago; yep, I recalled, it was July 1986.  The quick crossing was cool and pleasant, with a nice chat with a young couple with a Labrador and a Bernese Mountain Dog.  Bainbridge Island and the little town near the ferry dock, Winslow, has a pleasant rural (and quite affluent feel), remarkable for its proximity to a large metropolis.  I wandered down main street, and tucked into a light salad lunch at the local supermarket, then headed back across the water and up the hill to the hotel.  I had hoped for a nap, but my iPhone chirped a reminder that I was to meet a contact at four.

Children's view of Seattle, from a mural on Bainbridge Island

Wild berries, Bainbridge Island

I really wanted to doze, but Yvette turned out to be a really interesting woman, working for a London marketing agency long familiar to me.  She grew up in South Africa with an Italian father (from Friuli, near Venice) and an English mother.  Like me, she had worked for years in the airline business, and like me, was now adjacent to it.

At 6:30, Martin, Tina Andreasson, AURA’s sales exec for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, walked back to Pike Place for dinner at Steelhead Diner, a wonderful place I found on my 2009 visit to Seattle.  I had an outstanding piece of Oregon rockfish and a side of braised collard greens.  Yum.  Back at the hotel, I worked my e-mail a bit, and at 9:15 drove to the airport to pick up one of our other team members, David Withers, our man in Asia/Pacific, who doubles as the (totally brilliant) engineering brains behind our new system.  With a huge background at Qantas and Boeing, he is precisely the man for the job.  We had a good yak driving back into town.  Clocked out.

Up early Monday morning, lots to do.  As the AURA marketer, I was in charge of fitting out our presentation room at the hotel, so after a quick Starbucks breakfast I headed out, stopping at a florist, then north a mile or so to pick up brochures (FedEx was way too expensive for the job, so I found a Alphagraphics franchise on the Internet).  Eschewing taxis, I hopped on the bus back downtown, then started setting up the room.  David ambled down and unpacked a very cool airplane half- seatback fitted with our 10-inch screen.  And it worked!

AURA's brain core: David Withers (L) and Martin Cunnison

At eleven, I peeled off, changed into a suit, and sat for a pleasant and friendly filmed interview with Steve Harvey, a longtime IFE guru.  We spent the afternoon setting up, did another filmed interview with the BBC (a nice bit of publicity, we expect), then had a team meeting for a couple of hours.  Tina, Martin, and David wanted to stay in for dinner, but one of my rules is never, or almost never, eat at the hotel, so I headed back to the water for a nice meal at Etta’s – six briny Penn Cove oysters from Samish Bay, 80 miles north, and fish and chips made with Alaska ling cod.  Yum!  Before sitting down to dinner, snapped a pic of a breathtaking sunset over the sound, the Olympic Mountains jagged on the horizon.  Seattle is a special place.

Tuesday morning, show time.  The day sped past, meeting with several airlines, proudly showing AURA and telling our story.  At 5:30, we joined Peter Tennent, one of the owners of Factorydesign, the London firm that is doing our industrial design – and they have done a remarkable job, transforming a rough prototype into a polished design ready to manufacture.  Had two ales, then Tina and I hopped in a cab and headed a couple of miles east to Crush, a superb (and high end) restaurant in a 1920s house.  Peter, Martin, David, and six or seven invited guests joined us for a wonderful dinner.  The young and rising-star chef Jason Wilson prepared a wonderful meal for us – tomato and mozzarella salad, followed by a beef duet of short ribs prepared sous-vide (slow cooked in a vacuum to produce tenderness and amazing flavor) and two slices of ribeye steak, the meat from Painted Hills Ranch in southeastern Washington.  Dessert was perhaps the most remarkable, small bites and a spectrum of flavors that Jason introduced to the table: almond, lavender, vanilla, strawberry, rose hip, goat cheese, yuzu, lime, and pluot (a plum-apricot hybrid).  Wow!

Wednesday morning, repeat the show time.  Visitors from 8:30 until noon, when I peeled off to head toward Sweden, the second stop.  Back to Sea-Tac Airport, 737 to Chicago, then into a big seat on the 9:45 p.m. Silver Bird to London Heathrow.  The schedule showed an hour at O’Hare, and for a week or so I had been watching the on-time performance of the Seattle-Chicago flight, but it all worked smoothly, and we were in England quickly (nearly 700 mph across).

Imperial College and the Royal Albert Hall, on approach to London Heathrow

Worked in the Admirals Club at Heathrow, and at 1:50 flew to Stockholm, arriving 5:20.  Then a long wait (punctuated by a nice plate of cold salmon and creamed potatoes) for the one-hour flight to Umeå and my 16th visit to the business school at Umeå University – it was pretty much a 24-hour journey, head hitting pillow in the clean, mostly empty north of Sweden about 11.

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