Two days home, then back in the air, north to Calgary. Before we departed DFW, the captain, Mark Spiegel, greeted me in the cabin and shook my hand. I spent some of the next three hours trying to remember where I met him – I met a lot of people in 22 years at American. On the way off the plane I stopped in the cockpit to ask. Back in 2001, he told me, we were members of the TWA transition team, in a time when we were optimistic that the acquisition would work out. We visited a bit about the current state of affairs. He was gloomy, and with reason: the pilot pension plan, which had been enormously plump, will in bankruptcy become much skinnier. Mark told me he had 27 years of service. Walking up the jetbridge toward customs, I reflected a bit: it’s easy and tempting to vilify pilots as a group (and particularly their union, to which individuals may not have any affinity), but when you come face to face with a friend things look different.
After entering Canada, I headed back through security and to the gate for my short flight to Edmonton, 160 miles north. Calgary Airport offers free wi-fi, so I plopped into a comfy leather armchair and worked away. Landed in Alberta’s capital at 5:25, and jumped on a city bus that ran to the end of the city’s light-rail line ($8, nice!). Along the way, in the affluent south suburbs, a cool winter scene: a white-stone Buddhist temple perched atop a snowy hill, framed with blue-spruce trees. In no time I was walking down 87th Avenue and into my hotel on the edge of the University of Alberta campus. It was my third visit. Checked in and worked a bit. The original plan was to ride the train into downtown and amble to a highly-rated Chinese restaurant, but I was tired and opted for fish and chips at a pub next door.
Maybe, dear reader, you get tired of reading a variation of the following, which appears in roughly every third account of a visit to Canada. But it bears repeating: I looked around the pub, and I smiled at the reality that every person there had health insurance. The grizzled guy watching the Toronto Maple Leafs on TV. The Chinese guy (looked like a grad student) behind me, eating a burger. The waitress who called me by name. All of them, covered. U.S. Conservatives periodically decry Canadian “socialism,” but in so many ways our neighbor to the north works so much better than our republic.
Was up early on Wednesday the leap-year free day, worked a bit, out the door for breakfast at Tim Horton’s, then north to the U of A School of Business. At 8:15 I met a new host, Charles Keim. Delivered a lecture on airline alliances. Charles peeled off and I ambled up the stairs to meet my longer host, Kyle Murray. We yakked a bit, then headed to class, the lecture on airline pricing, a quick Chinese lunch, another pricing talk. Finished the day with another alliances presentation in Charles’ class. Whew, a lot of talking. But the applause was a big reward.
Back at the hotel, I pounded out 15 miles on an exercise bike, then headed to dinner at Gaya, a 14-seat hole-in-the-wall Korean restaurant. The waitress was sweet and welcoming, and brought a plate of spicy stir-fried tofu, kimchee, and pickled sprouts. Yum. I had a nice short chat with her father, who had owned the café for seven years. Was business good, I asked. “Very good,” he replied, “I bought Cadillac.” That made me smile.
At 7:15 I ambled to the University light-rail station and met longtime friend Jeff Angel, who was just finishing a short assignment as communications officer for the City of Edmonton (an odd post, I thought, since he’s from, and really likes, Calgary). For the Transport Geek, the meet-up was great: he sent an SMS when he was at the next station south, and when the train stopped at the platform he waved. Nice rendezvous! Jeff had lined up tickets to the Edmonton Oilers vs. St. Louis Blues game, my second NHL match in less than three weeks. We saw a good game and had a great yak, catching up on things over the past year. He’s an interesting guy and a great friend. Hopped the train back.
Like the U.S., Canada is a nation of immigrants, and that day I met two and learned a little of their stories. Charles Keim was born in 1968 in Ohio to Amish parents, but they left the community and relocated to east-central British Columbia, rugged land of mixed forest and field. He earned a Ph.D. in English literature, a Shakespeare expert, and now was working on a second doctorate. The owner of the Korean restaurant was born in Korea in 1954, in a place ruined by war. He emigrated to Canada in 1994 at age 40. “This is home,” he said proudly.
More Talking to Strangers the next morning. The public-transit option to the airport didn’t work, so I hopped a van service. Driver was very chatty, as was the fellow sitting behind him, who was a forest fire-fighter in High Level, Alberta, 500 miles north. We yakked mostly about hockey (Canada!), a little about football. At the gate for the flight back to Calgary, a long chat with a Paul Hanson, a native of New Brunswick who builds plants for Baker Hughes, the Houston-based oil-and-gas services firm. We had a long yak about management (from a practical viewpoint), and a really interesting discussion of safety – he works with tons of hazardous materials, mostly liquids. With some pride he noted that the newest plant they built (and he continues to operate) handled 13.7 million gallons of liquid last year and only spilled 9. Of course that kind of performance doesn’t just happen, and we discussed the importance of building and sustaining a safety culture. Paul was a really interesting guy, exactly why I like to talk to strangers!
Spent a couple of hours in Calgary, then flew home to Texas. On the flight, I read several chapters of a powerful and grim new novel, Home Front, about war and family separation. The damage of war, in that case the one in Iraq, made me so sad I cried. And thought clearly: our nation should not go lightly into war – as we have since the 1960s, in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and twice in the Gulf – because it harms and ruins so many lives.