Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Farewell to a Friend

Brigadier General William R. Charbonneau

I got the call the day after Christmas. It explained everything; and raised more questions than I could ever imagine. A friend for the past 40 years had passed away. Father Bill was home. We were blessed with a unique friendship. A Catholic Priest, a reformed Jew, a love of G-d and a desire to understand what we had in common.
Bill Charbonneau and I met accidently, if there is such a thing. I was an “all night” radio personality in Hartford, Connecticut. Occasionally, between songs, I would make brief comments on the politics of the time. Back in 1973, Watergate was the hot topic, and I recall the press attacking then President Nixon with a passion. I simply stated, “on-air,” that everyone, by our law, is innocent until proven guilty. And by that fundamental concept, President Nixon should be given the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise.  With open phones, listeners would call in and choose to agree or disagree. My first caller, clearly inebriated, blurted, “Nixon is as guilty as sin.” Why, I don’t know, but I responded with “you’re a f*ckin’ assh*le” and ended our brief interaction. Obviously, the call never made it on the air. The incident was forgotten.

Several weeks later, our radio station hosted an annual “Bridal Fair” at a local hotel. It was an event all the air personalities hated. We had to be fitted for tuxedos (most of us were single in those days and relatively averse to marriage) and then model the latest styles for the thousands of future brides in attendance. The brides weren’t there to see their favorite dj’s … but to see wedding gowns, florists, honeymoon planners, caterers, photographers, and jewelers.

One of the events at the Bridal Fair was an interfaith wedding panel. One of the panelists was a young priest. Someone introduced him to me as Father Bill, and I identified myself as Ed Mitchell (my air name in those days). A moment of confusion flashed across Bill’s face, then, a smile, a chuckle, and he said, “So you’re the SOB that called me a f*ckin’ assh*le?” My response still stuns me. “Well, Father, evidently I was right!” Father Bill laughed, slapped me on the shoulder, and said, “it must have been the scotch talking.” From that moment on, Father William R. Charbonneau and I were friends.

Bill loved hockey, so every now and then we would go to watch the Hartford Whalers play. He never mentioned he was the official Chaplain of the team. When he could get out of “uniform” Bill would enjoy a drink or two with his friends, and I was proud to be in that group. Father Bill also had a wicked sense of humor. He served as the Chaplain for the Waterbury, CT police department. More than happy to do Bill a favor, I once had a couple of officers show up at my door with a “warrant” and hand-cuffs. “Arrested” for some zoning disturbance for excessive volume on my stereo system, I had to answer questions for about 45 minutes before Bill couldn’t take it anymore and came in the interrogation room laughing hysterically.

On another occasion, my roommate and I hosted a Halloween Party. Bill’s costume? The Pope. Sacrilegious – absolutely. But it came in handy when the Police again arrived at my door to complain about the noise. Only this time, it wasn’t a prank. Bill’s connections helped settle the situation and I’m one of the few people in the world who can claim the “Pope” crashed at my house for a night. Over the next forty years, we kept in touch while my career took me to St. Louis, Los Angeles, Houston, Miami, and San Antonio.  Father Bill became a vicar of St. John of the Cross Church in Middlebury, Connecticut and the Principal of East Catholic High School, the school he attended as a youngster. Father Bill was a bit of a “rebel” in the structured church. In November 1974, Bill was called by his friends Ed & Lorraine Warren to a home in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The Warrens were the Founders of the New England Center for Psychic Research and the lead investigators into the now famous Amityville Horror. Recognized throughout the world as leaders in Psychic Phenomenon and Paranormal Activity, the Warrens called Father Bill to a home where a child was exhibiting supernatural abilities. In January of 1975, the National Enquirer quoted Father Bill as acknowledging poltergeist activity and psychic energy. Father Charbonneau, later told me, rather tactfully, that the Church frowned upon such admissions and he had been officially reprimanded.

Bill and I would often talk about why he joined the Priesthood. He admitted the part of the “job” he liked the least, was parish work. He didn’t feel comfortable working out marital problems, or getting caught in squabbles with church elders. What he loved, was working with the kids. He would say, “I’m not married, I don’t know any other relationship than the one I have with G-d and I question that from time to time, and I’m sure as heck not qualified to be giving advice to couples having problems. But I do know kids. I was one. I am one. And I know I can relate to them.” The Archdiocese put Bill into a school system and both Father Charbonneau and the schools thrived.

But that wasn’t enough for Bill.  In 1979, he was commissioned as a Chaplain for the Connecticut Air National Guard.  Soon, he was promoted to wing Chaplain.  In 1986, the Archdiocese “loaned” Father Bill to the Air National Guard and he moved to Washington, DC.    Bill was not one to wear his faith on his sleeve, his strength was within.  And he was not one to judge you for having doubts about your own faith.  He was the consummate listener; and by listening, he helped you find your own answers.  As part of his responsibilities he would fly to meet with aviators in Antarctica and Germany; and in his later years, meet with veterans of Desert Storm and the Iraqi War.  Rewarded for his good work, Pope John Paul II named Bill as “Monsignor” in 2002, while the Military recognized his efforts with the Meritorious Service Award, The Air Force Commendat5ion Medal, The Air Force Achievement Medal, the Joint Meritorious Unit Award, the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award, the Air Force Organizational Force Achievement Medal, the Air Force Organizational Excellence Award, the National Defense Service Medal, and the Humanitarian Service Medal.  This was the guy I called a “f*ckin’ assh*le”.  This was my drinking buddy.  This was the “Pope” who crashed at my house.  This was someone I proudly called friend.
Father Bill with my dog Stash

Over the years, Father Bill and I connected every year around Christmas. He’d ask about my kids and career, and he would play down his adventures and accomplishments when I would ask. When spoke last Christmas he was looking forward to retiring. Bill would return to Connecticut to continue his commitment to the Archdiocese. He had sold his townhouse in Alexandria and purchased a new home in Connecticut. Typical of Bill, he was embarrassed by the address on “Lavender Lane,” so he chose to rent a P.O. Box to receive mail. I was surprised to learn he wouldn’t be released from the Guard until he fully recovered from a lung infection he developed on one of his overseas missions. And he had to complete his counseling program. He was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Bill explained that Chaplains and Psychiatrists/Psychologists hear so many horrific stories from our returning troops that the nightmares are often transferred to the counselors. It had never occurred to me. The caregivers needed care, too.

I was going to call him in April when he would be settled into his new home; but chose to send an email allowing him to respond when he had time. And I reached out to him on Facebook. He must have been busy, he didn’t reply. The call Sunday explained why.

On May 1st, 2010; Colonel William R. Charbonneau was promoted to Brigadier General in the Connecticut Air National Guard. On May 5th, Father Bill Charbonneau, my friend, died of a heart attack at the age of 61. He served his Faith and his Country with honor. Bill taught me about service, integrity, and commitment.  Most of all, Bill Charbonneau taught me what it meant to be a friend. I would tell Bill to "rest in peace," but I know better.  I have no doubt Father William R. Charbonneau is still serving his Lord and I believe Bill has received the ultimate promotion from his true Commanding Officer.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Star Trek Lessons

To paraphrase Spock’s last words in Star Trek II – The Wrath of Kahn, "I have been and always will be Star Trek’s friend."

Jeri Ryan - 7 of 9

With the exception of Star Trek – Deep Space Nine; I have become, admittedly begrudgingly at times, a fan of every spinoff of the original series. Initially, I had a tough time accepting Captain Picard in Star Trek: Next Generation, although I immediately took to Mr. Data; Star Trek: Voyager’s Kate Mulgrew was fine as Captain Janeway, but the show more than made up for her command with the addition of the spray painted costume of Jeri Ryan as “Seven of Nine.” Scott Bakula, as Captain Archer in Star Trek: Enterprise was perfectly cast. I could never get into Sisko’s character in DS9, or for that matter, the politics of Cardassians, Romulans, or Klingons. I always thought the Vulcans took themselves a bit too seriously and I never cared for cultural lessons in the honor of Klingons; even after they became part of the Federation.

There are those reading this blog and know exactly what I’m talking about; and there are others wondering what the heck I’m talking about. I’d suggest setting your VCR to record a few of the original Star Trek episodes and the second version of the program, Star Trek: Next Generation. More than sci-fi space shoot-outs, these programs always had a moral dilemma to address. The shows’ writers looked for current events and wrote episodes addressing the foolishness of our prejudices, wars, economics, and refusal to accept changes that could benefit mankind. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from the program: in spite of its setting and relatively early stage special effects.

James T. Kirk
Many know the “Mission” of the original Star Trek Enterprise: “To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.” Unfortunately, Captain Kirk’s five year mission was cancelled after three years. Five years later, Captain Jean-Luc Picard took his Enterprise D “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”  Women were now in space and the show became politically correct.

Jean-Luc Picard
The given of each Star Trek series was that intelligent life exists in our solar system. In today’s state of the world, we wouldn’t have to leave the planet to search for intelligent beings. A five year mission to Washington, DC should be ample time to find intelligent life. Both Spock and Mr. Data would be challenged to find anything that resembles a thriving species, especially if they concentrated on the House and Senate. And what kind of plot would the writers create if they focused on our election process and political campaign promises. Would they not surmise we’re a species of lying, two faced, unethical, and immoral beings incapable of mutual cooperation? In just the past two weeks, an allegedly “lame duck” session has been remarkably un-duck-like. Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell: repealed. Tax Cuts/Unemployment Extension: Passed. Strategic Arms Treaty: days away from resolution. A 9/11 Health Bill passed. Finally, two sides of our species work together. It’s what the “Federation” of American citizens has urged our counsel (representatives) to achieve.
And yet, the moment a bill is passed, each side retreats to its camp and takes phaser shots at the “enemy” (Republican/Democrat – Klingon/Romulan … you choose, it doesn’t matter).  Mr. Data would no doubt be confused by the lack of logic; Mr. Spock would simply raise an eyebrow and say, “fascinating.”

No-one in government wants wasteful spending, but no-one in government seems willing to stop it. So, to keep their job (something millions of other Americans can’t find), politicians compromise. Not because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the ultimate Survivor episode decided by the Tribal Counsel. Maybe we should elect Jeff Probst as the Majority Leader.

It’s no wonder little is accomplished in DC; it really doesn’t matter who is at the helm of the Enterprise. The writers of Star Trek would have a field day with this topic, because with phasers set on “stun” little gets done.

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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

DNA - Do Not Annoy

Scientific data to prove otherwise, I’m beginning to think DNA stands for “do not annoy.”
Animation of the structure of a section of DNA...Image via Wikipedia 
Need an example? When was the last time you struck up a conversation with someone in an elevator? Seriously, we’ll stare at our shoes, we’ll stare at the floor indicators, we’ll stare at the control panel; we’ll even stare at other peoples shoes, bags, and coats. We’ll pretty much do anything possible to avoid interaction. I suppose I could understand avoiding strangers during the avian flu pandemic panic; but if you just take a flu shot we should all be fair game for conversation.

Need more? Go stand in the line at the drivers’ license bureau or county tax office. You may very well be standing next to someone for two hours, but hell would freeze over before you would acknowledge that person. Unless, of course, he’s got some form you don’t have and you’re wondering what you’re missing. It seems that in most places it’s rude to strike up a conversation with a total stranger. Except in Texas, where it’s considered rude not to speak to your “stand in line” buddy. There’s no caste system in Texas. A suit will chat with a guy who stands in scuffed work boots. When I stood in line during the last presidential election, we were talking across the lines. White, Black, Hispanic, Asian … we talked. It was a beautiful thing. Texas is such a friendly state; I don’t know why they call it the Lone Star State. They should call it the Friendly State.

Lately I've been spending quite a bit of time flying from one interview from the next. Airports are great for people watching and we put on quite a show. Travelers wheel their bags with reckless abandon, cutting in front of people constantly as they chat on their cell phones. Or, they’re looking up at gate signs and walk into you as though you don’t exist. And I wonder how the airlines allow their employees to speed down concourses in those fancy “golf carts.” If we drove the way they drive; we’d be uninsurable. Another thing I see is travelers using the moving sidewalks to get from one end of the terminal building to the other. Many of these people are in a hurry, many aren’t. The folks who have plenty of time stand to the left and prevent the ones in a hurry from getting past them. Perhaps Samsonite will put a siren in their next model of carry-on so the “laggers” will move to the right. But if you’re in that much of a hurry, why don’t you just walk fast or even do an OJ Simpson and run through the airport using your own legs? And don’t get me started on how loud folks talk on their cell phone. For people who won’t talk to strangers, we seem to have no need for privacy. Some conversations are so personal I almost feel guilty for listening. Almost.

Fact is, airports are really annoying places. Some have terminals have free Wi-Fi; some try to make you pay for a connection. Good luck finding an outlet to charge your laptop prior the flight; and better luck not tripping over someone’s cord. And really, what’s with the PA announcements? Putting a microphone in the hands of a gate agent is a recipe for disaster. Maybe they think they’re paid by the word. Recently, while waiting for a flight out of Atlanta, over a twenty minute span, I heard the flight attendant remind travelers to Canada a dozen times they needed their passport to board. I come from a background in radio broadcasting, believe me, I know repetition, but that was simply ridiculous. After all, if they need their passport to get back to Canada, chances are they needed it to get into the United States. I’m convinced people run out and get the latest gadget just before they fly to show other travelers the latest model of iPad, iPod, and Android. We don’t have to wait for the mail delivery, we just email, get our news online (do we still surf?), update our “status” to tell everyone that we have nothing more important to do than tell friends who we never met where we are and what we’re doing as though somehow it matters. Actually, it does matter. I found out my son broke his ankle on Facebook. He didn’t think to call, because he had updated his status.

Here’s my favorite travel observation. We’ll sit in an airplane, crammed like olives in a jar, for three or four hours and not say a word to the person next to us. But once we land, somehow relieved, we start asking the traditional questions: “Vacation or business,” “Is this home?” “Where did you start your travels?” “How long have you lived here?” “How long have you been gone?” In essence, as we taxi to the jetway, we learn more about our travel mate in four minutes than we did in the past three hours.

On the other side, once you start a conversation, there’s no way out of it. A few weeks ago, the passenger next to me was playing with her new iPad. I couldn’t resist and broke the “cone of silence.” Next thing I knew, I was getting a product demo and watching home movies, pictures of her grandchildren and a complete family history. After all that conversation, we never exchanged names. To return to my DNA mode, I feigned a few yawns and nodded off. I had a friend who once met a woman on a flight to California. The flight was a red-eye and with lots of empty seats. The woman explained she was going to LA to become an actress. As her story unfolded, she started talking about breast augmentation and before he knew it, the woman lifted her blouse and had him confirm, by touch, how real her breasts felt and looked. As I write this, my fellow passenger is about 6’5”, built like a linebacker, and is snoring like a heard of buffalo.

No-one ever said life is fair. That’s probably in our DNA, too.

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Sunday, December 5, 2010

Oy. The Joy of Travel

Day One:
It was a promising start. That should have been my first concern. There was no panic, no last minute rush; just a calm start to a business trip to the Northeast. I had packed the night before, fit everything I needed into my carry-on, pre-programmed radio stations into my radio, got my addresses loaded into the GPS, and had a solid night’s sleep.

The drive to the airport was uneventful. I parked the car and was immediately shuttled to the terminal building. Since I had checked-in online, I had my boarding pass in hand and walked straight to security. I was almost disappointed when there wasn’t even a hint of a potential pat-down or kinky X-ray. Maybe they should call it HD X-Ray or Blue-Ray X-Ray.  People might be more tolerant of the new technology if they thought they could buy it at Best Buy. I even had my TSA officer picked out and was looking forward to our encounter. No such luck. On the bright side, the boarding process went smoothly, and thankfully, there was room in the overhead right above my seat for my carry-on. Since airlines started charging for checking luggage, I never take that for granted. The flight left Houston on time and we arrived in Atlanta several minutes early. That’s when the trip came unglued.

Perhaps you can explain to me the unwritten rule that when you have a connecting flight, the airline almost always drops you off in Terminal A and has your departure in Terminal D. The airport monitors told me my flight was on time, departing at 3:50pm. I had plenty of time to catch the underground tram, find my gate, and even play a bit on the internet.

Flight information display system at George Bu...Of course, Atlanta doesn’t play nicely and they consider internet access a money maker and charge for access for anything other than flight information. OK, I’ll check on my flight status. Not that I need it. After all, it’s on the screen above my head. Uh, wait a minute. Online, I’m told my 3:50 departure has been moved to 4:10 from a different gate. No worries, I confirm the gate change and move down a few sections, and arrive just in time to hear the flight had been delayed until 8:30. Why did they have to move me to give me that news? I’m good. Now I have plenty of time to walk the shops, get dinner, and call the wife. Jane-Ann tells me there’s a message from the airline telling me my 12:50pm flight left at 1:05. The message was sent around 3pm when I was already in Atlanta.

The next thing I know, its 6:45 and the board tells me my flight is now leaving at 7:10. Now, I’m scrambling to get back to the gate to get on board and catch the flight. All went well, and I arrived at my destination only 3 hours late. The rental car was there, and my GPS helped make my 40 minute ride to the hotel a snap. Grade for the day … a “B.” Delayed flights because of rough weather are forgivable, but I had to take points off for the recorded message updating me hours after I had departed that we would be leaving late.

Day Two
Meetings went well. Again, a good start to the day. After the meetings, I met with a Regional VP for dinner. Unbelievably, we couldn’t find the hotel restaurant. A quick stop at the front desk and we learned the restaurant was a couple of tables to the side of the bar and we just need to give our order to the bartender. If only she could speak English. The VP ordered a tuna steak, with sides of steamed veggies and rice pilaf. I ordered linguini with shrimp diablo in a red sauce (is there any other when the menu says “marinara?” We were served a few minutes later. The tuna steak turned into a fish sandwich with french fries. My shrimp diablo turned into mushroom alfredo. Easy mistake to make. And since the bartender was cute, we didn’t make a big deal out her screw-up. Later, I learned she rarely got her orders right and that the hotel management was ready to say goodbye. End of day two … grade is a “B.” Great meetings, but points deducted because of a cute, but incompetent waitress.

Day Three
The fun day. Straight out, I’ll tell you the grade for the day is an “F.” No sense in keeping it a mystery. Of course, any idiot who books a 6am flight probably deserves to be punished. So, let’s backtime. 6am flight, 5am at the airport to return the car, on the road by 4:15am, set the alarm for 3:45am. Got it. And good night. Until the alarm went off at 1:30. I’m pretty sure I know the difference between 3:45 and 1:30; apparently, I didn’t know the difference between alarm setting 1 and setting 2. Back to sleep and the backup alarm (my phone) wakes me at 3:45. A quick shower and I’m on my way. And this shower was really quick. It seems the hotel turns off their hot water heater overnight to reduce energy costs. Seriously. And I thought the alarm at 1:30 was jarring.

OK, I check out, head to the airport, drop off the car, and catch my flight. All without a hitch. Until Atlanta. My connection is scheduled to leave at 10:50. Veteran traveler that I am, I make my trek from Terminal D to Terminal A and arrive at the gate with time to spare. Of course, the thirty minute delay helped. At 11:20, I’m wondering why we haven’t started boarding. I wasn’t kept in suspense for long, as the agent announced my flight to Hobby Airport has been cancelled. Not delayed. Cancelled. Passengers trying to make connections from Hobby are panicked, the agents are unprepared, and chaos ensues.

Finally, I was told I could get a seat on a 12:05 flight to Bush Intercontinental Airport; for those who don’t know, Intercontinental is about 30 miles north of Hobby and about a 45 minute ride on a good traffic day. More good news. They would put the passengers on a shuttle and transport us from the big airport to Hobby. Put me on the plane. Just not next to the 250 pound gorilla who hadn’t bathed since he left Malaysia two days ago. Damn, that part wasn’t in my itinerary. Neither was the fact that this was a small commuter plane, with passengers crammed 2x2 like sardines without any oil to help them fit in the tin.

After a smooth flight to Intercontinental, things got bumpy. We were told a gate agent would give us instructions to find the shuttle to take us to Hobby. Surprise! No-one in a red-jacket by the gate. A gate agent told me to go to the main check-in counter in the terminal lobby. As I approached the counter, a “red-jacket” approached to help me check-in. I explained my situation and she sent me to the counter agent. The counter agent sent me to the “red-jacket” and the shuffle began. I was sure I heard “shuttle” back in Atlanta. Finally, the two representatives decided to relieve themselves of the problem and sent me to baggage claim. Of course, I had no checked baggage, so this made perfect sense.

Actually, it did. The baggage manager knew exactly what to do. Forget the shuttle, they’ve never done that; take a voucher for a cab. “Is the tip included,” I asked? “No” was his reply. “Then how is this a free trip” I wondered? Forty-five minutes and $10 later, I’m dropped off at the departure gate after I had asked to be taken to the arriving passenger level of the airport. Finally, I find the shuttle to the parking lot. It’s now three o’clock, I was supposed to be home by 12:15pm. I’ve been up since 2:45 (Houston time) and I’m tired. Not so tired, that I failed to notice I was welcomed with flat tire.

Now, I’m not a rocket scientist, but I’ve changed a tire or two. I found the jack, the lug wrench, and the wheel key; so far so good. I just couldn’t seem to get the wheel off the axle. I tugged, I pulled, and I kicked to no avail. Maybe I’m doing something wrong. I pulled out the owner’s manual and read the “changing the tire section.” I think I wrote it. OK, I’ll call my automaker’s 800 road service number. The operator informs me she can’t give me any instructions, she’s only authorized to provide emergency service. She suggests I call the dealership. I’m glad I’m not paying for this alleged “concierge” service. To my amazement, my service advisor answered her line. “You’re doing everything right,” she said, “the tire should just pull off. Is there any other way I can be of service?” Yeah. Kiss this.

No worries, I pay some $50 a year for AAA. It pays for itself when I rent a car or book a hotel. Today, it paid for road service. The wrecker arrived within 15 minutes of my call (why didn’t I do this first?). My hero, Chris, took one look … gave one good tug … shrugged and went to his truck. Seconds later he came back with a rubber mallet. He just wacked the crap out of that tire, that had to be very satisfying. I doubt he’ll ever need therapy. The tire came off the axle. Five hours later than expected, I pulled into my driveway.

Oh, did I mention my spare tire had a nail it? Let’s not go there.
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