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Prologue:  I ain’t even mad, just disappointed–because I got paid.  Sad to say TD Ameritrade treats separated associates better than the ones left behind!  But now my severance has ended, my non-disparagement agreement is done.  Wanna hear a story?

FU Ameritrade.  TD Amerifuct.  DilberTrade.  Toward the end, KafkaTrade.  Follow along as a billion-dollar company became ten times as big but at the cost of its soul.

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“I, for one welcome our new New York overlords!”

2007:  The Ricketts wanted to retire and buy a baseball team.  Joe Moglia wanted to retire and coach a football team.  Couldn’t blame them, they had done good work.  We as a company were hitting on all cylinders and therefore were a target for other players in the industry, chief among them E*Trade.  No one wanted them to take us over–up until this time, we were the ones eating other companies.  (Five years later, after the subprime fuster-cluck, E*Trade was begging us to buy them!)  But one way to avoid getting bought is to buy someone else, and that’s how TD Bank climbed into bed with us.  Ameritrade took over Waterhouse while TD bought Ameritrade.  Ricketts got a few billion, so did Joe Moglia, and we gained a new owner.

Immediate culture shock:  At Ameritrade, our procedures were screwed down tight and everyone knew it.  Worked well, obviously.  Over at Waterhouse, investment counselors ran things and weren’t used to being told no.   To them, rules were just suggestions when they were considered at all, and or course we were the ones who had to explain to their clients that they had been over-promised.  Timelines and standards and quality all went down the toilet as we spent more time putting out fires that were so unnecessary.

Not only did Ricketts and Moglia leave, half the stars who executed Ameritrade’s operational strategy saw the signs and decided to ‘explore other opportunities’–while the others were pushed.

Replaced by TD and Waterhouse hacks who were familiar to, and submissive to, the owners in Toronto and New York.  Fred Tomczyk, a long-time company man was actually the most competent of the imports, and that was damning with faint praise.  Phreddy wanted to be a Buffett so bad–Davos, Jackson Hole, all the business TV shows, JetLinx, stretch limo.  He had absolutely no speaking skills and stage presence but he thought he was Johnny Carson.  He had a hard time speaking off-the-cuff, with a script he was passable but relied on catchphrases that served as fodder for drinking games amongst our Band Of Cynics. One of his favorites was his term for Hurricane Sandy–‘SuperStormSandy’.  He never referred to it as anything else and it was like fingers on a chalkboard.  I’m sure he thought it was cute–or he didn’t think of it at all.

Our HR executioner was another TD Bank torpedo, sounded like Yeardley Smith and went about five-one and 105.  Methuselah’s prom date.  I called her Gollum and no one was confused as to who I meant.  When she was speaking, she carried herself like she was doing us a favor, pausing often as if to wait for applause.

We were saddled with one CIO who almost crashed the company by insisting on adopting a buggy ‘enhanced’ software platform to handle our document administration and warehousing–one that worked wonderfully as long as it was off-the-shelf IBM but was damn near useless once our ADD-addled administrators got done writing the specs for an overlay.  He doubled down by outsourcing the day-to-day document handling aspects of the platform to a disinterested contractor who placed no emphasis on doing the job as well as we did and operated with no incentive to do so.   Desperate pleas to stop the implementation from the poor end-users and beta-testers were met with curt dismissals.   There was a deadline to be met, and performance bonuses to be paid (to the CIO).  (The name for the project, and later the platform itself was and is–ISIS.  Yeah.  They made no effort to change that even after the events of 2013.)  Amongst the end-users, we had other names for the platform–crISIS, ISN’T, and those were the repeatable ones.  This CIO ran a town hall meeting one quarter, totally ignoring his in-person Omaha (client-facing) audience while name-checking and goombah-ing his ivory-tower buds back in The City via satellite.  Scant mention was made of our concerns when an e-mail from Omaha pointed out the chronic problems with ISIS, the message was dismissed as ‘static’.  Yeah, I’m serious.

The reality was, none of the New York peeps liked Omaha at all, and only slightly more fond of Fort Worth.  They couldn’t help themselves when they let it slip about the culture they were missing back home.  Omaha staff was to be dictated to, not collaborated with–when we weren’t being ignored.  Fort Worth got a slight pass because the staff was newer, less entrenched in the Omaha philosophy–y’know, the philosophy that built the damn company and made it attractive to a buyer–that philosophy!

Fort Worth rode Omaha’s coattails until they got more autonomy.  That resulted in differing opinions about all manner of operational issues, with the poor client in the middle.  I had flown down to Fort Worth for a week to train associates how to do my job, it was a great time–collaborative, instructional, friendly.  Productive.  A repeatable process based on servant leadership.  I was no sooner on the plane back home before Fort Worth’s management decided to reorganize–move the associates I just got done training to other departments, and even worse, to positions of authority over my process!  You’d think that the procedure would be fresh in their minds, but they were tasked with making sure all the Is were dotted and Ts crossed while ignoring common-sense–forgetting that I had told them that when you’re dealing with humans, there is no such thing as Standard Work or Best Practices and that ambiguity should be embraced.

What really fried me was when one of the FW people let slip during an IM that ‘we’re just supposed to pat Damon on the head’ when I questioned their ham-handed work and their refusal to process the wires I was entering.  You know, me, the Subject Matter Expert who just got done training them how to do the job!  I got a grudging apology–after I screamed at my manager–but the whole of Fort Worth was on a power trip that was encouraged by the Stepford Managers, and it snowballed to the point that they were rejecting wires that had worked perfectly and had delighted long-time, high-dollar clients in the past, and pretty soon we had fewer long-time, high-dollar clients…

If it ain’t broke, fix it ’til it’s broken

When you have to walk a quarter-mile, past the seventy-five spots blocked off for VIPs that never arrive (Joe Moglia knew we were the VIPs…), past the score of spaces set aside for gas-sipping ‘green’ cars, you notice a few things.  Every day, at least twenty late-model cars with out-of-state plates and barcodes in the side windows–rentals.   This means two things:  Auditors, and consultants/vendors.  When Ameritrade was the darling of the industry–printing money, associates running in the door to help clients that much quicker, we didn’t need consultants.  Truth be told, management could call on fifteen hundred consultants already on the payroll.  TD came in, and suddenly the associates had no idea what they were doing!  One could draw inferences from the relationship between decision-makers and consultants, and the relationship between politicians and lobbyists…I don’t want to say that similar shenanigans occur, oh hell no.

Excuse me while I try not to laugh.

But once our mid-level executives justified their salary by ‘identifying’ an issue and some think tank spent six months building/billing a solution, either the answer was more convoluted and less agile than the previous process, or else it had a striking resemblance to what we had been screaming for!  Someone’s old friend from The Street got paid and our profit-sharing shrank.

Long story short, we weren’t bringing enough money in to satisfy Toronto and New York.  They listened to another consultant and we got LEAN.

The Oxymoron Known As LEAN

TQMS was a quality control concept that was a forerunner of LEAN, Six Sigma, Kaizen, ISO 9000, etc.  I had been aware of such initiative schemes for some time, and was fully aware of the riff recited by our management schmucks as LEAN was initiated:  “Quality Control™ was what Toyota used to eat Detroit’s lunch”, yadda yadda.  These schemes have their place in production settings, but they tend to stifle creativity–to stifle humanity.  Look up the Japanese societal construct known as the Salaryman to understand the end product, the goal of such initiatives. How poisonous it is to western societies, to the creative side of human beings.  Creativity, seat-of-the-pants, thinking on the fly was what got Ameritrade where it was.  But now, it was decided, was the time to treat the associates–and clients–like robots putting grilles on Camrys.  TQMS failed in most places it was tried, even if everyone bought in.  It was born to lose in an organization with the attention span of a gnat such as TDA.  One of the early adopters was McDonnell Douglas, the aerospace company based in St. Louis.   TQMS worked so well there that after a time TQMS meant Time to Quit and Move to Seattle (Boeing).  So I knew what was coming.  I was reminded of the phrase ‘socialism works, it’s just that the wrong people have been in charge’, and the hubris of our management cadres was sickening to see.  Interesting to note that one of the first moves the ivory-tower gang made was hire several LEAN proctors…in other words, in order to bring order to a bloated org structure, first we had to bloat it further!

Please do the needful:  Kill the company in order to ‘save’ it

The high-priced executives tasked the mid-level peeps to squeeze every turnip in their domains to find every penny possible.  Wouldn’t want our C-suiters to suffer with two-year-old Mercedes convertibles, right?

Our division’s VP bit the bullet and implemented a massive outsourcing.  Most of the data entry would be farmed out to a firm with centers in India, and most of the department would be ‘rationalized’ with generous severance packages.  You don’t have to be a genius to see what was up–studs in Chennai and Bangalore work for about a quarter of what we were being paid, and work one-quarter as fast, and with the same drop in quality.  But those metrics weren’t as sexy as the payroll reductions.  A raft of managers and senior reps jumped on 747s to train these ‘independent contractors’.  My process was defined without my input, training materials unseen by me until the training was over, the person responsible for the curriculum didn’t know my job!  I didn’t think the process could have gotten any worse than when Fort Worth was sabotaging it, but it cratered with India doing the data-entry.  Sure, I was still the guy to put out the fires, clean up the NIGOs–trouble was, those guys in India, with their half-assed training, didn’t know what they didn’t know!  I don’t blame them, humans want to solve problems, want to help people, and TDA let them down–set them up to lose–because it was easy for the vendor to fire them and insert another poor sod with a few hours of training.  I took more than one escalated call from a US-based rep wondering why I hadn’t gone over to India to do the training!  I wondered the same thing…

So, India took over the processing, and the Massacre of 2010 took place.  Echoes throughout the office, tumbleweeds in the parking lot–and survivor’s guilt.  Sure, the meat of the company was gone and that hurt on any number of levels, but concerning those left behind–this wasn’t the Ameritrade we knew, loved, respected.  Loyalty died, and it was agonizing. We weren’t kicking ass any more, and we missed it.

Then, one year later, the Pogrom of 2011 took place the Monday after Thanksgiving and those left after that ‘right-sizing’ weren’t rushing in the door to start the day any more.  Shuffling, thousand-yard stares, no questions at town halls anymore; no one gave a rat’s.

Eighteen months later, another look at the P&L told the bean counters that India wasn’t cost effective anymore, and the work came back to the US.  That’s right–the work moved to India because they could they could do it cheaper, and it came back because we could do it cheaper!  You didn’t have to know quadratic equations to understand what happened to the service level and what had happened to the payroll, and who benefited from it.  So the work was back on our desks, but well over half the associates integral to the process were no longer there to do it!

I’m HAL 9000, your new department manager

Our department manager was caught up in the 2011 amputation, replaced by a revolving door of upwardly mobile managers just in our department for a cup of coffee and to pad their resumes.  On the team level, some of my managers moved on, some moved up, but one fact remained the same–I had to teach every manager about what I did, where my challenges were, where there were process shortfalls, et cetera.  To a man, none of them had the interest or time to actually understand my job, let alone advocate for me.  Which on one level was fine–get out of my way and I’ll kill the queue–but I had no sounding board, no backstop, no one to take my side.  Indeed, I was sold out any number of times by both my managers and by other departments that decided to insert themselves uninvited into my processes.  So I had my credibility undermined in no small measure, but the credibility of the entire company likewise suffered because of the top-heavy, convoluted org chart. Organizational gurus talk of ‘silos’, but ours looked like redwoods…those caught in a forest fire…no branches, just dead trunks pointing nowhere.  Of no use.  One department manager with an office in Omaha oversaw their teams–which were in Fort Worth, while another manager in FW, you guessed it, was responsible for my team and others in Omaha!  American Airlines and the Fort Worth Marriott loved our incompetence.  And I’m serious about the tree trunk analogy–they made the mistake of showing us the latest org chart–a lot of managers with only one direct report!

The last department manager who deigned to teach us her leadership skills–no LinkedIn profile but selfies on Twitter–was running a meeting, fielding a softball about TD’s latest focus on data-mining (to the detriment of old-school customer service, it seemed.)  Most meetings with our betters consisted of drinking-game cut-n-paste catchphrases intended to help us reach the same millennial audience that our smarmy, too-cute-by-half commercials were geared toward.  Too bad, and inconvenient that my audience was mostly middle-aged achievers who talked like adults and could smell a linguistic feedlot a mile away.

I have to give these managerettes credit–they learned one thing while getting their B.A.s in BS at various discount colleges–when confronted with an actual question from an associate desperate for a show of acumen and leadership, it only took ten words of transitional phrases before they were back to the script.

Then she let loose with a bombshell that dislocated the jaws of those of the Achiever Class that remained:  She said “I ♥ Data!”  That’s right.  She Alt-3 ‘d data.  This was a leader of men, a leader of adults, a leader of professionals?  Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber might “♥ data”, but an actual adult human doesn’t.  The Band Of Cynics shook their heads.

It’s not just TDA, but corporate America is becoming top-heavy with ‘leaders’ who don’t really lead, managers who can’t manage, who have titles/offices/business cards/nameplates and amorphous job descriptions but no accountability.  And no shame.  (Much like Washington, D.C.)  And it’s a safe bet that they ‘♥ data’, and use nouns as verbs, etc.  The joke was that we had so many managers afraid to make decisions, if the fire alarm went off, it’d take two weeks to decide on what font the global email should contain…

The World’s Largest Bar Of Irish Spring Soap, and White Elephant or Green Sloth? The LEED cabal exacts their toll.

Another self-congratulatory press event, this time to announce the new headquarters.  The skyscraper part was revealed to be thirteen stories clad in opaque green glass with randomly-spaced windows, the pattern exhibiting neither rhyme nor reason.  I liked the color, but What’s With The Windows?

The explanation, per scripted response from the Corporate Communications blondies, was that the architecture “harkened back to the days of ticker tape…”  which hadn’t existed for at least twenty years, the tape wasn’t green even while it existed!  Was there ticker tape in “Wall Street”?  “Trading Places”?  Once again, no one asked the old hands who were around when it did exist what we thought, so our reaction was unfiltered ambivalence and How Much Did This Cost?

There was a rumor, unsubstantiated, that Pfast Phreddy wanted a heliport but the FAA told him to twist off.  But if someone was spreading disinformation, they knew their audience and it wasn’t far-fetched.  TomczHack only blew into town about two times a year anyhow, preferring to hang out in The City and gracing us with his apparition from time to time via the miracle of satellite, resembling the Wizard of Oz and his curtain.

Adjoining the skyscraper was what I called “The Doorstop”, a two-story, long building that was an aesthetic disaster when viewed in comparison to the skyscraper next door.  No synergies with the other building except those retconned afterward–you had to change elevators to get to the basement from the highrise, teams doing similar work were scattered in both buildings (as well as the older ones across the street).

One morning after widespread severe thunderstorms, I went on my break to the ‘rooftop terrace’ only to find two 72-inch all-weather televisions broadcasting CNBC to the heavens (a power surge overnight had turned them on).  Ostensibly intended to schmooze political VIPs, industry peers, etc. (but not associates) the terrace boasted about two-thousand square feet of tiled flooring, gardens planted to russian thistle and dandelions, and the two televisions which were never used.  (I priced them and found they ran north of 20K USD apiece.)  Indeed, I was the most frequent visitor up there, occasionally I’d be met by facilities maintenance professionals looking for leaks caused by the weight of the gardens.  In a building less than three years old.

LEED is a racket, straight up.  Supposedly a way to get tax breaks–being grateful you’re getting some of your own money back–it’s a way to make new construction extremely convoluted, being both energy saving and uneconomical, with the added benefit of ruining creature comforts and workplace look-and-feel.  Using rainwater to flush the toilets?  Double the plumbing, and the restrooms smell like fish buckets.  Saving money using a wider thermostatic range?  You either froze or sweated, and fans and space heaters were banned.  The LEED progressives will love you, but the humidity isn’t controlled and the building will rust from the inside out.  The demand-driven, ‘smart’ computerized elevator system stranded associates for hours at a time.

Walking into work one day, I was confronted by a new sign affixed to several close-in parking spaces:  “Low-Emitting Vehicle Parking”.  I like to think that I follow the automotive industry closely, but I hadn’t heard of this descriptor previous.  Turns out it was the LEED gang making shit up.  Technically, Harleys were low-emitting vehicles.    Hybrid Yukons were, too.  Certain 40MPG  hot rods weren’t.  Needless to say, these spaces were empty most of the time or the signs were ignored.  There were, I think, twelve parking spaces equipped to charge battery-powered cars and aside from a couple Chevy Volts, those were unused as well.

The Band Of Cynics discussed the building from time to time, and in light of most of the high-priced executives being old Waterhouse hands, we wondered when the whole shebang was going to move back ‘home’–New York.  (Most of the technology is in Newark, with contributions from Ann Arbor, Dallas and a host of third-world coding gulags.)  The reason why the HQ didn’t move was two-fold–first, the C-suite bozos were gone already.  Phreddy, the HR troll, and the CIO would grab a JetLinx and Lincoln limo when some press event in Omaha needed their canned comments.  Second–even if they wanted to dump the joint, Old Mill didn’t have the cachet it did ten years previous, the traffic was a sick joke, and the building was designed to be a headquarters, data entry, and telemarketing facility–and middling at all of them.  No other company with ties to Omaha wanted such a combination.  So TDA were stuck.  They made scripted lip service to ‘the majority of the workforce / the spiritual home / the best associates in the country’ being in Omaha but then turned around and treated that workforce like they did temps, and made blatant and bald-faced efforts to increase Fort Worth’s headcount.  Sigh.

The whole HOTC (Headquarters, Operations, & Technology Center, another previously-undefined acronym sold to TDA by a consultant trying not to giggle) was a testament to style over substance, and a microcosm of the entire company.

Qu’ils mangent de la brioche

In addition to the Fort Worth against Omaha fistfight, and the New York v. Omaha cage match, another civil war broke out:  Retail against Institutional.  I was grimly observing yet another town hall where one of the golden boys from Institutional was crowing about how much money they brought to the table (forgetting to mention the brushfires they lit when they dumped their problems on the back office).  They had a presentation:  You’ve seen company banquets or parties–entertainment, bands, presentations, awards, bonuses.  I dimly remembered when Retail had them–Joe Moglia’s Holiday Parties, celebrating a year of hard work, ballroom downtown, everyone getting dressed up and great food and drink.  Man, we loved Joe–we loved each other, we kicked ass and we were rewarded.  Phreddy cancelled the parties when he seized power and the economy crashed. (When the skyscraper was built, they resumed after a fashion–two hours after work on a Thursday night, in a hallway, gift cards and iPods. Yippee.)

In watching the Institutional video of their Holiday party in San Diego, it appeared that one division hadn’t gotten the memo about the economy going south–imported-from-Vegas singing and dancing, Condi Rice and Carly Fiorina keynoting, photo lines of San Diego associates all dressed up.  The sheer balls it took, showing this to the Omaha back-office people!  This was another tone-deaf executive not knowing his audience–or not giving a fuck in the first place.  I’d have preferred to not know about it, even allowing for the half-million or so it cost our bonus pool.

Omaha in general, and the back office in specific, had become TDA’s Mushroom Department.  I saw TDA termed on Glassdoor as being a ‘White-Collar Sweatshop’.  Again, this was something they apparently took sick pride in–it was reflected in one of our commercials: Coding gulag, indeed!

Shooting The Messenger

LEAN and the quality of department-level management had diluted the ‘product’, as it were, to the point where there were no longer any meaningful discussions about process improvement–and no encouragement from our bosses to speak up on the off-chance that someone in a position of responsibility took a wrong turn and wound up in our department by mistake.  LEAN mandated that we spend twenty minutes each day on a ‘morning huddle’, where instead of banging out work, we’d be forced to spend time updating progress on initiatives that went to other departments to die (again, the systemic risk-aversion), pointing out the contradictions in ‘imperial edicts’ promulgated by multiple departments that affected us, and wondering how much of a train wreck it would take to get someone to admit they couldn’t manage processes to save their asses.

A impassioned discussion on a broken process–complete with solutions–would be interrupted for team -building ‘trivia contests’.  Yep.  Back when adults accomplished things, the best way to build a team was to be engaged in getting work done and solving problems, but that wasn’t TDA’s “Better Way” (another catchphrase pulled out of some consultant’s ass which cost us a pretty penny…)

No help from my last team manager, a boopsie with the attitude and mindless enthusiasm of a cheerleader, but apparently knew how to remember-and-recite well enough to pass her way out of college with some soft-science degree from one of the local McUniversities. No LinkedIn profile for her, either.   I’ve had managers younger than I who respected the hell out of, who were willing to listen, deduce, extra-and inter-polate–and who took an interest in my job and wanted to do it.  Y’know, old school.  But it wasn’t the “Mo’ Betterer Way™”.

I had been looking for meaningful work for about five years–not only frustrated by TDA’s goalpost-moving but also wanting to do something else.  I was purportedly a Process Improvement Technician but it wasn’t anyone’s job to listen to me!

We old hands had a cloud over our heads:  Quitting, even to a better job with better compensation meant giving up three weeks severance per every year of employment owed to you if you managed to be caught up in a salary dump.  This translated to a years’ salary for me and a lot of others.  So it was a test of wills, so to speak, having to withstand the soul-sucking ‘career’ you were in while the incompetent HR Pakleds, teenybopper managers and clueless LEAN proctors worked at cross-purposes (with clients and associates in the middle.)

I would have been content to keep my head down, play out the string and one day look up and find it was time to retire.  Except for one thing:  I wasn’t allowed to do my job.  I wasn’t able to serve my clients with the same quality I had in years past.  Indeed, TDA took a perverse pride in crowing how they weren’t going to serve clients in the same manner–a cynical catchphrase known as ‘Service Level’.  Distilled, Service Level is a metric to measure how much you can lie to your clients, blow them off, mismanage their expectations while still keeping their money in house.  Hard as it is to believe, at one time voicing those exact concepts would have gotten you fired.  But in the alternate universe known as The Better Way, standing up for your client meant getting talked to, written up or otherwise branded as a troublemaker by the Management Class (and pitied by coworkers who remembered how it used to be.)

Late April-ish, early May 2015.  Phreddy mentioned during a town hall that ‘earnings were coming in a little light’.  To anyone who had been around during the ‘transformations’ in 2010 and 2011, this was code for Get Your Resume Updated.  The muscle of the company had been excised in 2010, the heart in 2011.  Next thing was the brain, and the back office wasn’t going to recover from that.   So…how were the HR State Security Service goons going to make up the shortfall so Phreddy could get his bonus?  Funny you should ask.

Imagine in a department of one-hundred associates, split into ten or so teams, each member with  a number of responsibilities.  If you’re going to decimate (in the literal definition) a department, should be easy, right?  Pick either the poor sod with the worst ‘quality’ score, or the one getting paid the most.

Dig, if you will, the picture:  Your faithful scribe, responsible for 75% of the wire processing, and all of the Not In Good Order ones.  Compare and contrast to the nine others, seven of which were in Fort Worth punting the difficult cases, cherry-picking the easy ones (with no Fort Worth managerial repercussions).  Taking that to the logical extrapolation, who was taking the most organizational shortcuts, and running afoul of quality measurements that had no basis in reality?  Well, the guy who was busting out that 75%.  Who was meeting the arbitrary, disconnected-from-logic quality measurements?  The people doing the cherry-picking.  Keep in mind that any errors I made were administrative, Is and Ts, not material ones.  But since I was making the most money…

Their rationalization was clear, if they were brave enough to admit it:  The job could be done at half the price.  Half as well, but that wouldn’t be reported if it was convenient to ignore that metric.  The budget–and the bonuses for the C-Suite squatters–was the important thing.  Screw the clients, screw the associates.

Rearviewmirror

Little Miss “I ♥ Data”, the one I accused of talking in catchphrases and consultant-speak, came and got me one Wednesday morning as I was hip-deep in work.  Since my manager was using all her Wharton skills (snort) in struggling mightily to decide on the colors for our nameplates on the LEAN huddle scoreboard, she couldn’t be arsed to join the meeting.  I knew what was up.  I rushed out of the room, fist-pumping and beating her to the meeting room.  We were met by some poor HR drone, no doubt confused by the grin on my face.  As soon as I saw the fifty-one weeks of severance, I said “Where do I sign?”

That’s a ‘win’, sweetheart.  Scoreboard:  Damon 51, TDA well…probably a negative number, since my old queue immediately went to hell.  But I was now being paid not to give a rat’s anymore.  Official reason was ‘corporate restructuring’–not my calling out their naked-emperor routine, not their ginning-up of the quality measurements to snag a client-centric associate.  Corporate restructuring.  They didn’t learn a thing.

I high-fived the security guard as I skipped out to my car.  “♫…Once and for all, I’m far away…I hardly believe, finally the shades…are raised…♪”

My only regret was that they didn’t can me in mid-April, so I could have gotten paid to chase tornadoes. Nine months off, one new granddaughter, five months babysitting later, I got my meaningful job when I was ready to work again.  My relentlessness rewarded, the promise of advancement, a ten-minute commute…

I am blessed.  Not only in the continuance of my career, but in having worked with the best co-workers in the business.  I learned from them up until the minute I left.  We fought tirelessly against an opponent that should have been a collaborator, and we overcame that betrayal and became assets–for other companies!

Thirty-three years ago:

http://www.airliners.net/aviation-forums/general_aviation/read.main/277621/

Bucket list, revised:

1. Fly in an A380 to CDG, in the most expensive seat.
2. Achieve a level of renown sufficient to be asked onto Top Gear to drive the Reasonably-Priced Car.
3. Vacation in Iceland.
4. Ditto at Reunion Island.
5. See Mauna Loa erupt–from 100 feet away!
6. Visit Chile, Pucón specifically.
7. Get eyewalled by a hurricane.
8. Skydive.
9. Own an oil well.
10. Corepunch while driving a Bugatti Veyron.

11.  Spend a weekend or so in Sint Maarten on Maho Beach watching planes land, with a woman who looks good in a one-piece bathing suit.  Or less.

1973 Plymouth Valiant
1974 Plymouth Duster
1980 Chevy El Camino
1976 Chevy Chevette
1986 Ford Tempo
1975 Chevy Nova
1982 Mercury Lynx
1988 Ford Escort
1990 Ford Tempo
1996 Ford Windstar
1988 Ford Ranger
2003 Ford Windstar
2003 Ford Focus
2005 Ford Freestyle
2008 Mazda3
2003 Mazda Tribute
2010 Mazda CX-7
1999 Ford Ranger

2010 Mazda3

God laughs:

Charlton Heston, reading Michael Crichton:

You think man can destroy the planet? What intoxicating vanity! Let me tell you about our planet. Earth is four-and-a-half-billion-years-old. There’s been life on it for nearly that long, 3.8 billion years. Bacteria first; later the first multicellular life, then the first complex creatures in the sea, on the land. Then finally the great sweeping ages of animals, the amphibians, the dinosaurs, at last the mammals, each one enduring millions on millions of years, great dynasties of creatures rising, flourishing, dying away — all this against a background of continuous and violent upheaval. Mountain ranges thrust up, eroded away, cometary impacts, volcano eruptions, oceans rising and falling, whole continents moving, an endless, constant, violent change, colliding, buckling to make mountains over millions of years. Earth has survived everything in its time.

It will certainly survive us. If all the nuclear weapons in the world went off at once and all the plants, all the animals died and the earth was sizzling hot for a hundred thousand years, life would survive, somewhere: under the soil, frozen in arctic ice. Sooner or later, when the planet was no longer inhospitable, life would spread again. The evolutionary process would begin again. Might take a few billion years for life to regain its present variety. Of course, it would be very different from what it is now, but the earth would survive our folly, only we would not. If the ozone layer gets thinner, ultraviolet radiation sears earth, so what? Ultraviolet radiation is good for life. It’s powerful energy. It promotes mutation, change. Many forms of life will thrive with more UV radiation. Many others will die out. You think this is the first time that’s happened? Think about oxygen. Necessary for life now, but oxygen is actually a metabolic poison, a corrosive gas, like fluorine.
When oxygen was first produced as a waste product by certain plant cells some three billion years ago, it created a crisis for all other life on earth. Those plants were polluting the environment, exhaling a lethal gas. Earth eventually had an atmosphere incompatible with life. Nevertheless, life on earth took care of itself. In the thinking of the human being a hundred years is a long time. Hundred years ago we didn’t have cars, airplanes, computers or vaccines. It was a whole different world, but to the earth, a hundred years is nothing. A million years is nothing. This planet lives and breathes on a much vaster scale. We can’t imagine its slow and powerful rhythms, and we haven’t got the humility to try. We’ve been residents here for the blink of an eye. If we’re gone tomorrow, the earth will not miss us.

1988:  Flew to Hawai’i, got a Mazda 626 (HI plates, lol) from the Hilo airport.  This might be the first ‘imported’ car I ever drove—but in Hawai’i, American cars are the imports!  Went to pull the light switch and popped the hood, and of course it was pitch dark…

1990.  Didn’t feel like putting miles on my leaser, so got a Toyota Tercel (NE plates) and drove to Chillicothe.  It was a car.

1991:  Five year anniversary, rented a Hertz Lincoln Continental, (NE plates) and drove to Chillicothe, MO then Brunswick and Moberly chasing trains.  Saw a landspout tornado in Cameron.

1991:  ATL-SAV-ATL, Budget, Mopar sedan of some sort (GA plates) which made no impression.

1996-1997:  Took two trips to KC, each time I rented a Mopar Breeze/Stratus (NE plates).  Nice cars at the time, but they didn’t age well.

2003:  Atlanta and North Georgia, wedding, then SAV and back to ATL.  Ford Taurus, (OH plates).  Decent car, one of the millions Ford built for rental agencies just to say they had ‘sold’ the most cars of any marque.

2005:  Buffalo/Niagara Falls/Toronto/Erie.  Alamo at BUF gave us a PA plate Chrysler Sebring two-door (with two kids) and were fairly unapologetic about it.  I’ve never driven a two-door car since.

2006:  Nashville/Knoxville/NC/VA.  Enterprise Kia Sedona (TN plates).  Delightful minivan, I’d buy one today if they were still made.

2007:  Kona, Hertz Chevy Malibu, HI plates (go figure).  It was a Chevy.

2007:  New Orleans/Gulfport/Hattiesburg.  Hertz Mazda6, AL plates.  Fantastic car.  Love Mazdas.

2007:  Dallas on the way back from New Orleans.  Dodge Nitro (TX plates), Hertz knew we weren’t going far or for long so we got ‘upgraded’.  Too much car for two people, too much car for twenty.  Bird tried to play chicken with us and got absolutely destroyed on a side mirror.  No damage to the car!

2007:  Jacksonville/St Simons Island/SAV.  Hertz Toyota RAV4.  Nice car, better car for two rather than the five we were hauling.  LA plates, ironic because we had been in NOLA earlier with AL plates…

2008:  Rented a Hertz Chevy Impala from the Colorado Springs airport in order to drive up Pike’s Peak.  CO plates for some reason…

2008:  BOS/Montreal/Toronto/Buffalo.  Hertz gave us a MA plate Ford Edge with six miles onnit.  Perfect car for what we needed, and I let Hertz know about it.

2009:  Had to go to Dallas to bring a car home for my daughter.  Hertz’ ‘Green Collection’ was cheaper than a straight-up sedan, so I got a Toyota Prius for ninety miles.  KS plates.  Fine car, perfect for city driving.

2009:  Atlanta for my wife’s trade show.  Hertz Chevy Malibu, GA plates, paddle-shifter in an automatic?  No wonder why GM went BK.

2010:  Went to KC train chasing.  Hertz gave me a Mazda5, MO plates, so I was resigned to fitting in, being in Missouri and all.  North of KC, the windshield wiper shredded, so I stopped at MCI, where Hertz gave me another Mazda5, with GA plates!  That’s more like it!

2010:  Tornado chasing in S KS / N OK.  Big hail was forecast so I got a NE plate Chevy Cobalt.  Airflow was such that the mist I was driving in most of the day wouldn’t clear from the windshield, Rain-X was useless.  NO CRUISE CONTROL! Thought my leg was going to fall off.  Decent car, nothing more.

2011:  Three-day weekend to Saint Louis, Hertz Ford Fusion.  Beautiful car with lots of geegaws.  Two big for two people but I didn’t care!

2011.  Finally, a business trip.  Hyundai Elantra for five days.  New cars are so much better now than back in the day.  TX plates, of course.

2012:  Houston for a RUSH concert.  Enterprise/National Kia Optima, upper-level trim level, nice car, but I’d want something smaller.  TX plates, naturally.

2013:  Train chasing in KC.  Enterprise/National, Chevy Tahoe.  Thanks for the ‘upgrade’, but way too much car for one person.  TN plates were nice, snob factor and all.

2013:  KC again, RUSH concert and trains.  Enterprise/National Hyundai Elantra, MN plates.  Nice car, Sirius/XM.

2013: KC for trains, turned into a stormchase.  Enterprise/National Nissan Rogue, base trim level was disappointing and the KS plates were meh.  Interested in small crossovers, but I’d never buy one with this trim level.

2013:  KC for Steak ‘n Shake!  Enterprise/National Ford Taurus, fully loaded.  IA plates were underwhelming, but the car was more luxurious than a similar Lincoln!  Drove through severe thunderstorms on the way back, nice touch.

2014: KC train chasing.  Enterprise/National gave me a Nissan Altima, base level, IL plates.  Very good car, but slightly too big for consideration as a daily driver and I’d want more options.

2014:  Trains, KC and just south, Enterprise/National gave me a Mazda CX-5, AR plates!  Was glad to see this on the lot, I have no need for AWD and this was the first FWD I had seen.  Mazda still knows how to make them!  Loaded trim level, I was hoping to win the lottery so I could buy this from the agency…I like to get plates from southeastern states, and to find Arkansas on a high-end Mazda was like Christmas!

2014:  Flew into Charlotte, grabbed an NC-plate National from the Executive Aisle and drove to Knoxville.  First location where I could pick my own car, or rather my moms did, she liked the pearl paint on a 2015 Buick Verano with 1300 miles onnit.  It would have been too big if it had just been me, but it was a beautiful highway long-distance car.

2015:  Drove to Fort Hood, TX and return.  2015 Kia Sedona LX, minivan is what we needed and minivan is what we got.  I love driving to Texas, as long as the icy roads were done with before we left.  I love southern Oklahoma, too bad we drove through OK at night😦.  LX level is damn near base, but well-appointed–the dashboard control panel is illegible during the day, and the entertainment center is too complicated to work while driving.  I would want fog lights and wifey would want butt-warmers. KS plates, ironic since we drove N-S-N through the entire state!

2015:  Another trip to KC to chase trains and get Steak ‘n Shake.  Hertz had a weekend special, which resulted in me getting a 2015 Chevy Silverado 1500, NE plates.  Way too big, and 20 MPG highway besides, but the $25 bill made up for that.  No fog lights.

2015:  First-ever drive to Chicago, to visit with friends who were going to a RUSH concert (Wifey and I weren’t going, long story).  Enterprise neighborhood lot gave us a 2014 Chevy C(r)aptiva, MO plates, 38K Mi., for crying out loud!  Tired tires, and I smelled oil whenever the transmission downshifted.  OTOH, best seats of any rental I’ve driven!

2015: Another trip to Fort Hood, another granddaughter! Enterprise neighborhood lot gave us a 2015 Toyota RAV4, AWD(!), fogs, nice car but we needed bigger. MT plates. Great gas mileage. Originally rented for one week but turned out to be two. Check engine light came on within five miles, Enterprise told us to ignore it. Tire pressure light came on, but never could figure out what tire.  This car doesn’t have a front plate bracket, so when its prepped the plate just gets screwed into the bumper cover.  In this car’s case, screwed in not-horizontally.  That’s will require some explaining come resale time…

2016:  Another trip to KC for trainchasing.  Walked through National’s lot at Eppley Airport saw a Kentucky-plate Nissan Rogue (SEC!SEC!!SEC!!!), walked into the terminal, got that car in five minutes, no problem!  Plastic wheelcovers and no fog lights, I thought that strange because it was AWD.  However, all things considered it was a better car than the Rogue I’d rented in 2013.  None of the 12V outlets worked, so I had to be vigilant of my cellphone use.

2016:  Flew to Las Vegas.  Got a NV-plate Hyundai Elantra from National and drove it 69 miles in a weekend.  No rain, no bugs–wipers never moved.  Great car, as Elantras are.

Paul Nyholm hated tornadoes.  I found it hilarious that he’d head to his basement and spend all night there if necessary.

Thursday, 17 June 2010.  The day had started off interesting for Omaha, but the patterns changed over time and the dynamics had moved northeast.  Still interesting, still worth watching and because at the time Facebook hadn’t been net-nannied at work, I could follow in real-time.

It gets close to quitting time and Paul asks if I’m going out.  I tell him no, five hours at least to get to where things were projected to fire, which means at least seven hours back home.  So he asks, “If you were going out, where’d you expect it to happen?”

I thought for a second, flipped a mental coin and said “Albert Lea, Minnesota.”  (I look for crossroads, and the corner of I-35 and I-90 fit the bill.  I could have easily said Sioux Falls…)

Well, of course Albert Lea got whacked something fierce.  Next morning, Paul was all amazed, like I was the Tornado Whisperer or something!  That made his day, he talked about every spring from then on.

R.I.P., Paul.  You’ll never know what you missed, camped out in your basement.  You’ll have a better seat from now on.

 

 

I lived in Dallas ‘burbs for almost eighteen months and I loved it.

Then I spent a week in Fort Worth and I loved Fort Worth.

Then I spent a weekend in Houston and I loved Houston!

I like to write.  I like to drive.  I like to travel and I like to buy cars!  The car, among other things, is long gone.  But it was a good time…

November, in the year of our Lord 2003. I had just bought wifey a red 2003 Ford Windstar (our second), hot offa the showroom floor with only 79 miles on the clock. Just three days later, it got recalled for rear seat anchors and McMullen Ford in Council Bluffs, Iowa loaned us a Focus ZTW while repairs were effected.

Nice car. Loved the hard suspension, the acceleration was more than what I needed, cute styling, and the thing went through gas like Lara Flynn Boyle goes through Steak ‘n Shake(!)  Wifey says that she could drive a car like this from time to time, when she tired momentarily of her minivan…

A week later, I turned my 1991 Tempo into U-Pull-It Auto Recyclers. It was a good car, albeit boring. (Boring means inexpensive, and it was that…)  Now our driveway held two Windstars that got anywhere between 16-21 mpg and I sure as heck didn’t need two big-(g)a$$ guzzlers.

I had snagged a Focus brochure at McMullen and I was unimpressed with the color swatches, too small and all.  One thing I was sure of was that I didn’t need another red car with one in the driveway already. The old Windstar was silver and I was ambivalent about another car the same color.   I won’t let my wife wear beige bras, and I won’t drive a beige car! The blues were…okay…

A 35 MPH drag race…

New Year’s Eve. Alex Lifeson is getting arrested for a butt load of alcohol-related offences in Florida, meanwhile I’m spending my December 31st in Olathe, Kansas semi-clean and 100%-sober looking for Joe’s Crab Shack.

Bumper-to-bumper on 135th Street, I catch up to a Focus. Wifey: “Hey, that’s the green!”  Damned if it doesn’t look good—in the reflection of headlights and streetlights. We parallel some poor girl for three miles and 10 lights and we can’t find anything to contradict our original opinion—but it was night and all…

Next morning, we wander into Olathe Ford and find another Tundra Focus in their back lot. While it was a stick and they were closed (!) the green looked good in the daylight, too…

Put your message in a modem…

Well, Autotrader.com was still in my browser cache from my Windstar search, for crying out loud…One thing about living in Nebraska, you can find any car you want, as long as it’s red!  Couldn’t find a green one anywhere in Omaha.  There was a Ford lot in Kansas City that specialized in program cars, but green ones there flew off the lot. One weekend, there were four in the KC metro, within five days they were all gone.

Out of town?  It’d have to be in a city where I could get cheap one-way airfare, where the lot was close to the airport, and where there weren’t any relatives—I was expecting a white-knuckle, get-it-done-in-a-weekend-and-get-back-home deal.  A lot in Chicago would sell me one with 24k mi. for 9000 USD, but that was too many miles and it sold. Wasn’t too disappointed…Same deal in Little Rock.

Within a day’s drive? Places in Salina, Kansas and Sioux Falls, South Dakota that advertised themselves as Ford superstores had plenty of white/gold/tan/silver Foci. Yawn. Another thing was the fact that I absolutely had to have ABS. Three snowstorms in two weeks gave me 27 inches and that was enough to reinforce my insistence on ABS.  Hardly any Foci came with it!  Ford lots in Great Bend and Topeka, Kansas had greenies but didn’t bother to answer my e-mails.

What to do? When I get to this point, I decide not to decide and invariably things make themselves clear.  Sent one last e-mail to Morrie’s Minnetonka Ford, who had just popped one up, and turned my back on the whole deal.

Yeah. You know what happened…Melissa from Morrie’s found a green/ABS/auto/power everything, and came up with financing in a jiffy.  She was a terrier with her e-mails so wifey and I said: Let’s Do This.

Mama’s got a squeeze box…

Sequestered the kids, overdosed on Applebee’s (kids on the cell phone: “Where are you?” “Applebee’s” (Didn’t tell them Applebee’s in Albert Lea, Minnesota…!), drove like mad to Minneapolis with The Who By Numbers on the CD player, defiled a Marriott, tried out Caribou Coffee, went to Target for souvenirs.

In and out of Morrie’s in the span of 90 minutes. Took the dealership tour, (“This is our service area, which you’ll never use…”). Melissa plied us with a gross of Morrie’s keychains for the kiddies, a car warsh and a tank o’ petrol.

Hit the Big Dog outlet mall for more payola for the kids, Norah Jones on the CD playa, 31 mpg @ 70+ MPH. Minnesota keeps the plates with the car even after it’s sold, so plates mean no in-transits and no hassles by law enforcement.  7 hours back to Omaha, more Applebee’s for dinner.  Told the kids that we went to Minneapolis to get some Minnesota Wild shirts! They were pi$$ed enough already that we went to MSP and they didn’t get to go to Mall Of America. Shucks…next time!

The Tornado Magnet…

Been chasing using either the Tempo or an 88 Ranger for the past few years.  Haven’t seen gorilla hail in the past few years, so my POS beaters have been dent-free. Naturally, since I’m now going to have a new car this season, it’ll be a record hail year!

“If it could happen to him, what chance did the rest of us have? I think we all felt that. It seemed like we’d lost our leader.”–F1 driver Chris Amon, on the death of Jim Clark, 1968.

Jim Clark was about five years before my time, but being a motor racing enthusiast, I knew how I felt on the days that Ayrton Senna and Dale Earnhardt, Sr. died.

Before Facebook and Youtube took off, a stormchaser got their news from wx-chase and Stormtrack.  In those days, after every chase I busted on, I’d see photos and video from geniuses such as Mike Hollingshead, Shane Adams, Mike Peregrine and Tim Samaras or find explanations from Samaras, Tim Marshall ,among others detailing why they stayed home.  After every chase that I got crappy video from, I’d see better images from them.

Tim Samaras was one chaser who I knew chased the right way, every time and got all they could from a setup, every time.  After an event, I knew the story wasn’t told completely until I saw what Tim had to say about it.  Kirksville 2009 was the best example of when I wandered around half-assed when TWISTEX got it right and did good science, besides.

And more importantly, from my interactions with Tim, I knew he was a gentleman and I have no doubt that Paul Samaras and Carl Young were the same.

Another thing is that they did all this without self-promotion.  You’d see their video and wonder why you hadn’t seen them all afternoon!

Anyone who has heard the infinite monkeys/infinite typewriters/infinite amount of time theorem know that one day chasers would die, and discounting random events such as drunk drivers, bluehairs and deer, I at least thought in vague detail about what ‘type’ of chaser it would most likely be.  I put myself nearer to the top of that list than the bottom…but graybeards like Marshall, Doswell, Rasmussen, Bluestein were at the very bottom and so was TWISTEX.

31 May.  Rick Burriesci said “Everything about that day went wrong”.  Every post on my Facebook feed from 5:30PM CT on was more bewildering and desperate than the one before it.  And the Youtube video that began showing up after 8:00 PM made no sense whatsoever–it was no hyperbole to say that people were driving like their lives depended on it.  And these posts and these images were from people who have done this for years and are good at it.  People who I would trust with my life in a car around a tornado.  None of these people were in control of any aspect of their lives, and a)  I knew them and cared for them, and b) all of them were at least as good as I am in maneuvering around a storm and in most cases far better at it.   Fully half the name-brand chasers were in OKC that afternoon, and most of them are lucky they only have severe damage to their cars.

Friday is not a ‘reality check’…it’s just sad.

“Nature never did betray the heart that loved her.”–William Wordsworth

I used to believe in this statement like no other.  Now I don’t know what it means.  Despite the rationales of disparate stormchasers, their motives, their attitudes, their demeanors, no one loves Ma Nature more than a stormchaser.  Now three people who loved Her died, and speaking for myself, I feel a lot of things and some sense of betrayal is one of them.

So, what to do?  I’m going out chasing, hopefully this week.  It needs to be done.  But perhaps now Ma Nature isn’t a benevolent recipient of good thoughts and harmony like I had portrayed Her.

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