Spaf's Journal: I see London, I see France...


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• • •

Back in about 1991, I was invited to Bell Northern Research at Research Triangle, NC to give a talk on my debugging work. I had been on the road a lot the last few years talking about the Internet Worm, so a talk on my debugging research was welcome. Plus, BNR was a sponsor of the SERC (then) at Purdue, and I enjoyed working with people there. And several of my former students were working there, so I'd enjoy the visit for no other reason than to visit them. This was not the first time I would be mistaken about travel.

I don't remember the day exactly, but I loaded up my garment bag and flew out of West Lafayette (USAir had service to Dayton from WL in those days). I connected in Dayton, and got into the Raleigh-Durham airport rather late in the evening. Then, my adventure started.

I got a shuttle bus and arrived at the hotel around midnight. I checked in to my room. It was the last room they had available. It was next to the elevator. The sodium arc lamp illuminating the parking lot (and several counties in the surrounding area) was perched outside above the window for my room. Despite heavily lined curtains, the light coming in around the edges lit up the room to daylight levels. However, it looked like something out of an Outer Limits episode -- this orange-red light ominously streaming around the curtains on all sides. If I opened the curtains, I saw a huge cloud of moths from the surrounding countryside (and several neighboring planets), drawn to the lights. Swooping through this were dozens of very happy bats that didn't even need to try very hard to catch anything because the moths were so thick they could have walked on them. Very bizarre, but more interesting than anything on network TV.

Between the near constant hum and thump of the elevator, the daylight-level illumination of the room (except for that macabre reddish-orange of a sodium arc lamp) , and the thump of very large moths against the window, I felt I was in some alien environment. However, had I been kidnapped by aliens, I might have gotten more sleep. I think I was kept awake until at least 4am.

Morning arrived too quickly (as judged by my alarm clock -- there was no change in the light in the room). I managed to drink about 8 cups of coffee, check out, and catch a ride to the BNR site.

My hosts were glad to see me. They showed me to a lovely conference room, and asked if I minded telecasting this talk to their other lab locations in the US and Canada. No problem for me! So, they hooked me up with a wireless mike, tested out the video links, and got my overheads set up. Then they offered me more coffee.

At this point, I was sloshing as I walked, so I took my coffee and wandered down the hall to where I thought there was a restroom. There wasn't, so I asked someone there, who pointed me in the right direction. As I rounded the corner I was intercepted by about 3 of the people from the conference room frantically searching for me --- they somehow knew where I was going and needed to delay me. They pointed out that my wireless mike was still on, and suggested that I might shut it off before using any plumbing. I had already broadcast my destination to locations in 5 states, so I might want to go off the air before continuing. Ooops!

The talk went well. Q&A was fine. Lunch was great. Everything seemed to be going fine.

One of my hosts offered to take me down to find one of my former students. As we walked through the cubicle farm, I observed a mechanical robot cart rolling along the floor, delivering mail. It would roll up to a designated spot on the floor and ring a very loud bell to alert whoever was there that it had arrived. Someone would pick up the mail from the "in" box, and put more in the "out" box, then press a continue switch. My host explained that there was an "invisible" ink stripe on the floor that the robot followed with an ultraviolet light. When it hit a cross in the line, or the line ended, it stopped and rang its bell. Nifty.

We walked a bit further and found my former student. We stood outside her cubicle for a few moments, watching her pound the keyboard. She had headphones on, oblivious to all around her. I watched the robot roll by and suggested to my host that it sure would be interesting to pull up the carpet tiles with the ink and place them so as to lead the robot into her cubicle. Apparently, he did this about a week later to his supervisor -- the robot rolled into her cubicle, blocking the doorway, hit the end of the line and rang its alarm bell. Loudly. She about jumped over the wall. However, because there was no way out around the cart, and hitting the continue button didn't help, she was trapped for about 15 minutes. I wonder if she ever found out it was my idea? Maybe that explains why I have never been invited back?

Anyhow, the rest of the day was completely uneventful. Then it was time to have some dinner and go to the airport. One of the faculty from the University of Florida was doing a sabbatical there at BNR, and he asked what I liked, and I said barbecue. He offered to take me to a homestyle barbecue place then drive me to the airport. So, I said good-byes to all. My hosts gave me a nicely gift-wrapped box as a token of appreciation for my talk. I slipped it into my briefcase to look at later. Off we went. We then took off for the restaurant.

Great barbecue. Great food. But we dallied a bit during dinner and had to hurry to get to the airport. On the way out to the car, I dropped my keys, or pen or something. I bent over to pick it up and heard the very distinct and ominous sound of ripping. Now, one of three things had happened. Either someone nearby was ripping cloth, I had very badly injured myself, or my pants had ripped. Straightening up, I did a quick (and not very discrete) check. No blood or disconnected tissue that I could find. However, I did discover an opening in the back of my pants that was not supposed to be there.

Ever notice how sizes are deceiving? When you lose a tooth, for instance, as a child, the gap feels huge to your tongue? Well, this rip appeared to feel small. So, I wasn't too concerned. Besides, I had no spare slacks, and I would be late for my flight if we delayed by trying to do something.

I got into the car, hearing the fabric rip a little more as I got in. Oh well -- how bad could it be?

We had a mad dash to the airport to get there on time. I said a quick good-bye and hopped out of the car, only to hear another rip. I leaned over and grabbed my bag from the trunk to the sounds of some more ripping. Then I headed into the airport. I heard Doug break out into giggles behind me. This was more than vaguely disquieting.

Once I got inside, I discovered why he was giggling -- the air conditioning hit me. The shock was not the A/C to my face -- oh, no. The shock was the A/C infiltrating regions that do not normally experience A/C up close and personal. I was discovering a little of what it must be like to wear a kilt. I did not want to check out the damage, but I suspected that the little rip was now considerably bigger. In fact, with the quantity of breeze that hit me with each step, I decided the rip must now be a few meters in size. They really air-condition that airport well!

So, I swung my garment bag over my shoulder so it was hanging down my back, and I set off for the gate. I put the bag up on the conveyer belt for the X-ray, along with my briefcase, adjusted my coat, and took short, careful steps through the metal detector. Everything would have been fine, except the guards gathered around the x-ray.

"Sir? Is this your bag?"

Sinking feeling. "Yes."

"Please come over here."

So, I picked up my bags and took them over to the table, They asked me to unpack my briefcase. So I had to lean way over the table to unpack my briefcase. Many, many people behind me started to giggle.

Yes, I had a gaping hole in my pants, but it was worse than that. I had only been married a few years at that time, and my wife decided she liked a particular style of underwear on me. Colored, too. I liked to humor her. So that day, in that position, I was bending over the table and flashing a pair of bright red bikini underwear to the people coming through the metal detector. I'm sure they had a lot to talk about. I had a lot of breeze.

And why was it that I had to open my briefcase? Because my hosts had given me a beautifully gift wrapped, solid brass letter opener -- that appeared on the X-ray as a 6-inch stiletto knife. (I still use the letter opener, by the way.) They took turns looking at the letter opener, and I think they also took turns scoping out the view as I repacked my bag. Grrrr. I was now blushing about the color of my underwear.

Collecting my bags and what little dignity I had left, I went to the gate -- only to find that the flight had been delayed. So, I quickly headed to the airline club room. There, I asked the woman behind the desk if by any chance she had a sewing kit. She didn't but she did have a half a dozen of those little brass safety pins. Salvation! I could keep from flashing everyone else by using these.

So I went into the bathroom with my luggage and the pins. I took off my pants and turned them upside down to look at the hole. Of course, I dumped about 20 coins all over the floor, making a terrible racket, and leaving something else to clean up.

The hole was far worse than I thought. It wasn't that the seam had come undone. No, the pants had been worn a little too much, and the fabric to the side of the seam had actually given way. There wasn't even enough to hold the pins. And it was about 7 inches from one end to the other.

I did the best I could, sort of overlapping the fabric and pinning it every inch, keeping the pins to the inside to as to hide them. It didn't look too bad in the mirror when I put them back on, either. My timing was great, too -- they called my flight as I finished.

I rushed to the gate, and boarded near the end. My seat was a window seat next to a little old grandmotherly type. If you travel much, you know her -- she already has pictures of her grandkids out and ready to show. So, I smiled at her, slid in to my seat, and sat down.

I was pretty proud of myself up until that moment. I had managed to deal with an embarrassing crisis, and I had improvised a solution. Yup, pretty proud of myself....until I sat down. The stress on the fabric, coupled with my weight and contact with the seat caused 6 tiny safety pins to open. And mind you, these were strategically located. I suddenly discovered that acupuncture can be a form of torture, too. I tried to raise up in my seat and dislodge them by moving about a little, but they were firmly embedded into some very sensitive tissues. In fact, my wiggles about were causing them to hurt even more!

So, I had a 20 second dialog with myself, tears forming in my eyes, as the flight attendants told us all about using our oxygen masks and flotation devices.

"Self," I said, "you can sit here for an hour, in incredible pain, slowly bleeding to death from pins stuck in your nether regions, or you can remove them and look like a complete pervert."

"Well, self," I responded quickly "I've certainly looked like a pervert before! Get these damn things out of my butt!"

So, as delicately as I could, I raised up in my seat, and pulled my pants away from my bottom. I did my best to dig out the pins that were most deeply embedded there, but only got three out. The other three were located further forward and particularly painfully positioned. So, after digging around for about 30 seconds I sat down, smiled to grandma on my right who was watching in wild-eyed amazement, then undid my belt and went for the other three. I suppose the sighs of relief as I extracted them from my scrotum didn't exactly make the scene any better.

Imagine: A strange bearded guy with a garish bow tie sits down next to you, makes faces and talks to himself. Then he starts digging around in his backside, followed by plunging his hand into his pants and sighing.

Grandma was white as a sheet and having difficulty breathing as she frantically rang for the flight attendant. I'm quickly doing my belt buckle back up and hoping to avoid being arrested. The attendant comes over just after I finish and get settled again. Grandma starts whispering frantically in her ear. The attendant looks at me with a shocked expression. Rather than look guilty, I smile at her a little quizzically, then nod at granny, shrug my shoulders and roll my eyes. The flight attendant decides maybe grandma is a little senile, but escorts her to another seat -- and she's too frightened to look back.

I was careful to carry my garment bag behind me in Dayton. Granny refused to get off the plane when we landed. She watched me very carefully, so I smiled and blew her a kiss. The flight attendants couldn't understand what her problem was.

The commuter flight to West Lafayette was largely empty, and I had no further difficulties (but I did have a breeze).

When I got home, Kathy simply laughed hysterically at me and my wounds

I no longer wear colored underwear, except when I do the laundry and it gets a little pink. I also carry a sewing kit in my briefcase as a talisman to ward off future such occurrences. I wonder if granny ever decided to fly again?

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Copyright © 1999 by Eugene H. Spafford. All rights reserved. Do not copy without the author's written permission.