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Earthquakes, chili and ejection Part one – true tales from an ex-IT support man Episode 20

Continuing from the last episode, I mentioned that the company that owned the software fro which we were the UK & European distribution arm was based in San Francisco, in the old Embarcadero Center, right under the Bay Bridge. The significance of this will become apparent, shortly.

I also mentioned that the guy who was the principal architect of the software, Mike, was a bit “off the wall” – he was based in a town called Chico, about 165 miles northeast of SF. Almost nobody has ever heard of Chico – they even sell T-shirts which say “Where the hell is Chico?” emblazoned on the shirt. It was (at least when I was sent there in the late 80s) a sleepy town during the day, with a predominantly Latino-based population. At night, however, the atmosphere was somewhat less sleepy.

Chico State university was, in the late 80s, the home to many upper-middle-class students who, supposedly, worked hard during the day but, at night, partied hearty, speeding up and down the main street in their BMWs, Mercs, Ferraris etc, raising hell and terrorising the indigents. But the main attraction in the town was the number of Mexican restaurants – I’ll come to those in a minute.

So, I was sent to Chico to meet Mike and discuss the application as it stood and what enhancements were being planned, and to add my input to the development process, while Norman was meeting with the company owners in San Francisco. To get to the town, I took a flight with a small commercial airline – the plane sat less than 20 people, with single seats down each side of the cabin, and with a low ceiling height which just about allowed me to stand up straight. I found my seat and strapped in, waiting for the door to close. A horizontally challenged lady (referred to as a moose, hereafter) followed me onto the plane and sat a couple of seats in front of, and to the left of me.  I say “sat”, but the reality of the situation was that her larger than normal/mine rear end didn’t actually allow her to sit IN the seat between the arm-rests, so they had to remove the arm-rests and then give her an extra-large belt extension so she could strap in. The result was she looked like a turkey, trussed up and ready for Christmas.

While all this stuffing, heaving, and strapping was taking place, the pilot came aboard. This guy looked like the weight of the world was on his shoulders – hangdog expression, dark circles under his soulless eyes. And he was about 6’6”, which was about six inches too tall for the fuselage. He closed the door (himself) and then disappeared into the cockpit, meaning he was the only flight crew (that we saw, at least – there may have been a co-pilot, but I never saw any. A minute or so later, he re-emerged from the cockpit and proceeded to give us the safety lecture (emergency exits, seatbelts etc) but, as I said he was about six inched too tall for the cabin, so all this was done with he head tilted to the right and his left cheek jammed against the ceiling. It was surreal. I didn’t know whether to laugh or panic. After the safety demo, we taxied to the runway and took off for Chico.

There was a lot of turbulence on the flight – the moose was petrified and kept screaming, in between load prayers for her deliverance. When we landed, her make-up was smeared all over her chubby cheeks and she looked like she was melting.

When I exited the airport, there was Mike in his open top Jeep to greet me, and we drove to the office. During the drive, Mike asked if I was OK with Mexican food – I told him as long as it was spicy, I was fine, so he said we’d eat at his favourite restaurant that evening. He gave me a potted history of himself, his voluntary tours as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, his penchant for the odd drink/cigarette, and how he’d fallen into software programming, and we then arrived at his office. I followed him in and he went to get us some coffee so, while he  was out, I had a look around the room.

The most striking thing in the room was a photo on his desk of Mike and another chap, looking a little the worse for drink, and both holing up 12-bore single-barrelled shotguns and, while I was looking at the photo, in came Mike with the coffees. He said that the guy he was with in the photo was responsible for getting him started in the business by getting him some money to get going. An investor, you might think, but no. He then unbuttoned his shirt to reveal a deep depression in his chest, just to the right of his heart. Apparently, his “buddy”, with whom he still drank, was out with Mike on a shooting trip, was cleaning his gun which accidentally went off and shot Mike in the chest. Mike then sued him and they split the proceeds of the suit!

After a long day going through the application and the planned development upgrades (I have to admit, Mike was a brilliant programmer – but he was far better drunk than sober), we headed off for my hotel and then, once checked in, we set off for his favourite restaurant. When we entered, Mike was greeted with a hug by the owner, and all the staff shouted hello to him – it was a bit like “Norm” in Cheers, only with Latino accents. Anyway, Mike explained to the owner that I was a limey, so he had to be gentle with me as far as food-heat was concerned. He then turned to me and suggested I don’t order anything above a 3-alarm (the star rating for heat, being 1-alarm for very mild, and 5-alarm being somewhere north of nuclear). So, I went for the 5-alarm chili. The owner asked if I was sure, and I assured him that NOTHING I had ever eaten in the USA was spicy enough for my palate. He went to the kitchen with the order.

About ten minutes later, the food arrived, with two pots of sauces: the red, mild salsa and the green, strong salsa. Mike warned me to use a little of the green one, as that was the stuff the kitchen staff used for themselves. Red rag to a bull, that suggestion was. I tasted the chili and it was very good but, as I had suspected, it was not very hot, so I spooned some of the green sauce on top. Mike remonstrated with me for doing this, reminding me that the sauce was what the kitchen staff used. The owner had seen what I was doing and came over to the table, no doubt to gloat as this gringo was about to make a fool of himself. He was disappointed. I even licked the spoon – it was a little on the spicy side but also very sweet – and nothing that I couldn’t handle. So, I turned to the owner and asked if he had anything hotter – a hush fell over the restaurant, and both the owner’s and Mike’s jaws hit the floor.

“Are you serious?”, asked the owner.

“Absolutely”, I replied.

The owner disappeared into the kitchen and, several seconds later, the entire kitchen team followed him out of the kitchen and came over to our table, whereupon they started doing the “We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!” bowing schtick from Wayne’s World (if you’ve never seen it, you need to…), and I was immediate declared an honorary Mexican. They then gave me a sliced, raw Habanero and said that was all they had, so I added it to the meal and that sort of did the trick.

The next day, I said my goodbyes to Mike and flew back to San Francisco. The flight this time was uneventful, and the pilot fit the aircraft as well. Norman picked me up at the airport and we drove back to the hotel on Beach Street – he said that we would be going out that night with the owners to the WashBag, a familiar name for the Washington Square Bar and Grill – a celebrity hangout, but not overpriced. The owners arrived at the restaurant a few minutes after us and the meal/meeting went well, with Norman promoting me to them as the technical focal point of the UK operation.

A few days later, we flew back with PanAm to Heathrow – the only thing to mention about the flight was that Norman tried to blag us first class tickets and failed.

I'll break off here, but there's more to come