NO LIFEGUARD ON DUTY

Background

 

As Nick drove along the interstate, he would watch the cars and trucks go by and think to himself, ‘if I drop dead of a heart attack this moment would a single person on this highway blink other than to curse the traffic backup after I hit the bridge embankment, not likely’.

 

He used to think time was eternal, a never-ending compendium capturing the sparks of our existence and glowing forever. That was years ago when the idea of mortality was barely a passing thought. This is now when it’s not about mortality, it’s about living and how he will leverage 80 years of life experience to do it right this time.

 

As he approaches his eighth decade, he knows the glow will fade and extinguish, not all at once, but one spark at a time.

 

This book is a way of keeping Nick’s life glowing a little longer, perhaps less brightly than in the past, but able to light the flame that has kept him interested, interesting and alive all these years.

 

His life has been one of fire and ash, burning with passion and wonder only to flame out again and again with the residue of reality.

 

This is not memoir or biography, this is a story, Nick’s story, creative non-fiction, a narrative laced with places, times, events and characters that Nick experienced with a novelist’s imagination for storytelling.

 

I’ve known this man for 79 years, by any measure, a long time. I know his failures and successes, his passions and desires, his loves and hates. He is a complicated man, brimming at once with creative ambition while suffering from anemic self-confidence.

 

There is no schadenfreude in Nick, he takes no pleasure in another’s misfortune. He is a man preoccupied with self-discovery, often defining himself by the opinions of others.

 

The storms and calms of his life have moved him back and forth like the tide. While the detritus of living has often pushed him to places where he doesn’t belong, the journey has often re-ignited a life suffering from compromise and melancholy.

 

If you recognize yourself in this story, be careful, you’re riding a wild horse, snorting and unbroken, running through the mutability of life with total abandon and, what’s worse, disregard for common sense.

 

I’ll skip over the formative years and get right to the heart of the matter; life is about vanity, confidence, empathy, courage, depression and unrequited love. The drivers of Nick’s improbable existence. We’ll explore them all as we explore life without guardrails.

 

This story reads like fiction but it’s all true.

 

 

Chapter-1 (New York)

 

The story begins in 1997 when I stepped down as President & CEO of Cotton Incorporated, the iconic textile fiber research, and marketing arm of the US Cotton industry, headquartered in a glass-enclosed tower overlooking Central Park in New York City.

 

My office had an uninterrupted view of the Park. There was a large circular desk of knurled walnut surrounded by six swivel chairs, curved and tufted in burnt orange cotton. The CEO chair was tufted in black, the only one with a high back.

 

There was a large matching credenza, a computer screen, a push-button control panel, and a keyboard.

 

The room was large, 25 feet by 30 feet, the furniture was custom, over-sized and covered in plush chocolate velveteen.

 

The 100% Cotton carpeting was oatmeal neutral, selected to dramatize the furniture and the artwork. There were subdued oil paintings and a magnificent Henry Moore maquette of a Tribal Mask staring from the coffee table.

 

There was a bathroom hidden behind the paneling with a shower, a closet, and amenities befitting a Relais & Chateau. The full-service wet bar was stocked with premium brands and the small refrigerator kept the Vodka and Pilsner cold.

 

A projector and screen dropped from the ceiling with the push of a button, preloaded with a professionally produced and directed video about the company and our current marketing campaign.

 

There was an executive dining room on the top floor, an English trained chef and a private elevator connecting our three floors.

 

I had a professionally trained secretary, an administrative assistant and a conference room overlooking the park.

 

All this plus an executive salary, benefits and expense account.

 

Why did I walk away in my prime at age 57 after 25 years? I was still motivated and ambitious and felt I had more to give than the cotton industry was prepared to accept.

 

I thought I could change the world, I suppose you’ll find that humorous, changing the world, that was supposed to be a young man’s dream, not an aging man’s fading ambition.

 

For me then, as now, I’ve never felt or acted like an “aging man”. As long as my physical and emotional health were stable and my always unreasonable ambition still intact, I took the path less traveled and for me, that path has led to places, cultures, events, and people beyond my wildest expectations.

 

I formed a company, Hahn International, Ltd, a consulting group concentrating on underdeveloped countries in Asia, Africa, South America, Eastern Europe, and the Caucasus Region.

 

I initially opened an office in the Empire State Building in mid-town Manhattan, still a prestigious address in spite of its construction in 1931.

 

The commute from NY was un-necessary, clients didn’t visit my office and the added expense was superfluous to my wanting a NY address.

 

I moved to a concierge building in Stamford, Ct, the rents were lower, short term and included services like a full-time receptionist, conference room and utility bay with fax, copier, and coffee. The perfect arrangement for a start-up business with unknown prospects.

 

Like most start-ups, HIL was long on positioning and short on clients.

 

That is until one day a phone call turned my business plan upside down and sent me into a world strange and foreign to me.

 

The voice on the phone was professional, addressing me as “Mr. Hahn” and asking if I were the person who had worked at Cotton Incorporated with Dukes Wooters.

 

The answer being yes, he introduced himself as Jim Carlisle, a consultant affiliated with USAID, and launched into an explanation for his call. Mr. Wooters was unavailable for a trip to Colombo Sri Lanka to address a conference of Coir fiber producers on the advantages of ingredient product marketing.

 

I had never heard of Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon,  and only vaguely aware of Coir, the textile fiber stripped from the husks of coconuts and used in doormats, flower pots and erosion blankets.

 

I explained this to Carlisle but he was insistent and assured me the focus of my address would be fiber marketing in a generic sense.

When I asked about compensation and travel arrangements, he explained the remuneration would be on the upper end of the USAID government pay scale and that, unfortunately, air travel would have to be by economy class.

 

While we were talking I did a quick Google search on NY to Colombo (capital of Sri Lanka), it was 19 hours with a long layover in Dubai.

When I told Mr. Carlisle that I needed a first class or at least a business class ticket on a flight that long he hesitated, explaining that all US Government employees traveled economy. I reminded Mr. Carlisle that I wasn’t a government employee and couldn’t possibly travel that long on a cramped economy class seat. He asked for a day or two to request an exception in my case.

Two days later he called with the good news that he made arrangements for business class travel and would I accept the assignment?

Being intrigued by a visit to