My guardian angel is a tall blonde and she's packin' some heat
I met her on the job and she changed my life forever.
We'd run into each other numerous times a day, which led to a relationship that has endured the test of time, in addition to an assortment of trials and tribulations.
She was working for the food service division of the Aramark Corporation, of which I would later join as a front-line manager, but in the uniform division.
At the time, I was serving as the special events supervisor for Pepsi-Cola. Both of our employers had long-standing contracts with the city's largest employer: the Sundstrand Corporation.
Sundstand, which is now Hamilton-Sundstrand, remains world-renown for its contributions to the aerospace and airline industries, as well as the United States Defense Department.
It developed and manufactured the heat-shield tiles used on the space shuttles.The F-22 Raptor, which is our nation's latest tactical fighter, was on their drawing board at the time.
It was her job to service the snack machines at each of the company's eight local facilities.
During the winter months, when special events were few and far between, I was responsible for assuring that the cafeterias and soft-drink vending machines remained stocked.There were two cafeterias and 38 soft-drink vending machines, 30 of which were in the main facility. When the economy was booming, the company boasted thousands of highly skilled employees. Today, it's a mere shadow of it's former self.
I would make my daily rounds, stopping at each soft-drink machine, and placing an order in a handheld computer for the next day's delivery. I did a lot of walking around and running into Karen. There was a soft-drink vending machine next to every one of her snack machines, located in numerous stairwells and the hallways between departments.
As a result, we couldn't help but get to know each other. We eventually began to arrange to meet for lunch, which became a daily activity. Her boss, who was my contact, always provided me with a free lunch.
We were both married at the time. So, we'd trade "war stories" and joke about our spouses, etc.
She loves "blonde jokes." As a matter of fact, she collects them. They're in a folder.
As you can see, she's a blonde and rather tall.
As our friendship evolved, she would make fun of herself, calling her daily faux pas, "blonde moments."
She still does. I could fill a folder with just "blonde moments."
After about a year, she began to confide in me, which corresponded with her impending divorce. It took me by surprise. Little did I know, but I would soon follow suit. That was an even bigger surprise.
As a result, we leaned on each other, lending moral support and a sympathetic ear. They were difficult times, but it certainly helped having each other to talk to on a daily basis.
She became my guardian angel and remains so to this very day.
We began to spend time together outside of work, going to an occasional movie or serving as each other's guests at weddings and concerts. There were no strings attached. Our friendship filled the voids created by loneliness.
Her parents had a winter home in Arizona, so we took a week off and drove out to visit them in the dead of winter, which led to some humorous situations. We occasionally bring them up in conversations with mutual friends.
We both smoke, although her mother is relentless in her efforts to get us to quit.
Karen never goes anywhere without a few snacks and bottled water in her beloved Ford bronco. She put the snacks in a box and placed it on the backseat before we left. On the second day, our trip turned into an adventure.
We were cruising along the highway with the front windows cracked to allow our cigarette smoke to escape. A short time after we finished our cigarettes and let the butts fly out of our respective windows, I detected a whiff of smoke.
We looked at each other and then the backseat. Much to our surprise, the box filled with snacks was ablaze. One of our cigarettes had blown into the backseat and into the box, igniting the snacks. Neither one of us will admit it was our fault. We really don't know for sure.
She pulled over, I grabbed the box, and dumped the burning snacks alongside the road, pouring a bottle of water on them before making our hurried getaway. .
We stopped for the night somewhere in Nebraska. We shared the driving, but we were in no hurry. Karen never is.
She's the type who likes to take the scenic route, which would later lead to a white-knuckle drive through the mountains of New Mexico. Yes, there are mountains in New Mexico and they're much higher than you think.
We headed to our room, which was supposed to be two single beds. Well, the desk clerk must have thought he was doing me a favor. He set us up in a room that featured one king-size bed. Again, we looked at each other, and then went back to the front desk to request another room.
The young desk clerk's face turned three shades of red, apologized for the mix up, and set us up with the correct amenities. Nice try, junior.
While unpacking, I glanced over at Karen as she pulled a .45 caliber handgun out of her bag and placed it into the drawer of the nightstand. It looked identical to those issued to officers during WWII. I said, "Excuse me, but what do you plan to do with that?"
"Nothing, I hope," she answered. "But, I'm used to traveling alone." Her father, a veteran of the Korean War, had taught her how to handle and fire the weapon, and she had a FOID card. I made sure to use the bathroom before going to bed, fearing that I'd be shot as an intruder if I got up during the middle of the night. I didn't want my obituary to read that I was shot to death as the result of a "Blonde Moment."
The next day was rather uneventful, crossing the barren landscape that leads from Nebraska to New Mexico.
That's when things began to get interesting, again.
She noticed a sign along the highway that indicated how many miles it was to the SETI Institute, which meant nothing to me. However, Karen watches a lot of movies, and knew that's where they had filmed "Contact" starring Jody Foster. The place with all the huge dish-looking antennas that listen for signals from outer space.
She just had to see the place, not realizing it was way off the beaten path. It's not exactly in the middle of nowhere, but you can certainly see it from there. It was the most boring two hours of my entire life. But, I didn't have to wait long until things got exciting, again.
As we left, the sun was going down, which made it difficult to see the winter storm approaching. We thought nothing of it and resumed our journey. Half-an-hour later, we found ourselves in the midst of the worst snow storm I've ever seen. We couldn't see past the hood of her bronco.
On top of that, we were in the mountains, and the snow was quickly covering the road, making it impossible to tell where the roadside ended and the drop offs -- on both sides-- began. We laugh about it now, but we were nervous as hell at the time.
We couldn't stop and park. There was no telling where it was safe or if a vehicle coming from behind could see our emergency flashers before unintentionally ramming into our ass-end. The wipers couldn't keep up with the blizzard conditions, so we rolled down our windows and stuck our necks out. If we were dogs, our ears would have been flapping in the snowy, swirling wind.
After a few miles of slip-sliding along at 10 mph, I noticed one of those green-and-white road signs approaching. I'd hoped it would tell us how far it was to civilization. I was greatly disappointed and rather disturbed by what it revealed.
"Continental Divide," it read, which meant we were at the highest elevation in the north Americas. Not good, I thought, especially during a snowstorm. We chuckled about our misfortune, in order to reduce our stress levels, but, to no avail.
We were downright screwed.
Nonetheless, we steadfastly pushed on, like the pioneers who originally blazed this wilderness trail.
We finally saw some lights in the distance, off to our right. We let out sighs of relief as we pulled into the parking lot. It was one of those quaint little restaurants nestled among the pines. It would have made a picture-perfect postcard.
However, we had lost track of time. It must have been around 10 p.m. The restaurant was closed. Well, it should have been.
The lights were on and the front door was open. We walked in and I cleared my throat, the international sign for "Excuse me, please don't shoot." A woman came through the swinging door from the kitchen to the dining room and greeted us.
"Well, hello," she said. "I'm sorry, but we're closed. I was just baking some pies in the back."
Karen and I looked at each other, again. We found ourselves doing a lot of that over the course of our ill-fated trip. We learned how to communicate without saying a word. Unfortunately, it usually meant we had a problem
At that very moment, the cavalry arrived. The front door opened and in walked a New Mexico state trooper. He stomped his feet to knock the snow off his shoes and removed his hat, shaking the snow off it, as well.
"Wow," he said. "That's one hell of a storm. You people need any assistance? I hope you're not planning on going anywhere for a while."
We looked back at the proprietor just in time to hear her say, "Gosh, I didn't realize there was a storm. I've been in the back. You people sit down and I'll make a pot of coffee. Would you like some pie?"
The three of us sat down at the counter and graciously accepted her offer. Apparently, the good lord had smiled upon us. The aroma of the fresh-baked pie and brewing coffee smelled heavenly. We sat in silence, until Karen sparked a conversation with the trooper.
"So," she said. "I'll bet you've been busy tonight." Karen is naturally inquisitive, like a bright-eyed 5-year-old. She'll talk to anybody and everybody. It really doesn't matter.
"Yes, I have," he responded. "A few cars have run off the road, but nobody's been injured, so far. It's that time of year, you know."
"How far is it to the nearest town?," she asked. "We need to get a room. It's been a rough ride and we need some sleep. We're headed to my parent's place in Mesa. They're expecting us tomorrow."
Before he could answer, the best pie-baker in the entire world kindly interrupted.
"Let me call my friends just down the road, they've got a small motel," she stated. "They won't mind if I call them this late, they're probably just watching television. Hold on a minute."
Karen looked back at the trooper, who was just about to place a fork full of pie into his mouth.
"Is the storm expected to let up soon?," she asked. "Would you mind following us to the motel?"
I looked away, waiting and wondering how he was going to react to her no-win-for-him question.
Surprisingly, he chuckled, and said he'd be glad to if he didn't have to respond to a call before we left.
"I'd hate to have you guys run off the road in the middle of nowhere. They might not find you until the snow thaws in the spring or we get a call about another bear tearing up the woods."
"What?" said Karen, with a concerned look on her face. "Bears? Are there a lot of bears around here?"
"Not a lot, but enough," he responded. "They have a habit of digging up bodies that the mob's buried in the snow."
"The mob? Buried in the snow?" she exclaimed. "You're kidding?"
"Nope," he quipped, with a matter-of-fact expression on his face. "They drive them out here from the city -- Denver, Vegas, wherever. This is the middle of nowhere, you know. By the time the elements and bears are done with them, it's pretty difficult to identify the bodies. They've got it down to a science."
The pie lady returned from making the call to her friends at the motel and told us they had one room left and that they'd wait for us to get there. I thanked the lord. I was tired.
Fortunately, the storm had ended. The trooper had to respond to a call and the pie lady wanted to close up and go home.
We thanked them both, got directions to the motel, and hit the road, again.
The motel wasn't far away and the owners met us when we arrived. They were a very nice couple.
Karen and I looked at each other, once again, as they opened the door to the room. We let out another sigh of relief. There were two single beds. It felt like we were finally making progress. The stars were aligning. We might just make it to Mesa after all.
We hit the sack, got a full night's sleep, ate breakfast prepared by the proprietors, hit the road, again, and rolled into Mesa early that afternoon.
And, so ended the first cross-country trip with my guardian angel, Karen. There would be another, but not until a few years later. Fortunately, it wasn't as ill-fated.