Disclaimer: Let me just say that the last blog was a bit of a heavy one to get off my chest. It took a bit out of me. And it was even more difficult to write the next one. People responded to how it made them feel. And I appreciate that. But I hope it didn’t create too much of an expectation. How do I follow that one up? Well, I can’t. Don’t expect every blog to be as heavy as that one. This blog is about my life. The good and the bad. Some heavy and some fun. Some life lessons and sometimes just stories. Sometimes relevant and sometimes just things that stuck with me. Just stories of things that happened to me and how I got here. So, let’s get back to some more story telling.
A pilot’s ear
‘Good morning Mr C! Got your ticket ready for you’. I can still hear those words. Always the same words. It was the British Airways air hostess at Cape Town International. Always with a smiling face and a quick chat before I head off to the lounge and some coffee.
You see, I used to fly often. No really, I used to flew a lot. Two to four times a week from Cape Town to Joburg and back. For 5 odd years.
I lived in Stellenbosch, the most beautiful town in South Africa and just outside Cape Town. But I had to go up to Joburg to negotiate trade deals and trade and industry policies at NEDLAC (National Economic Development and Labour Council – ) – and that meant having to be at all the chamber, committee and ministerial meetings. As the lead negotiator at the Trade and Industry Chamber, I sat on 12 odd committees and had to be at the Ministerial meetings. All in all about 30 meetings a month. I get tired just thinking of it.
It could have been easier if they managed to arrange the meetings a bit better. It was the same bunch of people attending most of the meetings. Me, Mark Bennett and Herbert Mkhize from the trade unions, Raymond Parsons, Michael MacDonald, Roger Baxter and Andre Lambrechts from business, and Alistair Ruiters and Bahle Sibisi from government. Always the bunch of us stuck in a room together. Nine men writing history. The other 8 all lived within an hour from Joburg. I stayed 2 hours away – a 2 hour flight.
But I had my own way of getting them back. I refused to stay over in Joburg. Which meant that they had to fly me in from Cape Town for each meeting. And I refused to drive in Joburg. Have you driven in Joburg? It is crazy. And that doesn’t include the hijacking either. It’s like Nascar for dummies. So they had to send a car to pick me up. Okay, so I was just lazy. Didn’t want to drive. Never liked it, so why go through all the stress of doing it in Joburg if I could get away with not doing it at all?
Living in Stellenbosch also made it more difficult to stay over in Joburg. Stellenbosch is the most beautiful town in South Africa, and Joburg the ugliest city. Stellenbosch is Stratford-Upon-Avon and Joburg is Birmingham. Stellenbosch is Carmel-by-the-Sea and Joburg is Philly. And I had a family in Stellenbosch. My wife and daughter meant everything to me – especially because of my relationship with the rest of my family. And I couldn’t wait to be with my wife and daughter 24/7. But my decision also meant that I had to fly in for each meeting and they always wanted to start early to make sure they get both breakfast and lunch. Yes, food is at the heart of negotiations anywhere in Africa.
There was only one way to get there in time for the breakfast meeting – take the first flight out of Cape Town. Oh brother that was early – 6 am. That meant I had to get up at 4 to make it in time for my flight. And due to scheduling and traffic, I had to take the last flight out of Joburg – 9 pm. Landing at 11 pm. Home by 12. And up again at 4. See why I needed the breakfast? I never had dinner. Crazy schedule – but I loved every minute of it.
I always flew British Airways just to annoy everyone a bit more than needed. I didn’t actually mind flying South African Airways, but I knew people got pissed off if I flew British Airways – I was a traitor for using the foreign airline. It always helped to get your opponent a bit hot under the collar before a round of negotiations. And it paid off – I mean air miles. Thanks to all the air miles, my wife, daughter and myself enjoyed a few free trips overseas. I had more air miles than anyone I knew – just over 700,000 air miles at one stage.
And I got to know the airline personnel pretty well. I did this same schedule for almost 5 years. Same flights every Tuesday and Thursday – and sometimes on a Monday and Wednesday. Always the same flights in the morning and evening. And I learned that being friendly meant that I never got hassled. Quite the opposite. They treated me like family. My ticket was ready by the time I got to the airport. I always got the same smile and call when I walked into the airport, ‘Good morning Mr C. Got your ticket ready for you’. Never waited in a queue. It pissed everyone else off. Those waiting in the queue. Here I walked in and had my ticket ready and handed over with a smile and a wink. I just walked past those plebs in the queue, smiled at the air hostess, and thanked her. And, sometimes when there were no queues and I had enough time, I would hang out with them and talk a bit. About family, life and sport – whatever took our fancy.
From there it was straight to the lounge to have a coffee and chat to the guy working there. Nice guy. He always helped me get an upgrade. I flew business class each and every time – even though I booked in on economy. Man I was spoilt rotten by them.
And it continued once I got on the plane. They knew me and knew that all I wanted to do was get in my seat and sleep. I was like Pavlov’s dog. I fell asleep the minute I feel the engines vibrate into action. And only woke up when we stopped on the other side. I didn’t even wake up when we hit the tarmac. And the air hostesses always left me alone. Just a friendly smile and maybe a quick orange juice before they start the engines.
But I knew I was flying way too often when the air hostess woke me up on one of my many flights with an odd ‘request’. I was bit bewildered. My internal clock told me I haven;t slept my usual 2 hours. she looked at me and said, ‘sorry Mr C, we know that you like sleeping on the plane, but we know that it is your daughters birthday tomorrow. And we know you won’t be flying tomorrow – you never do on family days. Could you maybe give this present to your daughter from all of us at British Airways, Cape Town International? and please wish her a happy birthday’. I was still half asleep and now flabbergasted. I gave her my best embarrassed smile and mumbled a thank you. They have never met my daughter – how did they know? Because I told some of them during our many chats. See, my daughter was born on a public holiday in South Africa – 1 May. Labour Day. And everyone thought it was odd as I also worked for the trade unions. So that was how they remembered. But still. Have you heard of an air hostess giving anyone a birthday present for their daughter. And they never met her before.
There was one last sign that I was flying to often. I started developing ear problems. I thought it was ear infection. And eventually it became too much. I just had to go to the doctor. And he made an appointment at an ear specialist. He didn’t know who I am or what I do. I was just a guy with an ear problem. He looked at my ear. Stopped. Looked at my ear again – this time a little bit longer. He stopped, cleaned the tools and looked at me. ‘Sir, are you a pilot?’ he asked. ‘Why?’, I asked. His reply, ‘because the only people with ears as stuffed up of yours are pilot ears. It’s the continuous changing in air pressure and different conditions – dry air etc. And you only get these ears if you fly regularly, at least a few times a week. We call it pilot’s ear.’
So that was it. Start staying over in Joburg or… I went home, went to the forest to pick up pine cones for the fireplace with my daughter, had dinner with my wife and daughter, tucked in my daughter, read her a story, got up and went to write my resignation letter.