September 2, 2014
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Connections that wireless can't make

Sometimes connections to the distant past are the best.

For years, Carol and I have been exchanging Christmas with Norm and Karen Blake. As boys of 10 years old, Norm and I didn’t live all that far from each other. A bike ride of 10 minutes is all it took to get to his house. His father intrigued me because he worked for Pan American Airlines and had lived in far off places, which lent an air of mystery to him.

It wasn’t as if we were always together. I didn’t see much of Norm after we went to different high schools. After college, Norm became a successful businessman and a CEO for a couple of companies. We didn’t see each other for decades and the only communication was Christmas cards, which were always accompanied by photos of their children and an annual update from Karen. As the years went on, there were grandchildren – now eight of them – and retirement.

But it seems Norm is busier than ever. He’s on several corporate boards, involved in a business venture of one of his sons and spends much of the day on conference calls or in different parts of the country.

That’s what brought Norm and Karen to Rhode Island last spring. They were staying at the Courtyard Marriott when they called and Carol and I dropped over for a coffee and to catch up before they headed out.

Norm was out of business cards, so he jotted down the numbers for their residences on the back of a shopping receipt, suggesting we call if we were in Florida or Indiana.

Indiana and Marco Island in southwest Florida are places I’ve never expected to visit. I folded the receipt and placed it in my wallet, suspecting that months later I would find it, wonder why I needed it and then transfer it to a corner of my bureau that has become the resting place for scores of notes and business cards.

Many months later, with the prospect that my father and Marge would spend a prolonged winter in Connecticut, I remembered Marco Island. Might there be something there to get them out of Connecticut for a month? I found the receipt. Norm knew just what to do. He put me in touch with Doug Davis, a local realtor. Doug was happy to help and quickly found a place.

This makes it all sound easy, which is deceiving. Apparently the islanders can be rather fussy about who comes and goes and the people we ended up renting from demanded background, credit checks and references. You would think they were looking for an audience with the president.

As plans came together, I arranged to precede their stay by a day to get a lay of the land and stock up on essentials like decaf coffee, fat-free milk and vermouth. Yes, they both have a penchant for sweet vermouth on the rocks –“an aperitif,” as my father calls it.

The flight down went off without delay or incident, except for one of those “only in Rhode Island” experiences. The man seated next to me worked for Bank America and was returning to Seattle. He had visited Rhode Island on a couple of occasions, but, other than his work, knew no one here. During his career, he became friends with a woman who is now a dean at the University of North Carolina.

“Oh,” Larry said casually, “she grew up in Warwick.”

Before arriving in Charlotte, where we needed to make flight connections, we traded email addresses. He vowed to send me her information so I could follow up. Still in the dark ages without a smart phone, I had brought along a laptop, expecting to stay in touch with home and the office on the Internet.

The condo Doug found was everything he had promised. As it turns out, the unit has been on the market for more than a year and unoccupied for even longer. It was pin neat, with a beautiful view of the gulf and devoid of things we take for granted, such as soap, paper towels and sugar. On my scouting tour of numerous cabinets and drawers, I did find a saltshaker and a roll of toilet paper.

After getting a gate pass to the condo complex – there was that hyper security again – I made the super market my first stop, rolling out with a cart that must have the locals thinking I was shopping for a family of 10. I even found the vermouth.

Once back in the unit, I switched on my laptop. It was time to find out what the rest of the world was up to. The computer instantly detected wireless systems but was unable to connect. I ran down a list of eight systems, all within range but they were all secured. I was locked out. I visited the manager’s office and he suggested I drive to town and visit a Starbucks or McDonald’s. There was no open system at the condos.

It had been less than 12 hours since leaving Green and already I was feeling out of tune because I hadn’t been able to get to my email. How had I managed all those years without the Internet? Naturally, I put my cell to use and checked in on my father and Marge – everything was a go for the following day.

Nagging me was the thought I was missing something.

The following morning, I called Norm and I went over to see him. There was no mistaking him; even his mannerisms were a flashback to our childhood days. We spent an hour over coffee and Karen invited me to return with my father and Marge for lasagna that night.

That afternoon, when I went to pick them up, I brought along my laptop, knowing the airport would have wireless. I was connected again. When I finally got to my 200 unread emails, I wondered why I had been in such a rush to see them. Had I lost interest? Perhaps the warm weather had something to do with it; maybe it was being too far away to do much anyway. Could vacation mode be setting in?

It wasn’t.

It had just taken some distance and some time and renewing a friendship to realize what kind of connections really have value.


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