Dinner with a Legend

Former DOT Secretary and Congressman from California Norm Mineta (Right)
who is a legend, and Me, the guy who has never done anything worthwhile (Left). 
Friday the 13th is usually considered a day of bad luck, things going wrong and general ill winds. However, on Friday the 13th, of December 2019 the day would become an unforgettable good one for me.

The day before I got a text from my buddy, fellow ERAU alumnis and author Bob Brantner. He had spoken to me a few weeks earlier asking if I wanted to attend the annual Wright Memorial dinner with him and his dad, former DOT Secretary Norman Y. Mineta- who very much prefers to simply be called "Norm." It would be a "black-tie" event and the tickets were $250... each. Of course I could hand out a few business cards and deduct the ticket cost, but that term "black-tie" was like scratching a blackboard to me (for those of you who do not recall what a blackboard is, the reference used here indicates a very annoying noise that causes a shiver to run up your spine. - Advice from a boomer to the generation know-it-all, yet experienced nothing). My normal formal wardrobe involves jeans, sneakers and a CCM Hockey T-shirt. I suggest to Bob that I'd probably pass on the offer. On Thursday morning, however, he hit me with a text saying that his dad had bought six tickets to the event and two people had dropped out, so now I had a free seat and if need be, just a suit and tie would be fine. I said I'd have to contact Teresa and see what she had scheduled for Friday.

Texting my wife I outlined the situation. Now, she has been working as an FAA contractor at several different companies since 1990... she replied, "NORM! You GOTTA GO!!!" I responded that I did not have tux. She fired back, "It's Norm Mineta. RENT ONE!" Then a moment later she sent another message saying that I did to have a tux- "Look in your armour."  I went to the armour and began sliding back the "good shirts," ties and dozen hockey jerseys all of which were waiting for countless years steeped in the atmosphere of cedar wood. There against the back wall was a single hanger with a plastic bag-draped item that had not been disturbed since New Years Eve 1999... it was my long forgotten tux that was older than both of our children.

Of course the first question was... does it still fit? Pulling it out, the pants, jacket and shirt amazingly still fit. In fact the pants were slightly large. Examining the jacket closely I found one small moth hole on the sleeve so tiny that no one would notice. Next I dug out the shoes... the damned things fit too! My only issue was that the shirt collar was too small to button. The tie would hide that. I was in business and I quickly texted Bob and told him to count me in.

Friday morning I decided to get a start by putting some badly needed polish on the shoes. Opening the can I found what had once been the polish was now dried up and cracked, looking very much like a lunar sample that had just been re-opened after a half century. Additionally I found that I did not have a plain white T-shirt! Every shirt that I had was garnished with some sort of block writing or insane image. It was sure bet that people looking at the front of my tux shirt would be able to read "WKRP in Cincinnati" in red letters right through it! It struck me that I was a long way from my days as a corporate pilot where the shoes were shined and the ties were ironed. Thus it was a dash to Walmart. Now... just try to find a package with one, size L mens crew neck T-shirt, in that place. All that was on the shelf was the packages of 8 or 6 and most were size 3XL... which I guess was the hottest seller at Walmart along with the wife-beater shirt because they had plenty of them. Finally, after strolling around a bit and digging up to my elbows I found a pack of two! The shoe polish was easy, but as I picked up the can I heard one of the other shoppers mumble, "What the hell do ya' use that for?" Apparently our wardrobe normality was similar.
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That afternoon with freshly polished shoes I donned my tux which felt happy to finally be out of the armour. Yet I considered that I'd be way more comfortable in my hockey gear, but had hope that I may somehow blend in with the black-tie crowd. Teresa was, as always, working from home on Friday as I stepped out of our room and into the living room to show her how I looked and with the hope that she'd catch any glaring errors. Of course since she was working from home, I was pretty much invisible. I cleared my throat to get her attention. She looked over, smiled slightly and twinkled her fingers to indicate either "good bye," or "get lost" I'm never sure which.

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Driving to meet the rest of the party I stopped at a red light and the guy next to me looked over as if to say, "humph... a waiter." Then navigating to Norm's house, my amazing Google navigation gave me a last moment wrong turn and I found myself in the driveway of a dilapidated country house with two disabled rusting pickup trucks and a mountain of trash in the year. The rusting screen door had a hand-scrolled sign hanging on it that read "BEWAR OF DOG."

I knew that Norm was a down to earth sort of guy, but that could not be his house. A quick call to Bob got me turned back in the right direction and soon I joined the Mineta team. In the gang, which was led by Norm Mineta, were  Bob, who was directing activities, plus Patrick McCarthy, Kaylee Downen-Pizzonia, and Don Knight.

The Mineta gang (L to R) Norm Mineta, Patrick McCarthy,
Kaylee Downen-Pizzonia, Bob Brantner, Don Knight, Me.

The great Mark Usciak
and some other guy...
ummm... me.
 After the normal struggle with DC traffic we arrived at the hotel and the event. I was sure that I would not see anyone there that I knew outside of our group. As I was going up the escalator to the reception, I looked down and coming up was my long time space pal and photographer Mark Usciak! I greeted him at the top and he was surprised to see me too. "Where are we," he asked rhetorically, "Tuscon? KSC? Houston?" From there the night evolved from slightly awkward to fantastic. I quickly found that people in aviation and space all see Norm as a superstar. Everyone wanted to shake his hand, greet him and have their picture taken with him. As I recall nearly every speaker that night mentioned his name and the spotlight shined down on our table as the crowd applauded. When selecting seats, Bod sat next to his dad and told me to sit on the other side of Norm. I felt highly honored. As we ate dinner, Norm engaged me in friendly conversation- everyone can take a lesson in charm from him, including me.

Of course plenty of pictures were taken. The only problem was that they had the ball room bathed in burning blue light- so we all looked purple. My later solution was to transform my photos into gray scale.

Mike Collins got this year's Wright trophy award and he spoke to the crowd. In typical Mike Collins fashion his plain-spoken, humor-laced speech had us all in the palm of his hand. I met General Collins for the first time last summer at Spacefest. I got the chance to tell him that his book, "Carrying the Fire" was what inspired me to become a writer, and later the author of more than two dozen books and counting. In the summer of 1977 as I was preparing to head off to Embry-Riddle and become a professional pilot, I read his book cover-to-cover. I said to myself, "Gee... the guy who wrote this is an astronaut and a pilot. If he can write, I can too." For some reason that solidified my deep belief that you don't have to do just one thing in life.

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Unlike my friends Bob and Mark, who often attend black-tie events, for me, the Polack kid from the wrong side of the Saginaw River, such is extremely rare. I have to thank Bob and especially Norm for this chance for me to mingle among aviation's elite. As I repacked my tux this evening I told my wife I would need a new shirt for it. She just smiled and said, "Whenever you get invited to another tux event, we'll get you a new shirt," we were both certain it'll not be anytime soon.

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