I wasn’t sure what I would find once I hit northern Virginia, but the task at hand definitely required my undivided attention given the wicked crosswind hitting I-70 as I took the onramp east from I-25 south. The dry snow from the storm earlier in the week was now blowing across the road in white sheets of limited visibility that continually pushed and pulled at the trailer I was pulling. A particularly fierce gust shoved the trailer sidewise, almost perpendicular, for a long scary moment as I removed my foot from the gas, gripped the steering wheel tighter and instinctively steered into the skid from the opposite direction because of the trailer.
It worked like a charm, though I still don’t know how I didn’t bite the big one that morning.
Thirty hours later, I hit the DC metro following an hour and a half of white-knuckle driving on the Pennsylvania Turnpike with countless semi-trucks blasting by me from out of the darkness at my back, the wind from their passage buffeting both truck and trailer. My final destination was Caleb’s three-story townhouse in Alexandria, Virginia, that he shared with his wife Joanne and son Julian. My brother Jon was living in their guest room, and I would be taking up residence on the basement sofa. My stuff would be going into a storage unit the next day just as soon as I could secure one.
I backed my trailer into an illegal spot near his front door and disconnected my truck to park nearby. I had been out the previous May to brainstorm our new venture and be there when Julian was born. I was on an Arby’s run when Joanne went into labor. I also took an opportunity to drive out to Blacksburg, Virginia, where the Duprees were living with their new baby daughter while Kent attended Virginia Tech on the Enlisted Commissioning Program, not far from Dakota’s hometown of Roanoke. Kent’s goal was to become a fighter pilot and that is exactly what happened a few years later when he went to Navy flight school. Approaching retirement now, he is a Lieutenant Commander who has flown F-18s for the last decade and some change.
Caleb and Jon were waiting for me at the front door with wide grins and a beer. We hugged it out and stashed my stuff in a corner of the first level living room that doubled as Caleb’s home office. The beer went a long way toward curing the highway eyes I had developed after driving 16 hours straight. I did have a small stash of some tasty buds I procured in Denver. We used the one-car garage that also occupied the first level of the home, though it would not go over well with Caleb’s wife then or into the future. It wasn’t the first (and wouldn’t be the last) time we got into something that didn’t go over well with our respective wives.
Our company had been officially rolling since Caleb talked a local entrepreneur into buying his idea for a website catering to security-cleared tech jobs and candidates. They paid $50,000 for the intellectual property, though the partnership agreement they secured required us to sublease part of their office space and started eating into the capital right away. What small victory we attained was almost immediately mitigated by the drain on our modest revenues. It was one of a few critical mistakes my partner made when it came to managing our cash flow and growth over the coming year and a half. We were victims of all the stuff he didn’t know that he didn’t know.
We hoped to find a never-ending spigot of clients for our digital marketing firm focused on high-tech recruiting only to find a front-row seat to the Dot.com Bomb instead. It became obvious that we couldn’t keep the lights on by earning nickel-and-dime revenues from our corporate “partners” as they picked up our creative genius at fire-sale prices and then cash our checks for the sublease we couldn’t afford. Jon did his best to keep up, but we were playing jazz and there was little room for on-the-job training. By July of 2001, Jon decided to head back to Colorado to start his bachelor’s degree in sport’s medicine at Colorado State University.
* * *
I flew back to San Diego on September 9, 2001 in order to conclude my lawsuit on September 10 with the insurance company representing the Mexican restaurant where their waiter had knocked me out and fractured my cheekbone a year earlier. My one witness to the assault never provided confirmation of my side of the story, so I was being forced to accept just enough of a settlement to pay my attorney and leave a couple grand in my pocket. I was so broke by the time my lawyer called with the offer that it seemed like manna from Heaven. He paid for the plane ticket and rental car and added it to my tab. I stayed in touch with Cesar since leaving the Navy and knew he was on deployment in Japan, so the apartment we once shared stood empty and paid for. He let me stay there while I was in town for the paperwork drill even though the electricity was turned off.
I woke up the morning of September 11 around six to the ringing of my mobile phone on the bedside table in the bed I bought when I moved in five years earlier in what used to be my bedroom. I had fallen asleep the night before reading by the dim glow of a clip-on book light. My plane wasn’t leaving until ten and the rental car company was literally two minutes away from the apartment, so I planned on getting a few more hours of shut-eye before heading out. The first words out of Mom’s mouth were “Have you seen the news?”
I pulled myself out of bed and got dressed quickly in the dark and chilly house while mom related the attacks that had just taken place in New York City. Two planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers. Two more planes were still flying with hijacked passengers and crew. It was a surreal series of events that was confirmed by the radio in my rental car. As the sun brightened the eastern horizon, we listened to the coverage together and discussed what I would do now that all the airports had been closed. The beep of call waiting answered that question when my attorney rang in. I said goodbye to my mom, promised to be in touch and switched over.
Chip knew I was scheduled to fly to Washington DC that morning and wanted to know what my plans were now. I confessed that I had no plan beyond hunkering down in an apartment without electricity until the airports opened. He said that wouldn’t do and gave me directions to his house. I would be his guest until the airports reopened. I packed my stuff and closed my friend’s house back up before heading to Chip’s modest suburban ranch-style for the duration of my stay in San Diego. It would only be a couple days before the FAA allowed the nation’s airports to reopen, but it was more than long enough to turn my attorney into a friend as we hung out and barbequed and drank beers and speculated about the attacks like the rest of America.
Back in Washington DC, not much had changed despite the new entrance being built at the Pentagon. Our company had taken a radical turn, however, when the one-way relationship we had with our “partners” became too much to bear and the technical recruiting market all but dried up. Rather than subjecting ourselves to an hour commute each way to the boondock suburb of Herndon, I suggested we run the reformed and more generalized digital marketing firm, now called Wilson-Miller, out of Caleb’s basement until we get some traction. He had different plans and as managing partner secured a pricey shared-office space near the King Street Metro in Old Town Alexandria instead.
His reasoning was Fake It Until You Make It. Spending dough on swanky digs with a killer view of the Masonic Temple and an extensive terrace was part of setting the right tone for our new venture.
It wasn’t a totally unreasonable strategy except for our lack of cash-flow and the added pressures of debt without revenue stressed the venture beyond recovery. Our respective personalities also made things difficult when it came to forging a partnership built on mutual respect. I was the one with the technical and creative skills to deliver on the strategic direction and brand story that Caleb would craft. He also made most of the sales but almost by accident it seemed. It would take years to develop the top-dollar business development skills he enjoys today.
What that has meant over the years is my feeling like I do most the work for half the dough and him feeling like half the dough is just barely enough compensation for bringing the work in the door and helping develop the creative direction. We were both probably a little bit right and had the revenue been high enough many of our difficulties could have been avoided. Neither of us are greedy, but when it comes to questions of basic security we are pure alpha male. I purchased a condo not long after my return from San Diego, so there was a minimum amount of money needed to stay current with that and my truck payments. Caleb had similar responsibilities with the addition of a wife and baby son to take care of, so the pressure-cooker we found ourselves in as 2001 turned into 2002 was quite extreme.
The main problem remained a lack of large accounts to offset the debts we incurred while faking it and not making it.
* * *
Robbing Peter to pay Paul caught up with us eventually and the office space became too much to handle. I don’t recall the precipitating event, but I believe Caleb was offered a job as the vice president of recruiting for an Internet start-up and really couldn’t afford not to take it. Parting as friends seemed much more important than continuing on as partners, though it wouldn’t be the last time we attempted to conquer the world as masters of our own destiny.
We emptied out our space one Saturday morning when the building was empty, and we wouldn’t have to answer a lot of questions about our next steps. Two large cherry desks and a bookcase stayed behind and the few pieces of Ikea furniture we had purchased fit into the back of my truck. We concluded with a couple large boxes full of odds and ends. It was like we had never been there within an hour. Wilson-Miller was also gone as if it had never been when Caleb went off the conquer the world with an innovative media startup, and I started looking for work of my own since I had a truck and condo to support.
I managed to cobble together enough contracts to limp along for a couple of months, but my heart wasn’t in it. I was a screenwriter, after all, with one whole script under my belt, a few new scripts in progress and ton of creative potential going to waste in Washington DC. I needed to be in Los Angeles, I concluded one morning, and set out to make it happen as soon as humanly possible. There was a better than even chance I could get into something new with just a little bit of luck to go with my new web skills.
First, I needed to do two things simultaneously.
I had to sell my condo to get free, though in hindsight I probably should have kept it and rented it out instead since it was in a great complex in a desirable neighborhood that was just going up in value. I wasn’t really in a position to think long-term and was already starting to fall behind on my bills. The mortgage would be next with the way things were going. I found a real estate agent somehow and before I knew it the condo was on the market. Not long after that, I had a full price offer that would allow me to break even, if only barely.
I tapped into the network I had been building since my time in the Navy. A former shipmate, another journalist from Combat Camera, was being stationed in Los Angeles soon and was hoping to find a roommate. JO1 Doug Hauser would be working with the entertainment industry every day on films in production as well as providing a practiced Navy eye for scripts in development at the Navy Public Affairs Center in LA. Since he would be working with Hollywood executives every day, he was confident he could make some introductions for me. He found a two-bedroom townhouse in Huntington Beach that was affordable, and I sent him a check for my half of the security deposit as well as half of the first month’s rent.
I packed the stuff that would coming with me, basically everything that would fit under the cover custom-painted to match my dark green truck, and let my friends take their pick from the stuff that remained, including the furniture that prompted the U-Haul trailer a year and a half earlier when I left San Diego. The week before the scheduled closing date and my departure for the west coast, the buyer’s financing fell through and all of a sudden I still owned a condo I could no longer remotely afford. I was running on fumes and had just enough juice to finance an uncertain landing in Los Angeles.
My only hope was my agent would find another buyer before my meager supply of money ran out or that I would find a gig in LA making enough to take the strain of paying for two households. Neither of those overly optimistic predictions came true, though I was able to unload the condo a few months later without too much fuss when my agent’s daughter got wind of the property and mom sacrificed her commission to complete a short sale with a mortgage company that kept pushing the closing to nail me with added interest payments to punish me for missing a couple of mortgage installments while I tried to sell the place.
Months before that blessed event, I crossed my fingers and bounced according to schedule. I once again drove across the country with all my stuff tucked under my shell. I once again stopped in Colorado on my way west for a visit with family. My brothers Jon and Steve were attending Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Jon lived in a house with a bunch of other students not far from campus. I wouldn’t say it was a shit hole, but it could have used a good scrubbing. Steve lived in much better circumstances with my folks and drove into school about thirty minutes away.
I was happy to come through in the summer because I could play a couple of rounds of golf with Steve, a scratch golfer who always gave me good tips when we hit the links. We played a round in downtown Loveland that was okay, but the executive course we played in Estes Park was amazing. Massive, snow-covered peaks stood in the distance while foothills closer by provided tight lies and small greens to test our skills. Mine were rudimentary to say the least, but Steve was a great teacher and inevitably had a tip that made my game better.
Our time together actually inspired a reality television show that would redefine the genre. “Weekend Golfer” had a regular guy like my brother who visited a different course each week somewhere in the world to play a round with a guest PGA pro, the course pro and another regular guy or gal selected via submissions taken online. The foursome would play their round and offer tips to the special guest that would apply to the broader audience. Both a travel show and a how to guide for weekend golfers, the show would seek to make reality television real again. Steve is a stay-at-home daddy like I am these days, but his two girls are just now starting school, so the show is could be possible with a little creative scheduling.
I had no idea what to expect when I got to Los Angeles and made my way toward Huntington Beach. LA metro is so immense that it’s hard to wrap your mind around it until you try to get from one side to the other and two hours later you’re still driving with city on either side of your car without a single break in the urban scenery. I had visited the area a couple of times while stationed in Navy. The first time had been to get pictures from Tony Curtis’ son after I interviewed the famous actor via telephone while standing quarterdeck watch at Submarine Development Squadron 5. The four-hour call that covered his journey as a sailor in World War II stationed on a submarine tender in Guam to one of Hollywood’s leadingest men and still ranks as my favorite interview as a journalist.
A few years later, I was half of the two-man team tasked with developing the plans for covering Ronald Reagan’s funeral in Simi Valley. Apparently, the Nixon coverage had not gone well and our new commander wanted to be better prepared. The initial viewing would take place at his presidential library before the body was moved to Washington DC for the official services via military cargo plane out of a Naval Air Station near Ventura. I was paired with a senior chief photographer’s mate who drove us from San Diego to Point Mugu where we would be staying. Our job was to shoot test footage and images inside the library and at other locations to determine the number of active duty and reserve Combat Camera personnel necessary for the task. Once we understood the size of the crew needed for coverage, we had to locate enough lodging to house that many people at a moment’s notice. It was a pretty cool way to spend a couple days and to know the work I did was partially responsible for the smooth event I witnessed via television from Washington DC.
I arrived in Huntington Beach to find the situation had been modified by one very important data point. Instead of two single guys sharing a place and taking on the entertainment industry via guerrilla assault, his new girlfriend would be living with us. I immediately understood that this was the beginning of the end of my living arrangement, but I went with the flow just the same given my lack of available choices and everything I own being packed into my truck, so it was unsuitable as an alternative home.
Time to find some work.