Tuesday, September 29, 2009

September 2009: Significant Dates & Times

9-9-09: No this letter is, thankfully, NOT about my dating life oh so long ago. It is rather about significant dates and times. Why write about this? What motivated me to write about this in September of 2009?

The idea came to me on September 8th. I realized that the next day was 9-9-09. I was thinking about two things. First, what could I do at 9-9-09 at 9:09 am or pm to make it memorable? Second, as I was thinking of all these nines, I realized why 9-9-09 was more significant to me than 1-1-01, 2-2-02, and so on through 8-8-08.

What is it about the nines that made me decide to write this letter? Quite simply, it was my involvement in one of the greatest wastes of time in my working career: Y2K.

I was on the Y2K team of the Latin American Division of Colgate-Palmolive. Paul Neal led the team. I was in charge of Logistics, Tom Rochford headed up manufacturing, Augusto Ogando purchasing, and Stephen Sanders was our IT lead. Paul and Tom are readers of this letter.

Back in the late 1990s, a fear arose that when the clock changed from 1999 to 2000, many computers and programs would stop working or grind to a halt. The basis for this fear was that when personal computers became popular most were operating under a time and date function that stopped at 12-31-99. To save space in the early days they used a two digit designation for the year. So, after 99 came 00. Would computers freak out and think 1-1-00 was January 1, 1900 instead of January 1, 2000.

Furthermore, in the early days of programming, 999 or 9999 was the line number of the end of a program i.e. 999 END. Also, in many programming conditions, the if-then-else statements in programs that drive different scenarios, one option used a lot was “…ELSE GOTO 999.” Often the if-then parts of these statements had something to do with dates. So, the fear was that the GOTO 999 clause would be invoked often as the clocks changed. 9999 was also used as the code for an unspecified date, so 9-9-99 was the first worrisome date as the millennium approached.

We are so dependent on computers and micro-processors embedded in everything, there was a fear that the infrastructure could grind to a halt. Electricity generation might stop. Telecommunications might go down. Planes could cease operating and might even fall out of the sky. It became a very real fear. It became real enough that every major company, Colgate-Palmolive included, created a senior level VP office dedicated solely to Y2K mitigation.

So, I was on the Latin American Y2K team. Our Finance VP had executive responsibility for Y2K within the division. He recruited us for the project and named us “the Gold Team” indicate to everyone that we had put our best people on the team. On the team, we figured it was just a ploy to make us feel good about what we thought was a nonsense, make work, and money wasting assignment. As we all know, nothing happened. NOTHING HAPPENED.

Something, somewhere in the world, should have gone wrong. For all the mitigation large corporations did, I was absolutely certain some poorer countries did nothing. So, I reasoned there should have been a minor glitch somewhere. Let’s say Nigeria, Armenia, or any other place where they did not have the money to fund such a project and thus did nothing. As already stated: nothing happened.

I was watching the television news on December 31, 1999. I watched the New Year turn in Asia first and then Europe. There were only reports of celebrations and festivities. There were no reports of any issues. No electrical blackouts, no planes falling out of the sky, nada, zip, zilch.

We went to a house party that evening. We left early because I had to be at work early the next day, New Year’s Day, to go through our reporting drill. I recall being at a the train platform on New Year’s Day waiting for the train. There were twenty or thirty of us sad sacks waiting for the 6 am train. All of us, brief cases slung over our shoulders, heading into New York to go through the same lame exercise.

It was pretty hilarious. We had a war room stocked with a satellite phone in case communications were compromised, lanterns should the electricity go out, and enough food to last six of us a week should the problem be really severe.

We went through our scheduled phone conferences with each subsidiary. No issues. No problems. No nothing.

Then, the hotline rang. It was a phone dedicated to emergencies only. When I went to answer it, I caught the power cord of my laptop with my foot and my computer fell to the floor, mangling the keyboard. This was the only computer issue that I heard of at all and it was an accident. The emergency call? Our team in Colombia was calling in for their scheduled call and simply dialed the wrong number.

Because it was 9-9-09, I emailed the members of the Y2K Gold team with who I was still in touch: Paul Neal and Tom Rochford. I copied the members of the corporate team: Bob Martin, the VP, and the logistics folks Jim Davis and Ron Smart. I reminded everyone that this was the last check-point day in the project. I asked what the call schedule and protocol was as I had misplaced that information in the ensuing years. We all had a good laugh. Most commented that only I would have remembered this. How could I ever forget?

9-11-09: September 11th is an entirely different kind of day. It is one of those dates, 9-11-01, in which you remember exactly where you were and what you were doing when the planes were hijacked and crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City.

While I worked in New York City back then, I was not in New York on that date. I had flown to Brazil that Sunday as part of a task force looking at Logistics and Distribution systems in the Colgate subsidiary there. I had other business there on Monday. The task force began its work on Tuesday, morning, September 11.

We were just in the middle of the opening presentations when Luciano Sieber came into the conference room and told us that a plane had just crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. After a few minutes of wondering how that could have happened, we went back to work. A few minutes later, Luciano came back in and said another plane had crashed into the second tower. As we were trying to comprehend this, the wife of Charlie Catlett, our VP of Manufacturing in Brazil, called his cell and told him that Washington, DC was under attack. Needless to say our meeting stopped for the day.

We did begin our meeting again the next day and somehow accomplished our mission and delivered a very good action plan. Each night, we had a quick dinner and went back to our rooms to watch CNN, call home, and read about the events on-line. It was surreal.

We did not know if and when we would get back to the States. At first, there were no flights at all within the US and, certainly, no international flights as well. I called our Security Office in NY, I was told not to fly any American carriers but to only take foreign carriers. So, if and when we were to fly home, it had to be Varig or TAM. As the week progressed, we learned that US carriers were getting priority over foreign carriers. At first, we felt like we were going to be in Brazil for a few weeks.

I had a wedding I had to play at in New Jersey that Sunday, September 16th. Would I get back in time to play? It was my band and I was a little worried. I called the groom who had hired us. I first asked if the wedding was still on. It was. Luckily, no one on either side of the wedding was killed in the attacks. Then I told him of my predicament and not to worry. I called Raffi Bandazian who was willing to fill in should I not get back.

We were scheduled to fly back on Friday night. On Friday, we packed and brought our luggage to the office. During the day, we called American Airlines in Brazil and in the US, trying to find out if our flights to the US were going to go or not. We kept getting maybes. They advised getting to the airport three hours early.

We did as we were told. Luis Solana and I were the first people at the counter… which, of course, were unmanned. We stood there and waited. The line formed behind us as time passed. At some point, just about when, the American Airlines employees were getting organized behind the counters, a CNN Portuguese film crew was there interviewing people. I got an email the next day from friends in Brazil saying they had seen me on TV.

Our flight was the first to leave Brazil for the US. We were two hours late, but we went. The mood on the plane was most somber. As it was American Airlines with a New York based flight crew, the crew knew their colleagues who had perished. I vividly recall landing at JFK the next looking out the window at both the smoke plume still coming from the World Trade Center site and the F-16s escorting our approach.

9-16-09: I played at the wedding on September 16th. It was at a country club in New Jersey. It was a most gorgeous, blue sky, and perfect temperature day as you can imagine. After all the chaos, fear, and angst caused by the attacks, people were more ready for a positive life affirming event like a wedding. It was truly a memorable wedding for everyone involved and we felt it at the moment.

September 16th is also Mexican Independence Day. Most Americans falsely believe the 5th of May, Cinco de Mayo, is Mexican Independence Day. Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Battle of Puebla.

While I admire Mexico and appreciate the many friends I have there. I include this date because of the 2000 Presidential Election. In that race, Al Gore and George Bush were the Democrat and Republican candidates. Most remember the race for the close election in which the results were based on a counting fiasco of hanging chads in Florida and the Supreme Court ruling that awarded the Presidency to Mr. Bush. I remember the election for the references both candidates tried to make to Mexican Independence Day.

Al Gore made mention to a largely Hispanic audience that he had a grandchild born on the 4th of July and would be delighted to have another grandchild born on Cinco de Mayo, clearly believing that the 5th of May is Mexican Independence Day. George W. Bush later pointed out Gore’s gaffe by saying that Mexican Independence Day is in fact "el Dieciséis de Septiembre." Bush added his own error by translating the date as the 15th of September. I found it all pretty funny and have remembered it ever since.

9-19-09: This is a most important day for two reasons. First and foremost at least to me and my family, it is my Mother’s birthday!

Her name is Manoushag the Armenian word for Violet which is her “official” name. Yet everyone knows her as Itchie. It seemed that most Armenians of her generation had nicknames. They were so popular and numerous, I assumed everyone had nicknames. But that is only the case in the Philippines (maybe the subject of a future letter).

I was not able to spend the day with her. But she had a very nice day. My father took her to breakfast. Then they went to Milford to see my nephew and their grandson Kyle play tennis. He is on the JV team at Milford High School. My Mom is a lifelong tennis devotee, so this was good. They went and had lunch.

When I called to wish her happy birthday, they were not home. So, I sang Happy Birthday on their answering machine. When she called back, I learned that my Dad had taken her out for an ice cream cone. It sounds like she had a great day.

I am glad she had a great day. My Mother is a wonderful lady. Happy Birthday, Mom.
Secondarily to me, but far more important to a much larger group of people is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. This year Rosh Hashanah began at sunset on Friday, September 18 and ended at sunset on Sunday, September 19. We are beginning the Hebrew year of 5770. What a rich and long heritage. Shana Tova Umetukah, a good and sweet year, to all.

9-26-09: Out of all the days I have wrote about this month, this is a most special date for our family. It is the day that my son, Aram, married Anoush Varjabedian. Clearly this was the highlight of this month and a date we will note and celebrate moving forward. We had a wonderful time in New York City. We had a wonderful time and have memories that will last a lifetime.

There are many kinds of dates: There are days of numerical interest of curiosities like 9-9-09. Yet, they are relevant only in the modern calendar we all use. Does it mean anything in the Jewish calendar? Does it mean anything in Mayan or Chinese calendars?

Dates like 9-11 are critically important to those of us who lived through them. For those of us who lived through it, we all know where we were and what we doing. The significance of this date will fade with time just as December 7th and November 22nd have become in my opinion.
I am not entirely sure of any specific point I am trying to make, but I enjoyed writing this letter and reminiscing about Y2K and 9-11.

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