I hate Houston. If I hadn’t thought it was pretty damned important, I wouldn’t have gone there in first place. When Renken called me on the phone, asking could I please come down and take a look at some funky Russian medical treatment device, the first thing that ran through my mind was the picture of the herd of tiny livestock I’d tripped over in my hotel bathroom the last time I’d been there. As I reflect on it now, the thing that put me over the top was his promise that our first stop would be Bubba’s.
As much as I loathe Houston, I love Bubba’s. It’s a barbeque and ribs joint on the outskirts of town where some genius of African heritage cooks pork ribs that are transcendent. Unbelievable. So I said, okay, I’ll come down on Saturday, after I finish pouring the concrete countertop on my outdoor kitchen. He said he’d email the link to Southwest Airlines so I could print out my own boarding pass. And I said if I have to fly on Southwest, I’d rather take the damned bus. So he capitulated and bought an assigned seat on United. It’s not like it used to be, with decent food and all that, but it beats hell out of being crammed into a flying sardine can all the way to Texas.
I’ve known Renken for years. We met at a scientific conference in Las Vegas where I was presenting a paper about non-local field effects. The fact that mainstream science still operates in a context that refuses to acknowledge such things made the conference much more interesting than most of the other staid, stuffy affairs I’d been attending lately. Most of the time, whenever anyone talks about things like non-local field effects, mainstream scientists just turn off their brains and stick their head between their legs. Every once in a while, though, some genuinely bright and shiny newcomer gets the gist of it, so the effort to preach the gospel of a newly enlightened science occasionally pays off.
Normally, neophytes in the field make it a point to find a way to talk with me in private, in some secluded place, where no one they know will catch them keeping company with a heretic. Actually, I have come to prefer meeting in this way because I always learn more from such people than they do from me. And that was how I met Renken, in Las Vegas, while I was sitting alone.
The Venetian is one of those rare places in Las Vegas where you can actually sit in a quiet, comfortable place and carry on a conversation. The guy who designed and built it had the right idea. He built the hotel rooms so they are really two rooms in one. The bed and bath are on the upper level where the door opens. The lower level is set up for sitting, working, talking and watching television. After working in Vegas as a strategic planner for various high-tech companies over the past 25 years, I’ve made it a habit to stay at the Venetian whenever I can. It never disappoints.
They have an Italian restaurant there called Zeffirino Ristorante that is only accessible inside the hotel via gondola. I was eating there alone after presenting my paper when Renken wandered in, introduced himself, and sat down to join me. By the time we were ready to leave, we’d gone through more wine than I care to remember. But the conversation was stimulating.
One of the sub-topics I had addressed during my talk was about using non-local field effects to drive applications such as communications systems and electrical power generators. Renken told me that he had come into some pretty serious money recently and was in the market for some outlandish technologies, so he decided to come to Vegas and look me up. He said he had been referred to me by a mutual acquaintance, a guy named Walter Drew, now deceased but formerly of Henderson, Nevada, who had done some very profitable real estate deals with him before he died.
Walter and I had worked together for more than ten years after meeting at a little technology marketing company in Las Vegas called Ashurst Technology Corporation in the early ’90’s. He was one of the most thoroughly kind and decent people I have ever known. He married a Jordanian woman named Hannan Muhammed, whose father had been the Prime Minister of Jordan for a very long time. He had converted to Islam and changed his name to Habib, the lover. He was such a lovely man and an excellent partner. I figured if Renken had been suitable as a partner for Walter, he had to be okay with me.
Renken wasn’t like anyone else I had ever met before. Okay, he’s a died-in-the-wool Texican. That’s all right. No problem with that. I take Texans just as I find them, one at a time, up close and personal, just like I do with everyone else except ultra-conservative Republicans and religious fanatics. I made no exception with him and soon discovered that he is a naturally gifted guy who really knows how to create money, lots of it, without having to print it in his garage.
As with everyone I’ve ever known who has whiled away their best years chasing the evil dollar, Renken has some deep teeth marks embedded in his backside. Years after we first met, in an uncharacteristic moment of genuine circumspection, he disclosed that the dragon of regulated securities had taken a bite out of his butt not too many years before. I didn’t ask about the details because I figured if he wanted me to know that much about it he would get around to telling me in his own good time. Since he never got around to it I still don’t know exactly what happened, but I do know he did a stretch in a country club facility somewhere. Never thought much about it though, because I quickly discovered that he is a very capable and talented guy who has always been a straight-shooter with me. As far as I am concerned, that’s the only thing that really matters.
It usually takes about two and a half hours to fly from Salt Lake City to Houston. Last time I made the trip nothing worth talking about happened. When I went to the airport to catch the flight to Houston this time, the flight was forty minutes late because the weather in Houston was so unstable that the FAA was unwilling to clear the flight plan. While I was waiting to board the plane, a short, fat, bald guy wearing a two thousand dollar suit and a ten-thousand dollar wrist watch started badgering the lady at the boarding kiosk. The longer it took to get the doors open, the angrier he became. No amount of soothing numb-speak about weather fronts and passenger safety made things any better, so by the time they finally did open the doors to the jetway everyone was on edge.
As soon as the flight attendant announced the flight was about to begin boarding, he barged to front of the line and started waving his platinum credit card around, demanding that he be allowed to board first. When he started yelling at the flight attendant who was playing guardian at the gate, he got about ten words out of his mouth before two very large airport security guards descended on him. They didn’t say anything at all. They just grabbed Mr. Mouth by the arms, lifted him off the floor, and waltzed him out of the boarding area. We heard him yelling and screaming all the way down the hall. Sort of put a head on things before we got on the plane. And some of us applauded. It was quite a performance.
Renken never paid for first class tickets, so I sat halfway down the aisle in coach, next to a young Japanese woman who was dressed in a crisp black executive uniform with a white silk blouse and a very masculine looking hand-painted silk tie. She spoke impeccable English but it was clear from her accent that she was Japanese and not American. Our conversation started when she turned to me and asked if it would be all right if she put her computer bag on the seat between us. I long ago swore off trying to get any serious work done on airplanes, and since my computer was stowed in the overhead bin I told her it was no problem for me at all.
One thing led to another and I was surprised at how quickly the old language file in my head got re-booted. It has been more than 40 years since I was a high school kid living in Tokyo. While my air force dad was flying electronics intelligence missions against the Russian and North Korean radar sites in the mid-sixties, I was going to an American high school on the outskirts of Tokyo and learning to speak Japanese. After a couple of years my fluency in conversational Nihongo had become at least passable. As long as I stuck with the honorific word forms I found I could usually stay out of trouble by not offending too many people.
I asked her in Japanese if she was native born in Japan and she replied that she had been born in Osaka. Lovely place. Very civilized and not far from Kobe, one of my favorite places in the world. As we talked, I learned that she was a grand-niece to the founder of the Toyota Motor Company, currently studying international law at Stanford University. When I asked her why she was flying in coach, she simply smiled and told me that she saw no need to spend the extra money to fly first class. After all, a college girl in LA needs all the extra money she can get.
The old words and verb forms began to click back into place as we talked, and eventually I was able to return to a level of reasonable confidence with the language. I knew I was getting back into the zone when I stopped stuttering – I always stutter at first, no matter which foreign language I am trying to work with. But as with French and sometimes Russian, I discovered that after a couple of glasses of wine my sense of exposure recedes enough to let me talk without having to think about how to hang the words together. It’s a nice feeling.
When I asked why she was going to Houston, she hesitated for a moment. When she replied, I was a little surprised.
“My doctoral dissertation is about the global economics of oil,” she said. “Eventually, maybe within the next twenty years or so, the Pacific Rim countries will consume more oil than the US and EEU put together. And that is a big problem for us.”
“Not just for you,” I said.
“So, I am going to Houston to interview some top executives of major oil companies as part of my research project. I intend to discover, if I can, what they plan to do with the oil reserves they have under control right now, and what they plan to do to increase supply to meet future demands.”
It’s a fatal weakness I have always suffered from. I couldn’t help myself. Like lots of other scientists, engineers and technology integrators, I have been hacking away on the design of a zero point energy system for years. In the back of my mind, though, I keep asking myself the same disturbing questions and not coming up with any answers. Things like, if I actually succeeded in developing a way to produce electrical power so cheap that it wouldn’t be cost-effective to meter it, would I actually use it? And if I did, who would welcome it, benefit from it, support it? And who would resist it? Whose vested interests would be threatened by it? How would I strategically position the technology to respond to these issues?
Since Japan owns no oil resources of its own, I couldn’t resist the urge to ask the question. “What would you do,” I said, “if someone were to develop a new form of energy production that could effectively replace fossil fuels as an inexhaustible source of electrical power?”
She looked directly at me, almost through me, before answering. “If such an energy source ever becomes available,” she said, “we will be among the first to adopt it. Japan is entirely dependent on outside sources of petroleum. Every industry, every household, every automobile is powered by petroleum supplied by someone else. If we could break that stranglehold on our economy, Japan would be able to forge economic undertakings that would revolutionize the world.”
This lady was all business, totally serious, completely focused on this subject. And with the economic might of Toyota at her eventual disposal, it occurred to me that I might be sitting next to one of tomorrow’s global economic giants. For a moment, it was an exciting idea. But after I thought about it, I decided to let it go because the last thing I wanted to do was get tangled up in a conversation about the geo-politics of oil and energy production. That’s not my idea of a relaxing way to survive the terrors of air travel. Instead, I ordered another glass of wine, offered to buy her a drink, which she politely declined, and turned my eyes toward the window. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Off in the distance I saw the thunderheads building up over the Gulf. It was impossible to tell where Houston lay under all that weather but it was clear to me that we were probably going to have a bumpy landing. As it turned out, the landing was fine, but what happened just after we landed was not fine at all.
The newly renovated Hobby International Airport provides travelers with a virtually unrestricted view of the runways from the passenger loading and unloading areas. Huge glass windows rise more than 60 feet from the floor of the lobby to the viewing platform on the deck above. While I was waiting for my bags to chunk out of the mouth of the baggage lift and onto the revolving carousel, I wandered over to the windows to take a look at the weather.
Along with hundreds of other hapless travelers, I watched for awhile without really understanding what I was seeing. One moment the cloud cover reached down from the sky and blanketed the runway, so that we couldn’t see beyond the end of the jetway. In the next instant, the clouds raised up about three hundred feet, turned a funky kind of swamp green color, and then formed a flat, linear bottom underneath the cloud layer, as if someone had taken a giant trowel and swiped a straight line across the underside of the sky. Suddenly, we could see clear across the airport to the general aviation hangars nearly a mile way.
After about 30 seconds, I noticed that the huge windows soaring over our heads had begun to oscillate inwards and outwards like the skin of a huge bass drum – slowly stretching in and out as if they were breathing. And then it hit me – without waiting another second, I turned around and ran as fast as I could towards the center of the terminal building. When I got to the customer service desk, which is anchored to the brick sheer wall that supports the airport terminal, I scuttled around behind it and peeped up over the top. What I saw made my hair stand straight up.
The windows had begun to bulge in and out by nearly three feet at their center. I could feel the air pressure inside the terminal building shifting, compressing and decompressing in my ears with a slow, mournful cadence. All at once, a swirling finger of black cloud squirted down out of the bottom of the cloud cover and pierced the grass infield separating the two runways. Someone screamed “Tornado!” and most of the people who had been standing under the windows began to run back towards the wall. But there were many who simply stood there, utterly transfixed by what we were witnessing.
Almost as if it was being piloted by remote control, the funnel of the tornado ripped through the infield on a parallel course with the two runways. It took about 15 seconds for it to cover the spread from one end of the runway to the other, and then, just as suddenly as it had appeared, it simply vanished. While it was ripping its way across the infield, I noticed two things. First, I felt a powerful, deep vibration coursing up through the floor. Second, I could hear the tornado warning sirens blaring across the inner spaces of the terminal. And during all that time, while the tornado was tearing up huge chunks of sod and flinging them hundreds of yards out onto the runways, no one standing next to those huge windows moved a muscle.
When it was over, I walked over to the carousel and picked up my bags. In the midst of the herd of travelers, I walked as if nothing had happened, out through the double doors and onto the sidewalk outside.
It was only 11:15 in the morning. The air outside the terminal was hot and damp. For the first few breaths, I thought I was going to suffocate. Just about the time I figured out how to breathe again, a white Cadillac Eldorado pulled up in front of the curb and stopped. The driver was a very large, very white guy wearing a huge white cowboy hat and a Gold’s Gym t-shirt, which didn’t quite make it all the way over his tool shed. The interior of the car was shiny red leather, and honest to god, the damned thing actually had a set of Texas longhorns mounted to the hood.
The enormous guy at the wheel lifted his sun glasses off the bridge of his nose, peered at me for a moment as if trying to sort out who I was, and then motioned for me to come closer to the car. I couldn’t help but notice that even from 40 feet away, I could see food stains scattered across the bulging belly of his t-shirt.
“Hey, dude!” he shouted at me. “You James Karl and Renken’s guy?”
James Karl and Renken. Jitterbug Perfume. I couldn’t figure out if he was asking about some guys in a law firm or if some guy named James Karl was part of Renken’s posse.
“Well,” I said when I got up next to the car, “I’m here to meet with Randy Renken, if that’s what you’re asking.”
A big smile lit up his face. “Well, hell, climb on in here, then!” he said. “They’re waitin’ for you down at Bubba’s.”
I hucked my bags into the back seat and opened the massive passenger side door. As I stepped into the car, I noticed that it was totally impeccable inside.
“Your wheels?” I asked.
“Damn straight,” he said. “This baby’s just about the finest set of wheels in town, ask me.” He patted affectionately on the top of the white steering wheel with a massive hand. On the back of his ring finger I noticed a huge diamond encrusted ring. Very large. Very impressive.
“Super bowl?” I asked.
His smile was huge. “Yup!” he said. “Super Bowl thirty-one. Green Bay and New England.” He looked right at me and put out his hand. “Billy Ray Booker,” he said. “Welcome to Houston.”
When I took his hand, it felt like I had just inserted my whole hand into a catcher’s mitt. Large guy. Very big. Very strong.
“They said you weren’t big enough or fast enough to be as good as you were,” I offered.
The smile got bigger. “Yeah, well, what do they know? You ready for some ribs?”
“Damn straight,” I said. So off we went.