“I’m from a small town in Georgia. It’s called Dalton. It’s where all the carpet is made.”
That’s what I say when I meet someone out there elsewhere in the world. People from Dalton get around and we meet people. I don’t know how many remember meeting me but there are plenty that I remember meeting. And I’ve discovered a lot of people have heard of Dalton.
I’m sure you’re the same. I don’t always remember their names but I remember some something that sticks out about them; what they do or where they’ve been. Places we meet up with people and get to chatting for a few minutes include standing in line somewhere.
Whether it’s the line at Disney World or a restaurant we often strike up conversations. Another place we might talk with a stranger (and remember ... a stranger is just a friend we don’t know yet) is at the airport or on a jet. You’re kind of stuck on a plane for a while so sometimes people will chat with you. Other times they put on their headphones or turn away and read so you get the message they do NOT want to talk and do NOT care where you’re from, even if it is "The Carpet Capital of the World."
One time my wife and I were traveling by plane with our kids, and they were tiny at the time, one still in a bassinet. A sharp-dressed businessman got on the plane and sat down next to us. He took one look at the kids, pulled a pill out of his pocket, downed it with a gulp of water and in five minutes was sound asleep. It made me a little sad to think the guy would rather knock himself out rather than spend a few charming hours cramped in tiny seats getting to know me and my diaper-clad little ones. About the only place I try and avoid a conversation is in a doctor's office waiting room.
Friends in all kinds of places
Back in the 1970s when I was a wee lad, my family got some kind of tour package and we went to Jamaica. Even as a little kid I enjoyed meeting people and wasn’t too put off by adults. I was wading in the water just off the beach and there was this man nearby. Staying at the same place I figured I’d say hello and we got to talking. He spoke English but had an accent. He was from Europe.
He asked me where I was from and so, I said Georgia figuring he’d never heard of it and that it was a state just north of Florida. I figured everyone knows Florida. Then he said, “Georgia? Are you from Dalton?”
Freaked me out.
“How did you know that?” I asked him. It turned out he was from Belgium and worked for an industrial company that built tufting machines they sold for the carpet industry. In case you didn’t know, a lot of the machinery we use here making carpet and flooring is built by high-tech companies in places like Belgium and Germany. We talked for a while and I introduced him to my parents. My dad and him knew some of the same people and we made a new friend far from Dalton.
Another time I was waiting in a slow-moving airport line to check in my luggage. The man in front of me had these oblong-shaped hard cases. My curiosity got the best of me and I asked him what was in there and why were the cases so oddly shaped. They were about 4 feet long and shaped almost like a banana.
He told me because the items in the cases were very expensive and very delicate in certain ways he had had the cases custom designed and built in this odd shape so no other luggage would sit on them while they were flying from place to place. Because of the rounded nature of them, whatever was put on top of them would slide off to the side. Pretty ingenious, right? And what was inside these cases?
You’ve heard of radio controlled model air planes ... well these were radio controlled model jets. Miniature aircraft with miniature jet engines. I was amazed.
In talking with him it turns out he had been in the Navy and been among the first generation of drone pilots when drones where first coming out. They would be out in the middle of the ocean and he would fly the drone off the ship and out around the ocean as they experimented on the capabilities of the drone.
After the service he loved the flying so much he got into radio controlled aircraft (which is really a type of drone) and eventually moved into RC jets and made a living as an instructor on how to fly them. I don’t know how much RC jets cost now, but 25 years ago it was a rich man’s sport. And that’s exactly who his clients were — rich men.
One of his students was the son of a millionaire in Argentina. The millionaire had three sons. One was into car racing, one was into yachts and the third was into RC jets. You had to be rich to fly these things because you were going to crash a few of them before you got good at it and these things cost thousands and thousands of dollars.
Another student was a prince in the Middle East who would fly the jets around in the desert. To teach these guys, they would fly him to wherever they were and put him up for weeks at a time as he transformed them into RC jet jockeys. What a way to make a (good!) living.
More stories of meet-ups
Being from Georgia I’m not much of a snow skier but I do know how (thanks, Gatlinburg) and I have been a few times. One time I was on a ski lift riding up to the top of the mountain with another skier I didn’t know. The ski lift came to a stop probably because someone getting on or getting off had fallen and they were getting them out of the way.
While sitting there we got to talking and I found out he was in the service but he didn’t tell me which one. I asked if he had been anywhere out of the way and he told me he had been on a ship that was sent to the West African nation of Liberia.
Some rebels/bad guys were trying to take over the country and were moving toward the capital. The U.S. sent the ship to show support for the good guys. I slowly realized as he talked he wasn’t a sailor but must be some kind of special forces soldier.
I asked what happened, and he said not much as the rebels were eventually beaten back by the Liberian Army. But at one point the rebels had gotten close to the city and taken over a military installation. In the outpost there was a large 5-inch cannon, 5 inches being the size of the hole in the barrel where the shell comes out, if you’re keeping count. A gun that large posed a threat to the U.S. Navy ship out in the bay.
Without going into detail he let me know in no uncertain terms that one day the cannon was fireable, but that the next morning at dawn it no longer worked or posed a threat. Evidently, he left me to surmise, “somebody” and his “buddies” went in surreptitiously overnight and took out the ordnance. That story never made it to the papers, but it made it to me on the ski lift.
The next story takes place between ’09 and ’16, when President Obama was in office. I was flying to Washington, D.C., for a job and the company I was working with flew me up in first class ... a rare treat for me. Seated next to me was a tall, African American gentleman who was the best dressed man on the jet with the most expensive suit.
I had to ask him .... “Sir, pardon me for asking but you’re looking really sharp and headed to Washington. Are you a Congressman or a senator?”
That cracked him up. No, no he told me. He was president of a small college and was going for a meeting in Washington. I asked if he had been a college president before and he told me no, this was his first time. So I asked him if it was OK if I told my friends the truth, that I flew to Washington on a jet with the first-time African American president.
That cracked him up even more and he told me to go ahead but don’t lead them on too long or they’ll be asking favors of you. For the next two weeks after I got home I enjoyed telling everyone I came across the “flying with the President” story — handily leaving out the part about the college he was president of.
When you’re out there, say hi to someone and get to talking. I’ve found most folks are happy to chat. And I’ve found that everyone has a story to tell, if you’ll just listen.
Mark Hannah, a Dalton native, works in video and film production.