My first assignment back on the road was picking up a car in Maryland to drive to Bonita Springs, Florida. I flew to Baltimore, then took a train way outside of town, nearly to the northern Maryland border. There I was met at the train station by elderly Mrs. Sherman, who lived in a nearby town that no trains, buses, or rental cars ever visited.
"Climb in, and be quick about it. We have a long ride ahead of us," she told me. This was confusing, for I had measured the distance at 14 miles from the train to her town. And for someone who seemed to be in a hurry, she never drove more than 30mph, even though the speed limit was 50mph.
As we pulled into her small, quaint town, she announced, "I am going to give you a tour of my little town now, which you will want to thank me for. Tell me your name again?"
"One more time?"
"Bill, of course. Bill, I am 92 years old and I still have a lot of years ahead of me." She paused and nodded.
"That's great, good for you."
She looked at me with a hurt expression. "Please don't interrupt me, Bill, I'm trying to give you a tour. Now, over there is where someone very famous once gave a speech during the Civil War. Do you know who that was?"
"No, Mrs. Sherman."
"Oh dear. I was hoping that you would know, I seem to have forgotten. Now, if you look out your window to the right, you'll see the spot where General George Washington crossed the Delaware. Do you know why he crossed there?"
"Because it was the most narrow part of the river. By the way, George Washington went on to become our first President of these United States." We drove past a park where a large group of geese were congregating. "Look over there, Bill. Those are Canadian geese that you see. Now I know what you're thinking, they look like ducks, but they are not. Those are Canadian geese."
"Yes, ma'am." Moments later, we pulled into her driveway, and she said to come inside the house so she could give me a tour.
"Bill, I have a nice home here and one in Florida. And the reason is that I married three very wealthy men and outlived them all. Of course, I didn't plan it that way, it's just the way things turned out. They died. But I am still very much alive."
I had her sign the paperwork, then began my journey down to Florida. It was rather uneventful, except for her phone calls to me once an hour. "Bill, where are you now? And how is my car doing? Do you have plenty of gas?"
On the second day, she called to see when I would be meeting her in Florida. I asked what time she'd get to Bonita Springs.
"Well Bill, I am flying into the Ft. Myers airport, so you can pick me up there and drive me to Bonita Springs."
"I'm very sorry Mrs. Sherman, but the company will not allow me to take passengers when I'm driving a car. It's an insurance issue."
"Don't worry about it, Bill. Your boss said it would be OK."
So I called the boss Riff to verify this, and he laughed and told me that they never had any such conversation. Then Riff said, "She's just trying to avoid taking a cab, that would run her nearly $100 for that distance. You know what, go ahead and pick her up at the airport, help an old lady out."
"I don't mind, as long as you've cleared it."
The next day, I timed it to be at the airport exactly as she came off the plane, and drove around and around until she walked out. She seemed very surprised to see me, and asked, "How in the world did you get here just as I walked out?"
"I'm good at my job."
"Yes you are. You certainly are. And no one can say differently. Now, let me show you some of the interesting sights on the drive down to Bonita Springs." There was not a lot to see on the Interstate highway we were on, but she pointed to trees and told me what kind they were. And she also kindly identified some birds she saw, or perhaps thought she saw. Though she swore she saw a flock of pink flamingos crossing in front of us on I-75, I did not see them.
As we pulled into the driveway of her condo complex, she asked me how I intended to get out of Bonita Springs. "I'll take a city bus to Avis rental cars, then drive to Miami to pick up my next car."
"OK, Bill, well you just unload my car for me and then you can be on your way."
"I'm very sorry, Mrs. Sherman, but we aren't allowed to ever touch a customer's private belongings. It is a very strict rule, so the company won't be liable for anything."
"Oh now don't you worry, I spoke to your boss and he said it would be fine."
Well, I didn't want to pull out my cell phone and call Riff. So I made an executive decision there on the spot. For goodness sake, this lady was 92, and I do have a heart. And that heart was tugging at me.
What I didn't count on was just how much stuff she had. The backseat was loaded, but then I opened the trunk. A big Cadillac can have lots of trunk space, and she had some huge suitcases fully loaded. And one steamer trunk. Snowbirds pack heavily. I started with the first load, and she told me that her unit was on the third floor, just next to the elevator. When I arrived at the elevator doors on the first floor, I found a large sign "OUT OF ORDER." Which of course meant that I had to carry all of her stuff up the stairs. It was a rare hot and humid day in south Florida, and I was sweating enough to fill a swimming pool.
After ten trips, I was drenched, and my clothes were plastered to me. I went to Mrs. Sherman to have her sign the paperwork so I could go. As she opened her purse, she said to me, "Thank you so much. Now Bill, I can tell that you are a man of integrity, and that is why I will not insult you by offering you a gratuity." She pulled a tissue out of her purse and dabbed her forehead with it. "Have a grand and wonderful day."
I picked up my duffel bag and started to walk to the bus stop. And I wondered if when she told me that she wouldn't insult me with a gratuity, maybe I should have said, "I spoke to my boss and he said it would be OK."