"And them good ole boys were drinking whiskey and rye
"Singin' this'll be the day that I die
"This'll be the day that I die."
-- American Pie by Don McLean
The van was parked in the empty lot of a small northern airport, but the nervous man behind the wheel kept the engine idling. He anxiously craned his head upward to scan the rapidly darkening sky for the airplane he was waiting to see. Despite heavy snow coming down, his instructions could not have been clearer: "We're coming! Don't be late!" Suddenly a blue flashing light danced off the front of his rear-view mirror. Turning to his side window to see what it was, he found himself staring into a gun leveled at his head by the imposing policeman standing by his van door. "Hands!" he yelled, "Let me see your hands!" The philosopher Michel Montaigne once said, "Death acquits us of all obligations," but the scared broker assigned to pick up the traveling Walmart real estate committee had only one thought as he exited the van with his hands raised: "If they land now and see this, I am indeed a dead man." Welcome to the sometimes strange and stressed-out world of Walmart real estate trips.
During the 1980s and 1990s, in my job at Walmart, I would travel once a month in the company plane, typically for three days, to tour sites that my real estate managers had selected for new locations. Joining us on those trips would be Rob Walton, the vice chairman and later chairman of Walmart; Tom Seay, the executive VP of real estate; as well as several others from other areas of the company and our department. We would land in the towns selected and spend about two hours touring the market while the real estate manager for that market would explain everything. We always traveled in a van, sometimes driven by a local broker the manager had employed. The pressure to do a good job was high -- which takes us back to the unfortunate broker with a gun pointed at his head.
The police were looking for a burglar last seen driving a white van. They quickly realized their mistake just as the Walmart entourage was approaching the van. Sensing his dilemma, the officer said "Don't worry. We'll tell them we I'm here to escort you for the tour through the snowstorm." So, with the police car leading the way, the van made its rounds through the market and then quickly back to the airport. "Well," said the officer to the broker as they watched the Walmart plane take off. "I thought that went great."
There was one trip that stands out where even a police escort wouldn't have helped. We were touring a small Pennsylvania town, and the site tour was a disaster. The manager had picked the wrong site, was poorly prepared and wasn't sure about alternate sites. Tom Seay held us to a high standard of performance and was quick to strongly dress down the unfortunate manager. As we drove back to the local airport, the atmosphere in the van was quiet and tense. After 10 minutes of painful silence, Carl Ownbey, who was my direct boss, had an idea to soften the dour mood. He flipped on the radio (which we NEVER played on trips) and the song American Pie came on. Carl started singing along. I'm thinking he has lost his mind. Suddenly our guest for the trip joined in, then the broker, and then to my surprise, Tom started singing as well. Finally, even Rob was humming along. We pulled in to the airport sounding like an episode of Glee.
So, if today's headlines have got you stressed, just remember that a chorus or two of American Pie might just be the solution. You never know who might join in.
NAN Our Town on 05/14/2020
Print Headline: And they were singin'