”I’m Going To Kansas City, Kansas City Here I Come…”


Wagon Train

Kansas City?  All I knew about Kansas City was that it was the gateway to the Great Plains.  I expected my drive westward on I-70 would carry me through barren plains, when suddenly, off in the distance, I would be able to see the rising skyline of a cowtown.  I was very wrong.

On Thursday, April 13, 1972, my boss came back to me with a “deal.”  I didn’t have to be in Kansas City on Monday, April 17.  I could arrive in the morning on Tuesday April 18, as the important meeting wasn’t until 2:00 PM.  This still wasn’t going to fly. As I was not going to be in the office on the next day, Friday, things needed to be wrapped up quickly.  My boss asked for two more hours.  Around 3:00 PM, he came back into my office with a big smile.  “Tom, I think we may have a deal.”  The “normal” relocation allowance permitted a spouse to travel to the new location and stay for two nights and three days to look for permanent housing.  The agency was going to let my bride travel with me to Kansas City on Monday, April 17. Additionally, they were going to put us both up at the Plaza Inn (a very nice hotel) for ten days as compensation for the lost honeymoon.  They never asked, and ISnowbound didn’t tell, but my original honeymoon was going to be a road trip to Charlevoix and Petoskey.  I got great rates on the rooms as both cities are still snowbound in April.  They were also going to throw in a salary bump to $14,700! What a deal!  I called my bride-to-be. Her only problem with it was leaving Michigan. I told her not to worry.  Kansas City was only a four-hour drive from Muskegon.  Any of you who know anything about geography will know that I was lying.  I needed to close the deal. She said yes.  I said yes.  I spent the rest of my day cleaning out my desk.  A friend drove me home (an apartment I had leased in Rochester) so I could leave the USS Enterprise in its docking bay.  The next five days were going to be interesting.

On Friday morning I drove up to Lansing to see my parents.  There was a letter waiting for me from the Selective Service!  Viet Nam was still a hanging sword of Damocles for me. With trembling hands I opened the letter.  It was a ‘Notice of Reclassification.’ For the last three years I had a 1-Y deferment, due to the knee I had blown out and had repaired.  Was my time up?  I read on… I was being reclassified to 4-F, “Physically Unfit for Duty.”  I found out that this was a “wedding present” from the clerk at my local draft board.  It’s a great story that I’ll save for another blog. My parents and I drove up to Muskegon that afternoon. The rehearsal dinner was that evening.  The next morning dawned cold, but clear.  I had asked two old seminary friends who had made it through to become priests to officiate.  About an hour before the service one of my friends showed up.  He handed me a telegram. The second friend had decided to leave the priesthood and wouldn’t be there.  Oh well, one was better than none.  It was about an hour before the ceremony that it occurred to me that I hadn’t memorized my part of the vows my fiancée and I had written.  I had been too busy calling on Chevrolet dealers in Buffalo.  No problem, I would wing it.

That proved to be a terrible plan.  During the ceremony, I froze.  This was different than presenting to car dealers.  I immediately fell into every clichéd wedding vow I could remember.  I even threw in some lines from the Pledge of Allegiance, and “The Charge of the Light Brigade” for good measure.  Not my finest hour, but we got through it.  The reception went down in the annals of Cavanagh lore as a “bar setter.” Sunday morning, we awoke and made our way to my bride’s parents’ house to open wedding gifts.  We were going to leave them all there and have them shipped to Kansas City once we found a place.  Monday morning we drove to Rochester to meet the movers.  We never were able to spend a night in the Rochester apartment.  After staying at a hotel near the airport, we left for Kansas City.  I, with an eye toward the future.  My wife, with the heavy thought, “Good Lord, what have I gotten myself into?”

The flight to Kansas City was uneventful except for the tremendous thunderstorm we spent an hour flying in on approach to the Kansas City airport.  We were tossed around like Stormping-pong balls in a Bingo drum.  The old Kansas City airport used to be downtown, nestled between a crook in the Missouri River and the downtown skyscrapers.  The terrible thunderstorm and buffeting notwithstanding, it’s a little disconcerting to be on final approach to a runway and look out the window to see skyscrapers on both sides of you that are taller than your current altitude.  I waved at the office workers watching the terrible storm. They waved back.  Another fun thing about landing at the old airport was the fact that you would start descending over the Missouri River. As the plane went lower and lower, the river got bigger and bigger.  One would think that we were only inches from ditching. Then, at the last possible second, the runway would appear under the wing.  Air travel as a Six Flags thrill ride!

We finally landed.  My wife informed me that she had gotten air sick and now had a migraine.  The old airport didn’t have jet ways that extended from the terminal. They would roll ramps up to the plane, and you had to walk down to the ground. We did, and were met in the pouring rain by my boss and two local Chevy heavy-breathers.  “Welcome to Kansas City!”, they said.  My wife got sick on the tarmac.  

Let the games begin.

Next:  What Are The Odds?

“….Ummmmmm. Do You Mind If I Get Married First?”

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Now that I was one of Campbell-Ewald’s “Young Account Men,” things began to move swiftly.  My fiancée and I set April 15, 1972 as our wedding date.  I figured that if I got married on Income Tax Day, I’d never forget my wedding anniversary.  Now that I was able to remove my training program beanie, I was able to “mainstream.” I was being invited to important meetings, I was meeting clients, I was going to these wonderful things called media parties, and I was walking with the swagger of someone who thought he was set for life.  One of my responsibilities as the Assistant to the Director of Field Operations was to help determine the economic course of Chevrolet’s future. Each Campbell-Ewald field office had to submit a weekly report as to how things were going in their particular region; sales trends, competitive media buys, dealer comments, newspaper stories.  They were submitted to me each Monday. My job was to “edit out” anything that might reflect badly on the client’s success as these reports were then sent on to Chevrolet.  The New York Times wrote a nice story on the Datsun B-210?  Can’t have that.  The aluminum block engines in the Vega were blowing up all over California because they couldn’t handle the stricter pollution controls required out there?  OK, nobody needs to hear bad news like that. The “Drive A Winner Derby” promotion in the Midwest Region was a flop? Nope, nope, nope.  Definitely can’t have that!  Every day the field guys would call in to schmooze, anxious to find out what was going on in the Mother Ship.  We were a “Band of Brothers.”

After about six weeks of putting my imprimatur on weekly reports, I was called into the office of the Regional Account Executive for the North Central Region. Because the Chevy regional office for North Central was in Detroit, the Campbell-Ewald rep, Jim Muir, was stationed in Detroit.  In fact, his office was right next to mine.  Jim had been a great tutor on the ins and outs of the job.  Jim asked me to sit down as he closed the door.  “Tom, I’m going retail.”  This was not the same as “going ballistic” or “going commando.”  This meant that he was going to go to work for a dealership. It happened a lot to the field guys.  He continued, “I start in two weeks with Buff Whelan Chevrolet in Sterling Heights, and I’m recommending to management here that you take my place.”  I was shocked!  I was finally going to be a Field Guy! But….I really wasn’t going to be my own boss as I was still in the GM Building, I was going to be calling on exotic locations like Flint, Cleveland, and Buffalo, and it was snowing outside.  Wait, wait!  I was to inherit Jim’s Chevy Impala company car.  I had arrived!!!  I was now getting free cars.

I was now Regional Account Executive/North Central.  I had a friend drive me in to work that day.  I would be driving home in my free car.  The 1972 Impala was parked with the rest of the agency free cars in the parking garage of the Fisher Building.  The Fisher Building, designed by the same fellow who did the GM Bldg, went up in 1927.  It featured an 11 story garage.  My spot was on 11.  Cars keys in hand, I arrived at my free car.  It was beautiful, with a hood large enough for Tom Turner to land one of his Tomcat fighters without a tail hook.  I placed myself into the captain’s chair and gave the order to the Impala’s engine room to “Engage.”  We slowly left the docking bay and approached the first downScreen Shot 2013-07-29 at 10.38.57 AM ramp.  This is when two startling realities enveloped me: this garage was built in 1927, my “USS Enterprise Impala” in 1972; and, it was Winter and the car had studded snow tires on it.  The garage floor was concrete with that waxy coating that prevents oil stains.  My 4200 lb aircraft carrier was on ice skates!! Also, my Impala had almost 2 feet more wheelbase than a 1927 Chevy,  I was about to find out just what that meant as I came to the first down ramp.  My effort at a hard right left me wedged in the ramp.  I put the car in reverse to try again.  The whir of the metal spikes that prohibited the rubber tire tread from touching the ground was deafening.  I put the car into “Park” while I tried to turn the wheel harder to the left, hoping to free myself.  My terror was tempered by a loud honk.  Cars were beginning to stack up behind me!  I put the car in “Drive” and touched the gas, all the while struggling with the steering wheel.  I began to slide down the ramp…sideways.  At least I was facing the right direction when I got to the 10th floor.  And now, on the next attempt I knew to start with a wider arc.  I nailed it! I was pointing straight down toward the 9th floor.  I tapped the gas, smug in my knowledge that I had shown those idiots backed up behind me that I wasn’t some rookie to free cars.  I suddenly realized that I was sliding again, and gaining speed. I hit the brakes.  No luck.  Twelve feet flyfrom the bottom of the ramp was a wall.  This wall was the outside wall to the garage.  There was a window in it.  I was rocketing toward it.  Suddenly, I could see Mom and Dad, and old Muzza, my dog. There were Lynn and Chris from 5th grade. I was going home!!!  I could see the headline in that evening’s Detroit News: “Ad Guy on Chevy Hurtles To Death Out Of Fisher Building.”  It took me about three hours to get my free car out of the Fisher Garage.

On Wednesday, April 12, 1972, I was called to the Field Director’s office.  Gene Owens had left the agency to make some big bucks with a promotions company.  My new boss was Bob Milford, who had moved over from the Truck Account.  “Tom,” he began, “We have some great news.  You’re being promoted to the Midwest Region in Kansas City”  Hmmm, I thought, was there a hierarchy to the regions?  I was ecstatic. I had never been to Kansas City and I heard that they had some great BBQ.  “I accept!” I shouted.  “That’s great,” Bob said.  “Here’s the deal.  Ron Bleckmann (the current occupant of the seat) has just informed us that he’s leaving to join J. Walter Thompson on the Ford Account in Kansas City.  We had to terminate him immediately.” NOTE: this is pretty much standard in the ad biz.  If you go to another car account, they don’t want the client knowing they kept someone around.  “So,” Bob continued, ” Ron is gone as of today.  There’s an important Midwest Regional meeting out therestockyards_cattle_metapth19896_l_bus31_10 on Tuesday, so we’ll need you in Kansas City on Monday to get ready for it.”  There was one problem.  “Bob,” I said, “….Ummmmm. Do you mind if I get married first? Remember those vacation papers you signed letting me go on vacation from 4/14 to 4/24?  I’m getting married in Muskegon in three days, then we’re going on our honeymoon.” Bob’s wide-eyed stare told me that he’d forgotten.  “Tom, we really need you there.” “Bob, I’m a dead man if I take off the morning following the wedding.”  “Tom, let me talk to some people and see if we can’t reach a compromise.”  I wasn’t going to call my bride-to-be and worry her…yet.  Let’s see what they come up with.

Next:  “I’m Going To Kansas City, Kansas City Here I Come…”