My first all nighter in an airport, or how I came to be a CPA

Back in the old days of the early 1980’s, I flew to Chicago’s O’Hara to get on a bus and go to Northern Illinois University to attend a weeklong continuing education class for all PriceWaterhouse second year auditors.

For complicated reasons, I had to fly in Saturday night even though the bus runs didn’t start until Sunday around 3:00 PM. I took with me a couple of books, which I didn’t open because there was just too much to see—people and things—to read and one of the few things I have from my childhood, a magnetic travel chess set. This was my first all-nighter in an airport.

This was when security was fairly lax (the downtown Kansas City airport, which is no longer there, didn’t even have a metal detector) and there were no Terror Threat signs and the security folks didn’t have the attitude so many now have, which, while somewhat justified,  is still a little too much sometimes.

So, after walking the entire airport, all terminals and all fingers of all terminals, I set myself down just outside what then passed for security and set up the chess pieces.  Three people sat down and played.  I won one and lost two, but winning wasn’t the point.  What I wanted to see was how many were  interested enough in chess to play, bored enough and with sufficient time on their hands to want to sit down, and able to overcome the inhibitions required to sit across from someone they had never before and never again would see again.

One guy was stuck waiting on an international flight and we talked awhile after he mercilessly and without compassion destroyed me on the board. This impressed me, because at that time, I was less than five years removed from having an ELO rating of around 1950, which was pretty salty. (I don’t have one now, but I can hold my own with those around 1600.)

He seemed important. He carried a Hartman Briefcase and had on an expensive suit and tie and this was on a Saturday night—, which is another thing: what ever happened to dressing up to fly? I mean, sure, you don’t need to wear a suit on a Saturday night, but long pants and a shirt with sleeves would be sort of nice.

The next event was trying to find a place to sack out, because I had zero money for things like unreimbursed meals or hotel rooms at that time. About 2 AM, the International Terminal got sort of quiet and I caught a few winks using my luggage as a pillow. This lasted until 5AM or so, when a red-eye from somewhere arrived and when the bustle from that flight died down, another soon landed, and the time between flights got shorter and shorter until it became constant.

Eventually, I made my way to the O’Hara Hilton (Or whatever it was called then), found a bathroom and cleaned up, snagged a coffee from the free service there, and meandered back to the Airport, for the real fun.

The real fun started when the various religious groups made their way to the Terminals to proselytize.  If you have ever seen the scene in the movie “Airplane,” well, it wasn’t quite like that, but there were probably a dozen different groups handing out tracts and wanting to talk.

Someone asked me if I liked the Beatles. Duh.  Then he asked if I liked George Harrison, and so on and before I knew it, he had placed in my hand as a “gift” a beautiful copy of the Bhagavad Gita. I thanked him, put it in my audit bag and walked off. He came after me, yelling for me to stop and I saw many of his friends behind him. I asked what was wrong and he told me that the gift of the book required a $50 contribution. Looking confused, I asked whether the book was a gift or was he selling them.  This I kept up for a few minutes before handing it back to him and he went on his way.

Some evangelical Christian group showed up around 1 PM and I bet fifteen or twenty asked me if I had accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.  They eventually got tiring and to escape all of this, I slid into a restaurant, took a table and ordered the cheapest thing on the menu—a soup—and fiddled with it until it was plain I had worn out my welcome.

At the appointed time, I made it to the bus and sat in the front row because there was no one else yet there.  Finally, someone sat next to me and we talked. About thirty minutes out, he asked me how I came to be a CPA, which was pretty much something that just sort have happened to me without any real plan, so I gave him the answer I gave the Price Waterhouse recruiter that intrigued him enough to eventually offer me a job: I started out trying to be a teacher, then when that didn’t work, thought about Math or English and finally decided the money-making along those lines would be limited, so I opened the college catalogue to look for a major and the first one listed was “accounting,” so I decided to give it a try, and Bob’s your Uncle and all. (Most of this is true, except for the opening the catalogue part.)

He stared at me and told me he had wanted to be an accountant since he was in third grade. I asked him if his father or mother were accountants and he said no, it just always just seemed a cool thing to do to him.

I changed seats. In third grade, you are supposed to want to be a fireman or a policeman or an astronaut, a baseball player, a nurse or doctor, or—anything really, other than a Walter Mittyesque accountant. What did I want to be then? Nothing, as far as I can remember, but accountant was not even in my world. I tell people I didn’t know what the letters CPA stood for six months before I became one, which is not true, but the truth is, I had absolutely no idea what they did on a daily basis. Thirty five years later, I am still learning.

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