In August, I was in Boston to give a speech. Elaine, 70, was the head honcho in the room.
I noticed that her team and her clients revere her.
By that, I mean she is the boss, but she is also the guru with the wisdom and guidance that only 50+ years of professional experience can forge.
Most “elders” I meet are looking back on life, sharing their insight from a relatively calm place on their timeline.
But Elaine is in the thick of it!
She told me of her travel schedule for the week to come…London, Amsterdam, Dublin, back to her home in Southern California, then back to Maryland.
I used to think that sounded so glamourous… first class airfare, luxury hotels.
But a good friend once told me the perks can be nullified by the absolute exhaustion of international travel.
This is where Elaine becomes worthy of your attention.
At 70, she has the energy to run big meetings in international capitals…constantly.
She began her career with the intent to travel, but travel with a cause.
So she got a job working for World Airways, the charter airline that flew soldiers to Vietnam.
Elaine shared her story:
“These handsome gorgeous young military men would come in on helicopters and load guns and arms in the belly of the plane.
“I’d fly them on a 15 hour flight into Danang or Cameron Bay or Saigon. Helicopters would be waiting and take them to the jungle.
“I would be the flight attendant for the 15 hour flight. We would take these boys who were scared to death. I mean, these were boys off the farm in Omaha who didn’t know where Vietnam was.
“We would entertain them. We’d sing and dance, anything we could do to help them pass the time without thinking about death.
“I was a big hawk and didn’t like the people marching against the boys. Didn’t matter whether I believed in the war. I believed in those boys and I saw those boys die.
“The people we see today on the streets were the boys I took in who survived Vietnam. I think of that every time I see homeless people in wheelchairs with military outfits.
“We brought them in and we brought the bodies out.”
She described how the return flights from Vietnam back to the U.S. were filled with coffins on the bottom of the plane and survivors on the top.
“The survivors often couldn’t stand up. They were so shell-shocked. They didn’t call it PTSD back then.
“When we landed, there was a brass band at the military base greeting the soliders. They’d be looking out the window. They’d say “There’s a band playing.’
“I’d say, ‘That’s for you for the great job you did.’
“They said, ‘That’s for us?’
“I mean..to go from the jungle and 15 hours later to land in Oakland?”
Elaine sadly remembered how the injured veterans “had no support getting out of the hospital. Many had no arms, no legs, we didn’t do much to help them.”
We barely think about that war anymore. Have you been to the Vietnam Memorial?” she asked me.
“Do you know how many thousands of names are on that wall?”
“Is it 50,000?”
“That’s a whole generation of men.”
Then Elaine’s life swung hard in another direction.
In the early 80’s, she worked for a corporate travel company running incentive trips. Companies would spend $12 million to send 30 people to Asia for 3 days.
“Sex drugs rock n roll everywhere.
“We built a plexiglass stage over the ocean in Hawaii with Burt Baccarat entertaining a Board of Directors.
“I’ve seen $24 million spent on 6 people. I’ve seen corporate America spend money like crazy in the 80’s and early 90’s.
“I saw the Prince’s wine cellar in monaco. I rode a hot air balloon in kruger national park. The people there had never seen white people. We took polaroids pictures, they thought we were Gods.”
Now at 70, she is the Executive Vice President at a prestigious hotel company. She has led her division through impressive growth.
And her travel schedule is relentless.
One of her young clients said to her, “You’re a 30 year old in 70 year old body. I’m a 70 year old in a 30 year old body.”
Personally, I get tired traveling with toddlers from Phoenix to Scottsdale to pick up burritos. That’s a 12 minute drive. I asked Elaine her secret to stamina during nonstop intercontinental travel…at 70!
She said, “I have a passion. Passion is energy. I don’t eat as much on the road. I don’t drink. Learning about people is fascinating. i like to take care of people. I live in the now. I enjoy it.”
The pendulum has swung hard through Elaine’s life. It’s not just from the horrors of Vietnam to the corporate greed of the 1980s’.
She has loved and lost three times.
Her father left home when she was young.
She has earned money and lost it all, three times.
The older I get, the more I realize this story is part of the human experience.
At 46, I know many people who were riding high in their 30’s and 40’s and have bottomed out in late 40’s and 50’s.
Whether their business hit a wall, or their marriage fell apart, or they lost a loved one, it’s the human experience.
Some people get struck on a hard swing into dark times. Maybe you’re there right now.
As Elaine said very clearly and emphatically:
“You can come back from anything. You can be anything you want to be. You can achieve anything. You just have to focus on it and believe in yourself.”