Saturday, 7 April 2012

The Day I Met a Moonwalker

Dave Brown, aka JC's Helper did an impressive bit of name-dropping today, thereby moving me to consider who might be the most famous person I have met and spoken with during my lifetime.

The setting was the ballroom of the Southern Cross Hotel, circa 1987 (since closed and demolished), Melbourne, Australia, This was prior to the deregulation of the Australian banks, when the big mutual life insurance societies were soon to be forced into demutualising and giving up their long held ability to spend policyholders' money like there was no tomorrow. And spend it they did. Lavish overseas "conferences" every year as incentives for salespeople to achieve quite moderate targets were commonplace, as were high value prizes as incentives for the same salespeople to sell more of what they were already being paid extremely generous commissions to sell. At the time, I was employed as a sales manager for the largest Australian "mutual" of them all. Every January, in an attempt to get their salesfolk's minds back on the business of selling after the Christmas break, they produced extravagant "back to work" conferences at the state level. It was a challenge each January to outdo the theme of the previous year's conference and the sales personnel typically rolled up in droves, eagerly anticipating the best show ever.

The lights dimmed and the hum of social chatter faded as the sound system produced an ominous roar and a cloud of vapour emanated downward from above the stage, clearing slowly to reveal a replica of the Apollo 11 landing module "Eagle" that Weta Workshop would have been proud of, being lowered gently onto the stage. The exit hatch opened, a ladder appeared, down which climbed a moon-suited man while the public address system played a recording of the actual moon landing in 1969: "One small step for man.....". The figure turned, walked awkwardly in moon-walk fashion toward the microphone as he removed his helmet and brought an audible collective gasp of astonishment from his audience when he said: "Hi, I'm Neil Armstrong" as the first words of his keynote address to the conference.

It was going to be a hard act to improve upon the following year, and so far as I can recall they never did. Yes, it was indeed the Neil Armstrong, who had been spirited into Australia by the organisers and would be spirited back to the United States the following day without the Aussie news media ever getting wind of his presence. Such was the power of the southern hemisphere's largest mutual life insurance office. At the "after match" cocktail function, I joined the long queue to glad-hand the world's most famous astronaut and request his autograph - "For my kids, you understand!"

Footnote: a group of my management colleagues from out-of-town centres, who were hotel guests overnight, were enjoying a few quiet drinks later that evening in the room of one of their number, when they had a hunch to phone reception and ask to be connected to "Mr Armstrong's room". The request was granted and the famous astronaut duly accepted an invitation to share a few drinks in Room number such & such - appearing at the door a few minutes later. He proved to be an entertaining guest, evidently, spending an hour or so in friendly conversation, during which he revealed that it had been part of the deal to keep his visit secret. Rather risky, I should have thought, especially given that he was booked into the hotel under his real name - albeit only a surname.

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