Half Century Surprise

I really like surprises. Unfortunately, being both a curious and hyper-observant person, I tend to see most things coming, and from quite a distance.

For my readers who are unaware, I turn fifty next month. At approximately 9:40pm central time on December 12th, I will complete my fiftieth trip around the sun. I can appreciate the idea about birthdays being a fairly arbitrary thing to celebrate, but society will do what society wants to do.

From my inherently intuitive perspective, milestone birthdays are absolutely the worst time to try and plan a surprise for anyone. Even those folks who are considered “easy-to-surprise,” will be on high alert when such an event is coming up.

When I was sixteen, I thought someone in my world might try and pull off a surprise, but 12-12-85 came and went without any flipping on of lights followed by familiar screams.

My mom was clever, and as I approached seventeen she decided I would not be as suspicious of a party. She did all the right things. Sent out secret invitations, contacted my boss to make sure I wasn’t working, and she conspired with my friend Andy to create a “get me out of the house” diversion.

Unfortunately, as with any plan of secrecy, the chain of skullduggery is only as good as its weakest link… which in this case was my boss. I worked in the kitchen at a country club and one night about a week before my birthday, the boss was walking around with the schedule trying to plug a few holes. As he approached me and my dish washing brethren, he looked up from is paper and said, “I know Steve can’t work Friday because he has some party.”

Well, that’s all it took for fifteen other clues to line up in my head
and the cover was blown.

Brief sidebar. This ability for me to flush out surprises is not something I do by choice, it just happens. I do not seek this information out, it presents itself and my brain solves the puzzle. If you know me personally, you know this is just who I am.

I kept the party discovery to myself, played along like a good soldier, and acted completely surprised when it all went down. People had gone to a great deal of trouble and I was not going to be that asshole “who knew.”

My twenty first birthday was a non-event, and thirty came and went without incident.

About a month before my fortieth birthday, I began noticing some irregularities in my wife’s behavior on certain things. Once my “spidey senses” were tingling, several other small abnormalities began to surface. None of them alone would be enough to raise a normal person’s suspicion, but all of them together defied odds even an English major like me couldn’t ignore.

When I walked into the house on the fateful night, I knew a party was coming, what I did not expect was the magnitude of it all. Several people had traveled great distances, and my wife had hired both bartenders and caterers. Supreme effort and substantial expense had been brought to bear in celebration of my accomplishment of not dying for four decades. Was I surprised there was a party? No. Was I overwhelmed by the collective effort? Absolutely.

So, here I am less than a month away from
the big five-o.

Back in August I bought a new car, and although it was something we needed to do, I got something pretty nice and it was agreed, “this is pretty much your fiftieth birthday present.” Fair enough.

We also have a weekend away with some other couples planned for two days after my birthday, so it has also been put forth this event will serve as a birthday celebration. A completely reasonable thing. I mean we have one kid in college and three more going soon, anything extravagant for this birthday is both unnecessary, and probably a less-than-wise expense.

Everything changed on November 5th.

For two months, a college trip had been on the calendar for November 16-18. My son Lewis and I were scheduled to travel to Pennsylvania to visit my alma mater Lehigh University, and Bucknell University, two colleges to which he has already applied. I took the necessary time off from work and that was that.

I was excited about taking my boy to see where I’d gone to school, and I told him I was going to reach out to some folks I know who still have some connections and clout… couldn’t hurt, right?

Well apparently, this was a bridge too far and on the evening of November 5th my wife sat me down, took my two hands, and looking intently into my eyes said, “I need you to listen to me and not ask any questions. You are NOT going on a college trip, but that is all I am going to tell you. Do not be a pain in the ass and go digging through credit card statements, bank accounts or emails. Lewis asked you not to reach out to Lehigh people, but noooo, you just had to. That is all.”

What’s funny here is I hadn’t actually reached out to any of my Lehigh contacts yet, a fact I chose in the moment to keep to myself.

Over the coming ten days, my wife gave me very little in the form of information. I was told to be “ready to go” by 9:00am on Friday November 16th. Thirty minutes before departure I would be told what to pack. Ten days to wait, ten days to wonder, and that’s all she’d give me.

On the afternoon of Thursday, November 15th, and envelope appeared on the kitchen counter. Here is what it said:


The taunting envelope

At dinner I was told what I should pack, but it was nothing out of the ordinary – a standard white guy weekend package. This was not information, just distracting fluff! I was out at a meeting on Thursday evening, and when I returned home around 10:00pm, I noticed my passport had been slipped under the envelope. Things were getting interesting.

I went to bed, and slept pretty well. On Friday morning I woke up at 6:00, got my boys out the door and did a few chores around the house. I did a little email and then it was time to get ready. I took a shower, packed my bag and met my wife in the kitchen… it was finally 9:00.

In the car I opened the envelope and inside was just a boarding pass – Charlotte to Baltimore on Southwest Airlines.


Step one… not much more info.

Now, I have a brother in Baltimore, but my wife assured me he was not involved in whatever I was about to experience. She went on to ask if I was okay with a “solo adventure,” something involving a workshop, or seminar or something like that. I have gone to things like this in the past so I filed it in the bucket of possibilities and moved on. I asked if I was getting on another flight, and if so where would I get my next boarding pass? She managed to keep talking while not answering the question.

In the car on the way to the airport I also told her about two suspicious interactions I’d had recently with two different west coast cousins. She agreed what I’d noticed was odd, while overtly stating they had nothing to do with it.

When we arrived at the airport, just before kissing me goodbye my wife said the following, “Step Two will reveal itself to you at the gate in Baltimore. Do not leave security. If you don’t see something within two hours, call me.” Oh, she is good.

I got through security, grabbed a coffee and bought a paperback John Grisham novel. I sat at the gate in CLT reading my book and drinking my Venti Peppermint Mocha (it is almost Christmas after all).

The flight was a little late departing, but nothing a good captain couldn’t make up in the air. I had several scenarios running through my mind:

  • At first I thought she might be sending me to BMW driving school, but that is in South Carolina and I would drive there not fly, so that was out.
  • I thought it might be some kind of “guys weekend” but she was pretty convincing when she said my brother had nothing to do with it.
  • By the time the plane was taxiing to the gate in Baltimore, I was fairly convinced I was going to some weekend seminar/workshop/retreat and there would be some organizer type waiting for me at the gate.

I was wrong.

The gate area in Baltimore was packed tight with travelers. At first glance into the sea of humanity I saw nothing out of the ordinary. I walked slowly, which is not at all like me but I did it anyway. I emerged from the dense crowd around the gate and into the hallway and there before me was step two. Standing in the open space of an airport hallway was my father and my brother-in-law Russel.


Step Two Reveals Itself

I doubted the three of us were going to a retreat for the weekend.

Slowly, I walked up to the two gentlemen pictured above and without missing a beat Russell says, “What are you doing here?”

My reply, “I might ask you the very same?”

He put his arm around my shoulder and said, “Well, since we both don’t seem to have a clue, why don’t we fly to New Orleans to celebrate your 50th birthday. Your brother Doug is on his way to the airport and your cousin Rye (one of the two noted above) is already there waiting for us.

I was completely blown away.

In the next thirty seconds, my mind tried to recall all the information I had been given, and the clues I had noticed. I also started calculating the sheer logistic complexity necessary to pull this kind of thing off.

It took nearly half a century, but they finally figured out how to surprise Steve Nazarian.

I guess it comes down to the lies, or put more gently… misdirection. My crazy brain is always watching, gathering information and solving problems, and in the absence of any noise or distortion I can figure out just about anything. By feeding me a full smorgasbord of dis-information, my brain was tricked into solving puzzles that never even existed. Well-played co-conspirators, well played indeed.

I am writing this on my flight back to Charlotte. My heart is full with the memories of an amazing weekend, but more importantly I am basking in the glow of the time, effort, money and love expended on my behalf. My blessings in this life were already too numerous to count, but after this weekend my cup runneth over even more.

Below are some pictures of our weekend in “The Big Easy.” I think we just scratched the surface so I’m feeling the need to go back again sometime soon.


The swanky Airbnb the boys reserved for the trip



Bourbon Street




Friday night mayhem in the Big Easy



Crossing the Mighty Mississippi by ferry



The spicy garlic shrimp boil I had for breakfast – yes breakfast.



Our guide on the “Cemetery Tour”



My Brother-in-law and cousin keeping it cool


The tomb of the “Voodoo Queen”



The whole lot of us at one of several excessive yet amazing meals.


Copyright © 2018 – Stephen S. Nazarian – All rights reserved.


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