Will that be with bullets, sir?

The Independent 'Weekend', 6/11/1994

Choirs, limos, gunshot wounds: in Dallas, life insurance salesmen’s conventions can be pretty lively affairs, says Peter Rosengard

The taxi I took from Dallas airport had an 8ft-wide pair of cow horns tied to The roof. |The driver was Afro-American and wore a white stetson and cowboy boots. Curtis, owner of the Cowhorn Cab Company, told me about his battles with city hall to get permission to rope the cow horns to the roof of his car. “| know exactly how you feel,” I said. “I had the same problem when I wanted to put a conservatory on my patio in Shepherd’s Bush.”

He nodded sympathetically. “So in the end we dropped the application to put the whole cow on the roof and just went with the horns.” Despite being a city about to be invaded by 5,000 life insurance saIesmen – I was in Dallas for the Nth annual meeting of the Million dollar Round Table Life Insurance sales Convention – [ couldn’t discern any panic in the streets. Actually there were no people in the streets. I didn’t like it. It was quiet. Way too quiet.

On the way to my hotel – The Mansion on Turtle Creek – I stopped off at the Dallas Convention Centre where the meeting was due to start next morning.

The Dallas Gun Show was in full swing in an adjoining hall. There were glass counters full of gleaming Smith & Wessons, Berettas, Glocks and Uzis. A Blake Carrington lookalike approached. “What kind of gun are you looking for, sir?” he asked “Will you be shooting quail, pigeon, duck or boar, sir?”

“Actually… it’s to settle a family vendetta,” I said.

‘Sir, if you will follow me, I believe we can assist your requirements.” he replied. I followed him to another room. It was empty except for a Jeep with a silver machine-gun mounted on the back. “This is on sale, sir. Reduced from $125,000 to $50,000.” I said I would have to discuss it with my accountant.

The brochure I read in the car said the rusty-pink Mansion – “Where grace, taste and manner are the mode” – was originally built in 1925 for Sheppard W. King, a Texas oil and cattle baron. Oil heiress Caroline Hunt had bought it as a ruin about 10 years ago. Tens of millions of dollars later it was voted the Best Hotel in America.

Throughout the hotel Mrs Hunt had casually scattered around pieces of art and antiques “found in the homes of internationally travelled collectors”. I assume she asked them first. “We really want our guests to feel they are in their own homes.” she was quoted as saying. It wasn’t quite like my home.

AI least half a dozen of the young staff greeted me with a “Good morinng Mr Rosengard” before I had even got to the reception desk to check in. (During the week I was here, I kept trying to catch them out by wandering the corridors until I net one of the staff. Without missing a step they all said: “How are you today, Mr Rosengard?” It was uncanny; even my mother forgets my name every now now and then.)

“Good morning, Mr Rosengard, how are you today?” K-Jo, my big blonde waitress asked at breakfast. I ordered a waffle. “Would you like a raspberry waffle, a strawberry waffle, a blueberry waffle or a fruit salsa waffle?” she asked. I chose blueberry. “Blueberry on a wholewheat waffle, whole grain waffle or plain white waffle?” she asked. “With maple blue mountain syrup, Texas honey or cream?” Cream would be fine, I said. “Double cream, single cream, low-fat cream, semi-skimmed cream, 97 per cent fat-free cream, or non-dairy creamer?” I couldn’t bring myself to order an egg.

Next morning at 7.30 I took The Mansion’s courtesy limo out to the Convention Centre. I registered and collected my name badge. They’d asked me for the name I would like to be known by. I’d suggested Mad Dog, but reluctantly settled for Peter as there were apparently at least a dozen Mad Dogs already. The auditorium was so big that little electric golf carts were ferrying people up and down and huge video screens were positioned in the aisles. I was welcomed with bear-hugs by at least 20 total strangers.

The opening ceremony was not like the Pru’s annual sales convention. It had a cast of hundreds of singers and dancers, choirs and cowboys and little kids and so many racial minorities that I felt I was sitting in the UN General Assembly.

The climax came when the 1994 convention chairman rode through the hall and on to the stage on a white horse waving his stetson. Billy Jo Bob Darnton was 6ft 7in and could easily have lifted the horse with one hand. (Who wouldn’t buy a policy from Billy Jo Bob?) I had never seen so many standing ovations. Even Billy Jo Bob’s horse got one. It was too much for him and men in blue overall had to clean up afterwards.

The rest of the week was spent going between the air-conditioned hotel and the air-conditioned convention centre in the air-conditioned hotel courtesy limo. I didn’t know how I’d managed up to then without my own limo and driver. I knew I was getting addicted when I started taking little limo drives round and round the circular drive.

One evening I was invited to join a group of fellow insurance salesmen for dinner at The Mansion’s restaurant. Now, just because you are staying in The Mansion, don’t assume that that autonatically entitles you to a table in “The Most Distinguished Restaurant in America”.

My host, Micky Rosensweig from Manhattan, had been faxing me transatlantically for weeks to remind me that he had miraculously secured us a reservation and I was not to forget to bring a suit and tie, and furthermore if I didn’t show up he would be personally liable for a $25 forfeit.

We dined in one of the restaurants “small intimate dining areas” where, surrounded by leaded glass windows, carved ceilings and carved fireplaces we watched Dallas society “food cognoscenti and other well-heeled travellers” sample the South-western cuisine. The chef, Dean Fearing, wearing a chef’s hat and cowboy boots, moved among the guests with his “non-stop down-home charm”. I could not have imagined finer surroundings for a group of friends to meet to discuss the latest techniques foir selling split dollar variable life annuities.

On my last night I was standing at the reception desk ordering my breakfast for the next morning when a well dressed man with an immaculately trimmed small goatee appeared by my side in the otherwise deserted lobby. He waited patiently for a few minutes, then said to the clerk: “Excuse me, sir. I do apologise for interrupting you, but I am suffering from a gunshot wound in the neck and I wonder if you would be kind enough to call an ambulance. Thank you, sir.”

“I will be with you momentarily, sir.” the clerk replied.

“Now, Mr Rosengard, the courtesy limo will be at your service at 7.30am.” He picked up a phone and spoke softly into it. He turned to the man next to me. “Sir, regarding your gunshot wound to the neck, your ambulance will be here momentarily.”

I braced myself (I’d just seen Reservoir Dogs) and turned very slowly to the man next to me. He was staring straight ahead. Nothing. Not even a little bit of blood, let alone the spurting, pumping carotid nightmare I’d prepared myself for.

“Are you quite sure you have been shot through the neck?” I asked him.

“Oh, quite sure,” he said.

I walked round him and looked at the other side of his neck.

“I’ve got some good news for you,” I said. “He missed.”

On the plane back to London I read a self-help/assertiveness book called Get Out of My Way You Bastard! (Sub-titled How to Get Everything You Want Out of Life…By the Use of Small Firearms). I’d bought it at the Gun Show. Or was it the life insurance convention?

When I got home I found a note from the hotel. “Dear Mr Rosengard. The Mansion on Turtle Creek hopes you enjoyed your stay and looks forward to welcoming you again soon.” It was signed by the managing director: Jeff Trigger. Believe me.