View from above: “Where am I?”

Like life in general, flying can beat you up. But I learned a trick from one of my Air Force flying buddies who is now a captain at Fedex.  He’d endured days of long hours in the air, most at night, with schedule changes and sleep disruptions and all of the physical challenges that flight crews must surmount each trip. Eventually, he found himself suddenly half awake in a strange hotel and in the semi-conscious haze of waking, intensified by the days of sleep disruption and flight re-routing, he couldn’t for the life of him remember what city he was in. So he called the toll-free number for Crew Scheduling and asked, “where am I?”

If you’ve been on a flight crew, you’ve been there, waking up and sometimes, grasping at where in the hell, besides some hotel, somewhere, am I? But rather than giving Crew Schedule something to laugh about, I do my buddy’s next best technique, which is actually easier: I fumble through the night stand till I find the phone book. Okay, I must be in Cleveland.

This is important because I’d like to think I know where I am, though that may seem unnecessarily obvious if you wake up in your own town most of the time. But once you enter the time and space and place tumbler that is the flight crew world, you’re going to feel sheepish when, as I have done, you pull up to an airport and notice the signs announcing “Welcome to Portland” when all night you’ve had in the back of your mind that you were in Seattle.

Nobody will know but you, of course, but that rankles for a couple of reasons, which I’ll get to.

First, I have to contrast that with days I remember as a kid in upstate New York, particularly in the abomination they call winter weather, which extends well into spring. I’d spend hours bundled up but outside pursuing what might be the worthiest of endeavors for a grade school kid: poking something with a stick, hopefully something weird or dead otherwise new and fun for the pack of us roaming the snowscape.

Never mind that my little sister was in tears about having to wear a parka over her Easter dress because we were having another white Easter, because I just assumed that everyone in the world had the same brutal weather and so the misery was of no consequence–it was just life. I didn’t find out about Florida till later.

At first glance, it would seem that I’d do better today with the same mindset. Maybe life would be better if I didn’t worry about whether I was in Cleveland or Detroit either physically or mentally, and spent a little more time and attention searching for interesting things to poke with a stick. I could just resign myself to the coldness of life, same everywhere, no worries about Ponce de Leon discovering Florida and not incidentally, warmth.

But there’s exactly the problem: as an adult, you know better. You realize time’s not infinite, that there are other, warmer places. And you’re not there.

It’s the last part that we deliberately forget, or lose track of after a few days in the time and place scrambler that is flight crew life. But it’s the former that is the grievous sin: we block out better places and like me as a kid in winter, assume that’s just the way life is as the clock and calendar march on regardless. That’s what rankles.

A 2008 government “Time Use Survey” reports that the average adult spend 7.5 hours per weekday on job-related activity. After work, the average man spent 3.5 hours watching television, with women only slightly behind with 3.2 hours. Given the requisite time averages for personal maintenance such as food, hygiene, and sleep, most of the waking day is consumed with mindless, often passive “stuff.”

When you stop and really think about that, it’s much like fighting for consciousness in a strange hotel in some place you may have assumed in your head was your location. Or like my childhood self, you just assumed that where you were was where and how everyone was in their lives as well. That truth cuts to the bone because it’s truly the acknowledgment that you’ve lost touch with the reality of your place in life.  And in a real way, you have: the touchstones of meaningful place are gone and you’re adrift, not really aware of your spot in the world. Hour by hour, the day is subsumed by the mundane, by routine. It’s cold, but it’s cold everywhere, right, according to the kid in you?

Yet it would be a mistake for me–or you–to wish for more time to do as we did when we were kids, blissfully oblivious of time, poking stuff with a stick. Because according to the government  report, that’s about all we do anyway: television, sleep, eat, work, television; Cleveland, Detroit, lather, rinse, repeat. Though that’s clearly what most folks do, as I assumed in grade school, it’s not all there is to do, nor is there endless time in which to do it.

When you were ten, the voyage seemed endless. Now, I recall approaching forty and joking with an already fifty-something first officer that I’d be joining him soon in middle age. He just raised a hand and looking at the endless sky ahead, said, “you’re on your own there–not too many hundred and somethings out there.” Hmmmmm.

So just change course, right? Pretty simple? Once in the dead of winter I told a staffer at our layover hotel in Toronto that if I were her, I’d get in the car and drive south until I could stick my head out the window at sixty miles per hour and NOT die of exposure. She laughed, we laughed, but nonetheless nothing changed for either of us. Both still at work here and there, running on the hamster wheel at the usual pace.

How difficult it is, as I described, to wake up. But somehow, you must find the phone book, or call crew schedule, or find a local paper or whatever it takes to wake up and figure out, to know where you really are. And to realize that although yes, a lot of people are in the exact same place–it’s neither the only nor best, warmest place.

Because the reality is, the hours I spend and the miles I fly will someday end. It’s important to know that I spent them doing more than just poking stuff with a stick or mindlessly sleepwalking fitfully through a years-long  journey only to wake up and find that I’m not where I thought I was–or really wanted to be. When I see the sign at the end I want to say, “yep, that’s what I figured.”

I’ll head that way today by hugging my bride and kids close and really see them, see where home is, where the warm place is. Then I’m off to the airport, home again tonight. That’s really where I want to be, need to be, no matter where I might have to go in between.


Zoom lens focused on “The Boneyard” in Tuscon, where old aircraft live out their final days.


9 Responses to “View from above: “Where am I?””

  1. This is great stuff. I was laughing so much but I bet that is just the weirdest thing to experience. Thanks for sharing, hope to read more of your blog!

  2. Happy Trails To You…

  3. Excellent post! – I’ll even forgive you the depressing (yet sobering) photo at the end.

  4. Tom Seagraves Says:

    Is there a boneyard somewhere where an aviation geek can just walk around and look at moth-balled airplanes? My dream is to find one of these places and spend a few days just meandering about thinking about all the hours and places the planes have flown.

  5. Laughing about the “poking something interesting with a stick” idea. Pretty much sums up being a little kid. Thanks for a fun, provocative read.

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