So Where Are You Now?
It’s always the same: long, snakey boarding line, tall, short, fat, thin; tickets in hand, bags slung over shoulders and arms, dragged, carried; shuffle aboard. All going somewhere, and “there” is what matters, to you–I understand that. Why else would you be flying?
For you, here is no more than partway “there,” and I understand that too. I’m up front, plotting your escape, ensuring the hundreds of details so you don’t have to worry about the thousands of pounds of fuel and steel you’re going to ride in the sky like a broad winged condor rather than creep across the surface of the earth like ant. The litany of escape that is the pre-departure checklist: verify those waypoints loaded in the flight guidance system; the fuel burn, the departure sequence, speeds, climb, GPS departure track, enroute fuel burn, winds aloft–everything I need to have settled in my mind and cast in stone before I commit us all to flight.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t remember you–in fact, I do, and I wonder where you are now, after I left you with both feet on the ground whatever thousands of miles forever ago. Sure, there are many I remember, and some I can’t forget.
You were down in Houston. With your mother, for months. The Shriner’s burn ward. You couldn’t have been more than ten years old, a full body wrap, burned over most of your body, but finally well enough to travel, to go home and resume the life of a fourth grade girl somewhere in the midwest. I felt for you because I knew you were in such pain, the body wrap making you hot on top of third degree burns, as the agent told me; maybe not well enough for this trip but needing to go home, and pain medication wearing off.
Then the delays–thunderstorms; sorry, honey, it’s not safe for us to take off yet. I watched the radar, waiting for the storm to march by and I felt for you, way in back–I can see the cabin temp climbing there in the July sun roasting our aluminum tube bogged down on the Houston ramp. I cock the jet sideways so as not to blow any smaller aircraft off the tarmac, then push up the right throttle–we’ll deal with the fuel imbalance later–adding bleed air to force the max cooling out of the cabin air conditioning, never mind ours up front. The First Officer gave me an “are you nuts” look, and I shot one back that said don’t say one word. You needed that air; you get it.
I want to know that now, years later, you’re healed, you’re well, you’re not in pain, you’re flying comfortably to a bright future. Where are you now?
And you were the young man with the panic in his eyes, standing in the forward entry door with his fiance giving him a look that could bend a spoon. The agent was on her cell phone, calling the hotel van driver who’d brought them to the airport. No luck. The groom had left his wedding suit on the van which was now heading to another city.
You don’t have time to get back through security if he brings it to the curb she tells him, in her mind’s eye watching the dream wedding somewhere in Mexico crumbling into chaos. He’s like a deer in headlights, letting her down instead of making her dreams come true.
“I can go get it,” I assure them, “If you can get the van driver to turn around.” Even if I really can’t get back though security by departure time, the jet’s not leaving without me. But no dice: the hotel can’t reach the van driver. No wedding suit.
The agent and I exchange glances, both stifling a smile: they’ll get it, eventually. Golden plans, platinum dreams, bronze reality but forging a future of hearty, burnished metal that will weld them strongly nonetheless. Got to close the door now; it’s time to go.
And you were the elderly man wearing his natty suit, in the wheel chair. Cane in hand, eyes looking miles and miles away. Leaving Florida and most of his life too: his wife was down below, in the cargo hold. He was taking her home, one last time. The agents fussed over him, keeping him close. But there was really nothing to be done besides just plain old caring, seeing in him the path of loss and leaving. He seemed calm; sad, distant, but some peace from somewhere, wherever his distant eyes focused, somehow sustained him. Because he knew.
He knew that like him, we were all headed west to where the sun eventually sets. Some at the start of the inevitable trip, not yet even far enough down the road to be able to look back much less laugh about the wedding suit that had to be bought in Cabo to replace the one that drove itself to Tulsa.
Some healing from the cruelty visited out of nowhere, a branding undeserved, a childhood hell unforeseen–but I needed to know, surmounted. Where are you now, all of you? Maybe east of me, and I’m east of the dignified gentlemen late in his journey; the young couple a distance behind but really, not so much.
Maybe that’s what the widower knew that we’d all learn: we’re all headed west. Sooner, later–but west. What matters most is not the journey, but the caring along the way. For a while, when we flew together, I did just that. And wherever you are, you should know: I still do.
We talk one on one with WWII Pilot Bee Haydu, one of a small number
of women pilots serving in the AAF during wartime.
April 8th–don’t miss it!
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