Thursday, April 05, 2007

Back to the Twilight Zone

After six months living full time with my family, I'm leaving again. The commuter plane pulls away from the terminal in Redding, and taxis away from my real life. It's five-thirty in the morning, and several miles away, up in the foothills, my wife and little boy slumber.

I chuckle as I recall a comment from my wife the night before. I'd asked her if I'd been a good "house husband." "Your cooking has been wonderful," she replies (she's not picky, luckily for me), "but you need to learn to just do the dishes instead of developing a relationship with them." The little smarty-pants.

I’ve been awake since one-thirty. I’d set the alarm for three, but as often happens on The Night Before, I end up turning it off hours before it rings. I make some tea, and sit in the dark sipping it, intermittently petting the dog and the cat. I carry Dylan to our bed, and place him beside Rhonda. I shower, and when I come back into the bedroom, Rhonda and Dylan lie facing each other, noses inches apart. Just like when he was a baby. I stand there looking at them for minutes. I want to scoop them both up, cover them with kisses, and tell them how much I love them, but I let them sleep.

The last hour at home always seems achingly precious. I’m hyper-aware of every little sound in the house, of the moonlight streaming through the window, of my own breathing, of the symphony of crickets, toads, and frogs outside. I hold on to every moment.

“Why can’t I feel this aware all the time?” I think to myself. “Maybe it would be too much to handle, sort of a sensory overload," comes another thought. I wonder if that's really true, or if it's just a cop-out.

I load my bags into the car, then walk back into the house one last time. I stand over Rhonda and Dylan with a lump in my throat. I wonder if they could possibly know how much I love them. I mentally replay an exchange between us a couple of days earlier. It was Sunday night, just before bedtime, when it occurred to me: “Dylan and I went the whole weekend without reading together.” No comment from either of them. “I’m a bad daddy.” They both laughed in unison. As I walk out the door, start the car, and drive away, I carry their laughs, their little gifts, with me.

I drift into light sleep soon after the turboprop commuter takes off from Redding. I’ve reentered what Tony Fonze, the editor of Autorotate magazine (a periodical for helicopter pilots), calls the “Twilight Zone.” (Tony is also a working helicopter pilot who spends half his time away from home and family.) I call it the “Away-Dad Nation,” but as I doze on the United Express flight, the “Twilight Zone” tag seems more fitting.

I wake as the turboprop begins its descent into San Francisco. Anticipating the landing, I reflect that the captain looks as if he could be a college senior. The first officer looks as if he could be a senior too—in high school. Nowadays, when I see a commuter pilot with grey hair, I want to run up, give him or her a big hug, and shout “GOSH, THANKS FOR BEING HERE!" I restrain myself, however, because I’d rather avoid a lengthy visit with airport security.

I miss my family already. After being away from the Twilight Zone for six months, the emotional autopilot isn’t functioning so well. In previous journeys to the TZ, that autopilot always seemed to kick in as I drove away from home. The game face came on. Sentimentality and all of those mushy family feelings got locked away. But, I’m not sorry the autopilot has failed. I like feeling; I don’t miss that emotional numbness that too often comes with entry into The Away.

I have a breakfast burrito at the new food court in San Francisco. Before the food court, food in San Francisco tended to suck, and was outrageously expensive. With the food court, the food is okay and just plain expensive. Ya take what ya can get.

As I sit at the food court, watching people walk by, I indulge in my Stupid Little Fantasy Number One: I’m magically transported back in time, and I get the chance to relive my last stint at home, wringing more life out of every moment. Normally, S.L.F. #1 covers a two-week period. This time, it covers six months.

I leave SFO for LAX on the second of my three legs. Why three legs, you ask? Well, I’m tied by frequent-flyer status to United, and United hasn’t had a nonstop from SFO to New Orleans since Katrina swept through. I sleep for most of the flight, waking when the 757 begins its descent. We break out of the overcast, and at about the time I spot the outskirts of the airport out the window, I feel and hear the aircraft engines going full-throttle as the nose pitches up. The crew is doing a “go around.” My first thought is that another aircraft has taxied onto the landing runway, forcing ours to abort landing. But then, the captain comes up on the P.A. “Uh . . . ladies and gentlemen . . . we’ve had a little problem up here in the cockpit. We’re getting an indication that our landing gear is not operating correctly. We’re going to circle around and do some troubleshooting before making another approach." The aircraft slows and descends again, beginning another approach. “Ladies and gentlemen, it appears that our problem it limited to a landing gear door that hasn’t opened completely. We’re going to continue in for landing, and I don’t anticipate any problems upon touchdown.”

I’m really glad to hear that. A few years ago, my old Army flight school buddy, Doug, had a landing gear event in a Boeing 727. He’d been off work for several weeks after the death of his mom. His mom had succumbed to cancer, and it took a real toll on Doug, as his family was very close knit. On his very first week back at work, he was landing back at his home base at Dallas-Fort Worth when the right main landing gear assembly shattered. The aircraft skidded down the runway, with Doug and his first officer both on the controls, desperately fighting to keep the old 727 on the runway. Doug told me that the flight attendants performed beautifully; everyone evacuated the aircraft without so much as a sprained ankle. Oh yeah, and the senior flight attendant on board was twenty-five years old.

The 757 lands without incident. I'm really glad I've avoided sharing a similar landing gear experience with Doug.

My scheduled two-hour layover in Los Angeles turns into a three hour layover, due to weather delays out east. I eat more overpriced food (there’s a special place in hell for those who gouge layover victims), and watch what seems like a procession of women with store-bought breasts walk by, where I sit typing away on this blog.

I arrive in New Orleans, then take a shuttle van to where my car is parked. The parking tab is gonna hurt. I've brought along a portable jump starter just in case, since my car hasn't been started in three and a half months. However, my little Ford Focus "airport car," which I bought as a salvage vehicle from some Russian guys in Sacramento, starts right up, like I'd just run it the day before.

I drive the two and a half hours to Lafayette, where my employer's headquarters is located. Tomorrow is my "return to work interview." I'll talk with three or four managers, and then wait around to learn whether they think I'm "ready" to go back to work. The story is that they want to feel assured that we striking pilots returning to work won't confront the guys and gals who agitated for a strike, then left others to take the heat by going back to work--or never going out at all.

I check into a hotel room scored on Priceline. I'm glad I got a good deal on it, because I feel irritated to hell when I learn that this Hilton property charges for wireless internet access and local phone calls. Pretty chintzy, if you ask me, considering they charge $139 a room on Expedia.

I shower, then stand looking out the window, waiting to wind down enough to sleep. I feel seriously down. I feel as if I've abandoned my wife and little boy for a piddly-ass reason: making a living. (No, the savings weren't going to last forever, but that fact was lost on me at the moment.) For some reason, a phone conversation I'd had with my wife a couple of years earlier comes to mind. She related a conversation she had with Dylan, the day after I'd jumped on a flight to go to work in the Gulf of Mexico.

Dylan says, "Momma, I like being a boy." He says that rather cheerfully.

Rhonda chuckles. "Well good, Honey, I'm glad you like being a boy. What made you think of that?"

Now Dylan doesn't look so cheerful. "Because when I'm a grownup, I want to be a woman."

I gulped. Sheesh, had my little four year-old developed a gender identity issue?

"Dylan, if you like being a boy, why would you want to be a woman when you grow up?

Dylan continues, "Well, when I grow up, I'll probably become a parent."

"Well, sure," Rhonda replies. "Is that why you'd rather be a woman?"



Dylan looked away for a moment, then met Rhonda's eyes.

"Because men fly away."

Aw hell. Why am I thinking of this now, my first night away, two thousand miles from home?

I give up on winding down, and go to bed anyway. A happier, more welcome memory soon comes to me.

Dylan was a late walker, but an early talker. One night, a month or two before he turned two, we were reading to him in bed. When Rhonda reached the end of the story, Dylan blurted out, "BE END." It tickled the heck out of Rhonda and me. We always pronounced the "the" in "The End" as "thee," and Dylan apparently thought, in his sleepy state, that we were reading out "be end." We thought it was so doggone cute that we couldn't bring ourselves to correct him. For the next year or so, Dylan would always say "be end" at the end of a story.

I smile at that memory. I've rejoined the Away-Dad Nation, but I hold my loved ones in my heart. Yes, I hate being away from them, and I wonder if I'm doing the right thing by returning to my career. Still, I consider some flip sides of the heartaches that come with such a life. For one, going home after two weeks makes me feel like a little kid on Christmas morning. For another, it's very unlikely that I'll ever take my wife and son for granted. And, there's nothing like those "welcome home" hugs.

Something else occurs to me, lying there alone in the dark. It's all about the opportunity to cherish. "Absence makes the heart grow fonder," Eleanor Roosevelt said. There's a lot of truth in that one. The feeling of cherishing my loved ones when I'm away seems ever-present. There is an intensity there, an intensity insulated from the sometimes dulling effects of day-to-day routine. I miss my wife and son immensely, but the cherishing leavens the sorrow with a certain sweetness, a sweetness made more pure by absence.

I lie there, with memories of my wife and son swirling through my head, until sleep comes. That's one way I deal with life in the Away-Dad Nation.

Be end.


Bob Barbanes said...

Nice post, Hal. I can so totally sympathize. And you know, that duality of reality - our "at home" selves and our "at work" selves...I hated that. Even though I didn't have a family to leave behind, I didn't like leaving my life behind, such as it was. And I was only away for one week at a time.

The bizarre thing is that companies like PHI think the schedule is some sort of bonus instead of a hardship. And if more pilots were actually conscious, like you, they'd realize and see it for what it is. It's obvious that you love your family very much - you're a lucky man. I know you're probably happy about getting back to work, but I sort of feel badly for you.

And by the way, the bottom of your post is NOT "be end." What happened with the interview? How's it going? What's life like in the post-union PHI?

Hal Johnson said...

You're right, Bob, that "duality" exists whether one has a family or not. I was single until the age of 38, and I remember the feeling of leaving my life behind. Friends, favorite establishments, the Harley, sleeping in the same bed. You're also spot on in noting that folks from the outside looking in see our schedule and think, "Wow, half the year off," without having a grasp of the personal costs. It's a strange life, to be sure.

David said...

I'm getting caught up on your blog.
I appreciate what you have to say a great deal.
I really can relate to a lot of it.

Roland said...

That's rough with the kid. You sound like you really love your family.

I hope the interview went well.


Redlefty said...

Great writing, Hal.