Tuesday, July 31, 2007

S'Long, Bill

I've seen him around, now and then, for the better part of three decades. I can't claim to know him that well, but damn, I'm going to miss him anyway.

His name is Bill Uhl. He's been a helicopter mechanic with our employer, PHI, for thirty-eight years. Tomorrow is his last day at our Houma, Louisiana base. He's retiring.

I had a hellacious day out in the Gulf of Mexico today. We dodged thunderstorms and the occasional waterspout through most of our day, and when I got back this afternoon, I felt as though I'd been beaten with canes. My plan was to go back to the quarters, eat something, shower, then fall into the bed. But then, the area manager told me we were putting on a barbecue for Bill. I couldn't miss it.

Bill, for good reason, is one of those people who nearly everyone likes. He seems perpetually cheerful, conscientious, capable, and enthusiastic. He's just one of those who can walk into a room and put folks in a better mood. If you act in a bad mood around Bill, you soon feel like an asshole. I suppose that's why I'll miss him so much, even though we've only been friendly acquaintances, not friends in the true sense: people like Bill are just so valuable to a workplace, in ways both tangible and not.

Everybody wanted a piece of Bill this evening, but I was able to chat with him for a few minutes. I asked him what he first planned to do upon retirement. He answered, "Y'know, I've always been a procrastinator away from work." (That was surprising, considering his reputation as an aircraft mechanic.) "Thirty-six years ago, I started working on a rocking horse for my son. I drilled a hole in the wrong place, and I just put it away. My son found it while visiting one day, and told me what my first retirement project should be: finishing it for my two year-old grandson. So yeah, that's my first project. I'm going to finish that rocking horse for my grandson, thirty-six years after I started it."

Something about his story just hit me with a wallop. I felt a big lump forming in my throat. It was just so sad, happy, remorseful, and celebratory at the same time. It just got me. Bill won't be spending half of his time away from loved ones any more, and he's going to finish that rocking horse.

Bill, I'll miss your smiling face, your cheerful demeanor, and your unflagging patience with we sometimes trying pilots. Have a wonderful retirement, and God bless you.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Last Time We Worked Together

I don't discuss religion and spirituality with many people, because it's a very personal thing, and people can get upset if presented with viewpoints contrary to theirs. That said, from an intellectual perspective, I really don't understand atheism. I can fathom where an agnostic comes from, but it almost seems that atheists have faith that there is no God. Hm. So, if we had no microscopes, would atheists have faith that amoebas didn't exist?

I feel prompted to write this because of recent blog entries by Bob and Michael. It's a bit of a departure for me, because I really don't enjoy arguing, and it seems the fastest way to get the ire up of folks is to bring up religion. (Politics, too.)

But then, there is religion, and then there is spirituality, ey?

I believe in God/The Supreme Being/A Higher Power because I've sometimes felt a certain presence in my life in profound ways. Not often, but when it's happened, the reality of it has hit me between the eyes. And, while organized religions tend to leave me with more questions than answers (not necessarily a bad thing), I believe that life goes on after we leave this earthly plane.

One day in 1991, while flying offshore in California, we were trying to get a man off of an offshore oil platform who had a family emergency. The ceiling and visibility were varying from barely at instrument approach minimums to zero-zero. We'd waited for three hours for the weather to pick up enough to allow us to legally dispatch the helicopter.

We made three missed approaches, seeing no hint of the platform through the fog at our required three-quarters of a mile. But, the weather observer informed us each time that the visibility had picked back up, thus making it legal for us to try again.

I felt a presence with me that day, and I've never flown that well in my life, before or after. I felt absolutely energized in a strange and wonderful way. I didn't feel just "in the zone." No, I felt more as if I'd entered another realm.

We had fuel for one last attempt when we made it into the platform. Roger, the guy I was flying with, could only say, "Damn, Johnson." (From him, that was praise bubbling over.) The man got on board, and we climbed back through the fog and headed toward Santa Barbara Airport.When we leveled out, that feeling of having a presence with me departed. I felt deflated, spent. Also, although I felt relieved that our sole passenger would soon reunite with his family, I felt sad.

The offshore weather observer called us while we were enroute. "Good job, guys. The weather is back to zero-zero. I can't even see the water from my office." We wouldn't make another offshore flight that day due to the weather.

When I got into the office, my mom called. My dad had died that morning, suddenly, of a heart attack.

It took less than an hour to drive from the flight line in Santa Barbara to my parents' place in Oxnard, but it seemed longer. I cried. I wasn't ready to lose my dad. Like too many fathers and sons, we'd waged a quiet war with each other during my teenage years, and while our relationship had evolved into one more harmonious, we hadn't fully made peace.

"We always got along best when we worked together." That was my last thought before walking into my parents' house.

I can't offer concrete evidence that life goes on after we "die." But, I don't just suspect that there is such a thing as a soul. Nor do I believe that there is a soul. Nor do I have faith that there is a soul.

No, I know that there is a soul. I know of it because of that particular morning in 1991, the last time I worked with Dad.