Sunday, December 30, 2007

Christmas After Christmas

Early Friday morning, I drive to New Orleans airport, just as I do every four weeks. It may be three days after Christmas, but today is my Christmas Eve: I'll fly from New Orleans to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to San Francisco, then catch the commuter flight to Redding.

My flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco is delayed. My heart sinks. San Francisco doesn't meet the criteria for "simultaneous instrument approaches." Although SFO, like most big airports, has parallel runways to accommodate greater traffic, those runways aren't far enough apart to allow simultaneous approaches when the weather gets bad. I'm supposed to get home in the late afternoon, but now I just hope that I get home before my son goes to sleep.

I arrive in SFO, and thankfully, my commuter flight outbound is delayed as well. I'll be delayed by an hour instead of a few hours. I feel much better as the turboprop Brasilia lefts off. There is always the chance that Redding will be below landing minimums, but in the eight years I've been making this commute, following the close of PHI's Santa Barbara base, that's never happened.

I end up sitting across from a young guy in a Navy uniform. I ask him if he's going home for the holidays. "Yeah," he answers, "I'm heading home for the first time in a year-and-a-half. I'm really looking forward to spending nine days at home." It turns out that the young man is returning from the Middle East. I ask him what he's been doing. "Special Ops," he answers. If you've been in the military, you know that the "Special Ops" answer translates to, "I was in combat, and I can't tell you much about what I did." The guy looks young enough to be a junior in high school, except for his eyes. His eyes look much older.

He tells me that he grew up in Redding, and that when he gets out of the service, he plans to spend the rest of his life there. He plans to become a teacher, and thanks to the proliferation of non-traditional college courses, he's working on his teaching credential. He mentions his fiance'. I find myself thinking that twenty-one seems so young to get married. But then, the guy seems so grounded, so wise for his years. He and his girlfriend have been together for nine years. I find myself thinking about my friend Ren, who was a Navy Helldiver pilot near the end of World War II. He and his wife have been sweethearts since before they started high school, and they have great-grandchildren now. I smile, inwardly. "They'll make a go of it," I think to myself.

We land in Redding, disembark, and I watch as the young man's parents, girlfriend, grandparents, siblings, and cousins mob him. I walk out of the terminal with a smile on my face. At the same time, though, I feel a tinge of guilt. It's the sort of guilt I often feel after talking with military men and women returning from Iraq or Afghanistan, especially those with families. After all, I'm away for only two weeks at a time, and my wife doesn't have to worry about losing me to a bullet or a roadside bomb. When I compare my lot to those doing a tour over there, I think that I shouldn't feel sorry for myself. But as I start the car, I sweep that little feeling of guilt away. I'm going home.

The next morning, I enjoy the "real Christmas" with my wife and son. I'm touched by how Dylan is more concerned with watching me open my presents than opening his. He's getting older.

I suspect that most members of the Away-Dad Nation would admit that the first day or so at home isn't always instant nirvana. A certain reconnection process goes on between a returning dad and family. Sometimes, it's awkward, even painful. Thankfully, it doesn't last so long.

We open our gifts. Snow falls outside, but it doesn't stick for long. We decide to drive up to a higher elevation to play in the snow. We spend a couple of hours throwing snowballs and building a snowman. When we get home in the late afternoon, Dylan asks me to carry him from the car to the house, because he's taken his shoes off. I pick him up out of the car, hold him close, and kiss his head. I marvel at how heavy he's getting. I reflect that the day will come when he doesn't ask me to carry him anymore. I hug him a little tighter. He grunts. "Daddy, you're squishing me," he says.

It's been a wonderful Christmas after Christmas.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Working on Christmas Day

So here I am, on Christmas day. I'm at work, over two thousand miles from home. I'm an offshore helicopter pilot, and the oil fields out in the Gulf of Mexico operate around the clock, 365 days a year. Holidays don't shut down the oil fields. Only hurricanes do that.

The thing is, I was originally scheduled to be home for Christmas this year. I work for PHI, Inc., (formerly Petroleum Helicopters, Inc.), and for the last several years, I've been a "pool pilot." PHI has fourteen bases stretched along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, from Theodore, Alabama to Rockport, Texas, and we pool pilots move from one base to another according to where we're needed.

Most of our pilots are "on a job": they're assigned to fly for a particular oil company. Although the pilots are employed by PHI, some pilots will fly for several years for one customer. Before PHI's base in Santa Barbara, California closed down, I was a case in point. I flew for one particular oil company for seventeen years. I saw the kids of some of my passengers grow up.

Anyway, a few months ago, an opening came up for a particular oil company. I decided to throw my name in the hat, because this particular company is very safety conscious. They're willing to put their money where their mouths are for safety, and they treat pilots flying for them as if they're part of their team, not just hired hands. I've enjoyed the variety of the pool, but I wanted to get assigned to this company.

But then, I learned that said assignment would involve a schedule change. I'd miss being at home for Christmas this year. I decided flying for that company wasn't important enough to make the switch if Rhonda and Dylan would be upset about it. When Rhonda talked to him about it, Dylan was upset over the idea of me being away on Christmas; I've been home for Christmas every year since he was born.

But then, Dylan came to change his mind. I think a big part of it was when Rhonda told him that he would have two Christmas days: one on the actual date, and another when I got home a few days later. And then, one night while away at work, I talked to him on the phone. I explained to him why I wanted to take the position: it involved flying for an oil company that was very safety-conscious, and it would be in a town with a few places to eat, along with a gym. "You could go to the gym after work?", Dylan asked. "Yep, I sure could, Punkin'."

I guess Dylan has heard enough of Rhonda and I talking about the benefits of exercise to be a believer. He once told me, "Daddy, please keep working out, so you can still wrestle with me when I'm twenty." (The kid slays me sometimes.)

Over the phone, I heard Dylan take a deep breath. "Dylan," I said, "this isn't that important to me. If you think me being gone on Christmas day will upset you, then I won't change things." Another deep breath from Dylan, then "Well, Daddy, I'm seven now. I can deal with it." (Have I mentioned that the kid slays me sometimes?)

So, here I am, over two thousand miles from home, working on Christmas day. Our first and only flight scheduled this morning was delayed by bad weather offshore, so we sat around for a couple of hours. I gave myself permission to feel sorry for myself for having to be away from my wife and son on Christmas.

And, I did feel sorry for myself, for a little while. But, it's a strange thing, being away from home and loved ones. Yep, it sucks. Yep, it hurts. The hurt, though, is a bittersweet thing. In the midst of homesickness and yearning for the warmth of time with my family, there is a certain clarity that seems particularly present when away from the day-to-day routine of family life. And, with that clarity comes an intensity of sentiment. Dear God, I love my wife and little boy. I love our home, our silly little dog, and our pesky cat, who often wakes me at three in the morning, demanding food.

I'm thankful for my old friends, who've stayed friends despite how I often suck at staying in touch. I'm thankful for my health.

I'm thankful for a way I make my living. It involves the heartache of being away. It involves frustrations that those outside looking in can't appreciate. It involves the small but real risk that I may leave a widow and a son without a father. But it also involves moments of sheer joy, and the feeling of privilege that comes with the realization that, after nearly thirty-three years, I still have the chance to experience magic in my job.

I'm thankful for the magic that is the Christmas season. It's a magic that commercialism, political correctness, and my own homesickness can't dispel.

Merry Christmas to you all, and may God smile upon you in the coming year.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Rippin' Off Roland: Songs That'll Keep Me in the Car

In his latest blog entry, Roland wrote, "I'll bet everyone has a song or two that keeps them from getting out of the car. If you can park it in the driveway, you wait it out, but if you know the people inside will wonder what you're waiting for, you might take on extra lap around the block."

It got me thinking about those songs that have really grabbed me. Yep, those songs that'll keep me in the car until I'm finished. (Dylan usually joins me in groovin' to the tune, but Rhonda will often roll her eyes and run into the house. Then Dylan yells, "TURN IT UP!")

Actually, if you ask me next week, half of this list might change. It isn't that my tastes change so much, it's just that what springs to mind will likely rotate around. One of the small perennial frustrations of my life is the tendency to hear some great song from the past on the radio, and think, "Oh yeah, I'm gonna download that or buy the CD." But, when I'm sitting in front of the computer, will I remember to order it from Amazon or the iTunes store? Naw. I could blame it on middle age, but the fact is that I've always been that way. That's one reason, for the last twenty years or so, that I've planned to always carry a notebook around with me. When a song or a thought comes to me, I could jot it down before it percolates away from my conscious memory. Thing is, I've bought lots of little notebooks for that purpose over the years. I always forget to carry them along. If I ever become a well-known author, maybe I can sell all of my blank little notebooks on Ebay.

Anyway, here's my first list of "Songs That'll Keep Me Sitting in the Car."

"Cinnamon Girl" by Neil Young. Especially the live version from Rust Never Sleeps.
"Highland Wedding" by Steve Morse.
"Gulf Coast Highway" by Nanci Griffith.
"Willin'" by Little Feat. Especially the live version from Down Upon the Suwannee River.
Erotomania" by Dream Theater.
"Moonlight Mile" by the Rolling Stones. Video here is from a movie of the same name.
"One After 909" by the Beatles. Video here is from Let It Be, of course.
"UFO Tofu" by Bella Fleck and the Flecktones.
"You Shook Me All Night Long" by AC/DC.
"Copperhead Road" by Steve Earle.
"Ride Captain Ride" by Blues Image.
"Jamming" by Bob Marley.
"A Long December" by Counting Crows.
"Goodbye Stranger" by Supertramp.
"The Road and the Sky" by Jackson Browne.
"Hank Senior Moment" by John Gorka.
"Black" by Pearl Jam.
"Hot Rod Lincoln" by Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen.
"Leprechaun Promenade" by the Dixie Dregs.
"Wasted Time" by the Eagles.
"Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" by Eric Clapton.
"Stay With Me" by Faces.
"If I Had a Boat" by Lyle Lovett.
"Past the Point of Rescue" by Hal Ketchum.
"I'll Stop Loving You" by Mike Reid.

And that's all I have to say about that. For now.