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.


Roland said...

I'm not much good at keeping in touch with friends (or family), either.

The bad news on my part was most of Christmas Day was spent alone, but the good news is I realized how important my friends and family are. The best news was I got to pickup my son for dinner and keep him overnight. Just the two of us on Christmas night. We had a great time!

Merry Christmas, Hal.

Redlefty said...

Great writing, Hal. Merry Christmas -- both of them!