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The Hardest Thing

“Are you taking Alex for a car ride, daddy?” Drew asked. His voice is barely above a whisper.

Drew woke up when he heard Alex banging his head on the pantry door. Alex was restive—possibly hungry, though he had already had a snack. And although I was in the kitchen with him, I wasn’t immediately next to him when he decided he had waited long enough for me to respond to his needs.

“Yes,” I reply to Drew. We are both looking at Alex. He’s standing next to the pantry pumping his fists against his hips in anger.

“I’ve got him. Now go back to sleep.”

“I’m sorry daddy.” Drew says mournfully.

“It’s okay, buddy. I’ve got him.” I try to put a slight lilt in my voice. I shoo him down the hall towards his bedroom as gently as I can.

It is just before 6 this morning. Kat is asleep again. She awoke at 4 o’clock to the first sounds of Alex stirring in his room. I relieved her at 5:30. We’ve been working under this arrangement for months now. Energizer bunny or whatever you want to call me, I usually am the one who doesn’t need caffeine to keep up with Alex in the morning.

Taking Alex for a car ride has a dual purpose. Alex appears to be calmed by the motion of the car. And I am able to restore peace and quiet to our household for a little while longer. Alex’s banging and squawking hardly makes for tranquility. It being a Saturday morning, who wouldn’t want to sleep in? Besides Alex, that is.

Drew knows this. That’s why he asked me if I was going to fulfill Alex’s wish.

Of course I am.

I grab my wallet and a bottle of water from the fridge. I put my Cubs cap on and, it being summer, flip-flops on my feet. I’m a sight alright in my khaki shorts and last night’s undershirt. Harried Daddy on the Go!

Alex awaits me, standing next to the door to the garage. He’s holding my car keys.

He needs shoes and socks first. I tell him this. He responds with a protesting slap of his hand against his head but knows I mean business. After I point to the chair next to the door, he flops down on the seat and allows me to slip them in place.

Socks on and shoes tied without drama, Alex stands up. I reach up and flip open the deadbolt we’ve installed at the top of the door to the garage. Had the door not been deadbolted, Alex would have long ago slipped out of the house. He has demonstrated this skill many, many times. He even knows which button to press for the electric garage door opener. He cannot reach the deadbolt, however.

We step outside. The early morning air is calm, warm and thick with humidity from last night’s rain. The sky is opaque grey. Dawn’s light is silvery and soft. With Alex awake or just by myself, this is my favorite time of the day. It does get old after a while when one has to experience it on just 5 or 6 hours of sleep—day after day.

I tuck Alex in to the back seat, directly behind me. After clicking his seatbelt, I pad one of his soft, fleecy blankets over his bare legs. He likes this. He shifts and wiggles a little, the faintest curve of a smile at the corner of his lips.

A few buttons pushed and levers flicked and we are soon motorists. I point the car south, then east toward the center of town. The streets are empty—one distinct advantage of these early morning sojourns. I make most of the green lights, too.

Alex is silent in the back seat. I look in the rear view mirror occasionally to make sure he hasn’t fallen asleep, which is rare. Instead, he’s just looking out the window with that distant, soft stare of his. He seems content. Every so often I might hear a chuckle. This is good.

Through Des Plaines we drive, crossing the train tracks that bisect the center of town. I turn southeast to parallel them for as long as I can. I’ve learned the secret that if a commuter train is passing by my side and if I keep up with it, I will make all the green lights at all of the intersections. Plus, I like trains. Maybe Alex, too. I always point them out to him.

Some days I relish the peaceful absence of sound. Other days, I’ll softly turn on the car stereo and listen to XM satellite radio or NPR. This morning I’ve chosen my iPhone and its’ 6000+ songs shuffled up. Frank Sinatra’s crooning segues into Muddy Waters’ Delta blues which then collides with Mötorhead covering The Yardbirds. The juxtaposition of all my goofy musical tastes makes me smile and keeps me from falling asleep. I wonder what Alex thinks.

I wonder about lots of things. Mostly Alex, Drew and Kat. I’ve got time to think. Lately, it’s how Alex’s behaviors have deteriorated terribly and how it has come to affect the rest of us.

Once upon a time we could leave Alex to quietly thumb through a book, or enjoy a nice spin around the neighborhood in the bike trailer. He used to love romping through the water hose or kiddie pool in our back yard. No longer.

Now, only a few activities seem to placate him. If kids with autism can be obsessed with something, Alex is obsessed with the sight and act of us blowing bubbles—soap bubbles. More and more. Again and again. Their formation, gossamer buoyancy and eventual popping are absolutely hypnotic to him. We’ve purchased bubble juice by the gallon. Our hardwood floors have become slick with popped bubbles.

Eventually, when we are simply out of breath, we will shift to Alex Approved Activity #2: YouTube Sesame Street videos on our iPhones. This activity can be fraught with peril too. Suddenly bored with what he was watching one day, Alex decided to drop Kat’s iPhone in a mop bucket full of dirty water. IPhones are great, but even wrapped in a sturdy protective case, they cannot swim. It cost us $150 to replace hers.

Our last resort, and one that appeared to get Alex out of bed this morning—food. By the looks of Alex, with his distended belly, he is one well-nourished (over-nourished) boy. Some of this can be traced to the side effect of one of his calming medications, sure, but some of it can also be blamed on Kat and I and the immature, naive idea that food, especially snacks, can be used to satiate him. I mean, who wouldn’t want two strawberry frosted Pop Tarts at 5 in the morning? Maybe a handful of barbeque flavor potato chips? Sure. Why not. We win absolutely no Parent Of The Year awards for Alex’s board of fare, I am ashamed to admit.

Absent those three activities (or a car ride) it’s just near constant nails-on-a-chalkboard whining along with slapping, punching, scratching or kicking. All of us. Even beloved Merrows the dog. This, coupled with poop catastrophes, diaper changes, spills, dented walls and miscellaneous bruises have made these past few months brutal.

Two weeks ago, we received final word that Alex had been granted entrance into a group home for boys with autism. This, along with a school devoted to only children with autism, would help him where we obviously couldn’t any longer.

All of this was very good, hopeful news. It meant Alex would be getting better care. And we would get a break from Alex, as harsh as that sounds.

As late as three days ago, word passed to us was that Alex would be allowed to move into this group home on Friday. Kat and I got ourselves busy with packing Alex’s things. We exhaled a little.

Well, Friday was yesterday.

While I was out running errands on Thursday afternoon, Kat was told that the agency approving Alex’s residency in the group home was unable to complete his paperwork in time. Friday’s move-in date would not be possible. Kat tried to see if any exception to this paperwork requirement would be allowed. She was told no.

Kat hung up the phone and began to sob. Drew asked her why she was crying, so she told him. Ever the compassionate one, much more mature than his age, Drew went to her side and wrapped his arms around her.

“It’ll be okay, mommy.”

Drew called me on my phone a few minutes later and told me what had happened. I could hear his heartbreak too. The news felt like the finish line of a marathon was moved an extra mile. We were already nearly out of breath, our strength gone.

I arrived home and consoled Kat. She shook with grief as I wrapped my arms around her. I repeated what Drew said, more or less.

“We’ll get through this.”

I don’t know how convincing I was. Mostly I just held her.

After Alex went to sleep that night, I called Drew out to sit with me on our bench in the front yard. Still sultry from the heat of the day, my voice competed with the noise of the cicadas all around us.

“You know what, Drew?” I turned and looked him in the eyes.

“I have done some challenging things in my life. I have taken some tough tests. I have passed difficult check flights on a dozen different aircraft. I’ve flown through mean thunderstorms. I’ve taken off in thick fog. I’ve landed in blizzards…”

Drew listened intently.

“I’ve carried your mom to the hospital when she was too sick to walk. I’ve held your mom’s hand while she gave birth to you. And to Alex. She was so worried.”

“All of those things were hard.” I paused.

“But none of those things were as hard as what you, mommy and I have been through these past couple of weeks. None of them.”

Drew’s eyes got bigger.

“This is by far the hardest thing your mommy and I have ever done in our lives.”

The words just came to me, and I was astonished to hear them, and realize what I was saying. I continued.

“And do you know what that means? It means lots and lots of stuff that you will go through in your life will be a piece of cake—simple, a breeze—in comparison. That is very good news…

Because to any challenge you might face in your life, hard stuff, like what I mentioned and more,” my voice started cracking “…you can say ‘I’ve already done the hard stuff!’ And you have.”

Drew thought about this for a second, then said “Are you crying daddy?”

I smiled, swallowed hard and laughed a little bit, then told him the truth. “Not yet.”

 

All of this is on my mind this morning.

Through Park Ridge we drive, then into the corner of the Chicago city limits, still pointing southeast. The sights along this route is comfortingly familiar for Alex and I. That old-school Italian bakery in Edison Park. Those two guys selling the morning’s newspapers out of a tin shack down the street on the corner, rain or shine. That stately old church, those lush green parks full of big oak trees, the occasional jogger, dog walker or cyclist.

This morning, Alex is mostly calm. I hear some rustling. A soft, warm arm suddenly wraps itself around my neck from behind. With just enough play in the inertial reel of his seat belt, it seems Alex has become a bit of a Houdini. Alex is now standing behind me, trying to give me a hug.

“Hey there buddy!”

Any affection bestowed by Alex is precious and greatly appreciated.

“That’s very nice, but you’ve got to sit down!”

As pleased as I am, I can’t let him roam about the back seat unrestrained. I pull over and grab his hips to push him back into his seat. He fusses some more, but acquiesces. I reattach his seat belt across his chest and lap.

By now we’ve reached the apex of our morning route. A hard right turn has us pointed northwest back towards our home. I feather the car’s throttle as gently as my foot can manage and I never speed. Not here, not now, anyway. We are not in any type of a hurry. Besides, the quick acceleration and hard braking so common on the roads later in the day tend to get Alex upset.

We pull back into our driveway. All told we’ve been on the road for about 45 minutes. I shut off the car and open Alex’s door. Through the living room window, Merrows greets us with a wagging tail and a smiling face.

Alex starts slapping his head again. Sometimes it’s like that—a nice calm drive that he doesn’t want to end. But end it must, and he’s upset. I shepherd him inside.

This is how it has been all summer long. Wash, rinse, repeat. But our hopes and struggles were amplified this week. And I believe what I told Drew, it’s the hardest time in our life.

And we’re not quite done with the heartache. Adjusting Alex to the group home will be fraught with challenges. Our home won’t quite be the same while he’s gone. But maybe we’ll all feel better when I pick him up for a ride in our car.

It’s hard

Drew likes sitting with me on the little wooden bench outside our home. It’s after dinner, after Alex has gone to sleep, usually.

Yesterday, while we sat together enjoying the warm summer evening, he turned to me.

“It’s hard living here. With Alex.”

The tone of his voice was soft and thoughtful, reflective. Hoping to open that door a little wider, I asked him to elaborate. Drew was quick.

“Alex is whining and hitting himself so much now…all the time.”

I also heard frustration and sadness.

“It’s just…hard.”

Along with Alex’s caterwauling and the obvious discomfort of seeing him wallop himself with his fists, or his tablet, mom’s cell phone or whatever’s hard and nearby, Drew receives little of what a typical sibling might receive in that rambunctious interplay that brothers have.

His is a brother that only shares disquiet and tension–and the occasional thrown punch or kicked shin. Little more. For his part, Alex siphons much more from mommy, daddy and everyone else, including Drew. Alex is not much of a companion. Definitely not like my brothers were to me, even when we were impetuous punks to each other.

But still Drew tells me he loves his brother. He tells me often.

And even while we were on a much-needed vacation in Italy earlier this month–and with it all the richness and beauty of this gorgeous land, Drew would sometimes confide in me, all of a sudden.

“I really miss Alex.” A completely disarming innocence in his voice. “I wish he could be here with us.”

Alex couldn’t, of course. He is far too volatile, far too impatient and far too disregulated to be locked inside an aluminum tube with 200 other passengers for over 10 hours.

Even so, Drew feels like Kat and I feel. All our joyous trips to the beach, or out for gelato or just soaking in the sights…none of it was quite as complete without Alex. Ours wasn’t a true family without him.

This is one of our goals, but we’re not there yet. Today, Kat and I took Alex to tour a small group home.

On the surface, it’s the opposite of including Alex in our world.

It’s a place where autistic boys, aged 10 to 18, might live under special circumstances. And with special supervision. We were invited to leave Alex under the simple premise to see how he would react.

Frankly, this rationale had less to do with Alex and more to do with the other residents of the home. If Alex was going to take too much of the caregiver’s efforts and attention, he might not be invited back. Today was a test for him.
I don’t think you can study for this type of test. You just go and do and let the chips fall where they may.

We did.

Initially, Alex was upset. This necessitated us fastening his helmet to his head. Which got him even more riled. Luckily, Kat remembered that she had packed some bubble juice and a wand. “How about some bubbles, Alex?” She asked.

Like a Hindu snake charmer and his pungi, Kat was able to distract Alex from any other disruptive behavior long enough for us to sneak out the door for the two hours they requested to evaluate him.

I am cautiously pleased to say that Alex seemed to have a ‘typical’ time at the group home. We will hear more later on this week, presumably with more information on what support this group home can give Alex. And us, of course.
Because…for Alex–he needs constant supervision. He needs careful assistance with everything from toileting to tucking himself into bed and so much more in between.

And we as his parents are tired. And weary. It’s hard, just like Drew said. We feel guilty too.

But like Drew said, we still love him. We always will.

Siblings and the Folly of Comparison

Perhaps you can relate.

If you grew up with a sibling or siblings, or, once reaching adulthood you found yourself in a house full of siblings, you know that kids can share surnames, facial structure, hairlines, I dunno…anything that can be connected via chromosome handoff to one another. But that might be as far as it goes.

Maybe ‘sharing’ isn’t exactly the most fitting word. Lord knows having to share an open bag of Doritos or the video game console or even the back seat of a car with my brothers was like asking two warring Middle East countries to put down their weapons and hug things out. It just doesn’t happen sometimes, even with great parents (like we were blessed with) trying to show us by walking the walk.

Drew and Alex shared many common traits when they were younger. Born after almost identical gestation periods, delivery length identical, weight on the baby scale only two ounces apart. They even reached many of the milestones infants and toddlers reach almost exactly the same. It wasn’t really until after Alex reached the age of two that their ‘sharing’ of traits diverged.

Alex was diagnosed with autism officially 10 months later. I had my doubts many months before then. And I rationalized away some of his autistic traits because he and Drew had, until then, been so very similar. I didn’t listen to my gut.

Alex was always a fussy baby. He would always need to be held or rocked before he’d fall asleep. He never took a bottle of formula much to the chagrin of my permanently sleep-deprived wife. She nursed him for 21 months–long after he had teeth. I wince just thinking about that kind of discomfort.

So I’ve long ago abandoned the quaint notion that my two sons would follow down a path similar to each other as they grew.

When I’m on Facebook I see many of my peers posting photos of their offspring siblings playing sports together, or fishing, perhaps dying Easter eggs or decorating cookies. These are bucolic, wholesome and happy moments which should be proudly captured on camera and disseminated to everyone.

But the reality of my world, my family’s world, is different. After last month’s episode with an emergency call placed to 9-1-1, subsequent ambulance ride and many, many little flare-ups of behavior–some disconcerting, some downright shocking–have left Kat and I with the difficult reality that we are no longer able to meet Alex’s needs as we struggle to meet Drew’s and, finally, our own needs, both as a couple and as individuals.

We have been looking into placing Alex in a group home.

My heart is so heavy that my hands don’t seem to move quick enough to type the words that you’re reading. I apologize for the rambling.

As I alluded to at the end of my last blog post, our visit to the hospital emergency room concluded with a determination that there are few “correct” places in the fabric of our society here in our community to accept children that don’t walk the same path as most “neurotypical” kids.

And all the respite we can get, all the Sheetrock I can buy to repair the holes punched in our walls, all the gallons of spilled milk we’ve sopped up, all of the thousands of diapers we’ve changed, all the tears we have wiped off of all of our cheeks–none of it seems to be the last time. We are running an endless, uphill marathon. We are losing our breath at the same time our legs are giving out.

The proper placement for Alex is out there–somewhere. But as I mentioned, it’s not available right now, nor will it be around the corner from our home. We don’t know when we will have to drop off our little guy with his protective helmet, a few fuzzy blankets and a photo book of his family that loves him more than he might ever know and hear the door lock behind us. But it’s gonna suck when that day comes.

I keep on remembering that comparing our life to others is extremely detrimental to our happiness. I even wrote a ham-fisted haiku about it.

But to hope for happier days at La Casa Bertellotti is only possible if our situation changes.

>
Ponder this harsh ploy
Most conniving thief to joy
Is comparison

Mayday, Part 2

The view from the passenger seat of the ambulance is commanding, but totally foreign. In the darkness of the night, I try to adjust to the perspective of my neighborhood from what feels like the top level of a two-story bus. Behind my left shoulder is a rectangular shaped portal through which warm yellow light glows. I lean over, crane my neck and twist my head to look inside.

I can only see the top of Alex’s helmeted head. He’s still strapped to the gurney. The EMT sits to his left, with what looks like a clipboard in his hand. Except for the jostling and bumps from the ride, Alex appears motionless.

The cab is loud from the roar of the diesel engine, so I can’t hear if Alex is crying, upset or what. It’s all very surreal to me, to be perched up here in a big emergency vehicle. And I always wondered who was “privileged” to sit up front. Some privilege.

We lumber towards the nearest hospital. There is little traffic because it’s late—about 8:45pm. We proceed unobtrusively; no sirens, no flashing lights. I take this as a good thing, since any issue Alex might be having doesn’t seem to have risen to the same level of urgency to the first responders as, say, a shooting victim.

Remembering the events of the last half hour, I suddenly realize that Kat is alone back at home with Drew and that no one else knows about what we’ve been dealing with except us. I fish my cellphone out of my pocket and thumb the button programmed to dial my mom and dad’s home. Unless my parents are someplace else, the phone rarely rings more than twice before they pick up. Especially this late in the evening, when nobody calls just to chat. Without fail, my mom answers before the end of the second ring.

“I’m in an ambulance headed to Northwest Community,” I tell my mom tersely. “Alex is having some sort of a psychotic episode. We don’t know if it’s because of one of his meds or what…but we can’t control him.” I sigh.

“I’ve never seen him this bad.”

“Oh God.” is all she says.

She promises to meet me in the emergency room. There’s not much more to say, and I don’t feel much like having a deep, personal conversation without a little bit more privacy. I hang up after instructing her to tell my dad to check on Kat and Drew.

The ambulance rumbles to a halt in the sheltered parking area outside the emergency room. I hop out of the cab and wait for Alex to be lowered to the ground. His eyes are wide open beneath the helmet but he seems remarkably calm considering the circumstances so far this night. Probably as dazed as me, I think. The EMT and a hospital staff member help wheel the stretcher inside the automatic double doors.

As I follow behind them into the slightly darkened main hallway of the ER, it’s pretty apparent that we’re catching the hospital staff on a slow night. Few of the triage areas are occupied. I notice the doctors, nurses and aides are looking up at us as we make our grand entrance. A few of the younger ladies smile as they see our little Alex, the boy with the sweet face—who also is wearing a helmet because he can hurt himself. It looks like pity to me. I’m kinda used to these reactions by members of the general public that are not familiar with him. Whatever. Even pity is better than apathy or denial.

Alex’s gurney is directed to a small alcove defined by two half walls and a retractable curtain. He surveys the area a little and with another atonal bleat worthy of a portable air horn, pronounces the accommodations wholly unsatisfactory. I can’t disagree, but it’s the best we can do right now.

Noting his wrist and ankle restraints functioning as advertised, I go to remove his helmet. He doesn’t fight me. A nurses’ aide stops in to check if we need anything. Given how much Alex has been screaming, drooling and sweating in the past hour or so, I ask for some ice chips, water or juice. Quickly procured, I offer them to Alex by holding them up to his mouth. He’s not interested. I sigh again.

More youthful-looking aides stop by with standard intake questions ranging from the banal (“Is he allergic to anything?”) to the specific (“How much Clonidine does he take at bedtime?”) to the downright bizarre (“When was the last time he had sexual relations?”) Yeah, no kidding. Alex just turned 9.

Finally a true medical doctor shows up. She introduces herself as one of the attending physicians for the E.R. tonight. She is calm and professional. Her facial expression shows warmth and care—much more so than the nurses’ aide. She has more questions about Alex, mostly the same ones I’ve already answered. I take a deep breath and repeat myself.

The doctor conducts a simple look-see of our son. He squirms a little when she touches him, but mostly holds it together. I’m still having trouble accepting the fact that he is literally bound to the bed so even if his nose itches he can’t do anything about it. He doesn’t have the ability to tell any of us, either.

After she’s done with the exam, she mulls things over for a bit. “You guys have been working with a psychiatrist, correct?” Yes, of course is my reply. “Okay. I’ll try to get a hold of her, let Alex relax for a little bit…and see how he does.”

All this sounds sensible, almost routine. Keep an eye on him for observation. He’s certainly safe here, though exactly why he flipped out so hard and so aggressively remains to be determined. And in his red Angry Birds pajama bottom and mismatched blue Cubs t-shirt, he’s not one for the fashion pages. He looks bedraggled.

So am I. I stand next to him and gently stroke his forehead. I whisper softly into his ear how much I love him and follow it with a kiss. It probably makes me feel better than it might to him, I don’t care.

A few minutes pass and my mom shows up. A nurse by training, she actually used to work at this hospital, but in the quality assurance department—not as a nurse. She’s been retired for many years. But her presence is greatly comforting to me. Other than Kat or Drew, there’s no one else I’d want to see more right now. I get a big hug. Nothing can deliver more comfort in those times of need than an embrace by the lady that brought you into this world.

She tells me my dad is on the way to our house so he can be with Drew while Kat heads this way. She also goes over to Alex’s bedside and tries to comfort him. Offering him her iPhone with the YouTube app playing Sesame Street songs offers a welcoming distraction. I’ve never enjoyed hearing Elmo sing more than right then, because Alex is transfixed. Maybe he’ll be able to ignore the fact that he’s just taken an ambulance ride to a sterile hospital room, and that he’s strapped to a bed. For a little while, maybe.

Kat shows up. I squeeze her in my arms and hold her for a long while. She shakes slightly and whimpers.

I catch her up on Alex, the doctor and our initial discussion about psychiatrists, medication histories and the short-term plan. “Hurry up and wait,” is the summation. Kat sighs in unison with me. Alex is still watching videos.

We have to have a pertinent logistical discussion next. As a recently certified Boeing 777 pilot, I was scheduled to finish my final qualification flight this next morning. In basic terms, it’s a very straightforward flight to Honolulu, flown with two extra crewmembers. This means that although the flight is about 9 hours long, I’ll actually be out of the cockpit for half of that time resting. The weather at our island destination is beautiful and the check airman pilot administering my flight is an old colleague of mine. In fact, I’ve been looking forward to this flight with him for months. Rescheduling it would throw many wrenches into my schedule and his. Delays like this would mess up the rest of my monthly flying schedule, the days off of which I’ve already tightly packed with every other obligation of my family life. I need to get this flight over and done with.

I broach all of this with Kat. Finally I ask her, “Do you want me to go?” She understands. And she leaves the decision up to me. In order for me to get adequate rest, I need to put myself to bed as soon as possible. It’s well past 10pm now. My show time at the airport is 8am tomorrow.

The doctor returns from her phone calls and research. “I spoke to Alex’s psychiatrist. We agreed on giving Alex a sedative to keep him mellow,” she continues. “If you agree, we’ll just give him the shot and keep him here to see how he does.”

Before we assent, Kat and I ask exactly what the sedative is and what the side effects might be. I follow up with the question of drug interaction with the other meds he is presently taking. “None, really. Alex might be a little groggy or loopy tomorrow, but he should be fine.” Satisfied, the medical staff prepares the syringe. I’m not one for needles, so I excuse myself. I motion for Kat to join me out in the hallway.

“Do you think you can handle Alex at home tomorrow?” I ask her. Obviously Alex will not be going to school tomorrow. Kat looks over to Alex while he gets his shot, then back at me. We have a trusted caregiver who is available on short notice if needed. I tell her I’ll make sure he can help her in the morning if she comes back home with Alex. She’s satisfied with this.

“I’ll be fine. Go.” Kat is supportive of me and brave. She’s also much stronger than she thinks she is sometimes. This is one more example.

I hug her again, then go back to check on Alex. He’s put down my mom’s phone, apparently no longer interested in videos, but I have noticed that they’ve removed his wrist restraints. I give him another kiss and hug.

“I’m gonna get going, buddy. I won’t see you for a couple of days…”

It’s always hard to say and do this with Alex because I have no idea whether or not he understands what I’m saying.

“I’ll see you on Sunday morning, I promise.” One more kiss on his forehead.

My mom tells me she’ll stick around for a little while longer until my dad picks her up at the hospital. I give her one more hug, then a final kiss to Kat.

“Have a good flight tomorrow.” She says. “That’s the plan,” is my canned response.

That’s always my plan. It will be different, for sure. Hopefully routine.

I arrive back home about 11pm to see my brother Lou and his wife Reen sitting on our sofa with Merrows, watching television. Merrows leaps to the doorway to greet me, tail wagging. She gives comfort to all of us. Not just Alex. She’s the best.

Lou tells me Drew has been asleep since about 10pm. He fell asleep in his own bed, a detail I find odd because lately, when he’s felt scared or otherwise troubled, he comes to our bed for comfort. I take it as a good thing that my brother made him feel safe. I tip-toe into his room and snuggle him up. One more kiss on the cheek, one more “I love you, goodnight” and I quietly close his door. He stays asleep.

I catch up my brother and sister-in-law about the past 3 hours. Frankly, it seems much longer ago than that. I thank them both profusely for coming over to help with Drew on such short notice. They’re compassionate and totally cool with all of it, scoffing at the notion that anything they did was the least bit inconvenient to them. “Anytime Dave, anytime.” Says Reen.

I’m exhausted. I brush my teeth and barely have the energy to take off my clothes. I’m asleep seconds after I hit the pillow.

The incoming text tone jars me awake. My bedside clock says 4am. Kat has texted me with news that Alex is free to leave the hospital and come home with her. She pulls into the garage a few minutes later. I scoop a fast-asleep Alex out from the back seat and gingerly carry him to his bedroom. Tucked in, bedroom door shut. Kat fills me in on the rest of the night spent in the E.R.

“It was laughable, actually,” Kat begins. “They gave him a second sedative and, after noting Alex was literally falling asleep, said we were free to leave at any time.” She punctuates the story with a harrumph. I ask her why the chagrin.

“Because, after you had left, someone from the mental health department came in to say that they were unable to find Alex any place else to go. Obviously he’s physically doing better…” Her voice trails off.

Thus opens up a whole new world of concern we have now for Alex—his mental well-being. Ambulances and emergency rooms are great and fine for stabilizing someone seriously afflicted with a physical ailment. But where does one go when the ailment is within ones’ head?

No solutions in this arena would be forthcoming at 4 o’clock in the morning, so Kat just brought Alex home. She left with some phone numbers of people to call to ask for assistance, presumably during “normal business hours.” What I’ve determined is that the term “normal” doesn’t apply much to our life at home. And it bums me out.

Kat and I share an exhausted sigh and crawl into bed. We powersleep until my alarm clock sounds at 6:30am.

Drew was already up and sitting on the sofa watching Spongebob Squarepants. I am glad to see him doing something he’s done hundreds of times before. I hope that the silly cartoon would help ease the stinging memory of last night for him.

“Hi daddy,” said Drew as I turn the corner from the hallway and walk into the room. “How are you?”

He’s got such an innocent voice, I think. And ever since Alex has been acting up with such severity, he’s picked up on the stress that it creates in our house. He’s always asking me how I am. Kat, too. It’s so sweet and heartbreaking at the same time. Sometimes I don’t think it’s fair Drew has to be a witness to Alex’s unsettling behaviors.

“I’m much better than last night, buddy. Thanks for asking.” I’m not lying now. It feels good to say this.

“Do you have to go flying today? I’m going to miss you so much…” He’s got that hound dog look on his face to go with the longing in his voice.

“Yeah, pal. I do. But when I’m done, I’ll be done for almost two weeks…maybe more.”

I’m not exaggerating here. Once I’m finished with my qualification flight, I’m scheduled for a bunch of time off. I can’t wait. This time looks like it will be well-needed and easily spent.

Drew thinks about what I’ve told him, considers it and responds, “Okay.” I promise him that things will be much calmer today and tomorrow at home. I’ve lined up assistance from our family caregiver and one of Alex’s at-home therapist to work extra for us today and tomorrow (Saturday). I will be home before sunrise on Sunday morning. That’s a pretty good plan, and Drew agrees with a soft smile. He wraps his thin arms around my neck.

My flight to Honolulu and back goes well. I have earned the full qualification to sit in the pilot seat of a Boeing 777 or, as an on-call pilot, in any seat at home waiting for my phone to ring.

I began this story with the concept of emergencies, of needing assistance, and when to ask for it. In the past, many pilots have gone to their graves denying the gravity of their predicament. They’ve made the mistake of thinking that their request for assistance is a sign of weakness, of poor planning or failure to do something.

What I’ve learned is there are many people that can help, are willing to help and that do help—if you only ask them to. By calling “mayday” for Alex, we were able to summon help right away. What we are coming to realize now is, once our immediate needs are met, more long-term sources of assistance are much more difficult to acquire. And there’s no catchy term like “mayday” for that.

Mayday

I had another “first” in my life recently. It happened eight weeks ago. My copilot and I had to declare an emergency.

Every pilot friend I have knows what the term “emergency” means. It means things are bad. Real bad.

Airplanes demonstrate their unique and valuable wherewithal only after achieving altitudes and airspeeds which would otherwise be fatal, as Icarus, from Greek mythology, regrettably discovered.

So when something happens during the course of a flight that would seem to threaten this delicate balance between those unseen Newtonian forces that allow flight in the first place, us pilots are taught how to react.

Hopefully, it’s with clear minds and coordinated efforts, honed over time with diligence, focus and alacrity. That’s what good folks pay us for.

If the poop truly strikes the fan and we need help right now, it is possible to summon assistance from others forthwith. One of us will key our radio mic and utter the phrase “Mayday Mayday Mayday” in as clear a voice as we can muster. All other chatter ceases, even in the busiest of airspace. Someone needs help. Someone is in distress. Right now.

And that was us.

It was 8:15 on a Thursday night, light winds, cool. But I wasn’t in a Boeing 777 at 37,000 over the Pacific Ocean on my way to Hawaii. I wasn’t in any other airplane. I wasn’t even flying. I was at home with my wife and family.

Alex has had a tough past several months. The confluence of medicine changes, assistive technology troubles and therapy disruptions caused by unavoidable changes in his daily routine had our little guy careening off the paved surface. Just like when your car veers off the road, things can go south very quickly.

Alex had been having another one of his ‘off’ days. He had just fallen asleep. Kat was in the bathroom taking a shower. I was downstairs in our basement playing with Drew.

Suddenly, a small toy perched too close to the edge of a kitchen shelf toppled off. It landed with a shattering crash on the hardwood floor.

Normally a pretty heavy sleeper, Alex woke up instantly to the commotion. He screamed.

Kat and I both reacted immediately to the sounds. Even though I lept up the stairs two at a time, she got there before me. When Alex has had a rough day, any extra stress—added chore, disrupted routine, loud sound—triggers a deep, plaintive expulsion of emotion. SMACK! SMACK! SMACK! went the sound of his knuckles bouncing off the side of his head. From what we understand, this is a coping mechanism, however desperate, of people with autism. Any sensation—even his own hard fists against the skull, seem to scratch some itch seated way deep in his mind, a perversely soothing reaction. And if that doesn’t do the trick, perhaps just bashing his head into the bare floor or nearest wall will. At this moment, he’s vacillating between all three.

By the time I reach the room, Kat has already grabbed Alex’s protective helmet. He’s had a helmet like this for over 4 years. When he was smaller, it was relatively easy to slip it on over his head and fasten the straps under his chin, much like a bike helmet. But Alex now weighs almost 100 pounds and is built like a fireplug with moves like a competitive wrestler. He is stronger than he has ever been. And even with Kat straddling him like a cowboy riding a bucking bronco, she cannot secure the helmet to his head. I kneel down astride him and help her close the thick plastic clips. He’s trying to bite my fingers as I do so.

But this alone does not stop the rage from inside of him bubbling out in thick, unsettling globs. For along with the slapping of his hands and thrashing of his body, he’s screaming a torrent of atonal yelps we’ve described as his “pterodactyl voice.” Though none of us have ever heard what a prehistoric flying creature might have sounded like, the image of some massive, seriously pissed-off creature with sharp teeth and a sour disposition are presently what we’re up against.

Just wearing the helmet presents a dangerously ironic opportunity for Alex. Although he is now relatively safe from injury, he lacks the ability to mollify that agonizing need to quell whatever inscrutable feeling he has inside his head. The cushion of the helmet dulls any strike he may attempt against his skull—so he tries harder. The helmet can now be used as a battering ram, like a football player not following the rules of sportsmanlike conduct. He can now use it as a weapon. Alex lunges at me headfirst.

“I got him! I got him! Just get out!” I yell to Kat over the din, trying to at least clear the room of any other potential victims. Kat slams the door behind her just as Alex’s helmet thuds into my rib cage like a punch.

Though surprised, I am not winded, nor hurt. I still am much larger than Alex, and craftier too. Using my hands to push him away, I place one hand on his helmet and hold him at arms-length.

I can hear Drew’s young, emphatic voice, pleading from the hallway, “ALEX! AL-EX! PLEASE ALEX! PLEASE! PLEASE STOP YELLING!”

He’s trying to help in any way he can, though as only a skinny 10-year-old, he’s no match for Alex’s strength and aggression. Kat shepherds him away from the noise and into the living room in an attempt to sooth him. Alex has him rattled now, a still-new and distressing reality.

Back in the bedroom, I’m holding Alex at bay with arms fully extended, my hands on each of his shoulders. Snorting out flared nostrils, he’s now trying to kick me. Bare feet fly wildly like maniacal pendulums. With such force he loses his balance. I take advantage of this and allow him to fall butt first onto his bed. A simple twin size mattress, it rests directly on the floor, partially slid into the room’s small closet, doors removed. This creates a small, slightly enclosed space for Alex to curl up in and fall asleep—normally, that is. Not tonight, not now. He continues to squirm and fight me, fists clenched and coming my way.

Blocking the blows is relatively easy, as their arc is compact and clearly telegraphed. He’s so enraged that any sense of dexterity or cunning is completely absent. But there’s no change in his temperament. Alex refuses to settle down.

“C’mon Alex…calm hands…calm hands! Easy! EASY!” I exclaim, trying to employ words and phrases that he has responded to in the past. All in a voice that belies my own worrisome emotion. I’m trying to be calm too. But nothing’s working. Nothing de-escalates. He continues to wail and rage. His body writhes beneath mine. He’s in agony.

By now I’m sweating. My pulse throbs in my temples. I’m breathing fast. I hear Kat call from behind the door.

“Dave? Are you okay?” she asks. “Drew’s really upset.”

I can hear Drew whimpering outside the door. They can both tell I’m struggling.

Behind the helmet’s clear plastic faceguard, Alex’s face is red and wet with sweat and saliva. He is literally spitting mad. It’s taking all my effort just to keep him on the soft mattress. As a last resort, I lay my chest upon his, like a wrestler pinning an opponent. Alex responds to my weight in the only way he can—thrashing his helmet against my head, crushing my left ear. Additionally, he apparently has enough air in his lungs to let out a bloodcurdling scream.

AAAAAIIIIIIIEEEEEE!!!

I fly for a living. I’m often gone for many days in a row. In what few brain cells I have that is not presently focused on Alex and how I can contain him, I think to myself what Kat and Drew would do if I wasn’t here to help. This could have easily happened with me half a world away.

It’s in that moment that I realize this situation is critical. An emergency. We need assistance, right now. I press my hands hard against Alex’s shoulder joints and extend my arms, locking him fast against the bed.

“Kat!” I yell to make sure she hears me. “Call 9-1-1.”

Mayday.

She doesn’t question me, doesn’t hesitate. A few seconds later I hear her voice speaking in the kitchen.

“Yes…uh, our son has autism. He cannot speak… We can’t control him any longer.”

My heart sinks as I process what I’ve just done.

“Hold it together, dude…hold it together,” is all I can say. My voice practically a whisper under my breath. I realize I’m talking to myself as much as I’m talking to Alex.

We live less than a mile away from the nearest fire station, so the ambulance arrives in what seems like seconds. A fire truck pulls up behind, red and white lights slicing through the night on our quiet side street. Alex’s service animal Merrows leaps off the sofa and runs to the window facing the driveway. She erupts in a fusillade of barks and woofs. She was shadowing Kat and Drew in her own attempt at soothing—if not Alex—anyone.

I hear the front door open and two EMTs enter our house. Stunned and overwhelmed by all the commotion he sees plainly with his eyes, Drew begins to cry. We’ve never had to call the paramedics before. Trying to keep the hallway clear, Kat sends Drew into his own bedroom, with Merrows to assist. I hear him sobbing hysterically. I wish I could get up and sooth him, too, but I’m busy trying to do the same for Alex. He’s the one that’s the danger to himself and others right now.

Both EMTs find their way to Alex’s bedroom. They are tall, thin and surprisingly youthful looking—no older than 25. They wear identical dark blue jumpsuits. “What’s going on?” one of them asks simply.

Still straddling Alex with my hands on his shoulders, I swallow to clear my throat, then try to explain the situation as quickly and succinctly as I can. “Alex has autism. He is also non-verbal…” I go on to add that he has been through an eventful past few weeks with issues at school and rocky reactions to prescription medicine changes.

“And until only a few minutes ago, I have never seen him try to lash out and try to hurt me with such willfulness,” I state ruefully. “So, it’s bad.”

I conclude with, “It’s all I can do just to hold him down.”

One of the EMTs squats down next to me and attempts to converse with Alex. “You not feeling so good tonight, buddy? You having a bad night?”
Alex reacts to this strange man with a voice he’s never heard before with a glare and an atonal moan.

“Aieee!” he exhorts in a voice entirely too loud for the EMT, and for everyone else in the room for that matter.

I hear the front door open again. Merrows reacts with a chorus of barks from where she stands behind Drew’s bedroom door just a couple of feet away. A few seconds later, two police officers enter Alex’s tiny room. Thick bulletproof vests and walkie-talkies strapped to their chest make them appear much more like linebackers than public servants. Nonetheless, they are polite and professional.

“How long has he been acting this way?” “Does he have any allergies?” “Is he tired?” “What would happen if he takes off the helmet?” “Is it true he cannot speak at all?” On and on the questions keep coming.

Soon enough, the first responders in the room reach a simple conclusion.

“Let’s bring him in. Can you stop holding him?” asks one of the EMTs.

I react without an educated answer. “Maybe, but I don’t think he’s gonna stand still. He’s stronger than he looks.”

By now, Kat has entered the room. “You’re gonna need to restrain him.”

It’s evident that there is no crime scene here, so the police step aside to let the EMT staff do their job. A gurney is wheeled in and moved next to Alex, still pinned to the mattress by Yours Truly.

It takes both EMTs, assisted by Kat and myself, to lift him and place him on the stretcher. Even shackling his hands into the wrist restraints takes effort.

I watch him wiggle and cry as he’s secured. “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my entire life,” I mutter ruefully to the nearest police officer. Now it’s my turn to cry.

Alex is still wearing his helmet. Sensing his fight may be over for the evening, he finally falls silent for more than a minute in a row. “It’s okay, pal. We’re just taking you to see the doctor tonight…” I try to be soothing myself. I don’t think I’m doing a good job.

As Alex is wheeled out of his room on the stretcher, Drew calls out to me from the small gap in his doorway.

“Are you okay, Daddy? I heard Alex get so upset. Why can’t he stop whining?” Drew’s concern for me and his mom are real and extremely heartening. We just don’t have many good, concrete answers for him. God, I wish I did.

“Yes, Drew…I’m fine.” I don’t know why, but I lie. Really, this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I am pretty far from fine.

“Will Alex be okay? Is he gonna ever come home?” Drew is choking back tears.

Kat answers him before I can. “Absolutely. These nice people are just taking him to the hospital to get checked out and to cool off a little.” Drew whimpers again. We have not convinced him.

I grab my coat and phone, then head out the door for my first ambulance ride. Alex’s gurney is carefully lifted into place inside, then locked in place. After the double doors are closed, I climb into the cab of the ambulance. (To be continued.)

Eventful? Yeah.

Have you ever had one of those days that is more eventful in ways than you could ever imagine?

‘Eventful’ in this instance is defined as the ability to jar one’s conscience into the realization that life presents itself in ways and examples that blows the mind.

If that sounds too cerebral or numbingly self-important, let me put it another way: my life shocks me in breathtaking and heartbreaking ways. I felt like the needle of a Richter scale tracing my world. Sharp peaks and jagged valleys. All really close together and totally unstoppable.

I woke up 23 hours ago in the bed of my hotel room in Munich, Germany. 7 hours ahead of the central time zone, I had ample time to shower, dress and then wander the nearly deserted streets of this quintessential German city just as the sun was rising. It was cool and still, -1°C. Simply walking the cobblestone sidewalks and plazas, mostly devoid of others this Sunday morning. The intermittent chime of bells hung in century-old spires gave me hymns for a church service I attended with my senses. I ducked into a local bakerie, finding the perfect pastries to accompany a bracing cup of tea as my breakfast.

A few hours later, plopped in the right seat of an enormous Boeing 777, I was steering the aircraft north and west over the North Sea, then off the coast of Iceland, over Greenland and down southwestward across Canada. My first actual landing here at O’Hare in gusty winds as gently as I could manage and hope for. My check airman and both of our “relief” pilots said I did well and shook my hand in congratulations. “Welcome to the fleet!” Thanks. Really.

That’s been a dream of mine since, I dunno, 6? Check that box.

I drive home, a couple of presents for Drew and Alex tucked into my suitcase and a bottle of German wine for Kat under my arm. Triumphant, I wave to her as she sees me pull up the driveway. She looks surprised to see me.

“I thought you weren’t coming home until tomorrow!” No, silly, today! Alex is at her knees, pushing against the door to get outside.

She relents and he succeeds, rushing up to me in that kinda vacant, kinda “hey, I know you” look that I’ve grown accustomed to given his autistic mannerisms. His eyes meet mine, then shift away. He yanks at the left rear door handle of my car and climbs in. He wants to go for a ride.

Fine with me. But where’s Drew, I ask.

Kat tells me Drew is at my moms–his grandmother. “Drew has had a terrible day.”

Why? Kat points down to the driveway we are standing on. Beneath our feet, Drew has written–to no one in particular–a five sentence paragraph in blue sidewalk chalk. Obviously of his own volition.

“Alex was not being nice to me. Today he kicked, punched and scratched me. It makes me very sad. I don’t know what to do. Do you?”

Kat adds, “Yesterday was one of the toughest days I’ve ever had with Alex. He lashed out at me, Angela (one of our caregivers) and Drew. He took it especially hard. I brought him over to your mom’s so he could have a break of his own.”

“I didn’t want to tell you when I spoke to you yesterday. You were having such a great day…” She admitted.

The sublime beauty of my morning in Munich, my smooth flight home and my first honest-to-goodness landing in a 450,000 pound widebody jetliner has been eclipsed by news that my family was haggard and reeling from a physically and emotionally exhausting weekend.

That Richtor scale needle jumps up, then down so so so fast sometimes around here.

I buckled Alex up in his seat, closed the car door, ran inside and changed out of my uniform. Sometimes Alex needs a car ride, or a trip to the playground–or both–to reset his disposition. I told him we were going to do both.

To a big local park we drove–his favorite. He leapt out of the car, proceeded to run to the slides and swingsets. Other boys and girls and their parents were there too, taking advantage of the mild temperatures. I shadowed Alex closely, knowing well that he could easily run off a ladder, or into a swing or, worst of all, into another kid. I chased him like this for about 15 minutes. Alex moved constantly. Other than pulling ropes of saliva out of his mouth and playing with them, he actually behaved quite well.

Another dad called out to me. “How old is your son?”

Not expecting such an inquiry from a stranger, especially when it’s obvious Alex is truly different than any other little boy or girl at the playground, I turned to look at this guy. Before I could answer him, he asked another question. “Does he have autism?”

This made me freeze. “Yes, he does. Alex is 8.”

“I kinda thought so,” the stranger dad said back to me, then motioned to the much smaller boy at his feet, scooping up handfuls of wood chips and obsessively kneading them with his fingers. “My son is 3. He has autism too.”

I looked at his son. I could tell he was in his own little world, just like Alex. Oh man. This father is just trying to allow his son an outlet–and maybe a little release–from the straightjacket of autism. Just like I was trying to do.

“It’s good to see you doing what you’re doing with your son”, said the dad. Funny, I felt the same way. I smiled back at him and offered my hand. “I’m Dave.” He told me his name.

“Right back at ya. Others will never know the lengths we will go to or the depths of our patience we will show…sometimes.” He smiled back and nodded.

By now, Alex was darting off again, so our little bonding moment was quickly over. Scarcely a minute later I had loaded Alex up in the car and was driving him home. In the whirlwind of events around here, I had already forgotten the other dad’s name.

After dropping Alex back off with Kat at the house, I went to pick up Drew. Since he was expecting me tomorrow, not today, the surprise was a delight. For both of us. Drive-thru cheeseburgers, a new Minecraft figure and a big bag of genuine German gummi bears later, Drew crowed, “This was the best part of my weekend!”

And that’s it. The seismic needle that is my life works both sides of the case whether I want it to or not. I was furloughed for a total of 8 years, but that’s what happens in my chosen profession. I didn’t bargain for a son with autism, but I knew I always wanted to be a dad. You just get what you get. I chose this.

Divert To Kenai – The Postscript (Finally!)

Now that I have finally given painful birth to the entire story of our divert to Kenai, I am compelled to tie up a couple of loose ends.

First, I did take a few photos from our predicament.  Most I cannot share due to limitations associated with my employer.  This photo, I can.  It shows the view from our cockpit window looking southeast across the vast parking ramp toward the tiny terminal building.  I shot this just after we arrived at the jet the morning after the divert.

IMG_1143

My reason for writing about this whole odyssey was simply because many of my friends and colleagues are professional pilots.  They, too, might find themselves in an intractable situation just like we had found ourselves.  Perhaps a nugget or two of insight or wisdom or absurdity will be remembered.  I certainly will not soon forget the lessons this event richly provided me.

The biggest lesson I learned was based off of my feeling of regret and failure–after being convinced to go, leaving Logan and Kelly vulnerable to punitive action by their supervisors if they chose not to.  They were just doing as they were trained.  So was I, initially.

But I should have stood up for the two of them.  How?

I should have walked off the airplane. Packed up my stuff and trundled off into the terminal. “Find someone else to fly the plane,” is what I would have said.

Really, nothing punitive was going to happen to me. My job was safe. I had all the legal, procedural and ethical right to do so firmly on my side.

Of course feeling the wrath of 75 customers would not have been terribly enjoyable—there was little space for me to hide in the Kenai terminal building. Word would have traveled quickly. I would have had a big red target on my head for everyone to shoot at.

But…my actions would have bluntly shown to my airline just how unsatisfactory Kenai served as a “legal alternate” for poor weather in Anchorage. Yep, doing so was legal and safe. We did arrive in Kenai with no issues other than poor weather in Anchorage.

However, soon after that, the prickly enormity of our problems began to manifest. No dedicated ground personnel to assist us. No lavatory service. No jetway. Only one fuel truck. Most of all, no TSA security. Because if there was a problem with something of ours—a mechanical problem with the plane, serious weather conditions or, what ultimately befell us—a duty time issue—we would be sunk.

And so would another of our company aircraft if they had the misfortune of having to divert to Kenai.

Which leads me to another point. As used, our Boeing 737 aircraft is sometimes a poor choice for this route—at least from a standpoint of flight range. We really and truly had only one legal alternate that night with the forecast weather for Anchorage—Kenai. We did not have the range to legally fly to Fairbanks—a much more suitable alternate airport had we needed it. And this cold, snowy evening in March of last year, we did.

What could the company have done in this case? They could have planned on us stopping for fuel somewhere along our route, short of our destination. This, too, is not so simple. It adds flight duty time and complexity to our day’s mission. Still—the ramifications of diverting to Kenai easily surpassed any 45-minute “tech” stop in Edmonton or Winnipeg for extra fuel.

Other technical gotchas reared their ugly heads. Captain John and I knew next to nothing about the Kenai airport before having to divert there. What little our company provided us regarding airport facilities really was after the fact. No facilities for our passengers if we get stranded there? Really? Then why the hell are we using it as an alternate anyway?

Two words: economic convenience.

Kenai works as an alternate “on paper”. As I said, over 99% of all our flights land at the intended destination. That’s pretty damn good. Rare is the flight that has to divert, but it does happen. However, landing in Philadelphia instead of New York City is much, much less of a hassle. There are more facilities there, more options, better care. In Kenai, uh…not so much.

This economic convenience—given the high likelihood of completing the flight as planned, makes listing Kenai as an alternate a compelling choice. “You won’t actually be going to Kenai!” our flight dispatchers would crow. “You’ll be landing in Anchorage!”

Of course we will, silly us.

Mother Nature had a different plan. It was up to us—John, our dispatcher and me, to figure out a Plan B—before we left O’Hare. But we didn’t. And so it went.

Economic convenience also defined the company’s insistence that we just fly our plane and passengers up to Anchorage without the screening. Getting three chartered buses down to Kenai would have cost money. And time.

But when this same company sends an aircraft like the Boeing 737 on a mission like this because the economics of operating said plane (as opposed to the Boeing 757, which used to operate this route), they should pony up the cash to pay for the occasional interruption to service. In other words, pay for buses. It’s the cost of doing business, simple as that.

But I don’t work in the rarified air of our company finance department. I’m just a pilot, a worker bee.

I did decide to buzz over to Cam’s office to discuss what had transpired in Kenai. I was especially disappointed with his lack of support to what I was describing to him. Disrespecting me aside, my points I raised to him were essentially dismissed.

I flagged him down in our Flight Operations area. “Hey Cam, can I speak to you, in private?”

“Sure, sure! I’m Cam! Have we met before?”

He didn’t know me.  I guess I was just a voice on the other end of the phone, though he could have found my employee photo in the company directory.  But he was all courtesy and friendliness just like he was on my first call with him up in Alaska. He motioned me to join him in his office. I shut the door behind me.

I introduced myself to him, mentioning that I was the First Officer on the flight that diverted to Kenai. It was only a week or two since I returned from that trip.

“I’ve been so busy around here…so much going on.” He paused, looked off into space, then…

“Oh yeah, I remember you now! Tough day that day!”

Yeah, tough day. Kinda.

I didn’t waste any time explaining to him how poorly supported I felt that day. Briefly rehashing all that had transpired, I summed it up. “I should have walked off the plane after what you said to me.”

He was taken aback again. Eyebrows raised, forehead wrinkled. When he spoke, his response was more backpedaling; more explaining how much work had taken place ‘behind the scenes’ there that day. I had heard it all before. Good grief.

I brought up the fact that the 737 wasn’t then and still isn’t the ideal aircraft for this route when Kenai is the planned alternate. Like a good middle manager suddenly pressed into a corner, Cam flipped my issue back at me. He responded that I should write down my opinions about this and then he would present it to the powers that be higher up on the food chain.

I just shook my head. I knew why he was saying this. He just didn’t want to have to deal with what I was accusing him of, nor did he wish to do the legwork associated with seeing the issues I raised reach a conclusion. He might be asked why he did what he did and said what he said that day to me.

“Why do I have to do all the work?” is all I could think. Shouldn’t this be his responsibility? I guess I now know the answer to this question.

Disappointed with my meeting with Cam, I decided the best way to make people aware of this weakness in our Chief Pilot’s Office was to tell as many other pilots about what had happened that day. I filled out formal written reports, carefully entering them into two separate databases. One would go to our pilot union; the other would go to our event reporting division of our flight safety department. The latter is shared with the FAA. Hopefully these reports would help trigger some change in our company procedures here.

I resumed flying my typical 80 to 90 hours a month. Most every Captain I told my story to just shook their heads in disbelief. Only one or two disagreed with what I had done (or not done). But all agreed that this was an isolated event, though likely to happen again somewhere, at some other equally dubious “paper alternate” airport.

Finally, I did run into two of the four flight attendants from that day, Logan and Heath. Logan, the man who brought up his objections first, saw me about a month later. He never heard a word from the company about what had happened that day. Heath had the same story. As I said, I didn’t think much would happen to them regardless, but I couldn’t guarantee this. The fact that the flight ultimately operated and our passengers got to where they were going was probably the reason here more than anything else. I’m happy of course that the company chose not to dole out any punishment.

Our travails found their way into public media the next day. Front page news on the local Kenai newspaper, and at least a few minutes of videotape from the local Anchorage television station. It didn’t make my company look terribly favorable—especially when they described the fact that most of our customers slept the night on the floor of the airport terminal.

We found out that quite a few other aircraft had diverted away from Anchorage that night. Most went to Fairbanks because they had the fuel to do so. Some equally long-haul flights that night were operated by Boeing 757s, an aircraft with much more fuel capacity. Not our company, given their economic leanings.

Finally, approximately two months later, a policy change was issued regarding flights outside of the contiguous 48 states to any destination requiring an alternate airport due to weather or other operational restriction. Essentially, the procedure now is for the Captain to verbally speak with their specific dispatcher (we have hundreds of dispatchers) in order to discuss alternate airport options and any contingencies that might benefit the situation.

This is good news, but Kenai is still used as a listed “paper” alternate airport for Anchorage. Many dispatchers have no knowledge of what happened to us that night in Kenai. Many pilots don’t, either.

One day I will earn the privilege of commanding a Boeing 737. Most likely I will one day fly back to Anchorage. But wherever I go, wherever I have to divert, I shall recall what I went through at Kenai. And I will back up my crew if there are sensible objections. And if I have to walk away from the airplane as my ultimate protest, I will do just that.

Thanks to all of you for reading this, my blather about the esoteric workings of a diverted airline flight to the middle of nowhere.  But also thanks for sharing your thoughts and interest.  Above all, I have much gratitude to you all for being patient with me while I tried to find the time and place to write this down.

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