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Two wheeled delight

My guess is I was about 6 or 7 years old.

Being the youngest of 4 boys meant I was last of my siblings to do most things. Walk, talk, poop and pee where I was supposed to. Learn to ride a bike.

That last one I had to do on my own. When you grow up in the dust of three older, much more physical and athletic brothers like I did, sometimes being left on the sidelines meant less supervision, too.

This wasn’t always a bad thing. I took advantage of it. One late spring morning, I wandered into our garage, equal parts curious and restless. My brothers would often be out playing in our front yard. Usually throwing around a baseball, or shooting baskets, maybe riding up and down our relatively quiet suburban street on one of their bikes. I excelled at precisely none of these things.

In fact, I had yet to learn how to ride a bike. The closest I got was riding my Big Wheel, an all-plastic tricycle type of conveyance best known for a hand brake that made the right rear wheel lock up abruptly, allowing the contraption to spin out of control assuming you had built up enough speed. It was fun.

But it wasn’t a bicycle. Big Wheels were toys. Bikes were what looked like fun to me.

So, while nobody was looking, I threw my leg over the only bike in the garage that I could possibly ride–my mom’s–hers a ‘girl’s bike’ with the sloping down tube. I grasped the handlebar, kicked up the kickstand and waddled out onto the driveway straddling the frame. Even on my tippy toes, I could barely sit on the saddle.

My brother Tom saw what I was about to attempt, but, as I recall, didn’t do anything to stop me. Or help me, for that matter. I pretty much figured it out on my own.

I launched myself down the driveway, hobbled onto the seat and started pedaling away. I’m pretty sure I got the hang of it within a few seconds. I also figured out that if I slowed down (stopped pedaling), I’d wobble and fall over. I didn’t want that to happen. So I just kept going.

I think I yelled, “Hey Tom!” in half fear/half pride.

He looked my way for a second, froze in surprise, and said something like, “Dave? What did you do???” Then he ran inside our house to get my mom so she could come and see.

I remember concentrating on trying to keep going while waiting for my mom to see what I was up to. I rode up and down our driveway, turned left and rode up and down the O’Hara’s half loop driveway, and then on to the street. Luckily, we didn’t live on a busy road so traffic wasn’t an issue. And I only fell off into the grass after my mom qualified my feat with her own eyeballs.

That cherry thusly popped, my folks granted me permission to allow my brothers to find me an acceptable bike of my own to ride. Soon enough, I was the proud owner of a diminutive blue single-speed Schwinn Sting Ray, replete with coaster brake, mag wheels, a white banana seat and chopper style handlebars. I loved it.

This bicycle was my passport, my magic carpet, my ticket to anywhere my legs and lungs could take me. Sure, this was just in my neighborhood. But it lit the wick on my desire to move, to explore–to just go.

I can easily say that learning to ride a bicycle has been, and continues to be, one of the most delightful activities I have ever done, and still get to do.

Not specifically my bike, but pretty much exactly what I remember.

Rainy delight

We were both soaking wet.

I was wearing a plastic ’emergency poncho’ that I had picked up for free at an airshow earlier in the summer. It covered my upper torso, but not my lower half. My pants, from the thighs on down, were streaked with rain. My shoes squeaked from water with every step.

Kat was much, much more fashionably protected from the elements. She wore a natty burgundy raincoat and, smartly, wielded an umbrella. But the umbrella was one of those personal-sized jobbies, big enough really for only the holder. We shared it anyway. So she got wet.

However, what really completed the ensemble was an adorable water-repellant navy blue bucket hat, flecked with little white polka dots. It kept any stray droplets of rain out of her long blonde hair.

Kat prefers never to get wet when she’s outside. It’s actually a pet peeve of hers. “I’m made of sugar, so I’ll melt!”, she would pout in mock protest.

But today, none of that mattered to her. Today required her to be out in the elements. Because today was the day I promised her I would take her to the top of the Eiffel Tower.

Even in the pouring rain.

We were in Paris, of course.

This trip was long overdue–over 10 years, in fact. Because of my often callously rigid work schedule, I completely missed being home for her 40th birthday.

She understood why I wasn’t there, sure. But even when I returned home a few days after the date, greatly apologetic, with a bottle of wine and a measly card tucked under my arm, she was still miffed. I had planned no great gathering, no momentous celebration. I actually didn’t think it was that big of a deal.

Boy was I wrong.

“For my 50th birthday, you are taking me to Paris!”, she stated unequivocally, followed by a look that said “And that’s just for starters!”

Fair enough, mon amour. Paris it is. To the Eiffel Tower. Champagne at the top. How’s that sound?

“Tres bien!” said Kat.

So here we were. Ten years later. Clutching firm tickets–rain or shine–to the top of that gorgeous 120+ year-old (by then) wrought iron icon of all that is French. Standing on the narrow outdoor walkway that surrounds the uppermost balcony on the top floor. Because we are almost 1000 feet above the ground at present, we are entirely shrouded in clouds. Rain clouds.

There are no grand views of Paris for us to behold this day. As we nudge our faces through the latticework fencing that keeps spectators from plunging to certain death, all we can see outward is straight down, along with grey sheets of rain cascading from the heavens.

But none of that matters. It’s still a breathtaking place to stand, on this balcony, of this incredible landmark. Even if we can’t see anything and we’re soaking wet.

Because we actually made it here. Because I kept my promise (the champagne would get sipped a few minutes later).

Kat was beaming.

And just for a souvenir to forever capture her joy, I told her to stand with her back to the tower. I wanted to take her photo.


There she is, next to a brief description of Gustave Eiffel’s office way up there written in both French and English. In her rain-spattered coat. In that darling blue polka dot hat. With a rogue tendril of her blonde locks tumbling aside her most beautiful smile.

It is the most delightful image I have ever captured of her.

Comic delight

Back in the stone age, when I was in college, eons before people walked around with powerful computers the size of Pop Tarts in their pockets, I would read our university newspaper, The Daily Egyptian. It was a satisfactory read.

Published every weekday by our undergrad Journalism and Communications majors on campus, it did a decent job of summing up newsworthy events, covered what was happening with our sports programs, reviewed concerts and other artistic endeavors, and always carried ads for local bars and pizza places. Best of all, it was free–a broke college student’s favorite price.

It also had a page devoted to comics. Not a big one. Just a few very well chosen strips, along with a crossword puzzle and movie theater listings. It helped pass the time before my GE-B 201 class, ominously titled ‘Survival Of Man’ would start every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 9am.

It was here, in some auditorium in the Agriculture Building, I was introduced to the comic masterpiece Calvin And Hobbes. Calvin being a precocious, mischievous and adventuresome 6 year-old boy and Hobbes his sardonic stuffed tiger who comes to life in Calvin’s creative mind. Set in suburban America somewhere, the strip would focus on Calvin’s relationship with his tiger friend, often including his wry and witty mom and dad, classmates Susie Derkins and Moe the bully, his teacher Miss Wormwood and his dreaded babysitter, Roslyn.

Written by Bill Watterson from 1985 to 1995, the comic strip was unique in capturing the humor in philosophical quandaries, public education, environmentalism and opinion polls–subjects not normally discussed by a small child and his anthropomorphic stuffed animal friend. But to read these three or four-cell strips day after day, week after week, I got to fall in love with Calvin and Co.

He’s usually a little brat. But he also could display remorse, sorrow and guilt–things not typically considered funny. And Hobbes often provides him with blunt honesty, wisdom and solace even when Calvin is at his worst–just like a best friend would.

That’s where the delight in this artform is for me. It’s brilliantly written. Not simplistic at all. Bill Watterson wrote the comic for adults, or at least people who could perceive nuance. And when I heard that Watterson was going to stop drawing the comic, I was heartbroken. But when I found out the reasons why Watterson was stopping (lack of creative control, uber-strict formatting restrictions in newsprint, the incessant desire by others to profit off of merchandising the characters), I totally supported his wish.

Today, Calvin and Hobbes exists in rerun format in a few dozen newspapers across the country. Moreso, each comic, from beginning to end, is available in book form. And I have every one of the books. My son Drew loves reading them, too. I saw him thumbing through one of the compilations that I hadn’t read in years, so I picked it up. Ten minutes later, I had to force myself to put it down and get back to doing what I was doing. Now timeless, it still makes me smile with delight just the same as it did when I was a freshman in college.

I had this specific strip taped to my refrigerator of my off-campus apartment for years.

You can hear delight

Close your eyes and listen.

Take away the sense of sight and just concentrate on what enters your ears.

Hear anything in particular? Or is it silent? Do you pay attention to that ambient sound that surrounds us in our lives? Or do you tune it out as the white noise that our minds tell us it is?

I don’t think we pay close enough attention to what we hear.

Right now, I’m hearing the dull but insistent roar of the wind outside. We just had a cold front move through, and with its’ passing are gales of cold Arctic air. The metallic clang of wind chimes hanging from the pergola above our back deck seem to be ringing in protest. It’s going to be cold tonight and Mother Nature is saying so.

I also hear sounds of dialog from a movie that Kat is watching on her iPad atop our bed. Our bedroom is 50 feet from where I type this, but I turned the TV off to write, so it’s relatively quiet now.

None of these sounds are particularly delightful to me, but I can certainly think of ones that are. Maybe you can too. Close your eyes and think. Here’s a few of mine:

The sound of rain gently falling, as heard from an open window, preferably while laying in bed.

That ‘zip-zop zip-zop zip-zop’ sound that your legs make as one walks in corduroy pants. I wore them as part of my uniform every day of grade school. Comforting and warm.

The ‘POP!’ of a cork being pulled from a wine bottle. What follows is usually enjoyable also. Same goes for the ‘pssht’ when opening a bottle of beer.

The lonesome moan of a distant train whistle. So atmospheric and moody. Gives me chills.

When I close the glove compartment of my car, it makes the most satisfying ‘click’ I have ever heard. Feels so substantial, too.

The quiet of an empty church long before the parishioners arrive. Or long after they leave. That’s spiritual.

Not only does bacon taste heavenly, it also sizzles beautifully when fried in an iron skillet.

Whispers, especially of tantalizing secrets told to you because someone trusts you.

The metallic cling-clang a coin makes when inserted into a vending machine and the ‘thunk’ the can of soda makes when it’s dispensed.

The ever-so-satisfying ‘crack’ of a baseball bat as a hitter sends one soaring.

When I was younger, I used to ride my bike to O’Hare Field and stand directly in line with the runway as the jets roared to a landing over my head. As long as there wasn’t much wind, I could clearly hear the sound of the wingtip vortices–little horizontal tornados of air–sounding like cloth sheets being torn right next to you. And always at least 5 seconds after the aircraft had passed. The first time I heard it I had no idea what it was. Ghostly.

The incredibly distinctive ‘snap’ that Stewart Copeland gets out of his snare drum during the song ‘Hungry For You’ by The Police.

And of course–silence. Absolute stillness. Delightful. Did you hear it?

Can you hear the sound this just made?

Collecting delight

Just about everyone knows how I’m kinda goofy about airplanes. Ask them and they’ll say that’s an understatement.

And any airplane nut that’s been around the sun more than a few times probably has at least one or two models of airplanes somewhere in their home. Certainly us pilots. I have over 50. And not just any mass produced snap-together plastic or tiny die-cast model.

No, these are custom, handmade models. Each one perfectly to scale. And all painstakingly assembled by a dear old friend and mentor, Ted. Kits purchased online from around the world or from the hobby store in the next town. They are special.

Every plastic piece, carefully sanded, checked for precise fit and then–here’s the tricky part–glued together with modeler’s glue. The sticky, permanent kind that reacts with the material and fuses together. Get it wrong and the result is a model that is obviously disfigured or possibly ruined. Aircraft are designed to be symmetrical. It’s easy to tell just by looking when they aren’t.

And then the painting begins. Not just with a brush–that’s usually too sloppy. With an airbrush. And masking tape. And polishing cloth. Coats upon coats of enamel so the colors are glossy and rich. Done just so that plastic painted to look like aluminum actually looks like real aluminum. This is laborious. This is the work of an artisan.

Finally, Ted applies the decals. Gossamer-thin water-soaked film with the striping of whatever airline livery or military marking I wished for. Handling these requires a surgeon’s touch, lest they tear; and a fine eye, lest they dry crooked. Symmetry, remember?

The result? Exquisite miniature replicas of aircraft that, in very specific ways, bring me great joy.

As I said, these are custom. Their assembly were each commissioned by me. I began to amass them all after visiting Ted at his home over 25 years ago. Always fond of unique aircraft on display, I expressed my interest. Himself a retired US Air Force veteran, Ted showed me some of his finished work. And of his others in various stages of assembly. The details he added–cockpit gages in minute relief or individual jet engine turbine blades, for example–were all manifestations of the pride he brought to his craft.

I recall trying my hand at building models like this in my basement when I was 12. Gobs of excess glue sticking out from between wing joints. Paint slapped on in a hurry. I couldn’t do it. I didn’t have the patience nor the impetus to improve, and it showed.

But my buddy Ted sure does.

His works are works of art. They are museum quality. Each one is carefully displayed in my basement Man-Cave along with much of my other aviation memorabilia. They are all a delight to behold.

To me, anyway. A collector. An airplane geek. Just like my friend Ted.

Some objects of my delight

Gritty delight

To be honest, I really didn’t think I was gonna like this much. Kat and I usually trade off with dinner prep when I’m home for a stretch, so tonight was my night. I actually am quite fond of cooking and love a good challenge, which is another way to call ‘making something for dinner that my family will actually enjoy.’

I pulled open the freezer to see what raw materials I had to work with. In this age of Covid, we try to keep our larder stocked as fully as we can to minimize frequent trips to the grocer. So when I found the jumbo frozen shrimp and package of center-cut bacon, I needed to connect the dots to put something square on our oval kitchen table.

I nudged the computer mouse on the desk to wake up our computer, then entered ‘shrimp bacon recipe’ into Google. Although I have a small bookcase full of cookbooks from which to reference, I am still a neophyte when it comes to consistently pulling tasty ideas out of them. So as I scrolled down the returns, I somehow added ‘cheesy grits’ to the search. Don’t know how I thought of it. Probably from watching too many episodes of ‘Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives’ on the Food Network.

Boom! There was the recipe: “Southern Shrimp with Cheesy Grits.’ Photos, too. With the little crustaceans all plump and pink and just slightly seared swimming in a shallow pool of sauce formed by a healthy scoop of cheesy grits, whatever that was. I must say it did look appetizing.

However, who of us have ever attempted to concoct a dish–it could be a cake, a meatloaf or a glazed ham–only to find the product of their efforts looks and tastes less like a facsimile and more like a faux pax?

As I said, I wasn’t so sure about this one. I like shrimp, sure. And bacon. Who doesn’t like bacon? Crazy people, that’s who.

But grits? That mushy yellowish corn meal stuff that kinda looks like rice cereal? Who eats rice cereal except babies cutting their first teeth? Man, I had lots of questions.

My dear old mom did at least teach me that polenta is basically like grits. I like polenta alright–I am Italian–but I figured grits are to polenta as Olive Garden is to authentic Italian food. Did I really want to risk it?

Sure I did. One of the blessed traits of Kat and Drew is their gracious acceptance of 99% of what I may try to make in the kitchen and pass off as edible. Although Drew turned up his nose at the mention of grits, Kat was much more warm to the idea. So off I went to the store to get the one damn ingredient that I didn’t already have–grits.

Thusly procured, the meal was surprisingly simple to put together. Make grits. Mix in a lot of butter, cheese and cream. Fry bacon. Fry shrimp in bacon grease. Pour a bunch of fresh stuff over the shrimp like lemon juice, Worcester sauce and garlic. A handful of scallions and parsley. A couple shots of hot sauce, because, well…it says ‘Southern shrimp.’ Maybe some fairy dust. Spoon it over a big dollop of grits. Top with crumbled bacon. Ta-dah!

Or as Guy Fieri would say, “Welcome to Flavor Town!”

Kat loved it all, especially the cheesy grits. Drew loved…the shrimp. (I’ll take that from a 15 year-old.) I just thought it was delightful. Amazing what one can do simply following a recipe. Even for one that calls for grits.

Delight for dinner

Delight. Do you see it? Do you feel it?

We received about 10″ of snow in the past day or so. Before then, the frozen white stuff has been mostly absent around here this winter. Itching to be outside for any good reason to test out his new snow boots was my older son Drew. Cooped up inside “forever” (his words) due to Covid, the forecasted frozen precipitation promised to provide him a great opportunity. Namely, clearing our snow covered driveway and sidewalk.

So off we tramped into the falling snow, Drew with the snowblower and me with a shovel. It didn’t take long to tidy up our slice of the neighborhood even as the continuous snowfall guaranteed we would have to do it again later in the day.

The entire time we worked we were ‘supervised’ by Merrows, our almost 9-year-old golden retriever. There she stood in the picture window staring at us, eyes wide open, little pink tongue perking playfully out of her mouth. After years of living with her, we knew what she really wanted–to be outside with us. Because, other than on carefully leashed walks and the occasional trip to the park, Merrows rarely gets to frolic outside. As a dog trained to be a service animal from when she was a puppy, she has been carefully nurtured to be calm and obedient–a perfect companion for our younger son Alex.

However, now that she’s retired, she lives a life of relative luxury. Dog biscuit rewards after humdrum forays to relieve her bladder in the backyard, a chewy plastic Kong smeared with peanut butter and yet another dog biscuit buried inside every night, hours and hours of sleep on the sofa or in a comfy chair, her snooze often interrupted by us stroking her soft ears or gaping belly. She is royalty around here, and is treated as such in that coddled way a pet might be treated by doting keepers.

But that’s not what she wants right now. We looked very intriguing to her and she wants in on that. Our work done for the time being, I opened the front door and called her to join us.

Once outside, she looks around and sniffs. Golden retrievers have a keen sense of smell, and Merrows is fond of trying to detect whatever fragrance might be in the wind. Possums, skunks, other dogs…it doesn’t matter. And with snowflakes melting on her warm nose, she occasionally snorts. It probably tickles.

But what really tickles Merrows is deep, fluffy snow. And today we have plenty. With a little coaxing “Go ahead!” she springs over the piled-up mounds of our work and dives with a poof into the stuff. Pausing for just a second as if to say “Wow! That feels great!”, she looks around and gallops as best she can across the yard. She acts as if she’s being chased, but we don’t even need to. She is wallowing in that giddy way young kids do when they first experience how soft and different deep snow feels. She even decides to do little circles around the one big tree in our yard, daring us to try to catch her. We aren’t very close to her, but we lunge in a dramatic way anyway and Merrows reacts with a start. She jumps in the opposite direction as if she has just grabbed a forbidden slice of pizza off the kitchen table. It is exhilarating to watch.

Eventually she slows and catches her breath, wet snow caking her fur. Drew decides to test out his new snow pants and huddles next to her. He gently strokes her as that ever-present smile seems to get wider. That’s delight. To do. And to witness.

Merrows experiences delight. And so do we.

I got fired.

I got fired today.

Well, not today, exactly. Today…as in this date. 10 years ago.

I’m not proud to admit this. It is, so far, my biggest failure both personally and professionally. Looking back on it, I still wince at the experience.

With COVID-19, and the tumultuous upheaval in the world economy, I’ve been retrospective. You’ll see why.

My journey through this particular briar patch began through simple necessity. I needed work. Due to a confluence of factors leading up to what would eventually be termed ‘The Great Recession,’ I was slated to be laid off from my job as an airline pilot. ‘Furloughed’ is the technical term for this in my industry. And it would be, at the time, my second furlough, the first being soon after the 9/11 attacks. These, understandably, sent the airline industry reeling as people shied away from air travel en masse. Too many empty airplanes, too many pilots. The result? “Welcome to the unemployment line.”

So, in 2009, basically the same thing. Like in 2001, I had to find another job.

But this time it was different. I was married now. I had a family. A stay-at-home wife and two toddling little boys. Mouths to feed. A mortgage. We had savings, sure. And unemployment insurance would help in the short term. But eventually we’d be doing what economists call ‘deficit spending.’ Bleeding red ink.

Did I mention that the U.S. unemployment rate was around 10% at the time? It wasn’t going to be easy to find something in my field. I had already tried to find work as an airline pilot, this after almost 20 years of experience in the industry. The prospects were slim. None of these pilot jobs were anywhere close to where we lived, either. I definitely didn’t want to move–or commute–to a job that paid essentially what I had made 12 years prior–when I was single and practically living out of my car.

An old college friend of mine, a fellow I had known since flight school, had told me about his job as a pilot inspector with the Federal Aviation Administration. My buddy and I had almost identical pedigrees up the aviation food chain; flight instructors, cargo pilots, bizjet pilots and, ultimately, airline pilots. Knowing me as well as he did, along with my knowledge base and work ethic, my friend assured me I would be perfect as an ‘Aviation Safety Inspector’ (an ‘ASI’ for short) with the FAA.

He also told me about some of the perks of the job. An entirely livable annual salary. A 40 hour workweek. Solid benefits. Weekends and holidays off –I’d be a government employee, after all. Even an honest-to-goodness pension–something most airline pilots lost after 9/11.

“This sounds good!,” I thought, “I’m experienced, I’m knowledgeable, I work well with others…I’m enthusiastic about the ‘mission’ of the FAA (safety, right?) Be around airplanes and pilots all day making things safer?” The altruist in me shouted “Sign me up!”

I applied for the job. I solicited myself at the local FAA office. I made contacts with a few of the inspectors there, cultivating my professional relationship with them. Finally, I was interviewed by someone who would eventually be my boss. After another interview by his boss, the ‘Office Manager,’ I was offered a position as an ASI.

I started a few weeks later, raising my right hand in a sworn oath to uphold the good book of FAA regulations. They even issued me a very official looking badge, lest my nondescript shirt and tie belie my bona fides. No gun or other weapon. Just the mighty power of the federal government.

To most pilots, that’s intimidating enough. For you see, FAA inspectors have a bit of a reputation. They are the aviation equivalent of cops: sticklers for detail, hard-noses on check flights, cold, uncaring. Pricks even, sometimes. This flying business is serious, dangerous stuff. Bust a flight regulation or get crosswise with an inspector and a pilot could lose his license for a long time, which many of my flyer friends would consider worse than prison. That was the stereotype, and I knew it. Friends of mine considered working for the FAA as “going to the dark side.” Some raised their eyebrows and chuckled at the thought of me as a “G-Man,” but, knowing my need for a paycheck, wished me well.

I told myself I would be different. Kinder. Gentler. That this reputation of heartlessness was unfounded. I was certain I could bring my enthusiasm for aviation in all its’ facets to the office each day and make a difference.

I was wrong. I just didn’t know it yet.

At first, I thought I was doing what was expected. Novice inspectors like me had to complete a mountain of training during our probationary first year with the agency. This essentially amounted to lots and lots and lots of self-study at my desk, staring at my computer. Hours of it. Desert-dry subjects like electronic document security and workplace harassment, or how to refuel the office vehicles with E-85 gas, because it was less expensive than regular unleaded.

I also learned how to ‘properly’ fill out expense reports. But I learned this the hard way.

Some of my initial training required I travel to Oklahoma City, where the FAA has a sprawling campus not unlike a small university. In order to do so, each inspector is to fill out a requisition form that estimates, to the penny, the cost of every aspect of travel–from airline tickets to hotel rates to per diem. This form is then submitted to my bosses and, hopefully, approved. Duly submitted and having received official blessing that all was well, off I went to OKC.

I returned about a week later with a stack of receipts and carefully filled out my post-trip expense report. I clicked ‘submit’ on my computer and got back to more of my online self-training.

After what seemed like only a minute or so, the voice of my boss summoning me to his office boomed over the PA system. I soon figured out that whenever someone was hailed over the PA, it was pretty important–and usually not in a good way.

I briskly walked to his office. My boss was seated behind his desk. He was a tall fella, pear-shaped and bespectacled, with a salt and pepper mustache and a personality as distinctive as a glass of tap water. He told me to shut the door and have a seat. He stated that he had just received my expense report and had a few questions.

He read off of his computer screen. “It says here, your taxi from the airport to the hotel was $25. You estimated it would be $35.”

“Yes,” I agreed with him. “It cost less than I had expected. I guess traffic wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, so the taxi ride didn’t take as long as I thought it would…”

My honest explanation hung in the air like a fart in church. My boss just looked at me blankly.

Finally he spoke. “That’s not correct. If you say it is going to cost you $35, you need to submit a receipt for $35. Understand?”

Umm…not really, I though. Hadn’t I just saved the federal government $10?

“No,” my boss replied flatly before launching into an explanation of fiscal year spending and office travel budgets and the like. “The less we actually spend this year, the less we get next year. Got it?”

Ahh yes. Eat everything on your plate. Spend it or lose it. I see.

I related this story to my training supervisor, a fellow inspector, on the way back to my cubicle. He, too, had heard my name over the PA system and wondered what I had done.

“I thought I had saved the office ten bucks,” I said sheepishly.

“Let me tell you something,” my training supervisor said with a smirk, “The federal government doesn’t save money. The federal government prints money.”

Welcome to the Dark Side, son. You will be assimilated.

And so it went. Months of training, some of which even had to do with flying airplanes. I was told not to expect to fly much–that the job of an Aviation Safety Inspector really wasn’t a ‘flying job.’ It was a paperwork job. Like researching FAA regulations and how they apply to specific pilots and aviation companies. Surveilling those operations. Conducting the occasional flight check. But mostly paperwork. Lots and lots of paperwork. Forms to submit. Checklists to accept. Operations manuals and specifications to grant. There’s a joke among more experienced pilots: “What makes an airplane fly?” It’s not lift and thrust. “Money and paperwork” is the punchline. It’s totally true.

So, while I toiled at my desk in my cubicle at my office 25 miles from home, my wife Kat toiled too. Knowing the challenges we faced trying to keep our family budget in the black, she was able to secure a good job as a paralegal for a local pharmaceutical manufacturer. It did necessitate, however, the need for us to put both of our boys in day care.

We had found a very nice small Montessori school only a few minutes away from our home where Kat could drop Drew and Alex off before heading off to the office herself. Given her hours weren’t as long as mine, she would be in charge of making sure the kids were up, dressed and fed before dropping them off with the ladies at the school.

All went smoothly in this regard until the teachers at the school remarked offhandedly that Alex, our 2 year old boy, wasn’t talking as much as his peers. Alex was also exhibiting some strange mannerisms, like fixating on small plastic letters, arranging them in order over and over again. He seemed obsessed with them. When Kat or I tried to engage him in other toys like we had with his older brother, Alex didn’t show much interest. And even though we knew he wasn’t deaf, after a while Alex wouldn’t respond to his name when we called out to him.

Approximately 6 months after I began my tenure with the FAA, our son Alex, aged 2 years 10 months, was officially diagnosed with autism.

This clinical determination was shattering to Kat. And although I had a strong hunch that Alex’s behaviors pointed to autism even before his evaluation, it still stung to hear those words. My older brother Tom and his family have a son on the autism spectrum. In fact, it was his wife Sherilee and her incisive observation of Alex’s quirks months before his diagnosis that hit me the hardest. She was much more knowledgeable about autism traits than I was. And in Alex’s case, she was exactly correct. The official confirmation simply removed any doubt we had.

Kat and I struggled with this, becoming short and ill-tempered with each other. Tom and Sherilee had struggled, too. We soon discovered every case of autism is unique and different. So are all the strategies, therapies and treatments. Tom and his family fought through this no-man’s-land of bewilderment with action. They tried out all kinds of different ideas with their son. Many of them worked, too.

This offered Kat and I a little bit of hope. But there was no ‘cure’ or magic pill for what afflicted our son and theirs. We would have to find out what combination worked for our little Alex through trial and error. And it wouldn’t happen quickly.

By now I was over halfway through my probationary first year at the FAA. The tasks that I needed to learn, become proficient in and then demonstrate to my training supervisor were still lengthy. But like a ‘regular’ inspector, I had plenty of routine tasks to fill up my 40 hour work week. Staff meetings, public inquiries, certificate renewals, the occasional check flight–all stuff in which I had demonstrated proficiency were now part of my daily duties. I did not have the luxury of simply working on my training coursework like I had at the start of my tenure. I had to make time to complete my training.

But instead of coming to the office each morning with a clear, focused mind, I often arrived distracted and irritable.

As is usually the case with most families, our morning routine revolved around getting the boys up, dressed and fed. Kat and I would take turns juggling each of them while we put ourselves together for the day. Office attire for Kat, a shirt and tie for me. Drew was 4 years old by now, so he was pretty easy. Alex, on the other hand, was not.

In the weeks and months immediately after his diagnosis, Alex started exhibiting a disturbing trait. He began to deliberately hurt himself. Many mornings would find Alex crying inconsolably at Kat’s feet while she attempted to put on makeup. To punctuate his angst, Alex would suddenly begin bouncing his skull off the tiled bathroom floor. When Kat first noticed it, she gasped in horror, instinctively shoving her hand between his head and the hard flooring in an attempt to cushion the impact. Often, this seemed to enrage Alex even further, causing him to lunge his skull toward the ground with even more force.

Luckily, the first few times this happened, I was mere steps away. I could scoop Alex up in my arms and attempt anything to sooth him. I’d sing to him, I’d give him a cookie, I’d rock him in my arms vigorously. Like sticking a pin back in a hand grenade before it explodes, my ad-hoc defusing techniques would work. Alex would calm down.

But sometimes Alex would begin hurting himself as I was literally walking out the door. I needed anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour to get to the office most days. And when Alex first started hurting himself, I admit to being late to my office chair by a couple of minutes a few times.

Eventually my boss noticed my tardiness. I apologized immediately, promising that it wouldn’t become a habit. But unfortunately Alex’s perverse bouts of self-injury were getting more frequent. Several days I recall leaving Kat in tears, splayed on the floor in our bathroom as she struggled to hold Alex in a futile attempt to quell his agony. Alex would be writhing in discomfort with a red, golf ball-sized bump on his forehead and his brother Drew hiding in another room, holding his ears to block out the cacophony.

But I had to leave. I’d be late, again. I would reach for the door handle of my car, slam it closed, then start bawling my eyes out as I drove away from our home.

As one might expect, this personal discord began affecting my work. I found myself staring at my computer screen, rereading the same dull sentences full of legalize so commonplace in technical material I was supposed to be auditing. Occasionally, I would make simple math errors when typing out the expiration month of a flight instructor certificate, or a third class medical. All of these mistakes were minor and harmless–paperwork errors. But errors they were nonetheless. And now, because of my sloppiness, all of my work had to be double-checked by a co-worker or my boss before it was approved.

My third quarterly progress evaluation reflected this. In my boss’s office (again with the door closed), I struggled to clearly explain the root cause of my less-than-adequate performance. I described how Alex’s behaviors had devolved, including the mention of golf ball-sized bumps on his forehead that he had inflicted himself. My boss, in his impassive, unemotional manner, barely offered any support. I left knowing what I told him was the truth of the matter–my home life was a wreck.

The summer dragged on, with Alex’s bouts of self-injury continuing. Normally a sound sleeper, I began to wake in the middle of the night covered with sweat, exhausted. I lost interest in eating. I felt my blood pressure rise. I even dreaded walking into the office and seeing anyone else. By now, everyone in the building knew I was on thin ice. It felt terrible. I felt like quitting.

To try to catch up on my work, I would go to the office on the weekends–unpaid and non-sanctioned–unheard of behavior for an inspector. My training supervisor even asked me how much money my wife was making in her job. I understood why he was asking me, too. I now knew that being fired was a distinct possibility.

Finally, in late August, a “plan of action” with my name in all caps was cobbled together by my boss and his boss, the office manager, then shared with me at yet another closed-door meeting. This document laid out all of the tasks I had to perform before completing my training. It also curiously appeared impossible for me to finish by my one year anniversary, though it listed no specific date of completion. They told me to sign my name to it. It seemed pretty straightforward given all of the paperwork I had dealt with.

I actually considered this a vote of confidence in my efforts. I even decided to celebrate this development with Kat in a tiny way. With my folks babysitting the boys, I took Kat out for ice cream. 10 years ago yesterday.

The next morning at the office, I recall finishing up several tasks required of me on that plan of action. I also noted that a few of the still-outstanding assignments were unable for me to even begin until the next week at the earliest. In what I thought was a show of great initiative, I even strolled into my boss’s office, saying I had run out of things to do on the list.

My boss, ever the wordsmith, didn’t even look up. He simply said, “Yeah…that work’ll come” in his famous monotone.

About an hour later, I saw him again in the lunch room. This time he spoke to me first. “Are you all caught up with logging all of your training activity?”

I told him I was. It was a curious question.

About a half hour later, I was summoned yet again by my boss–in person for a change. No overhead PA announcement. But this time it was his boss, the office manager, who wanted to see me. I was surprised at this because as far as I knew, she had been out of the office in Washington DC for the past week and was still supposed to be there. But now, apparently, she was in her office wishing to see me.

I felt a pit in my stomach. I don’t even remember feeling the floor beneath my feet as I walked in her direction. Just kinda numb.

I entered her office–the only corner office in the building that overlooked the airport ramp where you could actually see airplanes. I shut the door. She stood up from behind her desk and handed me a two page letter.

“I need you to read this,” is all she said.

The letter was on official FAA stationary, addressed to me.

I read it slowly and carefully. It said I was being terminated from my position, effective immediately. Official reason: poor job performance leading to incomplete training within the probationary period.

I was to relinquish all of my credentials, identification card, keys to the building, everything that officially defined me as a Fed–right then, right there. I unhooked my ID card and key from my neck lanyard and left it on her desk. Then I sat down in a chair next to the wall and thought aloud. “What am I going to tell my wife?” The office manager said nothing.

Finally, I stood up and said “I’m sorry. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to work with you.” And I meant it.

I shook her hand, turned and opened her office door. My boss, seeing the door open–and knowing exactly what had just transpired–followed right behind me, almost as if he was expecting me to escape with a government stapler, which he certainly couldn’t allow. Not that I would have.

He followed me back to my cubicle where I handed over the most important piece of government property, my FAA Form 110A, also known as my badge. He and another inspector followed me all the way to my car in the parking lot. I’m not sure why. Perhaps they thought I was going to cause trouble on the way out. But again, that’s really not my style.

I once again apologized, thanking them for the opportunity. And once again I meant it.

I waited until after the boys had fallen asleep to tell Kat what had happened. I had no idea how she would take the news but I did know I didn’t want her reaction to be detectable to the boys.

Like I had hoped, Kat took the news in stride. And before I fell asleep that night, I do remember thinking I would get to spend more time with Drew and Alex again, and how much better that would be. Being home was so much better than being in that office.

It took me a few days, but how everything went down was pretty textbook government action. How so? I was terminated about a week before my probation was to end. Had I made it past the one year mark, the office would have had to go through a much more lengthy and time-consuming process to remove me–almost as if I had earned tenure.

I was only angry about one detail. I was never told about the existence of the FAA Employee Assistance Program (EAP) by my boss. Had I been, perhaps more of an effort would have been made to assist me with the difficulties we were experiencing at home.

Luckily for me, I found out about it on my own only a week before I was terminated. This program put me in contact with a wonderful local counselor who eventually worked with me and my family for almost 7 years. Her help likely saved our marriage.

My wife just asked me a few minutes ago why I’m even writing this down, let alone posting it for all to read. My answer to her is that it’s simply cathartic to me. Many if not most of my friends already knew what had happened to me 10 years ago. But, until now, some didn’t. And honestly, I felt terrible hiding this from them.

I did so because I was deeply embarrassed by this. I felt like I had failed. Admitting failure is not something that many are comfortable doing. Also, as you now by know, it’s a really long story–not one that is easy retold in a few minutes. But I freely tell it now.

I learned so much by going through this particular briar patch. I received my share of cuts and scrapes. But time heals all wounds and mine are no different. Ironically, it is entirely possible I might be facing a third furlough as the airline industry reels from the effects of COVID-19. I just don’t think I’ll be looking for work at the local FAA office any time soon. I don’t think I’d fit in.

Good Grief?

Are you mad, Bro?

Wait. Don’t tell me. Let me guess. You can’t find any more toilet paper.


Are you ticked off that you couldn’t find any more Clorox disinfectant wipes in the value size three pack at Walmart? Or maybe it was the jumbo 12 roll package of Kirkland Create-A-Size paper towels at Costco? Or that economy size 5 lb. tray of chicken breasts, all cold and plump and juicy looking squished into that yellow styrofoam tub now gone missing?

Ah…it’s okay. Your #2 freezer in the garage is pretty much maxed out for space anyway. Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise?

Maybe it’s that enviable number of stock holdings you have in Apple, or Google, or perhaps Tesla? You sure know how to pick ’em! Or, rather, you did. You might be mad because, man, those companies took a wallop in the markets this week.

No? It’s your 401k? Your retirement savings! Ah, yeah. That doesn’t look good either. That’s a reason to punch a hole in the wall, for sure. Lotsa cashola tied up in that one.

Or maybe you’re upset that this spooky virus is no longer some ominous headline from January creeping across the news ticker at the bottom of your cable news channel that you dismissed with a shrug. You’re possibly furious that, somehow, that rascally bug got out of control and they cancelled March Madness. Or Major League Baseball spring training. Or the Masters golf tournament. Even your gym is closed, for crying out loud.

Is it your vacation to Cancun (non-refundable)? You know, that all-inclusive resort with the sun, sandy beaches, buffets and bottomless margaritas es no bueno because travel south of the border has been nixed?

What? That’s still not it? You’re still pissed off? WHY?

Oh. Now I get it.

The restaurant that you work at just closed because nobody’s supposed to go out to dinner at them anymore and you’re out of a job.

The work you found as a roughneck in the oilfields of North Dakota is over because the price of a barrel has fallen through the floor.

You just found out that your kids won’t have school for a month while they clean and disinfect the classrooms of the virus, forcing you to take another shift at the auto plant to pay for their day care. But that plant just shut down too. You now must work to repay a debt that will continue to grow, depleting your meager savings. You will never catch up.

You just heard that the assisted living facility where your elderly mother lives has just announced their first case of COVID-19 inside those walls. Your mom is now quarantined to her room. You cannot visit her.

You went to bed last night after a 12 hour shift as a respiratory therapist at the county hospital and then woke up today with 101º fever, a dry cough and the inability to catch your breath. But you’re out of sick time and rent is due in 10 days. You stay home anyway, because you’re smart. You know…you went to college and learned a little about communicable diseases. (Too bad about those student loans you’re still paying back all these years later…) You now have to go to the Emergency Room in the hopes of getting tested.

You have reason to be mad. Really mad.

I do too.

My career as an airline pilot will soon be over, again. This’ll be the third time my wings will get clipped. Yet another 100% pay cut. The whole global travel industry stands to be decimated.

My family is now sequestered from others. My wife and elderly parents each are considered a much greater risk of contracting a severe case of the virus due to their preexisting conditions and weakened immune systems.

And the world I know, perhaps worst of all, is rapidly shrinking to the size of our homes, stuck here as we are. Towns, cities, states and countries all around the globe are reporting spikes in cases of COVID-19. More deaths due to the virus are tallied each day.

And it doesn’t take much intellect to figure out that this pandemic could be cataclysmic to economies near and far, small and large. Everyone will feel this, if not physically, certainly financially. For a long time.

Anger seems fitting. None of this seems fair. It is not.

This is loss on a staggering scale. This is grief. We are all experiencing grief. My heart breaks just writing this.

Most psychologists agree that there are 5 stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Most people go through them in order, but it is entirely possible to lightly brush against one or regress to another. It’s a continuum, not always distinct.

Unless you’re truly living with your head buried in the sand, you’re probably past the first stage, denial.

What I see from the words and acts of colleagues of mine, they are squarely camped out on the second stage–anger. For all the reasons I mentioned above and more. Rational or not, people are furious. They have every right to feel as they do.

But where I differ from them is this need to blame someone, something, some place, like China and all its people, wherever they reside.

Why do I feel this way? It’s pointless, that’s why. Does anyone think China will somehow send us a check in recompense for everything we’ve lost? I don’t think so. It is therefore a waste of emotion to me.

Personally, I wouldn’t do a damn thing differently. I love my chosen occupation. Best job in the world. I didn’t want to go into dentistry, though that certainly would have kept me employed through all these twists and turns in our world history.

I could have kept my earned money beneath my mattress, too. Just not a wise idea. It would have been lumpy too.

And everything living we know one day will die. This, my friends, is irrefutable. I hope it’s a natural death, of old age. But we have no control of this.

I get it. You’ve lost a lot, and possibly much more to come. Me, too.

But perhaps it is better to focus that energy and emotion on solutions to our struggles and compassion for those that have it even worse than we do. I think it is.

Grief and the stages of it are a part of any loss. Good grief, just admit this.

And don’t stay mad, Bro.

Wind The Clock

I started this blog a long time ago (it seems) with the simple hope that it would allow me an outlet to how I was feeling. I didn’t care who read it, if anyone. Back then, I decided that nonplussed was an accurate descriptor of how I felt. Surprised. Chagrined. Bemused.

But also not disconcerted, an important distinction.

At the time, I was in my 3rd year of furlough from my work as an airline pilot. It was my second furlough–the first one lasted 5 years–a grand total of 8 years exiled from my dream job.

‘Furloughed’ is a just kind word for ‘laid off.’ It still means one is unceremoniously shown the door from their place of employment through no fault of their own, with a full 100% pay cut as a parting gift. Being furloughed sucks.

Why do I bring it up? Why do I resurrect a moribund blog that I haven’t added to in almost 4 years? Because I’m feeling nonplussed again.

Unless you’ve been off the grid for the past 3 months, you know about COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus, which germinated in China and has now spread across our world like so many dandelion seeds in the springtime. The virus is pernicious and possibly deadly to a small percentage of the population. The kicker–there’s no known cure.

And it’s now pretty much everywhere. Why? Because people seem to spread it. Those unlucky infected souls merely cough or sneeze, then touch something with the same hand they just used to contain the snot, then someone else comes along, touches the same spot or inhales the microparticles and, ta-dah!, you’ve just spread the disease. Nice work.

How the virus became bad and worldwide looks simple. It boarded an airplane. An unwanted stowaway without a ticket, passport or visa. More coughing, sneezing and in some cases, dying. And as of today, on six continents.

It took a while for some countries to react. I’m not about to touch the third rail of politics to rant about what should or should not have been done sooner to stem the spread.

But I am going to feel nonplussed.

Countries both free and totalitarian, like Italy and China, have essentially locked down their citizenry as their heath care systems grapple to cope with the sick. The hope there is that when people don’t physically interact with others, the virus won’t spread so fast.

Here in the USA, we are rapidly headed in that direction. Major sporting events, concerts, trade shows, any place where large groups of people might congregate–all postponed or outright cancelled. Schools closed. Workers told to telecommute. No more touching your face. And for goodness sake, wash your hands!

For me? Another kick to the balls, professionally speaking. 9/11 and the terrorists who perpetrated it did the first one. My airline parked almost 200 aircraft and shed 2172 pilots by 2003. And in 2009, after the collapse of the banking industry, the real estate market and a nonsensical spike in the price of oil, a good 1473 of us pilots were again tossed out on our asses.

But when you work in an industry like mine, aviation, which exists to bring people together–not separate them–well…it’s hard to do that when those people are told to stay at home.

Empty airplanes don’t need pilots. Or flight attendants. Or mechanics. Or dispatchers. Or a thousand other jobs held by good people in the travel industry. Business leaders know this. Hence the layoffs. The ripple effect of this is obvious. It’s devastating and tragic.

I know, I know. This is all for a very good reason: to stem the spread of a pandemic. I don’t want anyone else to suffer or die either. I mean that. My job is trifling compared to someone’s life, mine included.

I’ve seen, heard and read dozens of stories about people reacting to this whole new epoch of life here on Planet Earth. Everything from a dismissive “Meh.” to a smug “Serves ’em right for trying to eat bats!” to a breathless “What a great time to get into the stock market!” and, finally, a desperate “This last package of toilet paper is MINE!” Even in my home town, news spread that bottled water was in short supply, notwithstanding the tasty and safe stuff that pours freely from our taps.

All of this reminded me of a phrase old pilots used, and which was defined for me while I was still a junior birdman: Wind the clock.

Way back in the old days before airplanes had electricity, many were equipped with clocks right there on the control panel next to the altimeter and oil pressure gage. Used for basic navigation, they were set each time the aircraft flew, with the pilot dutifully turning a small black knob on a regular basis, lest the clock stop, leading the airman astray.

But the term “wind the clock” was also a euphemism for “slow down and think. Stay calm. Don’t do anything rash.”

Pilots are taught to carefully analyze a situation before acting. Sometimes a knee-jerk response is completely wrong and potentially dangerous. If a pilot were to pause and “wind the clock,” he would hopefully allow more clarity to his mind and less distraction to his problem solving.

Which is what I plan on doing. And I hope more people consider before running to the grocery store and buying every last wet wipe and can of kidney beans.

Yes, I am deeply concerned at the physical, mental and economic impact that this virus is presently unleashing upon the world and, especially, my industry. I am rightly nonplussed at the thought of a third furlough.

But I also know to not be disconcerted by the threat, either. We survived the last two. We will get through this one, also. We all just need to wind the clock. Then go wash our hands.