Published in February 2016 issue
One year ago, I wrote an article titled ‘The Important Things’ (Airways, February 2014).In that article, I recounted how I’d been suffering through the stresses of midlife. For many people, it’s a time when your income doesn’t equal your outgo and the weight of the world can, on occasion, feel like it rests upon your shoulders.
By Clayton Taylor
At the height of my lowliness, I read about a little girl whose life was about to end. She shared the same first name as my oldest daughter and she was born on the same day as my youngest daughter. Those facts hit me hard.
It was indeed a turning point in my life. To this day, I carry that little girl’s picture in my wallet right next to those of my own two daughters. It’s there to remind me to stay focused on what’s important in life and minimize in my mind what is not. Over the years I wanted to contact the little girl’s father, who still flies for the airline, but I was reluctant. I was concerned with how my words would be taken. In addition, I didn’t want to bring back a galaxy full of horrible memories for her family.
Shortly after the article came out, I received a number of e-mails from Airways readers around the globe. All of them encouraged me to contact the little girl’s father, but I remained somewhat steadfast.
A number of months passed. Then, one afternoon, I was communicating with an author whom I’ve never met, but have exchanged emails with. I asked her if she would be willing to make a very quiet inquiry, to which she agreed. A few weeks later, a copy of Airways was given to this captain with a brief note inside explaining who I was and why I was invading their lives.
As the days passed, I held my breath. I prepared myself for a torrent of hate and abuse. Pilots can be a tough lot. Mostly they will give someone in need the shirt off their back, but anger one, and you will likely be risking your life, or at least bring-on a ton of bad will. I had no idea what to expect.
My worst fears were, thankfully, not realized. He seemed genuinely touched that someone took the time to remember his daughter, and was practically speechless in regards to how her life impacted mine. After a few emails, we spoke on the phone. Since then, we’ve spoken and texted a number of times.
A few months later, purely by happenstance, we both had a layover in Amsterdam. We enjoyed a few beers and then had dinner together. It was an almost magical evening. I say “almost” because a flight attendant tagged along who wanted to talk politics with the other two pilots who’d also accompanied us. The two other pilots accommodated her, but my buddy and I mostly kept our politics to ourselves, which is just the way I like it. Since that evening in the Netherlands many months ago, Gary and I have become good friend, and there, in-lies the rub. Allow me to explain.
I’ve known for a long time that I come from another planet. My mind works in ways that often forces others to wonder. One can never underestimate my ability to say something stupid. Suffice it to say that I’m better in print than in real life. Yes indeed, I shall remain eternally grateful to the delete button on my computer.
And lest you have any doubts about my sporadically unruly tongue, I shall put those to rest right now.
I was in Paris recently having dinner with a captain I’d flown with many times. We were at a fine French restaurant which, up until this meal, I’d always considered the words “fine” and “French restaurant,” when used in the same sentence, to be an oxymoron. But, regardless of what my burrito loving stomach thinks, the food this night was absolutely superb; the service was great and the wine, truly exquisite. While we ate, the captain said, “I really respect you, Clay, because you’ll say something when something has to be said.”
“Huh,” I thought, “there are two ways I can take that.” But I knew what he meant. He was saying that I’m not the kind of guy who sits there and remains silent while another pilot does something stupid. Of course, since my record on doing stupid things is unmatched, I’m of the opinion that if something stupid has to be done, it should be me who does it. It’s my way of keeping things orderly.
Regardless, his words reminded me of a simulator check ride I took in the Airbus 320 a number of years back. We were on a simulated domestic flight when one of our three hydraulic systems failed. If it had been either of the other two, I wouldn’t have worried much about it, but this was our main system; the one that had its figurative hand in nearly everything. I assumed we’d be diverting, so I immediately began checking weather and making plans. While I worked, the captain engaged in a rather lengthy conversation with dispatch about whether or not we should continue to our destination. He clearly wasn’t fond of the idea, but eventually relented. He glanced in my direction with a bit of a frown before informing me that we would continue on to our destination. After a brief pause, I replied with something like, “I don’t give a damn what they want. I’m not flying this piece of junk to our destination.” (I think I may have actually used an expletive in there to enforce my point).
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The moment I spoke up, the captain agreed that we should land short. I felt like an idiot later during our debriefing, but a good discussion about open communications followed. I know, I really should have sugar coated my words: lesson learned.
More recently, I was flying home from someplace in Europe when, prior to pushback, I went back to introduce myself to the flight attendants working up front. I’m usually a bit reluctant to do this because most women dislike me before I’ve even had a chance to say hello. The first person I encountered was a male flight attendant. He told his name was Shane, to which I replied, “Shane, Shane! Hey, that’s my wife’s favorite movie.” He turned away and then snarled, “I wasn’t named after that movie.” So, as is often the case, I returned to the cockpit without speaking to anyone else.
I mentioned the incident to the captain, who replied, “Why did you do that? Why do you say things like that? Now they’re going to treat us like dirt for the rest of the flight.” I explained that it was an ice breaker; a way to let him know that I wasn’t one of those overly-formal types. The captain didn’t buy it. I tried explaining that when I was a kid, people used to call me Cassius Clay, you know, Muhammad Ali’s original name, and it never once offended me. It just doesn’t register how someone would find offense at such an innocent statement.
These were the things on my mind when Gary invited me to come and stay with him and his family for a few days. I nodded, but knew I’d be in his house for five minutes and then his wife would order him to order me to leave. I might begin by pointing out that their daughter saved my life, and that’s true, but within a few minutes I’d probably say something stupid, unintended of course, but a few seconds later I’d be making a reservation at the Motel Six. What can I say? That’s how men are on the planet I’m from.
He’s commented a few times that it would be fun if we could fly a trip together, but all I can see is me saying something when I thought something had to be said, and, well, you know the rest.
Interestingly, Gary is younger than me. He was hired a decade before I was and rose to the ranks of Boeing 747 captain when I was just a new hire. He’s been a widebody captain and instructor pilot for a very long time. I bring up his background for a reason.
When you look at his life from the outside, one could easily get the wrong impression. He has a lovely home with incredible views. He also has a beautiful wife and three great looking, healthy children. And if that weren’t enough, he has all the required toys, including an old classic single engine biplane.
It’s my guess that most people would look at Gary’s life and conclude the man has it all. And indeed he has. I think it’s safe to say that he has truly been bestowed with an incredible amount of good fortune. His life has been one that most all of us would undoubtedly wish we had. But when you dig deeper and try to comprehend the tragedy he and his family has been forced to endure, all while maintaining an even keel with steadfast beliefs, it would certainly give you pause. I mean, after you were made aware of all the pain and suffering would you want to trade your life for his?
I admit it would be neat to own a Stearman, and I’m sure most pilots would agree. But you should know that the registration numbers on Gary’s bi- plane are the same as Lindsey’s birthday. When he flies it, each flight is dedicated to her and he tells me he can feel Lindsey’s presence when he loops and rolls high above the Earth.
Contrast the man he is, with me. Many years ago I was asked, once and only once, to do a sermon in church. They never asked me back. I could say more, but, yeah, never.
So with a track record like mine, I’ve learned to avoid crowds; preferring to avoid situations where I might be expected to say something. Can you blame me? Especially when no one knows what the hell might come out! I’m much better now than I used to be, but on occasion I say things with total innocence only to endure the wrath of the receiver.
My new friend is truly a nice guy. But I just know that if he were to spend too much time in close proximity to the Taylor vortex, he may suffer some seriously deep regrets. Ask anyone who’s known me for a long time.
I suppose if I someday attend a charm school for Earthlings, and then somehow manage to graduate, my mingling skills will have improved enough that I’ll be able to handle normal, non- alien, social interaction. But until then, I shall, somewhat reluctantly, remain the quiet guy in the corner putting it all down on paper.