Published in March 2016
A winter or two ago, I was flying from Amsterdam to Portland, Oregon. Our flight was scheduled to be 10 ½ hours in duration. What makes this trip difficult to fly in the winter is that it’s dark most of the way. As expected, we took off that morning in sunlight, but it didn’t take long for us to climb enough of the Earth’s latitude to put the sun far off to our south.
By Clayton Taylor
As we approached Thule, Greenland, I could see one very bright star hanging over the pole. As we traversed the frozen ground below, the star held its position high in the sky. In case you were not aware, Thule is way, way up there. So, unless we are flying to Asia, we rarely fly that far north.
I was fascinated by the star because it held its position over the pole so steadily. The star was, of course, Polaris, the North Star. I snapped a picture of it, while trying to include some of the ground beneath us in the picture for perspective. Since we were still south of the pole, it was fairly easy to do despite the limited ambient light. I thought that the picture was so neat that I decided to post it on Facebook.
The Airbus Pilots in the company I work for have a Facebook page. I’m not a big fan of Facebook, mainly because I find the whole thing confusing; sort of like a giant rat’s maze. However, lots of pilots do post there. It’s a good source of information and is sometimes used to discuss various things about the airplane or the cities we fly in and out of. I’d never posted on the Pilots’ page before but, since I thought my picture was so cool, I did, believing everyone else would think so, too. Nope!.
My posting was brief. It included the picture with the following comment: “Polaris, north of eighty, mid-morning.” (That refers to north of 80° latitude. The North Pole is located at 90o).
A few pilots responded with comments, such as “nice shot” and “cool pic.” But, because pilots are who they are, some could not let it go. Almost immediately, someone posted that it wasn’t Polaris; it was probably Venus or Jupiter. Another commented that he, too, believed that it was something else. A few hours later, no doubt after he’d taken the time to consult the Naval Observatory book of known star positions, one Pilot concluded that the star’s declination was not appropriate. A brief exchange took place; it ended with me finally deciding to keep my mouth shut so the argument would end. I suppose that, had I said that it was Arcturus or Alpha Centauri, those guys would have come back with something like, “That’s obviously Polaris, you idiot.”
The whole thing got me thinking about the Pilot personality, which is something I’ve written about more than a few times. In truth, I believe that, in order to survive in this profession, we really can’t afford to believe everything we see or hear. We learn early on not to trust anything or anyone too much. We view everything with a wary eye. And that is exactly why I have avoided telling any of them a very strange, yet absolutely true, story.
I fly to Paris more than anyone I know. Most pilots hate the two-hour ride in heavy traffic from the airport to downtown, so they avoid it. I, however, like going there in the winter, when the weather is lousy and the crowds are non-existent.
After a nap and some time-killing touristy stuff, my normal routine is to be in my room by 21:00 at the latest, and be in bed by 23:00, to get a full night’s sleep for the flight back to the States. One night, however, turned out different from the rest. It was one of those nights I doubt I’ll ever forget.
I was in my room by 21:00, but I felt restless. Normally, if this happens, I’ll go and work out or walk outside for a few minutes. But this night was different. Something inside told me that there would be more.
Totally out of character for me, I jumped on the subway and headed for the Latin Quarter, which is located east of the Eiffel Tower, in the vicinity of Notre Dame. My goal was a restaurant called Les Duex Magots. It’s a café like almost every other café in Paris, except this one was once an Ernest Hemingway hangout. Indeed, there is a plaque outside stating that Mr. Hemingway, as well as a bunch of other heavy hitters from our past, did, in fact, frequent this establishment. I’m not sure why I went. I’d walked by the place a dozen times before, and I’d even looked in the window a time or two. I was also aware of its history. I told myself that there was no reason to go there other than to waste some time.
When I stepped out of the subway station, my face was instantly slapped by the cold breeze. It was misty and there was a very light snow in the air, which fell for a few minutes, then stopped, and started again. There was virtually no one on the street except for me. It was a very unusual sight, to be sure. The weather was so lousy that most of the places on Saint Germain des Pres were closed. My destination, a few blocks away, was quite in contrast with the rest of the street. Darkness was all around, but the café was brightly lit and beckoned as an oasis from the damp and cold. The place was packed. No one sat outside, of course, but, inside, every seat was taken.
Since I wasn’t even sure why I was there, and had no desire to eat or drink, I figured that I’d just walk through the place and then go back to my hotel. My mission would be accomplished and I’d be ready for bed.
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The moment I walked in the door, I locked eyes with a man sitting at the far end of the room. His apparel was considerably out of place. I say that even though I myself was wearing blue jeans. Everyone in the place was dressed for a night out, except for me and Ernest Hemingway. Yeah, that’s right—the guy was a dead ringer for Mr. Hemingway himself. He was dressed in clothes better suited to the 1920s, so he clearly stood out. The other weird thing was that I was the only one who seemed to care about the man’s presence.
As I walked gingerly toward him, I could not help but notice that he was glaring at me. He held a drink in his hand, but didn’t move a muscle. He didn’t even blink. I stared back for as long as I could, before briefly glancing away. A few feet from his table, I slowed my gait to a crawl. I hesitated for only a moment, quickly concluding that a conversation was out of the question, then turned and exited through the side door.
Once outside, I extended my umbrella and stood silently in the drizzle, staring at the strange man in the corner. As I did so, he stared right back at me. He’d obviously turned his head when I’d gone outside, because he was still facing me. Other than that unseen movement, he did not seem to move a muscle. I stood there for a while, but didn’t know why. I think I wanted him to validate me as a writer or something. I was just finishing up my last novel and was hopeful for its success. While I stood there, ogling the motionless author of numerous best sellers, I wondered why he hadn’t at least given me a thumbs up, or even a thumbs down. He could have winked, frowned, looked at the ground: anything at all. He could have given me some kind of clue, but he did not. He simply stared, immobile and unblinking. Eventually, I turned away and walked back into the night, toward the subway.
The snow picked up and, as a chill passed through me, I was instantly reminded of a movie called Midnight in Paris, with Owen Wilson. In it, a writer goes back in time and meets Hemingway as well as a bunch of other artists from the early part of the last century. I’d seen the film and was well aware of the parallels with what I’d just experienced. But I’m telling you: I wasn’t dreaming, I hadn’t had anything to drink and I was in fine health.
The incident bothered me so much that I called my wife as soon as I got back to the hotel. She suggested that, perhaps, the restaurant has a mannequin that they place in Hemingway’s favorite chair on occasion as a sort of novelty. It actually made sense, so I convinced myself that she was probably right.
A few days later, I was back in Paris and made my way back to that same café. I walked in and looked around. No mannequins. A few weeks later, I went back again, and even sat in that same chair, hoping to see something behind the counter. There was nothing there. On this visit, though, I sat for a while, enjoying a cold beer and contemplating the weirdness of it all.
Each time I returned, I knew that the magic of that one night was gone. It bothered me that the guy had given me no feedback whatsoever. Then, it dawned on me that he had. By doing nothing, I concluded, he had, indeed, given me his opinion. The book that I’d been working on back then was published, but it never did very well. Soon after, I decided to give up all writing. I mean, the book hadn’t done very well and I felt I was on the outs at Airways.
Then, a year or so later, while working on another article, something popped into my head that I hadn’t thought of for a very long time. I recalled, many years ago, standing in a drug store when a man dressed like a woman came in. He wore high heels, held a purse that matched his dress perfectly, and had a finely made wig atop his head. The guy, who was clearly a guy, for some reason or another liked dressing up as a woman. Recalling that odd event convinced me that the guy in the café back on that dark and dreary Paris night must have been a guy who knew he resembled Ernest Hemingway. He probably liked to dress up on certain occasions and hang out at his favorite author’s watering hole. The locals probably knew him and readily accepted his presence. He had probably stared at me, not because he knew I was trying to become a successful writer, but because I had been dressed in soaking wet blue jeans and sneakers. Even though it had been cold outside, I hadn’t been wearing a hat or gloves. No wonder he’d stared at me so much. Turns out that it was I who had been out of place.
I’m not sure what changed but, a few months later, I gave thought to another book. You know, “to hell with what Hemingway thinks.” Around the same time, my favorite magazine unexpectedly asked if I’d like to make regular submissions again.
I have to admit: part of me still wishes my strange encounter had been real. Either way, it’s a good story. Frankly, after my experience with the Polaris picture, I think you’ll agree that I should not share this story with any Pilots. Can you imagine the feedback I’d get?