Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Circle (Part Two)

We left off in April 2002, just after my promotion. From 04:00 to 14:00, Monday through Friday, I had full responsibility for DMC's warehouse and distribution operations in Albuquerque and northern New Mexico. This included receiving and sorting the day's pharmaceutical shipments, dispatching our aircraft to all corners of New Mexico, and overseeing the driver who had taken over my Los Alamos route. In practice, I was often at work by 03:30 and didn't leave until closer to 5 pm. There was seldom time to even sit down on the job, unless I needed to grab an Aspire and cover for an absent driver.

It didn't take very long at all for me to tire of this routine. Everything I'd appreciated as a driver -- the open road, the people -- was absent from my new position, and I soon determined the bump in pay wasn't really worth the added stress. I knew I was near the end of my rope, but I didn't want to leave the company outright. I truly had grown to appreciate the job we did, and the people I worked with.

Fortunately, I'd made an impression on the manager who oversaw the Customer Service department. A fair amount of lobbying on her part convinced Ops to let me transfer over, though not until the middle of August -- about three weeks away. I agreed to suffer through it; at least there was light at the end of the tunnel.
However, it was just three days later that my world changed forever, with the words "we need you to cover a route in Farmington." Our regular driver needed to take some time off, and no spare drivers were available to fill in. Considering my lame-duck status in my current position, I was the obvious choice.

I thought I'd be driving a van up there and back -- making for a very long day -- but instead the Site Manager handed me a spare headset. "You'll fly up and back on the 104," he said, "and use her truck while you're up there."

This made me a little nervous. I'd always been fascinated by airplanes, but I'd never flown on a plane smaller than a 737. (For that matter, I was 16 before I flew for the first time -- on United, from Albuquerque to Omaha and back.) Plus, I'd seen our planes. Hangar queens they're not.

Nevertheless, a sense of adventure followed me to the airport early the next morning. As I parked my Focus in the Seven Bar parking lot, a FedEx cargo jet (an Airbus A300) roared down the runway, its twin turbofans shaking the ground for a few seconds. A flush came over me; that seemed like a good omen.

That feeling changed somewhat as I walked up to the twin-engined aerial chariot that would take me to the Four Corners. N591DM had clearly seen better days over its 33 years, the once-proud white-and-burgundy paint job severely faded and chipping almost everywhere. I knew outer beauty wasn't necessarily an indication of how well the plane was maintained... but, well, some shiny paint and gleaming propellers still would have been nice.

I shook hands with the pilot, then stepped aside as he loaded the freight and did his preflight check. I watched with some alarm as he struggled with the starboard landing light, which refused to descend from its housing under the right tip tank; a solid smack with the palm of his hand finally coerced the light downward.

With his preflight complete, the pilot motioned for me to climb in after him. Both cabin doors on the Cessna 310 are on the right side; after I was seated, the pilot reached across me and slammed the door shut. "I have better leverage than you would," he explained. "It takes a solid pull to latch it all the way."

For all the worrisome quirks One-Delta-Mike had presented so far, I was heartened when both engines fired up on cue. I followed along as best I could as the pilot first called Clearance Delivery to obtain our route to Farmington, then ground control for our taxi instructions. I could feel my heart racing as we rolled closer to the departure end of the runway. I wasn't scared, really, but at the same time I honestly didn't know what to expect. In a sense, that pretty much described how I'd lived my life up to that point -- not knowing what to expect, not necessarily scared, but only because I wasn't really expecting very much.

Years later, I would write how we can spend our lives "drifting idly through our existence... down the paths of least resistance and lesser stimulation, focusing only on those things that ensure we have enough novelty in our lives so that we may want to survive to see tomorrow, that give us just enough momentary satisfaction to continue on down the road to Who Cares What." It sounds pretentious (because it is) but that entire sentence came from experience. That was me the morning of August 8, 2002, as we taxied into position for takeoff...

...And that same wandering, pessimistic, rudderless approach to life ended, for me, the moment the wheels of that Cessna 310Q lifted off Runway 3.

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