Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Year

I don't remember very much about the first few days of 2011. I guess it started much like other years, with the carryover monotony from the previous December continuing unabated. I recall feeling that the New Year brought with it a few glimmers of hope, mostly due to what few freelance assignments that crossed my path... but overall, I think it's safe to say that my mood and mindset were defined by a definite sense of ennui.

That changed in February, for both better and worse. To the latter point, I lost my beloved Grammie on February 3rd. Her death hit me especially hard because I'd sworn -- I'd promised -- that I would make it up to visit her sometime soon. Both time and my promises ran out at 3 pm that day.

Her loss seemed particularly cruel, because in the week prior I'd received two happy bits of news. One, I had been promoted to a management position at DMC; and, secondly, I was accepted as a regular freelance writer for a major aviation advocacy group. The promotion didn't work out - I had immediately realized the importance of the Peter Principle as it applies to courier companies - but the latter certainly did. Thanks to freelancing, this will go down as by far my most financially and professionally successful year to-date.

So, despite the sad beginning, overall this was a very good year - one that I am happily celebrating here in Atlanta, with my good friend and mentor Pete Combs and his wife, Karen, in their beautiful new home. Tonight I plan to raise a glass to fate, in overall thanks and gratitude to whatever forces control it. I've resolved to expand my nascent "flightwriting" career in 2012, while also promising myself this will be the year I regain (and maintain) currency on the Sport Pilot certificate. Heady challenges, both, but I feel confident I'll be able to take them on.

Still... the sadness remains, for 2011 also brought a harsh postscript. Four days ago, I went to the home of one of our drivers, who hadn't been at work since Christmas Eve. His year hadn't been so kind... and he had decided, sometime over the holiday, that he did not wish to suffer anymore.

While I understand and accept his decision - at the end of the day, I strongly believe we should have such control over our lives, and the decision to end them if we see fit - it was also a sight I wouldn't wish on anyone. I only wish he would have considered the impact to those around him.

That image is what will drive me in 2012, and beyond. Live your life as well as you are able, and appreciate the good times... because often they are all-too-fleeting. Darkness always lurks, looking for the opportunity to strike.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Seconds of December

A time comes for everyone when they realize that they're pretty much the person they will always be for the rest of their life. Their mindset has been determined, their preferences and prejudices largely etched in stone, when they realize they're no longer particularly eager to have their mind changed about anything, and they're unlikely to let anyone new get too close to the life they've created for themselves.

I came to that realization this year, at the relatively tender age of 36. I think I'm okay with that, because I'm reasonably and thankfully content with who I am today. I've had some professional successes this year, that helped me realize some personal goals as well. I endeavor for more - better health, less weight, greater recognition - but I also appreciate that all victories are fleeting, so I'm trying to hold onto what I've been able to muster for as long as I can.

I also realize I've also cast off valuable and important aspects of who I once was along the way. I used to have a much greater sense of whimsy than I do now. I used to have much more faith and compassion for other people than I do today. Make no mistake, I fight vehemently and passionately to defend and care for those closest to me... but that circle has grown far smaller than it once was, with past friends and even some family members cast out. My requirements for access to that circle are far more stringent and jaded than they once were.

It wasn't always like that. There was a time when I gladly -- eagerly -- wore my heart on my sleeve, and believed in the overall decency and competence of others at first blush. This was an incredibly naive world view, as is typical when you're fresh out of high school... and I was fortunate to find someone who was very eager to recognize those qualities, and who embraced them and loved them with all of her might.

Today's her birthday.

You still feel her hand on your cheek as you said those words for the first time
And you still feel the pain from the first realization you'd lied
She was gentle when you wanted rough; so inviting but still not enough
Before too long you gave into your demons and cast the angel aside

I wrote those ridiculously overwrought, post-teen-angst-y sentences around 15 years ago, after I realized it still pained me a bit too much to look at the calendar in early December. I've written here about her before; I'm also pretty sure it was her that I saw in a Dillard's ad while thumbing absent-mindedly through the Dallas Morning News one day in 2006.

Facebook is nothing less than the modern-day equivalent of the biblical Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. As it was in Genesis, its apples are far too easy to pick; all it takes is a simple word search. For whatever reason, a few months ago I decided to reach out for the forbidden fruit.

Maiden name... no hits. 

Wait. What was the name of the guy she was seeing? Try that...

Oh. Wow.

Married. One son, and another child on the way.

And... a flight attendant for Southwest. I admit that I smiled a bit at that; it would appear she found her calling among the clouds, too. For some reason, that made me very happy.

I briefly considered sending her a message on Facebook. It would have been purely a casual thing, a "hey, I see you're on here, too!" sort of note, the kind of breezy greeting one might send a former classmate. I thought about it... but of course, that would have been a terrible idea. Our moment together was fleeting; her life today is her own, and I have no right or place whatsoever to intrude upon that.

I'm genuinely glad that she appears happy, as well. Everything turned out the way it was destined to... but, there's also a part of my consciousness that recognizes I'm really not as okay with all of this as I should be, 18 years later.

You're sure she's doing well now and you're hardly a thought in the air
Just a midsummer's fling that lasted through spring and time passes when you're not aware
Still you know that you live in her shadow, and you're forever cursed to care
And count all the seconds of December that she's not there

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Hallowed Ground

As many of you know, I ventured out to Las Vegas, Nevada this month for NBAA's 2011 Meeting and Convention. It was the first aviation trade show I'd attended since April 2009, and it felt wonderful to be back in that environment and to work with a great news crew once again. I may write a separate post about that a little later, but this is about what happened after the show was over.

The day after NBAA wrapped, I made the brief trip down I-15 to the Enterprise area, to pay homage as best I could to a man I never knew, but whose influence and legacy drives every ambition I have in aviation.

As Robert Darmody boarded a United Airlines DC-7 on the morning of April 21, 1958, I imagine his thoughts were on leaving his family behind in California, as he left to set up their new home in Omaha, NE. A veteran of WWII who after the war worked for 10 years with the Strategic Air Command -- most recently in the Ballistic Missile Division -- Darmody had spent the past year in Los Angeles on special assignment with civilian contractor Ramo-Wooldridge. [He] already had his orders in hand to move back to Omaha later that year. 

...Alas, Darmody -- my maternal grandfather -- and the 46 other people onboard United 736 never made it to their destinations that April morning. At 8:30 am local time, less than an hour after the airliner took off from LAX, an F-100F Super Sabre trainer flying out of Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas, NV descended into the path of the passenger plane at 21,000 feet. The jet sheared off a 12-foot section of the DC-7's right wing... and both planes spiraled towards the desert floor, about nine miles south of what is now McCarran International Airport.

What once was a desolate desert landscape with nothing to be seen for miles around, is now filled with strip malls, box stores, and apartment complexes... except, that is, for a patch of arid Mojave landscape northeast of the corner of South Decatur Boulevard and West Cactus Avenue. It is here where the wreckage of UAL 736 fell, though no one passing by would ever know it.

As I step out of my car, I look up and see a Southwest 737 directly overhead, climbing out from McCarran. The apparent dichotomy seems appropriate.

United 736 was on an instrument flight plan, and in contact with air traffic controllers at the time of the accident. The airliner was flying along the Victor 8 airway, a common route for airliners heading east from the Los Angeles basin that also crossed a heavily-used departure and approach corridor to Nellis.

Though unthinkable today, in those times military pilots were neither required, nor inclined, to communicate with commercial air traffic controllers, despite their often close proximity to slower-moving commercial planes. In the days after the accident, two other commercial pilots came forward with accusations US Air Force planes often "stunted" near their aircraft along Victor 8.

It was the very dawn of the Jet Age. Everyone was still learning.

I made two trips to the site that day. The first was by myself; the second time, I was accompanied by Keith Gordon, Director of Aviation for Desert Jet based at Henderson Executive Airport. By luck or providence, I interviewed Keith for one of my first articles this year for NBAA; as it turned out, he's a local aviation buff, as well as an avid geocacher. It was his idea to place a small 'cache' at the crash site, for other explorers to find and learn a little bit about an event that's been almost entirely lost to the history books.


There's more than a little Cold War-intrigue surrounding the crash of United 736. Mark Paris has worked on a book about the mishap for several years. He lost his father, Steve, in the crash; like my grandfather, Steve Paris was returning to Omaha, home to Strategic Air Command Headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base.


Paris told the Review-Journal his father was one of the 13 men onboard the flight who were associated with the Ballistic Missile Division, tasked with developing "the most top secret project in the country at the time.

"This hurt America in a real nasty way that people didn't hear about," Mark Paris told the Las Vegas paper. "This put the ICBM system on its ear for a while.

The accident resulted in top-level changes in Air Force travel procedures, as well. "That's the last time sensitive information and that many personnel with (knowledge of) sensitive information ever flew on the same airplane," Paris said.

Immediately after the accident, FBI agents secured the area where wreckage from the DC-7 had landed. "They were not looking for survivors," says Faith Paris, Steve's widow. "They were looking for papers."

Today, anyone who visits the site where United Air Lines Flight 736 fell to Earth will be looking for a round metal container, camouflaged in an innocuous pile of indigenous rocks. It's a small tribute to those who died on that April day, almost 54 years ago. It can never be enough... but I suspect if Robert Darmody had lived to experience the age of smartphones and GPS, he would have approved of the gesture.


It is difficult to describe how I felt standing on that hallowed ground. Though relieved to see that most of the area remains undeveloped, I still felt it would have been more appropriate to have a monument or shrine at the corner of West Cactus and Decatur, rather than a Wells Fargo and a convenience store. Tears never came; I felt at first guilty, and then simply confused by that. The closest I came to choking up was when I thought of my Grammie, who died earlier this year without ever having visited the site her first husband had perished. Mom hasn't made it out here yet, either, but she will soon.


In the end, I can't really say that I felt any closer to Robert Darmody standing on that spot, than I do any other day. And I mean that in the best way possible.

I've written before about my grandfather. For a man I never had the honor of meeting, his influence weighs upon me... from a shared love of flight, to an eye for model-making.

I even look like him... well, kind of. My mother, Kathy -- nine years old when she lost her dad -- has said before she sees a lot of her father in me. I do know I've "felt" his hand on my shoulder a number of times, in both good times and bad.

There's one significant difference between Robert Darmody and his grandson, though, one I proudly acknowledge: my grandfather was an unquestionably brilliant man. I so wish I could have known him.


NOTE: All italicized text is from "Families Mark 50th Anniversary Of United 736 Midair Collision" published by the Aero-News Network on April 21, 2008.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

When All is Said and Done...

...I do love Logistics.

I ended my last post facing an uncertain future, and fully expecting to leave my job at DMC to make the leap to freelance writing. It turns out that a happy compromise was available, though - a transfer over to the Operations side, where I can have a more direct impact on optimizing routes and resolving a few of the outstanding service issues we've had with some of our customers.

The new position may even allow me the opportunity to 'hit the road' (and the air) to meet with customers and drivers, as it's sometimes difficult to see the full picture when sitting at a desk, looking at a Google Map.

And, perhaps most important of all... with limited exceptions, this should be a strict 8-5 position, giving me time to continue my writing. My new supervisor has also indicated to me she's open to me scheduling interviews for articles as time allows during the work day, as she knows I'll make up the time where needed.

This eases a tremendous burden I've been feeling. I didn't want to give up either job, and now it looks like I'll have the chance to continue doing both.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Factors Vital


It was a fleeting moment. Almost lost to the wind, like so many thoughts that cross the consciousness... then disappear, never to be heard from again.

*****

I'm sitting in the official ANN golf cart at AirVenture 2007, on the show line at the north end of 18/36 at Wittman Field. I am thoroughly tired, battered and aching, worn from the hours of traipsing from one end of the showgrounds to another. From the top of my head to the soles of my feet, there isn't a part of my body that isn't sunburned, blistered, or chafed. There is no doubt that I am working the show -- this isn't a vacation. These precious, stolen moments when I allow myself to be just a spectator are all-too rare.

But for now, at least, I'm just one soul amidst thousands watching in awe as Sean Tucker defies gravity by making his Oracle Challenger bipe "hover" on its tail, mere feet above the pavement. I've seen Tucker perform this same maneuver several times; I've even been able to talk with him about how he does it. I know exactly how this particular Houdini performs this particular trick. Doesn't matter, it's still unbelievably cool.

I pause long enough to wonder what it would be like to visit Oshkosh as "just" a visitor... and then I happen to look down, at my press badge hanging from the lanyard around my neck. With a coy smile to myself, I realize there's nowhere else I'd rather be. Nothing else I'd rather be. For possibly the first time in my life, a sense of perfect contentment settles over me.

I realize, of course, the flight line at Oshkosh will never be the White House Briefing Room. I'll never have the kind of journalistic drive that compels my mentor, Pete, to wish to be embedded in Afghanistan. I doubt a Pulitzer is ever in my future, and I'm not so na├»ve to deceive myself into thinking the audience of the "World's Largest Aviation News Organization" is very big at all.

And yet, with a sense of wonder, I realize I'm thoroughly happy to be making a living writing about airplanes, and matters affecting them. I'm good at it, too. People I've never met have complimented me for stories they know I wrote, regardless of whether my byline was attached or not. That says something.

*****

I would never have guessed who was taking notice of those stories, and the impressions they made. Even after I left the "flight writing" game in April 2009, I guess I knew I wouldn't be far from it for very long. I did not know, and could not have guessed, how soon those people would be calling, to see if I'd be interested in doing a quick article for them. They're calling more and more lately.

And now... well, now I have a choice to make. My "day job" is working for a company that is very important to me, for it has played an incredibly important role in my life over the past decade. I have friends there; I work for friends there. Yet, I also realize that with each passing day, I'm flying further away from the direction everyone ostensibly is trying to steer towards. That is beneficial for no one.

At the end of the day... at the end of this day... I know with every ounce of my being that I am a writer. That is who I am, and how I identify myself. And I think that is my answer.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

My Grammie



Mary Sayers -- nee Darmody, Popko before that, and forever my 'Grammie' -- passed away February 3 of this year. It was as unexpected as the death of an 87 year-old can be.

Grammie was the peacekeeper in our family, the one who held all the tattered fragments together and maintained the lines of communication. Issues would come and go, relationships would be strained time and again, but Grammie was the constant. She remained strong after the loss of her first husband, Robert, in 1958. Strong in her heart, and strong in her faith. She remarried three years later, and stood by her second husband for over 40 years through alcoholism, infidelity, and later Alzheimer's.

Again... strong in her heart, and strong in her faith.

For almost all her adult life, Grammie lived within two miles of St. Thomas More Church at 48th & Grover in Omaha. It was her constant, the one thing that did not change through all the outer turmoil. She drew strength from her church, and took comfort from it... even to the point of refusing to move to New Mexico in the 90s to be with both her daughters and their families. But she always remained close to all of us, keeping the lines of communication open, and she was always there for all of us... only a phone call away.

The last time I saw Grammie, the last time I hugged her, was December 2005. It was in the kitchen of the duplex she and Grandpa had lived in for 20 years, right across the street from St. Thomas More. Two years later she moved to an assisted living facility in Papillion. She knew it was going to be her last home, but she eventually came to enjoy her time there, and participated in most of the activities there. Grammie always made new friends very easily, and like so many times before she made a positive impact on all she knew.

My family talked often about going up to Omaha to see Grammie. With the exception of Mom traveling to Omaha in 2007, to help Grammie pack her things to move over to the Wellington, that just never happened. Finances never allowed us to make the trip. At least I was able to talk to Grammie, at least once a week, on the phone; my Mom, at least three times. Those conversations remained our link holding the fragments together, even if she and I only really ever talked about the weather, or Huskers football.

*****

On February 3, I was at work, settling awkwardly into my four day-old position as 'Integrated Solutions Manager' at DMC. I had just talked with Grammie the Sunday before, telling her about my promotion.

I knew Grammie was in the hospital; she had been in and out for over a month, feeling very weak and suffering from a persistent cough. The day before, doctors had cauterized a bleed in her esophagus that was believed to be the cause of her anemia. The procedure had been successful... so much so, in fact, that February 3 was to be the day Grammie was supposed to go home. That wasn't to be.

Grammie woke up that morning in extreme discomfort. Doctors initially thought -- or told us, anyway -- that was likely due to the effects from the previous day's procedure. Grammie joked with the nurses as she went in to the operating room for a second time. My Aunt Peg continued to pack her things up to take Grammie home later that day.

At 12:00 New Mexico time, I talked to my Dad on the phone. He told me about the second procedure, which to me sounded like no big deal. Two hours later, as I headed for a meeting, my phone blinked with an email. "Please call as soon as able. Mom."
 
I called right then, because I just knew. It was an embolism. Doctors found it while attempting to determine why she continued to bleed out. We were told she only had hours.

I threw hurried goodbyes at my coworkers as I ran out the door. I sped the entire way to my parents' home in Bernalillo. "We're leaving right now," I told Mom as I ran in the door. I really thought we could make it to Omaha -- a minimum of 14 hours away by car -- to say goodbye before Grammie passed. It took both my parents to slow me down, and to allow me to finally face the cruel reality.

Mom was able to speak to Grammie before she died. She was unconscious by then, thanks to the medications administered to ease her suffering... but Peg said Grammie still raised her arm as Mom spoke, acknowledging her. A half-hour later, Peg did the same for me, allowed me to say goodbye over the phone.

That was at 2:30. Grammie died at 3:00. Everything had happened in less than three hours. She passed away one day before her daughter's -- my mother's -- 62nd birthday.

*****

Three weeks later, Mom and I were on the road, heading up to Omaha for a memorial mass, for the second time in five years. We traveled through the worst snowstorm I've ever driven in to be there, and I was more scared than I'd ever been behind the wheel. As we crept along at 15 miles-per-hour through North Platte, then Lincoln, and finally Omaha -- past literal piles of battered cars that had run off the side of the road -- I asked my Grammie for her guidance and strength. It seemed to help. We arrived safely.

The next day, February 25, came the memorial. Grammie's favorite priest, Father Ross, made a special trip down from his new parish to perform the mass. I gave both readings... standing in the church my Grammie had kept so deeply in her heart, in front of the choir loft where my Grammie sang in praise for so many years.

"The souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them. They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead; and their passing away was thought an affliction and their going forth from us... utter destruction. But they are in peace." 

I'm a fairly strong public speaker... but this day, as my voice remained oddly clear, even as I fought back tears the entire time... that strength wasn't mine, I knew.

"Who will bring a charge against God’s chosen ones? It is God who acquits us. Who will condemn? ... Will anguish, or distress or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? No, in all these things, we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Afterwards, at the Wellington, I met all the people who knew my Grammie. They all knew me, and told me how proud my Grammie was of me. They knew I was a pilot. And, to a person, they said how much they loved my Grammie, and had felt her love in to them in return.

*****

And now, here we are. Mother's Day... the first one I didn't send a card or flowers to Omaha for. Today I will be strong for my Mom, as she mourns hers. You see, Grammie taught me to hold the fragments together... and of the importance of being there for those who love.

I just wish we all could have been there at that final moment. That will always haunt me.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Onion Girl

I will admit the following may not be 100 percent accurate, because it is based entirely on my memories, and memories are infinitely fallible. Suffice it to say that everything that follows here is absolutely true... as I remember it.

October 2003...
She was a bit unstable. I discovered this around two months after we first met, at a Friday night after-work gathering at the old Gin Mill on San Mateo. Laughing and personable towards everyone at the table... except for me, who she seemed very deliberately and rather obviously intent to ignore, despite the fact that we'd chatted quite normally just a few hours earlier.

"What the hell did I do to you?" I finally asked, to no reply; eight years later, I still don't know the answer, or whether or not there even really was one.

Despite this inauspicious exchange, by that time I'd already learned the Onion Girl was usually really fun and easy to talk to, and highly intelligent and well-spoken on a variety of subjects. Her sense of humor was among the best of anyone I'd ever met. Sometimes boisterous, but also something of a wallflower. Once acknowledged and accepted by the crowd, though, she more than held her own in any social setting.

She’s also extremely cute, I filed away in a corner of my psyche, but my sights were elsewhere at the time. The Office Basketcase was a stunningly gorgeous and wholly unattainable creature, always willing to have a kind ear listen to her troubles, with absolutely zero commitment to anything more. I somehow failed to recognize that last part.

Relocation of our company’s headquarters soon forced several of us from the comfortable environment of home to the unfamiliar surroundings of Dallas. The Onion Girl was part of the first wave in early July 2004, as was the Basketcase; I was in the second and final group that left Albuquerque at the end of the month. On the drive out, somewhere around Amarillo, I thought about my fellow coworkers in this new and extremely different place... and I realized it wasn't the Basketcase who I was most looking forward to seeing again.

Well now... what does that mean? 

My perception of the Onion Girl altered at that moment, which made me instantly insecure and uncomfortable. She'd never given a single indication – at least one that I recognized – that she ever viewed me as anything more than a friend at work.
And besides, the Onion Girl had told me that she was also interested in someone else. I wasn’t wild about her choice, and I found the entire situation deeply frustrating… mostly because I knew it wasn’t really my place to have any opinion about it in the first place. In any case, that ordeal ultimately came to a head and resolved itself, and my conflicted feelings indirectly led to a piece of writing that would become significant to my future.

*****

My dynamic with the Onion Girl become volatile over the next several months as we awkwardly settled into life in the Metroplex, even more so than it had been in the past. We went through numerous stints of not speaking to one another, some started by her, others with me, always over some seemingly trivial disagreement that would escalate at the drop of a hat into another Cold War.
Our longest silence had dragged on some four months until one Friday evening in mid-February, when she approached me at the local hangout and asked, simply and quietly, "Truce?"

A brief pause. Did I hear her right? Then...

"Thank God, yes!" I exclaimed, hugging her as I fought back relieved tears. I later mouthed a silent "thank you" to the heavens when she wasn't looking.

Later that night, our group moved to another bar for drinks after dinner. As the rest of our friends headed for a table, the Onion Girl and I made our way to the bar... and wound up spending the rest of the night seated there, recapping the past four months of our lives, off in our own world. We closed down the bar just talking.

To this day that conversation remains one of the most meaningful experiences of my life.

Even though it clearly seemed that we mattered to each other, one subject we dared not ever to address was the precise nature of our friendship. "For whatever reason," I told her in a subsequent conversation, "we take each other personally." While she readily agreed, the Onion Girl also seemed content to leave it at that, and I lacked the confidence to push the issue any further.

*****
September 2005 was an exciting time for me. A serendipitous offer to "string" for an online aviation publication at AirVenture two months before had since blossomed into a part-time job, and the potential for more had me feeling restless at the office.

I initially thought a change in departments would help ease that anxiety, but it soon became clear I wasn't long for the cubicle life. So, on September 12, I turned in my "six-week notice" at work for the decision to bet on being a full-time aviation writer.

The Onion Girl seemed an enthusiastic supporter of my decision; in fact, news of my plans had the unexpected effect of immediately deflating the latest tense situation between us. We were getting along the best we ever had.

Around this same time, the Onion Girl's birthday was approaching (two days before mine) and one of her best friends was in town to help her celebrate. Along with a small group of our coworkers, I joined them for a Friday night party.

About an hour into the festivities, the friend joined me at the bar. "I know she can be difficult," she told me. "I know you guys have had issues... but trust me, you mean a lot to her, and she is absolutely a person worth knowing."

I could only nod in quiet agreement. "Yeah… I know." Indeed, the growing realization I would no longer see the Onion Girl every day was the only thing that tempered my excitement over the looming change in my life. Our familiarity, friendship and – whatever – revolved solely around the routine of sharing an office.

The Onion Girl and I had only ever been out together, just the two of us, once: a Saturday afternoon shortly after the move, spent wandering around the West End and Galleria Mall. We'd had a good time, too, talking about anything and everything under the sun. We even ordered identical lunches (chicken salad) and I'd spent a good amount of that time blathering on about the depth and sincerity of my feelings for... the Basketcase.

Of course, it wasn't like I hadn't considered the possibility that maybe, just maybe, there may have been something more between the Onion Girl and me. Those recurring silences may actually say a lot, I thought. Is she hanging around our break time hacky sack group just to be entertained by a bunch of ostensibly grown men making fools of themselves, or...? Does it matter that she said, "hey it's me" when she called that time, rather than announcing her name as usual?

I'd finally confided my bewilderment over the situation to another mutual acquaintance a few weeks before the birthday gathering; he'd promptly brought me back to reality. "You aren't the first one who's looked at [her] and said, 'hey...'" he told me. "But I really don't see any sign from her of what you're talking about."

Still, as time drew nearer, I grew bolder. Lunch invitations were frequent. Over sandwiches at Good Eats or teppanyaki at Benihana, little was said about my new job; instead, we talked about our families, our views on life, and our dreams. I learned she had thought about becoming a teacher.

At our last lunch together – Thursday, October 13 – I told the Onion Girl about a dream I'd had the night before about my first girlfriend, and the message she'd given me in the dream. "It's time to live your life for yourself," the apparition had said. "Don't worry about appeasing others, or guilt over your past. It's all right to be a little selfish. You're not here to save anyone but yourself." 

I really believed that then, sitting in that booth at Snookie's. That was another life... before I realized the effect we have on others is the only reason any of us are here. 

Oddly, though, the Onion Girl agreed. "I hate 
that new Coldplay song," she said. "No one should ever think they need to fix or save someone. If you don't like them for who they are, tough shit for you."

On our walk back to the office, my mind stumbled over words I badly wanted to say. I like you for who you are... a lot. I don't know what that means exactly, but I think I want to find out, for better or worse. I'm worried we won't see each other after I leave. 

You're the one I'm going to miss most from here!

If only I'd had the courage to say those words, perhaps everything that followed may have turned out very differently… Or, maybe not. Regardless, as had been the case so many times before, I remained silent, leaving us both to our own thoughts.

*****

October 14, 2005. A day I hate.

It started well enough, with few challenges to be found in moving truckloads of wallboard from plants to construction sites. My replacement had taken to the job very quickly, and with little actual need to train her, the truth was that I had very little to do.

After work, I met a friend for drinks with a plan to see a movie afterward. The Onion Girl accepted my invitation to join us, although she seemed vaguely distant once we arrived at the bar. Buzzed by my good fortune and the (one) Maker's & Coke I was nursing, I was too excited to really notice.

Seated to my left, the Onion Girl had remained silent as I regaled the bartender about seeing the bar's namesake P-51 at Oshkosh. "I wish I had options like you," she said suddenly, in the middle of my story. "It's like I have nothing going on in my life."

A million times over, I wish I'd said something else in reply. Almost anything would have been better.

"I don't want to hear that."

I didn't mean that quite the way it sounded; of course I didn't want her to feel down. I wanted her to be inspired by my new opportunity, not depressed by it. "Sure you have options," I added clumsily. "I don't want to hear you feeling sorry for yourself."

Little more was said that night. The Onion Girl demurred when we invited her to come to the movie with us, and instead quietly said goodbye to us outside the bar. I didn't see her drive away.

She wasn't in the office the following Monday; in fact, she was out for the next five days, and upon her return at the start of my final week even eye contact was avoided.

*****
Those last few days passed with nary a word said between us, despite the fact our cubicles were right next to one another. Anything I could think to say to her sounded hollow in my mind anyway, and inappropriate for the office. There were no more lunches.

Friday afternoon, as I said goodbye to my coworkers and made plans with most of them for a celebratory gathering that evening, I continued to eye the Onion Girl's desk nervously. This was it. What was I going to say?

By the time I worked up the courage to walk over to her cubicle, the Onion Girl wasn't there. I waited a few more minutes, under the pretense of going over the plant numbers one final time with my now-former boss. Still no sign of her. I waited some more, walking laps around the office. The Onion Girl was nowhere to be found.

When I eventually gave up the search and walked to the elevator for the last time, the words I had said to her at the bar echoed in my mind like gunfire. I could still hear it as I walked past her car still parked in the garage.

March 2007...

"I've been trying to wrap my brain around this dream I had three weeks ago ... In the dream, an acquaintance of mine, one I haven't talked to in some time, suddenly appeared, wearing a red sweater. I remember that, because in real life I'd only seen her wear red once, and it had made an impression on me. Anyway, in this dream I had a conversation with this estranged friend... a very deep conversation. I wish I could remember details – I know in this dream we talked at length – but I forgot most of that conversation when I woke up. Shaking. And with "her" first question to me in the dream reverberating in my ears. 


"What have you learned?"

February 2011...

That is the question that compels me to write about this now. Nearly six years later, I still don't really know... or, I'm still too stubborn to admit the answer to myself.
Yeah. That's certainly closer to the truth.

I know now that my growing feelings for the Onion Girl scared me. There's really no other way to say or explain that. I also understand now that I didn't hide some of my feelings – including jealousy – as well as I thought I did. Certainly a few of our "silences" that followed were my doing.

Of course, I also chose to manifest those feelings in the most passive-aggressive manner possible, the thirtysomething equivalent to pulling her pigtails and then running away. It’s easy now to say I really should have told her how I felt; it’s equally obvious that life in the office would have been a veritable hell between us had those feelings not been returned.

So why didn’t you tell her when you no longer had to worry about that? I certainly wanted to, and I planned to… but I also thought I’d always get another chance. Until I didn’t.

There was another, darker reason, though. The truth is that I didn't want to be… burdened. I felt I was on an upward swing in my life, and I didn't want anything – anyone – to distract me from it, so I turned a cold shoulder.

I also knew the Onion Girl had something going on with herself, and it was something I knew I was ill-prepared to handle. Through no fault of her own, she revealed to me the limits of my empathy, and my willingness to take on the challenges of standing by someone – even someone I cared about very deeply – as they suffered through their internal turmoil.

To not be afraid of their inner demons, but to embrace them as your own and help them stand up against the evils of the world and from within their own mind, in whatever capacity they'll have you in their lives. And to recognize the rare and hallowed significance of that trust they've placed on you to be there.

I think I’ve finally learned those lessons. I just wish I would have learned sooner. It hurts beyond words to know that I failed such an important test... and every day since, with seemingly no possibility of ever seeing the Onion Girl again to try and, somehow, reset our history, I've faced two irrefutable truths.

Throughout what I've managed to turn into a moderately successful career as an aviation writer, I’ve written every word with the faint hope that just maybe, one day, the Onion Girl might read them and smile.

And, each and every day that has passed since seeing her for that last time in October 2005, my mind and heart have conspired to ensure that I will never forget what might be the biggest and most damning mistake of my life.
You arrogant asshole; you fucking coward. You know what she meant to you... And yet, look what you've done.

Friday, January 28, 2011

28 January


Five years ago today, I was asked by the publisher of Aero-News to write about where I was 20 years before. I suspect he asked me this, in part, to take my mind off where I was in the present.

On January 28, 2006 I was three days away from surgery to remove a cancerous tumor that had invaded my body. In between panic attacks, and readying the apartment for my Mom's upcoming (and open-ended) visit, I sat at my computer on a balmy Saturday morning in Dallas, and put together 1,000 words on what I was doing the morning of January 28, 1986... the day we lost the Space Shuttle Challenger.

The resulting op-ed is hardly my best piece of writing. Looking at it now I realize how awkward the transition is from eulogizing the lost crew of STS-51-L, to chastising NASA for allowing much of the same complacency that doomed Challenger to claim another seven lives just over 17 years later. I also see the anger behind my words, the clear resentment I felt on the realization how fates may cruelly turn in an instant. As petty and self-involved as that is, of course I wasn't thinking solely of the lost spacefarers.

"It was the day I first learned that, yes, the sky can fall." That line I'm proud of. The rest, meh. The article ends on a snarky and self-righteous note I'm not particularly proud of, though I think the message still comes through (and, thankfully, seems to have been heeded by NASA based on its cautious but successful performance for the subsequent five years.) Thanks to my state of mind at the time and the rushed nature of the piece on a whole, I even manage to incorrectly ascribe the subsequent loss of Columbia to the wrong year...

Still, overall, it's articles like this one I still look back to, and note with some small sense of accomplishment... because I still vividly remember where both the space agency and I were, five years ago today.

They Were All Teachers