Thursday

MOON BURGER



Thanksgiving break at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in the autumn of 1977 was a bit strange. It was my first Thanksgiving away from home and I was dreadfully homesick. To make matters worse my long time girlfriend back home was trading me in for parties at Western Michigan University, bong hits and red Solo cups full of temporary feel-good. Add to that the normal meat-grinder / pressure-cooker of attending college at ERAU and I was pretty beat. Thus, my pals and I decided on an excursion to Walt Disney World on Thanksgiving day as good medication for the bunch of us. I’d been looking forward to that adventure for nearly a week.

By late November the huge crowd of 2,500 freshmen that had invaded the campus at the beginning of the term had thinned a good bit. Classrooms where there was almost standing room only, now had a number of empty seats. That number seemed to grow every day. Our dorm, the “RSI” or Royal Scottish Inn motel, where we had been packed in by three to a room in the final week of August now had some solo rooms and some vacant rooms. On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving I went to campus and found that in my Foundations class there were exactly seven of us in attendance. My English class was cancelled and my late night Reading and Comprehension class, which was a pain in the ass non-credit bullshit class intended to increase my reading speed (which instead soaked me for some extra tuition dollars) had its door locked. Apparently the upperclassman who proctored it had split early for Thanksgiving break. In fact, everyone who could bug out for the break, did bug out. It was the first time I’d ever seen the campus nearly vacant- that was a bit strange.

On Thanksgiving day five of us piled into our dorm neighbor Russ’ land-boat car and motored our way to the Magic Kingdom. For most of the guys it was their first time, but I had been there in February of 1973 on a family Florida vacation. Of course in 1973 not all of the attractions were fully open. By 1977, the park was in full swing. We parked the land-boat in the Goofy lot and jumped the tram to to the monorail and the main gate. A 1977 “12 Adventure” ticket book was $9.50 and contained “A” “B” “C” “D” and “E” tickets. For those of you who did not “do Disney” in the ticket era; “E” tickets were the good stuff, “D” tickets were the fairly fun stuff, “C” tickets were the stuff you did when you ran out of “E” and “D” tickets, “B” tickets were for the stuff you did because you didn’t wanna leave yet or spend any more money and “A” tickets were the ones that always went home with you and lived in a drawer forever.

For ERAU students the one place that you could go to and actually fully escape the pressure-cooker was Disney World. Almost everyone went once each term and some went more than once. There you could forget classes, tests, prog-checks and just be gone for a day. You could even forget how much you wanna kill one of your roommates. It was a true escape and we strolled around without a care- for a change.

For my Thanksgiving dinner I had a Tomorrow Land moon burger and large fries as well as an iced tea. It probably cost me as much as going to the store and buying a whole turkey, but it came with the privilege of eating while watching Michael Iceberg performing live. He covered the Moody Blues “Dear Diary” in a great fashion.

As the time for park closing drew near our driver, Russ, remembered a critical piece of information. He told us that he suddenly remembered that his car was nearly out of gas! Of course he shared this fact with us after we ALL had completely spent every last cent that we had. Now we wandered around the park trying to figure out how in the hell we were gonna get all the way back to Daytona. We were totally devoid of ideas until my roommate Mike came out of the Arcade waving a ten dollar bill over his head! He had been walking around looking of change in the machine return slots and spotted the tenner laying on the floor under a pinball machine. Four of us rejoiced, but Russ, who was so Midwest that we other Midwesterners noticed, insisted that it didn’t belong to us and we had to put it back where Mike found it. Russ nearly got the shit kicked out of him at that moment. Of course we headed home with ten bucks worth of gas in Russ’ land-boat.

I’m 100% sure that our Thanksgiving trip to Disney gave me the boost that I needed to get me through the rest of that first trimester at ERAU. Of course a huge percentage of my freshman class went home for Thanksgiving and never returned. After that break there were A LOT of empty seats in the classrooms, because once back home a lot of guys didn’t want to come back to the pressure-cooker. That’s what led to the saying that ERAU was the easiest place to get into, but the hardest place to finish. I filled my place in my classes right up until Christmas break and returning to Michigan.

When I told my mom that I’d had a moon burger for Thanksgiving dinner- she cried saying, “Don’t you dare ever suffer like that again.” I told her it was one of the best Thanksgiving dinners I’d ever had.


She never really did understand why I love moon burgers… at Disney.

Sunday

If your check bounces, so do you.

As a freshman in the Aeronautical Science department at Embry-Riddle in 1977, that first month on campus was somewhat dizzy. It’s sort of like stepping from the comfort of your home directly onto a moving sidewalk that is traveling at 75 miles per hour- it’s a bit hard to keep your balance. To add to the circumstances you have no real idea as to exactly where you are going, but yer’ goin’ fast. In that first freshman month we saw a good number of our fellow freshmen that wanted off of that train and who headed back home.

For the rest of us the school had a “clubs and organizations day” to help us bond with other students and hang in there. It was at that event that I noticed a really good looking girl at the table for the ERAU Skydiving Club. She was signing up people to take their first parachute jump. Hell, she could have been signing up people to do razor-wire climbing and I’d have put my name on the clipboard that she handed me. There were at least 60 other names that had been signed above me as I added my scribble onto that list and agreed to show up at room C-405 on the following Tuesday evening. Thus, in a heartbeat she had gathered my name as well as the name of my roommate Mike. We’d signed up for a series of evening ground schools followed by a visit to the airport at Eustis, Florida for more ground training and then a static-line parachute jump. Walking away my roommate giggled, “Do ya’ think she’ll be there?” Forever the cynic I replied, “Probably not.”

Although that pretty young lady had probably gathered more than 100 signatures at that event, when Mike and I showed up for the first night of parachuting ground school only 25 other individuals were in attendance. The previous Sunday, on the phone, I had made the mistake of telling my parents that I was going to learn parachute jumping. My Mom sounded like I was already dead and my Dad urged me not to do it because, “It’s just not worth it.” So, I can easily imagine what parental pressures were placed upon the others on that list. For me, I tried to explain to my folks that my reasoning for doing this was quite logical and professional. If I was going to make flying my future and career, you never know when I may have to strap on a parachute as required by the FARs. In such a case I’d be wearing it as a safety device and if I had to use it I would need to do so without hesitation. A moment or two of doubt could, in such cases, mean the difference between life and death. Learning to use it now, early in my career, would erase that hesitation. As an example I told my folks that I may one day get a job carrying sky divers in order to build my flight hours- most pilots who do that wear a parachute. Or I may do aerobatic training- a parachute is required. My Dad saw that reasoning- Mom still thought I would plummet to my death. I didn’t mention the part about the girl who signed me up... they’d have thought that I was making decisions with parts of me other than my brain.




While the 27 of us sat there in room C-405 there was a high degree of apprehension in the room. No one came out and said that they were nervous- some gnawed on their pencils, or tapped pens on their desk. The rest chewed on their fingernails or moved their legs rhythmically to unheard music. Personally, I’ve always been a fingernail chewer- it drives my wife nuts to this day.
Jimmy Godwin was the owner of Paragators Inc. and our ground school instructor. He was a strong blunt man who could make a total malfunction sound like an old classic joke. His first act of business was to get all of us to pay for the class. One guy blurted out, “Will you take a check?” To which Godwin replied, “We sure will- but remember, if your check bounces, so do you.”

As the class went on I slowly realized that the whole point was- if properly trained you’ll develop an instinct for your equipment and knowledge for how it works and through that you could readily do something that so many people were frightened away from doing. If I had a confidence in my training and in the equipment and procedures I could not only do this, but I may actually enjoy the ride. I found that lesson to be true through all of my aviation career. I also realized that the pretty girl who’d signed me up was nowhere in that classroom. It was just my ass there training to do something that gives other people nightmares; another basic axiom of aviation.

On Saturday, September 24th, 1977 we all gathered at Eustis Airfield for our jump day. All 27 who had attended the ground school were there. It was 95 degrees in the shade and that was at 0900 in the morning. Fortunately the temperature would only climb to 97 as the day went on. We all went through two hours of additional ground training using a mock-up wing strut and step, a small three-foot high platform with a pit of saw dust where we could practice our PLF (Parachute Landing Fall) roll and then to the actual aircraft where we practiced getting in and out.  We also visited the “peas” which was a large 12 foot circle of pea gravel that was the target we’d be aiming for- hopefully with a fully deployed main parachute over our heads rather than streamering above our heels. They showed us a big florescent orange arrow. The ground crew would be holding this up as we descended and pointing it in the direction that we needed to steer our canopy. We were told that once they felt we had the knack of steering, they’d turn the arrow onto its side and we’d be responsible for the rest of the steering. The object was to “hit the peas” but they joked that probably none of us would actually hit the target. It was my hope just to hit Eustis, Florida.

After our final ground training we all gathered under an old tin-roof shade cover and stood in front of a huge, ancient blackboard. Jimmy Godwin was in front and shouted out, “The light weights will go first. Give me 3 light guys.” A chorus of 27 names were blurted out- everyone wanted to go first! By this time, Jimmy knew who was who and he quickly picked the first three and placed their name on the board as “Team 1” then he selected three more for the second team. I couldn’t believe that anyone was lighter weight than scrawny ol’ me, and then I saw Jimmy write down “Novac,” “Karger” and “Olesz.” I was on the third team to jump. We all watched the first team suit up with the help of Team 2 and then watched as they tromped out to the Cessna 182 and took off. Next the three of us on Team 3 helped Team 2 get ready. I went with Bill Rose and Wes Goodman to the trailer where they were tossing out our jump suits and Rose and Goodman both got theirs and started dressing. Both Rose and Goodman would go on to make a lot more jumps as the year went on. Goodman even joined the ERAU skydiving club. We took a short break to watch Team 1 jump and then saw Team 2 off to their Cessna 180- then it was our turn.
Jump team #3 (LtoR) Karger, Novac and me.


Reaching into the trailer one of the guys tossed me a crappy blue jump suit with a huge rip in the crotch. Lucky for me it was way too small so I handed it back and was issued a new green suit with a cool Paragator’s patch on the right shoulder and an American flag on the left- now we’re talkin’. If I was gonna burn in, I wanted to do it lookin’ like an aviator and not a hobo. In a heartbeat they hustled us over and strapped on our parachutes. Those damned straps were so tight that I thought my ability to have children would be removed when the chute deployed. The shoulder straps cut into me and when they placed the reserve chute onto my chest I felt like I was in a nylon vise. I was soaked with sweat and it was about then that I discovered that both of my chutes had been packed by a 15-year-old kid.

They marched us out across the little wooden foot bridge that led to the aircraft and we paused just in time to see a guy jump from Team 2- it was Rose. Now, Bill Rose and Leo Wood were the most noticeable guys on campus. They were fresh out of USMC boot and both still sported their Marine crew cuts among all of us long haired 70s students. Of course when you go through Marine Corps boot you learn to use your voice in a big way. For all of our parachute training we had all practiced the vocal count, “Arch thousand, two thousand, three thousand, four thousand, five thousand, six thousand, Check Canopy!” We had shouted it over and over countless times and we lay on our bellies practicing our arch. Rose and Wood were, of course, the loudest. What no one had told us was that the parachute deploys with one hell of a jerk and does so in just over one second. So, off the wing goes Rose and down on the ground we clearly heard his now familiar voice shout, “ARCH THOUSAND, Gaaaak!”  followed by, “CHECK CANOPY!” The entire field cracked up.
Rose and Wood- my two favorite Marines from ERAU


On Team 3 I would jump last, Karger first and Novac in the middle. We all squeezed into the back of 182 with Novac and I up against the bulkhead and Karger crossways. Nothing could have felt better that that prop-blast coming in through that door as the engine started- we were really over heated up until then. We’d been told to guard our reserve ripcord with one hand at all times- I took no chances and hugged mine with both arms. If that reserve deploys and goes out that open doorway- you’re gonna go too, and it won’t be pretty.

Soon we were climbing toward 3,000 feet. Novac looked at me and asked, “You gonna go through with it?” I nodded confidently. Actually my only fear by then was that I would chicken out. Upon reaching altitude, the jump master guided Karger over to the open door. “Feet out,” He commanded to Karger, “Get out,” Karger’s on the wing strut, “GO!” Karger’s gone as the jump master reels in his static line. The aircraft banks around and he motions to Novac. Again it is “Feet out, get out, go!” and Novac is gone.

Now it’s my turn and I slide up on my butt toward the door and the jump master has me turn around so my back is up against the instrument panel. As we bank around the jump master opens the door and I stick my head part way out and look down. “Get ready,” I hear through my helmet. Then he orders my feet out and forcing against the slipstream I put my boots on the airfoil wooden step. “Get out,” and I push myself out and grab that wing strut as tightly as I can while the relative wind shoots up my nose and is nearly as bad as having water going up your nose. “GO!”

The sensation was that of being sucked up a vacuum cleaner feet-first and the speed was unexpected as I shout “Arch thousand…” and do my best arch yet my senses were momentarily overwhelmed. I seem to be falling and falling at high speed for a long, long time. Then some huge unexpected force takes hold of me and suddenly I’m looking at the toes of my boots right in front of my nose! I spring like a puppet on a rubber band and I hear myself blurt out, “THREE THOUSAND!” Looking up I see the chute fully deployed over head and I mumble, “check canopy.” The entire process took just over two seconds.

My biggest worry through all of the training was the steering toggles that are used to slightly deform the canopy and allow air to flow through the two modifications in the chute, thus turn the rig.  I worried that they may be out of reach or tangled somewhere, but they are both right there in front of me. I nab one in each hand and begin to look around of the airport. Scanning around in the distance I cannot find it. At length as I lower my gaze I see it’s directly under my left toe! And the arrow is pointing in the direction that I’m going.

It is totally silent around me and I felt as if I’m sitting on a cloud. “This is of f#$&ing cool,” I giggle to myself. In short order, however, I’m a bit impatient with the arrow guy. I want to make a turn and see how this thing handles but he has me going straight. “Come on, gim’me a turn,” I whisper to myself. Just then he turns me left and then right is a brief “S” turn and then back on heading. I figure he’ll have me on the arrow nearly all the way down like the others that I’d watched and I have a long way to go. Just then he turns the arrow on its side and I’m on my own! Nuts! Now I gotta work!

In retrospect I just did the best that I could to guesstimate my course, but I had no real idea if I was right. I just tried to keep the peas between my toes. Then, as I still felt high up in the air they shouted the command, “Feet together- look at the horizon!” I did what I was trained to do and wham! The Earth came up and smacked me! I crumbled into the pea gravel and tried to do some sort of PLF as the canopy deflated over top of me. Looking at the ground all I saw was pea gravel- I’d hit the dang target. Officially I was 4 meters from center and only one other guy hit the peas that day- but he was almost dead center and totally beat me.

Me at about 30 feet up- feet together and lookin' at the horizon


Overall we stayed there all day and watched our whole class jump. Rose jumped at least one more time that same day. We all had fun and we all learned a lot about ourselves. There was only one close call and that came when one jumper lost his glasses and could not see the arrow. We’d all been warned to get sports bands for our glasses, but he’d forgotten. So when the parachute deployed and jerked his head back he lost a pair of badly needed glasses and managed to almost get up close and personal to a barbed wire fence.

I’ve never regretted signing up on that clipboard handed to me by Barbara Shalit, that good lookin’ girl at the Skydiving Club’s table. She was then the club president and managed to get a few new club members and a handy chunk of change for Paragators. I always wanted to do it again, but really had to knuckle down on studying for the rest of the trimester. Thereafter, I never had enough money to eat, let alone go parachute jumping. In my career as a pilot I only wore a chute two more times, but was always confident in doing so thanks to Barbara, Jimmy and Paragators. Jimmy passed away on March 26, 1998 while in his hangar doing light maintenance on N5357B, the aircraft from which I had jumped two decades earlier.


None of our checks bounced- and on September 24th, 1977, neither did any of us.

Wes Oleszewski is the author of  23 books and you can find much of his work at Amazon.com


Friday

What're you laughin' about?


Imagine if you will a crowd of 2,500 students registering for the same two dozen or so freshman classes, on the same day, in the same building while another 2,500 upperclassmen attempt to register for their own classes. Now imagine that the school never really planned for this influx of students and really did not have enough teachers or classroom “sections” to handle these students. Next add to it the first-come-first-serve, festival seating manner in which each student was going to register. Now you have the situation that developed 40 years ago today at the Embry-Riddle aeronautical university’s fall registration… and I was in that crowd.

I made the mistake of getting to campus at just after 9am, figuring I was early. At that time the line for registration extended out the front door of the University Center (UC) and around the building. Of course we were lucky because the Florida sun had been replaced with overcast skies and light rain. As I stepped into my place in line the line itself rapidly continued to grow until it extended the full length of the UC and around the north side of the building.



Self-illustrated post card that I sent to my parents 9/4/1977
By noon I had actually gotten through the front door and into the building itself and then the line slowed down. You see the systemic problem was that when you had 2,500 freshmen seeking about 24 classes that equates to about 104 students per class and if those classes are divided into sections, or the hour and classroom and teacher, and each section is to contain no more than 32 students it all can equate to about 3.25 sections for each class. However, when you throw in students cherry picking their times and days for each class and the conflict resolution of each student’s schedule a large monkey wrench looms over the plan. Next, when you figure that this is all done manually with pencil and paper and each student is required to write a schedule that must be conflict free you have students bouncing around before finalizing. Worse yet, as many of those students are in line at conflict resolution, sections that they have chosen close because other students have beat them to it. Now they have to go back and do it all over again. That process slows the whole show down to a speed that a snail can beat.

Standing inside the building we could now hear the P.A. system where they were making the frequent “closed course” announcements, “Closed course… MA-111, section five…”  and so on. Those announcements would soon become the bane of our existence. We heard it over and over and soon it came at an increasing rate.

As we waited, the endurance test of being in that line led to camaraderie. Before long we entered into a gentleman’s agreement (yes ladies- it was mostly guys in those days. A quick survey of the 1978 ERAU yearbook, for example, showed just 64 female students of the approximately 2,100 student photos) that we’d hold the place of anyone who needed to go and use the rest room. Later we came up with the concept that if someone was willing to do a food run for a bunch of us, when he got back we’d not only have his place saved but he could go the head of the group. After gathering the cash for one of the food runs the runner left and the guy behind me asked, “What’s to keep him from takin’ off with our money?” I replied, “Darwin… because if splits the only place for him to go is at the very end of the line.”

The insane crowd- note the black wall with the course cards in the background.
c/o Phoenix yearbook 1978
Eventually I got to the point where I could look up onto the flight deck and see the swarm of where registration and conflicts check was going on. There was a huge wall of black felt that contained cards marking assorted classes followed by cards with their open section numbers. For the classes that I needed there was almost nothing left and I still had at least another two hours or more in line. There were members of the teaching staff plowing through the crowd trying to help and every now and then one of the student assistants would pluck one of the section cards away and take it to the upper classman who would announce the closed course. It looked bleak for me.

Soon I spotted a familiar face in the crowd of people sitting in the dining room. It was Pat Kelley, a guy that’s I’d attended high school with in our tiny farm town of Freeland, Michigan! Pat was two years ahead of me at ERAU and had dropped in to see me and calm my apprehension a couple of days before I left for ERAU. Pat was in Aviation Maintenance Technology and was sitting in the UC playing chess. I asked if he’s already registered and replied that all of his classes were mandatory, so he would just wait until the nonsense was all over and get forced entries for everything… which is exactly what he did.


By the time I was nearing my turn to step into the madness the closed course guy began calling out “new section.” That meant that the school was opening up more sections for closed courses. This was not an easy task because first they had to find an instructor willing to take on the new section, then they had to find a classroom that was unoccupied and place that section in that time-slot. Yet, one after another new sections were popping up.


Conflicts check line- note the guy with the migraine.
c/o Phoenix yearbook 1978

After more than six hours in line I finally stepped onto the flight deck in order to register. We were shoulder to shoulder trying to figure out a schedule on the fly. By that time my wish-list registration form was toilet paper as nothing that I’d put on it was actually there anymore. Some were working very hard to get what they wanted, I just scribbled out a section for every class that I needed without regard for time or day. I figured “What the hell, I’m gonna be here anyway and I have nothing better to do during the days between now and the end of the term- so any day and any time was as good as any other.” I jotted out my classes and a few back-ups and jumped into the conflicts line. Amazingly I went right through, but when I got up to the faculty approval, I heard them do closed course for my “Foundations of Aviation” course! “Damn!” I half shouted. But Mr. Wencel, who I recall was doing my approval, just glanced up, sighed “Don’t worry about it,” and made me a forced entry into that class. He signed me off and said, “Welcome to Embry Riddle.”


In the years that followed the administration at ERAU took steps to ensure that the fall 1977 registration nightmare did not happen again- or at least not on the same scale. For the spring trimester, for example, those of us who were left from the fall got to register early and that at least helped us. As the years passed the computer revolution did much to streamline the process. Yet still the students and especially the freshmen bitched- not knowing how much worse it could be. After my being in and out of school, (sometimes for as long as two years,) while working my way through ERAU, I found myself in 1986 as an orientation leader. In that role were we did our best to help the new students as much as we could. On registration day I was assigned, as an advanced flight student, to help the new aero. science students with registration. I was standing in line with one kid who waited for exactly eight minutes to have his schedule signed off by none other than Mr. Wencel. He took one look at the kid’s paperwork, crossed out two classes that were filled and two that were the back-up list and picked out one from the third back-up list and signed off the guy’s schedule. Of course the kid was a bit shocked because he didn’t get exactly what he wanted and he objected. “That’s what ya’ got,” Wencel told him half smiling, then he looked at me, winked and told the kid, “Welcome to Embry-Riddle.”  As I guided the still perplexed freshman out of the line he looked at his schedule and said, “This sucks!” Then he looked at me and said, “What’re you laughin’ about?”

Monday

He’s finally been institutionalized


August 28, 1977… the day that I first stepped foot on the campus of the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University to begin a “four year” program that would earn me a BS degree in Aeronautical Science and commercial pilot, multi-engine, instrument airplane ratings. Yep- it was a “four year” program… and Gilligan started out on a “three hour” cruise too. On August 15, 1988, just over a dozen days short of a full decade I would walk across the stage at graduation- it would be a long, life-changing road and in order to get to the end, I would have to do the impossible and I actually knew that from the beginning. Looking across the campus in those first few moments I decided that there were only two ways I was going to leave there; either with my degree and ratings or in a whole bunch of little Ziploc bags. The objective was not a seat in some airliner looking toward retirement after making a pile of money- it was very simply just to finish what I had now started.

 My quest to get to that campus on that day in 1977 had actually begun many years earlier when the hand of fate reached out and held the bait right under my nose. I was the in the 8th grade at an inner-city dump of a Junior High School monikered “Webber” on the east side of the industrial city of Saginaw, Michigan. Very little real learning took place there as the classrooms were in a constant state of chaos ruled over by the delinquent offspring of LBJ’s “Great Society.” Strong arm robberies, petty shakedowns, and plain old violence too often took the place of education. Making the honor role got me thrown against the lockers and told “Dat ain’t cool professor.” Thus, those of us who didn’t wish to take part in the madness resorted to library passes and classes involving assisting administrators. My 5th hour “class” involved assisting in the office of the school counselor. One day a bundle of fliers intended for the high school was inadvertently delivered to our office. I asked Mr. Barris, the counselor, what he wanted me to do with them and he told me to just throw them away. As I went to do that I saw that they had airplanes on them! Being a rabid space-buff and aviation fan I nabbed one of the fliers for myself. Later in the safety of the library I studied it. It was all about a college with airplanes and it was in Florida close to Cape Canaveral. There was a book called “Astronauts in Training,” in the 629 section of the library and on page 8 was a photo of Astronaut Al Worden preflighting a helicopter and the caption read “All Must Fly.” That school with the airplanes down by the Cape was the place for me! I wanted to fly too and this Embry-Riddle school was the place to go and learn.

 Looking up Embry-Riddle in the library I saw that they were listed as “Highly Selective.” Crap! I’d never been highly selected for anything. I was a working-class Polish kid whose parents were both high school drop outs and I was stuck in the worst part of the one of the worst school systems in the Midwest! How the hell was I gonna get highly selectable? In the end none of that mattered because when I applied in the fall of 1976 Embry-Riddle had decided to double its student population and went from “Highly Selective” to “Can you pay your deposit and are you breathing.” Fortunately, even though I was an asthmatic, I was able to do both and thus became one of the 2,500 new freshmen enrolled for the fall 1977 trimester.



Stepping onto the campus on that classically humid Florida morning I found two large tables set up on the sidewalk outside of the Dorm with about six people standing behind them and a mountain of large manila envelopes. Most of the campus was obscured by trees but there was no question that we were indeed ON what was then Daytona Beach Regional Airport. In fact we were standing just 2,453 feet from the threshold of Runway 24 Right. Aircraft were buzzing overhead like bees. I had no idea that I’d be there long enough for not only the name of the airport to be changed, but for the actual magnetic field of the Earth itself to shift far enough for runway 24 to be renamed runway 25. (Yes, I’m laughing with you). 

 
In short order my “packet” was found in the pile and my parents, who had driven me down to school, and I were directed off campus and back out toward Interstate 95. My “dorm” would be a place that they called “the RSI.” Because everything in aviation is in acronym, I had to begin my career and aviation education living in one. The RSI was an acronym for a motel in distress monikered the “Royal Scottish Inn.” ERAU had given them a windfall by leasing the entire two story motel which was located right about where Chili's is today on US 92. The place had about 200 rooms and each one was now equipped with three pull-out beds and one “study table” so the facility could be crammed with 600 Riddle freshmen. Arriving there I was issued a key for Room 182 and told to stop at “linen” and pick up my bed sheets, blanket, pillow, 3 wash cloths and three towels. I was the first guy in room 182, but was told to expect two roommates. I picked the back wall rack to sleep in and stowed my trusty 10 speed bicycle “Champagne” back behind the cloths hangar and told my parents and my little brother to “scram.” I’d see them at the BBQ later on campus. Before they could leave my first roommate, Mark Holloway, showed up dragging along his baggage. Mark was from Flint, Michigan and since I was from Saginaw, we quickly became friends. A while later our third roommate, Mike Krkuc showed up. I’d scored the best two roommates that a newbee at college could have. 

That afternoon at the orientation BBQ we got to see the campus for the first time. Compared to the ultra modern ERAU campus of today there wasn’t very much.
Other than the dorm we had the University Center- forever known simply as “The UC”...
 
the Maintenance Technology building- “AMT,”...
 
the Gill Rob Wilson building- known simply as “The Flight Line”...
 
and the Academic Building which was called “A building.”
 
It never struck me that we had an “A” building, but not a “B” or a “C” building.
 
Up the road toward the airport entrance was located the expanded World War II surplus Quonset Hut that was our Administration Building.
That was it folks! That was ERAU and the entire area between the UC, A building and the AMT building was a huge parking lot that had once been a runway for the airport. For us 2,500 freshmen, however, that was plenty- because our campus extended into the vast blue sky above and so it was the largest campus in the world.


That afternoon our parents had listened to President Hunt speak about “our” university. If you ever made the mistake of saying “your university” or “the university” in front of President Hunt, he would stop you and correct you by stating, “No… it’s OUR university.” He wanted to engrain into you the mind-set that this place was not left to us by long-dead bearded men with mutton chop sideburns and powdered wigs- it was being built by us- now, at this point in time. Indeed we and ERAU grew up together. Most impressed with the president’s talk was my Mom. When I saw her at the BBQ that evening and we said goodbye she told me, “This is gonna be quite a place for you.” Later, as my Dad, Mom and younger brother drove back toward Michigan she said that she felt as if they had left me where I truly belong- to which my little brother quipped, “Yeah- he’s finally been institutionalized.”
 
That night I sat in my pull-out bunk at the RSI and scrolled the day’s events into my pocket journal and ended with the phrase, “My God… I’m actually HERE!” I was setting out to do the impossible. “Impossible?” you may ask… and then scoff, “Naaa.” Yet, from my point of view at that time, this endeavor was indeed the impossible. No one back home, and I mean NO ONE, thought I could ever do it. My high school guidance counselor flatly told me that I couldn’t do it and urged me to just go to the community college instead. Relatives scoffed and quipped that, “people like us can’t do that sort of thing.” I’d seen plenty of eye-rolling and heard a lot of doubtful snickers. Hell I left home with a $2,500 student loan for the full year while knowing full well that ERAU would cost me $2,900 per trimester- without flight! Yet I jumped into the meat-grinder anyway knowing that Mom and Dad could not help me and  I would have to work to make up the difference. I had left my long-time girlfriend (who would outgrow me in the first few months and be gone), hockey (of course I really didn’t need that third concussion anyhow), my cozy community of Freeland, Michigan, my home and everything to set out on this new path with all of the odds stacked against me- it was impossible. My goal, however, was fixed in stone and it was very simple- it was just to finish.

Friday

HOW TO GET FIRED AND LIKE IT.


The great Highland conspiracy happened 40 years ago this month- it took many weeks of planning and diligent effort. On May 20, 1977 the fruits of all that labor came to pass; I got fired by the Highland Appliance Company. As a result I suffered through having the entire summer off before leaving for college and getting paid for it. Here’s how it all happened…

 It actually began on the day that I got hired at Highland Appliance. The local district manager, fellow by the name of Stan, had interviewed me specifically as their TV and stereo "road technician." I was to replace a guy named Arnold who, I suspect, the character of Les Nessman from the TV show WKRP in Cincinnati had been patterned after by the show's writers. The job was essentially little more than that of a TV repair man- I drove around in a Highland van, went into people's homes and fixed their brand-new TVs while little kids in catsup-stained T-shirts tried to steal my tools. It was a crummy job but the pay was great and as a 19-year-old bachelor looking toward college I thought I had it pretty good. The service manager, however, disagreed with Stan's choice and hated me from the very beginning. Just for the record I won't use his real name, we'll just call him "Doink.”


From the very beginning Doink was on my case. You see the company headquarters in Taylor, Michigan had set up what they called “a required completion rate.” In other words, there was a specific number of calls where I was supposed to arrive, completely fix what was wrong and move on to the next call. When it was not possible to fix whatever device it was that Highland had sold the customer that was defective right out-of-the-box, I had to bring it into the shop; such things were called "shop pulls" and did not count as a "complete." According to the home office figures I was required to get 8.6 completes per day. The problem was that the home office had based their figures on service calls being performed in the densely populated suburban Detroit area. Not only were sales greater in those areas but calls were closer together. In my area of operation, which was Saginaw, Michigan, my calls were often in rural areas that required a good deal of driving to and from the call. Additionally sales were far lower than they were in the Detroit area. To make matters worse, I vary rarely had more than 8 calls, so getting an 8.6 average was almost impossible. To Doink it made no difference, my daily completes had to come up to the home office's average; no excuses.


As the months went on through the winter my job became more and more of a pain in the ass. Then came that magical day when I got my letter of acceptance to the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach Florida. My final letter of enrollment arrived on April 25, 1977 for a class that was supposed to begin on the first day of September. When Doink found out that I would be leaving in four months he decided to try and get rid of me more quickly by really turning the screws to see if I would quit. However, the other technicians that worked in the shop, who hated Doink perhaps more than I did, had a different idea. Ken, who is the shop lead, did little bit of homework. He discovered that under the Michigan Employment Security Commission’s (MESC)schedule, my wage level was the lowest that would provide maximum benefit. Meaning that if I made any higher wage, I would still get the same benefit, but if I made any less I would be in a lower benefit category. Also under that same commission, if I were to be fired without having provided any damage to the company, such as theft, damage to facilities, or punching my boss in the mouth, I was entitled to collect unemployment benefits immediately. But, if I were to quit, it would be six weeks before my benefits would kick in. Together with his friend Gary, who was our "white goods technician" or the guy who fixed the stoves, dryers and dishwashers, they hatched a plan that would allow me to depart Highland Appliance and get the summer off with pay. All I had to do was be so crappy at my job that Doink would just have to fire me. It was a diabolical scheme that I bought into immediately.

Suddenly while out on the road I acted as if I just couldn't figure out how to fix the most simple problems. At nearly every call I would have to phone back into the office and ask Doink what I should do about this broken piece of equipment. I took extra long lunch hours, in fact, I even took a few occasions to throw my hockey bag into the back of my van and go to the ice arena at noon and spend a couple hours playing pickup hockey. One of the girls in the office told me that Doink was positive that I was hanging out in a bar somewhere. She giggled at the fact that Doink didn't know me well enough to know that I'm a non-drinker. My average of completes soon dropped to about one per day and Doink was slowly going out of his mind as the home office pestered him to do something about me other than firing me.


I have to admit here that I was not the stereotypical TV repair guy that some of you reading this may remember from the days when people actually got their TVs repaired in their homes. I didn't walk around wearing a jacket with a white oval patch that had my name on it. I didn't lug around a big giant tube caddy and I didn't spend a lot of time counseling customers on what was wrong with their television. Instead of the horn-rimmed glasses wearing repair nerd that they were expecting to come into their home carrying a giant case filled with assorted electronic tubes, which we didn't use anymore, what they got was a 19-year-old kid in blue jeans with a nut driver in his back pocket, a clipboard in one hand and a module to fix the TV in the other hand. For example, we had a rash of Admiral TVs that always seem to blow their sound cards. I'd look on the dispatch, see it was an admiral, see it was a sound issue, grab the module, enter the house, pull back of the TV, swap out the module, replace the back of the TV and have the entire repair done before the customer was finished bitching about the problem. I made it in and out of one call in just 11 minutes- and then scooted over to the ice rink to spend an hour or so playing shinny. That was all it really took to get the job done. At one point they had one of the technicians from in the shop ride with me to ensure that I carried my tube caddy around, "because that's what the customers expected to see." Needless to say nothing worked- they were going to have to fire me for "inability to perform job function" which was exactly what Ken and Gary had planned.

 The final straw came when on May 18th when Doink handed out a series of blue-and-white patches made in the form of the Highland logo. They were intended for us to sew on a jacket or a shirt. That night I sewed mine onto the ass of my blue jeans, and wore them to work the next day. As I was bending over filling out my trip sheet for the day Doink walked by, stopped and asked, "is that all you think of the company you work for?" Glancing over my shoulder I simply said, "Yep." Doink stormed off to his office and slammed the door. I walked back into the shop, glanced at Ken, who had watched the entire thing, and said, "I think I'm all done here." We both snickered- our plan had apparently worked. He asked if I was gonna enjoy having the summer off with pay?
 
The following morning I showed up at work and only had four calls on my list with a note saying, "return to shop after last call." Again I walked back into the shop, showed the guys the message and we all quietly celebrated. Gleefully I ran my last four calls telling every single customer that this was my last day and I was going away to college in Florida to learn to become a professional pilot. Every one of them congratulated me and a couple of them said that they wished they could go with me.

Returning to the shop I walked in with the same feeling I had when they open the penalty box door and let you in after you've just won a fight. Doink beckoned me into his office and sat me down as morose as an undertaker. He gave me a long-winded explanation about how I was unable to come up to the company standards and they were going to have to "let me go." I tried to act a bit stunned and somewhat sad when in fact I felt like I’d just scored a goal. It was all I could do to not raise my hands in the air and shout "Wahoooo!” Then, being the completely inept manager that Doink was, he made a critical mistake. He asked me if I wanted to wait while he inventoried my truck or if I just wanted one of the guys to take my truck and drive me home? It was similar to him having asked, "do you want to stay here and talk me out of hanging myself, or do you just want to leave and let me do it." For a moment I thought of that scene in the movie "Silver Streak" where the state trooper asks Richard Pryor if he'd like to chase the bad guys, or just go home and he hangs his head pretending to weep and says, "this is been a terrible ordeal I just want to go home." Although I didn't pretend to weep I acted glum and said, “I just wanna go home.”


The reason why I was so eager to not hang around while he "inventoried" my van was the fact that I knew full well that once I left the van in his charge without having it inventoried in front of me I was no longer responsible for anything that may be missing from the van. But, Doink thought that this was his big opportunity to really hang me. When I showed up at the unemployment office to file my claim they told me that Highland was withholding my paperwork as well as my final check which, by the way, under Michigan law he was required to give to me at the moment that he fired me. Now I had to go back to Highland and face-off with Doink to get my check and my paperwork. When I got there he accused me of major theft of items from the van. Of course I hadn't stolen a thing. My whole goal was to get cleanly fired so I could collect my unemployment right away.

One thing that I've always learned in life is that when you're going up against a company and an idiot  such as Doink the best thing that you can do to ensure that you win is to go up as high as you possibly can and dump a large load of shit down toward them. Because shit travels downhill and increases in velocity as it does so. In this case it was actually my dad who came up with a very unique idea. He advised me to call my local state congressional representative and complain about Highland’s antics with my unemployment. Believe it or not the congressman was actually in his office and took my call. He listened intently and then simply said, "We'll take care of this immediately." Within an hour I got a call from Stan my former district manager. He said, "I have just one question for you. Were you present when Doink inventoried the van?" Of course I said "no" and then he went on to read to me the list of items that Doink had submitted to the company of things missing from the van. About 90% of those items were things that I did not carry in the van at all, nor did any of the other drivers in the company. I brought up that point with Stan and he simply said, "I know." Stan then told me to wait about 45 minutes, go to Highland, pick up my final paycheck and then proceed to the unemployment office where my paperwork will be waiting.


To let you know just how popular Doink was at that Highland store, there was a day when one of the salesmen approached me in the parking lot and seriously told me that he would give me the biggest TV set of my choice if I would kill Doink. I thought it was a joke but he went on to tell me that he thought I was one of the few people he knew of who had the temperament to do such a thing and was savvy enough to dispose of the body! The attitude of almost everybody else that I met at that company was the same when it came to Doink. When I showed up to get my final paycheck Doink was in and out of the office several times while I waited on the sales floor. Ken came out, took me aside and said that Stan was on his way up from the home office and Ken had been told to be ready to take over Doink’s job. The salesman were all giddy with delight. One told me he's never seen Doink this nervous and they’re loving every second of it. Before long Doink showed up and reached through the service window with an envelope. I took it and then pointing it right back at him said, "You had no right to hold this from me." Standing just behind me, my dad placed his hand firmly on my shoulder; perhaps sensing that I wanted to ask Doink if he remembered birth and then pull him through that window. As we left the store and got into the parking lot I threw my hands in the air shouted out aloud "Wahoo! He shoots- he scores!” Dad laughed and just shook his head.

Indeed I got the entire summer of 1977 off with pay. I spent my time between camping up north and going down south to Plymouth and hanging out with my girlfriend. Highland Appliance was the only job from which I was fired in my entire life. Although I have been furloughed from three flying jobs, in aviation we don't consider that as being fired. I had a lot of managers who were idiots, but none who were as inept as Doink. So, I needed a summer vacation- with pay.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: All of my typos belong to Dragon.

Tuesday

A DAY I WOULD NEVER REGRET


April 18th, 1977... exactly 40 years ago today, as of this writing... it was a day I'll NEVER regret. It was a spring Monday in mid-Michigan and it seemed as if winter had finally released its dark grip as the sun was out and the robins were singing. I headed off to another crappy day of work in my Highland Appliance company service van. My job was that of the now extinct TV and stereo repair man. I motored around the tri-cities, went into people's homes and fixed their new TVs and stereos that they'd just purchased, brought home and discovered that the damned things didn't work. That meant that I got to meet a lot of pissed off people. My boss was a total asshole who hated my guts almost as much as everyone at the store hated him. It was an insufferable situation that paid quite well as at the age of 19 I was making good money. This was the result of my attending a local career center in the 11th and 12th grades and taking both basic and later advanced courses in electronics. Now I had a job in electronics that I hated. Although I never had planned to remain in that job for more than a single year, I now could hardly stand it for a single week.

My routine was always the same; drive the van to the store, pick up my "calls" for the day, get nagged by the asshole boss, head out on the road and go into assorted homes to kneel behind TV sets while little kids in ketchup-stained pajamas tried to steal my tools. About the only solace that I had was the fact that my home town professional hockey team, the Saginaw Gears, were ripping their way through the playoffs and headed toward their first Turner Cup. So it was that I put my key into the van's ignition with it's Gears key-chain and headed off to every call and every TV.

After my day's suffering I returned home to Mom and Dad's house figuring to hunker down in my basement bedroom, draw some cartoons and call my girlfriend... just like every other day. As I walked into the house, my Mom pointed toward a large manila envelope on the kitchen table. It had arrived in that day's mail. It was addressed to me. It was from the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, "ERAU." I had applied to the university in the autumn of 1976 and was looking for an Air Force ROTC scholarship in Aeronautical Science... which is a fancy name for "pilot." The university, however, notified me that the Air Force was no longer doing Aero. Sci. scholarships and required all candidates to be in the engineering department. I wanted to do engineering about as bad as I wanted to keep working for Highland Appliance, so I decided to change my option, drop the ROTC and go in as a civilian in the flight department. That decision was made way back in February and I had been waiting since then to hear back from ERAU.

Oddly, I'd wanted to go to ERAU since the 8th grade. It was then that I was working in the counselor's office at Webber Jr. High School when a stack of assorted college fliers were mistakenly delivered to the Jr. high school rather than the high school. Looking at them I asked Mr. Barris, the counselor, what he wanted me to do with the stuff? He told me to just throw them away and as I went to toss them into the waste basket I saw that one pamphlet had an airplane on it. I kept that one and later studied it. It was a school that taught all about airplanes and, for the crazed space-buff that I was, the place was in Florida just north of "The Cape." Being anywhere near Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center was enough to fill my space-crazed imagination and learning to fly airplanes too was a sure winner in my book. This was the place for me and even though college seemed to be a lifetime into the future, THAT was where I wanted to go. When it finally came time for me to apply for college, ERAU was my first and ONLY choice. My high school guidance counselor tried to warn me off of that choice saying that he felt I didn't have the math background for it and perhaps I should go to the local community college instead. This was the same guy who, when I decided to take electronics at the career center in the 11th grade tried to warn me off of that too for the exact same reason. He said he thought I'd be better off taking sheet metal instead. I told him that I was going into electronics and if I wasn't carrying at least a "B" by Christmas, he could put me into sheet metal or even janitorial if he wanted. He just smirked and agreed. At the Christmas break I was carrying an "A" and he couldn't touch me. Out of the 24 of us who started Basic Electronics, only 3 of us made it to the advanced class for our senior year and only two of us graduated with a job in electronics. Now that same idiot was trying to warn me away from ERAU. The situation speaks for itself. Thus, on that Monday in April of 1977 I had an envelope from ERAU waiting at the table and countless implications waiting inside.

The envelope was fat, and squishy as if something was padded inside. As I held it the thought occurred to me that if this was an acceptance letter, opening it would likely change my whole life. I had no idea just how true that instinct actually was as I squished the envelope and stuck my finger in it to rip it open.

Inside that envelope was not only my letter of approval for admission to ERAU, but also a T-shirt with the ERAU crest. Unseen by me at the time the envelope also contained failures, struggles, frustration, poverty, discouragement, success, accomplishment, pride, glee, victory, new friends for life and a wife that I could never have imagined.

Suddenly I felt as if I was seated aboard a Saturn V moon rocket and the hold-down clamps had just released- I was on my way! Frankly, it's a good metaphor- because that thing had millions of parts that could fail and it launched to do the impossible. Now, I had to overcome countless problems, any one of which could lead to failure and I was setting out to do the impossible. "Impossible?" you may ask. Yes- think about it, I was a workin' class kid from the wrong side of the Saginaw River whose parents had both dropped out of high school (and so they both insisted that all three of their kids must finish school and go to college). I came from a place where the norm. was that you go to work in "the shop" or some other outlet that supported the auto industry. ERAU was, and still is, "the Harvard of the skies" (although it is my opinion that comparing ERAU to Harvard somehow degrades ERAU a bit), there was no way that I could afford to go there and I knew it. I was told over and over by the relatives and neighbors and assorted know-it-all blow hards "that's not for people like us," and NO ONE other than my cousin Tony believed I could do it.

I couldn't wait to get started.

I called into work the following day and just told them I wasn't going to be coming in. I took my bicycle for a long ride on the country roads of Michigan and just felt free. It was 79 degrees outside and the sun felt great. I got a money order for $100, which was the deposit fee that the university required and I mailed it gleefully off to Daytona. That evening I went with my Dad to the hockey game. Dad was the Zamboni driver and so we got there several hours before game time. He always let me go out and skate before he started doing the game ice. I took my stick, gloves and a half dozen pucks and hit the ice. It had been about a month since my final game playing in the juniors so it felt great to be back on the ice. I screamed around the rink, deep into the corners and blasting back out again firing shots. I had the whole of Wendler Arena all to myself and enough adrenaline pumping to bottle it and sell it in pharmacies. Under my ever-present hockey jacket I wore my new ERAU T-shirt. It was the only time that I wore it until I got my official letter of enrollment- I didn't wanna jinx myself. Dad was watching somewhat proud, yet probably deeply worried that I was setting myself up for a huge failure. He told me later that while I was out there one of the Gears players came through the arena's back door and stood watching. The professional hockey player mentioned that I was, "a real skater." Dad said something to the effect that it's too bad I didn't skate like that when I played and explained that I was blowing off steam because I'd just gotten into college. The player asked if I was "gonna play" there. Dad said no, I was going to Florida and gonna be a professional pilot. The player's comment was "Great!" I didn't even see the exchange- I was too busy ripping up the rink.

On April 25th, 1977, just one week after I'd gotten my approval letter, my admission letter from ERAU arrived. Four months and one day later, on August 26th, 1977 I said goodbye to my girlfriend Debbie, the state of Michigan, hockey and my life as it had been for the previous two decades and I headed off to ERAU.



I'm not at all shy about saying that it it took me a full decade to work my way through that place- in fact I'm quite proud to say that. My goal from the start was not some seat in an airline cockpit... my goal, my focus, was simply and directly to finish- to do the impossible, to take every doubter, critic and smug tit feeder and show them that a kid from the wrong side of the river CAN do this. Along the way I gained so much beyond my degree that today, 40 years later, I feel like the richest man on Earth. I have no regrets- NONE, and I especially will never regret opening that envelope... 40 years ago today.


Friday

YOU NEVER KNOW WHO'S GONNA BE ABOARD

On January 12, 1999 I had a trip aboard N225CC, a Falcon 100, from ESN-MTN-LEX-MTN-ESN and our prime customer was Senator Mitch McConnell. This was an insane time for Senate travel because it was at the peak of the Clinton impeachment trial. Senators had obligations after the hearing adjourned for the day, but had to be back in chambers by the next morning. So, they had to leave the chamber, hustle to an airport, board a private jet, make their appearance and then hustle back to DC. DCA was slammed every night so Senator McConnell and his aids limo'ed to Martian State airport just north of Baltimore where we picked them up and headed for Lexington, KY.

As we flew out, we could hear them talking in the back of the aircraft, but could not get all of the conversation because much of it seemed to be about the closed-door evidence so it was in hushed tones. What we could pick out was something about tiger stripe panties and it was apparently quite funny.

Before we left LEX they told us that we had one additional passenger. Didn't matter to us, we had 3 empty seats and no weight issues. The young blond lady extra passenger said that her airline reservation back to DC had gotten screwed up and she was about to get stuck in LEX. When the senator heard that, he told her she could hitch a ride back with us. I immediately recognized her as one of the news show "talkin' heads" that I'd seen on all of the networks, but I couldn't remember her name. We got them back to MTN and they caught their limo back to DC without as much as a bump. It was a an easy trip with good weather and we re-positioned back to ESN.

About a week later I was channel surfing the news and there she was! I read her name it was Kellyann Conway. Today, January 20th, 2017... 18 years later... the man whose campaign she brilliantly managed was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States and she became the first woman in history to successfully manage the election of a United States president... and I transported her when the airlines couldn't... thanks to Senator McConnell, or course. Congratulations Kellyann, even though you never knew who I was, you are now in my file of fun pilot's stories.

Thursday

"The Program" cartoon strip is BACK... again.


Yes after being idle through Obama's entire second term after it was repressed by censors of the administration for looking too much like the real thing... "The Program" cartoon strip has now been re-started.

Those of you who actually work on black projects or who work in aerospace can now revisit the place where ants really fly in space... or at least they try.


Constant training is required to not get turned into a smoking hole in the ground, yet most of the side characters have the the life expectancy of one of the red shirt guys in Star Trek (we use the red shirt joke a lot). Of course no corner is too sharp to cut and penny pinching is always a way of life in the training department.


You, however, can safely enjoy the work of Sims, Twik-O and Dr. Zooch as they challenge the unknown as well as management.


Lord willing and the creek don't rise I should be able to have this up once a week as my writing schedule gets back to normal after having just written 8 books in the past 4 years.


Now you can catch up on the adventures in the insanity known as "The Program" and never mind about those Russians- it's those gosh darned Dorrillians you gotta watch out for.





Wednesday

WHAT'S IN A NAME

At a recent doctor's visit the office staff were shuffling my paperwork around and the new office manager looked at mine and asked her co-worker, "What'll we do with Mr. Oleszewski's?"

That caught my ear because she pronounced my name exactly RIGHT! That's VERY rare and so I exclaimed, "You said my name correctly! How in the heck did you do that?"

"I'm from Ukraine." she replied with a smile and slight accent.

Growing up on the East Side of Saginaw, Michigan names such as mine were like "Jones" they were so common. Yet, out in the real world I found that many people have a real tongue-twister with names that are not actually Jones... especially flight attendants, or "FAs" as they are often called.

At one of my airlines, in the days prior to 9/11 when civilization actually existed in air travel, the company required that the FA making the pre-takeoff announcements had to greet the occupants of the fart thrones in the back of the aircraft by saying the cockpit crew's full names. This led to a lot of comedy in the cockpit as we listened in on the PA waiting to hear how they scrambled my last name. For the poor FA's, however, it was a frustrating and somewhat embarrassing way to start a flight. One FA actually had me spell it phonetically and then she sat in ops. and practiced it, yet still got it wrong as we taxied out, much to our giggles in the cockpit.

In order to help fix the problem I did a bit of research in the company manuals and found that nowhere did it state that the FAs had to give the passengers your ACTUAL name. So, from then on when the crew card that they read from was handed to us in the cockpit before the flight, I'd give them easier and more fun names in the "First Officer" blank:

"Roy Flemming"
"Frank Gifford"
"Max Peck"
"Anson Harris"
"Joe Patroni"
"Dan Roman"
"John Sullivan"
"Luther Higgs"
"Carl Griffin"

and so on.

Often the FAs would come back into the cockpit with the card and say, "This isn't your real name."

To which I'd reply, "No, but you can pronounce it."

They'd just sigh, or snicker, shake their head and return to their duties.

Then one day after a perfectly smooth and uneventful flight into MSP, the passengers were de-plane-ifying and I had my head down in paperwork when one of them stuck his head into to the cockpit, looked right at me and said,

"Please tell me that your name is NOT really Ted Striker,"

Monday

YOU DON'T DRINK?! ... GASP!


First of all, a disclaimer… I do not want, nor would I ever attempt to have my personal life-choices imposed upon ANYONE else. So, as you read this consider it to be an explanation and not a sermon. Every person makes their own choices in life… like it or not.

Tiz the Holiday season and as is the case every year at this time there are parties, the booze flows freely- “come on, have one,” is the offering. And when I tell the host, or self-appointed bar tender that I don’t drink that awkward expression comes to their face as they meekly withdraw. Often there is a slight gasp,

“You don’t drink?” they ask in puzzlement, “Really?... REALLY?”

What is it? Religion? Are you a recovering alcoholic? Are you… what? At the very least I have just, once again, violated one of the strongest social norms in our culture- so there must be some deep seeded reason why I have chosen to so blatantly not fit in… especially during the holidays, or during a party, or, God forbid, both!

This past season I was questioned by someone who seriously wanted to know why I didn’t drink. My normally humorous deflection of the question which is: “Well, after my second chainsaw and bus stop incident the judge told me I had to quit,” just didn’t satisfy this person who sincerely want to know my reasoning. Thus, for those of you who are reading this and may also be curious as to why I have never done recreational drugs, used any form of tobacco, or ingested a drop of alcohol (yes- at our wedding toast, my wife had a glass of bubbly and I had a glass of iced tea… everyone said I jinxed our marriage… we just celebrated our 28th anniversary,) here is my actual reasoning.

Long ago, at the ripe age of 14, I considered all of life’s problems that any person may encounter, from the tiny to the huge, personal, medical, financial, legal, marital and professional. And while looking at that huge scope it struck me that many, many of those problems had their deepest roots in either alcohol, narcotics, tobacco or a combination of those. So, if I were to delete those three things from the equation I could make my journey through life far more easy. Thus, I decided that I simply would not do that stuff.

Of course I also had to make sure that I did not try and push my decision onto anyone else. My standard became that if you wanna do drugs- go ahead, just don’t do it around me. If you wanna smoke- go ahead, just as long as I don’t have to smell it. If you wanna drink- go ahead, just don’t get in my way while you’re doing it. Yet the yang to that yin is that, “I was stoned,” “I was drunk,” or “you gotta die from somethin’ ” aren’t valid excuses to me.

Going through one’s teen years as a “straight” or “square” or, as they used to say in my high school in the 70s, “red” kid was a bit awkward at the least, and un-cool at the worst. The drugs and the booze and the smoke were just about everywhere. In the words of Rush, “In the high school halls, in the shopping malls, be cool or be cast out… in the basement bars, in the backs of cars, be cool or be cast out.” Fortunately, my high school was not the sort to actually cast anyone out plus my reputation for hockey sticks and pucks pretty much overshadowed the fact that I was a non-indulger- so I had a pretty easy go of it. Other schools were not so tolerant. My girlfriend from my high school days, who went to a different school, actually dumped me in favor of parties, bongs and red solo cups filled with temporary feel-good. Oddly, about that same time one of the guys who I normally associated as being one of the stoners in my high school came knocking on my door asking if I wanted to go bike riding. In our little farm town you could get on those country roads and just ride for hours and rarely see anyone else. So, we took up riding, talking and generally hanging out together. He told me that once he decided to quit doing drugs he found that when the stoners hung out all they ever talked about was drugs. Suddenly he had nothing in common with them. They could not understand it when they offered him some and he didn’t take it. Also, when they found out he was hanging out with me, they wanted nothing to do with him. So, although most of our school was quite tolerant, the stoners believed in be cool or be cast out.

When I went off to college I figured I’d be far away from any stoners because I was at a well known aeronautical university and it had an absolute 100% ZERO tolerance policy when it came to recreational drug use. If you were caught, you GONE- period. Additionally, if drugs were found in your dorm room everyone in the room was gone. No appeals, no hearings, no excuses- you were all just gone. And they proved that the first week that I was there. Someone in the dorm left a little bag of pot on a table and the R.A. spotted it and that person, his roommates and the kid from down the hall who was in the room with them were all expelled on the spot. You’d have thought that this would send a clear message, but it was soon discovered that there was only zero tolerance IF you got caught.

Yet college was the easiest place for me to run under the radar as a non-drinker. First, I’m naturally a little bit crazy (that’s denoted in the fine print on my birth certificate) and secondly- I wrote a popular cartoon strip in the student news paper, so everyone assumed I had to be drunk in order to do such a thing. When attending a party I would grab the traditional red solo cup and pour some 7up into it and nurse it all night- everyone just assumed I was drinking booze until they were so intoxicated that they no longer could tell the difference. My own wife did not believe for nearly two years after were together that I didn’t drink. That was because the night that we met it was at a student newspaper party. She said that after we were introduced she watched me and some of my friends get drunker and drunker and louder and louder until she was sure I was way past being just drunk. In fact I was totally sober and just having fun. Now she says that I get contact-drunk at a party; but at least I’m always able to safely drive her home when she’s actually drunk.

Oddly, even once out of college there have been many people who are almost embarrassed when everyone else is ordering drinks and I’m not. They feel compelled to make excuses for me saying stuff such as, “He’s an on-call corporate pilot and he’s not allowed to drink,” or, “his medication would allow him to drink,” or “he’s everyone’s designated driver.” There are also the occasional people who try and force me into taking a drink. One individual tried to make a bet with me and if I won he’d pay me $20, but if he won I had to take a drink. I simply told him I wouldn’t bet with those terms.

The bottom line always seems to come down to that question of “why?” Indeed why would I decided to defy such an ingrained social norm- I mean, “…even Jesus drank wine,” one person quipped at me. I replied that I have nothing against wine- the more my wife drinks, the better I look. Yes, that question is always best answered with humor. I was once at a picnic when some guy nudged me and half snarled, “The booze is free, why the hell are ya’ drinkin’ water?” I saw it coming and had a whole mouth full of H2O which I let go in an enormous spit-take that got his shoes. Coughing I wiped my mouth and said, “Water?! I thought it was just really shitty vodka!” Yet, I find that cash-bars are a challenge. Bartenders take cash and tips for alcohol, but water is free. So, when I ask for an ice water with a slice of lime, which everyone assumes is a mixed drink, the bartender always scowls. I solve that by handing them the cash for a mixed drink and they always tell me that water is free, to which I reply, “The water is free, but your time isn’t, this is for you.” The scowl turns into a smile and I tip them a couple of bucks for every re-fill. They like me a lot by the end of the event.

Now, approaching my sixth decade of life I look back at how many friends and relatives whose lives have been shortened and or wrecked by those three things that I decided to delete from my life at age 14. I’d need more fingers to count the number who had died from tobacco related illness, including my own father. Additionally I have seen relatives and childhood friends who literally drank themselves into an early grave. More than a few people who I went to high school with died from narcotics abuse as did the big brother that I never had. Some people from my college days, who should have had fine careers in aviation didn’t because they, “just couldn’t give up the leaf,” as one of my fellow aviators who could give it up said. Now, when I go in to see the doctor and they ask about tobacco, alcohol and drugs and I tell them I’m a life-long abstainer, they say, “good for you!” then I ask them to, without looking at my paperwork, guess my age. They always guess about 10 years younger. I think I made the right decision at age 14.

These days I do a lot of talking to school age kids, elementary and middle school- normally on the subject of spaceflight, aviation, or shipwrecks and writing and research. When I conclude I usually ask them one simple question; “Am I cool?” It’s a totally loaded simple question to which they all sing out, “Yeah!” And I ask, “Are you sure? I mean, am I the coolest person you’ve met in a long, long time?” Again they sing out, “Yeah!” Then I act pondering and say, “Well, I don’t smoke, drink or do drugs… am I still totally cool?” And they sing out “Yeah!” And I tell them, “Remember, smoking, drinking and doing drugs doesn’t make you cool, but researching, discovering, learning and doing amazing things makes you cool.” The teachers and school staff smile big time.


I’ll conclude by saying that I have also seen some of my close friends who admitted to themselves that they had problems with one of the three substances that I’ve avoided, face up to it and with great courage- get sober. They have turned to others and helped them make their way into sobriety. In this article I may have made it look easy, but sobriety isn’t easy. Easy is hiding your troubles and problems at the bottom of a bottle or in a cloud of bong smoke. When life hits me in the face, when I suffer a career disaster or lose a loved one or suffered a broken relationship or just plain loneliness, I had to face it head-on, up front with nothing to shield me but my own character. Yet- that’s the best way. To my now sober friends, I’m proud of you, now the real fun begins.