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. 

Thursday

ERAU in just 10 Years; Crusaders


Excerpt from "ERAU in just 10 Years" a work in progress

My introduction to the T-303 Crusader came on the same day as my face-to-face introduction to the new president of Embry-Riddle, General Ken Tallman. It was the first day of Skyfest 1985 and I had elbowed my way into serving a shift or two as one of the "demo pilots" for the static display of the university's newest multi-engine trainer. The aircraft was selected to phase-out the Piper Seminoles which, after some half dozen years of service were rapidly wearing out. My job that day was simple; stand there in my Flight Team flight suit and talk about the aircraft to curious folks who happened by. The only problem was that neither I, nor my teammate Colin had ever seen the aircraft before! Thus, both of us hid inside for a while and quickly studied the manual for speeds, range and altitudes- the rest we just faked. It's an important skill for any professional pilot- the ability to act and look like you know what you're doing and the general public will never know the difference as long as you garnish it with a few good flying stories.

Me with the display T-303 looking like I know what I'm talking about.


While Colin and I were standing our shift with the Crusader, the university's Chief Pilot Paul McDuffee came walking up with our newly selected university president, General Tallman as well as Mrs. Tallman and just for good company some sales rep. from Cessna. It was apparent that McDuffee had briefed General Tallman about my protracted efforts to get through ERAU as well as my cartoon strip and it's havoc potential.

"This is the guy I was telling you about..." he began as he introduced me. 

I shook hands with the General as McDuffee asked what I thought of the Crusader?

"I love it," I stated almost reflexively, "I can't wait to start flying it."

"So, you're going to sign up for the multi-engine route in the Crusader?" McDuffee led.

"Heck yeah," I replied, "even if I have to wait a trimester to get in it."

Then McDuffee asked a question that fits the old aviation phrase "If you're not gonna like the answer, don't ask the question," and he immediately regretted asking me this one.

"How many of these do ya' think we'll need?" my chief pilot asked- right in front of the new president and the Cessna sales rep.

"Four," I responded without any hesitation, "at a minimum, five at best."

"No, no, no, no," McDuffee sputtered as if trying to stamp out a brush fire, "We're only getting two."

"Yer' gonna need at least four to start." I replied matter-of-fact.

"Oh no, no... we're only getting two." McDuffee insisted as he glanced toward the now grinning Cessna sales guy.

"When the pilots on this flight line get a load of this aircraft," I said assuredly, "they'll be lining up to get into that flight course and dropping out of the Seminoles if they can- you'll need at least four to accommodate that crowd."

Looking over I saw General Tallman grinning widely- it was clear that he agreed with me. I thought that the Cessna sales guy was going to have a reflex orgasm as well.

Doing his best to recover, McDuffee decided to continue the tour elsewhere. Reaching out the General shook my hand saying it was good to meet me and he winked. As they walked away Colin asked what that bullshit about getting only two Crusaders was all about?

"We're gettin' four," I assured my teammate, "you just watch."

The first three Crusaders, N111ER "C1", N212ER "C2" and N323ER "C3" were on the line just a few months later and within the following year a fourth Crusader, N5529V "C4" was being leased from Cessna. The first one that I flew was "C1"... sure, it cost me $12 a minute, but it was worth it.

N111ER- "C1" She was sweet.

Sunday

SPACEFLIGHT FOR EVERYONE… EXCEPT YOU.

Private and commercial spaceflight will soon open the frontier of space to everyone… except you.



(Author's note: I linked this piece to a popular social media space site and the discussion rapidly went out of control. I guess those who sit around and daydream that somehow they will be teleported into space, or the Elon Musk fanboys, have a rough time with the light of truth. Soon the "moderator" shut off discussion, yet with that said, "I'm not sure what the point of this op-ed is, other than bashing these companies and telling young people to give up aspiring to anything greater in space." Gee, talk about reading with one eye. If you are unsure of the point- in other words- you DON'T GET IT, read it a few more times, or ask the author what they mean and have it explained  more simply to you.    NAAA... it's easier just to shut down the whole discussion  *click* censored. So, I simply deleted the link and left this page open to grown ups. Oh, and by the way, to the keyboard cluck who, while pointing out that I had typoed the name "Burt" and said I thereby "...have absolutely no credibility."  Go screw yourself (if you are not presently doing that anyway). In the last 3 years I have written and had published more than a quarter of a million words (317,336 to be exact) on the subject of spaceflight, yet you dribble that my typoing one name causes me to lose all credibility while you sit at your keyboard and post pointless quips on FaceBook? Yeah, right. Have a nice day.

For the grown ups who can handle the truth- here it is...

More than a decade ago we watched breathlessly as SpaceShipOne rocketed away from the WHITE KNIGHT mother ship into space thus winning the X-Prize. Anyone paying attention celebrated because at last the day was here “commercial” or “private” spaceflight was about to make space accessible to us all. No longer would the far reaches of space only be accessible to astronauts, and cosmonauts working for assorted governments. In the years leading up to the flights of SpaceShipOne, Burt Rutan himself had boisterously spoken of the fact that NASA had a lock on space travel. Speaking to crowds of aviation enthusiasts he often said, “… NASA is screwing you!” Now the flight of SpaceShipOne would surely change all of that. And with the aid and sponsorship of billionaire Sir Richard Branson he began the development of SpaceShipTwo which would carry paying passengers beyond the boundary and into space. Of course, if you think that you are going to be one of those passengers, think again.

Ticket prices for a trip on Rutan and Branson’s magic carpet to open space to “everyone” are currently set at a quarter of a million dollars per seat. Thus, only the extremely rich and highly famous among us can possibly afford to make that little flight. The reality is now it’s not just NASA that is screwing you, but it is now also Burt Rutan.

Yet, many of us look at other options toward spaceflight such as billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin project. This private/commercial venture utilizes a returnable booster and a suborbital capsule designed to take private individuals into space and return them to the earth by way of the capsule. The system has, as of this writing, been tested three times with amazing success. The company’s own animation depicting the future shows space tourists in flight suits aboard the capsule enjoying a once-in-a-lifetime experience of weightlessness in space with an exciting yet pleasant return to earth. Indeed every one of us would love to go on that trip. Of course, Blue Origin has yet to set a firm price for such an adventure. The odds are good that unless you’re in the economic category of individual who will arrive at the launch site by way of your own private jet, you are unlikely to be able to ever afford that experience.

Xcor is out there and rapidly developing a suborbital space plane of their own. The sole purpose of that is to fly paying passengers, one at a time, on suborbital trips into space. Under full disclosure, I am an Xcor fan and have watched their development for more than a decade. At this moment I am wearing an Xcor hat as I write this article, yet the reality is they have not done the years of work, research and development as well as the commitment of investment cash to do anything other than make money. After all, that is what the term “commercial” actually means. Thus, like the others listed above in this story their ticket price for a single ride will be nowhere within the reach of almost all of you reading this article. Likewise their ticket price will be nowhere within my reach either. I’ll have to settle for my hat.

And then there is SpaceX and their vision of private spaceflight to fantastic destinations such as Mars. Elon Musk and his fellow visionaries at SpaceX are currently drumming up enthusiasm for us earthlings to travel with them and colonize Mars for the permanent habitation of mankind. What true space enthusiast would not want to take that adventure and make it their personal trip of a lifetime. Perhaps you have dreamed about this and perhaps you’ve looked at SpaceX’s plans for Mars and said to yourself that is what I would like to do with my life. Well, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but the odds of anyone reading this actually making that trip are not only dependent on SpaceX turning that hyperbole into reality, but also you becoming the absolutely physically perfect specimen to go on that trip. Frankly unless you have won the genetic lottery and are the type of specimen that could meet the approval of Hugo Drax himself you are better off attempting to win the lottery and fly with either Branson or Bezos.

The bottom line is that the development of private/commercial human spaceflight will likely never evolve the way the transportation of airline passengers developed. In the early years only the rich and famous could afford the fly aboard airliners, yet as time went on and the amount of seats available as well as routes available grew dramatically the price began to become affordable. Do not expect that to happen with spaceflight in your lifetime. Certainly, the rich and the famous will soon have their chance to experience spaceflight and thus it will be said that now space is open to everyone… except you, of course.

Friday

If you ever see me at Oshkosh again...

(Author's note: This is a re-post from 2009. Recently it has come up that I will be making an appearance at Oshkosh in 2016, but I will not be doing so as a vendor or author- I'll just be helping a friend (whose name will remain private to keep the AirIndenture secret police from doing something awful to him in a childish act of vengeance). Anyhow, I'll be keeping my word to not give another dollar of my money to AirIndenture. Some have asked what it is that the AirIndenture sadists did to me that earned them my everlasting disdain? Well, here's the story...)




If you ever see me at Oshkosh again, you'll know someone else is payin' the bills.

That's not because I don't like the EAA's annual aviation extravaganza, in fact, I love goin' to Oshkosh! I love seeing the terrific aircraft collections, meeting old friends, meeting Klyde Morris readers and doing all sorts of "Oshkosh" aviation stuff. The reason why I will not pay to go back and "do" Oshkosh ever again, is because I have been told, clearly, by the hag who sits upon high at Mt. AirIndenture, and who rules at her whim all that takes place among the building, the fly market and the poor souls who venture into that place each summer as vendors, that... my money is no good there.

Here is how my little air adventure into Oshkosh hell went... The year was 2003 and after several visits to AirIndenture for other people, I elected to have a Klyde Morris booth at the venture of '03. Of course I knew that there was a long-time pecking order in how things worked there, with one old crow who held all of the strings like a female Don Corleone of booths and buildings, and thus I expected to have to earn my way up over time. Yet when one pays good money for a place at an event, one expects that those running the show will at least be civil- hell, even the Godfather gave ya' kiss before he had ya' taken out and strangled with piano wire... not so at EAA and Oshkosh.

My disaster of 2003 began shortly after I arrived in the unpleasant village of Fon du Lac and the dumpster hotel disguised as an Econo Lodge. There we were told that they had no record of our reservation that we had made four months earlier. Additionally, the confirmation number that was on the printed copy of the reservation that we'd gotten from Travelocity was not even a number that Econo Lodge used. A few phone calls showed that our paperwork was indeed valid and a call to another Econo Lodge showed that the type of number we had was indeed one used by that chain. Still- we were seen as non-persons by the guy running the joint in the middle of that night- and this was especially so when he saw the rate that we'd gotten our room for... no, no... they never have that rate during Oshkosh. But... there was good news, he did have one uncleaned room open tonight and for about double our reservation rate, he's grudgingly give us that one. He was also kind enough to give us some semi-clean sheets to put on the bed ourselves. So, there we went, me and my 7 months pregnant wife, up to our not-clean room at twice the rate that we'd been confirmed for... we were loving it already. The following morning I raised a stink with the day management and they said they'd look into it... they did... that evening they dumped the story on me that several months ago, they had called my phone number to confirm the reservation, but the person who answered said that... I was dead. Great story... I'll bet it works every time they use it.

Yet- greater screw jobs were ahead as we were about to fall into the pit of human excrement known as being a vendor at Oshkosh.

We'd been granted a space in what is generally known as the "Fly Market" and is pretty much the ghetto you are placed into when you are new to the event. Of course I thought that I knew well the "market" area as I'd walked through it many times hunting for odds and ends and generally cool stuff. To me it was an absolutely acceptable place to start, however, I'd never been all the way out in the boondocks part of the market- I'd only walked through the parts of it where normal people stroll until they get tired or run out of water and die- our 2003 spot would be way beyond that point. We were, however, lucky enough to be within smelling distance of a huge bank of porta-potties and real close to parking for the other vendors- we were just not in a location where you can make any money. We were so far from civilization, that long-time Oshkosh attendees who knew me, and came looking for me could not find me.

No sooner did we get all set up with shirts, hats, CDs, glasses, Klyde dolls and all sorts of other cool stuff that no one would likely get to see, than our neighbor across the street fired up. It was the Westbend Cookwear Show! Yep- complete with loud speakers and free cold slaw, they boomed the show at us eight times a day for seven throbbing days. The people helping me had migraines, the few customers that we did see were sent packing, in fear that these hucksters were going to brainwash them into a skillet- everyone was tortured continuously by the cookin' show- everyone that is except me... I was already dead according to the Fon du Loc Econo Lodge, so it really didn't matter to me.

"And the Lord said: There is now Oshkosh and I shall let open the sky and the lightening will flash and the rains and thunder will come in the night and a great flood will be upon the market and all will be vanquished by the waters so as to pay for their sin of going to that place... except of course... for the Westbend Cookin' Show."

So it was that when we arrived at the tent the next morning, following one of those Oshkosh late night thunder storms, we found a lot of stuff soaked, and muddy. A whole display of iced tea glasses and coffee mugs, although located well inside the tent had somehow blown over and smashed. The worst thing was that a puddle the size of one of the local lakes had formed directly in front of our tent. So even if we did get any customers that day- they could not get to us! After contacting the AirIndenture people who were supposed to help us, we were told that they would come around "sometime" to dump wood chips on the puddle and restore access to our location. By that day's 7th showing of the Westbend Cookin' Show- we had our wood chips.

Perhaps just to forget how much money I was losing on this Air mis-Adventure, I took a walk through the buildings. We were three days into the event and I quickly took note that a lot of the booths in the buildings were left unoccupied. I counted more than a dozen empty spaces. When I returned to the ghetto I was talking to one of the other vendors and he informed me that if I went to the office and paid extra, I could get one of those empty spaces. I grabbed my credit card and sprinted to the office- there to learn the cold hard truth of how AirIndenture is really run.

Upon reaching the window through which all communication with the vendors takes place, I first encountered a sweet young lady. I asked if it was true that I could "buy-up" into a vacant indoor booth? She replied "Oh yes, you can do that." I passed my credit card through the slot and told here to charge me "Whatever it takes" to get me out of the Fly Market. She went into the back and was gone for a long, long time. When she returned she apologised and told me "Well, you can do that... but you can't." I asked for an explanation, but she could offer none. I asked who else I could talk to and she told me the decision had been made by the lady who oversaw the vendors- she gave me her phone number and half warned that if I really was sure wanted to call her that was the number. At that point I REALLY wanted to call her- but had no idea that doing so would be considered a sin so great.

You see... if, when dumb enough to actually pay to be a vendor at Oshkosh, you dare to speak with the wicked witch of the great white north, you will have angered her- because she is so high and mighty that in the act of speaking with a low life such as a vendor, she feels soiled. In our very brief conversation I was told that the reason why I could not get into a building was because "You're not a true aviation company- and we already have our quota of not true aviation companies in the buildings." When I pointed out that my cartoon strip only deals in aviation and aerospace subjects and that I have several million readers- nearly all of whom are in the aviation and aerospace industry, she replied "...well, then you are borderline- and we already have our quota of borderlines in the buildings." I asked if she was actually going to not take my money and leave those more than a dozen spots empty just based on that reasoning? She replied "Yes." and then followed up by saying that as far as she could see, it was unlikely that my company would "ever get into a building." In other words- just by asking the question, I'd pissed her off so she was now using her powers (which on a whim up-graded me from Not True to Borderline and could just as easily have reclassified me as True Aviation) to black-list me. Then she snidely asked if there was anything else she could do for me? I replied that I'd like to have her broomstick to take to the wizard so he could give me a brain.

When the week of hell finally expired, we broke our tent down along with everyone else who was in the ghetto. In all, my final calculation showed me some $3,000 in the hole due to my moronic decision to attend AirIndenture 2003. I am now forever marked as "Borderline" in the wicked witch of the great white north's big thick book of spells. You see, some people such as that have no real power or authority in the lives until that tiny space on the calendar that is the event over which they have always ruled. Then they become something beyond what they are the rest of the time- then they finally have their power once again... until the event is over. Thus I knew as I sailed upon the ferry BADGER on the way back across Lake Michigan that wicked witch of AirIndenture was now deflating rapidly up there in her office "...what a world, what a world..." she'd hiss as she shrunk into the carpet in billow of green smoke. Oh, she'd be back- in fact she's probably there right now. The funniest part of this story took place six months later. The cruds at EAA's Oshkosh vendor's office had the nerve to actually call me and ask why I had not signed up for 2004! They were lucky that my wife took the call and not me. 

I was told recently that some big changes may soon take place at Air Indenture- I doubt that they'll be anything that could root out the wicked witch, or her ilk. People like that are there until they die and then return just to haunt the place. Additionally, I will always carry the moniker of Borderline and the knowledge that I'll never get into a building and that my money is not good enough for the wicked witch, EAA or their Oshkosh event... if only I could have gotten her damned broomstick. 

TALES FROM MY REGIONAL AIRLINE DAYS: "20:18 ZULU"

20:18 ZULU
One of the only things that I ever liked about the Boeing 727 was that it had two jump seats- thus it was normally a sure bet for a ride home when commuting. Other than that it was one of my least favorite aircraft. I once was riding home with a NWA 72 captain who was about to retire and his view of the aircraft was close to my own. He said that when he retired he was gonna buy one out of a desert boneyard and have it placed in his back yard. Then he was gonna set his alarm clock to go off every day at 4:00am so he could go out back, piss on the main gear and then go back to bed. Of course many pilots worship the 727 because that is where they started their careers- I just have a different perspective.

I was on my way home from CID to BWI by way of ORD and nabbed a handy jump seat on a UAL 72 along with a UPS guy who was on his way home too. It was a full boat so both of us were stuck in the cockpit and, of course, the 72 had a delay for a deferral of some sort.

These were the olden days before 9-11 when the captain would often offer folks in the back a chance come up and see the flight deck- especially during a delay. Sure enough here comes a smiling dad and his little son. I avoided jokes about gladiators as the captain showed the dad and kid, both of whom had zero aviation knowing, things in the cockpit.

For no good reason at all the father quipped to his little boy,

"Ask 'em what zulu time it is."

It was probably the only actual "aviation" term that the guy knew and the kid just stood there quietly with wide eyes trying to soak in all of the lights, dials and handles while daddy just went back to chatting with the captain and FO.


I could not resist. Glancing at my watch I saw that my zulu hack showed 20:18.

Leaning over I whispered in the kid's ear,

"Tell 'em it's 20:18 zulu."

Without hesitation the little guy blurted out,

"It's 20:18 zulu daddy!"

The dad looked down at his grinning son with some astonishment as I sat there casually looking out the window. Meanwhile the FE looked at his watch and said,

"He's right, it is 20:18 zulu!"

Just about then the UAL line mechanic appeared in the cockpit door with our paperwork and totally puzzled father took his apparently born aviator son and went back to their seats. The UPS guy leaned over as said to me,

"Oh, that was slick."

On the flight to BWI we let the crew in on what I did and we all had a good giggle, especially considering the look on that dad's face.

That was long, long ago and I wonder what that kid's doin' today.