On Politics, Passing Acquaintances And Change

George Wallace was running for the Democratic nomination. So was Jimmy Carter. Translation? Whenever I ventured into the break room, chances were that Billy would be sitting in there, expounding loudly and at length on his political views. Billy (no relation to Jimmy) was a professed redneck from somewhere in south Georgia. He railed against Jerry Ford and never missed an opportunity to extol the merits of voting a southern boy into the White House. It seemed we were in need of a change and Jimmy was just the guy to do it.

Billy raised a few valid points and had my interest for a while. In time though, his pontificating turned redundant, then it turned boring. His incessant partisan pounding finally became too annoying for me to take. I'd heard it all before. If I was lucky, Billy's time in the breakroom would end well ahead of mine so I could get a few minutes of peace. If not, I'd usually end up going back to work before my break was over. It's not that I had a problem with Jimmy Carter. He seemed like an honest enough fellow. Billy was my problem. He got so damned excited over this stuff. To me though, politics was about as exciting as . . . this?

Throw in a free side-order of Saltine crackers and I'm in!
Political parties and their politics just didn't garner much attention from me when I was controlling airplanes for a living. Pundits who believed they could make sense of it all or somehow tilt my opinions left or right only added more confusion to the daily bedlam of Big Time. To me, it was just an off-key and endlessly grating soundtrack for the ongoing dramas I faced at work. Most of us learned it was best to simply tune it out. The President himself couldn't generate much buzz unless he was handing out an extra day of holiday pay on the Friday after Thanksgiving ~ or maybe firing thousands of controllers. We were usually preoccupied with more immediate issues like, metaphorically speaking, how to separate the snowflakes in a blizzard.

Nixon was in the White House when I was hired but whatever happened in the Oval Office didn't faze most of us. Can I say it wasn't on our radar? Anyway, we were far more concerned over what was happening in our own front office. I don't recall whether it was oval, rectangular or square shaped but it was clearly in bad shape. That, plus there was always enough facility politics to keep the break room gossip going ad infinitum. So, who needed more of it? When it came to matters concerning our elected representatives, my personal feelings usually ranged somewhere between indifference and ambivalence. Politics was a distraction and, in my line of work, with my fugitive attention span, I couldn't handle any increase in distractions.

My attitude hasn't changed much over the years. I may slip up now and then but still try to avoid political stuff. It ain't easy. News periodicals, television and the Internet are already saturated with more cant, slant and commentary than there are degrees on a compass. It gives me vertigo, so why would I even think about generating more of it? I believe there's a reasonably convincing case that opinions actually are like assholes. Since everyone has their own, why would anyone want to hear mine?

I also realize that penning my own political views would require that I have some kind of partisan predilection. I don't. Maybe I can't. Here's the thing. There are too many problems with me. I was never responsible enough to call myself a conservative and besides; I couldn't possibly meet their moral threshold. Another sad set of truths are that I'm not smart enough to know what's best for everyone. That, plus my momma taught me never to call people names when I disagreed with them. All this and more combined to exclude me from ever practicing punditry. It's probably best for me to stick with writing about things I'm fairly familiar with.

NLA Factor
Class of '02
I don't think anyone's parochial pronouncements effect much change in other people's beliefs, no matter how well they're stated. I learned a long time ago (1981 to be exact) that I couldn't change anyone's mindset; no matter what I said or what I wrote. The fact is that no one could ever change my mind either; no matter what they said or wrote. Experiences are the true instruments of change. I write about my own experiences here; knowing they won't really change anyone else. They changed me though. What I don't know is just how much they changed me. Could I still be that goofy kid in my high school yearbook photo? That is a question I'm not qualified to answer. Ask the last girl I dated before graduation.

So now, like a recurring nightmare, I'm dealing with another Primary Election season and all the attending rhetoric. I guess I have an irreconcilable indifference to it all but my hat is off to anyone who can talk or write about it in a non-divisive way. Generally though, I think that kind of writing serves mainly as a pressure relief valve for the author. Getting a little pent up vitriol off the chest can make a writer feel much better. As for the reader ~maybe not so much. Personally, I'd rather write about Bonnie and Claire.

Bonnie transferred into Big Time a few years after me. I can't remember where she came from but it must have been a busy facility. Already well versed in the tower and TRACON arts, she soon proved to be a very capable controller. Smart, single and saucy, Bonnie could cause more excitement than a radar failure in a rainstorm. Take, for instance, the day she sauntered into work wearing a blue t-shirt, lettered in white with the word "Doable" across the front. Pete, our irascible, disheveled dictator of an Area Manager, took one look and threatened to send her home. Not for some puritanical predilection. Oh no. Pete was a ribald kind of guy who used expletives and four-letter words like a carpenter uses a hammer. They drove his point home loudly and quickly. Pete's objection over Bonnie's attire was more about the medium than the message. You see, current facility dress code prohibited t-shirts.

Bonnie ended up in one of the main terminal's gift shops where she found a twenty-dollar shirt sporting the airport's marketing logo. The "medium" aspect of his objections now mitigated, Pete let her go to work. As to the message on that notorious t-shirt? In time, a couple guys in the facility were rumored to have learned there can be truth in advertising.

I felt bad for Bonnie and the other singles at Big Time. Social life outside our circle of coworkers was difficult. With the rotating shifts, frequently changing days off, weekend and late night work, there wasn't much opportunity to meet people outside the profession. It was challenging enough for the married folks but especially hard for people like Bonnie. The outcome of it all was that we had little choice but to fraternized with our coworkers. It was a kind of social inbreeding; as unhealthy as it was unavoidable. In many ways, we were closer to our team members than we were with our immediate families. We saw each other at our best and our worst. We had to depend on each other to make the right moves at the right times. Where some people might, one day, have to trust a close relative to handle delicate or potentially dire situations, we had to trust the relative strangers in our control rooms. We also had to trust all the anonymous pilots who flew, unseen, through our sectors every day. It was a strange paradox that we trusted them all, but the moment we hung up our headsets for the day, we trusted no one.

I liked working with Bonnie. Before she transferred into Big Time, the only woman on our team was Claire. She was already a well seasoned journeyman when I hired on. Stylistically, Bonnie and Claire were at opposite poles in their approach to working traffic and the contrasts became more obvious as time passed. Claire was invariably conservative, conventional, practical and dispassionate. For example, something might abruptly reduce the airport acceptance rate, causing Final Sectors to need more miles-in-trail from the approach controllers. Suddenly, ten miles between arrivals wasn't sufficient. Now the planes needed to be 20 miles apart, slowed to 180 knots and tucked neatly onto a downwind leg. Doing so might require Claire to go into an immediate hold at her outer fixes while simultaneously issuing a series of extreme vectors to spread out the flights already on their way to the finals. This kind of play often lead to bedlam. While other controllers might have started bitching, Claire simply bent to the task, with no questions asked, for as long as needed. Quietly doing whatever had to be done, she was the embodiment of efficiency.

During my bewildering days as a developmental at Big Time, Claire's signature ended up on a lot of my training reports. Knowledgeable, unflappable and focused, she was the ideal training instructor. As I progressed further and further into the operation, I realized there were plenty of things to bitch about. Claire showed me how pointless that was, compared to just dealing with things and moving forward. Complaining burned energy, was an unnecessary distraction and nobody wanted to work with a whiner.

Then there was Bonnie, who managed her sector like a mad scientist. She invented a crazy, new idea every few minutes; often stabbing at an interphone button to coordinate her latest scheme with other affected sectors. A bit raucous but never reckless, creative energy seemed to seep from her headset and spread through the room like gas fumes. She was nearly as explosive.

While Claire ran a quiet, standard operation where things rarely went wrong, Bonnie's operation was characterized by her derring-do. She pushed relentlessly; pressing adjacent sectors for whatever was needed to make things work. In the throes of inspiration, she'd often fly out of her chair and dash across the TRACON to another sector. Once there, she'd grab the controller by his shoulder and point at some radar targets ~ describing her plan in rapid-fire detail. Then she'd rush back to her own scope to reel off a string of control instructions. Sometimes her plan didn't work but she nearly always had another one that was equally entertaining.

Some controllers were bothered by her boundless ingenuity and unrelenting aggressiveness. These were the guys who thought the word "minimums" was one of their performance standards. Bonnie was a "maximum" kind of gal. I kept up as best I could ~ often wishing I could wash those bursts of ambient energy down with a cold beer. If I could have tightened my headset like a vise, I still wouldn't have been able to squeeze as many ideas out of my skull each day as Bonnie could in an hour. Inspiration just seemed to fly off the top of her head. She was a natural.

As far as I was concerned, Bonnie and Claire combined many of the most highly valued characteristics of an air traffic controller. I was glad to be on their team; especially during those shifts when the trials and tribulations seemed more numerous than our standard methods of dealing with them. When Claire's safe, orderly and expeditious teamed up with Bonnie's creative, assertive and efficient ~ a lot of airplanes were going to be moved ~ no matter what. As you might expect ~ when a tough shift ended, Claire would head straight home, while Bonnie would follow most everyone else to the nearest bar.

Eventually 1981 rolled in and Bonnie came up with one more crazy idea. Unlike the ideas I admired her for, this one was completely reckless. I did my best to talk her out of it and I'm sure Claire did as well. Keep in mind what I said earlier about not being able to change anyone's mindset. Bonnie wasn't listening to conflicting views or unwelcome advice.  Experiences taught her that pushing hard and staying the course would eventually bring success. She was confident that this would be no exception.

Unfortunately, it was a major exception. In the blink of an eye, Bonnie was gone. I saw her a few times just after the strike but she eventually disappeared along with with everyone else on the picket lines. Sometimes mad scientists create monsters and sometimes those monsters destroy their creators.

Redneck Billy landed a job in the Regional Office sometime after the strike and I never heard from him again. When I finally left Big Time myself, I tried to keep up with Claire. You know how it is though. Life has room for just so many relationships and, like it or not, some are eventually supplanted by newer ones. When it comes to keeping friends, life reminds me of a holding pattern that can only keep so many airplanes. The most recent arrivals come in at the top while the oldest ones get pushed out of the bottom and move on.

The entire cast of characters from my Big Time days have moved on; myself included. I still remember every one of them though. Memories are the last remaining vestiges of our long-gone, moved on friendships and acquaintances. The characters may be missing but they've left behind a life long legacy of smiles on demand. I'll never forget Bonnie, Claire and so many others who enriched my life through the years. Redneck Billy even crosses my mind whenever a political message comes on the TV.

The experiences I had with them all, whether good or bad, definitely changed me. But really; how much have I changed? There is no way for me to know for sure. I'd have to rely on the cast from my past to help measure the differences between then and now. After all that has happened, could I still be the frazzled, unraveled controller everyone knew back at Big Time? Again ~ I'm not qualified to answer. It's funny and ironic that when someone tells me "You've changed" I don't really believe them. And when I tell someone "I've changed" they don't really believe me. I guess it's the difference between perceptions and doubts. One thing is certain; I still don't like politics.

© NLA Factor, 2012


getjets said...

Forget Politics!!!!!!!and is all about..."What have ya done for me, in the last 5 minutes"..

Eating toast.......only good, if your sick.........
or try "floor dry" for that matter.......still fills ya up......
Loved your endearing story of Bonnie and Claire.......a lovely tribute.....to them...and yourself as well.......Those were not easy times it seems..........This was a very enjoyable read...and I Thank ya.........The "Bonnie" in me Thanks you.......

So what has changed..........
not the NLA class of 1802 pic for sure.....:))))))I mean 02...oopsie

and remember....
things are never so bad.......that they CAN'T get any worser....
uplifting thought...isn't it..........???

tell me.....has seperating snowflakes, like seperating friendships.....ever gotten any easier????
thats not really a question..just a point of ponder........
you Take Care....

No Longer a Factor said...

Thanks for tuning in Miss TWA! You're definitely the Bonnie type and that's reassuring. The world needs more people like her. But the class picture? Please don't exaggerate! It was 1902! There weren't any cameras around in 1802!

I'm heading back for another helping of toast.

NLA Factor

Vannevar said...

excellent post.
not surprised.

No Longer a Factor said...

Thanks Vannever. Much appreciated.

NLA Factor