Going Home ~ The Best Way

Once upon a time, way back before Mount Vesuvius buried Pompeii, Pliny the Elder wrote that "Home is where the heart is."  More recently, Thomas Wolfe qualified old Pliny's wisdom when he wrote "You Can't Go Home Again." True enough ~ especially if you lived in Pompeii. What I get from these two guys is that you can't always follow your heart; even if it's heading home.

"Sunrise" By Steven Kenny - 2005
Many of us have that special dream every now and then. It's a colorful, hopeful dream and it leaves us believing, even just briefly, that we are capable of accomplishing something impossible, or at least highly improbable. Perhaps we dream of a return to something that still shines brightly in some seldom visited corner of our memory. In that dream we soar across time - toward a day long past. Maybe it existed years or even decades ago. Maybe it never really existed at all. Dreams, like recollections, can be inventive, you know ~ and very kind to the past. In time though, most dreams become like badly spliced scraps of faded film footage; void of color or continuity. They gradually decay into monochromatic images that eventually vanish completely. But not always.

I've been having one of those improbable dreams since my retirement.  They're becoming less frequent and more confusing as years pass but the basic theme is always the same. In the dream I'm back at Big Time, standing in the TRACON. It looks much the same as when I left and I also see many familiar faces. They look exactly as they did when I last saw them so many years ago. That's the comforting part. I stand and watch the controllers working. There are so many damned airplanes. I think to myself how much busier it's become since I worked there. Then I realize I'm there to enter training and get re-certified. Knowing there's no way I can do it, I'm overcome with dread. Thankfully, that's when I wake up. It's craziness, I know, but it won't go away. I guess the memories of a long, adventurous career, with its schemes and scares, schisms and scandals, scuffles and scars, are still too vivid to forget. They keep calling me back.

 By the mid-eighties, half burned out by the strike recovery, I had already taken a couple of small steps away from full-time air traffic control. There were the unhurried years working in Big Time's Training Department followed, in time, by fast moving years spent as a First Line Supervisor. In each case, the work was challenging, satisfying and good for the career. But one of the best things about those jobs was being able to go back. I could return to the tower or radar room with my headset in hand. There, I'd still be able to go home to a world that few others could ever imagine. I needed to keep at least one foot in that world. It was the foundation of my career aspirations, the essence of my identity and it was home.
Then along came the infernal Area Manager (AM) years. I was still physically 'home' in the control rooms but it was like eavesdropping on family members from another room.  It was as though a door had closed. Gone was the requirement to stay current on control positions. The luxury of only having to concentrate on the fast moving madness of air traffic was gone too. As an 'AM' my workday was fragmented into dozens of vastly different tasks punctuated by an occasional exigency in the front office. At first, I tried to keep current on a few radar sectors so I could at least relieve the Supervisors for meal breaks, etc. Other demands eventually rendered those altruistic aspirations impossible. In time, my workday evolved into a sausage mix of tasks that, by day's end, I couldn't even identify. I often thought of Pete; the battle hardened Area Manager of my early controller years. He always made it look easy and, in a way, it was. That's because Pete was among the few people remaining in this profession who's roots were connected to another time.

Prior to the '81 strike, the FAA seemed a more close-knit organization. Back in the late Fifties, Pete had actually worked airplanes with the guy who, by the mid Seventies, had become our Facility Chief. Pete knew most of the people he talked to or yelled at on the phones. The Chief knew nearly everyone he had to deal with in the Regional Office. They'd all entered service during the Eisenhower Administration, worked the first jet airliners, drank together and kept each other's secrets. Some had even joined the fledgling PATCO before entering into Management. Their value system was chiseled in stone, their work ethic exhausting and their sense of loyalty to one another was as unquestionable as gravity.
"Talkin' bout my generation."  - The Who
Those of us lucky enough to be recruited in the early Seventies were strongly influenced by those guys. At Big Time, they started retiring three or four years before the strike; most of them exhausted, disillusioned and ready to leave home. They'd already endured earlier job actions. Now they could see another one brewing and didn't want to deal with it. I couldn't blame them. Some stayed on though and were still around in the Summer of '81. A few of them were loyal PATCO janizaries who were actually eligible to retire within months of the strike. In spite of the pleading by some of their former friends in upper Management, they went out; betting their retirement benefits and the future of their families on a successful job action. They lost everything except the camaraderie of their fellow strikers. The few 'old timers' who remained hung on for a couple more years but it was easy to see they were losing their edge.

Many controllers hired after the strike had little patience for their professional predecessors ~ or me for that matter. They were a solipsistic mix of inexperience, impatience and intolerance. They thought they knew it all and had their college degrees to prove it. The older guys couldn't relate to them. With unmistakable annoyance, they trained their younger protégés under a more liberal and less effective succession of mandates. These were set forth in an endless blizzard of Directives the FAA hoped would change their autocratic image. Far from fooled; the old guys kept an eye on their calendars ~hoping they could reach retirement without having a "deal" (controller-speak for an operational error).

Within a couple years after the strike, they were gone. In their place were the so called 'strike baby' controllers hired after 1981. Gone also were the mid-level managers like Pete. They were replaced by guys like me who were caught between eras. What we knew about the business we had harvested from those who were all but forgotten fossils ~ pressed in the strata of aviation history. Far too young to retire, I had to adapt. The home I had once known now resembled a foreclosure. Much of its contents, the familiar things I had grown up with and my professional 'family' had been removed. It was beginning to look like Thomas Wolfe was right.

I needed a plan. This wasn't the time to become one of those guys who held court in the break room, boring everyone with tales of the old days. For that, I'd wait till the next century and maybe start a Blog. But for now; these were new days and new challenges ahead. It was time to adapt and try reinventing myself. This wasn't going to be easy. By the late Eighties, FAA's Management, diluted by inexperience, was beginning to reveal its lack of depth. No wonder. The majority of our collective history had retired; including many highly skilled Managers. Many others had been fired. Who was left to ascend into Management jobs? The answer was guys like me, along with some fast track strike babies.

I made my way through a series of Staff Officer jobs; managing the Plans and Procedures, Quality Assurance and Training Departments. Although challenging, none of it was like working a busy, IFR evening shift in the radar room. The younger specialists working for me did much of the heavy lifting while I attended meetings, which were lined up on my calendar like planes in the departure queue.  The problem was; you couldn't stop the meetings. Other facilities, the union, the Regional Office, airline representatives, airport management officials, General Aviation advocates ~ everybody needed their meetings as urgently as I needed aspirin afterward. My immediate Supervisors, the Asst. Manager, seemed addicted to these things. She insisted on regularly scheduled meetings; regardless of whether there was anything to discuss or not. You'd have thought she had nothing better to do. Meetings might have been a security blanket for her but for me; they stole much of the time needed to get real work done.

Meanwhile, back home in the tower and TRACON, all seemed normal. Controllers continued pushing planes in and out of the airport, griping about Management and gossiping about each other. Shifts were still being swapped, holding patterns were still filling up, people were hollering into handoff lines and everybody was sweating. It was all as it should be. But whenever I went into those control rooms I felt like a visitor in my own home. My heart was still there but I didn't fit anymore. Matters were made worse by the fact that I was growing bored and frustrated with my own job.

The endless meetings were enough to get me there. Even worse was the gnawing notion that I couldn't trust most of the Management people I worked with. Without that on-the-job interdependence controllers rely on to make things work; Management relied on their simple pecking order and subtle intimidation to get things done their way. Tasks were completed because someone higher up asked for it. Any resistance or refusal usually had unsavory consequences. Posturing was preeminent and professional differences were seen as subversive. I couldn't stand it much longer. Home didn't feel like home anymore and the interests of my Management peers didn't coincide with my own. It was time to leave. There was a song that went . . .

"This old airports' got me down
it's no earthly good to me."
 - Gordon Lightfoot

I took a position working for our Regional Office; where I bided my time till retirement. Surprisingly, the work was a lot of fun. I made new friends, met some memorable people and had many interesting experiences. While there, I never missed my old facility. I didn't miss the controllers or the airplanes either - not until I retired. That's when I realized my 'heart' was still somewhere else and it was controlling traffic. In time, I started having those colorful, hopeful, impractical and impossible dreams of going home again. I still have them now and then but always wake up smiling. I smile because, in those dreams, my heart goes home but I stay right where I am. The way I understand Pliny and Wolfe, it's best that way.

Here's a short epilogue. I have no lingering regrets over my career decisions and I won't whine about them. Durrell once wrote that we create our misfortunes and they bear our fingerprints.  Wise words. Besides, there are a lot of positive lessons to be learned from negative experiences. Whether it's taking a job you really weren't cut out for or breaking a second floor window with the lawn mower; you learn something useful. I've also come to realize that absence really does make the heart grow fonder. The further I get from my controller years, the more fun it is to look back ~ even on the worst of times. And those folks in Management that I once might have enjoyed strangling with a length of barbed wire? If I met any of them today, I'm sure we'd speak of nothing but the good times. To do anything else would be pointless. 

© NLA Factor, 2013