The Persistence Of Memory

Those who've been following this Blog understand it's mostly about memories. In the beginning, I was afraid I'd forget the many things that happened before I could capture them in print. You know, before too much time passed. I now understand those memories are persistent, palpable and perpetual. They're always here with me. I can even feel them. Salvador Dali illustrated it pretty well in his masterpiece "The Persistence of Memory." With apologies to Salvador, I flew an airplane into his painting because, to me, the memories of air traffic have a persistence all their own.

Time, on the other hand, is of no real significance. It comes and goes; preceding each passing second and concurrently vanishing; leaving us with a "now" that is just too short to measure. Thankfully, it does leave those persistent memories of ours behind; scattered across the panorama of our lives.   

As to my life, it seems I spent most of it diligently winding clocks and watches, setting alarms or trying to correct the time if it was running fast or slow. According to the clock; I usually ended up being too early or too late anyway. It took a while but I finally figured out that I shouldn't even bother trying to set, sway, speed or slow the hands of time. The Universe calibrated my clock, then synchronized it to my life - and life isn't measured by hours and minutes. It's measured by events and those events always happen precisely when they're supposed to; which could be described as "right on time." I may never have believed my entire life happened on schedule - but it did. Take the early Seventies for example . . .

Life was moving at the speed of continental drift since my departure from military service. My application for an ATC position, eagerly and optimistically submitted, had apparently vanished into some minor FAA functionary's file drawer. I found an odd assortment of menial jobs to keep me busy. If you're interested, they're described somewhere in the back end of this blog. The work kept me afloat financially but my spirit was being swamped by waves of anxiety. I knew it was crazy but whenever my travels took me past the local airport, I'd glare at the control tower,  mutter a few expletives and shake my head. Frustration brought me to a point where I was seriously considering the idea of going back into the Air Force - just so I could work airplanes again. Looking back on life, I have to love that and every other mistake I almost made.

Living high on the extravagances that a minimum wage income allows, I moved into an affordable efficiency apartment on the north side of town. Although the classified ad called it an "efficiency," I referred to it as the "deficiency." There were so many deficiencies that I lost count half way through the list of health violations. Small, slightly smelly and unnecessarily outdated; it was the kind of apartment where police might one day discover 200 cats and a desiccated corpse. It was affordable though - as long as I stuck to my diet of deviled ham and bananas. I worked onward but could never quite reach my future.

Years passed. In the long run, the FAA did make me a job offer. Ironically, I had to think twice about accepting. By then, I'd worked myself into a pretty well paying and enjoyable job. I even had a better apartment! Going with the Feds would mean an initial (and substantial) decrease in pay. There was also a requisite relocation in the deal. The move would put me in an expensive metropolitan area that I couldn't possibly afford on a GS-7's salary. The offer was a "take it or leave it" deal though. I had one week to respond. That wasn't much time but it didn't really matter. My decision was preordained, so naturally I had to accept. There was simply no choice because, by the end of my Air Force career, air traffic control had become a vital organ that I couldn't live for long without.

I remember the subsequent months being a blur. The only time that mattered was my training time. Then, in nothing but an eight month instant, I found myself checked out through all tower positions and working on my radar certifications. Two years from that first foot in the door, I was fully certified at Big Time. Now that wasn't so hard, was it? Looking back, I'd say no. But back then? Looking ahead was intimidating.

It wasn't long before my first round of mids as a journeyman was scheduled. Trainees were always sent to the tower on mid shifts. But now, as a full performance controller, I could pull TRACON duty. Driving in to work, I knew what I would find when I got there. After all, I'd been home all evening, watching the lightning and listening to the din of heavy rain on the roof. I knew the crew on duty was dealing with a mess and that there'd be plenty left for me and my teammates to clean up when we arrived.

Mids, for me, usually began with a touch of circadian sleep disorder. Failing in my attempt to nap that afternoon, I would arrive at work a little out of sorts, off-balance and unshaven. By 10:45, traffic would normally be light and most of the radar sectors combined at two or three positions. Not tonight though. Walking into the TRACON I saw a Supervisor tearing strips off the printer and running them to the sectors. There were five still open and all were busy. Three of the evening shift guys would be held over for a couple hours to help us put a lid on the madness.

My mid shift teammate relieved both departure sectors and combined them into one. I was told to relieve the Final controller and let her go home. Airplanes that had been delayed at their departure points, some of them thousands of miles from Big Time, were only now beginning to show up at our arrival fixes. It was exciting. The approach controllers talked non-stop and their lines of planes stretched more than 40 miles from the airport. Radar vectors were flying in every direction. At least the bad weather had moved out and the field was VFR for the first time since that morning. After a brief consultation with the tower, I tried cutting some downwind traffic in tight on visual approaches. The first two worked nicely so I told the approach guys to start tightening up the arrival sequence. Everything was going well. The departure backlog was gone by 1:00 AM. Our holdovers from the evening shift left at 2:00 but the persistence of air traffic continued till after 3:00. The mid-shift Supervisor sat silently at his desk; counting strips, calculating the delays and catching up on log entries. In the ensuing years, there would be many more such mid shifts.

In sharp contrast with the FAA; I remember mid shifts in the Air Force being abnormally quiet. Still in the early stages of learning how impossible it was for me to sleep during the day; I'd lumber up the tower steps with my mid shift teammate, moving like a reanimated cadaver. Where I was stationed; most of the military air traffic was down for the night before 11:00 PM, so we'd be greeted by a bored looking NCOIC (Non-Commissioned Officer In Charge) who'd dutifully mutter his way through a review of the tower's daily log. I would dutifully nod with feigned interest in what he was saying. He and his evening shift crew would then rush down the steps as though the fire alarm had just sounded. In a moment, my partner Vince and I would be left in the complete silence of an empty tower cab, overlooking an empty runway. It was on such a night that a most incredible thing happened. My memory of it hangs on like the melted clock on Dali's tree limb.

By 3:00 AM, each of us had pretty well covered what we knew of the latest Squadron gossip and were settling into our chairs, feet up on the console, for a little quiet time (sleep). A light appeared across the airfield, just above the the horizon. It was moving slowly in a northerly direction; almost parallel to the runway and definitely inside our Control Zone. Certain it was a plane without a working transmitter; we simultaneously hailed it on both UHF and VHF emergency frequencies while signaling "Cleared to land" with the tower's light gun. As the craft continued north, we could see there were actually several lights glimmering; like the windows of an airliner's fuselage. But unlike the lights of an aircraft, these were indistinct; almost ethereal. They glowed like pale blue neon.

Curious about any sound this thing might be making, Vince dashed down the first flight of steps and out onto the catwalk. I called the radar unit. Did they see a target just Northeast of the field and moving North? I expected a wise-ass comment about flying saucers in the traffic pattern and I wasn't disappointed. Of course, the radar guys saw nothing on their scopes. After listening to the requisite dose of sarcasm and good-natured ridicule; I was told to leave them the hell alone and go back to sleep. Vince returned to report the night outside was as quiet as a crypt. None of the jet or propeller noise we were used to hearing. Nothing. The strange lights soon vanished over the northern horizon.

Me and Vince had an odd feeling about what had just happened. I picked up a phone and dialed the Watch Desk at our local Center. I was afraid that telling this story to anyone else was a mistake but decided it was worth the risk for a chance to have it corroborated.  The Supervisor, clearly much older and vastly more experienced than me, listened to my story. I could tell he was writing things down and figured he was making notes for a future discussion with our Squadron Commander. I'd be in trouble for sure. But no. He said my description of the object, its low altitude, slow speed and direction of flight matched reports some of his controllers had received from pilots flying across the region. Several people claimed to have spotted it but no one ever saw a radar image.

I remember watching the sunrise that morning, making a fresh pot of coffee for the day shift crew and talking to Vince about what we should do. The Air Force had a reporting program in place at the time. Named "Project Blue Book," it was a way of officially documenting what may have been a UFO sighting. Vince and I concluded there would be no report and no further mention of the incident to anyone; especially the incoming day shift guys. Along with the wry ribbing, we'd likely be labeled as lunatics by the Squadron brass; thus hobbling our chances of ever seeing another promotion. It was decided that what we saw that night must surely have been a weather balloon or another of those spontaneous outbreaks of swamp gas. We just left the tower, lingered over breakfast then moved on to the first open bar we could find. By the third round of beers, we were ready to admit what we'd really seen - but only to each other.

Another mid shift sticks in my memory - one clear and very cold night in the 1970s. A Center controller's urgent sounding voice came across the handoff line. "Hey Big Time, you talking to that guy twenty east of MALYN squawking 4543 at eleven thousand?" It was nearly 5:00 AM and for the last hour or so I'd only been talking to myself.  I saw the target he referred to though, so I pushed the handoff line button and responded. The center controller said he'd been working the plane, a Piper Navajo, for the last 45 minutes but had recently lost radio contact. It was also way off it's planned route, now about 70 miles off course and headed toward some very unfriendly terrain. After checking with the other sectors, it was clear the pilot wasn't talking to anyone at the Center. The controller was now calling all towers and approach controls along the aircraft's flight path. It seemed no one was talking to the Navajo, which was still holding its last assigned altitude of eleven thousand feet. The situation would change but as we know; change isn't always a good thing.

I called the tower and, between us, we transmitted on every frequency we had. No joy. The plane flew on and soon left my radar coverage. It wasn't till nearly 7:00 AM that the Center sector called and told me the plane eventually began losing altitude then vanished from his radar screen. Wreckage was never found and we were left with our theories about what happened. The most plausible one was that the pilot had dozed off - his plane eventually running out of fuel. With luck, he died in his sleep. This incident lodged itself in my memory like a fishhook and became a shot of adrenalin whenever I felt myself getting sleepy on mid-shifts or long drives.

I have so many many memories; some good and others, well, not so good. They don't go away though. They accumulate over a long career and, like my old record collection, become disorganized and eventually take up a lot of space. I've put some of them away in storage but still retrieve them now and then for my own enjoyment. In a way, memories are a lot like my old records. They can both be played over and over again. Someone or something just needs to push the right buttons. Case in point; I recently discovered one of my old teammates from the Big Time days, on a social media site. That pushed some long unused buttons and the memories started playing immediately. Like me; this guy was brutally insane in those days. We shared secrets and experienced many control room tantrums, terrors and temptations together. The memories of them persist, even after all this time.

Time passes. I don't even care where it goes. It takes nothing of mine when it leaves but it leaves me with plenty. Those persistent memories; they stay like my skin color. I don't know exactly where each one is at the moment but, like my old Big Time buddy, I'll eventually find them again. 

© NLA Factor, 2013


Kevin Gilmore said...

Nicely worded my friend.

I still manage to do the day/mid slow-dance each week after nearly 32 years with the FAA. Most controllers give up on it many years earlier in their careers but I find it works best for me. By the end of my 4th shift of the week I'm dead tired and the only thing on my mind is going home and getting some sleep. And I do. If I can get 3 hours of sleep I'm a happy guy and ready to take on my final shift of the week; the all-nighter.

In my years at the Center I've only ever seen one UFO incident. A pilot asked if there was traffic off to his right side. There was nothing. He stated that he was seeing lights out there and that they were maneuvering around his aircraft. This went on for maybe 5 minutes before they were gone.

I had a closer-to-home incident years later that I captured on video. The was a white dot of a light in the sky over the Minneapolis metro area all afternoon and evening. News reports were speculating that it was a weather balloon but nobody knew for sure. I knew it wasn't. I'd been at work that day and the upper winds were such that there was no way a balloon could've remained stationary as this object did.

Here's the video I took...


No Longer a Factor said...

Hi Kevin and a Merry Christmas to you!

Thanks for the link to your video. It sounded like you had a skeptic in the crowd! I'm thinkin' maybe your daughter? Whoever it was actually expressed the kind of reaction me and my buddy Vince expected from the Air Force if we'd reported what we saw that night. Of those who have actually seen such things; many of them still deny it or try to insert some kind of rational explanation into the event. Me? I generally go with my instincts - even if they don't align with conventional thinking.

Enjoy the holidays!

Kevin Gilmore said...

Yes, that would've been my daughter, Rachel.

It really was an intriguing sight up there for as long as it was and it could be seen from anywhere in the metropolitan area and I would imagine, points beyond. It was just the oddest thing and for it to be passed off as a weather balloon seemed quite laughable to me.

I just did a Google search for information on it and came across the link below from a UFO reporting site. It very accurately describes what was above us that day but I have to wonder; if it was in fact a balloon of some kind, wouldn't it burst after not too many hours of increasing altitude? It hovered over the metro area all day and well into the evening.