Friday, March 05, 2010

When Daddy Let Me Drive

I can still remember the very first time my father pushed the bench seat back on the family station wagon, opened his arms to reach me clear over on the other side of the car and said, "Come on, son. You come over here and drive."  The time was early '60's, before seat belts were much more than a nuisance when you sat on them.

I couldn't reach the pedals, hell, I could barely see over the dash. But I was driving and I was in heaven.  I rocked the steering wheel this way and that, and remembering now it was probably only the play in the mechanism I was steering.  But steer I did.  Vroom, vroom! 

Only I wasn't driving.  My father was.  And while I plowed down the highway (OK, our street) at breakneck speeds (OK, ten miles an hour) my father drove the car while I, well...I drove.  And drove and drove and drove.  For hours and hours (well OK, two or three minutes.) 

 It happened again yesterday only this time it wasn't me and it wasn't a station wagon.  It was an air traffic controller from JFK, and his son was "controlling airplanes."  Only he wasn't.  His daddy was controlling them airplanes, folks, and his daddy could have probably controlled a dozen more without looking up from his nail file.  That's why he's at JFK, sports fans.  That JFK controller can fling the heavy metal without breaking a sweat and he has probably safely cared for more people by lunchtime than the average hospital cares for in a year.

Was the controller wrong to let his son parrot his words?  Yes.

Was the controller jeopardizing safety?  No.

Was the supervisor jeopardizing safety?  No.

Did the media, the FAA and the Congress pile on this poor man?  Yes.

Were rules broken?  I don't know, but if they were I can't find them.

I was working at O'Hare Approach one afternoon in the late '80s when Slewball (that's what we called him because he was bald) got a pale look, cocked his head half around like the RCA dog and then went "splat!" face down on the console in front of his radar scope.  His face hit that rubber mat with a sound like a sack of wet laundry hitting a tile floor.  Splat.

And then I saw the supervisor calmly come over, grab Slewball's chair, wheel him out of the way and help a new controller get his headset on, get plugged in and then helped him identify and begin to separate and control Slewball's airplanes, whizzing around the sky at six miles a minute. 

Slew was still in his chair drooling like a teenage boy at a Taylor Swift concert when the paramedics from the airport showed up a few minutes later.  The paramedics carried ol' Slew out on a platter (OK, a stretcher) while the rest of us tried to crack jokes to calm our nerves.  "Hey Slew..if you don't make it can I trade shifts with you next week before you take that dirt nap?" 

JFK was like that station wagon in sixty-three.  Like O'Hare in '89.  And like any other time any other parent has done any other stupid thing all in the name of either educating a kid on what he possibly can do, or what he probably shouldn't do.  Just like you do if you are a parent.
Could someone have pulled in front of my dad in '63?  Yes.

Would it have been unsafe?  No.

Would there have been a collision?  No.

Was the JFK controller foolish to put his child on the frequency?  Probably.

Was it unsafe?  No. 

In fact, in the immortal words of the FAA, "Safety was never compromised." 

How can you say that, you ask?  It's simple, really.  Like O'Hare and my dad and your dad, that controller in New York would have dropped his kid like Enron stock at the first inkling of a hint of a notion of an anomaly.  And if he got in the way the others in the room would have escorted the kid out, no gentler with him than we were with Slew or my dad was with me or your dad was with you when your feet didn't move fast enough. 

Gever Tulley and Julie Spiegler have written a book entitled, "Fifty Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Child Do."  Thumbing through this book is like taking a trip through the early years of practically all of us.  Superglue your fingers together.  Get a penny and put it on the railroad tracks.  Light something with a magnifying glass.  Blow something up in the microwave. 

In my case (and these are not made up) there was also BB gun fights with my brothers, blowing up GI Joe with Dad's lighter fluid, building and then burning down each other's tree houses, making a wooden car with roller skates and driving it down the hill and into traffic, throwing pocket knives at each others feet to see who would flinch, shooting each other with bottle rockets on the 4th and launching tennis balls at each other by putting a small hole in the bottom of the can and filling it with the remaining Zippo lighter fluid.  One match and FOOM.  The ball comes out on fire sometimes and you can light your siblings t-shirt on fire if you hit it just right.

Sure, people relied on the JFK dad and he let them down.  But if you listen to the pilots involved in the incident---the people who literally put their lives in this JFK controllers hands---there is no indignity.  There is no, "Hey, are we safe here?"  There is no challenge or question or uncertainty. 

The pilots. The ones who are always the first people at the scene of an airplane crash (think about that one for a minute Eww). The pilots thought it was funny.  And at no time did the pilots think they, or anyone else was in danger.  And do you know why?  Because at one time or another each and every one of those pilots has opened his arms to his kid, sat him on his lap, and let him fly the rented plane.  And the kid flew.  Horrors.  He could have fallen on somebody or flown into something. Riiiiiiiight.

In the big scheme of things the firestorm that has greeted the JFK incident rivals Sarah Palin pick-pocketing swag at the Oscars, which I guess brings me to my final point.

People, people, people.  The great American sport has grown weary.  When are you going to stop building up idols and icons so that you can knock them down?  No, the Gosslins aren't "Plus Eight."  He is an ugly-ass unemployed cheater and she is a mean bitch and a basket case and together they are ruining their kid's lives.  No, Tiger Woods isn't Husband of the Year.  Was he as bad as Clinton?  Close, but no cigar.  (Think about that one for a minute, too.  Eww) 

We Americans have made it our blood sport to build pyramids of worship to our Gods (or maybe just big football stadiums and HDTVs) and then gather by hundreds of thousands to worship them (OK, cheer them on).  And when they blink the wrong way or get a traffic ticket or get caught with a live boy or a dead girl, well, then it's off to the woodshed we go for a good old fashioned American ass whipping.  You would think we would have learned by now.

Yes, the JFK controller messed up.  We all know that.  And let anyone who has never messed up at work cast the first letter of reprimand. 
Yes, the JFK controller showed a lapse in judgment.  And let anyone who has never showed bad judgment at work cast the first suspension.

Yes, the JFK controller let down his company, his family and his friends.  Let anyone who has raised above the humanity of our own shortcomings fire the poor bastard.

Otherwise, let's give it a rest, will ya?  The Oscars are Sunday night and somebody is sure to do something stupid or rat on Brad and Angelina or linger too long hugging Jennifer and that boat-rocker will sweep this controller and his little buddy off the news wires like they were OJ Simpson.  Haven't heard much from "The Juice" lately, have we?  OJ's doing his time and all is right with the world. 

So give the JFK controller the benefit of the doubt to go along with the discipline he has earned, but don't swipe a lifetime of service to the American people and his family's future from the poor guy because it turned out he was human. 

There, but for the grace of God, go you. 

Don Brown (Okay, so Daddy let me drive this Carr.)
March 5, 2010

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