Aviation humor is a dialectal minefield for a writer and can easily poke an eye out if misused. Cartoonist Gary Larson was great at it. And a tactful, tastefully presented and good spirited bit of humor (or sarcasm) can help information and lessons stick in our memory better than IMSAFE, CIGAR, ARROW, GUMP or Identify, Verify and Feather. It can also counterbalance the effects of the life-sucking, joy-robbing ordeal of Part 121 aircrew scheduling in a thunderstorm infested, oversold, 737 MAX grounding post 9/11 era. I’ll stop whining like a T-37 engine now and enter the humor minefield with a true story. Mature metaphor alert: children look away.
First, you have to picture the setting: A crowd of tired, grumpy travelers sitting elbow-to-elbow and no one knows anyone – 160 strangers. Fearing a possible customer complaint and reprisal, a female flight attendant on my crew alerted me to an exchange that she had with a retired female flight attendant that was traveling in coach on an employee pass. (Don’t get huffy thinking this is a sexist story because of my repetitive use of female – the reason for emphasizing their gender will be poignantly presented shortly).
It was an early morning, weekday flight full of mostly male, time-stressed, business travelers. The retiree was frazzled from the arduous ordeal of space-available travel – a pain of which you can’t fully empathize until you’ve traveled standby over several decades and have been left behind fifty-eleven times. Having turned down the offer of a soothing, stress relieving and free alcoholic beverage earlier, the working flight attendant once again empathetically broached the subject with a reassuring and innocently intended offer.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t like some vodka in that juice or a couple of Baileys for your coffee?” Then leaning in a bit with a lowered voice she added a non-condemning, girl-to-girl reassurance: “Ya know, there’s nothing wrong with a good stiff-one in the morning.” Of course, the two guys sitting cheek-to-cheek on both sides of the beautiful lady took the statement quite differently (mind in the gutter and all) and after one choked on his coffee, both began laughing to tears. Instantly, the two ladies realized the secondary, totally unintentional inference of the question and turned red before also bursting into laughter. The angst from her space-available travel was quickly washed away without the assistance of a morning, um, drink.
I was reviewing a short essay on the pleasures and pitfalls of authors that use humor as a writing tool; specifically, the use of a well-intended, accidentally hysterical play on words. By necessity, such humorous linguistic legerdemain when intentionally presented by a writer must be born of a common frame of reference, language, history and honest respect for social decorum – George Carlin’s list of seven prohibited words excluded from consideration. Assuming a level of tolerance from the receiving audience, and that the wordsmithing comes from a non-malicious heart, few things have the same effect on a reader as humor. Humor can also facilitate new relationships by relieving stress and anxiousness and can allow us to be more open minded by “breaking the ice.” On the other hand, some humorous stories are just plain hysterical with very little redeeming social value but for the innocent, life-giving tears of laughter and sore stomach muscles they induce – like the one mentioned above.
There was no malicious intent in her query. No intentional evil, obscene or eye-winking maneuver in her interrogative statement. But it sure was funny. The incident reminded me of how great it used to be to talk without fear of offending someone or of having the political correctness police whip our dairy air on social media or national TV. As long as your intentions were not nefarious, rude or mean spirited, the behavior was acceptable. But thanks to those with marginal levels of intelligence and social etiquette that have exploited the kind-hearted nature of most folks, apparently, those friendly behavioral norms are now prohibited. Why can’t we be civil yet still have fun? I suppose it’s because in many situations, there’s the possibility for uncomfortable, offensive, even disastrous fallout. What if several children overheard the stiff-drink exchange and witnessed the resulting grown-up response, and then queried inquisitively (like kids do)? Once the parent wiped the tears of laughter from their own eyes, the impromptu, and in-public “birds and bees” speech could be postponed as a conversation for later. Like the scene from the TV commercial “When Smith Barney talks, people listen,” never in a classroom or at home will you see children paying attention with such focus as when they seek to understand private adult social interaction. Imagine all of the kids within four rows from the overheard comment, leaning into the aisle to understand the laughter and to hear the next new word. Thus, my point about paying attention and humor vs. our memory and learning – it works on children of all ages – even us.
Humor can also be a welcome breath of fresh air during an arduous day. The life of an airline crew is suitcases, TSA, hotel vans, restaurants and public restrooms (remind me to schedule another session with a psychiatrist for my automysophobia). And it can be draining: Drive to the bus, take the bus to a commuter hotel at base. The next morning, take the hotel van to the airport, fly 6 to 8 hours, then van to the layover hotel, go to bed hungry because you’re too tired to get dressed to go find food, van to another airport the next morning, fly for 6 to 8 hours, van to the hotel, van to another airport the next morning, fly for 6 to 8 hours, van to the layover hotel…repeat, repeat and repeat. Now you know how airline pilots accrue tens of thousands of hours.
We still occasionally go out for dinner as a crew to eat, drink, laugh and share stories of our families and how the airline “used to be.” But don’t be fooled into believing that layover hotels are a “mini-vacation.” As I write this, I’m at a layover hotel in downtown Jacksonville, Florida. It’s Saturday night, an hour after dark and my hotel is two blocks from an outdoor jazz concert. It’s loud enough to hear from my room and I know that in a few hours (after I have fallen asleep) many of the revelers, having consumed a few stiff ones themselves, will be returning to their rooms in this very hotel, perhaps on this very floor. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my. Tomorrow is day two of a four-day trip and my show time in the morning is well before sunrise. I will see some of the revelers in the lobby when I board the van. They will ask with slurred speech, “You a pilot? Where ya flying at, um, to, tonight, ah, today dude, sir?” And then they’ll stumble off without waiting for a response. If you had listened, dude, I’ll be in command of an airliner flying back-and-forth across Tornado Alley, finally ending up in Seattle late this afternoon. The next morning, I will wake at 2:40 a.m. for a 3:40 a.m. show time and resume the above repeat, repeat and repeat. When I get home, we’re headed to Flying Cloud (FCM) with the Duke for some light maintenance. The next day, we pick up a patient in RST, take them to BIV then home to mow grass, do laundry, pay bills, repack my bag and back to the repeat, repeat and repeat. It’s interesting that despite this routine, recent studies claim airline pilots live about five years longer than the general population – must be that morning, um, drink thing.
Or perhaps workplace drudgery is part of what makes us live longer. It allows us to share a special bond and to create memories. Those involved in aviation share the bond of operating a complex flying machine in a challenging environment among an interesting society of individuals – often dealing with bad weather, bad hotels, bad food (four episodes of food poisoning so far) and bad manners. We all anticipate the good parts of flying, however, and for a lot of “working” Part 121 pilots, general aviation in its many forms is the good part. Nowhere in the world is this demonstrated quite like the annual EAA Convention, AirVenture, or “Oshkosh” by us purists; July 22–28 this year. Factions of aviation from all over the world, whether it be EAA chapters, airline unions, charter companies, flight schools, aviation equipment and parts vendors, type clubs or friends and family, gather to celebrate the good parts of flying and to share sometimes humorous memories of fun, fear, excitement, drama, adventures, love and life. The annual pilgrimage is just around the corner and I can’t wait.
Readers have told me that they sometimes read my stories out loud to their children, the Christmas ones in particular. But stories such as this one with grown-up humor, even when honest and sensitive, are an opportunity for fallout, and I think this story may need to be stashed in the unmentionable drawer with grandma’s bloomers. But like that morning flight with the “free drink” offer, I hope my use of humor to make “piloty-points” will help you to remember what are often, painful lessons for some other schmuck – even the piloty-points that were rated PG.