Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Reaching Eligibility

25 years ago today, March 28th 1982, I was sitting in an auditorium in Oklahoma City with 500 other wide-eyed people just like myself as we stepped off into careers as air traffic controllers. While we sat there in our seats that first day the suits up front doing the talking weren't very encouraging as they emphasized a failure rate of nearly 50%...and that was just at the academy. You could expect to see another 50% washout at your assigned facility. A good part of the morning was spent filling out forms and getting indoctrinated. I looked at the paper of the guy sitting next to me for his name and he'd penned in 'Railhead'. Hmmm, that can't be right. I came to find out later that Railhead was the name of an apartment complex where a lot of the students were staying. He didn't make the program. I found myself a place to stay at Cinnamon Square apartments on South May ave. It was a flea infested place like most down there but it served me well.

The academy was pushing through a lot of people at the time as the Patco controllers had gone on strike the previous August. The airlines and general aviation had some major restrictions placed on them while the FAA hurried to certify controllers as quickly as possible in an effort to get back up to speed. The strike wiped out over 90% of the workforce with only 1200 controllers crossing the picket lines while 11,359 were fired by Reagan. It was an interesting time.

While the academy wasn't a breeze I didn't have any problem getting through. We lost a good many of our class just as they said we would. I reported to Minneapolis Center after leaving Oklahoma City and began the process of certifying. It didn't go well for me. Within a few months they had washed out 6 of 9 of us from my class with me being one of them.

They were running so many of us through and success often depended on who you got for an instructor. Myself, John Yaccino and Steve Miller were all assigned to Gene Peterson. Gene was a retired controller who signed on to work with the new trainees coming through. We were his first students. Gene was good at catching errors and teaching us the job but he did little to build our confidence. I don't believe there is any such thing as a controller without confidence and an important part of being an instructor is to help build confidence through encouragement, not discouragement. Some instructors were known to give your chair a kick or clear their throat during an eval if you made a critical error. Not Gene. He was strictly by the book. Within two months of working with Gene he would wash all three of us out in the manual labs. The manual labs are a non radar environment where you don't actually work with live traffic or a simulated radar display. It's not where you want to end your training. It took not only us by surprise but it sent a strong message to the classes of students behind us. I think most anybody would tell you that there was no question that we'd all three make it through that portion of our training to progress to working with live traffic but we didn't.

I was sent packing to Huron SD where I worked for two and a half years at the Flight Service Station there. FSS is listed as one of three controller options for the FAA but it's not a job where you're controlling traffic. You're much more a weather briefer. It paid well but it wasn't what I came in the FAA to do. I wasn't bitter about washing out but there were times when I'd dwell on it, especially at night. Sometimes I'd lie awake unable to sleep because I'd be thinking how I knew I could've done the job but I didn't feel I got a fair shake.

In January '85 my supervisor approached me about returning to Minneapolis Center. His boss had just returned from a managers' meeting in Minneapolis and my name came up. They were interested to know if I'd be willing to come back and give it another try. At the time I'd been putting in applications to towers around the country in an attempt to become a real controller but I wasn't having any luck. I went home and asked Noy (my wife at the time) what she thought. She encouraged me to try again as it was still early on in my career and there really wasn't much to lose by trying. I seriously doubt I would have agreed to go back had it not been for her encouragement.

There was an open bid for controllers to Minneapolis Center but it closed in a few days (I still remember the date, January 22nd, 1985) so I had to act fast. Within a couple weeks of submitting my application I received the news that I'd been selected for one of the openings. Huron FSS would drag their feet in releasing me but by the end of the summer of '85 I'd make it back to Minneapolis Center, or ZMP as it is known. When I moved back to town I stopped by the local watering hole for controllers in Farmington and ran into my old instructor, Gene. To Gene's credit he apologized for letting me down because he felt he missed with us in that we were his first students and we should never have washed out. I appreciated that. My training progressed without much difficulty and by early 1988 I was a fully certified Air Traffic Controller.

The guys I initially went through training with also found jobs at flight service stations around the country. Steve was sent to Ohio and eventually bid into Columbus tower. I've lost touch with him and don't have any idea where he is today. John went to South Bend FSS and about the time I left Huron he was quitting the FAA to return to school. I exchanged emails with him recently. He's a dentist in the Air Force with a few years left before he's eligible to retire. He's done well.

As for me, I remain a controller in the trenches at ZMP day in and day out. I'd always assumed I'd eventually get into management but that never happened. I've had my share (as most of us have) of people along the way encouraging me to do something more with my career. Several years ago I began telling those prodding me that what may seem like an unfulfilled career to them is not that at all. The FAA needs good controllers and that is my calling.

So here I sit having reached my eligibility...25 years gets away in a hurry. I had a few people congratulate me at work today as it's a big milestone in any person's career. It would be nice to be able to afford to retire but I'm not quite there yet and to be honest, I'm not in any particular hurry. As I've said before in my blog, this is a time in my life where if I could slow time down I would. I've got a great family, my health and a job I really enjoy doing...what's the hurry to get through this phase of my life?

I did say goodbye today to one of the controllers I came into the FAA with -- Jeff Ofsthun retired today. Best wishes to you, Jeff, and I'll be right behind you before I know it.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Goodbye Emily

My cousin Emily passed away this week. I'd only ever seen her a few times throughout our lives but I'd come to know her recently through a family forum I maintain. She always had something interesting to add to the conversation. She was in her late 50s and suffered from the effects of radiation treatment she received in 1967 for Hodgkin's Disease. The treatment apparently worked but her heart and lungs were damaged in the process. You wouldn't know through her writings that she was experiencing as much difficulty as she was. Her dog died last year and she'd just brought a new puppy into her home. I was happy for her. So it was with much sadness that I learned she was brought into ICU two weeks ago struggling for her life. She lost her battle last Monday evening around 8:30. I'm especially sad for her parents who are into their late 80s. The photo to the left is one of the few recent photos I have of her. Emily is the one in the middle. The man to the right was her very good friend, Earl.

I don't have many memories of her with the exception of the time she came into town on business in the early '80s. I drove my mom's TR7 to a hotel by France ave and 494 to pick her up and bring her to our home for a visit. She saw the car and I can still hear her say..."what a sexy car!" Her personality was upbeat and I got the impression that she had the world by the tail. I was very impressed by her if not a little intimidated. I always looked forward to reading what she had to say on the forums. I have no doubt that she is being remembered and missed by many, many people. My heart especially goes out to her parents, Don and Dorothy, her sister, Barbara and her friend, Earl.

The weather turned mild here over my weekend and I was able to get a couple nice rides in. I especially enjoyed Friday's ride. I'm taking a more conservative approach to my riding this year as I don't think my body will allow me to do another 9000+ miles this year. I want to be able to do some long distance riding in my retirement years and unless I back off a bit I'm not sure my body will hold up to those kind of miles year after year. I'm shooting for 6000-7000 miles in 2007 and if I fall short of that it's okay.

What I'd really like is to be able to find time to do some stained glass work throughout the year. As I mentioned in a previous entry, my brother, Keith, would like us to do stained glass for the occasional client who would like it. He thought that we could maybe count on a job once every 6-8 weeks. He's asked us to come up with a few designs he can put in a display. We put this together for him this week and have another nearly completed which is also also a mission style Frank Lloyd Wright inspired design. Tammy is excited to jump into this. Me, I'm a little more hesitant because I'm worried about not having enough time for it. So that's another reason I'm planning on a reduced riding schedule this year. Actually, I'm looking forward to working the craft more. There's something very relaxing about being creative down in the shop.

Rachel is all packed and ready for her trip with Prince of Peace church to Hollywood. They'll be gone for a week beginning this Friday. We've dropped her off in the past at the church for events and we always leave with a smile as we see how she has so many friends there. She's a typical teenager with a celphone which is constantly ringing and a Myspace which has pages of contacts. I would've enjoyed that had there been something similar when I was her age. This blog is my Myspace.

Speaking of Rachel...her report before the class last Monday went as good as it could have. Her teacher told her that he'd never seen a better 9th grade presentation. She dressed up for it and got a few extra credit points for that and for going first. She said there were kids coming up to her after class to tell her that they were moved by what they'd learned from her about Darfur. Not only did they learn but Rachel educated Tammy and I as well. I don't know if it's politics, apathy, denial, ignorance or unwillingness which causes us as a people to stand idly by while this tragedy continues. I hope we're judged harshly for doing absolutely nothing.

I created a set of 3d photos I've taken for my Flickr account. If you're able to cross your eyes while relaxing them just a bit you may be able to bring these into 3d focus. Here's the link

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Sunday, March 18, 2007

Aging Parents, Driven to Succeed and FAA Mismanagement

Tammy spent the weekend up north with her parents. Her father, Morey, experienced a few dizzy spells earlier in the week and fell a couple times. The last fall required an ambulance ride to the hospital in Ely. He's now in a nursing home in the city of Virgina, about 45 minutes from their home in Babbitt. We've known this day would come sooner or later and to be honest, I'd say it's later. We haven't felt comfortable with him driving for years with the exception of short trips to get groceries. He gets confused easily and has noticeably lost a few steps in the last couple years. I'm not sure how long it'll be before he returns home or if he ever will. Tammy is an RN working with the elderly and I can't think of anybody better to have working on my behalf if I were her father. Their relationship has been a bit strained for several years but none of that matters now.

My mother also had some health issues during the week...possibly a mild stroke. I phoned her to see how she was doing and if there was anything I could do for her. We mostly spoke about meaningless stuff. I'm still on the outside looking in and don't expect that will change anytime soon. I feel that she's still so caught up in Claudia's drama and negative view of life while I remain on her do-not-call list until I come around to believing that hatred and ridicule of my cousin Deborah is the path to follow. Stalemate. Tammy and I used to regularly take her places and be there for her. We're distant from her now and I'm sorry about that. I call her but it's no longer a two way street. If I don't call her we don't speak. I've heard she says unkind things about me. I could confront her but doing that would only be a return to what went down last summer. I'm disappointed in her actions and my sister's actions and that this continues but life goes on.

I got to play chauffeur for Rachel in Tammy's absence and got a renewed appreciation for all the running around associated with that. She's a busy kid. You could almost say too busy but she thrives on it. Friday morning her day began at 6:15. She came home from school and did homework for over an hour before we had to leave to get her to dance class where she was filling in as the lead instructor for one class and assistant for her class. Some of the kids she's instructing are older than her and I think that speaks to her maturity. We got home around 7:00pm and she got right back into the books as she has a huge assignment due on Monday. She's writing a paper on the lack of media attention the crisis in Darfur has been receiving. Actually, the paper is written...she's working on the speech which she'll present to her class on Monday. A part of the speech requires that she has two visual aids. I was so impressed with what she put together for one of her visual aids. She pretty much did this all on her own after I showed her how to set it up using our Pinnacle software. I think she did a great job with it. She next turned to drafting her speech and didn't put the books away until after 1:00am. As I was saying, she's a busy kid.

Keith stopped by on Wednesday. We've been kicking around the idea of doing stained glass for his clients who would like that in their cabinets. It's something we've been talking about for years but I've been reluctant to warm up to the idea. Stained glass has been something I've always enjoyed doing and I'm concerned that it will become something I have to do rather than want to do. I want Keith and his shop to be able to depend on me so I either make a commitment or we continue to put the idea off. Tammy would really like for us to move forward with it. I suppose we should pray about it. Why is it that something so obvious is too often an afterthought?

Anyway, I spent a good part of the weekend working on a design and turning it into an actual stained glass piece which will fit into a sample cabinet Keith will have as part of a display. It's a Frank Lloyd Write style design with some nice lines and places where the client can add specific colors to suit their needs. I'll finish it tomorrow and get it over to him. I also want to come up with some simpler designs which we can quickly knock out and which won't be as expensive. I told Keith that I wasn't interested in appealing to a very large percentage of his customers...just a niche market who don't mind paying for our time. He understood.

I was sitting at a sector at work one day recently pondering the direction the FAA is going. I look at the hypocrisy coming from management and all I can do is shake my head. In 1998, our union, Natca, negotiated a good contract for controllers. It was also a good contract for management because as our wages increased so did theirs. Our latest contract talks ended in an impasse which allowed management to impose their last best offer on us. Anybody with any sense realized that their intention all along was to not negotiate and send the talks to impasse thereby neutering the union. We've got collective bargaining but for it to work both sides have to approach it with good intentions. That didn't happen. The hypocrisy which disturbs me most is with respect to pay. Management says they need to get costs under control and I have no problem with that. Our wages have been effectively capped for the foreseeable future but not managements' pay. The FAA is lopsided with management types who were never very good at being controllers and ran for the cover of a supervisor's position. If they're so concerned with getting costs under control they have to do their part as well and lead by example. That isn't happening and won't unless an act of congress causes it to. Considering management, I was struck by this thought while I sat at the sector pondering the hypocrisy...is it worse to become what you despise or to despise what you've become? Either way it's not a good thing. I'll be eligible to retire in another ten days...not that I'm going anywhere but it will help some of the nonsense to roll off my back a bit easier.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Flickr and writing chapters

Here's a tip of the hat to Mr. db and his song titled, Why

I finally took the plunge and went pro on my Flickr account. It's a good service and it's about time I ponied up some money for it...$25 a year seems fair to me. I uploaded a bunch of photos from my days in the Navy to my account. I used the photos to begin a group for alumni from the ship I was on...the USS Fresno, LST1182. Others will be able to post their photos as well to the group. I'm not sure why I bother though as there seems to be little to no interest in that sort of thing among the guys I'm in touch with. I suppose I do it because I keep thinking/hoping that somebody with an interest will stumble onto them some day and they'll appreciate that they're there. That's good enough for me. I know there were a few camera buffs on the boat with me but to be honest, most of the guys were more interested in getting to port, getting drunk and getting laid than to think about photography. I'm not sure what was up with me. Not that I didn't hang with them occasionally but mostly I was into my bike. I still am.

I was on my bike today and as I often do when I'm riding I let my mind wander. It dawned on me that the 9th anniversary of my divorce from Noy had come and gone without me realizing it. Usually March 5th is a day which causes me to pause as it was a real turning point in my life. I'm still the same guy I was back then but my life is much more fulfilled now. My divorce was without question the most difficult time of my life. I tried more than anyone will ever know to make our marriage work but in the end I just couldn't do it any more. I remember the prayer I had then. I prayed that no matter how it turned out I didn't want to be a bitter person. All I wanted was to be able to move forward with my life...a new beginning, and not be left to a slow bleed of resentment. God has done that for me. I have absolutely no ill feelings toward Noy. I still pray for her daily and likely always will. The one regret I have is that I wasn't able to continue a relationship with my stepsons, David and Joe. I never shared with them what led up to our divorce but I do remember telling Joe that no matter what, if he felt he needed to choose sides that he should absolutely be there for his mother.

Joe came into town last May to move his mom out to San Francisco to be near himself and Dave. Noy was kind enough to call me so we could arrange to meet. For years I'd imagined what that final time together would be like. I'd even discussed this with Tammy. I'd always assumed it would include the four of us and we'd meet at a restaurant for dinner...enjoy each other's company one last time and then close that chapter of our lives. It didn't quite play out that way as Dave couldn't make it. Joe brought his girlfriend with him. I met them at Noy's apartment. We spent a couple hours reminiscing and catching up but there wouldn't be a final dinner together as I'd hoped. It was nice and I very much appreciated the chance to see Joe one last time. He's looking very good and his girlfriend seemed nice. And that was that.

I'd hoped to stay in touch with Joe through emails but I don't want to push. He knows how to get in touch with me but I'm reluctant to impose myself into his life. I was certain that he knew I'd like to remain in touch with him. That hasn't happened and Dave isn't the type to write. No doubt that we had many good years together and those years are a part of the story of my life but there was no storybook ending. It certainly made for an interesting chapter.

Speaking of new beginnings...I was uploading some photos to my Flickr account yesterday and I came across this one It was taken the day my divorce became final. I remember it because it was the day of the international hockey tournament we hosted in Minneapolis for ATC hockey teams around the world. We took 2nd place in our division. I couldn't have known then that one year later Tammy and Rachel would come into my life and totally change my world. I'll save that story for another entry.