Wednesday, September 10, 2014

On Duty - Your First and Hopefully Last F-Bomb at Home on the Range.

I do not write about my work here, and won't on retirement, but each year, on this date, I will speak briefly of aspects of it.  For 9-11 was a day that remains in my mind for more reasons than just the obvious ones.

My life is actually pretty mundane 90% of the time.  I write a little each day, usually very early in the morning when most people are still asleep.  Sometimes though, I'd rather just read, letting the blog tend to itself with saved posts and curling up on the couch far away from a computer for a few hours in the evening.
The last book read, re-read actually, was "Safe Return Doubtful - The Heroic Age of Polar Exploration" by John Maxtone-Graham. Until the early 20th century, both the North and South poles remained alluring unknowns shrouded in a biting cold mystery that demanded resolution. Only a century ago, intrepid men dreamed of conquering the planet's last continent with tools unfit for purpose. For those men, heroism alone sufficed.

Being a leader is never easy. I lead a group of people, pretty much all male but for one admin position.  All but one are ex military, a few ex special forces. I'm the lone female and the one they look to for direction. I make the final decision, and it's my job to keep them both engaged and safe. It's not always easy. It takes patience, and humor and knowing what battles are worth fighting for.  I also lead, as tough as one of them, but not trying to act like a man.  I wear my hair up, and I wear no makeup to work but for tinted sunscreen, but if you get real close, my neck may smell of vanilla or lavender or lily of the valley, old fashioned, clean scents. I don't swear, unless absolutely necessary. I bring home baked goods every few weeks. But they've seen me in the field, and in the courtroom, and I know I've earned their respect, for if not, we'd not be the group that we are, together.
People, I have found, are vastly complex, with many facets that never show until they are placed in a certain light. We all place such a value on nothing more than face value, quick assumptions of a persons character, by what little snippets they show of themselves. But you really have to spend time with a person, face conflict or danger next to them, to see what they are made of. You can't rely on what you hear, certainly in politics, so much of the media spinning its own version of the truth. It's easy to get caught up with such situations, making judgment based on what's in the news, what's in social media. If I've learned anything, in any situation involving people it's best to step back and reserve judgment, for that which you see for yourself with your own eyes. Anything else is as fragile as glass, and elusive as smoke.

I flew with this older fellow  many years ago, on a civilian contractor gig.  He was a man that at best could be described as "gruff". He was a good 20 years older than I, and could be judgmental, critical, and opinionated. He was also extremely straight laced, didn't smoke or drink or swear. If someone said a curse word in front of him, look out. Nothing you could do was good enough and he trusted no one with anything when it came to his ship. A lot of people couldn't bear to crew with him. But there was no one more dedicated or safety minded.

He didn't share a sense of humor as indicated by the prank we pulled one time when we had a female maintenance tech that made the mistake of telling people she was a little afraid of mice after one was spotted in the hangar. We didn't help when we brought her out to the aircraft with a verbal notification about a possible write up for  "nest of rats" we found in the bay near the hydraulic pump.  It helped even less when we bought one of those wind up balls with the long furry tail from the airport gift shop (you now what I'm talking about) and as she came on board, I turned it on and flung it down in the darkened aisle and yelled "Fred, I got one of them" and grabbed the rotating fur ball, both of us then shoving it in a sack and wrestling it to the floor.  I didn't think she could jump that high, nor the top of a seatback support that weight
Captain Grumpy was anything but pleased on witnessing this and would have written us up, had I not been so much senior to him. The maintenance tech, for what it was worth, when she figured out it was a joke, laughed as hard as we did, and there WAS good natured payback, gladly taken.  But those of you that have worked in extremely stressful environments understand how humor, and gallows humor, in private, can sometimes ease the stress.

But I tried to get along with him. Both of us were both qualified as Command Pilot, but on this one particular flight, he was acting as copilot. I'd done the same for him and we'd gotten along OK, myself not managing to either offend or kill him. But he had a hard time being Second in Command when it was my leg as pilot. So added to the gruffness, he would be "instructing" me constantly as we flew, even though I outgunned and outranked him, including being a check pilot for the operation. There's a lot of things I can't do well, golf, sing, accessorize, but what I could do was fly this big old hunk of metal and I didn't need any instructing.
Yet, this fellow had the sweetest wife and several daughters at home, all of whom adored him. I'd met his wife, seen a glimpse of him with the whole family, and he was kind and patient, the look on their faces articulating their love for him.  I watched him get up in some strange city, on little sleep and seek out a church to attend mass, inviting others to join him.  I did on an occasion or two, and though he was still cranky, there was a deep abiding faith that shone out of him before he tucked it back under his cap and went back on duty, without any words to me.  I understood there had to be something there under the surface we airmen just didn't see, so I tried to be patient with him and get along.

One day, we'd been in the cockpit about 14 hours, we were exhausted, we were thirsty, flying over a land where people liked to occasionally shoot at us and I was starting to get a little testy. He started in with his opinion on how I should fly a particular flight segment with "well if you do this. . ." and I just looked at him, over there in the copilots seat, calmly batted my green eyes at him and said - "Look Captain, I'm fucking this goat, you just hold the head."

He started laughing so hard he had tears rolling down his face. He couldn't speak for several minutes, he was laughing that hard. This man had never heard me utter a four letter word in all our time together. I might as well have hit him with a hammer. But he quit questioning me, and still laughing, we finished the mission and remained good friends until he passed. 
So in reading this book, about leadership and courage pushed to the limits in the worst of conditions, those things that leave their mark, that haunt the edges of our almost understanding, I thought hard about coping with such adventures. I've been there, but not even close to this level on my worst of days.

The author really does a fine job in exploring the fraternity that experienced not only heartbreaking defeat, but even death, those that have gone to the absolute edge of no return, and had the choice to either continue, to find the land they sought, or hurtle over the world's roaring limit. It was a land of little mercy. Salomon Andree and his Arctic balloon vanished, Ernest Shackleton called it quits only ninety-seven miles from the elusive south pole, and his countryman Captain Robert F. Scott succeeded, only to cruelly perish retuning to base.

Yet, with his death pending, Captain Scott wrote these words. "We are weak, writing is difficult but for my own sake I do not regret this journey, which has shown that Englishmen can endure hardships, help one another, and meet death with as great a fortitude as ever in the past. Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every every man, these rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale. . . "
Articulate grace in the face of death. Courage to even begin the journey. Such are what drives the courageous, the visionaries. Those that earn their names know what risk is, and they elect to it anyway. They pursue, without ambivalence, one bright shining goal, be it exploration of a new land, or promotion of an ideal that should be heard. Walking headlong into the swirling mist of the unknown, they serve a hidden flame and sacrifice what is theirs for what is good. Such is courage.

When Captain Robert Scott's returning Arctic party was down to three surviving men, they were hit by a final blizzard, a ceaseless, battling roar of a storm that made further travel impossible. Almost out of food, water and heat, they hunkered down in hopes of an impossible rescue. When there was no heat left, only some mentholated spirits, Captain Scott devised a makeshift lamp with a small piece of lamp wick, so that in dim light he could continue to write. There was no food left, or water, and he was holding on for the sake of his men. He made one final entry and tucked his diary into a small green canvas pouch, and gently nestled it underneath his head as he lay down to sleep that long dark sleep of yesterday's omission and regrets, the tent answering only to the howling wind.

His last scribed words - "Final Entry. For God's sake, look after our people."
I guess I'm thinking about such things because tomorrow is 9/11 and I have too vivid memories of that day, of my brother who was supposed to be at the Pentagon, at my badge, still shiny because I'd just graduated from the Academy, as I was thrown feet first into the field and into the fire.

We are but one act of nature, one mistake of man, from being in a place echoed in the brave words of Captain  Scott.  A place where, by some failure of eye or hand, the ranting of a terrorist state, the involuntary flick of the atmosphere, or simply geography, we are faced with death. There by fate or human action as remote to indictment as judgment, suddenly too close and too late, you are there. Rushing towards that final crescendo, hoping that fate and momentum won't spew you out the other side before you have one last chance to turn the wheel to get your ship and crew to safety.

All I ask is that when I die, I still believe strongly in what I can not help but believe and what I can not help but be.

I have people who rely on me, for whose well being I am bound to protect. I would only hope, that if ever faced with that sort of situation,  be it tomorrow or years from now, that I could show such strength. That I could stand stalwart in the hopes that they might live, inextricable from the scattered remains of courage that blow through the infinite passages we seek.

If we're lucky, there might be cookies.


  1. This is one day I will never forget. I was on my way to work when it happened. Like Dec. 7th we must remember all of the fallen.

  2. They were folks who knew who they were and were comfortable in their own skins. And understood the concepts of duty and honor as well as the importance of such concepts in a society. And they had a core set of beliefs that they subscribed to and believed in. It is not as outmoded a concept as some may think today.

    I am the son of a fireman and cannot think of that day, the men charging up the staircases regardless the danger. More so in the second tower after the first collapsed. Charging up the staircases because that is who they were. As I write this the emotions overwhelm me again, thank God. I hope that I never stop feeling that way about such forthright, brave, and committed individuals.

    In Group (SF) we are concerned about one thing: Are you good at what you do? If so, the rest of it will sort itself out. Being a woman won't be an issue if you're a good leader and take care of your crew. Folks that find that odd haven't worked with true SpecOps types.

    Nice post.


  3. Well put. There are many people I owe my comfortable life to. I can't tell a lot of them thank you. They are no longer with us.

  4. Rob - never forget

    Old NFO - indeed

    Marcus Erroneous - you've not commented before and with your comment I am speechless. You understand it. I had a fellow on my team, that had a promotion opportunity in another section of the world and he took it with my encouragement. Two years later, he came back, wanting to be part of the team again, because he missed it, which meant more to me than I can say. All I can say to you is thank you, and bless you for your service, in what ever manner it is given.

  5. Good one Doc.
    Tomorrow is special, in number of ways.

  6. I will never forget.

    Once again Brigid, you show the depth of your soul.

    Honored to know you, Ma'am.

  7. Brigid, thank you for this post. Thank you and your team for their service past and present.

  8. Joe was there as Command of his unit so I always do a 9/11 post. Too many have already forgotten. Thank you for your service.

  9. I had a female squadron commander.
    Very feminine.
    I learned some leadership from her.

    On another note, regarding our country:
    Pray for Shackleton.

  10. My friend was working on the 107 floor of tower two... He walked down all those stairs and across the Brooklyn Bridge to safety that morning.

    Yep It has more than just obvious meaning of tomorrow...

    Thank You Ms B.

    Rich in NC

  11. We live just off the approach to MCO and love to hear and watch the planes. The silence of 9/11 and the days after was unnerving.

    I will be in a meeting tomorrow morning, but I will be thinking of those fateful hours on that day.

  12. Brigid, I'm still new to your blog and catching up but I wanted to thank you for your service, past and current, and your family for theirs, and your colleagues and friends who also share in that most important of service, to our country.

    Washington seems so divided these days and the partisan bickering and polarization of politics makes me sad. But then I read posts like this, and remember that regardless of our upbringing, our politics, or even the circumstances that bring us all to this point in our lives, we are all human, we are all in this together. It is when we work together as one toward a common goal that we are at our it flying a plane over someplace dangerous, leading a team that depends on us to make the best decisions, or charging into a burning building, not knowing, certainly not caring, that they could collapse at any moment...

    Quite simply, thank you.

  13. Thank you for your service. They who have given all are never forgotten.
    Beautiful post.

  14. I remember nearly every detail of what was going on that day, where I was, what I was doing, and what we had to do after. I don't talk about it much at just makes me too teary eyed when I do try. I worked for one of the Local Medical Facilities here in DC at the was a long day.

  15. I 'borrowed' my post for today. I'm glad you didn't borrow yours.
    Thank you.



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