It had been a long day and the last thing I needed when I came back up to my layover motel room after dinner was a long talk with my flight bag. It was still up, though, and had something on its mind.
Say what you will about luggage, but when your flight bag of the past 23-plus years wants to talk, you have to listen, no matter how late it is or how many short hours you have until the next morning's pickup and van ride to the airport.
"I think it is time for me to retire," it began. "I've had enough of this life on the road and want nothing more than to settle into my dotage in some luggage rack at an exotic locale -- maybe Maui, I dunno ..."
I looked at it sitting there by the television and had to admit that it had some miles on it and might deserve a rest. Black in color, leather, and secured with two combination lock clasps, it was showing its age. Seams had been re-sewn and re-ripped countless times. The handle had been replaced twice and there wasn't a surface on it that hadn't been covered at least once with some sort of sticker.
I was more than a little surprised, though, to find that it wanted out with so few years to go before I took that big plunge and faced that final flight and wash-down by surrounding fire trucks. I thought my original flight bag was going to make it all the way to my gold watch, but I could see now that it had nothing left to give. More than once recently, the bottom had literally fallen out, scattering Jepps, crew meals and magazines all over the floor.
OK, I said, maybe you're right and it is time for you to go to that great unclaimed baggage bin in the sky, but do you realize how much money it is going to cost to replace you?
"You got your money's worth out of me," it said. "I've been with you from your first days as a new-hire engineer student right through that category three approach this afternoon. If you think of all the time we've spent together over the years, I think you'll agree that what you paid for me was a bargain."
I had to admit he had a point. Back in the ancient 1970s, he cost a few hundred bucks. Money I could ill afford on my $600-a-month new-hire salary. I remember the day I first met him. My name was written in gold letters on the top of his shiny black flap, right next to the handle along with my airline's name. Heady stuff for a kid who was accustomed to carrying his approach plates in a cloth shopping bag. He had shape (square), style, panache, and smelled like a new car.
Along with my flight bag back then I was the proud owner of two very heavy, very metal flashlights, some new 727 engineer manuals, and a brand-new flight computer -- a CR-3 I believe. I never did figure out why they wanted us to carry a flight computer, but it was required, so I bought a new one. I never did use it and lost it years ago. We were also required to have at least two pencils in the bag along with a magic marker to fill out the takeoff, cruise and landing data cards. Most engineers had a small tool kit with screwdrivers and wrenches to fix little things that came up. Now we're not allowed to carry nail clippers, but back during the days of the Iran hostage crisis we carried all sorts of "weapons."
My new-hire class of 23 guys looked proud with our new flight bags sitting by our feet at the ground school tables. I think it was only day three of new-hire training before I spilled the first of what was going to be hundreds of cups of coffee on its top. The 727 was the first and last airliner I took copious notes on, and that notebook fit nicely in my flight bag along with the company's flight operations manual and my also-new plastic oxygen mask.
A personal oxygen mask was necessary back then and was always the first thing you lost on the line because we constantly forgot to take it out of the fitting and put it back in our flight bags. We had our names and bases written on them in hope they'd be returned. Some lost masks never made it back because, after all, they were worth twenty bucks and the less honorable pilots sometimes just kept an errant mask as a spare against the day when they would forget to unplug their mask.
Some pilots were so afraid of losing their mask that they would attach a long string to them and tie the other end to the handle of their flight bag. That way, as they tried to leave the cockpit without their mask, the string would zing them back to retrieve it.
I never embarrassed my flight bag by tying it to a mask like some sort of pre-schooler on a field trip to the zoo.
I also tried to be tasteful in the stickers I decorated it with during the years, although I admit my bag might not agree with my judgment. Since all the flight bags looked alike sitting there in the pilot lounge bag racks by the hundreds, the only way to find yours was to locate it by the stickers you personalized it with.
"Most of the stickers you put on me were OK," my kit said. "My favorite over the years was the one that a chief pilot made you remove -- I think it said, 'Kamikazes Do It Once ...' "
That was my favorite too. After I was told by the powers-that-be that humor on a flight bag might make the passengers a little antsy, I stuck with the more traditional Boeing stickers, political message stickers, and the odd college sticker. Once warned to clean up my flight bag act, I quietly removed another favorite sticker of mine: "Who is Guru Beefaroni?"
Other flight bags I've seen over the years reflected their owner's view on life quite well. During contract negotiation times you'd see the usual ALPA sticker with two uniformed pilot hands joining in brotherhood, message stickers telling the world how hard we thought we worked, and even the odd "Save the world -- shoot a hippy" or "Rehab is for Quitters" sign.
"At least nobody pooped in me," my bag added, "so I guess you must have been an OK pilot and crewmember."
Wow -- that brought back some memories; memories of a time when we always would leave our flight bags in operations on a layover, unless you were a jerk. Then, you'd always take your bag with you so some other pilot wouldn't show his opinion of you that way.
I have to admit we've been though a lot together. From the days when you were kicked into place next to my engineer panel on the 727 and later the DC-8 to the times when you filled up with rain water on those trips when I was a co-pilot on the "not-so-watertight" DC-9, you were always there for me.
You flew in all three crew positions on the 727, two crew positions on the 767, and you were crammed in countless overhead bins for deadheads. You've survived three in-flight fires, four forced landings, one potential hijacking and one thunderstorm encounter so harsh that we both thought we weren't going to make it. You've also been doused with coffee, coke, fruit juice, and at least on one occasion, vomit.
You flew to Paris with me on my first 777 trip and have visited many of the big cities in Europe during your career. You helped me smuggle cooked lobster tails and steak back home to our low-rent apartment back during the days when the only decent food we could afford was what I took off the airplane. This was also back when there actually was extra food on the airplanes.
You've been tripped over and probably peed on by every child and pet we've had in our family during the past quarter century. You've spent hot days and nights trapped in the trunk of my car. You've quietly sat by my leg and met cockpit visiting celebrities from Ted Kennedy to Jerry Lewis to Neil Armstrong. You've kept your opinions to yourself at countless CRM class days when the subjects discussed were more boring than six hours in church with grandma.
On layovers, you were only a few yards away from me when Reagan was shot, when the Challenger blew up and when the Twin Towers fell. You were young when we had a Georgian in the White House and hostages in Iran, and in your later years you saw two wars happen in the same region.
More modern flight bags have come and gone. Thousands of other new hires have gotten their bags and dozens of airlines have lived and died during your career. Three-pilot cockpits were the norm when you started out and almost don't exist today. We navigated using two VORs when you first entered a cockpit with me and now we use GPSs and God knows what else to get around the planet.
"Enough of this trip down memory lane," my bag said. "We have a very early pickup tomorrow and let's face it -- I'm not really talking to you. What kind of retirement plan do you have for me?"
We could do it one of two ways. I can't bear to throw you away. It would be like drowning a puppy. I can either check you one way to Maui where you could lounge around in the unclaimed baggage rack enjoying the climate and ogling those pretty flight attendant bags, or we could do what I call the "Ted Williams Gambit."
"What the hell is that?" my leather buddy asked.
We sort-of freeze you for a few years and then when the time is right we rebuild you (we have the technology) and you begin another flying career with the next flying generation of my family.
Neither of my kids has the slightest interest in flying for a living, but how about my future grandkids? One of them might take up the career and who knows, you could be the first 1970's era flight bag in space!
"I'll go for that option" my bag said. "When we get home tomorrow I don't want any fuss. Just put me in the closet next to your lime green leisure suit and I'll rest in peace until you need me again."