The ALPA meeting was over and we were in the coffee shop with a bunch of the retirees that had come to see if they still had a retirement. With all the recent turmoil in the business, many airlines had tried to do away with retirement benefits and some had succeeded. Lucky for us they weren't successful in our case, but it was close.
The bad news was they came close to shutting off retirement funds and medical care for the guys least likely to find benefits elsewhere -- pilots who had retired years ago and who really needed the money they thought they could count on in their "golden years." Now that particular ogre had been turned back -- at least for now -- and I got to see about a dozen of my personal heroes: pilots, now retired, for whom I had once flown engineer and later first officer.
You just don't know how much you miss people like this until you see them again in a cordial setting.
"Hey, can a pilot get a beer in this place?" It was a loud voice that could only have been Jack, a captain I had flown with over 10 years ago. He was grayer and a little heavier but not much quieter than our last trip together on the 727 that laid over in New Orleans. MSY was a good layover if you enjoyed the smell of beer vomit and the happy sound of drunks running around your hotel lobby during your 4 a.m. pick-up.
Jack and I had hung out at a little airline bar called "Evelyns." I think it is still there, although I don't drink on layovers anymore and it has been five years since my last MSY layover. It was at Evelyns that Jack and I learned, first hand, the trials and tribulations of a local small businessman -- a pimp, to be exact. We were rained in. A common occurrence in MSY where it seems to rain every half hour. With nowhere else to go, an ample supply of beer from Eveyln herself and my red beans and rice on the way we had time to talk with Cody.
Cody was the pimp in question and there seemed no end to his managerial problems. Most people think of pimps as carefree guys with floppy hats and big cars. Not Cody. He had a sick leave abuse problem you wouldn't believe. Nobody in his organization, it turned out, was very reliable -- what with all of their drug problems, abusive boyfriend problems and child care concerns.
"It just isn't an easy business," Cody said as he peered into his fifth martini for the afternoon. "Those convention goers just don't understand that I can't provide what they want instantly. I can only do so much."
Meanwhile, back in the reality of our post-meeting coffee shop, somebody explained to Jack that beer wasn't available until after lunch and that was an hour and a half away.
"OK," he said as he lit up a Winston, "I'll just drink coffee until then."
We let the waitress tell him about the anti-smoking rule at the place. "Hell, I bet the next thing you are going to tell me is nobody smokes in the cockpit anymore!"
While we all looked more than a little uncomfortable at that remark, I was remembering a time when Jack was on the line and pilots did smoke in the cockpit if it was OK with the captain. As a matter of fact, even when passengers were forbidden to smoke there was a time when flight crews still were allowed to light up. The theory was that if a pilot needed a smoke to calm his nerves and he really was a tobacco addict, it would be safer to let him puff than to cut him off.
My flight engineer days were basically set in a smoke-filled room. Flight attendants, or "the girls," would come up to catch a quick smoke break and foot rub. They always sat on the jump seat across from my engineer perch and took their break and my best attempt at a foot rub from there.
In today's environment of fear and sexual political correctness, you couldn't get a flight attendant in the cockpit if you put a twinkee on the throttles and greased up her hips. Bullet-proof doors and strict anti-smoking policies have ended that habit. Probably a good thing, but it sure changed the atmosphere in the cockpit -- literally.
Once we settled Jack down with his coffee, I noticed that I was across the table from Dave. We flew the DC-9 together out of the Chicago base when I was dead-assed-last co-pilot in the seniority system. It was with Dave that I learned -- but never used -- the "cold hand trick." Dave used it once when I was flying with him and I don't know if it was more scary or funny. I seem to remember it was both. Here's how you did it:
On the DC-9 there was a trap door in the floor of the cockpit right behind the captain's seat. It led down to the E&E (electronics and equipment) bay under the flight deck and almost nobody remembered it was there because it was never used. The mechanics, when they had to access that area, did so through the E&E access door on the bottom of the fuselage.
Anyway, if you pushed the captains seat way up you could get the door open in flight and could actually go into the E&E from the cockpit. I tried it once and didn't like it because it is very cold down there and dark as well.
Dave went down there one flight and after about five minutes I called the flight attendant up to the cockpit asking her for a cup of coffee. She brought it up and wondered where Dave was. I told her he went back to the bathroom and I expected him any minute.
It was then that Dave, with a very cold hand from being down in the frigid E&E, reached out from the trap door and grabbed her ankle. I just wish he had waited for her to give me the coffee first because I ended up wearing it when she freaked.
Of course, the flight attendants had a sense of humor too. Once, during a very bumpy leg, a Dallas-based girl came up to the cockpit with her pantyhose down around her knees. "Kinda rough back there fellas!"
Another time, we three pilots were suffering through the aftermath of a huge Mexican dinner the night before in Phoenix. The atmosphere in the cockpit was, how should we say, a little gnarley and it was very good thing that nobody was smoking that day or there might have been an in-flight methane explosion, if you catch my drift. One of the flight attendants knocked in the door, and like a good engineer I opened it. Remember, it was pre-9/11 and the main reason we kept the door locked back then was so nobody would come in unannounced and surprise us.
She came in, took one whiff and ran out of the cockpit, slamming the door behind her. We all got a good chuckle out of that, although you would have had trouble hearing it because two of us were on oxygen to escape the methane attack. A few minutes later, another knock on the door.
I opened it a crack and all we see is this hand throwing an aerosol can into the cockpit. The can contained that anti-stink stuff they spray the lavs with instead of cleaning them and the button was duct-taped all the way down. It rolled on the floor, making a "whish-whish-whish" sound until I could pick it up and disarm it. It actually did make the smell in there a little better and when the flight attendant came up with drinks later, nobody mentioned it.
By now, hyped on too much coffee, we all began to remember the guys who either died in retirement or croaked with their boots on. Greg was such a captain. He died of a layover heart attack on a four-day, European, 767ER trip a few years ago, and I think I miss him more than my dog.
If you combined the friendliest guy on earth with the most easy-going person and added the best, most proficient pilot on the planet, you'd have Greg. Friendly to a fault, I never bought a beer or a dinner when I was a new hire and I flew with him. Later, when I had the honor to fly co-pilot with him on the seven-two out of Chicago, I never had a bad trip with him even when conditions sucked. Quiet and unassuming, he was a natural talent at the controls, a gentleman on a layover and -- to date -- the funniest man I have ever flown with.
The month I remembered -- as everybody began around the table started telling each other their Greg story -- was one I will always call the "Blues Brother's Month." It was when I still had brown hair and was a junior seven-two co-pilot.
Our first layover that month was at West Palm, and for some reason we all bought these cheap, $1.50 sunglasses that looked just like the ones that Jake and Ellwood wore in the then-recent movie. OK-fine. We all wore them and when flight attendants would come up we'd all turn around the same time and tell her that "We're on a mission from God ..."
Very funny stuff, lots of yucks, but we just couldn't leave it alone. By the next trip, the engineer had brought along his fuzzy dice -- you know, the fuzzy dice that were tied together and you could put it over your rear-view mirror? We put them over the windshield wiper knob and they dangled, just right, in the middle of the cockpit over the throttles. If I wanted to talk to Greg I had to push them aside so I could see him.
By the third trip that month we had the cockpit just the way we wanted it. My contributions? Two bean-bag ashtrays and a large piece of very deep pile, bright blue, shag carpeting that I cut to the shape of the top of the glare shield. After I installed them, Greg finished off our decor with the perfect addition: our very own Jesus statue. Just the right size and he fit perfectly in the "V" of the windshield. With all of our elements in place we had the coolest 727 cockpit on or above the earth, and you know what? I still think we operated one of the safest ones too. We were still professional pilots. We just were professional pilots with a really cool office.
Greg had also come up with our "ugly tie" contest. We had a scheduled deadhead to a layover built into our trip. I can't remember where we were going but I do remember that it was at the end of a six-leg day and there was no way they could continue to fly us -- meaning we could have a cold adult beverage on our deadhead if we were dressed properly. Back then, non-revs had to wear jackets and ties. We got the jackets from baggage service. You could buy unclaimed jackets for a dollar. We picked the loudest ones with the most garish colors we could find and the shortest sleeves.
Whoever showed up for the deadhead with the coolest tie would not have to buy dinner. I wore my early 1970s extra-wide biplane pattern tie. It was dark blue and the knot was the size of a grapefruit. The engineers entry was some sort of Marine Corps thingie and Greg came in and won, hands down. His tie was bright green and had a naked island girl with little battery powered lights on her -- well, you know ...
We were getting tired of remembering dead pilots and drinking even deader coffee so we all paid our bill to the restaurant and went on our way -- the older guys going home to worry about their retirements and us younger guys going home to worry about our careers.
I have to salute those retired friends of mine. They did something back during their captain years that is almost unheard of today. They made the trips fun. Without losing an iota of safety or professionalism, they made trips something we looked forward to. In the days before computer scheduling and super-big pilot bases, we flew together often and enjoyed each others company. Less efficient maybe, but a much more enjoyable way to go to work.
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