Tuesday, June 05, 2007

To My Friend Lee, "Thank You"

You’re nearly two years into what the doctors thought was a life expectancy of just six months.

Those 16 extra months have been good for you, good for your family, good for old friends and good for the new friends whom you’ve touched: the doctors and nurses and patients there and here; the varminters, precision shooters and handloaders with whom you've competed and regularly beaten; the aviation enthusiasts and car guys.

We thank God for answering our prayers even as we thank the drug companies for continuing to search so aggressively for new answers.

Even given the wearying regimen of tests and medications, the only intervals the dreadful cycles of chemo and radiation; the loss of appetite and weight; even with so much of your hour-by-hour attention focused on phone calls from the medical team with news of the latest lab results or a possible new treatment; even with all that, we are grateful for the extra time and what you’ve made of it for us.

Now, nearly two years into that first awful diagnosis, the time has come to make certain that we’ve each said and heard all that needs to be shared.

Lee, you and I have been friends for nearly exactly half your life and two-thirds of mine. Our friendship has grown and deepened and become ever more valuable only because you continued to invest in it in good times and bad. The benefits of our friendship flowed my way like the stately Missouri River winds through beautiful Wolf Creek Canyon, slowly, deeply and in only one direction. When we first met—as you interviewed me 36 years ago—I thought the result would be a job, perhaps even a career. The job was the best ever, even though the career later became a second choice. The real benefit of the years spent together was learning from you, not only to be a terrific professional pilot, which came with hours and experience and the growing responsibilities you so graciously allowed and encouraged, but also to be a better man, husband, father and friend, though each of those is taking a bit longer than a few thousand hours in the air.

The lessons you taught crossed disciplines. Just as in any good training regimen, your teachings reinforced each other. An expert professional pilot, you went the extra step, gaining an A&E license and keeping current, always, on the systems you flew. You made yourself equally at ease with takeoffs from schematics as from runways. The lessons you passed on: Know everything there is to know about the important things you do. Be an expert where expertise is expected. Where information is useful, knowledge is king.

You excelled in aviation, your chosen profession. Hundreds, then thousands of people came to trust your judgment. As well, they came to trust your courage, as saying “no” to powerful people sometimes requires that, too. The proof is in the stories. Your thousands of hours and millions of miles are the feedstock for dozens of tales of people and places, often strange and always interesting, but notably absent are any tales of close calls or scary events as are so often told by lesser pilots. Your planning and skill and knowledge reduced those all those times that could have been “thrills” to only might-have-beens.

Your on-time performance put to shame claims by the best airline on its best day. On your worst day, your passengers would have willingly given up a seat alone in first class on a 747 in order to take the most humble seat on any flight you captained.

Your sense of care and concern and professionalism melded into service to others, professionally, socially, charitably. As a pilot, you didn’t differentiate between CEO and stockboy, superstar and secretary. In fact, you were probably a bit more considerate of those for whom flight was a unique adventure, ever willing to see the amazing world of flight through their eyes. That same approach translated into the other aspects of your life. You simply cannot force yourself to be rude, thoughtless or uncaring towards others, whether friends or strangers. Keep your mind and ears open: If there is no box, no special effort is required to think outside it.

You listen. You’ve had extraordinary access to some extraordinary people and have used that time wisely, listening and learning. You’ve brought back home world-wide perspectives and top-to-bottom appreciation of differing views. It’s a more useful lesson than any offered by Harvard, Stanford or USC. Rather than knowing all the right answers, concentrate on knowing the right questions.

Responsibility and self-discipline have informed your every act, whether for millions of dollars in capital expenditures or determining the cause of the spot of oil under the #2 engine on a freezing day on the plains of Saskatchewan. No detail is too small or unimportant when the business is serious.

You imbued all of this seriousness with confidence, equanimity and humor, distilling the problems, issues and opportunities of your challenging career into what seemed to be an almost endless series of simple decisions—go or no go?—in such a way that none ever took offense. That’s leadership, the junction of confidence, knowledge and credibility.

Your ability to easily see humor creates an ability to make and share humor. My every memory of our professional years together is hung on the hook of a wry smile, building towards a story that cannot help but be humorous:

  • Playing porpoise with the heavy but flat cloud deck after launching out of some small town in North Dakota, a mile above the ground but a mile below radar coverage, diving in and out of zero visibility to see how rakish an angle we could achieve rocketing up into the wild blue and its regulated airspace, finally reaching our assigned altitude and weightlessness at roughly the same instant. Does it get any better than that?
  • The day, coming down over the Rockies toward home, bolstered by 150-knot tailwinds and mountain wave effect, when we finally reached a groundspeed that ATC radar confirmed as exceeding our aircraft model number. “Your request to go supersonic is denied, but nice try.” Ah, if only the guys at Cessna knew!
  • The Lifeguard flight back from the Mayo Clinic, way past midnight four miles above the grain fields of eastern Montana, chatting on an otherwise empty Center frequency with crews from United and Delta, comparing each other's flying schedules, glamorous bases and scenic hometowns. We lost. Badly.
Your professional skills translated well into your favorite hobbies, long range precision shooting and varmint hunting. I had not heard of a “rail gun” before seeing you shoot one in competition at the range in Tacoma a few years ago, watching as you tossed a fraction of an ounce of lead and brass into a thimble-sized space from three football fields away, five times in a row. The experience was a real eye-opener: your commitment of hours and days of preparation in order to fire a 100 pound .20 caliber cannon-like rifle mounted on a concrete bench rest with inhuman precision. The lesson? Dedicated preparation can lead to near perfect execution.

The same with our prairie dog hunt outside of Craig last year. I watched as you routinely placed rounds on target more than 300 yards away, firing off the hood of your truck. Given that prairie dog target areas typically measure less than one inch by three, and the shooting was in the open, with wind but without a bench., not bad. We watched as a family of motivated weasels recovered the prairie dogs, likely putting by enough to keep the entire clan going for a week or two. Again, the experience was a testament to the hours, days, weeks and months you experimented with different bullet weights and powders, barrels and actions, all leading to the point of click, bang, certainty.

That trip took us to within 30 miles of the town where you and I first met as you began to build an aviation department from scratch. That job was all that a young pilot could wish, but as the years have passed I've realized that your other instructions were more important than how to safely deliver passengers to destinations. Even today the memories of the most important lesson you shared with me remain crisp. I believe you do not appreciate even to this day the importance and effect, but without this one my own life would have amounted to far less than it has.

The first memory, the beginning of the ones that really count, is a barbeque at your then-new home, a Friday in January, perhaps 1972 or ‘73. It was one of those rare winter nights, truly cold, perhaps below zero, but with heavy snow. You cooked hamburgers for dinner outside on a gas grill. The image remains ever vibrant, snowflakes drifting in every time you opened the sliding glass door, piling up on you as you tended the grill, off which the flakes seemed to bounce into infinity like ghost dancers in the night. I had never before seen a gas grill, and barbequing in the sag of a deadly cold winter was a striking notion.

It was what I experienced inside the house that winter’s night and so many times afterward that has made the deeper impression and had the more lasting effect. As preparations continued and dinner began, I saw that yours was a home of love and respect, first between Barbara and you, then between the two of you and your three sons. To me, open affection amongst family members was a new idea, as fascinating and striking as the spirit of partnership so apparent between you and Barbara. And the boys! Each a gentleman through dinner and through the adults’ conversation, until time came when they said goodnight to the guests with a handshake, and with a hug and a kiss for their mother and father.

I've tried to practice what you've taught over the 36 years and in the practicing determined it is far easier to become a terrific pilot than it is to be even an adequate husband, father, man. But, I try.

Your boys are grown now, they’re men easy to admire even with the imperfections to which we’re all subject. Each would be welcome on my team any day, no matter the contest. Each is now growing, protecting and teaching children of his own. Your grandchildren have each inherited all the best from their grandparents. And that best is very good, indeed.

Lee, you’ve accomplished goals of which other men can only dream and lived experiences of which poems are written. Captain John Magee, as you know, hit it just about perfectly when he wrote 60 years ago about the profession you practiced without peer until your retirement not so many days in the past:
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds, – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless falls of air...
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, nor eer eagle flew –
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high, untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

The lessons you’ve taught are timeless, the values you’ve communicated, invaluable, and my appreciation for the friendship you’ve so generously shared is without limit.

It's fitting to close, finally, with a quote from one of John Paul II’s favorite prayers, he who Peggy Noonan calls "John Paul the Great." It is a reminder of the promise of the Father who loves us all and who loves you even more than we do,
“Be not afraid. I go before you always. Come follow me, and I will give you rest.”
Where thousands of more words would be helpful, perhaps only two more are necessary.

Thank you.

Related Link: To My Friend Lee: Goodbye


1 comment:

Pete said...

Very touching, Bob ...

I have benefited as well thanks to my wife's medical coverage ...

Hope to meet you some day ... Pete

PS> What is an ATR?