Walking through my neighborhood with our rescue dog yesterday, I saw a cat, arrested within the eyes of that dog, pulled up high in the apostrophe of fear as he held poised for fight or flight. I pulled her gently away, as she has been around cats since being rescued and we weren't in for a rumble. But I didn't want her to get a clawed nose for her curiosity. The cat's coat was in good condition as far as I could tell, but it was very thin, likely a stray. I was going to see where it went, where it might have a home, but it was gone in a flash before I could check on its well-being. I'd seen it before, always hanging around the same spot in the fence, where she likely had found a safe place to sleep.
I’m glad we adopted our rescue dog after our last dog died suddenly from cancer. She had been dumped heartworm positive at a high-kill shelter. A stray. We’d see them on the streets, in shelters, the fortunate ones collected by rescue groups, the unfortunate—the look in their eyes, heartrending.
But animals aren't the only “strays” we see; people fall into that same category. I'm not talking about the homeless, necessarily, but about those people that by circumstance or transplant find themselves in a
, for a new job, or a fresh start, where they don't know anyone, or are
stranded somewhere while traveling for a day or days, due to weather and fate. new city
I found myself in that position after I hung up my professional wings and took a job in a neighboring state before I met my husband and got married. Like any new person with little seniority, that meant I would be on duty over the holiday.
I remember walking out to my little VW Jetta from my workplace the night before Thanksgiving that first year there, as the sky spat cold rain, and felt a tear on my face. I'm not sure why, as a professional pilot in my younger days, I'd spent many a holiday alone, on-call or in a hotel. Years, later, holidays were busy times at work. But that night it got to me—I really had no place to go but home to my dog and a sandwich, my belongings still not unpacked from the move. I was hoping someone would remember that I had no family near, and would turn around, pulling back into the parking lot to ask me to join them for dinner the next day when I got off work. As I walked to the car, I got a gleam out of the corner of my eye in the darkness, a movement and I smiled thinking someone remembered me and was turning back with an invitation. But it was nothing more than an illusion, that faint glimpse of reflection imagined there as you gaze into the depths of a wishing well, only to find cold stillness.
There was no car, just a flash of light reflected off a nearby road, and it brought back every moment as a child, those moments we have all had when we feared we just didn't fit in, that we didn't belong.
I was always the one inviting the new kid to play with us, befriending the nerdy and the odd. Perhaps it was because I viewed myself that way. So, when I was a very young flight instructor, living out of a suitcase with no roots, I decided to continue that tradition and share my table with others like me. With most of us on call to give an “introductory flight” to a prospective student, hoping to earn some dollars to pay next quarter’s tuition, or too broke to fly home commercially, many of us had no place to go on Thanksgiving Day. So, I hung a flyer up on the instructor's bulletin board at my airport, for any errant corporate pilot in the area or my coworkers. An invite to come over to my little place for Thanksgiving dinner.
I'd not say I was “friends” with all these guys from the perspective that we would continue to hang out together when we finished college, going off to fly for the military or the airlines. These were simply people I'd spent hours in the cockpit with getting my various instructor ratings or occasionally getting the &*#@ scared out of us, absorbing the wonderful colors and shapes and shadows of the sky, making temporary homes in a series of small apartments with multiple roommates, cramming as much as possible into the rare twenty-four hours we actually were off. So yes, we were family, if only related by adventure and empty pockets. And for that, I could think of no better reason than to peel thirty pounds of potatoes, bake five pies, and to bat my big green eyes at the butcher to talk him out of that extra ham at half off.
Yes, thirty pounds of potatoes, for although I expected RSVP's from about six people, I ended up with twenty-seven people, some of the pilots I worked with, some of the office staff who were single, a couple of our mechanics, and a number of corporate pilots that used our facility and stayed at the local hotel while their passengers enjoyed Thanksgiving with family and they got free cable. They arrived with drinks and chips and thankfully, some extra rolls and a couple of pies from the Safeway store.
It was a wonderful evening, with massive quantities of food eaten, countless stories told and much laughter, eating until we couldn't eat anymore. There was something starry in the kitchen that night, where I learned as much about my ability to organize and create as I did about the essential bond that a meal around the table creates, even if it's a bunch of card tables shoved together with white bleached sheets over them.
Did it mean that we all got along perfectly after that night? No, for there were still those days that intruded darkly on hours normally full of light. Those long close-quartered days where we plowed through thick dark clouds to reach ice-covered firmament, cursing the weather and long lines for takeoff. Days where the alarm clock snatched us violently out of wrung out sleep, sweeping us all back into the thrall, impotent for days against returning to home, knowing that instead of getting a nap afterward, many of most of us would be heading off to night classes. As much fun as flying could be, after a few months of such a schedule, even the best of us got a little self-absorbed. Add in constant travel, books and study hall, and it was a life of scattered adrenalin, little sleep and scant time for real relationships. Just like life for many of us now, with families and jobs and pets and demands.
But that night, if only for a few hours, we had that bond of family and food, warmth and safety. It was that moment when chance aligns with time, whose only foe is death and together death's darkness seems so very far away.
You see them at an airport, that frazzled traveler that just missed the last flight, that young person sleeping on the floor after their flight canceled without the means to secure a hotel room. I've offered a hot coffee and a sandwich with a smile to more than one soldier or college student I saw stranded at the airport. Because I have been that young person with a rumbling stomach, surrounded by strangers, wanting only to be home.
I had a flight between two Midwest cities a few years back after I'd picked up a couple of days work as a contract corporate pilot after getting a call from a corporation I’d done some part-time flying for in a neighboring state. The city where I was flying out of to connect with that aircraft wasn't home, but it was near where I was spending Thanksgiving with friends. Easy money and the holiday was over anyway.
The sky was cold and cloudy as I waited for my return flight, to be followed by a long drive home, but there was no precipitation. All of a sudden, our flight was canceled, with no reason given, but we were only told we'd be on another flight real soon. I didn't see any mechanics at the plane, and the flight crew was all there, so I called Flight Service, for the aviation weather, providing them the registration number of the plane I'd just flown in, the previous night. There was severe icing aloft, unusual to be so widespread, but deadly. No one, big or small, was going to be flying out of that airport, and likely for the rest of the day.
At this point, we were standing in line to be re-booked; the word not having gotten to the gate that the airport would essentially be shutting down flights. There was a well-dressed gentleman behind me. We had chatted a bit and it turned out his wife worked at the same bank one of the folks I had spent the holiday with worked at. I quietly told him about the weather and explained that NO ONE was going to be flying, and I was going to get a rental car now, as the flight was just a “hop” and getting home back to where my car was parked was just a three-and-a-half-hour drive. A couple of other people overheard. I asked, “Do you want to go with me?” With a quiet nod, four of us snuck out of the line. For it only takes a word that the last flights are canceling to start the disturbed buzz of voices in the customer service line, like bees, before they move in an agitated swarm to the rental car counters, with stinging glances to the Priority Customers, the worker bees hoping for one solitary car to be left. I wanted to get out before THAT happened.
The weather out of the clouds was great, just a little snow and we made the trip in four hours, everyone calling their spouses or friends that they would be a bit late and whether they needed a ride from the airport. On the drive, we were strangers and we weren't. We talked about holiday plans, kids, and vacations when it got warm. There were bad puns and WAY too many references to the Trains Planes and Automobiles movie—something only folks that saw that movie would appreciate. “You're Going the Wrong Way!” one of us exclaimed and the whole car erupted in laughter like we were a bunch of grade school kids, the cool kids—“Those Aren't Pillows!” as we laughed again, just having fun, with no fears of rejection or hurt or loss.
With a stop for sandwiches at one of the toll plazas, we soon made it, only to find the terminal pretty much deserted, most of the flights coming from north or east also canceled inbound. They thanked me for making that call and offering to pay for the rental car. I had let them pay for gas, and that's all I wanted.
We said our goodbyes and walked away towards home. The sun, whose brilliant form dwarfs us all into the smallest of particles upon the earth as we are held within its glare, was hidden behind the steeled gray of cloud cover. With its brightness now captured behind a stratified door, the night fell upon us as we walked to our cars; it was as if we were all just shadows, covered with a fine, soft scattering of night, falling like ash.
I never saw any of them again.
Thanksgiving for me that first year after a career change was one of those “sandwich days,” not for lack of an invite with friends, but personal and work-related. Still, it gave me time to think and reflect, something that is as important as giving thanks. The human heart is large enough to contain the entire world, and it's small enough to be felled by just one being, yet it is valiant enough to bear all burdens when you realize you are not alone.
As the phone rang tonight with the cherished voice of my husband, to let me know he had reached his destination safely, I realized I had much to be thankful for. Even in an empty house, there was a gentle doggie snore of an adopted friend until it was time to join them in slumber. With a quick warm hand pressed for a moment on top of a cold square box in which my former furry best friend lay, I left the house and walked to a little store a block away, a can opener and a little plastic bowl in my pocket. I got some cat food and put it out in a bowl along a solitary fence.
From True Course - Lessons of a Life Aloft by Brigid Johnson
From True Course - Lessons of a Life Aloft by Brigid Johnson