"I'm gonna walk over to that store and get some toys, or trinkets, or something, maybe necklaces or earrings, to take home to the kids. Care to come along?"
"Well," he paused. Then, "I guess I should. I probably should take somethin' home, too."
and while you're at it, don't forget that old story about the traveling man when he was asked, 'Honey, did you bring me something?' and he said, 'God, I hope not!'"
[quoteright]We were standing in the hotel parking lot and looking across Lakewood Boulevard, four lanes of fast traffic, to at least ninety-eleven acres of parking lot in a typical modern-day shopping center.
Even though we were in Long Beach, it could just have easy been Weehawken, or Topeka. They all look the same.
Pasteled concrete walls and no windows, just doors at the bottom and name-signs at the top. And since it was already surrounded by an army of sunbaked cars, it seemed to me that all that was missing was a moat, and heads peeking over the parapets.
The May Company store, a prominent, in fact the dominant, part of the shopping center, was my goal.
A department store that big surely would have something I could take home as presents. After three weeks away from home, I thought that would be a tactful thing to do.
In the toy department was where I found it. My life's desire, except for the pedal-car that I've craved since I was about four years old and first set eyes on one. I always wanted that pedal-car in red, like American Flyer wagons should be. This, though, was a shiny, glossy black cap pistol. And not for plain old paper caps, either. This was for those little red plastic nipple caps that mount on the rear of the rotating cylinder and, when fired, explode in a satisfying burst of flame and smoke and a POW/BANG sound like maybe slapping a couple of one-by-six boards together. Very satisfying. And it was a twelve-shooter. We are now talking big time.
The presents for the kids paled in comparison to the grandeur of my own self-fulfillment.
We found a young man behind a cash register with no customers. "We" was me and my buddy, a fellow classmate and former stranger who had survived and graduated with me from a three-week DC-8-61 course conducted by the Douglas Aircraft Co. More about him later. In the process of purchase, since there were few people to notice or be disturbed in that part of the store, we decided on a game of Russian Roulette.
I tore one plastic cap, red, off the sheet of fifty, inserted it, and spun the cylinder. We made a gentlemen's agreement not to peek at the location of the cap in firing sequence. And then I realized what was involved.
I told both of them, "Wait just a minute here. That's my dollar and thirty-five cents. And that means I get first go — you guys wait your turn." With that, I raised the gun, pointed it to my right ear, and pulled the trigger.
That ended the game. I came within one real bullet of dying. As it was, I didn't hear so well with that ear for the next few days. That night I packed the traitorous and not quite so treasured twelve-shooter in my suitcase and the next morning caught an airplane for home.
My buddy went on his way too, but he stuck in my mind because of something he said one night. A late night study session had turned to talk about world affairs and mankind's troubles. "I'm a smart man," he told me. "And everybody ought to be as smart as I am. Those that aren't ought to be done away with. Gotten rid of. Eliminated.
"But then I stop and think. Hell, man, if everybody was as smart as I am, we wouldn't have airplanes, electric lights or paper towels. There wouldn't be any telephones or plastic bags or glass for windows. If everybody was as smart as I am, we would still be in the Dark Ages or, more probably, we would still be living in caves."
For him, a taciturn man, that was a long speech, and I have long since decided that he was a very smart man.
One evening about a year later, I was rumbling through the junk drawer — every family has a drawer full of junk they will probably never need but can't bring themselves to throw out — looking for something that I don't now remember because, again, I found it. My twelve-shooter. And the sheet of caps, with one missing. My cup runneth over, and on the heels of recognition came a blinding flash of inspiration — a plan unfolded in my mind in far less time than it takes for the telling.
"Honey, look at this." I wanted to share my prize with my wife. "I found my cap pistol."
"Yes." She didn't seem to be much thrilled. I sobered up right away and said, "Don't let me forget to take this to work with me tomorrow, would you?"
I was a week and a half into a four-week class I was teaching. Normally it was a three-week run, but since we had mixed in "differences training" for five variations of the same type aircraft, that made it a four-week session. We were operating -31, -54, -55, -61, -63 models of the DC-8, and it saved a lot of time and money to train the crews on all of them at once instead of spreading it out.
We believed in the Crew Concept of training, so I had a mixed group of Captains, Co-pilots and Flight Engineers. Normally we tried for ten to twenty people per class, but there were thirty-two in that one. And I was finding it to be tough sledding with them, not only because of the size but mostly because they were a quiet, unresponsive, and almost withdrawn group. All groups, or units, or collections of people will develop a distinct personality. Some will be happy, some sullen, and most are found somewhere in between. To change a group personality, you have to change the acknowledged leaders — the quote, key people.
I couldn't, without cause and just out of hand, as it were, say, "You're fired. Here's your paycheck. Goodbye." But I was equally determined to shake them up a bit, to rattle their cages, so to speak. Since I was responsible for how much they learned, and in the airline business that translates into millions and millions of dollars and even thousands and thousands of lives across a lot of years, I was definitely going to make them into my kind of class. That means one that is responsive and participating, eager to learn, competitive, and yep - even sometimes rowdy. If that's what it takes.
And so it was, the next morning when I put my twelve-shooter, fully loaded, in my coat pocket and went to work.
The classroom was too small for that crowd of people. Too much cigarette smoke and, when the afternoon sun worked its way around to that side of the hangar, too hot, too sweaty, too close. It did tend to make long school days longer. Also, the lights were kept just bright enough for note-taking; they were dimmed down to give more clarity to the transparency pictures on the overhead projector. All things considered, there were probably more pleasant places to be, but sometimes you do the best you can with what you got.
At lunchtime I took Joe Turlock aside and conspired. Joe was one of our line captains, on sick leave and underfoot at home, so he was sitting in on my class with that bunch of new-hires to learn more about his airplane. His desire wasn't exactly typical, but for the most part, we were that kind of a company.
As the afternoon wore on and on, when the air conditioning was struggling with the heat, and when bellies were still full of lunch, and cigarette smoke hung in layers, and the eyes felt heavy and the sleepies were attacking all hands in full force, I was deep into the subject of Flight Controls. At an appropriate point when I had made a statement, emphasized for note-taking, about the rudder travel limiter being literally a hook design on the earlier series airplanes and a squared shoulder arrangement on the sixty series, and so by its very nature requiring different flight crew procedures for flap extension with two engines inoperative on one side, Joe spoke up. "Hold on there, I'm not sure I agree with that minimum air speed limit."
I immediately became defensive. "Whether you agree or not, that's the way it is."
His voice tightened. "I believe that a ten-knot cushion factor should be added."
Some heads began to turn to look at Joe and then back at me.
"Captain, you know these procedures are proven safe through flight experience, and you also know this is not the proper time or place for your comments." The offense I had now taken was beginning to show.
Everyone in the room knew Joe was one of our senior captains, and their lack of desire to take sides was beginning to show. Some studied their notes, some stared at the floor, and about half of them watched Joe and me. Intently.
"If you are going to put out information in here, then it should be correct information." Now Joe was beginning to get his back up, too.
"And just who in hell do you think you are to be the judge?" My tone and passion were going up, and the students were slumping lower in their seats, watching but not wanting to be a part of the show.
"Godammit, I know what I'm talking — "
I cut him off by shouting, "You don't have to be in here anyway." As I was saying that, I wheeled to my right where my coat was hanging in the corner. I grabbed the gun from the pocket, turned toward Joe, and yelled, "God damn you — ", aimed it at him, and fired three times, BANG — BANG — BANG. Fire and smoke jumped out of the gun with each sharp sound shot. The half-darkened room added to the overall effect.
My students, now alarmed, were falling all over themselves and their chairs in every which-direction trying to get out of the line of fire.
Bart Ware was sitting at the table beside Joe. Bart was another line captain who had joined us that day, and he was a big help in adding to the commotion by catching on quick to what was happening and slamming both hands down on the table while he yelled over the noise of people and chairs hitting the floor and walls, "Missed me, did he get you?"
I turned sharply to my coat, dropped the twelve-shooter in the pocket, and then flipped the room lights on bright to shock everybody's eyes. It also brought all the action in the room to a full stop.
My voice was harsh and unexpectedly loud in the suddenly hushed room. "Take a ten-minute break." And I quickly walked out the door.
Neither Joe nor Bart nor I ever explained or even mentioned that day's happenings to any member of the class. But the next two and a half weeks provided an interesting study in group psychology as every person in that group became a volunteer participant in the learning process.
© 1987 Allen J. Pettit
Fabulist ALLEN J. PETTIT will be remembered by many faithful readers of this magazine for his fiction in earlier issues. He lives in Alameda, CA, on the shores of San Francisco Bay.
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