Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Great Instructors: Been There, Done That

Interesting question: Why would anyone ask advice about relationships from a guy nearing the end of a 21-year marriage? On the surface, that looks to me a little like going to a marriage counselor who's principal recommendation is that she steered a friend's marriage through an amicable split.

Then again, I sometimes recall what I used to tell students who, for some reason, thought that I was a pretty decent instructor in the cockpit. "A really great aviator doesn't necessarily make a great instructor," I would tell them. "The really great instructor is someone who's already made or seen all the mistakes you'll ever think of and then some. It allows him to know what you're about to do wrong before you do it, to save you from it if need be, or let you press on, then explain what happened, why, and what tricks you can use to keep it from ever happening again. The really great instructor is really great because he's been there, done that, suffered those consequences and lived to tell about it." By that standard, I should write a book.

A surprising number of friends recently have seen difficulties in their own relationships. Well, not surprising really. Marriage is hard. What's been surprising to me, I suppose, is that they've shown no reluctance to ask my opinion on things. I pretty much don't give advice except when absolutely pressed for it. For the most part, I prefer to ask questions, to try to help friends see things from a new perspective, remind them of the things they've forgotten about why they fell in love in the first place. Help them concentrate on the one person they can control: themselves. And, at least once, sadly, I've helped a friend see the same thing I did.

Which brings me back to that aviation analogy. The great aviator doesn't always bring the aircraft home. Shit happens. Sometimes what happens is completely beyond the control of the guy with his hand on the stick. And in a two-person aircraft like marriage, there's always the possibility that the copilot may throw the fuel dump switch when you're not looking. That eerie silence of jet engines sans jet fuel has parallels in relationships as well. And when that silence comes, sometimes you can dead-stick it in, re-fuel, and give it another try. That might be counseling in a relationship. There are other times though, other system failures that are unrecoverable. Stay in that aircraft and it will carry you to one destination: the crash site. I've seen couples in that shape. We all have. You know it's painful to watch. The person dedicated to staying with the aircraft all the way into the smoking hole is never going to be one of those great instructors. He or she's going to be dead. Period. Boots and dog tags.

Nobody likes to give up. Not even me. But BOLDFACE procedures are written in blood. Those are the procedures we memorize, because there's not going to be time to refer to a checklist. You get the BOLDFACE done, then you get out the checklist. And sometimes, sadly, in the air and in relationships, there is no checklist after the BOLDFACE. There's the BOLDFACE and then, God willing, there's the sound of nylon fabric opening over your head. That BOLDFACE is simple, straightforward, and unforgiving of anyone who refuses to execute it: HANDLES RAISE; TRIGGERS SQUEEZE; BAIL OUT, BAIL OUT, BAIL OUT!

So, maybe I'm not so much like a counselor adept at the amicable split after all. Maybe I can, from time to time, help someone keep it in the air. Leaving a hard broke aircraft doesn't make you a bad aviator. The same can be said of relationships.

And all that said, the memory I'll leave you with is one of my favorite moments with my departed friend Scott. When I made it back to his Huntersville airfield after parking the experimental aircraft I'd built in the treetops of a forest, the first thing he said was, "You need to get in mine and take it for a flight." When I protested that he was awfully trusting of a man who'd just totaled his own aircraft, he just smiled. "Brother, I've flown that thing you built. Any man who could get that thing off the ground and back as often as you did can fly just about anything. Get back in the air." Go write that book.