With so many people in a tizzy about so many things these days, I am choosing the “chill out” option. Feel free to join me. Pull up a beach chair and open up the cooler. And let's thumb to a random page in the life of an airport bum. Why not?
I used to seek refuge from an office career by hanging out at a small airport. I'd give flying lessons in airplanes, air tours in helicopters, and would basically scrape along doing various and sundry flying chores.
Well, one day, a prospective student walked into the flight school that served as the roost for me and my ragtag clique of airport bums. The prospective student was about 25 years old or so. She was making the rounds of flight schools to figure out the cost of getting a private pilot's license. As we stood at the lobby counter discussing the topic I noticed that her hands were covered in dark grease, the kind you really have to scrub to remove.
I guess she noticed me noticing.
“I just changed the clutch in my pickup truck,” she explained.
Well, now, that's pretty cool, I thought. So we shifted from airplane talk to car talk. And she did, indeed, know what she was talking about. Her brother had helped with the clutch job, but she was obviously no mere onlooker in the process.
If you can jack-up a pickup truck in your driveway, change the clutch, and get it all buttoned back together and back on the road without squishing yourself in the process, you've certainly got more than enough motivation and competence to fly an airplane.
Of course, something else you've got to have is a few grand to drop on lessons. A few grand isn't much if you've got it. But it's everything if you don't. And this gal didn't.
She worked as a waitress at a down-scale restaurant just up the street. It was going to take quite a pile of quarters from those cheap-skate customers to be able to reach flying altitude. She'd have to save for about 300 years, I reckon.
I'd give an occasional free lesson to someone who seemed deserving if they were broke. After all, life has a way of grinding down dreams inch by inch, until, decades later, there's nothing but dust remaining. I can't fix that fact, but I can put an occasional thumb in its eye.
So no respecting airport bum would allow a waitress who fixes her own transmission to leave the airport with mere dust to show for it. It was a nice day for flying anyway, so I gave the waitress a free flying lesson. After the flight, as we taxied the airplane back to the flight line, she asked who all those people in the school lobby were.
“Mostly guys who own airplanes,” I told her. “They just sort of hang out, drink coffee, and talk about flying.”
“Those guys? They don't look like they can afford to own airplanes. Most look as ratty as the customers where I work,” she said.
I suppose when you live off tips you see people through the lens of financial practicality. Indeed, for a quick eyeball appraisal of solvency, I'll take a waitress over a CPA any day.
“I didn't say they could afford airplanes,” I said. “I said they own airplanes."
“That doesn't make sense,” she said.
Neither does giving away free flying to random people who can't afford to be customers, I thought. But I didn't say anything. You can teach flying, but you can never explain it.
After that, the waitress would drop by the school regularly. She'd drink coffee with the airport bums, and she could discuss pistons, valves, and electrical systems with the best of them. And by making herself generally useful when it came to cleaning spark plugs, washing airplanes, and such, the pilots often let her tag along, sometimes even flying out to the palm desert for lunch.
Alas, despite my best efforts to avoid one, I wound up saddled with a real job, and off I went.
As for the waitress, I don't think she ever got a license. She seemed content to just be part of the airport clique and tag along when she could.
Somewhere in the world, I imagine that right about now a kid is looking at a photo album saying, “Grandma, who is that lady flying the airplane?”
“That's me,” says Grandma. “I helped fly that Cherokee 180 airplane to Palm Springs.”
“Wow. That's neat! You were a pilot?”
“No. I was a waitress.”
“Grandma, that doesn't make any sense.”
And to think it all began because of a bad clutch and greasy hands. If that makes any sense to you at all, you're probably an airport bum at heart.
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at EdStephensJr.com. His column runs every Friday.