Like most of the aging pilots I know, the most dreaded date on the calendar is the annual appointment with the Flight Surgeon, the day a previously undetected medical condition might come to light and ground us permanently leaving us to walk among the mere mortals who have never joined John Gillespie Magee Jr. as he “slipped the surly bonds of earth.”
There I am, standing before the dreaded eye chart, straining to read the 20/20 line with my left eye. The 20/40 line remains clearly in view, but the ability to read no lower on the chart than 20/40 only qualifies me for the “Third Class” medical certificate. I’m striving for the “Second Class” certificate which qualifies me to be paid for performing pilot duties in any aircraft and in a variety of activities except flying for the scheduled airlines.
Now, there is no practical reason for me to maintain the “Second Class” medical certificate. Flight Instruction, the only professional aviation activity I have ever engaged in, requires the “Third Class” certificate. No, the only reason I have continued to maintain the “Second Class” certificate is for the status of knowing that I could apply for any number of professional flying positions that require that qualification.
I did manage to eke out a sufficiently accurate reading of the 20/20 line of the eye chart that day, but the near miss by one of “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” set me to thinking about why continuing to meet the FAA’s standards of the “Second Class” medical certificate and the continued permission to fly airplanes is so important to me.
Until now, I explained my attachment to my pilot certificate and flying airplanes as the fulfillment of my childhood dream of becoming a pilot. I was the kid who ran outside to watch every aircraft as it flew overhead. I built model airplanes, read books on aviation, memorized performance data on the airplanes of the day, and fantasized about the heroics of famous aviators and aviatrixes.
I was crestfallen when, as a third grader, I came home from a visit to the optometrist with my first pair of glasses. I already knew that military aviators had to have perfect 20/20 vision to qualify for flight training. That weakness of my mortal flesh however did not diminish my enthusiasm for flight. I would soon learn of “general aviation” the realm of flight occupied by private pilots, airshow pilots, and pilots who build their own airplanes. There remained a whole world of flying opportunities open to me.
After graduating college I entered active duty with the Air Force. Upon arrival at my first duty station, I immediately joined the flying club and began taking lessons. For the next year, my free time was consumed with all things aviation: ground school, flight lessons, and reading every aviation magazine I could get my hands on. After earning my private pilot certificate I enrolled for advanced flight training. Each achievement led to earning additional licenses and ratings. The cycle has continued to this day. Even now, there are flight experiences that I long to add to my logbook.
Coming home from the flight surgeon with my re-issued Second Class medical set me to exploring why the prospect of not passing my next medical exam and having to face the reality of giving up flying someday was so distressing. This brings us to Pandora, the myth, not the jewelry or the Internet radio station.
[The language snob in me feels compelled to interject that it still rankles me that the word “myth” has come to mean a falsehood or misconception. I hold to the classic meaning of myth: a narrative that expresses the most profound and often elusive truths of our human existence.]
As you may recall Zeus presented Pandora, the first human woman created by the gods, with an elaborately decorated jar as a wedding gift. Pandora opened the jar releasing its contents, many demons and evils. Realizing what she had done, she tried to replace the lid, keeping the last of its contents, Hope, in the jar. The explanation of this myth as it was first taught to me held that amid the many demons and miseries that Pandora unleashed on the world, Hope was the one that could remedy the “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”
I later came upon the interpretation that Hope, rather than being a blessing was instead one of the curses that torment our mortal coil. Hope tempts us to remain too long in the misery of a failed relationship; to persist in a dead-end job long after we could have taken the initiative to leave; in short, to refuse to see the truth of our circumstances.
I had to acknowledge that for the 40+ years I have been involved in aviation I have invested my hope in my status as a pilot. I have hoped that being a pilot would set me apart from the average guy. I have hoped that my status as a flight instructor would win me the respect of others and most importantly of myself. The result has been that this misplaced hope has tormented me with the fear that my flying days will some day end. This fear fed my insatiable desire to add more hours to my logbook and ratings to my pilot certificate. This anxiety caused me to look past the joy of each moment I have spent in flight. Hope has led me into a life of achievement and misery.
This brings us to Dia del los Muertos. Early in our time in Santa Fe, I was struck, even appalled by my frequent encounters with the art and imagery of the Day of the Dead. Skeletons dancing in the streets; Catrina adorned in her aristocratic finery; the skeletal couple at the marriage altar. I found myself turning away from these icons in my ignorance of their bold and shocking proclamation.
Then, on the last Sunday of October our first year here, we visited the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Santa Fe. Rev. Gail Marriner explained that Dia de los Muertos provides the occasion for families to look past the pain of grief and loss and to remember and celebrate their ancestors’ lives. It is an occasion to again experience the love that those who have passed brought into their lives. I came away with the realization that being reminded of our mortality challenges us to celebrate every moment of our lives and to live without fearing the end that is certain to come.
Now, I didn’t leave that service and decorate our house with depictions of Catrina, or plant marigolds, or learn to bake pan de muerto. I did come away with a new appreciation for the art and icons of Dia del Muerto. And more to the point of this essay, my recollection of that awareness now calls me to acknowledge that the day is coming when I will no longer be able to pilot an aircraft. It further encourages me to appreciate each flight experience between now and that day more fully and with gratitude that I have been able to be a pilot at all.
Returning to Pandora for a moment. It occurs to me that we are asking the wrong question when we ask if Hope is an angel or a demon. Hope is always calling to us to “take arms against a sea of troubles.” The question is not whether we choose to hope. The question is where shall we invest our hope.
The world sends us constant messages offering us opportunities to invest our hope. Invest in drugs to restore our sexual vitality; in cosmetics to revitalize our appearance; in the second opinion of a cancer treatment center to reverse our disease; in the latest analgesic to relieve our pain; in firearms to keep us safe from the deranged gunman; in a well managed portfolio to sustain us in retirement; in the elite sports league to provide opportunities for our children; the latest video game to avoid our boredom; the latest smart phone to end our isolation; and on and on and on.
I’m not a “blood of the lamb” kind of guy for two reasons. First, I’m not convinced that “Christ died for your sins” it is the most compelling expression of the Christian proclamation; but more importantly, like you, I’m not a first century Jew struggling with the theological crisis that arose from the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. That said, despite his use of this imagery, I find the hymn of Edward Mote relevant and instructive:
My hope is built on nothing less
than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
On Christ the solid rock I stand
All other ground is sinking sand
All other ground is sinking sand.
Unless we invest out hope in something lasting and transcendent, Pandora’s Hope joins the ranks of the other demons she unleashed on the world and becomes the most insidious, vicious, and destructive of them all.