Flying the Friendly Skies

This week, after events in Minneapolis, Bowling Green, and Nashville, we were scheduled to fly home from Nashville on Tuesday afternoon.  There’s now a non-stop Alaska flight that takes three hours and forty-five minutes, more or less, depending on head winds.  By the way, when you’re flying East to West, there usually are headwinds because weather in this country, generally speaking, runs West to East.

That’s usually true, but not always.  In fact, just mentioning West to East weather brings up one of Bill’s and my long time debates.  We don’t have many of those, but here are two of the most enduring, arguments that have lasted for the more than thirty years and both of them come with Arizona settings.

In the northeast corner of Cochise County you will find a town called Bowie.  Those of us who hail from Arizona, including the state’s most celebrated historian, Marshall Trimble, pronounce the name Bowie as Boo-eee.  Bill hails from Chicago.  He’s under the mistaken impression that Bowie, Arizona, should be pronounced Bow-ee taking the bow part from, say, bow and arrow.  That’s debate number one.

Debate number two came along when I wrote the first Walker Family book, Hour of the Hunter.  When I was teaching on the reservation, my first husband and I lived in a house on a little volcanic knoll thirty miles west of Tucson.  We had a clothes line back then, and I can report that the wind really did blow both ways on “the hill,” as we called it.  Sometimes drying clothes would blow off the line and have to be collected from mesquite trees on the east side of the hill.  On other occasions, when the wind came from the east, the clothes would blow onto the back porch where they were somewhat easier to retrieve.

There’s a scene in the book where a summertime monsoon preceded by a massive dust storm is bearing down on the characters, coming from the southeast.  Bill immediately voiced vehement objections to the entire scenario saying having a storm approach from the southeast made no sense.  He maintained that weather ALWAYS moves West to East.  My problem with that pronouncement came from having stood on the hill watching the dust preceding summertime thunder storms come racing toward us out of the southeast.

I now have word from a reliable source—thank you former KVOA TV weatherman, Jimmy Stewart—that thunderstorms in southern Arizona often blow up from Baja California, traveling in a peculiarly circular fashion, which ends up causing them to blow in from the SOUTHEAST!!!  Please note:  When it comes to science and pronunciation, it’s possible for LIBERAL ARTS MAJORS to be RIGHT!!

Sorry about going off on that weather-related tangent.  Now where was I?  Oh, right.  I was getting ready to talk about the weather on Tuesday.

We headed to the airport early that afternoon.  Unable to get a later checkout from the hotel, we arrived at the airport a good three hours early, and having our TSA Pre-chek on our boarding passes made getting through security a breeze.  We found our gate, located chairs, and settled in to wait.  Well, not exactly “settle in.”  I was missing 8,000 steps for that day, so I left Bill in charge of the luggage and set about walking, forging a trail through the teeming passengers milling around on Nashville Airport’s three concourses.

I was making good progress toward getting my “ten,” when Bill sent me a text: ” Did you hear the announcement about Gate B 8″—which just happened to be our gate.  No, I had not.  “Party,” Bill’s next text said.  “Cake and applause.”  Free cake in an airport?  Are you kidding?  Worrying about missing same, I made tracks straight back to the gate to learn the details.

It turned out that our pilot, a guy named Captain Jim Freeman, was retiring after 32 years of piloting planes for Alaska Airlines.  And our trip, Flight 735 from Nashville to Seattle on April 26, was scheduled to be his last flight prior to retirement.  “He’s tall and wears a beard,” the gate agent said, speaking over the PA system.  “When I spot him, I’ll let you know.  Please give him a round of applause when he comes down the concourse.  Then, as you board the plane, there’ll be cake for everyone.”

Since I was the only passenger from our flight out walking up and down the concourses, I figured I was uniquely qualified to spot him first.  I did so just as Captain Freeman and his co-pilot came through security.  I discounted him at first because a: he was wearing a mustache rather than a beard; and b: he wasn’t all that tall.  He maybe looked tall to that vertically-challenged gate agent, but he certainly wasn’t taller than I am.

By the time I got back to the gate, the whole concourse was alive with applause.  The gate agent then read Captain Freeman’s bio aloud for all to hear.  He was born and raised near Cartersville, Georgia.  He graduated from the Naval Academy and flew planes for the Navy before being hired by Alaska as a flight engineer in 1984.  He’s done a lot of impressive things during his years with Alaska including being primarily responsible for implementing the company’s complex transition from paper to paperless cockpits.  Let’s hear it for iPads!!

While the gate agent read through his bio, Captain Freeman stood there looking hugely embarrassed and acting as though he would have preferred to be anywhere else on the planet at that precise moment.  It turned out that both his wife and two of his three kids were also on hand for his last flight. They collected their portions of cake and boarded the aircraft before anyone else.

Eventually everyone else collected their cake and boarded as well.  The flight was completely full.  Walking up and down the concourse, I had heard the gate agent announcing that the flight was “over booked,” and pleading for two people whose plans were “flexible enough” to come forward and give up their seats for that day’s flight which would mean their spending an extra day in Nashville.  Don’t get me wrong, Nashville is a nice enough place, but I had no intention of staying an extra day.

As far as the flight attendants were concerned, this retirement flight was cause for celebration, and they did their best to make things fun for everyone—Mrs. Jim Freeman included.  She was seated two rows ahead of us in the bulkhead row of first-class.  As we walked past her, I thought, “She’s spent some long lonely nights while he’s been off flying for all these years.”  That’s what I thought, but I didn’t say it aloud.  I smiled at her and said, “That’s a lot of years.”  She smiled back at me and agreed, “A lot of years.”

Bill and I stowed our luggage, took our seats, and fastened our seat belts.  After a bit more time and applause, we took off.  While we’d been in the hotel earlier, I’d looked through a print copy of USA Today and saw a weather map with a storm stretching pretty much from top to bottom in the middle of the country.  The accompanying story said that wild weather was expected, including possible tornadoes stretching from northern Texas to Nebraska.  I didn’t give the map a whole lot of thought because, in my experience, most aircraft fly OVER weather rather than THROUGH it.  I did, however, follow directions.  I kept my seat-belt fastened while seated, and I stayed seated pretty much the whole time.

Once the flight attendants were able to move around the cabin, they started their beverage and food service, but halfway through that, Captain Freeman’s voice came over the PA system telling us that we were approaching some turbulence and that flight attendants along with everyone else should return to their seats.  They did so.  For what I thought was a very long time.  It was bumpy but not terribly so, and eventually food and beverage service resumed.

I was happily lost in the newest Baldacci book, so I wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention to where we were.  After all, if you’re up in the air with cloud cover between you and the ground, there aren’t too many landmarks.  I did notice, however, that the flight seemed to be taking a long time.  Then Captain Freeman spoke again, explaining that  our aircraft along with a number of others had been routed AROUND the worst of the storm.  It turns out we were flying home from Nashville to Seattle by way of EL PASO!!!  In other words, the long way around.

A while later, Captain Freeman spoke once more.  It seems that those West to East headwinds had been way stronger than usual, and he was letting us know that we would be making an unscheduled fuel stop in Boise, Idaho, to take on enough Jet A to get us back home to Sea-Tac.  I’ve made fuel stops, scheduled or not, when flying private but never in a commercial aircraft.  When we pulled into Boise, however, the party was on.  Fire trucks with lights ablaze were on hand to send arcs of celebratory water shooting over the plane.

It was one of the fastest fuel stops I ever remember.  When we landed in Seattle, two hours later than our originally scheduled arrival time, there were more firetrucks on hand and more arcs of water.  You maybe know about Alaska’s twenty-minute checked luggage guarantee.  This time they outdid themselves.  By the time we made it from the N concourse to baggage claim, our luggage had not only come down the belt, it had been unloaded from that and was already ready to go.

And that was Captain Freeman’s last flight—more complicated and much longer than anyone expected, but mercifully devoid of drama.  There may have been drama up front in the cockpit, but there wasn’t any back where we were.  And now he can go home to Skagit County where he evidently loves hunting, fishing, and … excuse me … playing RUGBY???!!!  Are you kidding?  Doesn’t the guy know how to act his age?

Evidently not.  And I hope he and his wife enjoy every single minute of it.

They’ve both earned it.

9 thoughts on “Flying the Friendly Skies

  1. Love this. Nice story about one of the many “service providers” who are usually unnoticed. Hope his family had a video recorder! How great his family could be on his last flight!

    Thanks for explaining your experience with storms. I have been in strange ones and get the eye when I tell about them.

    Glad you are home safe and sound. Hope rest and many steps in your garden are on the horizon.

  2. I hope Captain Freeman gets the chance to read this. What a great story! Thanks for coming to Nashville. I really enjoyed your presentation. I love the way you share your life with your readers. You’re such a great storyteller, fiction and non!

  3. I heard you speak in Minneaota last week. I love your “style.” PS! It was on our 37th Annversary, and I had informed my husband weeks ago, we would be spending the evening with you! He had never read one of your books, but he loved hearing you speak almost as much as I did! Thank you for such a memorable annuversry. We will be thinking of you on April 21st every year from now on!

  4. That was a wonderful tribute to the pilot and a great story as well. Having lived in Roswell, New Mexico, I can attest that yes, sometimes dust storms do indeed come up from the southeast!! And we had the pitted paint jobs on cars to prove it!!

  5. When David Bowie died, my son and I had this same “Bowie” argument. Was his name pronounced Boo-ie or Bow-ee? My son says his name is bow-ee and the knife is boo-ee. This reminds me of how to pronounce Missouri. Most rural ozark natives say Mizzurah, most non-natives and urban state folks say Mizzuree. (Just wanted to add a little trivia)

  6. Delightful. Sounds like more fun than most flights.
    An actor about whom I’m a little bit “fannish” takes regular flights from his home in Palm Springs to Vancouver, BC, so often that he knows many of the crews. So when one of the regular pilots had a birthday recently, and the fact was announced over the PA, Mr Barrowman (who is definitely not a retiring sort of guy) got hold of the microphone and led the entire plane in singing “Happy Birthday” in his lovely light baritone.

  7. Love your piece, but absolutely loved seeing, hearing, & meeting my favorite author on Monday, April 24th in Nashville, Tennessee!!! My daughter & I are still talking about it. Thank-you for taking the time to visit our little neighborhood bookstore. Most of all, thank-you for your openness when you spoke, telling us how what was in your heart & mind became the books we all love, for signing books, & listening to us. I will appreciate Beau, JoAnna, Ali, & the Walker clan even more. From one “Coastie” to another!!

  8. I was flying that same evening from Lincoln, NE, to Denver. We took off early and in a hurry to run from the storm we saw approaching from the east. It was bumpy all the way but not terrible. The captain explained our early departure and reassured us that we’d get ahead of it before it got too bad. Flight crews are amazing people…such skill and calm attitudes in stressful situations.

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