This is a story I wrote in 2009. I've re-written it to improve the style and vocabulary I'd used. It was interesting seeing the different structure and words I was using, even from just 3 years ago. Hope you enjoy this quick read - it's just over 1700 words long.
As with all my short stories, this is complete fiction! Anyone who knows my family will understand... we're 4 of us pilots!
Bowing Out Gracefully
A tired, middle-aged man is in his bedroom, hanging up his uniform. He is starting his evening routine, whiskey in hand, and is dressed in casual wear. The bedroom is decorated in neutral colours but it’s cosy and modern.
It’s not like I wanted to retire early, it’s just the way it is. Like I told the boys at the Nag’s Head, I loved my job. However, it’s standard policy of Air International that when a commercial pilot like myself reaches a certain age, they have to hang up their uniforms. Hand back the standard issue briefcase and the intricately embroidered necktie. We need to return the hat - along with the status that comes with it. The very cheek! Well they did ask me to leave quietly so…
I have discovered, however, that the bosses generously let you keep the epaulettes as a souvenir for your life’s work. Well, that’s if you can call 30 years a life. Life doesn’t always mean life, we all know that. Funny that…
Patrick the Pilot, stepping down after 31 years. Yep, 31 years in the same job. I’ve flown so many places, every destination my aircraft flies to in fact. Dubai, Rio, Sydney… I’ve always preferred long-haul trips, exploring the world for a night or two, with a different crew every time. It’s a very sociable job. Sociable, yes, but with a high turnover of colleagues, who become disposable friends. We rarely fly with the same company. Sinatra’s “Come fly with me” has never been more appropriate a song choice I suppose. It’s a bonus never having to bring work home with you either.
Leaving A.I. Madness even to imagine it! I think I could still have managed to fly a few more miles yet, had the circumstances been different. The bosses are too strict sometimes in my opinion. Odd policies, enforced by ridiculously over-paid and old fashioned Directors.
It seems ironic that my only son is starting a sprint in the Rat Race just as I am flying through the finishing line. He’s a qualified architect at 22 years of age. Recently graduated from Sheffield School of Architecture, Sam’s incredible love and admiration of the construction of bridges and buildings worldwide has finally come of age. When Sam started school, my wife and I owned a house with a full view of Frogmore Viaduct, deep in the Buckinghamshire countryside. It must have caught his imagination from early years, I suppose.
I often used to snoop round the door of my son’s bedroom when I came home from a trip to catch him dreaming out the window, gazing in awe at the magnificent piece of engineering looming in the distance. A career in the making, I suppose. Back then, I commuted to Heathrow (not far when it’s only once or twice a week), and the wife worked part-time in a charity shop in town. Hah, she enjoyed the kudos from that, working for charity. She should be more charitable to me sometimes! I wonder if she’s talking to me again yet…? She certainly wasn’t happy with the news I wasn’t to be bringing in the bacon in the same way or quantity any longer. Plus, hanging around the house won’t be an option – we’d end up killing each other!
Sam developed a passion much like I did, I now realise. My obsession with planes and overseas travel no doubt came from my childhood too. My father would point out the man-made birds in the sky from a vantage point on The Downs, from the back garden on a sunny day, or he’d sit with me at an airport for hours before our holiday began. We wondered where their next destination would be, watching them create the straightest lines across the sky with their jet streams. Sometimes, just sometimes…
Well, that’s all in the past now anyhow. I remember the father of the golfer Tiger Woods’s explaining once on TV that “you gotta spark their interest from an early age”. It obviously works that way in flying, architecture and sport alike. Anyway, I digress.
Many men I know relish the thought of retirement, some even wishing for an early arrival of that day. Well, why not? ‘No more working for The Man! We can book that month’s cruise holiday we’ve always dreamed of!’ However, leaving work is a daunting, and potentially boring prospect to me, which screams “Granddad!” louder than any jet engine ever hummed in my direction. True, for many people it will mean having more time to spend with the grandchildren. Our Sam hasn’t brought anything to the table in that respect yet, and I hope, I assume, we’re not likely to see any related events any time soon. Sam tells me he’s too busy for a girlfriend and too broke to take a wife. See, it’s just not the right moment for me to retire. He’s not ready. She’s not ready. I’m not ready. Life will be so different…
My wife is getting broody though, I warn my son. I can see it in her eyes that she’s anticipating the arrival of a third generation to our family. More obvious signs are developing too. Last weekend, I caught her cradling a melon in her arms as she gossiped on the phone to a friend – unconsciously, I hope, else we have bigger problems here than a broody middle-aged housewife! The label of “Nan” can’t come soon enough for her. Expanding families. ‘That’s what real retired folk live for,’ she says.
Eurgh, “folk”. I hate that word, so old fashioned, and I’m getting older by the minute. Every day I am reminded that I have more than a touch of bad eyesight. Oh, incidentally, that eye test still hasn’t been booked, remind me…
Old age – it looms in front of us all. Associated symptoms aren’t something you want in a trans-Atlantic Captain, cruising a jumbo jet packed with hundreds of holiday makers at 37,000 feet. I’d argue that I’m healthier than most of my counterparts though. A couple of rounds of golf a week keep me in check, and I haven’t had a problem passing the compulsory medicals the flight staff are subjected to annually.
Semi-retirement doesn’t seem to be common practice for pilots of commercial airlines, whatever the circumstances of their departure. Retirement, a career change, redundancy – we all leave at some point. We’re expected to bow out gracefully when the big day arrives.
Some retired pilots re-train to become instructors, although I think A.I. might have had enough of me by now to bother keeping me on the books. But you never know… I think not! You’d never catch me crawling back in that way! Slam the door behind me, they have! I personally can’t imagine doing anything but flying. I was born to do it, as much as you can be without having your own set of feathers.
Of course, I have the company’s ‘full support’ now I’m planning to withdraw my pension, early as it is… I’ve heard a rumour that there’s a leaflet advising you on how to return to a grounded civilian lifestyle, cold-turkey. It’s common practice to ‘celebrate’ your retirement flight, making it a little special as your last trip as a professional air man. Balloons onboard, announcements over the PA to the 300 odd unsuspecting passengers, and dinner and drinks are on your cabin crew when you get down route. Hah, as if!
However, I didn’t have the opportunity to choose my final destination as any other long-standing Captain does on his final flight. Had my departure come at the normal retirement age, I would have been debating in only a year’s time between
a final destination of Cape Town for the wine and the golf, or possibly Buenos Aires for the wine and entertainment. What better excuse to have a good’un at the expense of the company?
What would a man of leisure do then now? Apart from the inevitable increased number of days spent on the golf course (and I do make a bolt for it some mornings, before she’s up), I see it as an expanse of time slowly unfolding to the unavoidable end. It could mean 30 years or more, gradual moves towards becoming a grumpy old man, akin to Victor Meldrew, avoiding my wife more and more in the evenings by joining other men who enjoy a quiet pint away from their families. This role with Air Flight International has more than satisfied my need to be entertained, and my love of travelling around the world. What better way to experience what the world has to offer? I could have had more of it all had I been more careful…
But being a pilot is who I am. How can they take it from me? I’ll certainly miss the freedom, the good times… It’s more than how I earn my pennies, and how I keep my wife in Radley’s designer handbags. She can’t deny she loved the job as much as I did – a good salary and I wasn’t home half the time. Perfect! Being a pilot’s a large chunk of my identity and a great conversation piece. Friends and strangers alike ask me about it at dinner parties. Granted, it’s a more interesting vocation than what most others settle with. Where I’ve been, what I’ve seen… The stories just pour out after a couple of glasses of Chardonnay!
Perhaps I’m looking at an early ‘retired’ life in the wrong way. Perhaps it could become a blessing. Yes, I’ll miss the job, but I will need to keep busy. I’d only end up driving my wife further round the bend otherwise. Maybe the break would be nice. It might be turn out to be more welcomed that I realise. Maybe I could become more regular at the Nag’s quiz night. Why stop there?! Maybe this is the opportunity I needed to reinvent myself, to improve my image. Nothing too drastic, I don’t want a complete overhaul, hair implants and a new set of teeth and all, but maybe a ‘lifestyle makeover’ I guess they’d call it on reality TV. It’ll probably be healthier too, what I need… My unravelling situation has been a little wake-up call for me, really.
Perhaps this could be a new beginning. A drink to the future! We’ll need a top up, waiter, but the shop will have some down the road. Drink driving ain’t so bad – not as bad as society deems ‘drink flying’ anyway!
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Photos courtesy of ExpertFlyer.com and IndustryLeadersMagazine.com