After I graduated from the University of Delaware I moved to State College, Pennsylvania to be reunited with Judy. We had spent my last year of schooling apart, she working as a post doc in a plant physiology lab at Penn State, and I painting and playing politics with my faculty advisers. I relaxed for a week or two and settled into my new environment, but then began to look for a job. I was weary of academia and didn’t bother to search for a job on campus, but found a help wanted ad in the newspaper for a tour guide for an attraction about fifty miles north of town. Tours of a water filled cave were given by boat, and the guides would be responsible for pointing out the wonders of an underground fairy land. I had taught a lot of classes at Delaware and figured that it wouldn’t be much of challenge to deliver a standard spiel while pointing at a stalactite or two. I sent in an application.
A week later I got a call and a woman told me that I was hired as a lineman at a tiny airport adjacent to the tourist center. I asked the caller to explain my duties and she said, “You work around airplanes…stuff like that.”
I hesitated to accept. I had learned that when someone offered me something out of the blue I was sure to regret taking the deal. I also wondered why I hadn’t been considered for the other job. I told the woman on the line that I had no experience with airplanes and that I wasn’t much of a mechanic, and she said, “You’ll get trained. Can you come in tomorrow?” I was curious and a little desperate to find a job, so I agreed.
The last country road on my sheet of directions ran between two mountain ridges. Farms and small woods lined either side, and as I drove along I occasionally saw an Amish homestead. Stern looking men wearing beards and black, wide brimmed hats tended their fields of hay and corn. Heavy draft horses pulled wagons and ancient looking farm equipment. The airport lay in a flat and wide section of the valley and consisted of two hangers and a low slung administration building. There was no tower. There was only one runway that ran about 100 yards between the hangers on either end of the strip.
A heavy set, fussy man named Ken explained my duties to me. My work would include cleaning airplane interiors, gassing the Piper Cubs used by our two pilots to give rides to tourists, sweeping and mopping the hangers, cleaning toilets and urinals, hauling garbage to a landfill on the property, mowing the lawn, vacuuming and dusting the owner’s office, etc. A lineman was a glorified janitor.
I had no other prospects at the time and wanted to earn back some of the tuition that Judy and I had spent on my degree. I began to work under Ken’s close and somewhat obsessive supervision. At his direction I mowed lawns that didn’t need mowing and cleaned airplanes that were nearly spotless. He told me that I must never under any circumstances put more than two spare rolls of toilet paper in the main hanger’s guest bathroom. It wouldn’t have been unlikely if he had counted how many new urinal cakes I put out on a monthly basis in hopes of catching me wasting our supplies.
The owner was an ex-military blow hard who still liked to shout commands. One day as I vacuumed the carpet in his office he told me all about his aunt. She painted flowers and dramatically lit studies of the Nittany Lion, the cougar mascot named after Mt. Nittany, the rounded, ancient peak that overlooked the Penn State campus. He showed me a few of her stiff, amateurish paintings hung on the wall opposite his desk, and we suffered through a stilted conversation about their merits.
The mechanic was a twenty something, bow legged man who stood about five feet four. He was heavily muscled, spent a lot of time grousing about his job, and seemed to enjoy throwing his tools down in disgust when a repair went wrong. He owned a plot of land on which he was starting an orchard. He told his fellow underlings at lunch that he hoped to quit the airport once the orchard turned profitable, but that the “goddamned Amish” were undercutting his prices. I understood from him that the English speaking locals despised their peace loving, anachronistic neighbors for reasons that he didn’t bother naming. They were self evident. One day he revealed that he had been forced to hit his wife the night before when she got mouthy with him. The rest of us sat in shocked silence for a few seconds before I managed to say, “If I did that my marriage would be over.”
The secretary/air traffic controller was in her late teens and was visibly pregnant. She had recently become an ardent Christian and confessed to us that her wild days of partying and running with boys had lead to her predicament. She had faith that her shotgun wedding would last and that she and her husband and baby would have a happy life now that she had found Jesus. She was a sweet kid and I felt sorry for her. Her sense of guilt and shame about her past seemed disproportionate, and her newfound piety appeared to demand that she constantly remind herself of her shortcomings.
The job, of course, was physically taxing, tedious and sometimes a little scary. I was responsible for determining whether the underground gas tanks had any water in them. A water bubble in a fuel line could stall an engine and down a plane. I stood on high ladders and cleaned airplane windows with a noxious solvent that could eat through the rubber housing them in place if I was careless. The fumes from the solvent made me slightly dizzy and a little high, and I often had to catch hold of the ladder when I swayed or leaned too far. But the most troublesome job was to drive the fuel truck from one hanger to the other. The only route was the narrow runway that served both for take offs and landings. I was told on my first day to look above the big oak tree in the field to the south to check for incoming planes, and then to look in the opposite direction for aircraft coming in off the mountain. If I still had a bad feeling about the possibility of being struck by a bogie and instantly incinerated when the truck’s tank full of gasoline exploded, I could always drive my vehicle on the grass median on the side of the runway.
Several things led me to quit after a couple of months. Ken continued to drive me crazy with his nitpicking. Judy hated how useless I was when I came home exhausted. The Japanese manager of the cave tours had begun to have one-on-one sessions with the employees for the purpose of “attitude adjustment”. I was temporarily exempt from brainwashing, but wondered when the manager would escort me to his office in an attempt to make me more cheerful about earning minimum wage as a fetch it boy doing donkey jobs shortly after earning a masters degree. But one incident finally induced me to give them my two weeks notice.
It was a gloomy Saturday and no one else was on the grounds. The sky looked threatening in the northwest, and I was surprised when a small airplane came in for a landing. It wobbled as it descended on cross winds shooting through the valley. The pilot was a man in his thirties, and his passengers were his wife and two young kids. He came into the office and asked me to come up with a flight plan for a trip to St. Petersburg, Florida. I told him that I had no idea about how to do that, but showed him into a room where our secretary listened to a radio for weather reports and where maps were stored in a desk. I called the owner for help. He lived in a large, two story house near the south end of the complex.
When the blowhard arrived he glared at me and explained how simple it was to develop a flight plan. Any idiot, including me, could figure it if he just took the time and was just a little bit logical in his approach, and then he, the owner, wouldn’t be bothered by such trivialities while he was busy watching baseball. The owner took the pilot in hand and gave him a flight plan, and I made my exit.
I went back to sweeping up a hangar and wondered what my employer would have done if I had randomly advised the pilot and sent him and his family to their deaths in a gale over the Appalachians. I told Judy about the incident when I got home, and she thanked me when I told her that I was going to quit.
I had the pleasure of announcing to Ken that I was leaving. He moaned and said, “Just when I’ve got you trained. Now I have to find someone else before the weather gets cold!” My coworkers kept badgering me to find out my reasons, but I kept mum even when the mechanic repeatedly said, “It’s Ken right? Am I right? It’s Ken.”
A week after my last day Judy walked in the door and told me that she was pregnant with our first child. I was elated for about 30 seconds, and then I felt an oppressive weight settling down on my shoulders: I desperately needed to get another job. I briefly considered phoning Ken and begging for my job back, but knew that Judy would kill me if I made the call.