Unusual Attitudes: Riding Out Life's Turbulence

A guardian angel helps a "problem" employee.

Unusual Attitudes Martha Lunken 1982

Unusual Attitudes Martha Lunken 1982

** Life's ups and downs — sailing on the Queen
Elizabeth 2 and wintering in the Bahamas to driving
an ancient VW as a low-level, debt-ridden FAA
problem employee in a dreary government office —
all within two years!**

Last week, after enjoying one flyable day in between snowstorms, I gave up on aviating and took myself to the movies. The flick had great reviews and an impressive cast, but it was as gloomy as the weather. I sat for a couple hours and watched a totally dysfunctional family implode — the mother dying of cancer, the father committing suicide and three (really four) adult offspring screwing up their lives. It made me think of Katherine Hepburn's great line from The Lion in Winter — "Every family has its ups and downs" — and reminded me that, as individuals, we sometimes find ourselves on a wild roller coaster ride.

The stories I tell you about escapades, screw-ups, improbable situations, interesting characters, treasured friends, goofy schemes, breathtaking sights and beloved airplanes are real, not only from the dusty windows of my memory but from 35 years of diaries and daybooks. Recently, I was rummaging around in “1982” to check a date and found myself painfully reliving a time when my “Peter Pan” life had plenty of darkness — mostly self-made. Along with appointments and notes, there were fervently desperate prayers and quotes like Churchill’s “Never, never, never give up” and “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

In the two years before I went to work for the FAA, I’d been through a wrenching divorce, cancer surgery, four moves, aging parent issues, dire financial problems and at least five jobs begged from people I knew who assumed (wrongly) that I was “taken care of.” Mired in self-pity, bitter and, at 90 pounds, probably anorexic, I taught traveling ground schools; flew a C90 King Air or, more accurately, babysat the noninstrument-rated owner who flew the King Air; wrote catalog copy; and did lots of free-lance instruction. For a short time (this really hurts), I’m ashamed to admit I stood in an unemployment line. So when the FAA offered the job in Chicago, it seemed like a heaven-sent chance for a new start. I packed up my pared-down possessions, found an apartment and made move No. 5 to Des Plaines, Illinois.

For the next several months, I occupied a desk in the Air Carrier District Office near O’Hare trying to figure out exactly what they did and, in January, drove to Oklahoma for a month of air carrier “indoc.” That was just boring classroom stuff, but when I returned for five days of “jet evaluation,” it wasn’t pretty. I gave it all I had but couldn’t “demonstrate PIC proficiency” in a (for real) DC-9, so the agency sent me to the general aviation district office in West Chicago. Sure, it was unfair — even ludicrous — since I’d never been close to a turbojet, but the last thing my ego needed was another failure. With no savings and while paying off credit card debt, a GS-7 salary didn’t go far. But I found a cheap two-room flat in a funeral home (move No. 6) and pawned a gold watch and my wedding ring — which ranks just below collecting unemployment. Then a lady with no English, no driver’s license and no insurance ran a red light and T-boned my Chevy Vega. My sister bailed me out of that with her elderly green VW Bug.

One ghastly February night, I was driving back to St. Charles, Illinois, from some dental school where the students had performed a long and painful — but cheap — root canal procedure. The weather was classic Chicago — wind howling, snow blowing sideways and streets glazing over with ice. Cars had slid into ditches; others sat at crazy angles in the road, and traffic was at a standstill. Those early VW heaters worked only when you were moving, so I was spraying deice fluid on the inside of the windshield and choking on the fumes. In my steering hand, I clutched prescriptions for painkillers and antibiotics, and in the other, I wielded an ice scraper to make a peephole through the ice. The Novocain was wearing off fast, but there wasn’t a drugstore in sight.

As I passed the St. Charles Country Club, I had a flashback to my “young society matron” life of two years before and wondered what in the hell had happened. This was so awful — I was so desperate and depressed, so cold, in so much pain, so out of hope and ideas that I’m sure it was my guardian angel who intervened because I burst out laughing.

Well, Flying magazine isn't True Confessions, but it's important, and difficult, for me to tell about the hard times as well as the fun stuff. Oh, sure, things got better, especially after I finally escaped the toxic atmosphere at the DuPage FSDO. When I'd exhausted every avenue to bid out of there, somebody suggested I write my congressman for help in securing a "compassionate" transfer to an office closer to home and my elderly parents. Amazingly, the congressional inquiry worked, and the FAA moved me to Indianapolis but not before the regional director explained to the politician that, "Ms. Lunken has been a discipline problem."

There were bright spots — at least in retrospect — during those years in Chicago, which is why I was digging in that old diary for dates and names.

In the summer of ’82, I was assigned to work the Lakefront Air Show (later, the Chicago Air and Water Show) under the supervision of a sarcastic and unhappy little man who had been inspector in charge of this event for years. The high point of his life was his coveted insider relationship with the Chicago politicos who ran the event. On show weekend, I was one of five inspectors equipped with massive “portable” walkie-talkies and positioned at various points along the shoreline. My boss was adamant that we constantly stay in touch to report anything suspicious — problems with show lines or performers who weren’t complying with the waiver. I knew that, historically, the U.S. and Canadian military teams didn’t give a damn about the waiver, but nobody had ever made a fuss so the “the guys downtown” stayed happy.

For the three days, a small group of inspectors stayed in town while I drove a G-car 40 miles each way between the Lakefront and DuPage Airport — a real drag. During the day, I was out at the end of Montrose Harbor on a sandbar you reached via a police launch. Actually, it wasn’t bad because I was by myself in the sunshine with a great view, plenty of water (thanks to the cops), a book and my needlepoint. Periodically, I’d make dutiful but dull reports on the radio.

One afternoon, well-hydrated from drinking plenty of water, I radioed that I needed a ride back to the beach to use the public restroom. My boss wasn’t happy about this, but then, he wasn’t happy about much of anything I did. I was amazed when the launch arrived within minutes and figured maybe he was worried that I’d file a sexual discrimination charge if I didn’t have ready access to a bathroom. The cops — really great guys — deposited me at a crowded and rather primitive facility on the public beach, promising to wait and get me back out on the sandbar by showtime.

I’m not sure you should even try to picture this, but the restroom had tiny stalls and old hinged, wooden doors with missing or nonexistent fasteners or locks. I squeezed inside, trying to hold the door closed while reconfiguring for what was now a critical need. It would have been a challenge empty-handed and in a bathing suit, but I was wearing belted khaki slacks with a blouse and jacket. I had a big leather handbag slung over one shoulder, a canvas backpack full of stuff and that humongous radio clipped securely (I thought) to my belt. Yanking, sweating, twisting and cursing, I finally got untangled and, pardon the expression, “in position,” only to hear an ominous crash and splash. Yeah, there went the taxpayers’ radio into the bowels of the commode, which was, blessedly, of the normal, flushable, water-filled variety. So I gritted my teeth and fished it out, hoping against hope that it still worked, which, of course, it didn’t.

But, then, instead of worrying about my boss’s wrath or my wanton destruction of government property, I laughed until tears were streaming down my face. There’s that angel, again. It was hard to keep a straight face, but I stuck to my story: “How would I know why? The damned thing just quit.”

It was a great day. I watched a great airshow (especially the Blues and the Snowbirds) from a front-row seat — in peace.

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