By Jim Bates

I always wanted to be an airline pilot. My dad was one. My grandfather, too. The fact that both were killed in airplane crashes did not deter my enthusiasm.

“I don’t get it, Jerry,” Mom wondered out loud when I was ten years old and told her of my dream. “Why would you possibly want to risk your life and end up like your dad and grandpa.”

It was a good question, one, frankly, at that young age, I didn’t have an answer for.

“I just like airplanes, I guess,” I told her.

“How about let’s buy you a model airplane, instead?”

“All right!” My young mind was easily distracted. Plus, I didn’t want Mom to worry. Not to mention that I loved making model airplanes.

Eight years later, we had what they called Career Day for the juniors and seniors at our school. We signed up for forty-minute presentations by various representatives of businesses in our community. The week before, I’d scanned the list and saw, much to my joy, a talk being given by an airline pilot. I signed right up.

On the day of the presentation, the classroom it was being held in was packed. Who’d want to hear about the joys of selling insurance or the thrills of spending half your life in school learning to be a doctor when you could learn about flying? It was apparent that me and lots of other kids did.

“Hi, my name is Gary Brookings,” he introduced himself. “I’m a pilot for Northern Airlines.”

He was a tall, handsome man in his forties. He proudly wore his pilot’s uniform, a dark blue jacket and pants, buffed black shoes, and, best of all, a cool, dark blue, hat with a shiny black brim. He exuded confidence and in a matter of moments had the crowd of restless and fidgety high school students hanging on his every word.

He told us about the differences between being a pilot and co-pilot and engineer. He told us that he was studying, as he put it, ‘all the time,’ learning about new procedures and new rules set out by the FAA, the Federal Aeronautics Association. He told us about a “Simulator” which is a sort of practice plane at the airport they used for training. 

It was fascinating. I don’t think I blinked once.

At the end, when he asked for questions, I raised my hand, “What’s your favorite plane to fly?”

He didn’t hesitate. “I love flying the Boeing 747,” he said.

Someone else asked, “Why?” 

“It’s all computerized and it’s fun to fly. Which is really something,” he added, “because it’s as long as the length of a football field. The cockpit is ninety feet off the ground.”

Wow! I was impressed. “How fast does it go?” I asked.

“She cruises at 550 miles per hour.” He smiled. “Its engine is huge and is made with an element called vanadium to increase the strength of the metal it’s made with. They’ve been developing the 747 for over ten years. I love flying it.” He smiled and looked around the room. “In fact, I love being a pilot. I’ve been flying for twenty-three years,” he added, “just in case you were wondering.” Which, honestly, most of us were.

I ran home and told mom about the presentation and Mr. Brookings. “It was very cool, Mom. He seemed like a nice guy.”

“What about flying?” She asked. She was making spaghetti for dinner, a favorite of mine and my younger brothers and sisters. “You still want to be a pilot?”

I wasn’t an idiot. I knew if I pursued the career that had killed my dad and grandpa, mom would let me, she just wouldn’t be happy about it. And she’d certainly worry the whole time whenever I went on a flight. She had a point. Plus, I’d gotten sick once on the tilt-a-whirl at the state fair, so there was the possible issue of me not being physically able to handle being up in the air. Which was a major consideration the more I thought about it.

Besides, there was something else that had caught my interest during Mr. Brookings talk. “Mom,” I told her, helping to set the table. “He told us about some metal compound that they used to make the plane’s engine extra strong. I think he called it vanadium or something.”

Mom was straining the noodles. She stopped and looked at me. “So?”

“It sounded interesting.”

“Really.” She went back to the noodles.

I came to the stove and stirred the sauce. “I was thinking I might look into going into chemistry. It sounded like it might be fun.”

I could see mom trying to hide her smile. I think relief is what I saw. “So, no flying?” She asked.

“No flying, Mom, just chemistry.”

“Sounds good to me.”

“Me, too.”

And that’s what I did. I went to school, studied to be a chemist, and began working for a company right here in our hometown soon after I graduated. One of my first projects was to synthesize vanadium for use in surgical instruments. It was so successful we now have a team devoted exclusively to investigating more of vanadium’s properties. I’m the lead on the project. 

I love being a chemist, probably as much as Mr. Brookings loved to fly. In fact, I’ve even been asked to come back and speak on Career Day which I enjoy doing. I don’t have huge audiences, not like he did, but there are always a few students eager to learn about job opportunities and I’m always happy to tell them. It’s a good field to be in, plus, my feet are firmly planted on the ground which is a relief to my mom.

It’s a relief to me, too, it turns out. Because the first time I had to fly to go to a meeting on the east coast, I got kind of sick. Motion sickness they called it. Whatever the name, believe me, it made me glad I didn’t become a pilot. Real glad.

Jim lives in a small town twenty miles west of Minneapolis, Minnesota. His stories have appeared online in CafeLitThe Writers’ Cafe MagazineCabinet of HeedParagraph Planet, Nailpolish Stories, Ariel Chart, Potato Soup Journal, Literary Yard, Spillwords and The Drabble, and in print publications: A Million Ways, Mused Literary Journal, Gleam Flash Fiction Anthology #2 and The Best of CafeLit 8. You can also check out his blog to see more:

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