Advice from a Vietnam Pilot


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Years ago, I marched into the airplane hanger where I worked, my nerves about to split skin. Upset by someone in my life who had decided to hold me accountable for another’s actions. Back then I didn’t know, what I know now. The fact that you can’t control how other people behave, only how you react to them. Here’s the story behind the lesson.

“How many minutes?” The captain I was flying with said. “Clearly someone has gotten under your skin. We’re about to go flying and you need to leave whatever’s bugging you on the ground.”

You have no idea.” I sighed and dropped my flight case on the floor.

“I’m not saying you shouldn’t be upset,” he removed his ancient aviator glasses, dug in his duffle and retrieved a roll of standard silver duct tape. “You seem like a levelheaded girl,” he tore off a piece of 100 mile an hour stickum and wrapped the strip around a side hinge of his government-issued frames. “If you feel irritated, than it’s real.” He slid on the sunglasses and wiggled the rims. A wide smile stretched his leathery lips. “Can fix anything with this stuff.” He grabbed the metallic roll and shoved it back in his bag.

“So you’ve said.” A million times.

He looked at me. “What I’m getting at is how many earth minutes are you willing to burn on this, let’s call it a distraction?”

“Earth minutes?” I said.

“The limited amount of time we are gifted on the planet.”

Readying for, what I suspected to be a lengthy lecture, I squatted on my chart case.

“A luxury me and my fellow Corpsmen became acutely aware of during our visits to the jungle.”

Goosebumps raised on my arms. I swallowed. “How old were you when you were drafted?”

“Nineteen.” He said.

Nineteen. I gulped.

“Kind of funny how things become more valuable when you realize there’s a limited quantity,” the seasoned aviator said. “A lot of guys ran out of minutes before they turned twenty-one.”

My insides clenched. Two days ago, my twenty-ninth birthday had passed.

He shrugged. His green eyes narrowed. “Can you think of anything more valuable?”

I shook my head.

“So I’ll ask again. Knowing that you only have so many minutes, how does this disturbance rate? Is it worth an hour? A day? All week? How many of your pot-o-life- minutes are you willing to donate to this inconvenience?”

I scanned my thoughts struggling to remember why I was rattled. All I could think about was his question. He was right. Earth minutes are finite. None of us knowing to what extent. With this in mind, I asked myself how many moments did I want to sacrifice focusing on an event, however disheartening, that has already passed? Knowing that every second I spend being irritated, I’m missing out on experiencing all the gifts and opportunities I have at this moment.

Trancelike, I glanced around the hanger space. Saw the beautiful jet I got to fly, the fantastic team of line support who backed me up, the mechanics who kept the plane running safely day after day. The vast, evolving, glorious sky I was about to explore. Pictured the passengers who would arrive soon and trust their earth minutes in my hands.

I stood. Dusted off my uniform pants, and locked eyes with the senior crew member. “Give me ten.”

EL Chappel author of Spirit Dance/Storm Makers/Risk

To PT, Steve & Tony: Thanks for putting things in perspective. I’m forever grateful for your life lessons.

For pointing out that if you allow your happiness to hinge on others, you’re bound to squander irreplaceable earth minutes.

aka The Glamorous Wife

p.s. Recently I was at an event where a man that flew around the world in a homebuilt airplane spoke. During the trip, part of the tail section on his plane was damaged. Guess what he used for the repair? One hundred mile an hour tape. You were right PT. Again.

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