Most flight crews have families and during those “special” times of the year such as Christmas, New Year’s Eve, flight crew suffer in lonely silence.
The ethic of long ago that flight crews were family has long since evaporated with the advent individualized scheduling. For some time now most air carriers have allowed crews to mix and match flight sectors to facilitate better individualized scheduling preferences. Some people prefer weekends off, to better be able to keep up with family requirements, while others prefer away time to avoid those same family entanglements!
Everybody’s schedule requests are put into a big computer, and then out comes a schedule tailored for individual needs. Thus every crew member may have a different working schedule than that of his or her co-workers. In a big company, this often means you will seldom work as crew members together frequently, meaning really that you don’t really ever get to know your fellow crew members all that well, maybe hardly at all. Again that was not always the case, because in the early years of my career computer blocking was just beginning so many crews did spend time a lot of time together.
I will share with you the extremes of the Christmas past, as I had experienced. For most of my career in the airline, I was a junior in terms of holiday selections. Seniority has its perks if you live long enough to get some. Wanting senior pilots to die off the seniority list in order to get Christmas off kind of undermines the meaning of Christmas.
So for planning purposes in my family, Christmas was deemed to occur on something other than December 25th, often nearer the 21rst, co-incident with the winter solstice. Something else to celebrate with the kids? They got their presents early, or at least most of them, and Mom saved some to open on the 25th in my absence.
Back to the flight line now for a review of those Christmas days when I was on the road and living out of a suitcase.
One memorable Christmas, quite early in my career when I was a young Second Officer on the Boeing-727 based in Edmonton, was a demonstration of the Christmas Spirit amongst some of my fellow crew members. Leaving Christmas Eve from Edmonton for Yellowknife the flight crew decorated the interior of the 727 joyfully, streamers and all. The young ladies who decorated the aircraft were flight attendants, and like me, by virtue of their seniority were required to fly that holiday evening. They wanted to share the joy of the season with the passengers under their care with the extra efforts in decorations, and extra inflight service above and beyond the normal call of duty! Meanwhile the Captain authorized free drinks to the passengers, something to do with minor weather delays he expected, or so he said. In those days, the Captain was authorized to do whatever he or she deemed necessary to please the passengers and did not have to worry too much about bean counters. He or she wouldn’t get away with that in this day and age.
That was a joyous flight, followed by a return the next day after a legal crew rest. Most of the crew met in the lounge for one quick drink, and then because rest and legal requirements; ” Merry Christmas, Goodnight”. Slam. Click. ( back to the hotel room ) A good trip overall though.
Another memorable trip was a time I was based in Calgary, and I got to experience a “Christmas Eve” in Toronto. The other crew members I was flying with that day were domiciled there, so after arrival at the airport I was sent by the airline alone to a downtown Toronto hotel to enjoy the Christmas Spirit on Yonge Street solo. It was snowing lightly, quite cold, and I ventured out from the hotel looking at the lights and retracing steps from long ago when I shared an apartment with a crazy weatherman years earlier at the corner of Isabella and Yonge.
As I headed north towards the Eaton Centre on the west side of Yonge, I noticed a man up ahead. He was lying on the sidewalk, near the curb, apparently unconscious, perhaps passed out from an alcoholic overdose, or so I thought. It was a sad sight, and I felt even sadder when I saw people walking over and around him as though he was not even there.
When I finally got up to him, I stopped, and knelt down and checked for a pulse, which thankfully he had. He had been badly frost bitten, sores all over his face, and was definitively out of it. Meanwhile people continued to gingerly maneuver around the now two bodies on the sidewalk disturbing the pedestrian traffic flow along their last minute shopping route.
I yelled out, “Somebody call an ambulance!” Nobody responded, so yelled out again, louder this time, “For Christ sake, somebody please call an ambulance!!!” Some other gentleman said he would. I waited with the unconscious man and wondered how he got there. Did anybody care? Was he not a mother’s son, a brother to another?
Surrounded by a din of traffic noises, I could almost hear my heart breaking in what seemed like a deafening silence. Suddenly in what seemed like out of nowhere the EMTs arrived and moved him onto a stretcher and into an ambulance unit. One of the EMTs commented to me as as he hurried back into the front of the ambulance was that this man may have had gone into a diabetic coma, and he was not necessarily drunk but they would soon have him under proper care regardless of the reason for his unconsciousness.
I gathered myself up, not quite sure what happened, and then I wondered about Christmas Eve in Toronto. I felt like shouting, “Is this Toronto the Good ?” I headed back to my hotel room alone, and in a saddened silence of sorts. I recalled that I could see that man from quite a distance back, nobody caring. Christmas Eve in Toronto that year was memorable for all the wrong reasons.
The next Christmas story, a little brighter than the last! Be patient because some background is required to understand the context of this Christmas on the East Coast. Many years ago I reconnected long lost family members from the East Coast through the gift of aviation in my life.
Many long years ago, long before my airline career began, I was charged with flying a light twin engine airplane to Saint John New Brunswick, my long deceased father’s home town. This was my first time to the East coast of Canada.
He died of prematurely, December 18th, 1958. Dad was a doctor who could not heal himself. My mom struggled to raise three boys on a nurse’s salary, and in those days… nurses were not paid so well.
Mom had felt my father’s family had let us down as they did not offer to “help” financially as she had hoped. As a result, there was hardly ever a mention of those other “Metcalfes” in the world. I was only vaguely aware that I even had and an uncle living in Saint John. He was 18 years junior to my dad, so did not have a deep relationship with my dad, his brother.
I landed in Saint John New Brunswick to bring our company operations manager sales rep “Joe Donahue” to meet with corporate big wigs from the lobster industry. He was tasked to source lobster to be flown to Windsor on company aircraft. The Auto City, was to become the Lobster consumption capitol of Southern Ontario.
When I entered the airport terminal the Commissionaire observed my sign in of the Air Windsor light twin Apache, AWB. The commissionaire piped up, “Metcalfe!, are you related to Don or Bob?” I responded in a loud clear tone, “Don was my father, and Bob’s my uncle!” He then reached out and shook my hand. He said both were fine man, and sorry that my dad had passed away. He then asked me how Uncle Bob was doing. I replied I did not know, as I had never met or spoken to my uncle, ever. I barely knew his name. I asked if there was a phone booth nearby, and he pointed it out me.
I thought I would just look to see if Uncle Bob’s name was in the phone book. I was shocked, because there he was “Robert Metcalfe”. I said what the heck…. put a dime in and dialed the number. I was just about to hang up after about 5 rings when this East Coast “Hello” greeting me came across the wires to me. I was not quite sure what to say…. Went something like this; “ Hi Bob, or should I say Uncle Bob, this is your long lost nephew David, Dave Metcalfe, Don’s youngest son. I am calling from the airport just to say hello.”
A stunned moment of silence occurred, then he said “Don’t go anywhere, I’ll be right there!” That was the beginning of long and loving relationship with Uncle Bob, and then Aunt Fran, and then cousins Donald, Andrew, Cathy and Heather, and now their families. After that I was able to reconnect my brothers with the East Coast Metcalfes as well. That was about 36 years ago now as I write this blog.
Moving ahead a number of years I captained a Boeing 737 for a company planned extended stay in Halifax. Because I was the junior captain on the B737, I had been was awarded the opportunity of spending Christmas, actually December 24, 25, and all 26 in that beautiful city. I really do love Halifax, one of the nicest cities in the world, or at least it seems that way to me. Most of the crew I had been flying with were former Easter Provincial Airlines folks so this was a “jammy” pairing for them. They were commuters to Toronto, and they were blessed with a trip home to spend with their families at their former home base of Halifax, and still their home residences at company expense. I got to spend Christmas alone, in a hotel room again.
But wait…. There was long lost Uncle Bob… just over 400 kilometers away! I thought if I rented a car I could head down there and see him. I thought maybe I should call him first, then again, I thought maybe I should surprise him! Maybe he wouldn’t be there, and I would have driven round trip close to 1000 kms to see Uncle Bob, maybe all for not. I opted for the later choice, i.e. to surprise him.
So I rented a car at the airport, and then set off to be the Christmas surprise Uncle Bob and Aunt Fran that they never dreamed of receiving.
There was a bit of winter weather enroute, but generally not too bad a drive. I arrived about 3 pm and as I entered the drive I was shocked and disappointed because the driveway was empty of other vehicles. It looked as though nobody was at home. Bob’s old Ford, missing, was he away on a hunting mission to get the Christmas goose? Had they headed out of town to visit Aunt Fran’s family I wondered? I got out of the rented car, and dragged my tired butt up the stairs to the back door porch. I was really disappointed thinking what a fool I had been. Drive all that way and not know if anybody was even there.
I pounded on the door, to no avail. I tried it again and again and then just one more time when I heard the bark of old Chester, Bob’s faithful Airedale. They surely would not leave the dog alone in the house for all of Christmas I thought. Then I tried the door, and it was unlocked. I walked in, remembering what Bob had said, that I was family, and this was always to be my home too! Chester greeted me with a lick as I crept in. As I entered I noted the smells of Christmas baking, and the decorations, and the beautiful Christmas Tree in the living room, and with all the presents underneath. I sat in Uncle Bob’s favourite chair, lodged in tightly against the beautifully decorated tree. I was tired, very tired, but assumed they would be back sometime soon and I needed a rest. I closed my eyes.
I had momentarily drifted off, then, a door slam, and the dog barking woke me up. I could hear voices coming from the kitchen, moving towards the front living room where I had been resting. Then this giant of a man, Uncle Bob, entered the living room. He looked as though he had just seen a ghost. “Dave, is that really you?” he cried. I replied “Merry Christmas Uncle Bob!” He almost cried, and maybe he did just a bit – I did.
Needless to say, what started out as an unwelcome separation from family, turned into one of the best Christmases ever. No presents, just Uncle Bob, Aunt Fran, and all their family. Now my family. I was treated like a king, and felt one too. I did miss my Ontario family, all of them. But I thought that they would be happy to know that Dad was not wandering the streets of Halifax alone!
So on Boxing Day, I headed back for Halifax in my rented car having spent a most wonderful Christmas in a way I least expected. Indeed, I felt as though I had gone home for Christmas.
So if you see a lost soul wondering the streets of your community, maybe its a DP, i.e. displaced pilot, or maybe a homeless brother or sister. Consider being bold and inviting them into “Your Inn”. Love them as your own, because in a sense we are all adopted, and we are all loved by one who first loved us.
Merry Christmas with love from Dave