Could this be the happy ending promised last month?
So, on Thursday, June 2, 2011, exactly 7 days after my “STEMI” (that’s hospital talk for “The Big One”) Laurel and I stepped off Hawai’ian Airlines Flight 15, SAN-HNL. Laurel had sprung for two nights at the grand old Dame of Waikiki, the Westin Moana Surfrider. We had an ocean view. Diamond Head was our backyard. ‘Tweren’t bad.
Waikiki is not everyone’s idea of paradise: “It’s too crowded;” “It’s too expensive;” “There’s too many buildings.” Wah, wah, wah. As a kid, I grew up forty-five minutes from Times Square and “The Great White Way.” I LOVE Waikiki.
We loved our all-too-brief-stay, which was aided by the arrival of the ten or so very close friends and family members, who decided that our offer of a free dinner and drinks on our wedding night was worth a trip across way too much ocean. The long distance award winners were my cousin Richard, and his beautiful wife, Sharon, who flew in from Melbourne – the cultural heart of Oz, not that dump in Florida.
Two days and dreamy nights in Waikiki were followed by a quick trip to Honolulu’s thriving Chinatown flower market where were purchased the requisite bridal bouquet and flower lei’s. Pammy and new hubby, Patrick, Oahu residents, who had married the weekend before us, were instrumental in finding just the right floral shop.
We drove to Haleiwa for lunch and, get this, $5 Mai Tai’s. Laurel is in love with Honu, Hawai’i’s sea turtle, so we had to stop for a swim with them at, where else, Turtle Beach.
Mr and Mrs Honu, and a whole bunch of their family, friends and neighbors, were well represented at the beach named for them. Laurel’s dream of swimming with turtles came true on her wedding day. There wasn’t a dry eye on the beach.
From Turtle Beach we drove to Santa’s by the Sea B&B, 100 or so yards from the surf-famous Banzai Pipeline, where we’d have the ceremony. The others pressed on to Turtle Bay Resort, a charming place 5 or so mile up the road. We prepared for the sunset nuptials. In attendance would be: sister Lynn, cousin Jet, cousin Richard and spouse, Sharon, L’s best friend and long-distance hair stylist, Wendy, former student Erin, neighbors Christopher and Burt, friend and photographer Nancy and her bearer, Kevin, Pam and Patrick and dear minister Ron Valencia, who got the gig when he told us that he wasn’t religious, either.
Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that your wedding was the most perfect wedding ever – and I’m sure it was … except for ours. The sun was dropping in the western sky, we were surrounded by a dozen friends and family, all of us barefoot on one of the world’s most famous beaches, there was a warm and gentle breeze wafting the aroma of plumeria and salt air, and our minister was speaking words of love and commitment. Oh … and my bride was the most beautiful bride in history – when she emerged from our B&B room in her beautiful gown, with Wendy’s incredible hairstyling efforts, she nearly stopped my heart. There has never been, throughout history, a luckier man, or a prouder groom.
We drank some Veuve Clicquot whilst signing legal docs on the gazebo overlooking our sunset wedding beach, while one of the biggest storms in decades headed for Oahu. A couple of fat rain drops crashed about as we arrived at Turtle Bay’s beachfront restaurant, Ola. Not ten minutes later, the sky opened, thunder and lightning crashed and flashed, and we had an incredible dinner. It was a night to remember.
Next morning we learned that the storm had knocked out power to 30,000 homes and produced record rainfall. We had been obliviously blissful.
We gathered most of the herd for a short trip to the famed Kahuku shrimp trucks. If garlic and shrimp is your ambrosia, then Kahuku is your Elysium. A couple more magnums of Veuve Clicquot completed the feast.
Our original plans had called for a five day stay. Laurel had to be back at work, but I would be outta work for months and months, so she convinced me that another 5 or 6 days on Oahu would help speed the recovery. A honeymoon without a bride didn’t seem quite proper, but spending relaxing time with distant family was grand indeed. The extra week was wonderful and I was able to return refreshed and renewed.
Now, let’s have a word about the much-maligned (oftentimes deservedly so) FAA. I had heard horror stories about the hurdles a pilot had to leap to be able to leap again into the sky. In my experience – and this was when the saintly Warren Silberman was Manager of the Aerospace Medical Certification Division of the Civil Aeromedical Institute – FAA could not have been more responsive.
Of course, after you have a heart attack, FAA won’t even talk to you for six months. “Why?” you ask. Simple. Those who have heart attacks often have another within that time frame – and, oftentimes, that second heart attack kills them. FAA is just trying to keep its paperwork to a minimum. Can you blame ’em? I mean … really … they generate so much bloody paperwork in the daily course of bidness, why would they want more when there’s a decent chance it may be unnecessary.
And Bruddah’s and Seestah’s, let me tell you there is a mountain of paperwork when you wanna keep flying after you’ve had a heart attack. I just looked into my desk drawer and there’s a solid 4 inches of FAA heart attack medical paper – and some of it ain’t filed still. (Sorry. Gemini here. Creative, yes. Organized? Don’t make me laugh.)
Obviously, FAA don’t want you back in the sky if there’s a chance you’ll slump over the controls and tumble out of the sky into an apartment complex. So they are very thorough in the information they want from the medical professionals entrusted with your care. And that information had better be in the exact format that they request, else you get to get the medical professionals to do it all over again – and you can just imagine how much fun that can be.
From the start of the process – the date of your heart attack – until they wave their magic twangers over you to allow you back into the sky, you can count on a year. It took me a little more than 10 months, but I was on top of the process and, shall we say, assertive in my requests for help – and, yes, I did have OKC on speed dial and got to know a number of FAA people on a first name basis.
Understand that, if you have a heart attack and want to fly, EKG stress tests will be an annual event in your life. But, if you stay in shape and walk up and down hills a minimum of 30 minutes a day, you’ll really impress the young women running the tread mill who will delight in telling you that, “You’re in great shape … for your age.” (If that ain’t a dagger to the heart, I don’t know one.)
Because I wanted no restrictions on my second class medical – at the time, I was flying air tours in open cockpit biplanes – FAA got real fussy. Too fussy according to my cardiologist.
When he and I met on a follow-up visit well into the recovery, he expressed delight in the progress I was making. I told him that FAA would not issue me that unrestricted second class medical without the visual results of a new angiogram. He looked concerned and expressed his concerns to me. I’ll paraphrase because my understanding of medical terms would diminish the information he relayed.
Basically, he told me that there was no medical indication for another angiogram. He had done an angiogram when I had the heart attack. He found a complete blockage of the LAD artery, had done an angioplasty to open that blockage, had inserted a stent to keep the blockage from reforming, and done another angiogram to find that artery, and all my arteries, running free.
An angiogram, he explained, is a highly invasive procedure with a danger of infection – and, he further explained, people have died from badly done angiograms. He said that he’d perform the procedure for me because it was work related, but he strongly advised against it. And, he asked, did I really want to take that risk because a government agency had made the request.
It didn’t take a whole lotta thought. When your cardiologist advises against a procedure, you’ve really gotta be a dope to disagree. And, while I have been a dope on all-too-many occasions, I chose not to be one, this time.
Which brings us to the happy ending.
So in order to fly air tours for hire you need an unrestricted second class medical. When I replied by snail mail to Mother FAA that I wouldn’t be doing another angiogram – including a persuasive letter from the cardiologist – they responded by issuing me an unrestricted third class medical, and a second class restricted to flying an airplane with two pilot positions, and two pilots. The Travel Air open cockpit biplanes I flew for ten years had only one set of controls. It was sad when I realized that I’d never be able to fly a Travel Air biplane again.
I got the medical back in April 2012. Flash forward four months. I’m standing outside my hangar where the Decathlon used to live chatting with tail wheel pilot friend, Steve. I hear one of the Travel Airs take off – I think it was NC3242, built the same month Charles Lindbergh flew the Atlantic, May, 1927. I look up and smiled and said to Steve, “Isn’t she beautiful?”
He said, “Do you miss it?”
I said, “Not in December, January or February, when it was so bloody cold that I’d need two Manhattans and a bottle of red wine to warm up.”
“But if I start missing it too much,” I said, “I’ll buy a Stearman.” (Which is a whole lot cheaper than a Travel Air because they built so many more of them and they’re still readily available.)
Steve snapped to attention and got really excited. “You’re looking for a Stearman?” He didn’t wait for a reply. “Gary, Doug and I are looking for a Stearman. Four partners would be better than three. Why don’t you join us.”
“Well,” I replied, stalling, “Why don’t you check with Gary and Doug and ask them if they’d mind an eastcoastasshole for a partner.”
Two months later, Steve stopped by the hangar and said, “Hey, when are you going to make those Mai Tai’s again?” (Laurel and I had made Mai Tai’s for the group and Steve had really liked them. Dale, the chief bartender at the Ka’anapali Beach Hotel’s Tiki Bar, had shared it with us a few years ago. Dale’s were not Auntie Malia’s Mai Tai’s. Take two and call a cab … or a lawyer.)
“How about this Sunday,” I said.
“This Sunday,” he replied, “We’re flying to Arizona to look at a Stearman. We’ll be back by four pm.”
“We’ll have the Mai Tai’s here by five.”
“You’re still interested, right?” he queried.
“Still interested,” I replied.
Came five pm on Sunday. We arrived at Steve’s hangar, slightly late, with Mai Tai’s. Steve was roaming the airport on his Indian, thinking we had gone elsewhere. When he rumbled to a stop, he said, “You have the Mai Tai’s?”
I nodded to Laurel and the pitchers she carried. “Right there.” I paused, then said, “You got a picture of the Stearman?”
He smiled, grabbed his phone and showed me a picture of the prettiest blue and yellow Army Air Corps Stearman I’d ever seen.
“You still in?” he asked.
I gulped. Showing the picture to Laurel, I said, “Are we still in, Honey?”
She smiled and said, “Well, you’ve always wanted one. Of course we’re still in.”
(Honestly now, Gentle Reader, would your significant other have responded similarly to a request to buy an antique airplane that had no other use than to stroke your ego? Be honest. Can you understand why I’m married to the best woman who ever lived, and that I am the luckiest man on earth?)
And that’s how we became owners of the prettiest Stearman I’ve ever seen.
Life’s amazing, isn’t it? It throws you a high inside fastball when you’re sitting on a low outside curve. If the fastball knocks you down, you’ve got two choices: get back up and take another swing, or spend the rest of your at bat with your knees knocking, worrying that the next one might put you out of the game. It’s always your choice.
I’m the luckiest guy on earth. If I hadn’t had the heart attack, I wouldn’t have the Stearman. And with the Stearman came friendships with the best people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing.
Keep that bat high. Don’t forget to swing. You might just knock it outta the park.