How Ya Doin’, Mister Vice President?

Politicians, planes, and some pilot black magic. Running for office? Keep your distance from my dreary karma.

July 26, 2012

I WAS READING TODAY about the death of John Atta Mills, the semi-beloved President of Ghana.

I met Mr. Mills a few months ago. He and his entourage were passengers on one of my flights.

If you think that’s vaguely impressive, I’ve also had the honor of twice meeting and flying the President of Guyana, Bharrat Jagdeo. (Contrary to what my father and others seem to think, Ghana and Guyana are in fact different countries, on different continents, and with different presidents to boot.)

And while I didn’t fly her, I did have the chance to stand only a few feet from Ellen Johnson Sirlief, Nobel laureate and the President of Liberia, during a reception not long ago (don’t ask) at the airport in Monrovia.

Things have worked out pretty well for me, I think. Better than they should have, maybe. Years ago, when I was puttering around over Plum Island, sweating to death in some noisy old Cessna, the idea that one day I’d be be carrying presidents in the back of my plane would have struck me as ludicrous.

There is, however, a dark side to my brushes with politicians. And if you’re running for office, you might do well to keep your distance from me.

What am I talking about? Below are six vignettes, true stories all:

One day in 1980 I’m at Boston’s Logan airport, plane-spotting with a pair of my junior high pals. Who disembarks from a TWA plane only a few feet in front of us but Jerry Brown, then-governor (and, yes, again) of California. In addition to his gubernatorial prowess, Mr. Brown, a.k.a. “Governor Moonbeam,” is known for his dabbling in Buddhism, his long liaison with Linda Ronstadt, and his appearance in one of the most famous punk rock songs of all time — the Dead Kennedys’ “California Über Alles.”

Four years later, the late senator Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts speaks at my high school graduation (St. John’s Prep School in Danvers, Massachusetts).

Six years after that, on a Sunday morning in 1990, I’m standing at Teterboro Airport, a busy general aviation field in northern New Jersey, close to New York City. A private jet pulls up. The stairs come down, and out steps Jesse Jackson and several burly bodyguards. Jackson walks into the terminal, passing me by inches.

The following summer I’m back at Logan, using a payphone in Terminal E. Suddenly Ted Kennedy is standing at the phone next to me, placing a call. (Quaint, I know, in this age of wireless, but there’s the famous Senator, slipping dimes into the slot.) I’m talking to a friend, and I surreptitiously hold up the receiver. “Listen,” I say, “whose voice is this?”

“Sounds like Ted Kennedy,” Kirsten answers. And it is.

Next it’s 1994. Logan again, and I’m in the captain’s seat of a Northwest Airlink 19-seater, preparing for departure to Baltimore. Up the front stairs comes Michael Dukakis. He stops briefly behind the cockpit and I said hello.

Later, in the late spring of that same year, Al Gore is making the commencement speech at Harvard University, close to my Cambridge apartment. Out riding my bike, I stumble on the Vice President, his wife Tipper, and his two blonde daughters as they make their way across a rope line at the back of Harvard Yard. He shakes my hand.

So, my question is: what is it that makes those six encounters so collectively significant? Think about it. Each has something in common. Or, more correctly, two things. What are they?

While you’re mulling it over, I’ll give you the longer versions of my run-ins with Dukakis and Gore:

Mike Dukakis and his family reside in Brookline, Massachusetts, an affluent quasi-suburb bordering Boston. I once met his daughter, Kara, at a party there in the 1980s — one of those three-second introductions people have no business remembering. So naturally I remember it, and feeling mischievous, I say to Mike Dukakis as he passes the cockpit door, which is actually just a curtain: “Hey, so how’s Kara these days?”

Mike whips around and looks at me sharply, “How do you know Kara?” (The way he does this was fairly intimidating. A shame he didn’t employ that same seriousness in his debates with ole George Herbert Walker a few years prior.) And he knows I’m not bluffing, because I’d gotten the pronunciation of Kara right — the pretentious way, with the short “a” like in “car.” It’s all I can do to keep from laughing, because, of course, I don’t know his daughter.

After we land in Baltimore, Dukakis thanks us for the ride and remarks, “Not a lot of room in here.” Even at 5’8″ he’s right about that. The Metroliner’s skinny, tubular fuselage earned it the nickname “lawn dart.”

“Yeah,” I answer, “It’s not exactly Air Force One.”

Meanwhile, intentionally or otherwise, the Duke has left a huge sheaf of important-looking papers in his seat pocket, doubtless because he’s run to a phone to cuss out his secretary for booking him on that damn little plane with the annoying pilot. I carry the papers inside to the agent and say, “Here, these belong to Mike Dukakis.” She looks at me like I’m crazy.

The Duke flew to Baltimore in one of these

The day that I met Al Gore was sunny and humid. It was one of those days when I’d ride my mountain bike aimlessly around my neighborhood in Cambridge, hoping to meet a cute girl or maybe find a bag of money on the sidewalk. I never had much luck on those counts, but then I’d never run into a Vice President either.

I come down Broadway, then up Kirkland Street to the corner of Harvard Yard. The graduation ceremonies have just ended, and Gore — his family and a handful of Secret Service men in tow — have come through a gate and are walking toward the concrete plaza in front of the Science Center. I lock up my bike and follow them.

A crowd of about 50 people quickly gathers. Those of us in front form a straight row, and Gore comes down the line to shake each of our hands. Most of those around me are Harvard alum or the parents and families of graduating seniors, and people are introducing themselves with lines like, “Charles Tipton-Dune, sir, class of ’68. It’s an honor to meet you.”

And Al says, “It’s a pleasure.”

As he approaches me, it’s my plan to say, “Patrick Smith, sir, class of ’88” (a total fabrication, but I’m feeling left out). Instead, I get nervous and do something much more idiotic. My turn comes, and I look up at Al Gore, the Vice President of the United States of America. I stick out my hand and say this:

“How ya doin’?”

Bear in mind, too, that I’m wearing shorts and an old, sweat-stained Husker Du t-shirt, surrounded by people in suits and gowns. Gore looks at me, a bit crookedly, wondering if I’m not some protégé of John Hinckley or Squeaky Frome. “Great,” he answers.

How ya doin’?

After that I break from the crowd and go over to the black limousine parked on the plaza near the fountain. This is Gore’s car, an ’80s-model Cadillac that looks like the cars of my Sicilian neighbors when I was a kid growing up in Revere. The tinting is peeling from several of the windows. It surprises me that such an important person is asked to ride around in such a shitty car. The Secret Service men inside eye me lazily. They wear sunglasses and have coiled wires sticking from their ears. They don’t seem particularly concerned with my loitering, and I nod to the guy in the driver’s seat. How ya doin’?

Right, okay, so back to my riddle? What do Jerry Brown, Paul Tsongas, Jesse Jackson, Ted Kennedy, Mike Dukakis and Al Gore all have in common, in addition to crossing paths with yours truly?

The answer, of course, is that all six were Democrats who ran for President. And all six, whether it was the party nomination or general election, lost.

That’s pretty uncanny if you think about it. Six – six! – Democrats who ran and failed.

And there remains at least an outside possibility that I tainted yet a seventh, albeit indirectly.

John Kerry lives on Louisburg Square, a courtyard of zillion-dollar brownstones atop Boston’s Beacon Hill. Though I’m unsure of Kerry’s precise address, I once found, and absconded with, a briefcase from somebody’s garbage there. Maybe it was his.

It was, if I remember right, the spring of 1990. Those were my flight instructor days, when I was bringing down a cool $97 a week teaching doctors and software designers how to stay alive in their four-seaters. Beacon Hill is known for its real estate prices, the Brahmin pedigree of its residents, and the vulgar wastefulness found in its curbside garbage on trash night. A family in Equatorial Guinea can live forever on a week’s refuse from a single neighborhood townhouse. So, walking to a friend’s apartment, my underpaid eyes were keeping a sharp lookout for anything useful.

The briefcase was old but otherwise intact, its leather hardly blemished and both locks in working order. A few months later, when I went to work as a copilot for Northeast Express Regional Airlines, it became my first-ever flight bag. Unable to afford one of the hundred-dollar models for sale by the airline, I showed up for my inaugural flight with a brown leather fossil dug from John Kerry’s garbage.

Maybe.

And no I have never — not once — seen or met a Republican candidate for President. (Whatever dreary karma I’m lugging around seems to be pretty partisan, but I’m willing to go both ways. RNC or DNC; I’m rentable for the right price.)

Although I did have the would-be Supreme Court judge Robert Bork on one of my planes back in 1992. And look what happened to him!

And now John Atta Mills is dead. If I were Mr. Jagdeo or Mrs. Johnson Sirlief, I’d be nervous.

But I know, enough with the politicos. Celebrities are what you want.

I wish I had some better ones. As it happens, my most memorable brush with Hollywood (non)greatness came in the summer of 1991, when I flew David Atkins, better known to the world as “Sinbad,” the thankfully forgotten actor and comedian who once had his own talk show and HBO comedy special. He sat in the back row of our Beech 99, surrounded by an entourage of beautiful women. Okay, thankfully forgotten is a horrible thing to say, even if he did wind up emceeing the Miss Universe pageant. Sinbad seemed a perfectly nice guy, and in the Compass Rose restaurant at the Nantucket airport he bought me and my copilot chicken sandwiches, asking us for advice on what kind of airplane he should buy. We told him to invest in a Cessna Citation — a twin-engine executive jet — though I can’t remember why. I was making about 13 grand at the time, and would have said anything for a chicken sandwich.

The great New York Yankees catcher Thurman Munson was killed at the controls of a Cessna Citation in 1979, but I don’t think we mentioned this to Sinbad.

Would you eat a chicken sandwich with this man?

More recently — just a few weeks ago — I had Anthony Bourdain on my plane.

It was my duty, I felt, to let Mr. Bourdain know that my new book, scheduled for release next spring, is being published under the not-at-all derivative title of “Cockpit Confidential” — a more or less direct ripoff of Bourdain’s well-known “Kitchen Confidential.” So I went up to him and told him.

He laughed, so I guess that means it’s okay.

What I ought to have told him, instead, is that he needs to do a show about airport food. I’ve been thinking this for a long time. I imagine a “No Reservations” episode highlighting some of the few remaining non-chain independent restaurants at US airports. His first stop would be the Yankee Clipper, the greasy spoon place over at La Guardia’s Marine Air Terminal, set beneath the famous James Brooks “Flight” Mural.

I once saw Chelsea Clinton at the Marine Air Terminal.

I don’t know if Chelsea has any political ambitions, but if so, she might wish to rethink them.

 

Portions of this story appeared originally in the online magazine Salon in 2004.

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4 Responses to “How Ya Doin’, Mister Vice President?”
  1. Martin says:

    My tragic Al Gore/ aviation story:

    After a few years of on-again/ off-again flight training, I was finally ready to solo. The day arrived: perfect weather, I had a couple of flexible hours in the afternoon, the Cherokee was available, and my instructor had the time for the check-ride and sign-off.

    I motor out to Tweed-New Haven. Park at the general aviation building. Saunter in. Smile at my flight instructor.

    “Sorry,” he says.

    I look at him quizzically. “What’s wrong?”

    “Too much cross wind for you on the active. You need to fly from Runway 32, but that’s closed.”

    “Closed?”, I ask.

    “Yep,” he answers. “They’ve parked Air Force 2 on it.”

    Seems Al Gore had come to town to give a talk at Yale. And I wasn’t flying anywhere.

    PS 1. I finally soloed the next week. It was magnificent.

    PS 2. If you ever do your column on airport food, my vote for number one is Incheon. Korean food like you’d expect to eat at a great local establishment, at prices you’d expect to pay in a local restaurant.

    PS 3. Nominee for worst airport food: Otopeni in Bucharest. Scratch that, never actually eaten there – it’s really my nominee for most overpriced airport food, to the extent that you look at the options, look at your wallet, and decide you can certainly wait until wherever you’re flying to.

    PS4. Do have plans to get your blog back into full swing? Been checking from time to time since you left Salon – glad to see some new columns!

  2. ExpatDanBKK says:

    I love and can relate to the “how ya doin’?” thing.

    Years ago, I was a professional powerboat racer living in Dubai. I am a double-degreed engineer, but I was just paid to work the sticks (throttle-man) not do any work on the equipment. But we were trying some m=new stuff I had a hand in designing and our chief mech was having issues.

    So I was upside down in the bilge helping him out, looking like I had been there for a week.

    We were in Jordan. Someone tugs on my shoe — as I said, I was upside down in the bilge. It was our PR lady. I drag myself out to see what’s the problem, after a few colorful words basically saying “go away, I’m busy!”

    She introduces me to a short bald fellow in a nice suit, surrounded by an entourage of military-looking types in civilian garb.

    “I’d like to introduce you to King Hussein…”

    Now, this is a guy whom I admired and really wanted to meet. But I was in full “single-minded engineer problem solving” mode, so I was not at my most gregarious. So to speak.

    My response? I wiped the oil off my hand shook his hand and said: “So, you the king, eh? Nice to meet you. Sorry, I’m busy now and cannot talk as I have to fix this so we can win your race.” Then I dove back in the bilge.

    DOAH!

    NOT my best moment in public relations. But happily, we DID win our class and I got a second chance, as he presented the trophy. He was most gracious and (non-miked) he took the time to commended me on my dedication to the team/sport and that he understood my curtness before being whisked away by his handlers as he also had a background in engineering and was a Navy pilot as I had been, so he understood.

    I guess that’s a win-win, but would have loved to have had a even couple minute conversation with him. He was an amazing person IMHO with what he did for his country.

    Oh well….

  3. Carole says:

    I Bowled Mr. Dukakis Over- at the University where I was a student and he was a visiting professor. It was in a hallway of the Political Science building (you knew it wouldn’t be in the Marketing hallway, right?). I was running my usual right on time, meaning there were about 24 seconds left before the deadline for the paper I was waving around (to make sure the ink was dry) was due. How he didn’t see me, I’ll never know, but he didn’t. Sheer determination kept me on my feet. He wasn’t so lucky. When I think back on it, I’m kinda sorry I couldn’t stick around and give him a hand with collecting his papers and belongings but hey, he wasn’t my professor with the deadline. When I came back out of the office, he (and his stuff) was gone, so I assumed all was well. By the way, I had four seconds to spare, according to the clock on the wall in the office.

  4. Carole says:

    Forgot to say, I really love your columns!