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Oh Captain, My Captain

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 PERSONAL ESSAYS

Oh Captain, My Captain by Meghan Daum          

The obvious theory behind my fetish is that, since I’m basically afraid of flying, I desire the man who controls the object of fear. For the fearful, flying is an unnatural act, something less than logical. Therefore, an encounter with a pilot is an encounter with an alien, a liaison with a god, an abduction of sorts. The credo among pilots is that you’re not truly a member of the mile high club unless you have sex with the pilot while he’s flying the plane. This is an unlikely possibility for most of us, but it’s the reason that I prefer the small planes to the jets. There’s always a sliver of a chance that I’ll be the only passenger, always the hope that everyone else on board will fall asleep and the pilot will turn to me and say “Wanna ride shotgun?” I like the puddle jumpers, the twin engine props, the tiny eight-seaters that make your stomach sink when you walk out on to the tarmac. “This is our plane?” the tourists gasp, beach bags in hand, flip-flops already on the feet. Even as my stomach sinks I’ll run to the front so I can get a seat right behind the pilot. I will not look out the window, only at his neck and shoulders. He is the embodiment of my safety, every gesture keeps me alive. As a phobic and a fetishist alike, I know that sex with the pilot is the safest sex there is.

    

To most people, the commercial airline pilot seems sexless. He is Leslie Nielson in Airplane rather than Tom Cruise in Top Gun, a company man rather than a cowboy. With his polyester uniform and company-issued luggage, he is not a man, merely an extension of the aircraft, as neutered as a Ken doll, as plastic as the plane. But commercial airline pilots are the kind I love best. It’s as if they’re made of synthetic materials, inflatable dolls that won’t pester me with the boorish habits of real men. I love the hybrid of nerdiness and machismo that emits from the sight of two pilots going through their checklist as I board an airplane. There they are: hunched over, collaborative, actually writing things down with a pencil and paper. (Writing, like eating, seems all wrong for them — it’s too normal an activity for someone who picks 250,000 pounds of metal off the ground.) They look like kids doing homework together. But then they turn on the engines and become something else entirely.

    

Even if I’m seated in the back of the plane, I’ll crane my neck and watch the pilots’ hands all over the controls until the evil flight attendant shuts the door on me. There’s something about the way a pilot reaches up his arm to hit those buttons on the cockpit ceiling that I find irresistible. It’s an intensified version of the kind of unconscious male gesture — the slip of a wallet into a back pocket, the sound he makes scratching his chin in a movie theater — that men have no idea how much women love. I love the way pilots, most of whom seem taller than regular guys, have to duck as they climb into the cockpit. From the main cabin, my pre-flight view of the pilots is limited to the shoulders on down, so by default the forearms and hands become erogenous zones. I’ll watch them take off their hats and place them next to their seats, watch them reach for their bottles of spring water, watch their hands on the throttle as we taxi. The pilot is the only man who can wear short sleeved dress shirts without looking like a used car salesman. He has a way of pulling off all kinds of tackiness. Unlike the rest of the human race, polyester becomes him.

    

Some people arrive at the airport two hours early because they’re afraid of missing their flight. I show up early because I like to hang around. Pilots gather in clusters at the terminal like boy scouts waiting for the bus to take them to camp. They are identical packages with different faces, so ineluctably male, so obviously able to hold their own were some hostile situation — hijacking, hydraulic failure, camp-ground grizzly bear attack — to arise. They also look so lonely that you want to walk up to them like a Hare Krishna and give them a flower. They are victims of the split personality that’s necessary for the job. They are explorers as well as God-fearing family men. They are both Lindbergh and Limbaugh, Christians with staggering divorce rates, former hot shots who disproportionately seem to lose their kids and their houses. We’ve all heard the stories about how they mess around with flight attendants, about how, like good military men, they marry young, start building the family, and then get caught in the vortex of stale hotel rooms and boring cities and the quandary of not ever being exactly sure what time it is. Pilots always strike me as essentially decent men drowning in cheap perfume. They all seem to live in cities like Dallas and Atlanta, big-haired towns, places where women are etched with boob jobs and shellacked in hair spray. When I lived in Manhattan, I used to wonder what would happen if they moved to my town. Would they shift their tastes over to something more bookish? Would they worship at the altar of Patti Smith rather than Pamela Anderson Lee? Would such a change of allegiance make them unable to fly?

    

So when I see a pilot in the airport, a handsome thirty or forty-something who’s still rubbing his finger where the ring used to be, I always have the urge to save him. I want to take him home to my little apartment with the uneven floor and the chipping paint and put him in the bathtub with a cigarette and a glass of wine. I want to drive him out to the country and rub dirt all over him, reacquaint him with the surface of the earth, then swaddle him in natural fibers. In exchange, I want him to talk jargon to me. I want to hear about airspeed and fuel pressure and, my favorite, yaw. (When the aircraft rolls slightly from side to side, that’s yaw.) I want to him to bring me to work with him, let me hang out with the crew in the bar of the Des Moines Airport Ramada while they talk shop.

        

  

 PERSONAL ESSAYS

There’s an aphrodisiacal quality to the aviation dialect. It’s slightly southern, slightly clipped at the ends of sentences as if anticipating the cut-off of the radio. It conveys a sense of being at once distracted and calm. The pilot voice is both preoccupied with more important matters and so relaxed you’d think he could go to sleep right then and there. So for the pilot fetishist, air traffic control is its own kind of erotica. I try to fly United Airlines whenever I can, because it’s the one carrier that lets you in on this orgy of conversation. That’s because the real essence of the pilot lies not in the physicality of the body in the uniform or the hands on the controls but in his voice. His public persona is the soothsayer on the loudspeaker, the apologist for turbulence, the man who calls everyone “folks.” But the air traffic frequency is private listening. “United 607 descending to two-zero thousand,” “Northwest 189 checking into Kansas Center,” “Continental 36 requesting a right turn in approximately two minutes for weather.” So casual and yet so much a matter of life and death.

    

A male friend once told me that the reason men want to have sex with just about every woman they pass on the street is that they want to see how each is different from the other. A thousand different women with the same fundamental anatomy can respond to sex in a thousand different ways, and this is something that men enjoy being reminded of, first hand, again and again. That’s how I feel about pilots speaking to air traffic control. There are Southern pilots, British pilots, pilots who don’t enunciate and pilots whose voices have a cadence that remind me of the first time I was really kissed and the crashing clarity with which I understood, for the first time, the meaning of arousal. Through the hiss and static, disembodied men are waiting to speak, waiting to descend, waiting for permission for every conceivable act. I want to discover each one, to unearth the individuality behind the monotony.

    

I can only imagine what would happen if those sterile voices said something less than sterile. What if a pilot tossed aside the F.A.A. regulations and talked dirty? Of what obscenities would that low, rumbling voice be capable? When the woman he treats like a lady becomes his whore, when the manners he learned in Sunday School and the Air Force Academy mutate into raunchy, delicious locutions about what he’d like to do and where and how and why he’d like to do it (there’s no waiting for clearance, no inquiries as to traffic ahead, no consideration for weather), when he relies not on the instruments but gauges the lift and speed and landing on instinct alone, the pilot makes an erotic demand that only a pilot can. He dares his lover to steal his vocation. She must rob him of his control. She must take the pilotness out of him, make him lose his place in the sky, work him into a state where he could not possibly be responsible for two hundred lives sitting behind him. She must make him forget he’s a pilot, which is like making a bird forget it’s a bird. Unlikely, but possible, at least for a moment or two. She must unlearn all she knew about lovemaking. She must bring him back to the earth rather than sending him above it.

    

There’s the conceptualized pilot and then there’s my pilot, the one I loved personally and individually, the one who became for me as much a man as he was a pilot (though he was never more man than pilot — and that should tell you something). For the sake of this discussion, I will try to separate the two. We met when I was his passenger. Our terrains could not have been more dissimilar. Back then, I lived in New York City, a place where most travel occurs on subways far beneath the ground. He was based in Florida and still hung around with his buddies from the military. A lot of my friends were gay. There were problems. But I loved my pilot, and much of what I loved about him was his pilotness. I loved the way he appeared on my doorstep in his uniform, the way he stuck to FAA regulations and used “correction” when a simple “I mean” would do: “I’ll get there around 2:30, correction, 3:30. Eastern Standard Time. ” He said “stand by” rather than “hold on:” “I’ve got another call coming in, stand by.” In his parlance, a nice day was a high pressure system, winds were gusts, and gasoline, even for the car, was fuel. He’d appear at my apartment door in uniform, hiding flowers behind his back, which he’d whip out like a character in a Jimmy Stewart movie. Other than the fact that he flew Boeing 727s, you’d never have known he was living in the twentieth century.

    

I think I knew I loved my pilot after making out on the couch with him in his uniform. I’m not talking about sex. We were merely making out. Necking. Second base only. Like something from high school. I can still feel the stiffness of the shirt, the scratchy, heavy pants, his metal wings sticking into my cheek. We were trying to say goodbye so he could go home. He wasn’t about to take off his uniform, if he did he’d have to iron it again. So we spent forty-five minutes not taking off our clothes, petting like teenagers in an Impala. He seemed to have been made in a factory. He was a kid in a Batman costume with only a hint of flesh visible. Perhaps that’s what made me love him, the wide ratio of actual skin to synthetic fibers. He seemed hardly human. In my single girl apartment with my Pottery Barn dishes and mission style futon couch, he was as foreign an object as a piece of UFO shrapnel that fell in the desert. The CIA could have crept in at night and snatched him away. The terrain was all wrong for him. Unlike those generic hotel rooms and cockpits and airport terminals, every inch my space connected directly to me: my stuff, my past, my plans. How could an airline pilot inhabit such a space? Didn’t he belong in a ranch house in the burbs? A condo on some sprawling development near the airport?





  

        

  

 PERSONAL ESSAYS

My pilot had been in the Air Force; you could see it when he made the bed — all hospital corners and quarters bouncing on the sheets. He’d get up at four in the morning to go the airport. No snooze button. No coffee. No complaining. He’d iron his company-issued van Heusen shirt with spray starch before getting dressed. Such actions performed so early and without caffeine are, to me, not entirely human. I’d sleep through the whole thing, though in my semi-consciousness I was always turned on by the inherent pilotness of his morning routine. Half-awake, I could hear him digging in his suitcase for his epaulets and his pin-on wings. I could hear him double and triple checking the contents of his flight bag. If I had it in me, I’d get up and fix him a bowl of Raisin Bran before he left (a certain nurturing impulse seemed consistent with the genre, like a farm wife making pancakes in the morning). But unlike a farm wife, I’d close the door behind him and go back to bed until ten or eleven. I had a life that allowed for such behavior. Whereas his schedule was dictated by passenger loads, weather and mechanical difficulties, my schedule buckled under the chaos of self-determination. I had no shower requirement, no dress code. Sometimes he’d call from the cockpit after landing the airplane in some other time zone and I’d still be asleep. I loved these calls mostly for the sounds in the background, the air traffic controller over the radio, the co-pilot talking to a flight attendant. “Oh, he called this morning from the plane,” I’d say to my friends cavalierly. I could never understand why they weren’t jealous. I could never understand why they didn’t bow down before me, ask me how they could get their own pilots, beg for coital details. But they just didn’t get it. They were happy to attend dinner parties with their banker and stock broker boyfriends, content to go to off-off Broadway plays with grad students and wannabe actors who insisted on intellectual discussion afterwards and wouldn’t even pick up the check. I pitied them. They would never know the thrill of earthly pleasures with a man who essentially lives in the sky. They would never know that to walk through an airport with a uniformed pilot is to date a rock star.

    

I dated my pilot for nearly two years. It was a passion based largely on absence, of hearts growing fonder through sheer curiosity of what it would be like if we were together more than ten days a month. When we broke up it was not for falling out of love, we merely collapsed under the weight of his merciless schedule; he could no longer endure ten hours of travel to see me for one day. I could no longer arrange my schedule around mechanical difficulties and last minute re-routings.

    

Not long after we parted ways, I went on a date with another pilot, an Airbus captain who flew only to Paris and London. I don’t know what says more, that I gravitated toward another airman or that another airman happened to ask me out. It began as things usually begin for me. I was on assignment, researching a magazine article about air travel. I was a fetishist masquerading as a journalist. I’d been attending a class for people who were afraid to fly and, even though I’d already turned in the story, I continued to go to the class because a pilot would be coming in as a guest speaker. I must have a gaze like some shameless groupie. When the members of the class went to the hangar to deprogram their fear of MD-80s, the Airbus captain pulled me aside and showed me the spoilers and the static whips on the wing.

    

I knew everything about spoilers and static whips by then, not to mention inboard and outboard flaps, ailerons and elevators. But I feigned ignorance because I also knew enough to understand that a pilot who can’t impress a woman with his knowledge of aviation is a man whose purpose has been utterly defeated. Besides, I had no defense against the uniform. He was fully decked out in stars and bars, even wearing his hat (my previous pilot had insisted that only officious nerds wear the hat) and so I agreed to go out with him. He brought flowers and bought me a steak. He talked about his Persian Gulf War days, about shooting missiles from F-18s, about putting out a fire in the cockpit. But then he said he wanted to take me to amusement parks, to movies, to rock concerts. No, I thought to myself. I wanted to go flying. And not in some little Cessna with him in civilian clothes. I wanted to see him in the big jet wearing the uniform. I wanted a backstage pass to the show. Suddenly he was talking to me about his sport utility vehicle, about his mother and his dog and the New York Giants. I wanted to run screaming. This isn’t about you, I thought to myself. It’s the machinery I want.

    

The fetish is a curious beast. It wants you to think it’s complicated, a labyrinth of forgotten childhood traumas and ghosts rattling chains around the attic of the unconscious mind. But, in truth, a fetish is about as deep as some philosophizing blowhard at a cocktail party. You stand before it, drink in hand, and listen to it talk while you nod. You tell yourself that your fetish is transgressive, that it’s kinky, that you’re being bad for indulging it. You whisper it to your friends and confess it to your shrink in secret hope that you’ll appear weird or crazy or interesting. But the fetish is the safety zone, a hobby as comforting and mundane as stamp collecting. It’s a shallow version of real life, an infinitely more manageable assortment of people that aren’t really people and situations unburdened by nuance or context. The fetish is the safety catch on the loaded gun of desire. It’s the place we visit when the real world might leave us with our guts spilled all over the floor. When you put aside the metaphors and the high concepts, forget the take-off and landing analogies, sex with a pilot is pretty much like sex with any other man. He will breathe like an ordinary man. He will sleep. He will wake. It’s the fetish that keeps him exotic. And since the pilot fetish involves artificializing something you already love for it’s artifice, the entire notion is really comprised of a million layers of plastic. You have a germ-free space, a plastic bubble, a cure for the cooties.

    

I caught a young pilot looking at me on a recent Sunday morning in the St. Louis airport. I looked terrible. I’d spilled juice on my lap on the flight from Newark and my hair bore similarities to an unbrushed collie’s — the curse of economy class. But he looked and then looked away and I looked and looked away and we did this maybe three times. The routine was so familiar, boring and yet exhilarating because it was boring. Like most uncomplicated things, a fetish is something you can count on. There will always be pilots at the airport. I will always watch them. I will always be more interested in the machine than the man. And just about every pilot knows that. He’s as sure of this as he’s sure he will land the plane. It’s the tacit agreement between every passenger and every pilot. He will take us where we want to go in a machine we don’t quite understand. We will trust him because that uniform keeps things official. As long as he’s around we’re safe from the randomness of nature, where all that dirt and gravity can hurt you in ways that high altitudes never will.





  

        

©2001
Meghan Daum and Nerve.com