My next-door neighbor is a rock star; not a creaky, old version of the golden age of music nor is he a fringe one-hit wonder known only to the trivial insane. He is a bone fide, hall of fame, critical rock legend that continues to be relevant today with an impressive song catalog which runs river deep and mountain wide across all musical boundaries. Generations of knowledgeable fans easily classify him in the upper echelon of the deity category as a living rock God while casual, more transient fans can still easily list ten of his songs while giving respectable renditions of his original lyrics.
He quietly moved into the neighborhood before his ascension to ecumenical fame had been secured and as a result, the news of his presence was held as moderately confidential by the nearby denizens. There have been several unsubstantiated groupie sightings and occasional loud music coming from the house but overall, he has been a very good neighbor with behavior no worse than any family with a teenage son. He has his kids in the public school system, under his given name, hands out nice Halloween candy, mows his lawn regularly, walks his dog with a requisite poop bag and always waves with sincerity. Other than being one of the framers of modern popular music, this titanium throated mega-stud of countless stadiums and concert halls lives a quiet life in the middle of a quiet cul-de-sac, right next door to my house.
I estimated through popular journalistic sources that he and I are roughly the same age and likely possess many similar opinions on life, excluding his calling and my occupation, pilot. I worked my way up the ladder and currently am a captain of a Boeing 747-400, the finest long-haul passenger airplane working today. My ever-increasing seniority has resulted in only several trips per month and since my desire to be home is now paramount, my working environment just the way I like it. My early career dictated my continuous inability to be home for any conceivable stretches of times and as a result, I missed many seminal events in my children’s lives; school plays, first steps and soccer matches while I was piloting planes in the Far East. When I add up the less tangible experiences lost due to my flying schedule, I could easily get depressed but have realized choices made earlier in life can’t be subject to much deep analysis because one does what one has to do. Compounding the loss, my overseas deployments as a young Naval Aviator also prepared my even younger family for my nomadic lifestyle but it was always hard to be somewhere other than home for weeks and months at a time.
That is the cruel nature of the beast and as a pilot, you make flying your life’s passion and therefore, the top priority. Today, the shine is off the wild blue yonder and I have equated the task of flying the 747-700 to driving a bus. Air routes are strictly pre-determined and the idea of flying implies you are making discretionary choices when in cruel fact; all you are doing is occasionally aiming the plane. The introductions of the newer auto-piloting technologies have limited decision-making freedom to sitting up front, taxiing the plane through the tarmac lines and upon getting a go-ahead, accelerating quickly until airborne. Once up, the pilot stays in the pre-ordained air corridor until the auto-pilot lands the plane at the other end. When I tell people that I am a pilot, I still get a look of respect which my occupation likely deserved forty years ago but don’t deserve today because for the vast majority of flying time, I rarely actually touch or move anything and the computers do all the work. Sometimes some unexpected turbulence or weather-related variable forces my hands on the actual controls but for the most part, we monitor gauges and look out the window. Our uniform adds to the allure but for the most part, I am over the glamour of air travel and view it now as an obligatory remnant of my dreams as a kid to fly jets.
With all this being said, being a pilot is still a great gig we make a lot of money and you can see a lot of the world quickly and cleanly. The one interesting wrinkle about pilot compensation is you are compensated backwards; similar to athletes. One is underpaid during the early years and overpaid during the post-peak, less productive years. But when one uses the anguish to income ratio, you are miles ahead as you get older and there is almost no heavy lifting.
I can wax nostalgic for the salad days of seven daily flights between two small regional hubs while actually piloting some forty-year old DC-6 with nothing but a road map of Tipton taped to the console but the feeling passes pretty quickly. When one starts out, you are up before the crack of dawn, flying crappy ass-smelling planes on crappy routes and end up doing all the work. I work about a tenth as hard and get paid fifty times more as I did when I flew jet trainers in the Navy or when I started in the business co-piloting creaky old Dash 80’s. Once you make it to the majors, you are flying new equipment and generally need to just rely on your wisdom and a computer-savvy co-pilot to get from point A to point B. I have done twenty take-offs and landings in a day and I can say two things without qualification: it was fun then because I didn’t know any better and no thank you, there is no need to relive them.
These days are far less exciting as I am too old to wish for any new challenges to be presented to me. My schedule is crammed with five monthly flights, all long hauls, with three days of certification training shoehorned into the rest of the month. I stay in first class hotels and never have more than two flight legs within a week. I sit in a spacious front cabin with top-notch crews, surrounded by both accurate navigation systems and beautiful flight attendants serving me well-prepared food served on china. In the old days, I would have a cold bag lunch which I would have to eat between cargo loading and fueling stops, resulting in the distinct flavor of aviation fuel permeating the cockpit and my self-packed bologna sandwich.
Things are a lot better now but the enjoyment of flying has diminished due to the miasma of bureaucratic paperwork, industry cut-backs and the ongoing drone of middle management pontifications. Lately, I have enjoyed borrowing a small prop plane to take out for an hour of unbridled and unstructured flying. Up in the sky, I regain a small portion of my love of flying but the inevitability of coming back to meetings, management and maintenance seems to damper my excitement. The accoutrements may be nicer but it is becoming too high a price to pay for the use of nice china coffee cups.
My rock star neighbor rarely travels anymore as his interest in touring and extended stays away from home seems to be strangely similar to my own. He owns his catalog and makes a nice living renting out some of the lesser-known songs to non-offensive advertisers as well as picking up some nice royalty checks from up and coming bands respectfully covering his songs while stressing his huge influence on their burgeoning musical direction. He created his own record label many years ago and managed to build a nice business producing and distributing his work through a small office in addition to the internet and all the new sources of income, including ring tones. I see him on entertainment and music channels occasionally but he seems content in putting out music when he feels like it and only goes out on limited date tours or does a benefit when the mood strikes him. He works smartly enough to avoid earning the reclusive persona moniker but he doesn’t get out like the old days. Even after twenty plus years in the limelight, people think he lives in Los Angeles, London or Manhattan but he lives next door and I go out on my deck, I can see him sitting in the kitchen, reading the paper and drinking coffee or sitting at his piano tinkling out a tune.
“It must be great,” I asked him once, “to have the ability to grab a guitar or sit down at a piano and create music.”
He smiled, “It is nice when you can follow your heart but too often find myself writing with a purpose and the act, at times, takes away the adventure. I still enjoy writing a soundtrack contribution or working on an upcoming project. But the moments of creatively-inspired playing are sandwiched with business deals and mind-numbing meetings with all comers.”
Then he paused and said, “It must be great to fly.”
I smiled and said, “It is wonderful when you can control your direction but at times, it’s a lot like your job. The actual flying is exhilarating but the efforts before and after a flight has a tendency to drain the spark out from me. It is certainly not like the old days.”
"So, it is only fun when you are in the air?”
"Yes, and it sounds like the only time you have fun is when you are on stage?”
"Pretty close. It is only fun when I am in my studio immersed in a pure, creative vibe or jamming with friends on a small stage when you are interacting with the crowd. In a large arena, you cannot see anything. The lights are so bright; you can barely make out the faces in the first two rows and the din makes any attempt at subtlety completely out of the question.”
When the topic turned to me, he was cordial enough not to ask about my service record or if I had downed any MIG’s and I appreciated the polite redirect of the conversation to the love of the art versus an unfair focus on the quantitatively foolish. All people have their unique skills and can easily generate enough personal adrenaline without relying on constant conversation or excessive revisiting of related tales making the whole thing too pedantic to continually rehash ad nauseam.
We grew our mutual awareness of similarities; inspired performances and soaring versus formulaic composition and flight plans. The parallels are interesting but not worthy of concentrated comparisons as we concluded long ago that we both have things we like but realize the our fruits of our labor usually come from doing things we may be good at doing but would rather not embrace regularly.
When he sees me outside, he usually comes over to shoot the breeze and we do most of our interaction in our garages. Garages usually are safe, non-judgmental places to provide advice and seek enlightenment without involving the more concentrated female insights. Not unlike lasers, wives and girlfriend are far too desirous to analyze and forever resolve issues lacking their interest so we have always stayed out of their red zones and amongst the stalls of inanimate objects.
He is smaller than you think as the images on television and on album/CD covers make his look omnipresent. He dresses like any middle-aged man padding around the house and I know his kids give him crap about wearing some frayed shirt, stupid hat or embarrassing them at sporting events or benign social functions. We have talked about his celebrity over the years but there has been minimal, in any, fawning and I think he enjoys the anonymity of just another guy in the neighborhood. He rarely calls today’s music crap but he does, as all fathers do, complain the music is played way too loud.
Once in awhile, some other celebrity stops by, but visiting rules must exist because no limousines or chauffeurs are ever seen. The visiting famous musician or actor, lacking a diaspora-like entourage, would just get out of their rented sedan and walk up to the house. I have met many of his friends but I have never made a big deal about of their celebrity as I learned most of his friendships, like mine, were established long before acclaim and adoration occurred. Most of his friends, again like mine, came up through the ranks of our respective professions and the bond was established early and without pretense or ulterior motive. I have flown almost fifty different planes with several hundred crew members, and when I see one of them we have a bond based on common experiences. He and his musician friends have been in a hundred bands and the camaraderie was in place before gold records were earned and chart rank was pondered.
I remember the first day we met. I was in the garage cleaning my lawnmower when he stuck his head around the corner.
“Hello, I am your new neighbor,” he said in a manner which did not imply anything but common courtesy.
I got up, wiped my hands on the back of my pants and shook his hand. We introduced ourselves, sans call signs and pyrotechnics, and spent a half hour talking about neighborly things and small engine repair. Before he formally embraced music, he was a mechanic with a healthy interest in small engines and all things mechanical so we had common neutral ground for conversation. My wife and children eventually came out on the way to some shopping trip, introduced themselves, and left without any perceptible adoration. Our lack of interest must have been refreshing because he made several comments about how happy he was to be here.
“Aren’t you a famous rock and roller?” I had to ask, ignoring the fact for time immemorial would just delay the awkward question sooner or later. I decided to ask him and get it out of the way.
“Yes, guilty as charged,” he said.
He looked around my garage and saw a fair amount of clues to my background and smiled. “It looks like you are a famous fighter pilot,” as he hoisted my old Navy helmet off a lower shelf.
“Yes, I am a pilot but not too famous,” I responded.
“I love airplanes,” he said while waving his arms and motioning outwards, “I have always wanted to fly.” That was the first time of many comments in which he professed his love for the art and science of flight. I have brought him up in the air numerous times onto my buddy’s slow, lumbering bi-plane and allowed him to take control of the stick for a few minutes. He would grab onto the stick but after a few minutes, he would relinquish control back to me.
“Thanks,” he would say, “I don’t need to fly the plane, I just need to fly.”
Once his real celebrity kicked in, it was easy for me to get him in the back seat of a fighter jet as a birthday present and have one of the young bucks bring him up for quick spin and puke. The services are pros at getting recruitment mileage out of perky news anchors, annoying faux-macho movie stars and any available music legend to wear a flight suit as they don’t hesitate to immediately plaster the image across every youth-oriented magazine to stimulate recruitment. A common misconception is a standard flight suit has some protective magic when in actuality, the unseen internal layer in the only thing which makes the trip survivable. Before you put on the flight suit shell, you are provided with gravity suit with two dozen air bladders inflated to keep blood in your brain and your lunch in your stomach while you are pulling six G’s. Unfortunately for the uninitiated, the only thing keeping you from throwing up is experience; fifty supersonic trips will harden you enough to make the trip bearable so it is a cinch to have celebrity toss lunch if one is so inclined to make it happen.
But if the passenger is a legitimate friend of another fighter pilot, celebrity notwithstanding, the driver will ask the landed pilot how he wants the ride to go. “How should I treat him?” will be asked right before takeoff and the pilot will only take the directions from the answer.
There are two, and only two, answers to the question: 1. “Be careful” (which means try to avoid having the person throw up into their mask with no cruel intent) and 2. “Treat them like anyone else” (which means they will almost be guaranteed to be throwing up within the first five minutes). So, once my neighbor was elected into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on his birthday, I arranged for a trip with the local fighter squadron. The commander was an old flying buddy of mine so he jumped at the chance to get out from under some pressure to get some new public relations footage. Since I was the liaison between my neighbor and the squadron, I was compelled to warn him about the two choices. I told him that whatever he wanted, I would tell the pilot to act accordingly. He smiled and said he didn’t care one way or another because he was going to fly in a jet fighter, the coolest ride in the world.
We got to the base, and as a still-active member of the reserves with full bird colonel street cred, I was able to easily waltz into the back hanger areas with him. He had to sign dozens of autographs and stand still for numerous photos since everyone knew it was better to catch him early, pre-flight, than later on.
I introduced him to the pilot, an obviously hyperactive child of about 28 with intensely dark eyes and a love of motion. Once the introductions were completed and he was being shepherded to the changing area, I headed up to the control tower to watch this ride with the Air Boss. As I turned and walked back, the pilot said, “Sir?”
“Yes, Lt. Commander?”
“How do you want me to treat him?”
“Treat me like anyone else,” interrupted my friend with a big shit-eating grin on his face.
I nodded, smiled and saluted. I had left the decision up to him and he didn’t back down. I walked up the steps, grabbed a cup of coffee and squeezed into the third watch chair next to the Air Boss and the Squadron Commander. Like three old ladies, we watched the pilot taxi his F-18 onto the runway and take off like a bat out of Hell. He brought it almost straight up and we collectively estimated he was pulling almost seven G’s.
“I would rather go up tasting seven G’s versus coming down,” said the Commander. “It still puckers me up.”
“Affirmative,” said the Air Boss. He was in a rare good mood because he got a picture of his wife with my friend and life at home would be peaceful for the next several days. I said nothing because I was just happy to be around people who say what was on their mind without a lot of inexactitude.
They spent about thirty minutes in the air and came down elegantly and without incident. I knew the kid filled the time with barrel rolls, steep declines, steeper declines and a mitt-full of air to air combat maneuvering. They taxied to the hanger and both hopped out of the plane and conducted interviews for a few news groups which were invited for the event. My friend’s flight suit was completely sweated-through but his mask was sans debris and his expression was bordering on the self-actualized. He shook hands with the pilot as the interviews continued.
As the pilot walked over to my and the commander, he saluted and said, “You have a tough nut for a friend, sir.”
“How so, Lt. Commander?”
“He loved it. He was laughing, farting and swearing but not once complaining. He can come up with me anytime.”
They embraced as the final picture was snapped as he went back to change. As I drove my friend home, the moment-by-moment recounting of their hop was being played out in an adrenaline-rich tapestry of obscene metaphors and frantic hand motions. I knew what this kid did to him and my friend got the full blast of the fire hose; no old-lady turns or elegant descents. I had a feeling the pilot was quietly aching inside about his last flight but my friend truly reveled in it.
The next day I stopped in at his garage to make sure he was still feeling okay and it was evident he was feeling great. He was working on some piece of machinery and seemed busy with the task at hand so I made a little extra noise as I got closer so I would not startle him due to his fixated concentration. He saw me come around the corner, smiled and motioned me to a chair as he worked. His garage was extremely wide and as I sat in the chair, I noticed boxes of free merchandise, guitar/amp equipment and other treasures stacked neatly in the back. This garage was likely filled with gold records, Grammy’s and other soon-to-be gifts to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“That is a lot of stuff,” I said as I mentally inventoried the stacks of cool-looking boxes.
“That it is. I used to hoard this stuff and for awhile, I actually had displayed some of it at one time. I once had gold and platinum records and Grammy awards all neatly organized on a wall but my already healthy ego didn’t need the shrine or the shine as much as I thought.”
“Gold records?” I said, still transfixed on the second sentence. “Cool.”
“I only display my first gold record,” he said, “The first one was the only one I really remember, the rest of them are just embarrassing.”
“How many do you have?” I asked. And the second I said the phrase, I regretted it was my version of being asked about MIG kills. I wish I could have grabbed the words in mid-air and started over again. I was embarrassed myself with my silly question; he must of heard the question hundreds of times before.
He said, with a sincere tone, “I honestly don’t know.”
I looked at him like he couldn’t remember his children’s names.
Cueing off my incredulous facial expression, he continued, “A gold record doesn’t mean much anymore. In fact, a platinum record means what a gold record did back then.”
I continued to stare, further perfecting my hillbilly-ignoramus expression.
“A gold record means you sold a million dollars worth of product. It really means nothing when you are selling music world-wide. However, by managing your own business, you can stanch the flow of the money more easily.”
I looked and stupidly said, “But it is a >i>gold record!”
“Well, I hate to break it to you, but they aren’t really gold and sometimes they aren’t your record.”
“Not your record?”
“When I had received my second gold record, I noticed it had six tracks. However, both sides of my record had seven tracks. Being curious, I cracked open the frame and placed it on a turntable and played it. And, as you can tell by the tone of my voice, it wasn’t my record, my song and obviously not my voice.”
“Do you know what I like about living here?”
“People not bothering you?”
“A nice fact but there is something else. Want to guess again?”
“Is it an ‘I-really-want-you-to-guess’ question or a rhetorical question?”
“A fair question so I will just tell you.”
“I what I like is when people say hello, they just ‘say hello.’ I don’t get any of phony agent or promo talk which sounds like ‘Hey, there you are’ or ‘My man!’”
As we talked, the radio in his garage was passively on while the conversation continued. The newest number one song began to play; a familiar drum beat overlaid with an immediate and persistent hook which assured the writer significant amounts of money. The song, similar to the hundreds like it but unique its own way, would be hugely popular for a season or a week and everyone associated with it would reap its benefits for years to come.
“Tell me about this song,” I asked. “It seems very catchy.”
“It is catchy but it is straight out of the formula for a hit song: fun lyrics, solid beat to tap either a toe or pencil and a bridge which is impossible to forget.”
“Can you write one like this?”
“I have written ‘ones like this’ numerous times,” he said with a peaceful look. “I have no interest anymore. I just don’t have any compelling urge to say anything and even far less interest in keep the collective toes of the eighteen to twenty-five year olds tapping for two weeks. I would rather write jingles, it would be more honest.”
“So, following your formula, are you saying I could have written this?”
"Yes, but you didn’t.”
“So true: talk about bad timing. So enough about this pop song, what do you want to talk about?”
"Tell me a story about flying.”
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