THE COST OF DEFYING THE PRESIDENT
When my father went on strike with other air-traffic controllers, in 1981, he escaped legal prosecution but suffered in other ways.
By Gregory Pardlo February 12, 2017
Monday, August 3, 1981. Around two-thirty in the afternoon the eggs land wide of us along the highway. A group of air-traffic controllers, their wives, and kids, we carry signs emblazoned with the logo of patco, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, and chant a medley of protest slogans most of us are learning for the first time. “United,” we cry, “we will never be defeated.” I’m the one with the Phillies cap and the sky-blue Keds, Little Greg, walking the picket line beside his father, Big Greg. We are the only two black people in the group, but this isn’t why we stand out. Notice the downward cast of my eyes as my father bellows at the frothing traffic in response to the hecklers strafing us from passing vehicles.
“I take it you’re not in this for the sport!” he shouts. And when he throws his hands up and cries, “What, and leave show business?” he brandishes his placard like a spear.
“Figure it out,” he tells me when he mistakes the look on my face for confusion. Of everyone here, I’m the one who has the least trouble deciphering his private meanings. As the world’s leading scholar on Gregory Pardlo, Sr., I know these pronouncements he’s polished, these homemade koans impenetrable to reason, that were once the punch lines of tired jokes. The jokes themselves are vestigial. He no longer needs them, confident his enemies will notice the deft lacerations of his wit in some later moment of quiet reflection. Uncharacteristically reckless now, he heaves them with neither accuracy nor discrimination at the passing traffic.
Highway grit settles across my brow and our picket line warps in the heat. Although many cars honk in solidarity with the air-traffic-controller strike, odds are the honk will precede a driver’s flipping us the bird. Or worse. Nothing, though, causes me to question the righteousness of our mission. In this, at least, I hold my father infallible.
He glistens. Vaguely overweight, his beard and Afro round out his chubby face. Sun catches in the penumbra of his hair when he turns to face me, and I squint until I fit into his shadow. The stretch marks beneath his sweat-stained shirtsleeve scribble a polygraph on the trunk of his bicep. How long had they been preparing for this? It’s been the center of concern in our house for weeks. When I woke up this morning my mother confirmed that the word was out: strike! Seven thousand flights across the U.S. were immediately cancelled.
We tramp the gravel, level the asters, and sedge grass on the roadside. There is garbage; there are wildflowers. Convection blurs our view of the terminals in the distance. Newark. In the week leading up to the strike, before negotiations failed to produce an acceptable contract for the union, a Los Angeles-area controller named Gerald W. McCormick published an op-ed in the L.A. Times. Writing with the patronizing tone of a high-school disciplinarian, he listed several occupations that are better paid than controllers. “I’m not suggesting that these [other] jobs don’t have value,” he assured readers. “What I’m asking is this: Are your cars, toilets, and entertainment more important than your safe passage from A to B on an airliner?” In the context of the impending strike, the question was less rhetorical than it was a threat.
This is the first day we’ve actually formed a picket line, and already I’m impatient for this to be over. I can smell my father’s uncertainty, too, something smoldering I want to douse by distracting him with an innocent question, maybe. I can’t ask him the real question, because he doesn’t know: When can he go back to work? When, that is, can we go back to our once triumphant lives?
If the purpose of a picket line is to obstruct passage in and out of the offending place of business, then our presence there, along Routes 1 and 9, skirting the airport, was entirely symbolic, since we obstructed nothing. Another objective of the picket line, though, is to shame the agents of power with the picketers’ conspicuous discontent and, through that display, to gain public sympathy and support. Our picket line hoped to “demonstrate” that we were there at the workplace, without deceit, simply refusing to work. The point was to be seen withholding labor; otherwise we could have been somewhere riding go-karts and eating soft ice cream. But there was no office window through which our chants might annoy an executive or foreman as he curled his lip and glared down at us through the slats of blinds he parted with two anxious fingers. There was no public to engage with pamphlets and handshakes and signatures on petitions. We were on the side of a highway, for Christ’s sake. Not that we had petitions anyway.
Earlier that day, Monday, August 3, 1981, President Ronald Reagan had issued his ultimatum, appearing at a press conference in the Rose Garden at the White House, wearing a gray suit and a red-and-blue candy-striped tie, his hair pomped back like some superannuated R. & B. singer. Each controller had taken an oath, he remarked, swearing not to participate in any strike against the government, and so, pursuant to an oft-flouted statute in Title 5 of the United States Code banning federal employees from striking, air-traffic controllers were “in violation of the law.” Then, with that preternatural calm of his, which looked so much like simple good will, he laid it out: “If they do not report for work within forty-eight hours, they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated.”
It had been the biggest joke in the days leading up to the strike. Whenever anyone in the union hall voiced a concern or fear about the outcome of the strike, the reply, met with laughter, was the same: “What are they going to do, fire us all?” The joke was based on more than mere arrogance. Less than a year earlier, in return for a carefully worded letter from a politician on the campaign trail, patco, headed by Bob Poli, had endorsed Reagan’s bid to oust the incumbent President Jimmy Carter.
October 20, 1980
Dear Mr. Poli:
I have been thoroughly briefed by members of my staff as to the deplorable state of our nation’s air traffic control system. They have told me that too few people working unreasonable hours with obsolete equipment has placed the nation’s air travelers in unwarranted danger. In an area so clearly related to public safety the Carter administration has failed to act responsibly.
You can rest assured that if I am elected President, I will take whatever steps are necessary to provide our air traffic controllers with the most modern equipment available and to adjust staff levels and work days so that they are commensurate with achieving a maximum degree of public safety. . .
I pledge to you that my administration will work very closely with you to bring about a spirit of cooperation between the President and the air traffic controllers. . .
Now, by threatening to fire and replace striking workers, Reagan had not only ended the gentleman’s agreement to overlook the Taft-Hartley rule forbidding federal employees from striking, an agreement that had endured a postal-worker strike, in 1970, and earlier work slowdowns from patco itself, he had legitimized termination as a response to labor disputes, dealing a critical blow to labor worldwide.
After the President read his prepared statement, he was joined at the lectern by Secretary of Transportation Drew Lewis, someone for whom the controllers seemed to reserve a special hatred because his “bad cop” attitude made the others seem reasonable, and Attorney General William French Smith, who informed the media that they intended “to initiate criminal proceedings against those who have violated the law.” Key figures in the strike would be arrested and jailed. “How soon would these criminal proceedings be initiated?” one of the journalists among the press corps asked. “Probably by noon today,” was the answer.
Officially, my father was the president of the Newark tower branch, or “local,” of patco. Given his charisma and penchant for theatrics, however, he was often asked to speak to the press. By default, he became a very public face in the Northeast region. His would be a high-profile arrest. At home, watching the evening news, it was easy for me to picture my dad, heroically defiant, in handcuffs and leg irons, being led across the screen. The image turned fearsome when I thought about what would happen to him after I turned off the television.
In reality, I had little reason to fear. My father would never have suffered the indignity of a jail cell. The night of the picket line, he went on the lam, and I didn’t see him for a week. When he did return home, he was careful not to park on our street in case the marshals drove by looking for him. In the days following the strike, the Justice Department arrested a handful of union officials, and issued indictments for dozens more. My father escaped legal prosecution, but suffered in other ways.
Patco viewed the strike as an unfortunate escalation of negotiations toward a long-term agreement with their bosses, the federal government. Of course, the controllers hoped that their actions, debilitating air traffic worldwide at an expense of millions per day, would cause Reagan to meet their demands, pacify them quickly, and kindly invite them back to work. They’d hoped the strike would pass like a brief tantrum. After the strike began, they would have accepted even token concessions to get them back to the bargaining table. Nonetheless, they were prepared to go “the distance,” even though no one knew what that meant.
Reagan, just eight months into his first term in office, treated the strike as a challenge to his authority. By his deadline, August 5th, only thirteen hundred striking controllers had returned to their posts. The President made good on his threat, fired the truant eleven thousand three hundred and forty-five controllers, and banned them from federal employment for life. (Bill Clinton lifted the ban in 1993.)
When my father was fired, he lost the job for which his combination of intelligence, pride, and obduracy had made him perfectly suited. In 1965, he had gotten kicked out of the élite Central High School, in Philadelphia, for truancy. It opened in 1838, and is the nation’s second-oldest continually operating public high school; it remains among the highest-performing public schools in the state of Pennsylvania. My grandfather, Samuel Pardlo, Jr., graduated from Central in 1939.
My father feared the vulnerability and the humility that learning, undertaken in earnest, surely requires. He hid behind beatnik spontaneity and his verbal genius. He refused to make himself vulnerable to authority figures; to rationalize his position, he espoused a theory that to prepare was to cheat. I believe this theory grew out of his most defining experience at school. In his A.P. philosophy class, a single directive was scrawled across the blackboard: “Explain the transcendental eye at the center of all consciousness.” For forty-five minutes, he told me, he sat contemplating the silence of the blank page. By the time the period ended, he felt as bereft as he did relieved. At the order to set pencils down, he scribbled his name, the only mark on his page, humbly in the corner, before handing in the evidence of his capacity for suffering. The confounding postscript was that he received an A on the exam, proving to him the power of institutions to create reality out out thin air, a lesson that succeeded only in confusing and demoralizing the already distrustful student.
When he was finally expelled from Central, he enrolled at the sprawling regional Germantown High. Potential had followed my father through the halls of Central like a sullen weather system, but at Germantown he was made to feel that he had mental abilities near clairvoyance. His depression abated. Here were the people, he decided, from whom he had been estranged, the proletariat, and among them he would shine in the right measure. He was first recruited to lead the Controversy Club, a group of students pretending toward the cultural fringe. They were an interracial collection of hippies and potheads who enjoyed, if the name of the club is to be taken at face value, discussing the controversial issues of the day. Through events hosted by the Controversy Club, my dad met several young black guys with whom he found he had many things in common, among them a sharp wit and a ready libido. It was through the Controversy Club, too, that he discovered his passion for weed.
Out of the Controversy Club, alongside friends, my father formed the more selective Black Student Union, and it was agreed that he would serve as the group’s president. In need of branding and posters, they enlisted the services of Marion Parham, a light-skinned girl as tall as my dad whom he had crushed on since childhood, nicknamed Stretch. Legendary as the school’s best artist, Stretch had already graduated from Germantown High and was in her first year at Moore College of Art. Whatever my father’s civic motives for enlisting Stretch as an artist for the cause, they soon gave way to personal ones—not that either Greg or Stretch cared to separate idealism from romance. “Dating” would not be an accurate term for their agenda-bound relationship.
One of the B.S.U.’s first offensives targeted a school-board meeting at Leeds Junior High School, in the Mt. Airy section. At issue was unrest among the student body. The 1964 riot, three years earlier, on Philadelphia’s Columbia Avenue, and the ones that summer in Newark and Plainfield, New Jersey, made tense what otherwise would have been dispassionate discussions around pedagogy, the achievement gap in performance between black and white students, and the adoption of a more culturally inclusive curriculum. Fear disguised itself as prudence.
And so Jesse, Booth, Bubby, Ridge, and “Pard,” as my father was familiarly known, entered the auditorium and made themselves conspicuous. After sitting through half an hour of uninspiring political theatre, my father, deciding to play to the fear that, feeling unacknowledged, the young men might leave and do something rash, instructed his cohort to make a show of walking out in exasperation. Whether it was my father’s intended outcome or not, the chair of the meeting interrupted the discussion to set my father’s future in motion: “Young man,” he shouted, leaning into the microphone. “Young man! Would you care to say a few words?”
My father approached the floor mike at the foot of the stage and began. “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” He cleared his throat and paused a moment enough to allow the audience’s curiosity to flirt with worry. “It only takes a cursory perusal,” he continued, “to ascertain the disregard this august body has for the well-being of black youth. This ill will is deleterious both to these students—who make up the overwhelming majority of the student population—and the reputation of the public-school system of our great and historic city. Rather than mire the conversation in resentment and suspicion, you, gentlemen, have an opportunity to demonstrate, as it was nearly two hundred years ago, that Philadelphia is the beacon of wisdom to lead the nation forward through these troubled times.” His rhetoric was further laced with lines he’d memorized from the St. Crispin’s Day Speech in “Henry V,” and from the Rudyard Kipling poem “If.” The point here, after all, was not merely to persuade but to dazzle. Versions and snippets of this oration reverberated years into the future via my father’s penchant for self-reference. Turgid as it was, his speech moved the gentlemen of the school board. He told me one audience member offered to serve as his booking agent for speaking engagements. My father declined; still, the seed was sewn.
Before he could graduate high school, my father, high on the fumes of his popularity, had got Stretch pregnant. Almost immediately after his graduation, my parents eloped, Freedom Riders for love, on a bus to South Carolina. My mother was not yet twenty-one, and my father not even nineteen.
Newlywed and expecting, Big Greg was eligible for a Class 3-A exemption from the draft, because of the hardship military service would pose to his wife and child. But he would also have got a Class 1-S (C) deferment, which he could claim as a college student at Cheyney State University. I like to think his decision to marry my mother—and hers to marry him—resulted from more than convenience and opportunism; or that they believed, however naïvely, they might fulfill the promise of their lives while raising a child; or that it was an inkling of that blind commitment to pride that would be his repeated undoing over the years.
My maternal grandfather, Bob Parham, began his career as a technician for the Federal Aviation Administration, and was held in such esteem by the early seventies that he was asked to spearhead an initiative to recruit and prepare minorities and women for careers in air-traffic control. Bob worked all over the country, but he was based at Philadelphia International Airport, the city the Parhams had called home for five generations. Unexpectedly, Bob became a teacher preparing recruits for the civil-service exam, the first hurdle toward qualifying for training at the F.A.A. Academy, in Oklahoma City. For years, the exam had proved inscrutable to nearly all but white men with either a college education or closely comparable military experience. In the political environment of the day, however, a glaring lack of diversity among public employees had become a liability for federal institutions, legally as well as morally. The Equal Employment Opportunity program that Bob oversaw supported recruits like my dad. Bob, whose distaste for the young man who’d led his daughter astray was now outweighed by the need to provide for a grandson, invited my dad to participate in the E.E.O. program, although my dad was too proud to accept his father-in-law’s help unconditionally.
“He almost got me fired!” Bob said, recalling the havoc caused by my father’s performance on the civil-service aptitude test for air-traffic control. The matter came to his supervisors’ attention because my father scored suspiciously high on the exam. Someone, therefore, accused Bob not only of preparing my father for the test in accordance with the program’s mandate but of feeding him the answers.
In fact, as both men confirmed, my dad had refused Bob’s preparatory course altogether. Yes, he’d accepted Bob’s invitation to shepherd him through the formalities, but my father refused to “grant that kind of access,” he told me, to his new father-in-law, “when it came to studying for the test.” By this I took him to mean that he would not let Bob see him in a vulnerable state of apprenticeship. Beyond that, though, my father’s motive in taking the exam cold was surely to prove how useless, how far beneath him, was Bob’s condescending notion of tutelage.
In my father’s version of the story, he did so well on the original written exam that not only did he prove himself beyond the need for any help from Bob but the F.A.A. brass, incredulous, refused to accept that a score so high was possible. They demanded he sit for an oral exam with F.A.A. officials, to see for themselves the young man who claimed to have had no left-handed support. They could not have known how they were playing into my father’s vanity.
In 1971, we stayed in Philadelphia when my father left to attend the F.A.A. Academy, in Oklahoma City. His first assignment was back home, at Northeast Philadelphia Airport. My mother and I visited the tower often, as families were allowed to do back then. I passed the time surveying the runways through binoculars. My parents soon bought their first house, in Willingboro, New Jersey. The move was overly ambitious, and within a year they discovered they could not afford the mortgage on the four-bedroom house. Switching to Plan B, we moved to my paternal great-grandfather Sam, Sr.,’s house, recently vacated by his passing, in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania. In that one rent-free year, they saved enough to buy another, more modest house in Willingboro, in a development of attached town houses. Our neighbors were mostly young professionals at the start of their careers.
My parents threw parties. They attended parties. My father was generally at ease among friends and acquaintances unless someone made what he might consider to be an intellectual comment, in which case he turned competitive. Standing among some of the other dads at a cookout once, my father got caught up in what he described as one neighbor’s insufferable self-importance. “Do you remember him?” my father asked me. “He was such a dickhead. Took every opportunity to remind us he was getting a Ph.D. at Temple.”
It seems the guy had noticed a plane overhead, and wondered, with a sigh, “Just imagine what country, what remote part of the world they must be off to.”
“They’re not going,” my father said. “They’re coming. He’s on approach to runway twenty-two left at Philly International.” Responding to the question this man had failed to ask, my father conceded, “That’s what I do.”
When he was promoted from Northeast Philly to Newark International Airport, the news confirmed a narrative of progress that we had already begun taking for granted. Rather than move closer to Newark, my parents moved us to yet another house in Willingboro. My father’s commute to work was an hour and a half in each direction, but he would have it no other way. With three bedrooms and an in-ground swimming pool, this new house, in one of the tonier developments, meant the Pardlos had arrived. It was 1976. I was eight years old; my father was twenty-seven.
Ultimately, the 1981 strike was called to leverage demands that included improved working conditions, a reduced workweek, and the replacement of outmoded equipment. According to Bob Poli, the patco president, eighty-nine per cent of the workforce never made it to retirement because of stress. The reduced hours, it was hoped, would address safety concerns around controller fatigue. And another thing: the controllers and their families wanted earlier retirement for those few who actually made it that far, as well as an increase in pay.
Aside from collecting unemployment checks, controlling air traffic is one of the most stressful occupations a family can rely upon. That the job requires an extraordinary attention span and presence of mind is self-evident; the consequences for a mistake are fatal and existential. Think of Horton carrying all of Whoville on the head of a clover. Gerald McCormick described the conditions in his 1981 op-ed, explaining that a controller’s daily operations are “spelled out in an inch-thick [F.A.A.] manual of regulations that must be committed thoroughly to memory.” He continued:
There’s no time to refer to it when several aircraft are passing into, out of and through the controller’s assigned airspace, sometimes at the rate of five or six per minute. The controller must simultaneously give the correct instructions to each and log its call sign, type, altitude, route, destination, time and other data on a small strip of paper. This log becomes a legal document, so it must be perfect. At the same time, the controller must answer and make calls on up to 40 phone lines and keep the one or two (usually one) assisting controllers informed about each move.
Bring that controller—whose workday consists of giving instructions he hopes will not cause any of the green dots on the radar screen to disappear, instructions he hopes will not be met with screams from the cockpit transmissions in his ears—bring that controller home each day, and see how easily he adjusts to the tenderness of domesticity. In my father’s case, he maintained a regimen of isolation and self-medication that allowed him to cope with the constant pressure. Reagan would not establish mandatory drug testing until 1986. Evenings and “weekends” (which was whenever he had a day or two off of work, rarely consecutively), my father smoked a joint in his bedroom, and he kept on his nightstand, for many years before and after the strike, a quarter ounce of weed, rolling papers, roach clips, and a marble pipe, all on a bamboo serving tray he’d got in a tourist shop in the Bahamas.
Perhaps unwisely, the union voiced a number of ancillary demands, like more free “fam,” or familiarization flights—accommodations in the jump seat of commercial cockpits—which could be rationalized as necessary for controllers to get familiar with the pilots’ experience and the environment actually shaped by controllers’ instructions. The White House cast demands like these as unnecessary perks, and the public sympathized with Reagan, the chagrined Gipper (or, as Gore Vidal called him, “our acting President”). patco’s strike soon became a fiasco of diminishing morale and failed public relations.
The National Labor Relations Board (N.L.R.B.) is an independent government agency charged with enforcing the 1935 National Labor Relations Act. This act protects employees from being fired as the result of union activities. The 1938 Supreme Court decision in N.L.R.B. v. Mackay Radio, however, empowered employers to recruit strikebreakers, or “scabs,” to permanently replace striking workers. In this case, the Supreme Court determined that striking workers remained employees throughout the duration of the strike, but that employers were under no obligation to later discharge workers hired to replace those striking employees. Employees could strike without fear of being fired, but there was no guarantee their positions would still exist when the strike ended. Because of the Mackay doctrine, workers in the U.S. are ultimately dependent upon employers’ willingness to bargain in good faith. Reagan had the law in one hand, and federal agents in the other to enforce it. It hardly mattered that the government’s control on air traffic left controllers no viable alternative domestic market for their skills.
patco nonetheless believed the strike could work if they achieved and maintained one-hundred-per-cent participation of its members. If there were no scabs, the union believed its members would be understood as irreplaceable. Surely, it was absurd to think the F.A.A. could replace thirteen thousand specially trained controllers. And by demonstrating they had a monopoly on their skill set, patco leadership further believed they could counter the government’s monopoly on control towers. It was a gamble, and, essentially, they were betting against the house.
The moment the strike was called, the President, armed with several contingency plans, replaced striking controllers with a skeleton crew of military personnel, F.A.A. brass, new hires ushered through training, and, of course, controllers who had chosen not to strike. Rumors abounded that the skies were plagued with near-misses and flights rerouted to alternative airports, but no deaths were ever reported. (It was ruled that the crash of Air Florida Flight 90 into the frozen Potomac, on January 13, 1982, which killed seventy-eight, was due to errors by the pilot and crew.) The public suffered an inconvenience on the magnitude of a gas shortage or a natural disaster, and for that inconvenience, by and large, the public blamed patco. Although diehards continued to picket for weeks, the strike officially ended on its third day, August 5, 1981, the day that striking controllers were terminated. The Reagan Administration won an order decertifying patco altogether on October 22, 1981, and rewarded scabs handsomely for their loyalty. Many of their rewards mirrored patco’s original demands.
When I asked my father what it felt like to direct air traffic, I remember him saying, “Think of it as an upside-down wedding cake,” trying to depict for me the cone of sky the control tower is responsible for. “A colossal cake, upside down. Each layer larger with rising elevation.”
“I get it,” I said, and thought I did. When he started to describe the work using hypothetical flight names and numbers, “Continental Flight 145, a Boeing 737” seemed to me indistinguishable from “Pam Am Flight 867, an L-1011.” “How do you keep all that shit in your head?” I asked. For my sake, he tried to explain things as simply as possible, thinking of planes metaphorically, as ideas.
“Think of each plane as an ‘idea’ that pops into your head,” he said. “They’re all important ideas, but some aren’t as pressing as others. Regardless, you have to keep them all in mind. You can have more than a dozen ideas in mind at one time and you have to make sure they stay distinct. Let’s say Teddy Pendergrass might be one idea, for example. Or funnel cake; aluminum siding; potholes; the Dagobah system; Bimini. That would only be six aircrafts. We’re keeping it real simple. Somehow you have to keep them all located in your mind while you’re handing some off, exchanging their information with the other controllers. All your delicate ideas have to remain perfectly clear and distinct in your mind at all times.”
In other words, my father was prohibited from synthesizing information—the process by which knowledge is formed, the process by which we know something, rather than simply making its acquaintance. He was prohibited, in essence, from learning; he was mechanized, an arrow in the quiver, a rod in the fasces, proscribed to a bureaucratic engagement with data. “And you can’t mix them up with anyone else’s ideas. Fortunately, everyone in the tower keeps a regular pattern of thought, so you have to know those patterns in addition to your own. With your co-workers it’s like having an unending argument with multiple wives; you have to be able to read everyone’s mind, and predict their next thoughts, but you have to do it without getting distracted by real or imagined embellishments.”
“What makes it tricky,” my father said, “is that some of your ideas? You can sense them, but they haven’t really occurred to you yet. You don’t yet have words for them. These make up the rhythm of arrivals and departures that you know will occupy the major routes at routine intervals. They’re just a feeling pricking your ears. Each idea is unique—some are slow to reach you and sink like jellyfish while others swoop in like flying squirrels—but they all fit into the same physical grammar. More than anything else, the one rule that matters is spacing. The one true element of the universe: emptiness, incremental negations, putting nothings between somethings—that’s what makes order of the chaos.”
No plane can arrive or depart of its own volition because controllers determine the movement of every aircraft on the ground and in the air. Granted, some planes need to make an emergency landing (bird strike, mechanical failure, etc.), and jump into the mix unexpectedly. And then some planes just need to pass through the airspace without landing. Each airline is a small nation unto itself, with its own schedules and rhythms, but at the end of the day the control tower dictates who comes and goes, and when. This makes a sky full of pilots like an orchestra of musicians from wildly varying cultural backgrounds. They have to be made to play in harmony and in rhythm, but can’t ever be allowed to hear one another’s instruments.
At Newark International, my father, among a crew of five, could be in radio contact with eighteen to twenty flights an hour, weaving them through airspace stocked with seven hundred and fifty to a thousand aircraft. Like some byzantine highway interchange in the sky—the kind of thing you see outside Dallas, for example. And if the orchestration were ever to falter? A traffic jam, or worse. When the planes are made to circle they are said to be “stacked.” Needless to say, this makes everybody nervous.
If I were to point out what he’s overlooked in his description, my father would shrug, as if to say, “Well, yeah, there’s that, too.” For example, each plane, from the turboprop regional jet to the 747, behaves differently in the wind. And the wind itself: tracking wind speeds associated with an advancing air mass is but a small part of the general meteorological chops everyone in the tower must have. Looking at the regional picture, the Newark tower must keep up-to-the-minute tabs on traffic and weather conditions at J.F.K. and LaGuardia as well. But global weather patterns are the ultimate concern.
“What do I miss about the tower? The weather,” he said. “I miss watching it rain on half the airport.” He described watching a raincloud float in and burst like a confetti cannon above the hangars to the east while the sun sparked like an elevated train over the western parking lot, bejewelling car windshields. Such was the view from Olympus.
In “Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America,” Joseph A. McCartin explains that, during training, controllers were “taught to speak in a quick, clear, calm, and confident manner in the most stressful situations so they never distracted or concerned the pilots with whom they communicated, no matter how harried or worried they felt.”
At home, though, my dad’s language was often dismissive, hostile, and unpredictable, almost baffling. He was fond of saying “Children should be seen and not heard,” but there were indications that he could barely tolerate the sight of children, either. A puzzlingly complex command like “Go tell your mother she wants you,” intended to stun you into perplexity, meant he truly wanted you gone. More slapstick directives, however, might have indicated only that he found your presence annoying. “Go play in traffic,” he might say. “Go run around the block a few times” and “Put your fist in your mouth and swallow” were some of his more innocuous marching orders.
When he was at work in the tower, his language had to be indelible, inexorable, capable of bending spoons. Subtext, allusion, nuance, dramatic irony: these were the smithies upon which mistakes were forged. Thought had to be equal to articulation. No art. The kind of speech that lives relied upon. So many winged aluminum cartons of fragile eggs. Each of the, say, two hundred and fifty passengers on each flight hanging unwittingly on each morpheme. Our father, Air-Traffic Controller. He was that most avid reader—of auspices, time signatures and frequencies, topography, and relief. Were he to nod off or blink, all heaven might fall.
Discussing training conditions during the earlier period in the professionalization of air-traffic control—the nineteen-fifties—McCartin writes, “At times the training regime could border on sadistic. As young developmentals handled traffic with a senior controller at their side, instructors would sometimes stand behind them, nattering in their ears, ‘Why’re you doing that? What was that for? Look at that guy!’ Their purpose was to weed out anyone who could not handle pressure.” This practice must still have been popular by the time my father reached the academy. I need only look at the evidence of my own upbringing. Where else would he have adopted his signature parenting style?
My dad used questions to catch me off guard. His questions, like sniper fire, abrupt and random, defied anticipation and, therefore, preparation. “Bridge Keepers,” I called them, after the scene in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” For always my quest was arrested at that cliff side, and across the fog-veiled Gorge of Eternal Peril stood my father’s love. “What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?” My father’s game came across as cruel.
“A first-rate intelligence,” my father would say, “is one on which nothing is lost.” And this one: “Learning is just a kind of remembering.”
At best, he felt teachers were glorified grief counsellors assigned to help unfortunate kids cope with the fact of their own stupidity. At worst, in the great soup kitchens of public education, most teachers were there just to ladle out the slop. His job as a parent, on the other hand, was to create the conditions under which my innate (read: genetic) intelligence could find expression. It was under similar circumstances that controllers bonded in opposition to the administration. McCartin quotes one disenchanted controller bemoaning the “ ‘father-son relationship’ the F.A.A. had tried to cultivate between management and labor.” The feeling was that, “ ‘like many fathers,’ the F.A.A. had ‘failed to prepare for the day when its sons would grow up.’ “ This feeling, I know it well.
With the paranoia of an ailing patriarch, the F.A.A. gave psychological evaluations that controllers resentfully referred to as “psycho tests.” These tests, given as late as 1965, were intended to flush out social and emotional nonconformists who, presumably damaged by the stresses of training and prolonged “development” on the job, might disrupt the delicate ecosystem of the tower. As McCartin notes, controllers were required “to take a written personality test. . . . If they scored poorly, they were scheduled for a psychiatric evaluation. If that went badly, they could be disqualified from controlling air traffic. Any controller who appealed his disqualification had to pay the expenses of his case review.” The purportedly objective “psycho tests” prompted controllers “to agree or disagree with statements like, ‘I admire the beauty of a fairy tale more than that of a well-made gun.’ “ Considering that the people who were attracted to, and could survive training for, a career in air-traffic control were often social and emotional nonconformists, these tests were widely understood to be coercive, if not punitive.
The 1981 air-traffic-controller strike was, among other things, a case study in class ambition. As much as the conflict concerned actual working conditions, the strike was motivated by the desire to shift the public perception of air-traffic controllers and their work to match the high esteem the controllers had for themselves. They wanted to be recognized on equal footing with pilots, as legitimate professionals.
The earliest controllers were drawn from the ranks of the military, and the earliest officials of what would become the F.A.A. were from the ranks of journeymen controllers. By the late nineteen-sixties, as the job became more specialized and professional, recruiting efforts had increased the number of controllers with civilian backgrounds. Those new employees, who would be analogous to enlisted personnel, and who now served under a class of government officials that likened itself to an officer class, had no clue about, nor inclination toward, the kind of deference and humility such a relationship should entail. Seen from the other side, the rookies were offensively ignorant of military bearing. They no longer wore ties. Some even responded to orders by first asking, “Why?”
These new civilian controllers formed what, for that time, was a shockingly diverse workforce: merit among them was determined not by pedigree or seniority but by swagger; the less likely one was to blink or flinch or allow himself to be punked, the more that person could be trusted on the job. Though insufficient in the eyes of the old guard, it was a kind of discipline, that façade, a kind of bearing. In 1985, my father, still in the public eye four years after the strike, described the job to a Knight Ridder reporter: “It was like you were a gunfighter and it was always high noon. You strap on the guns, fan back the jacket, grab the microphone and see how many you can stand.”
On September 4, 1981, the Associated Press quoted my father speaking at a labor rally in support of patco. Reminding his audience of Reagan’s pedigree as a union boss (Reagan was president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1947 to 1952, and in 1959 and 1960), my dad told the sympathetic crowd in Elizabeth, New Jersey, “We want to send a message to the former union president who occupies the Oval Office. If you crush patco, we know our union could be next.” That month, speaking to the Socialist Worker, one of the few papers still supportive of the by now abandoned strike, his tone was similarly prophetic:
The vast majority of the people have to understand what’s going on here—union busting tactics being used against 12,000 highly skilled workers. If they don’t, it sounds the death knell for unionism. I mean what’s being done right now will be the precedent for all labor/management struggles.
In addition to being blackballed from the only job their specialized training qualified them to do, controllers who refused the President’s deadline faced repercussions in their communities. Their families suffered. After school started that September, my seventh-grade history teacher assured me, with spiteful glee, that my father would never get his job back. Our family doctor began casually cancelling our appointments. Weeks after the President’s announcement, my mother caught federal marshals following me around the neighborhood as I rode my bicycle to a friend’s house to play.
My father was unemployed for a full year before he took a job as a night watchman at a warehouse. He had gone back on the speaker’s circuit, too, and landed high-paying dates at several colleges. In this time of resourcefulness under duress, we made the most of our rations of government cheese. It was a minor holiday, the day the cheese arrived. Big as a shoebox, the taxicab-colored block of cheddar played a large role in our diet. Grilled-cheese sandwiches, yes; but gooey slabs topped all our carbs, too, as well as our burgers, eggs, and sauces. Government cheese went with all the groceries we claimed with our fistfuls of food stamps. Even when P.S.E. & G. turned off the heat and electricity, the cheese was there for us, proving its power to comfort. We made do, the ceiling in our living room sooty from the fumes of a kerosene heater while, for lack of a fridge, we kept the cheese and other dairy products in a cooler that we dug into the snow outside the sliding glass door.
The adversity didn’t seem entirely real to me. My parents sheltered me from their fears and frustrations, while serendipity seemed to follow us on fairy wings, tapping our foreheads each night with its magic wand. The bank holding the mortgage on our house for some reason stopped sending the note for a while. I wasn’t sure what my mother meant by this when she recounted the story, because I’m so rooted in a present where robot bankers siphon their monthly tribute noiselessly from our online accounts, but, for whatever reason, the monthly mortgage bill stopped arriving in the mail, and my parents didn’t go asking questions. A full year and half later, a bank executive called to say my parent’s mortgage file had been discovered behind a filing cabinet. It was an administrative error, the bank official said, and my parents were able to work out an arrangement to make up the missing balance.
Still, I considered what the strike had cost my family. Eventually, my father landed what turned out to be a short-lived (as a consequence of random drug testing) position with septa, the Philadelphia regional-transit authority, where he first worked as a switchman, manually transferring trains from one track to another. One icy winter night, I got to see the shack, no bigger than an ice fisherman’s, where he warmed his feet in front of a space heater. My mother, baby brother, and I took him soup and coffee. I was in high school, old enough to see shame in the creases of his face.
Although he would eventually become a train dispatcher for New Jersey Transit, and retire as a union representative for the American Train Dispatchers Association, there was a wounded quality he never quite shook. He joked, that night on the periphery of the dark rail yard, that he had taken his life’s work back to its root essentials: one track, one switch, one purpose.
Gregory Pardlo is the author of “Digest,” the winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.