Wednesday, October 2, 2013
We were waiting on a plane to fly home from Las Vegas a few weeks ago when my attention was caught by the wing of the plane. I sat there, watching idly out the window as the pilot tested the flaps and revved the engine, and it made me think of Dad. He was an engineer with Boeing for twenty-five years, working on many different planes and many of the different systems that make up a plane. For a few years he worked on the Black Box, then moved to flight controls, and even to testing, going up in the prototype planes all day while the pilots took off, landed, circled, tried to get lost, and generally tested the systems he had designed. In fact, as the dementia moved in on him, this was the one thing he remembered about his work and he would tell me the story over and over.
Every time I flew with him, he would check out the airplane and tell me about the various systems and workings. His favorite moment was always when the plane was racing down the runway, preparing to take off. It seemed as if he knew everything there was to know about planes. One time I asked him about designing and changing things and asked how they knew something would work or not. He explained about the calculations involved and the physics and math formulas that would tell you whether or not a system would work or a wing could take weight and stress. He told me that before computers, of course, they had to compute the formulae by themselves with the help of slide rules and blackboards. As I sat there, I remembered that conversation and also that when I cleaned out the house I had unearthed his slide rule – a strange, archaic, yet fascinating piece of machinery that I could never hope to decipher.
Plane wings are a modern marvel, actually. Flaps go up, sections come down, a wing’s entire structure can change so that flight – and landing – can occur. A wing can become small and aerodynamic to promote quick motion, or it can become bigger and bulkier to aid slowing down. As I sat there, a few questions occurred to me – things about structure and flight I was suddenly curious about. And for a few seconds I thought to myself, “I’ll ask Dad, he’ll know.” And then, of course, I remembered that he wouldn’t. All of that knowledge and understanding, gone. We lose so much when we lose someone to dementia - all of their intelligence and knowledge and memories.
From now on, I’ll have to find out about planes and how they work on my own – thank goodness for Google – but it still makes me sad that Dad will never talk about flight controls again, or the joys of sending a plane off course to test the autopilot, and he’ll never experience the excitement of take-off one more time.