Fatherhood: The Different Faces of Courage
September 11, 2001. Everyone remembers what they were doing that day. But what was your father doing? What about the myriad of fathers who navigated the intensities of that day, and who navigate innumerable other intensities each day – for us?
I had an interesting vantage point on that day. I was working for Cessna Aircraft, in the Citation Service Center on that morning. Because we had continuous radio from the air traffic controllers (so that we could anticipate customer aircraft arrivals), I heard the loud, scratchy, radio-static-buzz that killed all other communication.
Immediately I heard the commander at nearby McConnell Air Force Base announce that he had defensive aircraft in the air, then command all aircraft to land immediately or be fired upon. My stomach felt like ice.
I was outside on the ramp; the sky above me was swarming with metal birds of all sizes. I watched as our small service runway filled with planes – wingtip to wingtip – in under 2 minutes.
I ran from the hangar to the main office and saw the footage of a smoking tower on one of our news screens. I remember my heart racing as the director of our aircraft center started security measures for our location, anticipating that aircraft manufacturers are targets during times of war. I ran back to the hangar to see what needed to be done. We went into war mode. It was like I was living in a movie.
The hangars and office overflowed with pilots, flight crews, mechanics, and customers. After about 2 hours of packing people in like sardines in our hangar and office, things quieted. We waited and watched for other attacks.
The air smelled like sweat, burned rubber smoke, black coffee, and aircraft fuel. But it was quiet now. So my attention turned to the men sitting next to me. And I listened.
“Joe” thought he was having a heart attack, but his chest pain ebbed and his respirations slowed as we talked. He told me about how he had flown in Vietnam. He thought that now, since he was flying a corporate jet for an agricultural business, he would never again face the threat of being fired upon. He was having flashbacks that he hadn’t seen in years, memories of dogfights over Southeast Asia. When his anxiety faded, he sat silently while I held his cup of coffee.
I listened to “Bob” speak loudly, as he bounced around the room, weaving in and out of the crowd. He told me about how he had been an A&P mechanic during the Gulf War, but had always been on the ground when firefights happened. Things like this weren’t supposed to happen while mechanics were in the plane. This was stuff for pilots, not him. He wanted me to follow him around, closely, with extra water bottles, as he walked and talked, blowing off steam.
Then there was “Jon.” Jon was a French executive with businesses in the US, all of the BRIC countries, and Saudi Arabia. His company bought a private jet so that he wouldn’t have to deal with “other people’s agendas” in regards to international travel. We had previously repaired bullet holes in his aircraft’s fuselage. Jon piloted his own craft and was worried, but not overly, about the events of the day. He sat in the lobby, munching a donut and chatting with me about how I’d make a great 3rd wife for one of his colleagues in Saudi Arabia.
Finally, there was “Will.” Will flew cargo flights for UPS and his family lived in New York. His wife worked in the World Trade Center. Will called her cell phone every five minutes for 3 hours. When his cell phone battery died, I brought him a landline. He wanted me to just sit; while he called, and called and called. In between calls, he would pace the crowded room and tell me about how they had just celebrated an anniversary or about their last family vacation. When he finally connected with her, and learned that she had gotten out and gathered their children to her sister’s home, he wept and wept; unaware, uncaring of the men around him.
As Will wept, more than a few of the gruff, old, men around him sniffed and coughed back tears. The sophisticated, stylish executives tilted back their heads and swallowed their own tears. Everyone was silent.
It’s amazing to me how men handle pressure, grief, fear, relief. What amazing creations we are, to be able to navigate such intensities. The more I listen, the more I respect men. The more I love and honor fathers. So as I listen to fathers describe the experience they want for their families, the more I am reminded that I became a doula, a listener, long before my work began with birth.