21 November 2009

Dispatches From the Line MK.VII

With the imminent arrival of cold and snow here in Michigan, I thought it appropriate to resurrect an old series with a look into some of the "finer" points of working outside in a Michigan Winter.

On Winter at the Airport.

I've never been a huge fan of ice and snow. I would choose the hottest temperatures on record in Michigan any day over anything below 40 degrees. I'll take flip flops over shoes or boots any time of the year.

Yet I have found that there is something deep and satisfying about working in the cold, and have felt that for most of my life.

Perhaps it is the knowledge that not many people would willingly go out in such conditions, yet I do. There is the sense that I have answered a question which many do not even ask: I have been tested against the very worst that Michigan has to offer, and have come through relatively unscathed.

When I first started at the airport, I was brought on specifically to assist part time with winter operations. Obviously weather always has a direct impact on any flight operations, yet winter has special conditions that require special attention. I began my aviation career 60 feet above the ramp, open to the snow and the blowing cold, covered in steaming hot glycol, in a bucket just barely big enough for one person. The deice season was upon us, and I found myself in the thick of the snow and cold.

The work was challenging and physical, and I enjoyed it immensely. I still look back on de-ice operations with a mixture of disdain and fondness I can never quite articulate.

I suppose it's mostly because winter always seems to be the season we love to hate. We hate the cold cars, the icy roads, the slush, the salt, the shoveling.

On the flip side of the coin, there is not much more peaceful than the softly falling snow, or much more quiet and reserved as the calm of a clear winter night. The cold air energizes us as it fills our lungs. We can see clearer and breathe deeper.

The always loud and chaotic airport is somehow calmed and hushed by the snow. Even my thick work boots make no noise on the way out to my fuel truck.

Many years ago, Mike and I would share cigarettes and coffee outside as the snow fell around us. It was cold, way too cold for intelligent people to be outside, but we still burned our mouths on the coffee and froze our fingers around our cigarettes. When we would go back in, we had sometimes close to an inch of snow on our heads and shoulders.

I look back on the late nights spent putting airplanes in the hangar. Most times we would start around 8 or 9PM, but some nights we wouldn't be able to start until after midnight. Everyone is tired, nobody feels like being there, but we're there anyway, because it's our job. We look scruffy with all our layers on, like the shop-worn and weather-worn blue collar knuckle draggers we are. Phil never wears gloves, no matter how cold it is. A Carhartt jacket and maybe some overalls is all he wears for the cold. Jeremy has to shave twice a day, but for the winter he grows his massive beard out. It is red and glorious. Clint is wearing a ski mask and goggles with his cold weather gear. I don't know why he's wearing the goggles, but the mask is because Clint probably couldn't grow a beard if he drank Rogaine. Andy's goatee has grown past his collar, and nobody has said anything yet. We're taking bets on when they do.

Then there's me, with all my winter gear on, including my scarf, which is wrapped around the top of my head and across my face, covering everything except my eyes, which are covered by my ski goggles. The correct name for my scarf is a shemagh, or keffiyeh. It might be a bit off-putting to see a person working at an airport wearing something like that, but I have to say, it's probably the best piece of cold-weather gear I have. It's warmer than you think it would be, I can use it as a scarf, or head wrap, or total head cover, or as a hat. Besides that, after winter is over, it goes into my paintball gear box and is used as a towel, sweatband, and neck protection.

Winter forces us to deal with Creation on a personal basis. It challenges us, complicating even the most mundane of activities. It's no longer simply a drive to work. It's a challenge to stay on the road and avoid other drivers. And that's after the driveway is clear to a point where the car can get out of the garage. When one works outside, simple tasks are made harder by the weather. Cold, stiff fingers are hard to move through stiff, frozen gloves. Thick, heavy boots fight through drifts, and a ten-minute walk easily turns into twenty. Machines break, engines don't run well, hangar doors freeze shut.

It is hard to work outside in the winter. But I think the biggest challenge is to accept this season as well as the others, and look forward to the day when we can, once again, wear our flip flops.


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