You’ve maybe read about it – Maslow’s hierarchy of needs : It starts with the physiological (think: food and shelter) and ramps up to self-actualization. I learned about it, for no reason I can now remember, while a plebe midshipman at the trade school on the Severn.
We were led to believe that all human life existed on a scale of needs, that satisfying the foundational requirements gave us the opportunity (if not the surety) of progressing up the ladder. Someday, if we played our cards right and were lucky, sheltered, well fed, loved, possessed of adequate self-esteem etc. – someday, we’d be self-actualized. Maybe even highly self-actualized. Could happen.
One could always hope.
But what no one ever told us was how quickly we could find ourselves going from the top of the hierarchy to the bottom again.
But I found out one day. All. By. My. Self.
So it’s a beautiful day in sunny southern California, and it’s time to go home. To Key West, Florida. A duty station that, taken as a whole, didn’t entirely suck.
I’d just finished the adversary course at the Navy Fighter Weapons School – TOPGUN (one word, all caps, don’t ask), the highlight of my professional life up until that point. Great training, great people, in a great location. It was… great.
But now it was time to go home, in my trusty F-16N Viper. Which was pretty much the fighter pilot’s equivalent of crack cocaine, administered via stick and throttle. What a great jet.
So I guzzled a few cups of coffee, and then a couple more, and called that breakfast, before filing my flight plan. I headed outside with my TOPGUN patch on my shoulder, and a bit more swagger in my walk than had been witnessed heretofore. I then pre-flighted the jet carefully before pooting off into the FAA high altitude route structure, laughing at my earth-bound peers. Rocked back a casual 30 degrees from the vertical in my F-16 barcalounger, I reached cruising altitude, dobbered up my inflight winds and found that they were much higher than forecast. Cool! Flying from west to east, that meant that I’d get to my destination much sooner than I’d flight planned for.
In fact… couldn’t I? Yes. Yes, I could.
A little more dobbering around on destinations down the route led me to understand that I could change my destination from Dallas/Fort Worth to Alexandria, Louisiana, a few hundred more miles further down the track. From there it was only a hop, skip and a jump to Key West – I could make the cross country in two legs, vice three. Perfect. I checked the inflight guide to ensure that the field would be open, called a weather service station to make sure there weren’t any surprises (scattered rain-showers, nothing to worry about) and filed an in-flight change to the plan with the Air Route Traffic Control Center. A DRAFT, it was called:
Route of flight
Fuel on board, in minutes
Time en route, in minutes.
In short order, everything was approved, and I changed steerpoints from Dallas to Alexandria. Another hour of flight time. No problem.
Except, as soon as my flight plan change was approved, I started to feel a little… pressure. A little over-pressure, to be precise. In fact, it was a bladder over-pressure warning I was receiving. Shouldn’t be a problem – just reach there into your G-suit pocket and pull out a piddle pack. Precisely made for the purpose! Use once, then toss aside!
Alas, poor Lex – piddle pack, there was none.
A setback, to be sure, but nothing dire. Nothing at first, nothing at all. Just a dull buzz in the back of my mind, a minor discomfort there below my survival gear, the pit of my stomach, the hollow of my soul, my oomphalos. But as the miles clicked slowly by, and the minute hand swept its agonizingly slow pace round the clock, what had started as a mere desire turned gradually into discomfort, before becoming actual pain. I considered re-filing my flight plan again in flight, but could not come up with a plausible reason, one which would not discredit the service.
No. Whatever happened I must not complain.
So I soldiered on, while the clock seemed to slow, and then freeze. Pain turned to agony, the kind of exquisite, tearful hurt which made it hard to think of anything else. I ripped into my navigation bag, looking for anything which might hold just a little of the problem: Nothing.
Finally! Center started me on my descent into the field, and passed me off to approach – who told me of the rain-showers on final approach at ten miles, and offered me the overhead break to enter the landing pattern. Now, there are few men, if any, living or dead, who can legitimately claim to love pullling g’s more than your humble scribe – and yet, at that moment, I would have traded all the tea in China against anything that would require me to put any move on the jet which might, at this moment where everything trembled in the balance, inflate the g-suit wrapped around my waist.
No, thank you, I replied. The straight-in approach will be fine.
As forecast, I entered the rain-shower at ten miles and was treated to the lovely display of the rain water trickling down the sides of the clamshell canopy. Not much longer now, but Oh, my God! As soon as I got the jet shut down I was going to take care of business right there on the flight line.
Out of the clouds, three down and locked and the field in sight through streaming eyes. A landing, a firm, no-nonsense I’m-not-screwing-around landing which plunked me authoritatively down upon terra firma. Expedited taxi instructions to parking. The joy of shutting the motor down, unstrapping, opening the canopy. The endless seconds while the lineman hoisted the boarding ladder up to the canopy rail. Carly Simon’s voice singing in my head: “Anticipation”
Climbing out of the jet hunched over, unable to stand fully erect, in a delirium of physiological need I saw – the young air force officer, his wife and young children – they’d just happened by, and Daddy wanted to show the children a Real Fighter! Come on, kids!
All pretense to civilization, self-actualization, self-esteem, love, shelter and food faded to nothingness, to oblivion. With a low, animal moan, I shambled away, hunched over, clutching at myself until I reached Base Operations. Through sign language as much as speech, I made my need known. Moments later, trembling and shaking, the deed was done.
And then I straightened up, swaggered back outside and filed my flight plan for my final destination. Because as quickly as you can descend the hierarchy, you can climb back up again. And having scored a piddle pack for the final leg (just in case!), I was very highly self-actualized.