Chapter 15 – Flying Pig Squadron
Dad's finally decided to call it a day at ELMSCO; he's stepping down from the Board, and he'll be formally appointing me as his successor at the Board meeting today. And after the meeting, we'll be hosting a cocktail reception at a little urban farm sponsored by our company; the farm was my idea, my way of helping to put some life back into inner-city Detroit. To me, this little project goes beyond the veneer of corporate social responsibility, because I've got a strong personal interest in it too; it is, after all, a place where Fred spent some of the formative years of his life.
"Anne, you've done the Elliot name proud," he'd said when he told me of his decision. It was the first time he ever said anything like this to me, and I was completely unprepared for the way I melted inside when I heard it. For years – decades – I'd been telling myself that the Elliot name wasn't important to me; that what really mattered were my own values of fairness and integrity. But at that point, it dawned on me that my values and the Elliot name weren't at odds after all; I'd developed my own definition of what it means to be an Elliot, and my own particular brand of the Elliot pride. Pride doesn't have to be arrogance, necessarily. It can be couched in dignity - dignity, restraint and a certain sense of refinement. That's what the Elliot name means to me now, and I'm proud to be a part of the Elliot family at this very moment. Bringing ELMSCO back to its full former glory took seven years of long, hard work; but this year we've finally managed to clear the company's debt, and we can face the world with our heads held high again. And at ELMSCO, I've been able to recapture a little of the magic that drew me to aviation so many years ago; the euphoria of rolling out a brand-new airplane that I'd always dreamed about. Because that magic is the same when you see any project of your own conception come into being; and for me, I experienced it whenever ELMSCO came up with a new product line, or when we launched our very own supply chain management software, a brainchild of mine that brought our customer service to a new level.
Today, I'm going to become an ELMSCO Board member. The prospect is as scary as it is exhilarating; when I look at myself in the mirror, with a curling iron in one hand and a can of hairspray in the other, trying to get those Thatcher-esque curls just right, I wonder if I really have grown big enough to fill those lofty shoes.
"Fred, I wish I had more credibility," I say to my computer screen. I'm video-conferencing with Fred to pysch myself up; he's in London right now, and he'll spend the night there before his return flight.
"Anne, you've always had a lot of credibility. Once you open your mouth, nobody would ever doubt that. In fact, you already had credibility when I first got to know you, back when we were just eighteen going on nineteen. And you've gained a lot of maturity since then. Believe me - you've only been getting better and better."
"I don't just mean that kind of credibility," I say, putting the curling iron and the hairspray down in frustration; somehow, no matter what I do, my hair just won't curl the way I want it to. And the straight-haired girl – I mean lady – in the mirror looks much too young to be sitting on the ELMSCO Board. "I want people to take me seriously the minute they look at me, and I'm going to be a Board member now. That makes things different. Board members are supposed to be formidable."
"You're formidable all right; at least, you're formidable to me, and I'm sure our kids will agree," Fred says with a chuckle. "OK. Enough of joking, I'm dead serious now. I don't think you need to look like a tiger lady to be respected or successful at work; aren't you getting a lot of respect already? Sometimes, it's good to keep that little touch of femininity… that's exactly what I love about you."
The lady I see in the mirror, the one Fred sees on his computer screen, is exactly the same straight-haired girl of five minutes ago, but I see her with different eyes now. And I reach for the hairbrush instead of the curling iron, because I realize that I don't have to force myself to look like Thatcher, or anyone else, to be the dignified dame that I want to be. Frederick was absolutely right; I, Anne Elliot Wentworth, am that lady already just the way I am.
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is Frederick Wentworth, your captain speaking. In a few minutes, we will be commencing our descent into Detroit Metropolitan Airport…"
Being Captain Wentworth isn't exactly glamorous; not when the vessel I'm captaining is a Boeing 787 Dreamliner on scheduled service. But amongst all the standard procedures I go through on every flight, this is the one I'll never get tired of, because every time I say those words, I'm welcoming my passengers to a place that's very special to me; what I'm really telling them is, "Welcome to my home."
It's been a long time since I was part of an Air Force squadron; and now, I'm still working towards a place in a squadron of a completely different kind – the Flying Pig Squadron of the Cincinnati Marathon. See, everything started with a flying pig, so Anne and I thought it'd be fun to celebrate our being together by going to the Cincinnati Flying Pig Marathon every year. You become part of the squadron when you've completed ten full marathons, and I've been doing this for seven years already, so I'm more than halfway there by now. Anne's always there to cheer me on but she doesn't run marathons anymore, not after our sons Marshall and Lionel were born; she's been taking it easy, running for fitness and leisure instead. I guess our priorities just have to change as we move on to different stages of our lives.
Back when I was Captain Wentworth and then Major Wentworth in the Air Force, I never thought there'd be a possibility I could be happier outside the military than in it. I'd probably have felt very differently if I'd been deployed to war for the entire ten years, but luckily for me, I wasn't. I still have some very good memories of my Air Force days: the camaraderie I experienced during UPT; my stints as a test pilot where I got a chance to exercise my mind as well as my reflexes, while allowing me to collaborate closely with Harville again in his position at Lockheed; and of course, that year I performed with the Thunderbirds and felt like a rock star.
If there's one part of my history as a fighter pilot that I'd like to change, though, it's that I wish I'd never had to go to war in the first place. War is a very grey concept – at the beginning, I felt patriotic thinking about what 9-11 had done to us and our country, thinking I was going out there to right a big, huge, gigantic wrong. But then when I was out there, seeing the kind of devastation I was causing, it didn't seem to be so right anymore. To be successful as a soldier, you've got to desensitize yourself, though, and so that's exactly what I did, just to carry on and survive. Like all soldiers, I did get nightmares too, only I learned how to live through them. I learned to toughen myself up so that I'd be virtually invulnerable; I was Captain Wentworth after all.
I might've believed myself to be invulnerable as long as I was Captain Wentworth in the US Air Force; but when my service obligation ended and Sophia begged me to move back to Detroit, I felt more vulnerable than ever before. You see, the military was the only life I'd known up till then, and I guess I could've gotten drunk off my success. In the Air Force, I was a hero; but civilian life, family life, that was entirely alien to me. I'd had a shot at reaching out for a proper family life once, when I proposed to Anne, and I'd failed miserably in that attempt.
But now, with 20/20 hindsight of course, I know I couldn't possibly have chosen a better path in life, because I'm much happier being the Captain Wentworth I am now than the Captain Wentworth I used to be in the past. I'm no longer a nomad, a roving vagabond; I've got stability, permanence and a wonderful family to live for. I'm not sure if I could still pass for being a dashing military hero today; I try my very best to keep the middle-age spread at bay, but I know that at my age, I'd have been grounded for good long ago even if I'd stayed put in the Air Force. When my family's there, though, it doesn't matter whether I'm at the helm of a fighter jet or an airliner; I'm still a hero to them just the same. Sophia and Tiffany did me the best favor of my life the day they brought me back to Detroit, and I guess Anne has too, when she married me and we set up our home together. They've humanized me.
This is Frederick Wentworth, your captain speaking. On behalf of all my crew aboard Delta Airlines Flight DL5 from London to Detroit, it has been a pleasure serving you and we hope you have enjoyed the flight. We will be commencing our descent into Detroit Metropolitan Airport shortly, and the estimated time of arrival at our gate will be 2:05 pm local time. The weather is partly cloudy, and the ground temperature is approximately 45 degrees Fahrenheit. If Detroit is your final destination, we wish you a warm welcome home; and if you are continuing onto another flight, we wish you a pleasant onward journey to your final destination. Cabin crew, to your landing stations please.
Marshall (as dictated to Anne)
Hi. My name's Marshall. Marshall Wentworth. I'm five years old, and I'm in kindergarten. I brought Flat Daddy to school for Show and Tell today. Daddy's a Captain and he flies a big airplane. He flies a lot, but he always comes back because he loves us very much. Mommy loves us, too. She's like an angel. She's good like an angel, and she's pretty like an angel. And she sings like an angel too. And I've got a little brother, his name's Lionel. But we always call him Leo. He's three years old. Sometimes he's cute, but sometimes he makes me real mad. But I love him anyway. And then there's Aunt Sophie, and Aunt Mary, and Uncle Charles, and Great-Uncle Henry, and Great-Aunt Lucy, and my cousins. I've got three cousins: their names are Charlie, Wally and Tiffany. There's also Uncle Ed in England, we talk to him on the computer on Saturdays. And Mommy says there's Grandpa Walter and Aunt Liz too, but they don't see us very much. We live in Detroit. This is my home, and this is my family. And I love them. All of them.
Today has to be the worst day of my life ever, because Tiger Kelly stuffed me into a locker at school. Yup, that's right; he STUFFED ME IN A LOCKER. I just couldn't stand it, you know, the way he was chatting up Tiffany and all. She's gotten to be real pretty now, and I guess that's why all the guys at school are going after her, but I hate the sight of her hanging out with a kid like Tiger, and that's why I butted in to tell him not to talk to her again. That's when Tiger tossed me in.
"Go back to where you belong, Charlie Brown," he'd said.
The worst part of it was this – the locker door couldn't close properly with me in it, and when I pushed myself back out, everyone was there watching the show. I've never felt so embarrassed before.
And Mom wasn't any help at all, just like I expected. She just kept going on and on about how crummy the school system is, and how she should've homeschooled me and Wally instead. I wouldn't want that, for sure; being stuck at home with Mom all day is just as bad as any of the teasing I get at school. As for Grandpa and Grandma, they said that all this is part and parcel of life, and that I'd get over it. I wouldn't expect them to understand, because they keep telling us kids about how they had it so hard growing up right after World War II, and how we got it so good compared to them. Wally just laughed, until I told him if he didn't stop, I'd stuff him in a locker to show him what it was like.
So nobody at home has any idea about how crummy I feel, and that's why I'm walking over to Uncle Fred and Aunt Anne's house. I'm sure Aunt Anne will know exactly what to say to make me feel better; she always does. Only thing is, when I get there, it turns out Uncle Fred's the one who's at home today; I guess this must be one of those days he isn't flying.
"Where's Aunt Anne?" I ask. "I wanna talk to her."
"She hasn't come home from the office yet," Uncle Fred says. "What is it, Charles?"
He's been calling me "Charles" since I was ten; he'd said I was growing into a man, and so he'd start treating me like one. But everyone else still calls me "Charlie", and Mom still hugs and kisses me in public, even though I've told her not to do it so many times. Most of the time I like it that Uncle Fred treats me like I'm grown up, but today, I just want someone to baby me and give me some sympathy, and I know that's not what I'm going to get from Uncle Fred.
I don't really want to tell him, but I don't have a choice, do I?
"Let's go over there to talk," I say, pointing to the farthest corner of the living room, away from where Marshall and Leo are playing. It's bad enough that Wally knows already, and this is one of the things I hope my little cousins will never get to hear about. "It's private."
"Your grandpa's right," says Uncle Fred after he hears my sad story. "Such things happen all the time and you'll have to learn how to deal with this, and worse, as you grow older. I should know – I've been thrown into a locker before, and I was miserable about it just the way you are, but a lot of worse things have happened to me before and after that incident, and I still survived. I'm still in one piece, aren't I?"
"You're kidding me," I scoff. Uncle Fred used to make up all kinds of tall tales to make me and Wally laugh when we were little kids, and I'm pretty sure this is yet another one of them. "You're Captain Wentworth. You're a hero. And I've always wanted to be just like you when I grow up. Nobody would ever stuff you into a locker; they wouldn't dare. And besides, you wouldn't fit into one. I don't, and I'm only thirteen."
"No, I'm not kidding; I'm as serious as I could possibly get. These kinds of things happen to everybody, and it just happened that you were the unlucky kid who got bullied today. It happened to me too, when I was the new kid changing schools right in the middle of seventh grade. And when I was thirteen, I was scrawny. I was barely tall enough for my BMX bike, and people thought I was a fifth grader. Next time, they'll move on to somebody else and forget about you. That's exactly how transient these things are, so you shouldn't let it get you down."
It never occurred to me before that anyone would ever bully Uncle Fred; to me, he's always been larger than life. But even though this new thought makes me feel just a little bit better, I still wish somebody would fuss over me in the way they used to do when I was younger.
"But, Uncle Fred, don't you even feel just a little bit sorry for me?" I plead. "If Aunt Anne was at home, I'm sure she'd give me more sympathy than that."
"Charles." He musses my hair up affectionately. "One of the most important things I've ever learned is that life is full of problems and difficulties, and things will never get any better if you just let yourself wallow every time you hit a rough patch. Your Aunt Anne was already my girlfriend way back in college, did you know that? But she broke up with me after her grandma got cancer, making a sacrifice because she thought I wouldn't be able to carry on with my career in the Air Force if she stayed with me. I didn't understand her reasons at that time, so when that happened, I was devastated and for many years, I did nothing about it except feel sorry for myself. And I would never have gotten back together with her if I hadn't snapped out of my self-pity."
He goes on to tell me, for the first time, the whole story of how he met Aunt Anne, lost her, and then got back together with her again. And boy, what a story it is.
Disclaimer: The character Tiger Kelly is from the "Ginger Meggs" comics. I believe we all know where Charlie Brown comes from!
Afterword: The Head Fake
If you've read or listened to Randy Pausch's "Last Lecture", you'll be familiar with the concept of "the head fake". It's when your story has a message, or messages, which are hidden within its subtext but are the real things you want your audience to take away.
In the case of this story and its prequel "Just an Earth-Bound Misfit, I", this tale is deliberately designed to function at several different levels. First and foremost, my mission was to re-create the story of "Persuasion" faithfully and respectfully with the context and values of the 21st century, to show how this timeless tale still has a very strong relevance to us in modern times, despite the many advancements in society that have made the socioeconomic chasm between the young Frederick Wentworth and Anne Elliot much less daunting than it would have been in Austen's time.
For many of us today, I think the key themes of "Persuasion" that still resonate with us is the concept of compromising on our dreams for family or for others; and sometimes being the "invisible" person, being there for friends or family without necessarily getting due recognition or acknowledgement. Definitely, I believe many of our moms today would fall into that category! But in addition to those themes, I wanted to build on the story as an allegory for the modern economy; the hubris of the Elliots reflecting the decay of sunset industries and the rise of corporate greed; as juxtaposed against the brave new world of science, technology and innovation, where money may still matter, but passion, ability and a sense of adventure will always be the catalyst without which new things can never happen.
In this re-telling, I've also weighed in heavily on several themes that were not really intended in Austen's original, but are highly relevant in our world today: the many ways that families manifest themselves, spanning across generations and sometimes across countries as well; the painful process of growing up, battling peer pressure, finding your direction in life, and eventually having to cope with your dreams clashing with the reality of adult responsibilities; and the complex swirl of emotions surrounding terminal illness and facing the end of life. It's deliberately intended to be a portrait of contemporary life, especially as seen by the sandwich generation of today; and as it turned out, it's a double coming-of-age story, showing that even as it's approaching middle age, this in-between generation is still actively learning, evolving, maturing and growing.
I also believe that true love is like an everlasting friendship, based on understanding, support and caring for each other's welfare. In popular belief, Austen's stories are about the "perfect" relationship with the "perfect" gentleman whom you can only find in fairy tales; this story is about distilling and demystifying Austen to bring out the Austen gentleman or gentlewoman in that regular Joe or Jane in your life. And this brings me to my last head fake: true love can come in many forms. At the literal level, Anne and Frederick's relationship is a romantic love story, and intended to be read as such. But for many of us, true love may not come from just one person or one relationship. And I believe that all of us - regardless of our marital or relationship status - have such a person or persons in our lives; we just need to pay a little more attention to the people around us to notice who they are.
This story is dedicated to all the young people out there who have big dreams and are working very hard to achieve them, and especially to some special friends who have shared their lives with me. You know who you are, because I've sent you this story. Live your dreams!