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The Summer I Flunked Math and Fell In Love With the Airline Business

Let me just say... I hate math.  

I've never been good with numbers, and I was always much better at subjects like history.  I used to tell my parents (and teachers) that I didn't like math because math can always change just by using a different number, but history is concrete and never changing.  

Boy was I wrong.  Recent world events (and the media's reporting on them) have proved to us that history is only what people are told it is and not always the way it happened.  

Anyway, put plainly, I suck at math.  

In June of 1999, I was finishing up the 9th grade.  I had done fairly well all year and was looking forward to what would be my last carefree summer without a job or responsibility.  By fairly well, I mean I coasted with B's, when with minimal effort, I could have gotten straight A's.  

One afternoon a few days after school let out, my Mom answered the phone while I was on the computer in the back room.  Back then, I would have either been playing Microsoft Flight Simulator or on Prodigy reading about pro wrestling.  After a few minutes, I had already forgotten she was on the phone when she called my name with a tone that I knew meant trouble.  

I hadn't done anything (literally) for a few days now that school had ended.  Why would she be mad at me?  She handed me the phone with "the look."  

It was my Math teacher.  I don't even remember her name, but I remember thinking that it was funny she called me at home.  I had hated her class (and her, to be fair), and my first thought was of how I was happy to be free of her and her math class.  She must have called to tell me I left something in her classroom or something.

Boy, was I wrong.  

She informed me that I failed the Math Regents (a New York standardized test) and would be required to take a summer school course and retake the test in August.  
I hung up to face the music.  Mom read me the riot act, and then when Dad got home from work, I got it again.  I went out for a 5-mile jog just to get away from home for a while.  I remember doing that because I had an online "friend" from the wrestling message boards who gave me the advice of holding cold water in my mouth while I ran.  He was on his high school track team and said that's what they did when it was hot out.  While back then, I was used to running from being on the hockey team, that particular day was still in the upper 90s after dinner, so I tried it.  It didn't keep me cool, and I gagged on the water and decided I won't be doing that again.  

When I got home, I got it from my Dad again, except this time it was because he had realized that the re-test in August would be in the middle of our annual summer vacation to Maine.  

That meant either someone would have to miss the first week and a half of vacation and stay home with me until the test was over before driving the 8 hours to Maine for the last few days of the trip, or they'd have to drive me 8 hours home, 8 hours back, and then a few days later another 8 hours home with everyone else.  My parents certainly weren't about to do either of those things.  At 14, I couldn't drive myself to summer school, nor did they trust me to be alone for weeks at a time, so that option was out too.

I don't remember who came up with it, but it was decided that I would fly back and forth during our vacation.  I was beyond elated.  I already loved flying, and this would be so much fun!

My Uncle agreed to watch me for a day or two and take me to and from the exam.  He was a teacher in a different school district and would also help tutor me over the course of the summer.

Forget the math test; all I could think about all summer was the airplane ride.  I remember having to scour all sorts of schedules and timetables on different airline websites instead of a nice easy search engine like Google or Priceline in the fledgling days of the internet.  I discovered that I could fly from Portland, Maine, to Westchester County Airport, in White Plains, New York, by way of Boston on Delta Connection for an airfare my parents were willing to pay.  I was extra excited because, with the connection, I'd get four flights instead of two!

I'm not sure if you couldn't yet buy tickets online or my Mom just didn't trust the internet, but I remember hovering over her while she was on the phone with the Delta's ticket reservations people.  I was so excited once the travel plans were confirmed I was practically floating on air myself.  My Mom, however, was not too pleased to spend that kind of money because I didn't pass math the first time around.  

So, as the summer wore on, my parents made me do nightly math homework.  I had to attend summer school classes once a week while getting tutored by my Uncle and one of my neighbors about to enter her senior year.  

Soon, it was August, and we all packed up and went to Maine.  Math was the last thing on my mind.  I was busy counting down the days to go flying!  Ever since they arrived in the mail (back when airlines would send you hard copy tickets), I had been holding and staring at the tickets.  Everything about them made me practically swoon with excitement. The blue ticket jacket.  The white and green thick card stock of the paper.  The old dot-matrix style print.  The flight number and departure times.  The visually appealing bright colors of the red, blue, and black Delta Connection logo.  Even the smell of the ink!

The day arrived, and I got dressed up in a nice polo shirt (pretty classy for 9th grade me) and my denim shorts (those were still cool in 1999), and a black ball cap.  

That's me, looking classy, about to board the plane.

We took the hour-long drive to Portland International Jetport, and my parents got me checked in.  Since I was a minor, they requested someone look after me in Boston.  An "unaccompanied minor" is what it's called in the airline business, and today, nearly everyone at the airport is on the lookout for a UM.  If you lose one of those, it's a BIG problem, as you could imagine.  The check-in lady laughed and asked how old I was.  When they said 14, she stopped laughing and asked to check my ID, which at that age I had none to provide her.

That's me, last in line with the black bag, enjoying the walk to the plane.

This was pre 9-11, and would you believe I could get on a plane without ID because my parents just said, "this is our child."  Never mind the fact I already had a full mustache and scraggly beard and was already close to 5'10"?  

Before 9-11, people could come to the gate and say goodbye, so my parents waited with me.  I kept watching out of the window, and suddenly the plane arrived.  

It was a white Saab 340 aircraft, with Navy blue and red letters on the tail that read "BEX" with  "Business Express Airlines" titles on the body of the aircraft.  I had no idea who or what BEX was, but I was excited nonetheless.  My parents waved me off and down the stairs onto the ramp towards the plane I went.  I quickly got into the plane and found my seat by the right-hand wing.  Seconds later, the engines started, and we roared down the runway towards Boston.  

The Takeoff To Boston

The sounds of the engine whining, the propeller blades spinning... the smells of coffee and creamer and cinnamon cookies... It's all coming back to me as I think about that day.

As soon as we took off, I realized it was bumpier and louder than the jet rides I was familiar with on our trips to Disney World.  We had flown on a few turboprops in Florida going to Sanibel Island before, but it was about that time I realized I was all alone and began to grow nervous.  I tried to look out the window and just enjoy the experience of flying.  I remember being seated next to someone and hoping they wouldn't try to talk to me.  Thankfully, they didn't.  

The flight attendant, an older woman with perfectly done up hair and makeup, was very nice to me and kept asking if I wanted anything.  At the time, I figured it was because my parents had asked the airline to watch after me but knowing what I know about the business now, it was more likely because I probably looked like a lost, scared puppy, and it's her job to be nice.  

The landing itself was a fun experience as we buzzed the city and then dived towards the runway in a sweeping descending turn.  The approach was once called the Harbor Visual, I even got to do it myself a few times as a pilot, but it's no longer in use for safety purposes.  

As soon as we landed in Boston, I was unceremoniously rushed off the plane with the rest of the passengers and into the terminal.  I was left wondering where to go or what to do in the large Delta terminal in Boston.  Well, that's not entirely true.  I had flown enough, and I knew what to do, but being alone, I was unsure of myself.  I finally just went and asked the gate agent if I was in the right spot, but she barely looked at me long enough to say yes and went about her business.  I took a seat, afraid to wander too far from the gate.

I didn't have my own cell phone then, and my parent's phone didn't work in Maine because back then, you had astronomical roaming charges.  For you kids, roaming was when you left your own area code, and the phone company would charge you extra to use it outside your home area.  A lot extra.  Could you imagine today, putting your 14 year old on a plane and not hearing from them for a few hours?  Today they could text from the air with in flight wifi, but, me in 1999?  I was on my own.  

So much for having people look after me.  They probably were like "that man over there?  He can take care of himself."  If the gate agent even passed the word on.  

It was probably only an hour and a half but it felt like an eternity before they finally announced my flight.  I sprang up and jumped in line.  I was so excited to be out of that terminal and back on the plane again that I don't remember the flight at all, but I can remember spotting familiar landmarks like the Hudson River and Tappan Zee Bridge on landing.

The stay at my Uncle's went fine and I took the test.  I don't remember what we did during the visit, but after the test, he took me to a Wizard's Comic store.  I wasn't much into comics like he is, but I loved all of the toys and collectibles they had there.  

Very early the next morning, he brought me to the airport to go back on vacation.  I don't remember much about the flight itself but the smell of coffee on the early morning departure.  I remember that it was raining, and we sat at the gate for a while waiting to leave.  I seem to remember it was a maintenance delay, or perhaps a weather one, but it took 30 or 40 minutes before we finally got moving.  Shortly, I was back in Boston, but the layover was much quicker this time.  Having done it just days prior, I wasn't nervous about it at all.   Besides, I had something to do.

I was busy creating my own airline.  I had a notepad and pen and created a flight schedule based on much of Business Express's own schedule in August of 1999.  I created my own paint scheme, logo, flight schedule, hub, everything.  I had been bitten by the aviation bug as a child, but now I'd succumbed to the virus.  I was hooked on the airline business.

I don't remember the flight back to Maine, but I remember confirming that this is definitely something I want to do forever.  10 years later, I would be laid off from my first airline, and the next airline that hired me flew Saab 340's, many of which had flown for Business Express.  

Who knows? I likey piloted one of the very same aircraft I rode on as a teenager in 1999.  

My current airline currently owns and operates out of that busy (former Delta) terminal in Boston.  Every time I walk past the Cape Air propeller planes that now use gate C27, the same one we arrived at all those years ago in that BEX Saab 340, I look for the corner seat I sat in as a child dreaming of flying for the airlines.

As I write this, I have just gotten home from a day at work.  Today, I flew as a Captain on an airliner into Portland, Maine.  Every time I fly into Portland I think back on that one summer that I flunked math and fell in love with the airline business.  

By the way, I got a 71 on my exam, and I (barely) passed!  Dad was pissed!