TOADtalk: Window Seat

Mr. Jacobsen fondly reflects on his travel experiences.
As the months go by in a Thacher school year, students and faculty members learn about each other in a thousand different ways, times, and contexts: around the breakfast or formal dinner table, in a sunshiny moment on the Pergola or a sunset shared on a trail, at the whiteboard in a classroom, lab, studio or seminar circle, at practices and games and rehearsals, at coffeehouses and Open Houses, in dorm common rooms, and in Suburbans on highways or back roads on the way to community service projects, field trips, cultural excursions, or athletic events. Then there’s each faculty member’s TOADtalk. Monday morning’s all-School Assembly launches with whatever the Teacher On Active Duty wishes to share—a reflection, a story or song, a demonstration of some sort, or a simple poem. In this way, every week of the school year, the community gains a new window into the mind or heart or spirit of one of our own. 

Rod Jacobsen
, whose TOADtalk is featured below, teaches English and serves as the coordinator of Marvin Shagam Program for Ethics and Global Citizenship. He is also an instructor in the Horse Program and helps coach JV girls' soccer. Mr. Jacobsen has worked at the School since 1991 and lives on campus with his wife, Susan Hardenbergh.

I always enjoy hearing your tales of air travel when you return from vacations. These stories—and my own observations of students on summer trips—suggest that you judge your flight experiences by two criteria: 1) the attractiveness—or creepiness—of the person sitting next to you, and 2) the number and quality of movies and TV shows offered in the entertainment system. I’ve heard students brag about watching six movies on a single flight. Kind of like freshmen boasting about the number of soft-serves they consume in a day.
I’m a different kind of traveler: I’m kind of a flying nerd. I always try to get a window seat if I can, and I spend as much time as possible looking out that window. I admit that I do watch some movies, but I click on “Flight Progress” or “Interactive Map” at least ten times each flight. And if the jet has cameras, well that’s heaven to me: I am mesmerized. The best flights are those that have a camera on the nose, one on the tail, and one pointing down from the belly. I feel like I’m really flying when I look at those real-time images either out the window or on the screen: the great deserts, forests, and mountains of the world, Greenland and the Pole, the jungles of Central Africa, the cities of Europe. I love tracking my progress or guessing where I am at a particular moment.
I’ve loved air travel ever since I was a kid, and I’ve never lost that sense of romance about it. In fact, my idea of a hot date in high school was driving to Kennedy Airport and looking at airplanes, at the departure boards, and at the variety of passengers about to depart for points around the globe. I’m pretty sure the girls loved it, too.
I come naturally to this attitude, I guess, because (like my good friend Sam Richardson) I’m an airline brat. In fact, both my mother and my father (and five other relatives) worked for Pan American World Airways, an airline that doesn’t exist anymore but which was the most famous, most glamorous, most pioneering airline in history, I would say.
My mom became a “stewardess” (female steward or flight attendant) in the late 1940’s so she could see the world after spending her first twenty-five years in a small mill-town in Maine. Because she was good at her job, spoke French, and, I suspect, because she looked like a movie star, she was chosen to be the one stewardess on the first commercial round-the-world flight. It was a glamorous journey covered by the press all along the way—and she was famous in her world of air hostesses for a while. Most important, for my very existence, she met my father, who was a pilot. And it was his passion for flying that I’d like to reflect on for a few minutes.
My dad’s first flight was in his uncle’s open-cockpit biplane in the late 1930’s, and after one ride in that airplane, he was hooked. He dreamed about piloting the “flying boats” that Pan Am made famous as they opened up the world to commercial air travel, but in 1941, as a junior in college, he knew that he would have to put those dreams away: World War Two broke out, and the next year, he found himself in the Eighth Air Force as captain of a B-17 “Flying Fortress” based in England. Those early years of the war were very dangerous for bomber crews, but after many close calls and despite witnessing many horrific accidents in the air, he survived. Looking back, I now realize that he showed some symptoms of PTSD, though there was no name for that disorder in those days. Like most veterans of the time, he didn’t talk about his experiences much, but I know now that he had managed to transform his romantic passion for flying into patriotic duty, and sometimes that duty was very frightening and very grim. And this would become a pattern through the years.
My dad found his dream job after the war when he went to work as a pilot for Pan Am, not on his beloved flying boats, which were out of service, but on propeller-driven airplanes like the DC-3, the DC-6, the famous Constellation and the first commercial jet, the Boeing 707. I was the happy beneficiary of his profession: I flew all over the place for free; I remember feeling insulted in my twenties when I had to start buying my own tickets. And flying in the years before tight security meant that I could sit in the cockpit, I could go on training runs with my dad, and I could get lots of special treatment when the flight service knew I was a pilot’s kid. It wasn’t all glamor, however. He flew long hours, survived a mid-air collision and saved all his passengers in the process, and his eardrums, which had been damaged in the war, were a constant problem. And soon after I was born, he was recalled to duty again in the Korean War. This scenario was repeated in the late 1960’s when he volunteered to fly American soldiers to and from their deployments in Viet Nam—so by the time his career ended my dad had participated in three wars. Somehow, he maintained his pure love of flying, and I know that his greatest possible joy was jetting off to the far corners of the world in a beautifully designed airplane, bringing passengers safely and happily to their destinations. And the teenager, who felt the world change forever for him as he sat in that little biplane, retired forty years later as the pilot of a 747. His only regret, he told me, is that he never learned to fly helicopters.
As a little kid I grew used to the ritual of my dad’s departures and arrivals, and those memories remain crystal clear. My job was to polish his two pairs of shoes and then to carry—or try to carry—his fifty-pound flight bag full of thick, heavy manuals. I loved those tasks because I idolized him and his profession. I also appreciated the presents he would bring home: chocolates from Belgium, coconuts from Jamaica, a puppy from Germany. I haven’t had the urge to learn to fly myself, but recently I’ve been thinking that it could be a great way to stay busy in my retirement. Until then, I’ll continue to love the window seat and the on-board cameras when I fly. I’ll still get excited about walking onto the plane, even if flying isn’t very glamorous these days. I’ll never stop flying. And I’ll continue to admire the way that my father followed his passion, even when that meant that the romance inherent in that passion had to be converted to duty and responsibility—sometimes at considerable cost. “It’s all part of the deal,” my stoic dad would say. And perhaps we can find some meaning in those words. So travel safely—and get a window seat.

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