Dead Men Not Talking©

Four guys at breakfast, all at the same table, each reading a newspaper; backs turned away from each other as if they were carrying a mutual grudge or had been offended by the mere presence of one another.

They were oblivious to anything but the bright colors of the USA Today weather map and the latest football scores.        

As a former pilot for a large airline and then a corporate jet company, in addition to spending half my life in a cockpit, I used to spend the other half in hotels and restaurants. So one day I was sitting at a table in the Hyatt hotel restaurant in Columbus, Ohio waiting for my breakfast, thinking, “Man, this looks way too familiar!”

“Johnny, we never knew ya…”

Too many guys are “making a dying” instead of a living. We’re running a race of loneliness, heartache, frustration and a possible early demise with the finish line coming up quicker than we think.

What triggered this article was an e-mail notice two days earlier of a friend’s death on Christmas morning, 2008.

In spite of regular attendance at our local church, John was a self-admitted loner who never recovered from a painful divorce a few years back.      

We often saw each other at a Sunday church service; he usually sat alone in a pew, off to the side and toward the back of the church. I would invite him to sit with me but he was more comfortable, more likely familiar, being alone. He always had sort of a twisted smile on his face; it was the kind of smile that hid a dump truck full of pain.

If I didn’t know better, I would have thought he was doing well – “Fine!” – as most men respond when asked how they’re doing or what they’re feeling. Either that or “Man, I’m really busy.” Last time I checked, “fine” or “busy” weren’t feelings.

I often wondered how long John would last, since most times I saw him he had booze on his breath. A “dead man not talking” giveaway!

Occasionally I would join him for dinner or a drink at one of the local restaurants; usually he was half in the bag by the time I got there, although to the untrained eye he always seemed to be navigating well enough. He’d obviously had a lot of practice.

Reflections in a grimy mirror…

The painful realization that I had been one of the “dead men not talking” hit me recently like a “whap up’side the head.” I realized, for much of my life, I have too often “flown solo.”  And there are millions  of guys out there, paddling furiously upstream in similar, leaky lifeboats.

We often stop to frantically bail but the pain seems to fill the boat faster than we can bail.      

Before I was blessed with the miraculous appearance of my wife in my life I would often attempt to break out of my lonely mold; I would reach out while traversing the country in my job as a pilot; I’d joke, I’d cajole, I’d try to bless others whenever I could, in whatever feeble way I could; I’d help little old ladies and short people put their bags in the overhead racks when I was deadheading, to go transport  “the rich and famous” to their playgrounds.

I would strike up mostly shallow conversations with my fellow travelers, looking for a momentary connection that would validate that I was indeed, “living the dream” of a pilot’s life.

I often prayed mightily that God would boot me out of the airborne rat race that only seemed to perpetuate my loneliness.

I would comfort myself with the flimsy excuse that “God is testing and strengthening me” for some world saving mission that would magically surface on my next seven day tour of duty.

“For God’s Sake, men are waiting…”

For many years I was a certified leader of a powerful, life altering adult men’s rite of passage or initiation into manhood.

I, and my skilled staff brothers, helped more than a few thousand men open their hearts while simultaneously our own were ripped open beyond their self-imposed limits.

I cried with them, I laughed with them, I experienced more spontaneous joy than I had ever felt before; I cradled men, often very big men, in my arms, whispering things in their ear that their hearts ached for and their fathers had been incapable of uttering.

We descended together into the darkest recesses of our souls, me and the other staff men as their spirit guides. We were qualified for this work because we had navigated the depths of men’s souls many times before and we knew that God lived there, albeit under deep cover.

We weren’t any better or more intelligent than our “initiates,” but we were different; different only because we knew the gifts those dark places held; we knew that to pierce the membrane of pain, shame and fear would reveal the spontaneity, the joy, the passion, the sense of purpose that we had left behind at some crossroad in our journey toward a questionable manhood.

We knew the layout of the dungeons of their souls where the dragons and demons lived, where the sediment of debilitating self-doubt, fear and mistrust was deposited.

I saw men shed years in age and gain inches in stature. We helped a Vietnam vet heal twenty five years of grief that he carried since having shot his own men as they slept, under orders, for fear they would leak classified information of having witnessed carefully concealed wartime atrocities.

When the descent into the caverns of our souls was over and the excavation complete, we helped roll the stone away from the men’s hearts and cauterize their wounds.

They would rise slowly, wobbly, into the brilliance of a new day, filled with a hope for their lives and the lives they would inevitably touch from this place that was now eternally theirs. In each their own way, they had found God…

The Weaker Sex?

At an adjacent table to my “dead men not talking”, a total contrast in relationship style, were three women, merrily talking, fully engaged with one another – relating, sharing, commenting on the world happening around them….

This picture of healthy relationship, juxtaposed against the “dead men,” made me question our hope as men, and leaders of young men, for the future.

A few weeks before I retired from my flying career, I was starting yet another seven-day tour of flying by deadheading to the city where my aircraft was last parked.

As I walked into the departure lounge at the San Francisco airport, I noticed a young man and his wife sitting at one of the departure gates.

He was playing with his new iPhone while she stared vacantly out the window at the giant bird that she hoped and prayed would transport them to a new, more intimate destination.

But alas, unless some lonely elder seeks a reprieve from his solitary confinement, takes the young man aside and demonstrates how a life not well attended will drive a stake in the heart of his beloved, the youngster will inevitably become one of the “dead men not talking…” 

Bert Botta