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These new civilian controllers formed what, for that time, was a shockingly diverse workforce: merit among them was determined not by pedigree or seniority but by swagger; the less likely one was to blink or flinch or allow himself to be punked, the more that person could be trusted on the job. Though insufficient in the eyes of the old guard, it was a kind of discipline, that façade, a kind of bearing. In 1985, my father, still in the public eye four years after the strike, described the job to a Knight Ridder reporter: “It was like you were a gunfighter and it was always high noon. You strap on the guns, fan back the jacket, grab the microphone and see how many you can stand.”

Discussing training conditions during the earlier period in the professionalization of air-traffic control—the nineteen-fifties—McCartin writes, “At times the training regime could border on sadistic. As young developmentals handled traffic with a senior controller at their side, instructors would sometimes stand behind them, nattering in their ears, ‘Why’re you doing that? What was that for? Look at that guy!’ Their purpose was to weed out anyone who could not handle pressure.” This practice must still have been popular by the time my father reached the academy. I need only look at the evidence of my own upbringing. Where else would he have adopted his signature parenting style?

At Newark International, my father, among a crew of five, could be in radio contact with eighteen to twenty flights an hour, weaving them through airspace stocked with seven hundred and fifty to a thousand aircraft. Like some byzantine highway interchange in the sky—the kind of thing you see outside Dallas, for example. And if the orchestration were ever to falter? A traffic jam, or worse. When the planes are made to circle they are said to be “stacked.” Needless to say, this makes everybody nervous.

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On September 4, 1981, the Associated Press quoted my father speaking at a labor rally in support of PATCO. Reminding his audience of Reagan’s pedigree as a union boss (Reagan was president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1947 to 1952, and in 1959 and 1960), my dad told the sympathetic crowd in Elizabeth, New Jersey, “We want to send a message to the former union president who occupies the Oval Office. If you crush PATCO, we know our union could be next.” That month, speaking to the Socialist Worker, one of the few papers still supportive of the by now abandoned strike, his tone was similarly prophetic:

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He looked at me, a funny expression on his face. I realized that the reason he'd had such a great time that night was because I had not been present. I had not been his father, or his friend, this past week. I had only been his minder. I was a drag to have around a fashion show, and because I could not enter fully into the spirit of the occasion, neither could Abe. He was worrying about me, watching me, wondering if I was having a good time or not, if I thought the shaggy Muppet pants, for example, were as stupid as the look on my face seemed to suggest.

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He looked at me, a funny expression on his face. I realized that the reason he'd had such a great time that night was because I had not been present. I had not been his father, or his friend, this past week. I had only been his minder. I was a drag to have around a fashion show, and because I could not enter fully into the spirit of the occasion, neither could Abe. He was worrying about me, watching me, wondering if I was having a good time or not, if I thought the shaggy Muppet pants, for example, were as stupid as the look on my face seemed to suggest.

Bring that controller—whose workday consists of giving instructions he hopes will not cause any of the green dots on the radar screen to disappear, instructions he hopes will not be met with screams from the cockpit transmissions in his ears—bring that controller home each day, and see how easily he adjusts to the tenderness of domesticity. In my father’s case, he maintained a regimen of isolation and self-medication that allowed him to cope with the constant pressure. Reagan would not establish mandatory drug testing until 1986. Evenings and “weekends” (which was whenever he had a day or two off of work, rarely consecutively), my father smoked a joint in his bedroom, and he kept on his nightstand, for many years before and after the strike, a quarter ounce of weed, rolling papers, roach clips, and a marble pipe, all on a bamboo serving tray he’d got in a tourist shop in the Bahamas.

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In 2005, the age-related degeneration that had slowed my father’s heart attacked his eyes, lungs, bladder and bowels. Clots as narrow as a single human hair lodged in tiny blood vessels in his brain, killing clusters of neurons by depriving them of oxygen. Long partly deaf, he began losing his sight to wet , requiring ocular injections that cost nearly $2,000 each. A few months later, he forgot his way home from the university pool. He grew incontinent. He was collapsing physically, like an ancient, shored-up house.


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Officially, my father was the president of the Newark tower branch, or “local,” of PATCO. Given his charisma and penchant for theatrics, however, he was often asked to speak to the press. By default, he became a very public face in the Northeast region. His would be a high-profile arrest. At home, watching the evening news, it was easy for me to picture my dad, heroically defiant, in handcuffs and leg irons, being led across the screen. The image turned fearsome when I thought about what would happen to him after I turned off the television.

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I believe that my father’s doctors did their best within a compartmentalized and time-pressured medical system. But in the absence of any other guiding hand, there is no doubt that economics helped shape the wider context in which doctors made decisions. Had we been at the — where doctors are salaried, medical records are electronically organized and care is coordinated by a single doctor — things might have turned out differently. But Middletown is part of the fee-for-service medical economy. Doctors peddle their wares on a piecework basis; communication among them is haphazard; thinking is often short term; nobody makes money when medical interventions are declined; and nobody is in charge except the marketplace.

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My father feared the vulnerability and the humility that learning, undertaken in earnest, surely requires. He hid behind beatnik spontaneity and his verbal genius. He refused to make himself vulnerable to authority figures; to rationalize his position, he espoused a theory that to prepare was to cheat. I believe this theory grew out of his most defining experience at school. In his A.P. philosophy class, a single directive was scrawled across the blackboard: “Explain the transcendental eye at the center of all consciousness.” For forty-five minutes, he told me, he sat contemplating the silence of the blank page. By the time the period ended, he felt as bereft as he did relieved. At the order to set pencils down, he scribbled his name, the only mark on his page, humbly in the corner, before handing in the evidence of his capacity for suffering. The confounding postscript was that he received an A on the exam, proving to him the power of institutions to create reality out out thin air, a lesson that succeeded only in confusing and demoralizing the already distrustful student.