Sunday, November 30, 2014

Unexpected Rejoinders

This is only partly music-related, but it's Sunday here at the world headquarters of the Music Salon, so what the heck? I ran across a great little story about one-upmanship here told by an SR71 Blackbird pilot. I saw one of these planes in person at the Davis-Monthan Air Force museum in Tucson, Arizona a number of years ago. Amazing airplanes that go very fast, very high and are made out of titanium. Anyway, let's hear the anecdote. All you have to know is that Walter, in the back seat, is supposed to have complete control of the radio--and that they are flying at 80,000 feet, at which altitude, when you are over Arizona you can already see the coast of California:
Just to get a sense of what Walt had to contend with, I pulled the radio toggle switches and monitored the frequencies along with him. The predominant radio chatter was from Los Angeles Center, far below us, controlling daily traffic in their sector. While they had us on their scope (albeit briefly), we were in uncontrolled airspace and normally would not talk to them unless we needed to descend into their airspace.
We listened as the shaky voice of a lone Cessna pilot asked Center for a readout of his ground speed. Center replied: "November Charlie 175, I'm showing you at ninety knots on the ground."
Now the thing to understand about Center controllers, was that whether they were talking to a rookie pilot in a Cessna, or to Air Force One, they always spoke in the exact same, calm, deep, professional, tone that made one feel important. I referred to it as the " Houston Center voice." I have always felt that after years of seeing documentaries on this country's space program and listening to the calm and distinct voice of the Houston controllers, that all other controllers since then wanted to sound like that, and that they basically did. And it didn't matter what sector of the country we would be flying in, it always seemed like the same guy was talking. Over the years that tone of voice had become somewhat of a comforting sound to pilots everywhere. Conversely, over the years, pilots always wanted to ensure that, when transmitting, they sounded like Chuck Yeager, or at least like John Wayne. Better to die than sound bad on the radios.
Just moments after the Cessna's inquiry, a Twin Beech piped up on frequency, in a rather superior tone, asking for his ground speed. "I have you at one hundred and twenty-five knots of ground speed." Boy, I thought, the Beechcraft really must think he is dazzling his Cessna brethren. Then out of the blue, a navy F-18 pilot out of NAS Lemoore came up on frequency. You knew right away it was a Navy jock because he sounded very cool on the radios. "Center, Dusty 52 ground speed check". Before Center could reply, I'm thinking to myself, hey, Dusty 52 has a ground speed indicator in that million-dollar cockpit, so why is he asking Center for a readout? Then I got it, ol' Dusty here is making sure that every bug smasher from Mount Whitney to the Mojave knows what true speed is. He's the fastest dude in the valley today, and he just wants everyone to know how much fun he is having in his new Hornet. And the reply, always with that same, calm, voice, with more distinct alliteration than emotion: "Dusty 52, Center, we have you at 620 on the ground."
And I thought to myself, is this a ripe situation, or what? As my hand instinctively reached for the mic button, I had to remind myself that Walt was in control of the radios. Still, I thought, it must be done - in mere seconds we'll be out of the sector and the opportunity will be lost. That Hornet must die, and die now. I thought about all of our Sim training and how important it was that we developed well as a crew and knew that to jump in on the radios now would destroy the integrity of all that we had worked toward becoming. I was torn.
Somewhere, 13 miles above Arizona, there was a pilot screaming inside his space helmet. Then, I heard it. The click of the mic button from the back seat. That was the very moment that I knew Walter and I had become a crew. Very professionally, and with no emotion, Walter spoke: "Los Angeles Center, Aspen 20, can you give us a ground speed check?" There was no hesitation, and the replay came as if was an everyday request. "Aspen 20, I show you at one thousand eight hundred and forty-two knots, across the ground."
I think it was the forty-two knots that I liked the best, so accurate and proud was Center to deliver that information without hesitation, and you just knew he was smiling. But the precise point at which I knew that Walt and I were going to be really good friends for a long time was when he keyed the mic once again to say, in his most fighter-pilot-like voice: "Ah, Center, much thanks, we're showing closer to nineteen hundred on the money."
For a moment Walter was a god. And we finally heard a little crack in the armor of the Houston Center voice, when L.A.came back with, "Roger that Aspen, Your equipment is probably more accurate than ours. You boys have a good one."
It all had lasted for just moments, but in that short, memorable sprint across the southwest, the Navy had been flamed, all mortal airplanes on freq were forced to bow before the King of Speed, and more importantly, Walter and I had crossed the threshold of being a crew. A fine day's work. We never heard another transmission on that frequency all the way to the coast.
For just one day, it truly was fun being the fastest guys out there.
You have to love that, just for the three levels of one-upmanship! I've got another for you, also not music-related. I was involved in negotiations for a client on a land purchase and in one meeting the agent for the seller, a very experienced fellow with 30 years experience, rather pompously started to explain to my client how wire transfers worked. You have to understand that my client was a very high-level executive with a very large data-processing company. In fact, he was the Chief Information Officer. He held up his hand to stop the other agent in mid-flow and said, "I already know about wire transfers. My company handles them for mutual funds and we do between 10 and 15 billion dollars worth of wire transfers every night." Not another word was heard from the other agent on the subject.

Sure, there are musical examples, just not quite as dramatic unless you happened to be there. There are stories of a trumpet teacher who, every time he had a new student, would rip off a three (or maybe four?) octave G major scale, put his trumpet down and say to the student, "ok, now you impress me."

But my favorite personal example is at my own expense! I was in competition for the affections of a rather attractive French horn player with another fellow who happened to be an outstanding French horn player. Over at his place once I noticed on his mantlepiece a Juno award. The Junos are the Canadian equivalent of the US Grammy awards. Yikes! I knew right then that he was going to be very tough competition.

But it is pretty hard to top that SR71 Blackbird story...

And that gives us a clue as to the musical envoi for this post. Oh, what is this "envoi" I keep referring to? Here's the Wikipedia article. It was something used by the medieval troubadours as a final verse to comment on what came before. So what better choice for this post than Marin Alsop conducting the BBC Symphony in John Adams' "Short Ride in a Fast Machine":

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