Machines Against the Rage by Mark O. Hodgson

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Case 1. False warning of a bad outcome, when one knows what to do: likelihood of bad outcome — remote; severity — catastrophic.

We should have been more suspicious once we discovered that the door lock on the little Cessna 152 was frozen. Good God, it was one cold morning in Beverly, Massachusetts. My instructor, who I’ll call Geronimo, used some de-icer in the lock, after which the preflight went by the book. We strapped in and taxied to the run-up area for Runway 09. With controls free and correct, I throttled to 2500 rpm: mags checked, carb heat checked, drop to idle went OK, all instruments seemed OK. I keyed the mic: “Beverly tower, Cessna 48858 ready for takeoff. We’ll be departing to the north.” Before the preflight, we spent 45 minutes speccing out a trip to Portland, Maine, filling out navigation logs and a flight plan.

I was fortunate to have a wife who tolerated this little adventure in learning. I had soloed for the first time a couple of months before, and Judi welcomed me home from the airport that evening with a brightly-colored mylar balloon with bold letters — “Congratulations!” — that clung to the living room ceiling when I opened the door. Yes, she had been concerned about my involvement in three-dimensional travel at 100 knots, but her love for me included the faith that I could handle such things and come out OK.

“Cessna 858, cleared for takeoff, left turn departure. Contact Boston Approach at 124.4 when airborne.”

“Cessna 858, cleared for takeoff, left turn,” I replied.

Firmly but gradually, I throttled up and, when the beast was ready to fly, rotated airborne with little thought, as I had done scores of times. A wing quits lifting, or “stalls,” if the air flowing over it moves too slowly. At less than 200 feet up, I noticed that the indicated airspeed was decreasing. I pushed the yoke forward to lower the nose, fight gravity less, and boost airspeed. But lowering the nose is not something to do at 200 feet on takeoff when the engine is healthy and you’re climbing.

Geronimo quit sightseeing, aggressively took the yoke, and said, “My airplane.”  

“Your airplane,” was my immediate handoff.

“My airplane,” he said, checking the throttle and resuming the climb. I was startled but sensed that he knew exactly what he was doing, way preferable to my own shock and confusion. Geronimo had a chunky build and was shorter than average. But he compensated with fighting Irish machismo — he was an amateur boxer when not flight instructing. We reached traffic pattern altitude.

“Beverly tower, Cessna 858 needs to check instruments and we’ll be returning for a full stop.”

“Cessna 858, cleared for a full stop — right traffic on zero niner.”

We landed. Anyone watching from the ground would have noticed nothing unusual. Airspeed is measured by comparing the streaming air pressure at the wing with the static pressure from inside the cabin. If the static side is plugged from ice in the line, the airspeed indicator effectively becomes a crude reverse altimeter, reading lower as you fly higher, with no regard to airspeed.                                 

Instructor’s diagnosis: we had a frozen static system. We should have thought about the possibility during preflight; I should have noticed the airspeed anomaly on takeoff (did he?). In such situations, you need to fly strictly by attitude (that is, the pitch of the cowling as sighted to the horizon line). Having recited the textbook technicalities, he asked me, “Hey, want to fly to Portland anyway?” He was serious.

“What? Without a static system? How smart is that? And it violates the FARs, man.” “FARs” are Federal Aviation Regulations.

Many pilots are taught to consider the Risk Assessment Matrix, a simple table that charts the likelihood of a given outcome against its severity. Likelihood can be improbable, remote, occasional, or probable; severity can be negligible, marginal, critical, or catastrophic. To oversimplify, pilots can manage risk by mitigating it down for any aspect of the flight that puts likelihood above “improbable” and severity above “negligible.” Aircraft stalling on takeoff kills many people a year (catastrophic), because recovery from very low altitudes can be impossible. But an accelerating descent near trees, like I began to do, is rarely a good idea, either — hitting a tree would be catastrophic. Geronimo knew what was happening and mitigated the likelihood of the risk to “remote” and its severity to “negligible.” An appropriate, if mechanical, response beats no response to an emergency situation. But he seemed not to grasp that extending the flight to Portland would alter the risk matrix odds, and not in a good way.

Geronimo, alone, took the plane around the airport traffic pattern a couple of times, perhaps boosting his testosterone level. I switched instructors after that.

Case 2. False warnings of a bad outcome, when one thinks one knows what to do: likelihood of bad outcome — unknown; severity — negligible to marginal.

In 95 degrees last summer, the engine system warning light in my car popped on. It usually indicates a pressure problem in the fuel system, meaning that the engine may not pass the mandatory emissions test. Three years before, the car made that little light shine and I got it fixed, a minor inconvenience back then, when my wife and I lived in a neighborhood close to a dealer and life was easier.

This time, I took it into the shop and they informed me that the car would be theirs for the better part of a day — “these vapor leaks are notoriously difficult to track down and plug” — leaving me two options: rent one of their cars or be stranded for the day in the retail paradise and aesthetic hell where Rte. 114 intersects Rte. 128 on the North Shore.

Actually, there was a third option: do nothing. “I was planning to drive to Vermont the day after tomorrow — any problem with delaying this repair?” Vermont promised a reprise of a wonderful autumn hike up Mt. Abrams one evening years ago, when I had watched the sun set over New York state while my wife read her latest novel of interest back at the motel.

“No problem, as long as you don’t need to get the car inspected this month,” said the repairman. I was out of there.

The temperature cooled on the trip, as it is wont to do in the Vermont mountains. My guess is that the cool air diminished the expansion of that leaking fuel vapor. The engine light disappeared. Back in Massachusetts, the temperature went up again for a few days and the light returned. I’d get it taken care of before inspection in November. But November cooled everything down. The light went off and stayed off.

Case 3. False forecasts of a good outcome, when care is powerless: likelihood of a bad outcome — grew from improbable to probable; severity — catastrophic.

“We’re looking at a cure, not just a remission,” my wife’s oncologist said, and her primary care physician, her surgeon, and everyone on the team seemed to agree. The chemo, the radiation, the surgery had all played a role in defeating her breast cancer, diagnosed at first as “wildly aggressive.” The official opinion was that the chemo was especially effective, and as with other responsive cases like hers, did the trick.

For almost three years, as she recuperated, our life went back to normal. She went on trips — Texas, Sicily — with college friends. In the Fall of 2014, she and I started from Madrid and toured Andalusia, to Toledo, Seville, and Granada. Listening to a flamenco guitar recital while dining across from the illuminated palace of the Moors on a warm autumn night? That may sound cliched, but it was as unforgettable and romantic an evening as the two of us ever had. Retirement was going to be glorious after all.

A few months after we returned, her lower back began to hurt. She thought she strained a muscle at the gym. That’s what her primary care physician thought, too. My wife began doing yoga exercises and lying on hard floors for a while each day. The pain got worse. She knew from earlier reading that breast cancer, should it metastasize, is likely to go first to the spine. Her back pain shifted in a maddening fashion that made localizing it, or even describing it, difficult. She wanted an MRI. The medical team didn’t take her seriously for several months. She insisted on seeing a neurologist in February of 2016. He also seemed to think an MRI was unnecessary, but went for it to hit all diagnostic bases.

He ordered a low-resolution MRI, saw the results, and ordered a high-resolution MRI to be performed the very next night. The “cure” had reverted to a “wildly aggressive” metastasis — her L4 vertebra was almost entirely cancerous, and there was activity in her T11, and also in the liver. She could be “treated” but not “cured.” Her question to me as we walked out of the oncologist’s office that day was, “Did the doctor really say what I think she said?” And with no less surprise than the remaining members of her original treatment team had shown, I confirmed that she had heard correctly. Her oncologist said that she might live for years.

To get ready for those “years,” she began more radiation prior to surgery, to be followed by a maintenance regimen of chemo. One night while I was watching TV, she lay down on the floor of the upstairs hallway to escape the pain of having walked just a few feet. She called to me to join her on the carpet. I ran up, lay beside her, and held her close. “I’m so afraid,” she said, sobbing.

But events like that were rare. Her spirit was much stronger than I expected, given her prognosis.

In late March, we took a trip to Gloucester and, with a walker, she managed to get out of the car and pose for a snapshot in front of the fisherman sculpture. One week later, she called me from home and said she couldn’t get out of bed. I returned from downtown, dialed 911, and firemen took her to the hospital. The L4 would have to be replaced with a plastic and titanium structure, two lengthy procedures over two days, between which she would remain anesthetized in a barely conscious state, on a respirator but able to move her head for “yes” or “no” questions. Half of her blood would be replaced in the first operation. Recuperation would take a couple of months, with the prognosis that she would be able to get around almost normally and perhaps without pain, and we might be able to enjoy more of our retirement together.

In the rehab unit six weeks later, the family physician noticed subtle changes in her speech patterns. We were puzzled that her head had not been included in the original MRI diagnostics. Now it was. My step-daughter Jess and I were tasked with telling my wife that a 2.4-centimeter tumor had been found in her cerebellum. Other spots were scattered elsewhere in her brain. Expectations of years more of normal retirement contracted to months of a bedridden life — she was unable to maintain an upright posture even in a wheelchair without dizziness.

Another extraordinary course of therapy was begun, this time with repeated rounds of precisely targeted x-radiation, her head secured under the machine in a custom-made mask, bound to her face so tightly and hurting so much that she refused the last two scheduled treatments. The doctors were disappointed that she didn’t want to stick with it. But we were tired of the glowing prognostications and engineering fantasies that seemed to be a disease of the medical profession in tough cases like hers. She moved to hospice in my step-daughter’s house, where I lived and slept each night beside her electric bed for the remaining two months of her life.

Case 4. False warnings of a bad outcome, when one learns not to care: likelihood of bad outcome — remote; severity — negligible.

My espresso machine kicks off each solitary morning. In concert with the blend I buy from the little independent coffee shop three blocks from my house, the device has never provided anything less than a splendid demitasse and a half.

But a few months after I bought it, each time it cycled up, a blinking amber icon depicting steam appeared. The stimulant machine was communicating its own dissatisfaction, telling me that it needed to be descaled, a process allegedly necessary when lime or other precipitants build up in its plumbing. After a trip to Bed, Bath, and Beyond to buy the descaler compound, I spent the better part of a Saturday morning pouring the caustic solution into the machine, then running fresh water through it and through it. And through it. The amber light kept blinking, laughing at me.

It still does two years later. But the coffee is just as good as anything I’ve had — including the time touring the Vatican when Jess insisted Judi and I sacrifice seeing the Raphaels to try instead the locals’ superb cappuccino. True, when Raphael applied his brush, the likelihood or severity of a bad artistic outcome was negligible. In our more mundane lives, the likelihood of difficult outcomes is occasional or worse, and severity: any possible degree. Sometimes, though, the cappuccino is worth the risk.

My coffee continues to taste no worse than the first delicious cup I brewed on that device. There is no line of sight from where I sit for breakfast to the appliance’s intermittent flashing. No distraction. Only if lime or rust begins to impede the dripping of my morning brew will I again try to please that computer chip.

The espresso machine replaces the one that Jess and Todd, her husband, bought me long ago, a device that was once loyal to my wife and me, but eventually gave out, as anything in this universe must. The newer machine works as well or better than the last one. But the older, simpler one never blinked.

Meet the Contributor

Mark-O-HodgsonMark O. Hodgson has been a newspaper reporter, an operating room orderly, a record shop manager, and a mental health worker. He studied at Wesleyan University and met his future wife in grad school at Northeastern University, where he became a sociologist. Blessed as a husband and parent, he switched careers again: software developer, then team leader at Boston University. He chanced upon GrubStreet and kept returning. He writes north of Boston and east of a supportive family, surrounded in retirement by the Great Salt Marsh, memories, and his curiosity.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: cahadikin/Flickr Creative Commons

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