Poetry News

Gregory Pardlo's Air-Traffic-Controller Father

By Harriet Staff


Gregory Pardlo's father, Gregory Pardlo, Sr., was in the air traffic control biz. The poet's story of defying President Ronald Reagan in 1981, hand-in-hand with his father on the picket line, is in the new issue of The New Yorker. "Ultimately, the 1981 strike was called to leverage demands that included improved working conditions, a reduced workweek, and the replacement of outmoded equipment. According to Bob Poli, the PATCO president, eighty-nine per cent of the workforce never made it to retirement because of stress." More:

When he was at work in the tower, his language had to be indelible, inexorable, capable of bending spoons. Subtext, allusion, nuance, dramatic irony: these were the smithies upon which mistakes were forged. Thought had to be equal to articulation. No art. The kind of speech that lives relied upon. So many winged aluminum cartons of fragile eggs. Each of the, say, two hundred and fifty passengers on each flight hanging unwittingly on each morpheme. Our father, Air-Traffic Controller. He was that most avid reader—of auspices, time signatures and frequencies, topography, and relief. Were he to nod off or blink, all heaven might fall.

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?

My dad used questions to catch me off guard. His questions, like sniper fire, abrupt and random, defied anticipation and, therefore, preparation. “Bridge Keepers,” I called them, after the scene in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” For always my quest was arrested at that cliff side, and across the fog-veiled Gorge of Eternal Peril stood my father’s love. “What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?” My father’s game came across as cruel.

“A first-rate intelligence,” my father would say, “is one on which nothing is lost.” And this one: “Learning is just a kind of remembering.”

Read all of "The Cost of Defying the President."

Originally Published: February 15th, 2017