Before I get further, I’d like to say a few words about what I drive.
I drive an Oldsmobile F-85 station wagon. What’s the color? When people are being nice, they talk about a classic, subdued camouflage color. Sometimes the more candid remarks end up saying something like, “The Seventies called. They want their paint job back,” although my station wagon is a 1965 model. All in all, I think I had the worst car of anyone I knew. Or at least that’s what I used to think.
Then I changed my mind. Or maybe it would be better to say that I had my mind changed for me.
I was sitting at the cafeteria, when I saw someone looking for a place to sit. He was new, and I motioned for him to come over. He sat down, quietly, and ate in silence. There was a pretty loud conversation at the table, and when people started talking about cars, his eyes seemed to widen. I asked him what kind of car he drove.
After hesitating, he mumbled something hard to understand, and looked like he was getting smaller. Someone said, “Maybe he doesn’t drive a car at all,” and whatever he mumbled was forgotten in raucous laughter.
I caught him in the hallway later, and he asked if I could help him move several large boxes that were not in the city. When we made the trip, he again seemed to be looking around with round eyes, almost enchanted by my rustbucket.
I began to feel sorry for the chap, and I gave him rides. Even if I didn’t understand.
He still managed to dodge any concrete hint of whatever it was that got him around—and I had a hunch that he hadn’t just walked. My other friends may have given me some ribbing about my bucket of bolts, but really it was just ribbing. I tried to impress on him that he would be welcome even if he just got around on a derelict moped—but still not a single peep.
By the time it was becoming old to joke about whatever he drove, I accepted a dare and shadowed him as he walked along a couple of abandoned streets, got to the nearest airstrip…
and got into an SR-71 Blackbird. The man took off in an SR-71 Blackbird. An SR-71 Blackbird! Words failed me. Polite ones, at any rate. The SR-71 Blackbird may be the coolest looking reconnaissance plane ever; as far as looks go, it beats the pants off the spacecraft in a few science fiction movies. But the engineers weren’t really trying to look cool; that was a side effect of trying to make an aircraft that was cool. It has those sleek lines because it’s a bit of a stealth aircraft; it can be detected by radar, but it’s somewhat harder. And suppose you’re in an SR-71 Blackbird and you are picked up by radar, and enemy soldiers launch a surface-to-air missle at you—or two, or ten? Just speed up and you’ll outrun it; the SR-71 Blackbird is the fastest aircraft ever built. Some SR-71 Blackbirds have been shot at. Ain’t never got one shot down. One of the better surface-to-air rockets has about the same odds of hitting an SR-71 Blackbird doing Mach 3.2 as a turtle trying to catch up with a cheetah and ram it. An SR-71 Blackbird is a different kind of rare. It’s not just that it’s not a common electronic device that you can pick up at any decent department store; it isn’t even like something very expensive and rare that has a waiting list is almost never on store shelves. The SR-71 Blackbird is more like, if anything, an invention that the inventor can’t sell—perhaps, some years back, one of the first, handmade electric light bulbs—because it is so far from how people think and do things that they can’t see anyone would want to use them. The SR-71 Blackbird is rare enough that few pilots have even seen it. And I saw, or thought I saw, my friend get into one.
and got into an SR-71 Blackbird. The man took off in an SR-71 Blackbird. An SR-71 Blackbird! Words failed me. Polite ones, at any rate. And probably the impolite ones, too. The SR-71 Blackbird may be the coolest looking reconnaissance plane ever; as far as looks go, it beats the pants off the spacecraft in a few science fiction movies. But the engineers weren’t really trying to look cool; that was a side effect of trying to make an aircraft that was cool. It has those sleek lines because it’s a bit of a stealth aircraft; it can be detected by radar, but it’s somewhat harder. And suppose you’re in an SR-71 Blackbird and you are picked up by radar, and enemy soldiers launch a surface-to-air missle at you—or two, or ten? Just speed up and you’ll outrun it; the SR-71 Blackbird is the fastest aircraft ever built. Some SR-71 Blackbirds have been shot at. Ain’t never got one shot down. One of the better surface-to-air rockets has about the same odds of hitting an SR-71 Blackbird doing Mach 3.2 as a turtle trying to catch up with a cheetah and ram it. An SR-71 Blackbird is a different kind of rare. It’s not just that it’s not a common electronic device that you can pick up at any decent department store; it isn’t even like something very expensive and rare that has a waiting list is almost never on store shelves. The SR-71 Blackbird is more like, if anything, an invention that the inventor can’t sell—perhaps, some years back, one of the first, handmade electric light bulbs—because it is so far from how people think and do things that they can’t see anyone would want to use them. The SR-71 Blackbird is rare enough that few pilots have even seen it. And I saw, or thought I saw, my friend get into one.
I walked back in a daze, sat down, decided not to take any drinks just then, and cornered the joker, who couldn’t keep his mouth shut. I told him to fess up about whatever he slipped me, but he was clueless—and when I couldn’t keep my mouth shut and blabbed why, he didn’t believe me. (Not that I blame him; I didn’t believe it myself.)
I ate by myself, later, and followed him. The third time, I caught him in the act.
I was red with anger, and almost saw red.
He blanched whiter than at the wisecrack about him maybe not driving a car.
What I would have said then, if I were calmer, was, “Do you think it’s right for a billionaire, to go around begging? You have things that none of us even dream of, and you—?”
After I had yelled at him, he looked at me and said, “How can I fuel up?”
I glared at him. “I don’t know, but it’s got to be much cooler than waiting in line at a gas station.”
“Maybe it is cooler, but I don’t think so, and that’s not what I asked. Suppose I want to fly in my airplane. What do I do to be fueled up?”
“Um, a fuel truck drives out and fills you up?”
“And then I’m good to go because I have a full tank, just like you?”
“I don’t see what you’re getting at.”
“Ok, let me ask you. What do you do if you want to make a long trip? Can you fill your tank, maybe a day or two before your trip, and leave?”
“Yes. And that would be true if you had a moped, or a motorcycle, or a luxury car, or even something exotic like an ATV or a hovercraft.”
“But not an SR-71 Blackbird.”
“What do you mean, not an SR-71 Blackbird? Did you get a good deal because your aircraft is broken?”
“Um, just because you can assume something in a good car, or even a bad car, doesn’t mean that it’s true across the board. When it’s sitting on the ground, my aircraft leaks fuel.”
“It leaks fuel? Why are you flying an aircraft that’s not broken?”
“There’s a difference between designing a passenger car and what I deal with. With a passenger car, if the manufacturers are any good, the car can sit with little to no fuel leak even if it’s badly maintained.”
“But this does not apply to what the rest of us can only dream of?”
“A passenger car heats up a little, at top speeds, due to air friction. One and the same part works for the fuel line when it’s been in the garage for an hour, and when it’s driving as fast as you’ve driven it. Not so with my aircraft. The SR-71 Blackbird is exposed to one set of temperatures in the hangar, and then there is air friction for moving at Mach 3.2, and there’s a basic principle of physics that says that what gets hotter, gets bigger.”
“What’s your point?”
“The parts that make up an SR-71 Blackbird are one size in the hangar and other sizes when the aircraft is flying at high speeds. The engineers could have sized the parts so that you could keep an aircraft in the hangar without losing any fuel… or they could make an airplane that leaks fuel on the ground, but it works when it was flying. But they could not make an airplane that would work at Mach 3.2 and have a sealed fuel line in the hangar… and that means that, when I go anywhere worth mentioning in my hot, exciting airplane, even I get fueled up on the ground, and I lose quite a lot of fuel getting airborne and more or less need an immediate air-to-air refueling… This is besides the obvious fact that I can’t run on any fuel an ordinary gas station would carry. For that matter, the JP-7, a strange beast of a ‘fuel’ that must also serve as hydraulic fluid and engine coolant, is about as exotic compared to most jet fuel as it is compared to the ‘boring’ gasoline which you take for granted—you can’t get fuel for an SR-71 Blackbird at a regular airport any more than you can buy ‘ordinary’ jet fuel at a regular gas station… and you think me strange when I get excited about the fact that you can drive up to any normal gas station and fill-er-up!”
I hesitated, and then asked, “But besides one or two details like—”
He cut me off. “It’s not ‘one or two details,’ any more than—than filling out paperwork and dealing with bureaucracy amounts to ‘one or two details’ of a police officer’s life. Sure, on television, something exciting happens to police officers every hour, but a real police officer’s life is extremely different from police shows. It’s not just paperwork. Perhaps there is lots of paperwork—a police officer deals with at least as much paperwork and bureaucracy as an employee who’s a cog in a big office—but there are other things. Police officers get in firefights all the time on TV. But this is another area where TV’s image is not the reality. I’ve known police officers who wouldn’t trade their work for anything in the world. Doesn’t mean that their work is like a cop show. When police officers aren’t being filmed on those videos that make dramatic shows, and they aren’t training, the average police officer starts firing maybe once every three or four years. There are many, many seasoned veterans who have never fired a gun on the street. And having an SR-71 Blackbird is no more what you’d imagine it was like to have a cool, neat, super-duper reconnaissance plane instead of your unsatisfying, meagre, second-rate, dull car than… than… than being a police officer has all the excitement of surviving a shootout every day, but only having to fill paperwork once every three or four years if at all!”
“Um, what else is there?”
“Um, what’s a typical trip for you? I mean, with your car?”
“My wife’s family is at the other side of the state, and—”
“So that’s an example of a common trip? More common than shopping or driving to meet someone?”
“Ok; often I’m just running some errands.”
“Such a boring thing to do with a station wagon. If you want things to get interesting, try something I wouldn’t brave.”
“Go for the gusto. Borrow my vehicle! First, you can fuel up at home, as any fuel that had been in your tank is now a slippery puddle underneath the vehicle you wish you had. Then start the vehicle. You’ll have something to deal with later, after the hot exhaust sets your trees on fire. And maybe a building or two. Then lurch around, and try to taxi along the streets. (Let’s assume you don’t set any trees on fire, which is not likely.) Now you’re used to be able to see most of the things on the road, at least the ones you don’t want to hit? And—”
“Ok, ok, I get the idea! The SR-71 Blackbird is the worst, most pitiable—”
“Perhaps I have misspoken. Or at least wasn’t clear enough. I wasn’t trying to say that it’s simple torture flying an SR-71 Blackbird. There are few things as joyful as flying. And do you know what kind of possibilities exist (in everything from friendship to work to hobbies) when the list of things you can easily make a day trip to the other side of the globe? When—”
“Then why the big deal you just made before?”
“An SR-71 Blackbird is many things, but it is not what you imagine if you fantasize about everything you imagine my vehicle to be, and assume almost everything you take for granted in yours. There are a great many nice things that go without saying in your vehicle, that aren’t part of mine. You know, a boring old station wagon with its dull room for a driver plus a few passengers and some cargo, that runs on the most mundane petroleum-based fuel you can get, and of course is familiar to most mechanics and can be maintained by almost any real automotive shop, and—if this is even worth mentioning—can be driven safely across a major network of roads, and—of course this can be taken for granted in any real vehicle—has a frame that gives you a fighting chance of surviving a full-speed collision with—”
“Ok, ok, I get the picture. But wouldn’t it have helped matters if you would tell people these things up front? You know, maybe something about avoiding these confrontations, or maybe something about ‘Honesty is the best policy’?”
He said, “Ok. So when I meet people, I should say, ‘Hi. My vehicle leaves Formula One racecars in the dust. It also flies, can slip through radar, and does several things you can’t even imagine. But don’t worry, I haven’t let any of this go to my head. I’m not full of myself. I promise I won’t look down on you or whatever car you drive. And you can promise not to feel the least bit envious, inferior, or intimated. Deal?’ It seems to come across that way no matter how I try to make that point. And really, why shouldn’t it?”
I paused. “Do our vehicles have anything in common at all?”
“Yes—more than either of us can understand.”
“But what on earth, if we’re so different? My vehicle is a 1965 model; your vehicle sounds so new you’d need a time machine to get one—”
“My vehicle is a 1965 model too.”
“If you want to lie and make me feel better, you could have told me that your vehicle was years older than mine.”
“I meant it. There is something about our vehicles that is cut from the same cloth.”
“How can you say that? I mean, without stretching? Is what they have in common that they’re both in the same universe? Or that they’re both bigger than an atom but smaller than a galaxy? Or some other way of really stretching?”
“If you want to dig deeper, have you read, ‘I, Pencil‘? Where an economist speaks on behalf of a common, humble pencil?”
“A speech from a pencil? What does that have to do with our vehicles? Are you going to compare our vehicles to a pencil?”
“So you’re stretching.”
“In I, Pencil, a cheap wooden pencil explains what it took to make it. It talks about how a diamond in the rough—I mean, graphite in the rough—crosses land and sea and is combined with clay, and a bit of this and that to make the exquisite slender shaft we call pencil ‘lead’. The wood comes from the majestic cedar—do you know what it takes to make a successful logging operation—and then a mind-boggling number of steps transform a hundred feet of tree into something that’s a little hard to explain, but machined to very precise specifications, and snapped together before six coats of laquer—oh, I forgot, before the cedar wraps around the slender graphite wand, it’s also adorned by being tinted a darker color, ‘for the same reason women put rouge on their faces’ or something like that. Its parts come through a transportation network from all over the world, and the rubber eraser—which wouldn’t erase at all well if were just rubber; it needs to be a cocktail of ingredients that perform at least three major tasks if it will work as an eraser. Try erasing pencil with a rubber ball sometime; it will erase terribly if it erases at all. Your erases is not mere rubber, but a rubber alloy, the way airplanes are made, not with mere aluminum, but with an aluminum alloy, and—”
“So the parts of a pencil have an interesting story?”
“Yes. And the quite impressive way they are put together—pencils don’t assemble themselves, and a good machine—for some steps—costs a king’s ransom. And the way they’re distributed, and any number of things necessary for business to run the whole process, and—”
“Then should I start offering my daughter’s pencils to a museum?”
“I wouldn’t exactly offer one of her pencils to a museum. Museums do not have room for every wonder this world has. But I will say this. The next pencil you forget somewhere wouldn’t have been yours to lose without more work, talent, skill, knowledge, venture capital, and a thousand other things than it took to make a wonder like the Rosetta Stone or the Mona Lisa.”
As usual, she was dressed to kill. Her outfit was modest—I can almost say, ostentatiously modest—but, somehow, demurely made the point that she might be a supermodel.
I had a bad feeling about something. During our conversation on the way over, I said, “You have an issue with Saab drivers.” He replied, “No. Or yes, but it’s beside the point. Saab drivers tend to have issues with me.” I was caught off-guard: “That sounds as arrogant as anything I’ve—”
He asked me to forget what he had said. For the rest of the conversation, he seemed to be trying to change the subject.
She greeted us, shook his hand warmly, and turned back. “—absolutely brilliant. Not, in any way, like the British Comet, which never should have been flown in the first place, and was part of why jumbo jetliners were dangerous in the public’s eye. The training for people who were going to be in that jumbo jetliner—the Comet—included being in a vacuum so that soldiers would know what to do if they were flying in a sparse layer of the atmosphere and the airplane simply disintegrated around them and left them in what might as well have been a vacuum. This sort of thing happened with enough jumbo jetliners that the public was very leery of them. For good reason, they were considered a disaster looking for a place to happen.
“And so, when Boeing effectively bet the company on the Boeing 707—like they did with every new airplane; it wasn’t just one product among others that could be a flop without killing the company—they gave the test pilot very careful instructions about what to do when he demonstrated their new jumbo jetliner.
“At the airshow, he was flying along, and after a little while, people began to notice that one of the airplane’s wings was lower, and the other was higher…
“The Boeing 707 test pilot was doing a barrel roll, which is extremely rough on an airplane. It’s like… something like, instead of saying that a computer is tough, throwing it across the room. This stunt was a surprise to the other people at Boeing, almost as much as to the other, and it wasn’t long before Boeing got on the radio and asked the pilot, ‘What the [Bleep] do you think you’re doing?’ The pilot’s reply was short, and to the point:
“‘Why, selling airplanes, sir.’
“He told a reporter afterwards, ‘And when I got done with that barrel roll, I realized that the people weren’t going to believe what they just saw… so I turned around and I did another one!'”
A moment later, someone else said, “What does ‘Saab’ mean again? You’ve told me, but—”
She smiled. “It took me a while to remember, too. ‘SAAB’ stands for ‘Svenska aeroplan Aktiebolaget,’ literally ‘Swedish Aeroplane Limited.’ It’s a European aerospace company that decided that besides making fighter jets and military aircraft, they would run a side business of selling cars, or at least the kind of car you get when you combine a muscle car, a luxury vehicle, and more than a touch of a military jet. It’s like an airplane in big and small ways—everything from, if you unbuckle your seatbelt, a ‘Fasten seatbelts’ light just like an airliners’, to the rush of power you feel when you hit the gas and might as well be lifting off… I’m not sure how you would describe it… It’s almost what Lockheed-Martin would sell if they were Scandinavian and wanted to sell something you could drive on the street.”
He said, “It sounds like a delight to drive.”
She said, “It is. Would you two like me to take you out for a spin? I’d be delighted to show it to you. What kind of car do you drive?”
He paused for a split second and said, “I needed to get a ride with him; I have nothing that I could use to get over here.”
I told her, “He’s being modest.”
She looked at me quizzically. “How?”
“He flies an SR-71 Blackbird… um… sorry, I shouldn’t have said that just as you were taking a drink.”
He seemed suddenly silent. For that matter, the room suddenly seemed a whole lot quieter.
She said, “You’re joking, right?”
No one said a word.
Then she said, “Wow. It is a privilege and an honor. I have never met someone who…”
He said, “I really don’t understand… maybe… um… I’m not really better, or—”
She said, “Stop being modest. I’d love to hear more about your fighter. Have you shot anything down?”
He looked as if he was thinking very hurriedly, and not finding the thought that he wanted.
“The SR-71 Blackbird would be pretty useless in a dogfight. It is neither designed or equipped to fight even with a very obsolete enemy aircraft; it’s just designed to snoop around and gather information.”
She said, “Um, so they get shot down all the time? Wouldn’t you tend to get a lot of missiles fired by enemy fighters who aren’t worried about you shooting back? What do you do when you run out of countermeasure flares?”
He paused for a moment, saying, “The SR-71 Blackbird doesn’t have anything you’d expect. Flares are a great way to decoy a heat-seeking missile, but the SR-71 Blackbird doesn’t have them, either.”
I turned to him and said, “You’re being almost disturbingly modest.” Then I turned to her and said, “An SR-71 Blackbird can go over three times the speed of sound. The standard evasive to a surface-to-air rocket is simply to accelerate until you’ve left the rocket in the dust. I’m not aware of one of them being shot down.”
Her eyes were as big as dinner plates.
She said, “I am stunned. I have talked with a few pilots, but I have never met anyone close to an SR-71 Blackbird pilot. I hope we can be friends.” She stood close to him and offered her hand.
The three of us ran into each other a number of times in the following days. She seemed to want to know everything about his aircraft, and seemed very respectful, or at least seemed to be working hard to convey how impressed she was.
It was a dark and stormy night. He and I were both on our way out the door, when she asked, “What are you doing?”
He said, “I want to try some challenges. I plan on going out over the ocean and manoeuvering in the storm system.”
She turned to him and said, very slowly, “No, you’re not.”
He turned to me and said, “C’mon, let’s go.”
She said, “Are you crazy? A storm like that has done what enemy rockets have failed to do: take down your kind of craft. I’ve grown quite fond of you, and I’d hate to see you get killed because you were being stupid. Think about 61-7969 / 2020.”
He said, “May I ask why you know about that?”
“I have been doing some reading because I want to understand you. And I understand people well enough, and care about you enough, to tell when you are acting against your best interests.”
He grabbed my arm and forced me out the door. Once in the car, he said, “I’m sorry… I needed to get out before saying something I would regret.”
“‘So you know just the perfect way to straighten me out, and you don’t even need to ask me questions. Walk a mile in my shoes, to a place you can reach in a car but not my aircraft, and then we might be able to talk.'”
I watched him take off, and I came back to pick him up, after waiting an hour. I could tell something that seemed not quite perfect about his flying, but I do not regret that I kept my mouth shut about that.
The next day she surprised us by meeting us first thing in the morning.
She gave us a stack of paper. “I care about you quite a lot, and I don’t want to be invited to your funeral in the next year. Here are detailed aviation regulations and international laws which are intended for your safety. I could not get an exact count of the number of crimes you committed, either for last night or for your reckless day-to-day flying around. I am sure that there are many responsible ways a vehicle like yours can be used, and I have inquired about whether there are any people who can offer some guidance and free you to…”
He turned around, took my elbow, and began walking out to the parking lot. We got in my car, and she raced for hers.
I saw her go to the mouth of the parking lot and then stop. The one Rolls-Royce in town had broken down, of all places there, and the owner and chauffer were both outside. I had thought that the person who was chauffered in a Rolls-Royce was a peaceful sort of man, but he was yelling then, and before she got over the owner positively erupted at the chauffeur and waved his arms. She had gotten out and wanted to talk with them, but you can’t get a word in edgewise at a time like that.
Now I’d like to clarify something about my car. I’ve only seen a vehicle like mine in a demolition derby once, but I was surprised. I wasn’t surprised, in particular, that the wagon was the last vehicle moving. What I was surprised at was that over a third of the derby had passed before the ugly wagon started to crumple at all.
And one other thing: one April Fools’ Day, a friend who drives a sleek, sporty little 1989 Chrysler LeBaron gave me a bumper sticker that said, “Zero to sixty in fifteen minutes,” and then acted surprised when I challenged him to a short race. When the race had finished, he seemed extraordinarily surprised, and I told him, “There is a question on your face. Let me answer it.” Then I opened the hood on my ugly, uncool station wagon and said, “Your sleek little number can get by on a 2.2 liter engine. Do you know what that is?” He said, “Um, the engine?” And I said, “That is a 6.6 liter V8. Any questions?”
Ok, enough clarification. I looked around, turned in the opposite direction, and floored my car, blasting through the hedges and getting heavy scrapes on the bottom of my car. I got shortly on the road, and had a straight shot at the airport. She did eventually catch up to me, but not until there was nothing left to see but some hot exhaust and the fuel that had leaked when he tried to take off. (I still get the occasional note from him.)
Besides worrying about him, I was also much less worried about my car: tough as it is, cars don’t like getting their undersides scraped on gravel, and I decided to take my car to the garage and have the mechanic take a look at it and tell me if I broke anything.
I was surprised—though maybe I shouldn’t have been—to see the Rolls-Royce in the garage when I pulled in. I intended to explain that I might have scraped the bottom up, and after I did so, my curiosity got the better of me. I asked something about Rolls-Royces breaking down.
The mechanic gave me the oddest look.
I asked him, “Why the funny look?”
He opened the hood, and said, “Rolls-Royces do break down easily… and it’s even easier to break down if you open the hood, jam a screwdriver right there, and rev it as hard as you can.”