June 28, 2012
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
For years, I have admired Colleen Mondor's writing at her blog, Chasing Ray, and her YA columns at Bookslut. Her memoir The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska skillfully tells the story of her time as dispatcher for an Alaska charter and commuter airline, specifically the pilots who faced treacherous conditions almost daily.
Nancy Pearl wrote of the book:
"It's a story of danger, of loss, of courage, of unsavory landing strips and forbidding mountains, of delivering mail and making mercy flights, of adrenaline and prayer, of unpredictably changeable winds and oncoming storms, of snow, of difficult decisions, of good fortune and bad luck, and, always, of the unbelievable cold. But it's also about why we choose the lives we do, how we rewrite our pasts to make sense of ourselves to the person we've become, what we choose to remember, and how and why we forget what we do: It's about myth-making, storytelling and memory. . . ."
In her own words, here is Colleen Mondor's Book Notes music playlist for her memoir, The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska:
The Map of My Dead Pilots is primarily about commercial flying in Alaska, both the past and present, and most specifically the Fairbanks commuter/charter airline where I worked as lead dispatcher in the mid 1990s. (I refer to it as "the Company".) More than aviation though, during the writing process it became a book about the stories we tell ourselves when times are tough, how we make ourselves believe in a time and place we inhabit and how we create fictions to understand our truths. Every pilot has a flying story they long to tell and every one of them is true no matter how many lies it might contain. MAP is about the truths we clung to once upon a time in a place few people ever visit and yet with every passing day more and more people claim to know. It was not hard for me to come up with a soundtrack for MAP, it was only challenging to make sure it wasn't too bleak while still, for sure, being true.
Tracy Chapman "Give Me One Reason"
More than any other song, this was the anthem at the "Company". We spent a lot of time talking about reasons to go and a lot of time listening to Tracy Chapman tell us that we needed to find a reason to stay.
Bruce Springsteen "Glory Days"
The Company was never easy and sometimes it was indescribably hard. But it was also the most interesting job I ever had, and the friends I made there are friends for life. It was my "Glory Days" and they did pass all too quickly, almost before we knew they were gone.
Joe Cocker "With a Little Help From My Friends"
I couldn't have made it without them - I wouldn't have wanted to make it without them. The Company is a story with a happy ending because we were there together and we knew then and still know today how much we matter to each other.
U2 "Beautiful Days"
There were those mornings when the sky was clear and the air was crisp and we could see forever. All of us would be out in front of the hangar and the planes would be taxiing by and you knew you were doing a job like no other in a place that people dreamed of. Those were days to hold tight as memories because I was lucky to have them and we were all lucky to live them.
Bruce Springsteen "Jungleland"
As much as "Jungleland" is thoroughly about New Jersey, there are portions of it that speak very much to Fairbanks and the Company. It's the song for any place that is tired and worn and harsh and if ever there was a place where poets did not speak then it was in that building on the East Ramp of Fairbanks International where the planes were old and dirty, the carpet was torn, dust coated every surface and duct tape held it all together. "Jungleland" is our song as much as anyone's.
And the poets down here
Don't write nothing at all
They just stand back and let it all be
And in the quick of the night
They reach for their moment
And try to make an honest stand
But they wind up wounded
Not even dead
Tonight in Jungleland
David Bowie "Heroes"
Heroics is the cheap myth sold to very nearly every pilot who goes to work in Alaska - look no further than reality tv for how it is still a job wrapped up in glory stories of serving as a "lifeline for the isolated rural inhabitants". The truth is there are very few heroes to be found there and yet everyone in the industry falls for the illusion because we need to believe that the demands placed on the job are worth a higher purpose - that you struggle so hard because it matters so much.
After all, being a hero is way better than being just a guy who flies loads of pop and potato chips across the tundra.
My friend "Sam", who would not be alive today if he wasn't such a great pilot, is the hero of MAP. He suffered more than most, he struggled mightily against bosses who seemed hell bent on pushing him until he broke, and he very nearly lost himself forever in the Arctic. Someday he will believe me when I tell him how much we all admire him for making it. When I hear Bowie sing "Heroes", it's Sam I think of.
Floggin' Molly "If Ever I Leave This World Alive"
Not long before my friend "Luke" crashed into a mountain outside Kotzebue he took a trip to Ireland with his mother. On the day she was notified across the country by state troopers of her son's death, she called us to ask what had happened and her voice on the phone to a friend of mine - her wails of "why" over and over again - is something I have never forgotten. He was an Irish boy, his mother's only son, her one child, raised without a father and full of more life than most. When I hear these words, I always think of her pain and how much I'm sure he was thinking of her in his last fearful moments:
If I ever leave this world alive
I`ll take on all the sadness
That I left behind
He was her heart, and sometimes a broken heart can't be mended.
Pretenders "2000 Miles"
In September 1929 Russ Merrill took off from Anchorage and disappeared, two months later fellow pilot Ben Eielson took off from Teller, outside Nome, and vanished as well. Eielson's body, along with his mechanic, would be found two months later but with the exception of a small scrap of wing fabric, Merrill and his aircraft were never seen again. When I wrote about their deaths it was the refrain of "He'll be back by Christmas time" that I heard again and again in my head especially when I thought of Russ Merrill's young sons. Their fellow pilots looked for them for so long, in those "frozen and silent nights". This is a song that almost seems made for these winter tragedies.
Warren Zevon "Keep Me In Your Heart"
I thought I was writing about flying with MAP but I wasn't, not really. I was writing to remember and even more importantly, I was writing never to forget. I hope I accomplished the sentiment that Warren Zevon so eloquently presents in this song; I hope that Luke and Bryce and all the ones we lost will linger in the memories of those now who never knew them but through their stories remember them just the same. And the ones who made it, I hope MAP helps them live forever.
And finally, the song I did not listen to:
Harry Belafonte "Mr. Bojangles"
On June 11, 1999, when "Bryce" crashed and died in the Yukon River, I was in Florida preparing for my father's funeral. I had not intended to include him in this book about Alaska aviation but I could not write about the losses that summer without including him; it was impossible. On June 3rd I walked into his room and Mr. Bojangles was playing on the small stereo. He opened his eyes, smiled at me and then, over the hours that followed he slipped into a coma. On June 5th the strongest man who ever lived was gone. I hear this song and I see him dying; I doubt I will ever listen to it again.
I miss him still like I did then; I miss him every single damn day.
Colleen Mondor and The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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