Seat 1D - Being prepared

Seat 1D chronicles the gifts of inspiration, connection, and reflection given to me by the most unlikely of people that fate (or perhaps faith) places next to me during my many flights traveling around the country training with my Search & Rescue dog Redden.

At the November 7, 2001 CMA Awards, country music star Alan Jackson released a new single and asked us all “Where were you when the world stopped turning?” Like millions of Americans across the country, I know exactly where I was. I was working for a large equine veterinary firm in Lexington, Kentucky and we were just pulling onto the Thoroughbred farm owned by one of my favorite clients. The reports on the radio were full of confusion, disbelief, anger, and fear. Those would continue to be the feelings of our nation over the next weeks and months. I remember calling my mom to see if she had heard the news and to hear a comforting voice. I remember sitting that night staring at the TV, numb, watching the news, trying to understand the magnitude of it all. Most importantly, I remember being next to a co-worker that day while we were all gathered at the Keeneland Yearling Sales, and hearing him talk to his best friend’s parents as they told him that they still had not been able to be reached his friend who worked in the Towers. I wondered what could I do. I was a poor college kid with no money to donate. The blood banks were busting at the seams. What? What could I do?

Exactly one year later, God gave me my answer. After the attacks of September 11th, I had moved back home to the Midwest to go to Graduate School. While home on a lunch break, I was watching the local news commemorating the 1st Anniversary of the attacks and there she and her dog were. Missouri Task Force One had been deployed to the World Trade Center to look for survivors and the K9 Handler being featured on the news had been the instructor of the obedience classes I had taken with my dog Ty a few years earlier. Lightbulb! That is exactly how I can help.

After a few phone calls and a visit to meet the team, I found myself with a mentor and began learning to train my first Search & Rescue dog named Calvary. This work would forever change the course of my life. I learned a lot over the next few years. I learned about various training techniques and the importance of timing. I learned about dogs and their drive. I learned about structural collapses and hazardous materials. But most importantly, I learned the importance of being prepared. That you should give 110% in all your training so you are ready when that call comes and you’re asked to do something that literally could mean the difference between life and death for someone. For that one person trapped in the rubble, your actions, your performance, your physical and mental preparation, will be life-changing.  

Well here we are, 15 ½ years later.

Some call it the “Cattle Call”, but thanks to Southwest Airlines open seating policy and their support of Search & Rescue dogs [read more HERE], Redden and I once again find ourselves in the bulk head row, middle Seat 1E, traveling this leg out of Chicago Midway. This is the second leg of my flight and while waiting to board, Redden and his handsome striped-self have again made quite the stir at our gate giving love and snuggles to the masses. I am happy to let him share his love at the gate, but now as I am settled in my seat, the fatigue sets in an I am ready for some down time. As I mentioned in the first Seat 1D-The Best Seat on the Plane, after a hard few days of training I am usually pretty tired, a bit anti-social, and definitely ready for a nap.

Enter this issue’s inhabitant of Seat 1D. Braydon, and his mom Debbie (Seat 2D), were recipients of much of Redden’s attention while we were waiting at the gate. Braydon is a 20-year-old, 6-foot-tall, super happy and gregarious type of kid. The only difference between him and every other 20-something is that God gave Braydon a mind that works a little different than the rest of us. The one part however that works just the same, at least the same as mine, is the unstoppable magnetic pull to dogs.

As they enter the plane, Braydon spots Redden and asks if he can sit next to us. As he starts to settle in, his mom gives me an apologetic smile and says I don’t have to say yes, he can come sit with her. Of course, I have to say yes. For so many reasons, many that were not known to me at the time, I had to say yes. What I will learn later in our conversations though is just how many heart-breaking times people say no.

From the moment our flight takes off until we pull into the gate, Braydon is a nonstop source of stories as he shares with me all the amazing adventures he and his mom have been on, pictures of his cats, his brother, and whatever else he finds on his mom’s phone to show me. He peppers me with questions about search dogs. All this while he is getting a full-blown dose of Redden’s googly eyes requiring Braydon to tell all these stories while simultaneous scratching behind Redden’s ears or patting him gently while he lays his head in Braydon’s lap.

During a short pause in the stories, his mom leans up and tells me that his dad died not too long ago. Now it is just her and Braydon and his brother. Braydon now lives in a group home because she wants him to have some independence should something happen to her too. While she knows this is the right move, this particular home has strict policies on where Braydon can work and volunteer and they are not being cooperative in her efforts to give him the opportunities he wants, especially with animals. She shares that this frustration though is not new. His whole life people have been asking her “why bother?” Why bother taking him on vacation? Why bother going to music concerts? Why worry about his education? It doesn’t really matter, right? I can tell by the look on her face as she is talking that what she really hears is not “IT doesn’t matter.” but rather “HE doesn’t matter.” Well he matters to her. He, as with each precious life God has put on this planet, should matter to us all. As I look down and see the completely happy look on Redden’s face, he most certainly matters to Redden. My exhaustion is now a thing of the past. I no longer want a nap. I want to spend more time with these amazing people. To hear their stories. To learn about the strength of their family. I am thankful for the connection of story that Braydon and his mom have entrusted with me. I am in awe at his natural connection with Redden, and at his quick wit and humor during this long flight. But, our time comes to end. Seatbelts off, cell phones on, and it’s time to go.

As we deplane, Redden and I are the first to head out and walk down the jet bridge. We are about half way down and I hear Braydon holler “Redden, I will never forget you.” Cue the tears. While life has handed this kid a bucket of challenges, he and his mom have taken my Grandma’s advice to heart and made the proverbial lemonade. He is not trapped, life hanging in the limbs, in need of rescue. But all I can think as I look down at my striped companion is “You did it buddy. You made a difference in one person’s life. And that really is the core of what he has been in training for.”

I have now collected my bags, loaded them in the truck, and am on the road. As I am reflecting on my entertaining, educational, and heart-inspiring time with Braydon and his mom it dawns on me. I saw this all wrong. Today wasn’t Redden’s big call, nor was it us who made a life changing impact on Braydon. It was the complete opposite.

Braydon and Debbie, your story, your dedication to each other, your humor and whole-heartedness have forever changed my view of humanity and have made me grateful for the opportunity given to me to meet new people, especially those following in your footsteps in Seat 1D. Braydon, you may not know it, but your big call came today on this flight, and you sir answered it completely. For me, you were life-changing.

So here is what I know. Every day I wake up wondering what should the dogs and I train today to make us better prepared. What I learned, thanks to Braydon and his mom Debbie, is that you never know when that call may come. You may not know exactly how the call will come. But it will come, and you sure hate to not be ready.

“To each there comes in their lifetime a special moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing, unique to them and fitted to their talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds them unprepared or unqualified for that which could have been their finest hour.” -Winston Churchill

In the next Seat 1D I will share my experience with real passion at 10,000 feet.

*Names have been altered to protect the privacy of those who unknowing fly with a blogger.