Roots and wings

One of my wife Margie's jobs as a mother is apparently using her mental powers to hold airplanes up in the air.

Let me explain. Margie has always been a nervous flier, but she didn't think it fair to pass her fears on to her children. She was apparently extremely successful at hiding them, because even at relatively young ages, both our daughters traveled extensively, sometimes to third-world countries. I recall receiving a fax from Madagascar, from our elder daughter Elissa. It included the cryptic line, "I had a bad experience with a chicken head the other night".

A classic adage says that you need to give your children "roots and wings". And you can't give them wings if you pass on a fear of flying.

Nevertheless, whenever our daughters traveled by air, Margie mentally followed their path. In the early days before the internet, this was a matter of tracking their schedules to know where they were supposed to be at any given moment. Later, with the advent of the World Wide Web, it became possible to actually track their planes minute by minute. I'm not sure this is really an improvement.

Although Margie is a very logical and intelligent person, I got the feeling that some part of her felt that she was keeping the kids safe by following them along on their journey. I've actually felt a similar impulse myself. For example, on a long car ride, I might feel afraid to say out loud, "we haven't had any traffic problems at all", for fear that the observation might provoke a massive jam around the next corner. That thought can intrude despite its complete illogic - obviously nothing I think or say can possibly affect the traffic ahead.

All this is prelude to the tale of a particular flight one Spring, taken by our younger daughter. She was in London, in a borrowed apartment, and was to return the following day. To prepare for her usual flight tracking, Margie was reading the flight schedule, and converting the London times to our Eastern Standard Time. That way, she would be able to think, "Sara's boarding now. She'll be shortly taking off", and so on.

But that's when Margie noted something wrong. She came to me with the schedule. "Look," she said, "this return flight is too short." Indeed, it was even shorter than the flight over, and that was not right. East to west flights always take longer, because of the prevailing west-to-east winds (particularly at the jet stream levels). The discrepancy disturbed Margie - she might not know when Sara was taking off.

Annoyed, I mumbled, "I don't know. Who cares? There must be some error, but what difference does it make? It doesn't affect us." Of course, Margie knew that once she had presented me with this problem, I would have to figure it out. No matter how unimportant it was.

While I went back to whatever I had been doing, the issue turned around in the back of my head, and a solution suddenly dawned on me. Although the United States had not yet transitioned to Daylight Saving Time (when clocks are advanced by one hour during the summer months), I knew that the United Kingdom made the transition on a different date. Perhaps England was already on Daylight Saving Time (it's actually called "Summer Time" in the UK). That would account for the schedule difference.

So I went to the internet, and, using a search engine, tried to ask the question, "What time is it in London right now". This was before the days of Google - I think the search engine might have been Alta Vista. And there were a lot fewer web pages than there are now. The search took oddly long. I found a web site of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England, the very arbiter of Greenwich Mean Time. But knowing the current value of GMT actually didn't help. The question was, was England still on GMT, or had it already transitioned to Summer Time, an hour "ahead" (that is, later - 8:00 GMT would become 9:00 British Summer Time).

I did eventually find my answer, and it was disappointing. London was still on GMT, not Summer Time, and so the mystery was not solved.

Except it then dawned on me that I had asked the wrong question. I didn't really care what time London was using that evening. I cared what time London would be using the next day, the day of the flight. That day was a Sunday, and time changes are usually made in the wee small hours of the morning on a Sunday (typically at 2:00 A.M.). Was England changing to Summer Time that very night??

I had been teasing Margie about what a waste of time it was to try to figure this out. But suddenly, it was not such an academic issue. Sara was in a borrowed apartment. She was probably not watching TV, and not reading newspapers. Thus, she could easily not be aware of the time change. She could arrive at the airport an hour late, and miss her plane. Even once in the airport, what if the clocks had not all been properly set ahead? Even sitting in the airport, she could be unaware that her flight was leaving.

We called British Air to get a definitive answer. A man in one of their call centers answered, speaking in a British accent. "Is Britain going on Summer Time tomorrow morning?", I asked. "I don't know", he said, "hold on." After a while, he came back on the line. "By 'Summer Time', do you mean 'Daylight Saving Time'?", he asked. I said "yes", wondering if he was really British. "Hold on", he said again.

After another pause, he came back on the line. "Nobody knows", he reported. One would think that an airline would have to know about these things. "Wait!", he said suddenly, "here comes the big supervisor." I suspect the "big supervisor" was annoyed at seeing a knot of his employees hanging around discussing time, instead of taking calls. Once again, I was put on hold, but this time, upon returning, I was told definitively, "Yes, Britain is going on Summer Time tomorrow morning at 2:00 A.M.". Problem solved.

So we gave Sara a call in the apartment. No answer. Well, it was only around 10 P.M. in London, and Sara was not one to sit around the apartment and waste her last day. So we called back at 10:30. And at 11:00, and at 11:30, and at midnight, and at 12:30 in the morning. Of course, these were London times. It was five hours earlier where we were, so we were not staying up late. Still, we began to wonder where the heck she was (something else for Margie to worry about).

Some time around 1:00 A.M. (I forget the exact time), Sara answered the phone with a very puzzled "Hello ??!!??" Who could be calling at that hour? "Sara", we said, "guess what we found out!" She answered, "Daylight Saving Time". But it turned out, she had only found out about it by pure luck. She had been waiting in a line to buy tickets to see the musical "Rent", Note 1 and had overheard a couple in front of her discussing the upcoming time change. Other than that, she wouldn't have known about it.

And although as it turned out, we hadn't needed to call to prevent Sara from missing her flight, Margie was now content. Mystery solved, she could apply her mental powers, at exactly the right time, to keep Sara's plane in the air.

#0046   *FAMILY2

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© 2010 Lawrence J. Krakauer   Click here to send me e-mail.
Originally posted September 2, 2010

Footnotes (click [return to text] to go back to the footnote link)

Note 1:   Sara was a bit of a "Renthead". The performance in London was the seventh time she had seen Rent. She had previously seen it twice in New York, twice in Chicago, and twice in Boston.   [return to text]