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What This Journey Is Teaching Me About Regret

What about becoming a nurse or a secretary?

My mom’s comment was not an attempt to deflate the balloon of hope I’d been secretly carrying. She didn’t know. No one knew why, as a little girl I’d get so excited whenever we went to Kennedy airport to greet family members arriving from Borikén (colonizer name: Puerto Rico). Younger kids often run to the windows overlooking the jumbo jets parked at the gates, mesmerized at their colossal beauty. Nothing new about that.

But back then airport security was lenient; non-passengers were allowed entry to the terminal area. And while I was happy to see relatives, I was all the more elated to see aircraft up close. At five or six years old, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up — an airline pilot. I wanted to travel and see the world.

The Dream

Still, I kept quiet until middle school. Around 12 or 13, I gave my parents the newsflash. The exact circumstances of that day remain foggy, but their opposite reactions remain vivid in my mind. Sharing my childhood dream didn’t seem like a bold statement, and I couldn’t fathom why mom was opposed. My dad, on the other end of the spectrum, shared my enthusiasm. If our daughter wants to be a pilot, then we must stand behind her ‘til it becomes reality. To him, it was that simple.

Years later I would understand her side. Honestly, I didn’t entirely fault mami. As a teenager who hadn’t graduated high school, she’d arrived in New York City from Borikén in the mid-1960s. Marrying her first love (my dad), they’d eventually become young parents to three children: two boys and a daughter (me, the middle child). Working in a hairbrush factory those first few years, she told herself life would get better. Dad was a manager at another factory. They’d struggled financially for a long time and had already divorced by the time I gave the news. So, it made sense that in her mind a “traditional” career choice would guarantee her only daughter a much more comfortable life.

She didn’t know about Sabiha Gökçen (adopted daughter of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the Turkish Republic) who is known as the world’s first female fighter pilot. Nor had mami heard about pioneer aviator, Amelia Earhart whose solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean made headlines. Two fearless women who had defied conventional gender roles — back in the 1930s. That I’d choose to follow in their footsteps, blazing my own trail in the skies didn’t seem so outlandish. But, to mami, it seemed that a career in nursing or secretarial studies was more sensible.

Determined to back his words with action, my dad found an open house at College of Aeronautics (now Vaughn College), near LaGuardia Airport. We took a tour of the facilities and met with one of the [male] academic instructors. Since I was still in middle school, he noted that I had “plenty of time” and recommended we check out Aviation High School. It was in my hometown of Long Island City (Queens), just a few subway stops away from where we lived. Feeling intimidated at the prospects of a mostly male educational environment, I chose my local high school (Long Island City HS). The irony is that several years later, heading off to junior college, then to university, the male/female ratio in my classes would remain steady at 7:1.

Skipping out on Aviation High would be the first of several regrets I would have vis-a-vis my unfulfilled childhood dream.

The First Flight

SUNY Farmingdale College of Technology would see me begin to pursue my goal. But since back then the two-year program only offered simulator time, I decided to take a ground course at Academics of Flight in Sunnyside, Queens, the summer my freshman year ended. It would be here that I would know the feeling of flying, if only briefly.

The following year I’d graduate — an Associate of Applied Science in Aeronautics in my back pocket!

Memories of that excited little girl came rushing back as Gerald C. (the Certified Flight Instructor) and I arrived at Islip’s MacArthur Airport on Long Island. A pinch of fear started to settle in, but my enthusiasm kept me optimistic. All would go smoothly. Mild-mannered with a sense of humor, Gerald had over 1,000 hours under his belt. I was in very capable hands and when he pointed to the Piper PA-38–112 Tomahawk’s dual controls, I felt even more relieved. He walked me through the pre-flight check, then I took the left seat while he snagged the only other seat (to my right). We were ready.

Taxing down the runway until he eventually pulled back on the yoke (“steering wheel”), causing the nose to lift. Once at altitude, Gerald taught a few basic maneuvers: maintaining course at straight and level flight, gentle turns at a 15-degree bank angle, and beginning to climb. I was nervous, but after a few minutes and with Gerald’s encouragement, I steadied the single-engine plane and even managed a slow banking turn. I was ecstatic.

A little under an hour in the air, it was time to land. Back on the ground, Gerald gave his post-flight debriefing. There was much to learn. But I was on top of the world and at 18, thought I was on the way to earning my private pilot’s license.

The Other Harvard

Having been accepted to the Harvard of the Sky, as my alma mater is affectionately known, I knew money would be tight. A private university with flight courses adding a hefty additional cost, I had a short-term strategy. I took a year off after graduating from SUNY Farmingdale and worked as a bank teller in Astoria, Queens to save money. Mami took a parent loan, and I applied for student aid. Still, the financial burden would become overwhelming.

It wasn’t until my second semester at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s aeronautics program that I’d start flight lessons. This time I’d learn to fly a Cessna 172 Skyhawk. The only similarities to my first experience would be that I had another very capable flight instructor (Ron C.), and the airplane was also single-engine. On the positive side, I fared well with ground safety precautions and visual inspection of the aircraft (before the pre-flight checklist). The rest was downhill (per Ron’s notes in my flight manual, too detailed for the small space allotted in my pilot log): missed several tower radio calls, didn’t know tower ops frequency, poor recovery procedures, had difficulty landing. And then some.

By the end of that semester, I’d become disappointed with my performance as a student pilot. And after another phone call with my mom, I knew that the financial burden of flying lessons (for the next two years) would stress our family’s already limited resources. At the time I wasn’t aware, but years later she would confide that after the divorce, my dad had paid zero child support. And during my college days, a family member told me that often he’d complain that I “only called when I needed money.”

It would all land on mami’s shoulders. She was not keen on going into further debt with additional school loans. I couldn’t fault her. Nor was it necessary for her to voice what we both already knew: she’d sacrificed so much raising me and my brothers. Working as a home attendant with 12-hour shifts, and foregoing the chance to get her G.E.D., she was doing her best to provide for us. It would’ve been selfish to ask her for more.

We agreed that I’d drop out of the flight program, and request a switch to aviation business studies. My heart hurt, but I was somewhat consoled when the university granted my request. Two years later I obtained my Bachelor of Science degree from ERAU’s Daytona Beach campus.

Absent viable employment after graduation, I moved back home to Queens. The reality was that I’d been lax in my efforts to line up a gig before leaving Embry-Riddle. College students generally seek internships or pre-graduation interviews so that once the big day arrives, they’ve already landed themselves employment. I did none of it, thinking prospective employers would be banging down my door with job offers. After all, a degree from my alma mater seemed as good as gold.

The Banking World

I regretted having to return to NYC to live with my mom and younger brother. And while she refrained from any discouraging words, my younger brother was relentless in his disdain. Daily he’d chastise me about not becoming a pilot and being unemployed. After being home a few months, I’d snagged an interview (for a flight attendant position) with US Airways Express in Salisbury, Maryland, and shortly thereafter received the offer letter. However, the disappointment of not further pursuing flight certifications towards becoming an airline captain (either via the military route or [costly] private instruction) weighed heavily. On top of that, I knew in my heart that I didn’t want to be a flight attendant. The salary offered was $14,000 and I’d need to relocate to Salisbury. I declined the offer.

Homelife coupled with my unemployment continued to be a source of stress. The constant arguing with my disrespectful brother with mami mostly quiet on the sidelines left me exasperated. I decided it was time to seek opportunities outside of the aviation sector. Bingo! About two months into my search, I was hired as a teller at Apple Bank for Savings in Astoria, Queens. Less than six months later, I transitioned to a secretarial position in the bank’s mortgage department.

Never once did mom say I told you so, but secretly I wondered if she recalled her resistance back when I was a kid telling her I wanted to be a pilot. Excited as I was to have found my first job out of college, I would still regret not being in the aviation environment.

My four years with Apple would end in a restructuring and subsequent layoff. The next few phases of my career would take me from secretary to executive administrative assistant, to corporate paralegal. During that time I only once reconsidered breaking into my chosen academic field — I landed an interview with Delta Airlines. Though again, it was a flight attendant position, I figured it would be a foot in the door to other opportunities within the industry.

I didn’t pass the first round of interviews, but wouldn’t find out until receiving a rejection letter in the mail about two weeks later. I remember reading it, tears caressing my cheeks as I called mami at her job. It’s ok, Lola. I’m proud of you for trying and there will be other opportunities.

That was a lifetime ago. Fast forward to today.

Spending over two decades in the financial sector has been a long lesson. It taught me about office bureaucracy and backstabbing. It taught me to stifle my creativity, to temper my criticism of internal policies and senior management. To climb the corporate ladder successfully meant setting aside my values. But it wasn’t all negative. Working in the industry allowed me a comfortable lifestyle, one that afforded plenty of international trips (35 countries, to be exact) and plenty of material for the next chapter of my life.

The Travel Blogger

Eighteen months ago, I quit the corporate world to pursue my travel blog. It hasn’t yet replaced my previous income and I’m ok with that. My priorities have changed and now I collect memories, not things. I’m also comfortable not having realized my childhood dream. I no longer have regrets about it. The optimist in me prefers to view it as a dream evolved: I didn’t become an airline pilot, but I am traveling the world.

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