An air traffic controller uses binoculars to look for birds or other hazards that can damage aircraft. Photo credit: Airman 1st Class Nathaniel Hudson

When the River Almost Took Me Under 

We sat silently in her car, puffing on a cigarette. Neither of us were real smokers, so we shared one as the fumes trailed out my cracked window.

For over a year, we’d driven around the city, singing along to bad ’90s music, swapping stories, and falling for one another. We’d driven through snowstorms and rainy nights, and hot summer days when we’d indulgently blast the AC while feeling the wind through the open windows. But this night, our drive was different.

Her car was now the only space we felt safe. Safe enough to hold hands. This would be the last night I’d sit in her car. This would be the last time I would see her in person.

Twenty years later, I still remember the first time I touched her hand.

It was 1999 and I’d just finished my first Federal Aviation Administration certification as a United States Air Force traffic controller. For the first time in my young adult life, I felt unquestioningly proud of a choice I’d made. Until then, my life felt like it was being swept down a strong river. As the current raged on, I’d lost my footing and my day-to-day existence came down to catching breaths of air. The river was in control, not me. Until the day I swore an oath to our country.

I became a card-carrying controller at one of the busiest single runways in the world: Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas. My first day in the tower, I watched a controller calmly direct more planes than I ever thought possible. It was remarkably impressive how someone could remain so in control under so much pressure. You’d have to be a robot to stay this calm, I thought. But when he adjusted his headset, he revealed his humanity: a trembling hand.

I completely immersed myself in training and moved along quickly. Every day I surprised myself with my ability to stay focused. Murphy’s Law and air traffic control are married concepts; planes will spontaneously manifest at precisely the wrong time and place and all at once. One busy afternoon, I approved a C-130 pilot’s request for a special maneuver and, without warning, unanticipated traffic swarmed my airspace. The five-mile radius under my responsibility filled with aircraft, leaving no room for mistakes. My crew quieted as I rattled out traffic advisories and the world outside my airspace ceased to exist. The C-130 pilot, already at high speeds due to their approved maneuver, prepared to cut between multiple aircraft on my command. My mind raced, looking for any plane I’d forgotten to control. Like a choreographed dance, the planes in my sky weaved around one another as though we’d rehearsed many times. When the chaos subsided, I sat down in my chair and let the very first waves of true self-pride and confidence sweep over me.

An Air Force C-130J Super Hercules. Photo Credit: Yasuo Osakabe

An Air Force C-130J Super Hercules. Photo Credit: Yasuo Osakabe

“Did you plan that?” my trainer asked.

“Yes.” I lied.

He nodded at my trembling hand. “You lie. But you had it under control. And we had your back,” he said with a smile.

Not long after that incident I was one of their own. I’d earned their trust and they’d earned mine. I felt at home with my fellow controllers of chaos. I’d made it safely to the river’s edge and could finally relax.

The day I met her is a blur. But the very moment I first saw her plays in my head like a movie you’ve watched a thousand times. I was sitting at a table with my crew, talking shit to one another over beers in a dingy club. One of the guys interrupted our trash talk and said, “That. Right there. That’s the sorta girl you fall in love with.”

And there SHE was.

In a sea of heels and dresses, I saw a girl dancing alone. Her white T-shirt and sneakers contrasting the crowd. The guys invited her over for drinks. Her smile. God, her smile …

I’m pretty sure my hand trembled when she shook it.

We became fast friends.

We became fast lovers.

While I knew my sexual orientation was something that I needed to keep a secret, it didn’t feel like I was pursuing something inherently wrong. I was pulled by a gentle curiosity. It was, simply, love and infatuation. She was kind, sweet, and always laughing. Always laughing.

An air traffic controller uses binoculars to look for birds or other hazards that can damage aircraft. Photo credit: Airman 1st Class Nathaniel Hudson

An air traffic controller uses binoculars to look for birds or other hazards that can damage aircraft. Photo credit: Airman 1st Class Nathaniel Hudson

All controllers go by initials as a way of quickly identifying one another. My crew gave her initials: PG. For Pretty Girl. As an excuse to see her during a shift, I’d tell my crew PG would be willing to pick up smokes for everyone. No one ever asked why it took so long for me to go down and come back up the tower stairs with their cigarettes. No one asked why I never got a pack for myself.

In 1999, I thought I was well under the seemingly protective wing of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” It was designed as a compromise, a way to progress while still appeasing those who believed an open and inclusive military would disrupt unit cohesion. I felt, however ignorantly, that DADT required my secrecy as a formality. As long as my personal relationships didn’t interfere with my job, they were of no matter to the United States Air Force.

PG was a civilian but understood we had to be discreet. We never held hands in public. We were always conscious of our physical proximity on or off base. To the outside observer, she was a close friend. But as time passed, our daily lives intersected regularly. By the time we’d been dating for a year, a few of my fellow controllers knew. To my knowledge, not one person had a problem with my relationship with this beautiful, funny, light-hearted girl.

We got comfortable. We relaxed.

One day a friend came to my house unannounced. He was afraid to call ahead on the phone. I was surprised to see him and quickly became anxious when he looked over his shoulder as he walked through the door. He quietly and fearfully told me he’d been interviewed by the Office of Special Investigations (OSI). They asked him about the nature of my relationship with PG. He went on to explain that the investigator named places and dates where we’d all been seen together. One could assume they’d acquired all this information through interviewing people I knew, not just my neighbors, but my crew too. My friend standing in my kitchen, whispering to me as though OSI were listening through the walls, was an indication that my future was in danger. I had no idea the river water was rising around me.

The words “dishonorable discharge” made my hand tremble.

In an attempt to throw me a life preserver, my friend told me every detail of his OSI interview. I replayed every get-together, every outing, every phone call from the control tower and thought, There’s no proof. I felt safe until he said, “They asked me A LOT about your Fourth of July barbeque.”

There was one witness who worried me, the wife of a fellow controller. During that party, she’d been trying to find me when she opened my bedroom door and saw me on the bed with PG. She gave us a quick, “SORRY!” and closed the door just as fast as she’d opened it. PG and I giggled in embarrassment for the lost privacy of our stolen moment.

After I found out there was an investigation, being in the control tower felt different. I wondered who had spoken to OSI. I wondered about their sudden silence around me. I wondered if they still had my back. Every day that I wasn’t assigned to talk to planes just compounded my uncertainty: Does my crew trust me? Can I trust them?

Six C-130J Super Hercules’ from Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, perform an Elephant Walk at Yokota AB, Japan. Photo Credit: Airman 1st Class Brieana E. Bolfing

Six C-130J Super Hercules’ from Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, perform an Elephant Walk at Yokota AB, Japan. Photo Credit: Airman 1st Class Brieana E. Bolfing

I waited for a call from OSI. None came.

Eventually, my first sergeant called me to his office. He calmly explained, as if I were clueless, that I’d been under investigation for homosexual behavior after someone reported me to OSI. I didn’t dare let my hand tremble. I held my breath as he continued to explain an eye-witness account that took place in my home. He skirted specifics but gave me enough details that proved my crewmate’s wife had told them about the Fourth of July incident. When this information was brought to my commander, he reportedly told them, “They could’ve been getting dressed. Girls just being girls.” My first sergeant went on to say that it was all dropped after that. OSI would not pursue any further action. My commander had saved my ass.

I will never know who was interviewed. If it weren’t for my friend, I wouldn’t have known I was under investigation. If it weren’t for my commander, I would’ve been discharged.

My relationship with PG would never be the same. My relationship with the USAF would never be the same. My relationship with my crew would never be the same. I mourned that lost trust. And I mourned the year when what was once a normal, healthy, exciting, loving, and accepting relationship became something deviant. Something I was expected to hide.

When DADT was repealed in 2011, I’d been separated from the Air Force for a few years. I thought about the idea of unit cohesion and wondered if anyone else realized it wasn’t my relationship with a woman that caused the disruption, but a policy designed to discriminate and intimidate. A policy that allowed a tight crew, doing a difficult job, to unravel.

Shortly after OSI concluded its investigation into my sexuality, I received orders to deploy to Japan. It was never said, but I knew why they gave me a new assignment. I told PG while sitting in her car. The current was pulling me from her.

We wept. Then went to pick up a pack of cigarettes. Neither one of us smoked, so naturally, we shared.

Tags: , , , , ,
Shairi Engle

Shairi Engle

Shairi Engle was an air traffic controller in the United States Air Force from 1999 to 2005. She’s now a playwright based out of San Diego and winner of Arts in the Armed Forces 2019 Bridge Award.

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Do you value compassionate, compelling stories like this? Donate $15 so we can continue to dig in on stories that matter, and let us keep our reporting and writing seminars free for everyone.