When I first started putting together stories for IF YOU AIN’T A PILOT…, I wanted to include everybody and everything I could remember about my year as a student pilot at Columbus Air Force Base. But it was too much. Way too much.
My first draft had too many pages and too many characters. Unless you were one of my classmates, a couple of whom actually wanted more, it was hard to keep up with all the moving parts. At the suggestion of my editor, Catherine Adams, Inkslinger Editing, I combined people into individual characters, condensed events, and cut.
After several revisions, I’d cut one-third of my original manuscript. For me, some cuts were harder than others, especially if the scene represented a favorite memory, person, or joke. I am happy to be able to share some of my favorite deleted scenes by way of this website.
As freshmen at the Air Force Academy, we had to memorize the beautiful, majestic, celebration of flying, “High Flight,” by John Gillespee Magee, Jr. As a student in UPT, however, I found that Magee’s words and imagery didn’t translate well to my own flying experience.
I wondered, “How might ‘High Flight’ be different, if John Gillespee Magee, Jr. really sucked as a pilot, like most students?” That was the inspiration for the student version of “High Flight.”
In my original manuscript, this scene where UPT Class 88-07 went to the Columbus Air Force Base Chapel for our in-briefing came at the end of Chapter 2, “If You Ain’t a Pilot.” Initially, I thought the imagery and irony of Jesus as a UPT student was funny stuff, and without doubt, the end of this scene contained one of my favorite punchlines in the book. Ultimately, however, I pulled it out of the final version because it repeated a point and a joke that had already been made earlier in the chapter. This was a tough cut for me. I’m happy to be able to share it here.
“Webster defines ‘dictionary’ as a reference book that contains words listed in alphabetical order that tells you what they mean.”
Ever heard someone start off a lecture or presentation like this?
We have words written on papyrus dating back 5,000 years, and the deep thinker to whom I am supposed to give my undivided attention for the next hour enlightens me with the wit and wisdom of Noah Webster.
In UPT, every academic lesson we sat through began with an icebreaker that was nearly as insightful and usually more painful. Most of the time, it would be a mind-blowing math problem. Sometimes, it might just be an inappropriate joke. A couple of times, I volunteered to offer the opening icebreaker, and whenever I was chosen, my goal was always to make it stupider than anyone could ever imagine.
Initially, this scene was intended to open the “Cone of Confusion” chapter of IF YOU AIN’T A PILOT. Though funny, like most icebreakers, it had nothing to do with the information that followed. So, it was cut and so was the character that I had as our academic instructor that day.
I can’t remember all the exact details of this story, but I really did something like this in UPT, and it really got the desired result from both my classmates and our instructor. If you ever find yourself at a loss for how to open a presentation to a group, please feel free to steal this one.
Quite different to where I grew up in Rhode Island or had gone to college in Colorado, Columbus, Mississippi, in the late 1980s impressed me as a beautiful, historic, anachronism of a town. The year that Kenny and I rented a house in downtown, there was no garbage removal service. The town had several public dumpsters where people could drop off their house trash, but I think most citizens used the sides of the roads.
Flanking most roads on either side, gullies several feet deep paralleled the roads in Columbus to allow for rapid water drainage during intense periods of rain. Many people, however, used these ditches to ditch their garbage. I witnessed people throw bags of trash, bottles, cans, you name it… while driving down the road. One day, I was behind a car that lobbed a dirty diaper from the driver’s side window over its roof and into the drainage ditch. I gave the driver a look as I passed her and saw her unrestrained baby standing in the passenger seat with its hands on the dashboard.
I was so disgusted, I wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper championing the use of seatbelts and car seats. When it was printed, I was probably the only one who read it. Still disgusted, I took to verse and penned “Mississippi Roadside.” My friends loved it so much that a copy was taped to the glass at the T-38 Operations Center desk for a week, and my poem was printed on the side of the official cups of the FAIP Mafia Party one summer. And thus, I became the poet laureate of the FAIP Mafia.
The real UPT cast of characters is much longer and much funnier than I’ve attempted to describe in IF YOU AIN’T A PILOT. The purpose of this scene was to illustrate a bizarre but frequent interaction between a well-intended student and a disinterested instructor. Although the two are taking turns speaking, neither is engaged in conversation with the other.
Since it didn’t progress the action of the story, I pulled it. I still like it, however, and interactions like these inspired me to sketch out Second Lieutenant Goofus and Second Lieutenant Gallant cartoons about students in UPT.
This Victory Roll scene was intended as an anti-foreshadow of Ray’s upcoming T-37 Instrument checkride. Doley chooses to fly the very mission in the sim that Ray will be tasked to fly on his checkride. In the simulator, however, Doley has the power to set the winds, choose runways, change time, freeze time, have the sim transported through time and space, and even crash the sim without consequence. Even when things don’t go right, everything’s all right in the sim, and Doley remains confidently in control.
In contrast, when Ray flies the same mission in the jet for his checkride, stronger than normal winds blow him across the sky, runways change, a drop in temperature affects aircraft performance, nothing goes right, Ray makes mistake after mistake, and there are very real consequences.
Like other deleted scenes, this was fun to include, but it took the underlying story off track for a few pages.
At 217,000 words, my first draft of IF YOU AIN’T A PILOT was longer than MOBY DICK, a book I was supposed to read in high school but never did, because it was too long. I knew I needed to make cuts, but I didn’t know how to chop. My editor, Catherine Adams, Inkslinger Editing, advised me to get rid of any characters and scenes outside of UPT Class 88-07 in order to cut my final work by about 25%. Even though most of these characters and scenes included people who were my friends, I made the suggested changes, cut the number of characters in half, and reduced the length of the manuscript.
At first, this scene appeared early in the book. It starts with a reunion of good friends and continues on to introduce a number of themes that recur and are recurrently ridiculed throughout the novel. This was a tough cut for me, because not only are these characters some of the best friends I’d ever made as a student at the Air Force Academy, but I had used the scene to introduce many of themes in my story.
The following mustache story and all references to it were trimmed from the final IF YOU AIN’T A PILOT manuscript. While pathetically true, as I did grow a mustache as a T-38 student for the purposes outlined in the scene, including these details in the story slowed down the action and stretched out the book.
That said, the scenes are fun, and the jokes within the mustache scenes are presented as nothing more than jokes. Once you read them, you’ll understand what I mean.
At my 25th Air Force Academy reunion, I caught up with my astronaut classmate “Bim” Boe. The only member of our class to pilot the Space Shuttle, Bim had been out of a job ever since NASA mothballed the shuttle program the year before. He and I flew together at Columbus when Bim transferred from his first flying assignment as a fighter pilot to be a T-38 instructor.
I had watched the astronauts’ melancholy press conference on NASA TV with my oldest son after their final shuttle mission. As cool as astronauts are, they all looked and acted like the family puppy had just died. Bim, too.
We traded a few stories as a group of friends grew around us. Everyone wanted to hear Bim talk about outer space. We had all grown up watching Apollo missions and Space Shuttle launches and landings.
“What are you going to do now?” someone asked.
“I don’t know. I need to find a job,” Bim said.
“No, you don’t,” I told him. “Here’s what you do to raise money…,” and I detailed for him my idea of a space-themed chain of Mexican restaurants: Casa NASA.
“Have you trademarked that?” Bim asked. “Can I use it?”
“If you and your space buddies keep the dream alive for our children and for future generations,” I said, “it’s yours.”
While I reference my idea for Casa NASA in IF YOU AIN’T A PILOT, I deleted the scene that tells of its origin. I am happy to share it here.
In July of 2015, Bim was selected as one of four American astronauts to train for test flights into space on commercial spacecraft that will bring manned launches back to the United States. Casa NASA may have to wait for now, but I’m okay with that. The dream is alive once again.