This past weekend, my wife and I took our three girls to the Cradle of Aviation Museum not far outside the New York City border in Nassau County, Long Island, New York. The museum is located on the spot where Charles Lindbergh took off on his historic first trans-Atlantic flight in 1927.
The museum is a nice one and wasn’t too crowded even though it was a Saturday. There is a play room for children that our older girls enjoyed as well as plenty of airplane and helicopter cockpits they enjoyed climbing into and pretending to fly.
As we were busy wrangling our children and enjoying the exhibits, I saw people I recognized. I saw my friend Poppy and his son Mike there at the museum. It was a great coincidence.
I worked with Poppy years ago when I first moved back to New York City and worked as an immigration inspector at JFK Airport. Even though I was only on the job for about two years and left it more than sixteen years ago, it remains the most interesting paying job I’ve ever held.
The immigration service attracted an interesting mix of people, and most of my fellow immigration inspectors were excellent people. Some of them, particularly some of the supervisors, liked to put on airs even though they did little but order people around and make things easy for the airlines. Some people like to inflate themselves or wear needless tactical gear and pull power trips on passengers or other inspectors.
Poppy didn’t have to yell at people or strut around pretending to be tough. He’s a decorated veteran of both the U.S. Army and the New York Police Department. He saw combat in Vietnam and on the streets of New York as a housing cop during some of the most violent times of the city’s history. Rank-and-file inspectors like me respected the retired cops like Poppy because they had real and more impressive law enforcement experience and had no use for the petty politics of the federal bureaucracy. There was nothing that a paper-pushing supervisor could threaten him with that was going to scare him. He’s fought off Vietcong and hardened criminals. He’s seen humanity at its worst, repeatedly, and retained the ability to laugh at it.
His ability to laugh at bullshit that would otherwise drive a normal person insane is one of the qualities makes him so valued. After I left the airport to work in journalism, I worked with Poppy to write a book of funny stories about his time as a police officer. He gave me some recordings of conversations he had with fellow retired officers so I could write them up. I decided to listen to a few minutes one day before heading out, but these stories were so funny that I couldn’t stop listening and sat in my apartment listening to these stories and laughing out loud.
Among all the people I am in touch with from the airport, Poppy is the central figure in our network of friends. He is the one we will plan to meet for dinner months in advance, the one we’ll call when we make our one pilgrimage to a wrestling show for the year, the one we want to go to opening day at Yankee Stadium with. Some of the most memorable dinners I’ve had were with Poppy and other JFK friends at Two Toms Restaurant in Brooklyn.
Poppy has faced his share of troubles. He has faced health problems, his house burned down, and the useless airport bureaucrats held up his retirement paperwork. But despite that he has lost none of his humor or his ability to make you feel like you are one of his crew. My discussion with him and at the museum lasted only a few minutes, but it brightened my entire weekend.
We live in troubling times and we’ve seen New York and America enter difficult times that strain our concept of survival. But I take comfort that our country produces men like my friend Poppy, who is strong enough to face any danger and help you laugh at the absurdities of life.