Here, have a Father’s Day column

By Racey Burden | Published Saturday, June 18, 2016

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Whenever I have a problem I need to talk through with a parent, I have a set question to determine which one gets the phone call.

Is it an emotional issue? Call Mom. Practical problem? Call Dad.

Racey Burden

Racey Burden

Ex-boyfriend is getting married super quickly? Mom will affirm that yes, that is just ridiculous. Get a flat tire on the way home? Dad will be there in five minutes to fix it. Think there’s a gas leak in the house? That’s also a Dad call. Someone says something offhand, but it really hurts your feelings and you want to know if you should be upset? Mom will handle that.

It’s not like I’ve never talked to my dad about any emotional issues, because I have. But the fact is I’m convinced my dad can fix almost anything with a wrench or some nails, so I let him handle that stuff and leave the emotional heavy lifting woman-to-woman. It’s just a bit easier to relate to someone else who has also been a woman in their early 20s at some point in time, which John Burden definitely has not.

What John Burden has been, for more than half of his life (other than being my father), is a pilot. And I decided years ago that I wanted to be a pilot, too.

He wouldn’t teach me for the longest time. He blamed it on my mother’s general anxiety about her baby flying a plane alone, but I’m not so sure she was the only one who was nervous.

In any case, he kept putting it off, but any time I came back to Decatur I’d bring it up. When I got a job here, I thought, ‘This is finally it.’ And it was – everyone seemed to be out of excuses now. I was an adult with a real job and everything, and Dad could teach me how to fly.

The first lesson did not go so well. All we planned to do was just practice taxiing. For those who are unaware, you actually steer the plane with your feet while on the ground, and for whatever reason, I just could not get used to it. I would press the wrong foot down, or put too much or too little pressure on the pedals. It was dark, and I couldn’t even see my feet in the plane. Dad lost his patience; I lost my patience, and I was sure then that I would never fly a plane because I couldn’t even keep myself from running off the taxiway.

It got better.

I started to, for the most part, enjoy spending this time with my dad. He was so excited to teach me everything – within the first two weeks of lessons he’d bought me my own gas gauge, fuel sump, start-up checklist and a key chain that said “I love flying” with a heart in place of the word love. I thought it was adorable, and if you know my dad, you know adorable is not a word that would often be used to describe John Burden.

Sometimes it was rough. Dad openly admitted he was harder on me than any of his other students, and I may or may not have cried in frustration after one of our lessons.

He also tends to give mixed signals. Once, in the same lesson, he told me I was going to kill us both and then later said I was doing a great job. I felt so confused. But that’s how Dad works. He takes care of the problem in the moment – at one moment, he thought I was going to crash the plane, and at another he considered me competent.

Dad is obviously a knowledgeable teacher, so even on that day when I cried, and he told me I could find another instructor and he wouldn’t be offended, I didn’t want to. He even planned to hand me off to someone else after I solo’d, but now that point has passed and he’s still teaching me. Even when we made each other upset, I don’t think either of us wanted to give up our time together.

The day that I did solo, Dad didn’t tell me it was happening. We went to the airport together, flew together for a bit, and then he told me to pull the plane over to the taxiway for a “break.” Then he got out my student pilot license and endorsed me for solo flight and jumped out of the plane. No long speeches about what to do, no pointless platitudes. He told me to do three landings, and that was that. So I did three landings, shaking pretty much the whole time. But I did it.

I guess Dad called Mom while I was actually up in the air on my own, and she was sort of upset that he let me fly alone without informing her either. We all went to dinner later that night to celebrate, and she told me she probably would have been freaking out if she’d been at the airport with us.

I thought about it, and I realized Dad hadn’t seemed nervous for me at all. I have no idea if he was or not because he just handed over control to me with complete trust that I knew what I was doing.

That’s how my dad handles parenting, I think. He’s the parent that can take a step back and say “I know you can do this on your own.” He’s the parent who first gave the keys to a car and said “Now you drive.” He’s the parent who hugged without any tears and left me in a college dorm with certainty I’d be fine. He’s the parent who made me write an essay when I was 9 describing why I was responsible enough to stay up an extra 30 minutes and read – and then he let me do it, because I had already proved to him I was mature enough to handle it. He’s the parent who, whenever I got in trouble as a child, asked me what I thought my punishment should be. Dad always lets me do things for myself, but if I fall (or if I point the plane nose too far up and almost kill us both), he will step in.

In the past few months, my dad has taken me into a world that used to be entirely his. He’s introduced me to his pilot friends, shown me all the parts of the planes he loves, helped me learn how to do what he does – and now he’s starting to gradually step back and letting me make that world mine, too. His silent support and confidence have made me feel less and less afraid of falling as time goes on.

And it’s so cheesy, but I’m going to say it anyway because I love him for it – my dad has both literally and figuratively helped me spread my wings.

Racey Burden is a Messenger reporter. She’s written about her father and her sister, so her mother and brother probably feel left out. Sorry, Candy and Ridge.

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