Budd Davisson, Plane and Pilot Magazine

Unspecified Dementia

If it’s “unspecified,” a little dementia can be a good thing

Last week I made an e-comment to my book editor, Bette, that I wanted to get the next novel out before dementia sets in. She’s a long-time pilot and replied by asking, “What makes you think it hasn’t already set in?” That got me thinking.

First you have to understand that my two sisters and I play a game in which we keep a close eye on each other to see which one develops short term memory loss or forgets someone’s name first. Aha! We’ll point, you’re the one whose inheriting mom’s genes rather than dad’s. Dad was mentally kicking butt right up to 92 years old, but mom went out in the ozone layer in her early 80’s. She, however, lasted until she was 91. At first they tagged it Alzheimer’s, but when it came and went, then came and changed character, her chart was labeled “unspecified dementia,” which leaves each of us is wondering if, or when, it’s going to touch us. And now I have a book editor questioning my level of dementia.

I thought about that for a few minutes until I realized I really didn’t know for certain what “dementia” meant, so I looked it up. Here it is: “A persistent disorder of the mental processes marked by memory disorders, personality changes and impaired reasoning.”   You don’t have to read that very closely to realize that my editor was right. And not just about me, but a lot of my friends too. Actually, most of my friends. This becomes obvious when you look at each of the diagnostic characteristics in order.

Memory Disorders
I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have some sort of memory disorder. For instance, I have a little ritual I play every single time I tune in ATIS before calling ground control. At the end, when they say “…    contact ground control and say you have Charlie.” I repeat the last word out loud, into the intercom three times, “Charlie, Charlie, Charlie.”  Then, more than 50% of the time, less than twenty seconds later, when I call ground control, the instant I key the mike, the designator falls right out of my head. I’m certain it’s the effect of radio frequency interference with my brain waves because I click the push-to-talk and Charlie is no where to be found. I simply can’t spit it out. Usually I’ll just say, “Eight Papa Bravo has the numbers” in the hopes they don’t question me. If they do, my ritual of repeating it pays off because my student heard me say it out loud and they usually remember.

Then Ground will say, “…taxi to two-one.”  I’ll come back with “roger, Papa Bravo to two-one.”  The airplane starts moving and at least half the time I can’t remember for sure what I just said to them. Making the same call a couple dozen times a day has given me a conditioned response and, when they tell me which runway, the response falls out of my mouth long before my brain is engaged. I say “Please verify two-one” more than a few times a day.”

I can remember the serial numbers on my first two serious guitars, the serial number of my watch and I can spit out my driver’s license number, but I have to furrow my brow to remember the AZ Redhead’s birthday (Novembr 12th). I guess male dementia is selective, isn’t it?

Personality Changes
Personality changes connected to dementia often have some sort of aerial proximity effect built into them. The closer to an airport we get, the more our personality changes. Or, as with some of us, we actually begin to develop a personality. This last is based on a comment my ex once made while we were at a cocktail party with some of her school principal friends. She said something to the effect of, “Why is it you can only be conversational and friendly at the airport?” Oh, gee, I don’t know. Maybe because that’s where all the interesting people hang out?

Impaired Reasoning
Oh, give me a break! Impaired reasoning? How can a person who willingly gets into a machine that depends on a rotating whirly-gig up front that must contain thousands of explosions a minute to keep him alive be judged as having impaired reasoning? Okay, maybe a shortness of common sense, but impaired reasoning? That’s a little harsh isn’t it?

Or, what about purposely plunging into clouds where we watch a bunch of gauges and trust them to tell us where we’re headed and whether we’re going to hit a mountain, another airplane or a thunderstorm?  Is that impaired reasoning? Not really! Impaired reasoning is being perfectly willing to be one of several hundred people sitting in chairs in an aluminum tube seven miles in the air while a total stranger sits up front in his own chair and watches a bunch of gauges.  Actually, that description doesn’t fit impaired reasoning either. That’s more like blind faith.

Are my friends who would rather fly upside-down than right-side-up infected with impaired reasoning or some other form of dementia? Actually, since they’d all agree that they are a little demented (for non-aviation reasons), maybe they do fit the definition. But not me. When I’m charging around upside down, I’m perfectly sane, but my airplane may be just a little demented.

Unspecified dementia. I find the phrase itself strangely attractive because it covers so many areas of human behavior, all of them open to definition. It’s also a cool combination of words. It would make a great title for a novel. It would also look good on a T-shirt and would keep people guessing.

Of course, I could put it on a baseball cap. Nah! Bad idea. When I see someone wearing a baseball hat with something like “Mooney” on it, I always ask if they have an airplane to go with the hat. If I put “Unspecified Dementia” on a hat, sooner or later someone will ask if I have the dementia to go with the hat and I’ll have to admit that I do. Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t be a pilot.