Piloting Life

This is a story about a man named Rob Mitchell, who I’ve recently had the pleasure of meeting in a helicopter on the Big Island of Hawaii. He was the Pilot, and I, well, I was in awe…

Rob and I after we finished our Helicopter Tour, Big Island, HI.

I’m sitting underneath a moonlit sky, wrapped in a cozy blanket. I’m looking at a beautiful man, sitting in a brown leather bomber jacket, that squeaks every time he shifts his position. He tells me its because in Hilo, where he lives, everything gets moldy, and so this is what happens after a jacket gets professionally cleaned. Squeak Squeak Squeak. I smile, take in a deep breath and appreciate the squeaky moment, amidst so many fun and intimate ones we shared on a night when we spent three hours sitting at the Waimea airport on a bench, drinking Apple Cider, and talking about our lives.

I can’t help but notice how handsome he his, with his big brown eyes, and perfectly trimmed beard that has hints of red in it. And yet, I’m so much more interested in this man’s heart, mind, and spirit. I was drawn to him as soon as he first smiled at me, just a few days prior, when he Piloted a helicopter ride I took in Waimea. I remember feeling excited being told that my Pilot was a former Marine, and one of the absolute best and safest pilots of the island. I knew I would be in good hands, and as soon as I met Rob, I felt it too.

The ride itself was such a dream come true. Soaring into valleys and connecting with mother nature in this way, was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. Laughing with Rob, and hearing a bit more of his story as we flew was such a gift. He promised he would put a picture of a cubicle on his helicopter dashboard, just like so many people all around the world have photos of Hawaii in their office cubicles. I can’t wait to laugh out loud when I see that photo.

After the helicopter ride was over, I knew I had to continue getting to know this man. I felt so inspired by his presence and I could feel that there was a story within him, one that I needed to know and maybe even write. I’ve learned to trust my gut, and when I meet someone I feel I have to know better, I always go for it. It doesn’t happen often, but I truly do believe that upon first meeting, when something within us lights up around another, it’s our soul saying, “ Hey you. Pay attention. This one is special. They might even be one of your soul mates!” So I can’t let those moments go. Rob was going to be in my life, one way or another!

Since the day we met, I’d become more and more curious about Rob, the former Marine Officer and Pilot, who spent 21 years in the military, and is now the Hilo Flight Operations Manager, Tour Pilot, Utility & OAS Pilot, Utility Administrative manager and company instructor Pilot. “ That’s a lot of jobs” I say. “ You must work all the time?”

“ Yes, but I also make my own hours!”

We both smile and nod at this very awesome detail, and I cannot help but once again think, “ this guy has the coolest job on earth!”

While we were flying I asked Rob if he ever imagined that this would be his life? Flying in paradise every day? Living in a rainy place? Not getting shot at?

“Never” he said. After spending the first few decades of his life in desserts, growing up in New Mexico, and then doing tours in the military in places like Iraq, and Oman, he can’t get enough rain and loves the green and lushness of the Hawaiian Islands.

The last place he was stationed was Oahu, and that’s what ultimately brought him to the Big Island, where he’s been for the past four years. I myself have been coming to Hawaii quite consistently throughout the last two years, and I feel so blessed that somehow I got a crazy idea to go on a helicopter ride and that this allowed for our orbits to cross. Amazing how that happens. We’re all living our separate lives and then boom — a connection. A moment. A chance to lean in a little deeper into someone else, and into ourselves.

Because I got his phone number and messaged him right away, we find ourselves sitting at the airport just a few days later. When reflecting upon how we got to this moment, he described me as “quite persistent” and we both have a little chuckle. Why, yes I was. And I’m happy I was. Because here we are, underneath a full moon sky sitting at the airport, on a random Tuesday night. I could see us from above at that moment — two people with such unique, rich, beautiful, and extremely different lives sitting and talking about life, love, war, death, intimacy, leadership, family…

We laughed quite a bit. And at times, we were just silent. When Rob told me that at 13, his mother died of cancer in his arms, and then a few weeks later his best friend died too, I had no words. I just wanted to wrap him in a blanket of love and hold him. I could feel his vulnerability, and his immense strength, and it left me speechless.

I thought about him as an Officer in the Marines and how much he had to deal with death, and destruction, and how what he experienced at such a young age prepared him for that. “ When you’re an officer and there’s chaos all around you, everyone is looking to you. You have to keep it together.” He continued, “ For so many people death was extremely hard to deal with, but for me, it was something I’d already experienced at such a young age, that it just didn’t affect me as much. I’ve lost 22 friends to helicopter crashes.”

Another moment of silence there. Because “sorry” isn’t enough. And when I heard these words, I did not hear them from a place of dissonance, I heard them from a deeper place of acceptance. Of being OK with life’s inevitability of loss. I felt the kind of wisdom that typically comes from people a lot older than the 39 year-old man sitting beside me.

As a storyteller, coach, and leadership development professional, I am curious about what really drives people, and what holds them back too. What is hard for them, and what comes natural? And how do they push themselves to grow? Specifically with Rob, I wanted to know about what really challenges him in life. After everything this man has been through, what could actually be “hard” for him to deal with and what does leadership mean to someone who was a leader of the most elite group of military on the planet? I was also so deeply curious about how he deals with the emotional side of life?

I asked him how he manages to control his emotions. As a marine, how did he learn to not feel, and yet, continue to feel as a human being?

He smiles and tells me that his sister calls him, “ the sensitive marine.” And of course in that moment, I fall a little bit in love with him. I guess I have a thing for manly men, who are tapped into their feminine side — men like this, are rare, and remind me of my own dad, who too was in the military and yet knows how to cook and sew, and is deeply connected to his emotions. Rob and I both giggled when he recalled a moment in the military when we was sitting and sewing a costume for his former wife, and how surprised a newer Marine was to see this Officer in the Military being so “domestic.” Rob shared that learning how to sew was actually extremely important because at war, uniforms rip and need to be tailored to better fit soldier’s bodies. So this wasn’t a nice to have, it was a must have kind of skill. A skill that might not appear so “manly” at first, but is actually extremely practical and life enhancing. I loved hearing him call himself a pretty darn great seamstress :)

Little moments like this, of sharing, of real human connection — are moments I live for. Moments like this are why I travel. Moments like this are what I remind myself still exist, when I start to doubt life and what the hell I’m doing here. Moments like this remind me that we are all connected, and even to people who’ve lived a completely different life. While listening to him, I wondered how often Rob shared his story with other passengers like me who he met while working for Paradise helicopters for the past four years. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I am in fact the first passenger in all his years piloting for Paradise Helicopters on Hawaii that he’s ever met with outside of his “office.” I was so glad in that moment that I trusted my intuition, and was “quite persistent” in following my gut and connecting with him after my tour.

I shared with Rob that in a former life, I believe I was a Samurai Warrior, and so in this life, I have a sword. He tells me that he believes we should get rid of guns, and go back to using swords. “ When you have to look someone in the eye and kill them, it changes everything. It’s a whole different kind of experience than shooting someone from 500 meters.” He shares this with me, and I nod, because I agree, but I can’t relate. Only one of us has had the experience of having to kill someone. And I wonder how often Rob has ever looked at someone in the eyes before having killed them.

“ I want to hunt my own food” he shares, as he’s telling me about his dream of building a little cabin. He has been designing houses in his spare time for as long as he can remember. And I’m very happy to learn that his dream home is just 1,000 square feet, and has a claw foot bath tub. Sounds exactly like my perfect little dream home too. Simple, but with the important luxuries…

I learn that this is a man who appreciates fine craftsmanship, and would rather save up and buy a chef’s knife rather than participate in what he calls, “Walmart culture” where you buy a bunch of crap for cheap and keep replacing it. He is mindful of choosing quality over quantity, and of being more reliant on himself for his survival in general.

“I also want to grow all my own food. I know it’s a more difficult life, but I think it’s important we learn how to sustain ourselves. After I got back from Africa a few years ago I realized how reliant I am on stores. I realized I couldn’t take actual care of myself with how much I have become accustomed to just buying stuff.” After living in a third world country he was able to see people making their own soap, growing their own food, and actually relying on themselves for survival. This experience deeply affected him, and hearing about it really landed something for me too.

This part of our conversation inspired me to think of my own parents, growing up in the USSR and having so little, of having to become extremely resourceful, and of how much I’d like to tap into this part of my own history. It also got me thinking about how many different ways there are to live, and how meeting people like Rob inspire me to grow and expand my own view of what life can be.

He asks me if I’ve heard of the Five Love Languages, and I think. “Now you’re speaking my language!” Why yes I have! This question got me instantly excited, and I started to wonder what his love languages were.

Physical Touch is #1, and this is the way he likes to both give and receive love. As far as #2, its Words of Affirmation on the receiving front, its Acts of Service on the giving front. The second one is definitely not a surprise. This man has repeatedly mentioned how much he loves cooking for others. How cooking for others is in fact his #1 most favorite human activity, and he considers it sacred and intimate. Describing it as, “ you make something that someone then puts in their body and it becomes a part of them. What’s more intimate than that?” Maybe, sex? Yes, and that’s another favorite activity that he says is most intimate, and sacred too.

We sure do have a lot in common, I think. He likes to cook, and I like to eat. He wants someone to touch him, and tell him he is amazing, and I want to touch those I love and tell them how amazing they are! I can’t help but think about how many qualities this man has that match up so beautifully with mine, and I can’t help but wonder what his story around love is? So I ask…

He has two loves of his life — his two daughters Lillian, 4, and Arabel, 2. When he shared their photo with me, my heart melted. Especially when I saw the little redhead, who he describes as “feisty.” Being a redhead myself, this of course is not surprising in the least. Telling me about his daughters, he lights up. “ I go home every night to kiss my girls and tuck them into bed.”

I cannot help but think about how blessed these little girls are. To have a father so devoted, that even though he is separated from their Mom, he comes home every single night to be with them. I tell him that I’m in awe of his love and commitment, considering that so many fathers who live with their kids, don’t even do this every day.

This conversation gets us talking about love, and relationships and how this is the hardest emotional space for Rob to work through. And he is certainly not alone there. Relationships for most of us, are the hardest thing to navigate gracefully, especially when they end. He tells me that seven months into his deployment to Iraq, his wife at the time left him. He says he turned into a shell of a human then, and that it was extremely hard to deal with the betrayal. He also acknowledges how hard it must have been for her, to have him go off to war.

When reflecting on that experience, he says “I learned how not to feel. How to just shut it off. Because it hurt too much sometimes.” And when he shared this, I wanted to know more, and mostly this was another moment that I wanted to wrap him up in that blanket that was keeping me warm, and dose him with all the love in the universe. Because for his sake, and for the sake of any woman who will ever have the gift of loving this man, I hope he always chooses to open his heart, and feel. Feel it all, even if it causes him more pain.

What draws me so much to Rob after speaking to him, is just how giant his heart seems to be. How no matter how much he has been trained to shut off his emotions, I can literally feel his sensitivity, and his sentimentality, and how beautiful this makes him. “One of the proudest moments of my life was when my oldest daughter came over to me, at the playground and politely said, “ Daddy, may I please have some water?” right after another friend’s kid yelled, “mom, give me a snack!!” I loved how much such a sweet little moment meant so much to him.

He tells me how his oldest daughter Lillian doesn’t show him much love, give him kisses or tell him she loves him. I ask if this hurts his feelings. His answer, a gentle, “Yea, it does.” And again, I remember I’m not just sitting with an Officer in the Marines, I’m sitting with a sensitive human being who wants to be told he’s loved by his little girl. Hearing that his little one didn’t bond with him until she was sick at four months old when she finally let him hold her, broke my heart a little. Imagining this man trying to hold his baby and not being able to, again, made me want to wrap him in a blanket of love.

Other than speaking about his daughters, the thing he gets most passionate about and keeps coming back to throughout our conversations is cooking. We had a big laugh when he recalled the moments that he used to cook for his roommate and fellow Marine, and how much he loves the sounds his friends used to make when he took a bite of the delicious food Rob made. They sounded something like, “AGHGHGHGH MMMMMM.”

He described a recent recipe, where he pouched Cornish hens in aromatic water and then roasted them in the oven on super high heat to crisp the skin. How excited he was to follow this 200 year old ancient recipe and how fulfilled he was when it came out. “I’ve always been a better cook then my partners, and at first they loved it, and then they kinda resented me for it.” All I could think when he said this was, please feed me, and I’ll never resent you for how much better at it you’ll be than me. Pinky promise!

One thing I happen to be great at, is appreciating people’s gifts. Seeing people’s potential, and helping them tap deeper into it. That’s what I’d like to do for Rob, a person who also happens to have a creative writing degree but isn’t using it much. One thing he does love to do, at least in texting is use one specific emoji — the crying happy face. I told him that I will always think of him when I see this emoji — a symbol for me, of how tears can be both happy and sad, and how great it feels to laugh until you cry. Of the complexity and kaleidoscope of the human experience and of the emotions it stirs up. Meeting Rob has brought up so many emotions for me. Appreciation. Love. Curiosity. Reverence. Awe.

I imagine him being a combat pilot, and now getting the chance to provide thousands of travelers with the adventure of their lives, by piloting incredible helicopter rides. He is also the man who gets sent to do utility work in sacred valley’s, and capture some of the earth’s most marvelous Lava flows ( all that incredible footage you might have seen from the eruption of Kilauea, yep he was the man who took journalists and photographers right into the fire to get THE shots.) This guy has balls. And, he knows how to stay calm under pressure — something he learned from his military days. “ When something is going wrong, I can’t exactly tell my passengers, “hey you’re about to die.” So I handle it, and stay cool.” This amazes me, that every day, people’s lives are literally in this man’s hands and he handles the pressure of it all with such grace. I want to be more like him in this way.

Everyone you meet teaches you something. Everyone you meet is a messenger of some kind, and it’s so clear to me that Rob came into my life as a messenger and a reminder of what’s possible when one truly expands their range. When one taps into their warrior spirit and their goddess energy. When one joins the military not to only go to war, but to also go on missions as a first responder in times of tragedy all over the world. I had no idea that the Marine’s are first responders after natural disasters and other catastrophes all over the world. They aren’t killing machines as so often portrayed, they are also a source of light and love in a way I hadn’t known, until I met Rob.

Rob is a reminder that men like this exist in the world. Men who embody so much of what is gorgeous about masculinity, so much that’s strong and powerful about being a man in this world. And, that it’s possible to be such a manly man, and still feel, still connect, still lean into intimacy, vulnerability, love, and connection. Rob didn’t have to open his heart and share his story with me, but I’m so grateful that he did. Because this changed me. It reminded me that men like him exist, and that’s something I’d been questioning after experiences with men that didn’t quite have all the paradoxical and exquisite qualities that this man has.

And the best part about Rob, is his modesty. I don’t think he quite knows how incredibly attractive he is. So much deeper than his physique or his resume, is his spirit. The spirit of a kind, open, wildly charismatic and deeply loving human. I hope that my story reflects his greatness back to him. I hope that as he reads these words, he sees and feels the impact he had on me. I hope he knows that by sharing his story with me, he’s changed me forever.

Thank you for your service to the world as an Officer and Combat Pilot. Thank you for the adventurous experiences you provide for so many, on a daily basis. Thank you for your open heart, for the love and kindness you show to your family and to all your loved ones. Thank you also for saying yes to getting to know me a little bit better. You’ve helped me pilot my own life and tap into my inner warrior, lover, goddess, and leader.

Svetlana Saitsky

Hawi, Hawaii

January 24, 2019