TF: Pan-Con One

TF: Pan-Con One January 25, 2010

Tribulation Force, pp. 139-147


Rayford Steele will eventually take the job of Head Chief Master Boss Pilot of Air Force One.

No, this doesn't mean that "Captain" Steele is going to enlist in the Air Force. In Tribulation Force, "Air Force" One seems to be a civilian plane, evidently staffed by a civilian crew from the passenger carrier Pan Continental Airlines. The airline also apparently oversees the hiring and vetting of the pilot, with no input from the White House.

Here it may be helpful to draw a distinction between the fantastic realms of LaHaye World and Jenkins World. LaHaye World, as we've discussed, is the through-the-looking-glass alternate universe in which it would be possible for the allegedly biblical prophecies outlined by Tim LaHaye to come true. Jenkins World is also an alien landscape, also radically different from the world in which we live, but those differences aren't preconditions for prophecy — they're simply the result of ignorance and a lack of research. Thus in Jenkins World we have cruise ships on the Jordan River, the island of Manhattan stretches north into New England, and the presidential airplane called "Air Force One" is actually just a commercial airliner leased or chartered by the executive branch of the federal government.

The spoiler alert above is just a joke. It's not really possible to give "spoilers" for the Left Behind series. Jerry Jenkins' idea of foreshadowing is to spend three chapters ponderously telling you what's going to happen in the fourth. That leaves readers with three chapters in which absolutely nothing happens that might be revealed in a spoiler, followed by one chapter that comes pre-spoiled.

And that's within the broad outlines of the series, which readers are forewarned is going to closely follow LaHaye's prophecy outline. So it's no spoiler to tell you ahead of time that our heroes have in store for them a huge earthquake, locusts, water turning into blood, Armageddon and the rest of that. The only surprise is how long it takes the authors to get around to all that apocalyptic stuff.

What we get, instead, are pages and pages of the sort of thing we read today: Rayford's class trip to Human Resources.

Rayford and his boss, Earl, are still right where we left them, circling around in the same conversation with Earl telling him he shouldn't have proselytized at his flight examiner and him insisting to Earl that the flight examiner was the one person on earth he didn't try that with. To spare us time, I'll paraphrase:

"Shouldn't have."
"Shouldn't have."

Earl mixes in a little variety by introducing the idea that Rayford's religious aggression may cost him his chance to become the pilot of Air Force One, to which Rayford responds that he wouldn't have wanted the job anyway.

"Shouldn't have."
"If you hadn't, then you could've."
"I don't want to, but anyway I didn't."
"Shouldn't have."
"Everybody wants to, so you shouldn't have."
"Not me, and I didn't."
d.c. al coda

And after three or four pages of that you start to think it would have been far more frightening and disturbing in The Shining if Shelley Duvall had tiptoed up to Jack Nicholson's desk to find that this was what he'd been busily typing all those weeks up there at the Overlook Hotel. Compared to a dozen pages of this, hundreds of pages of "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" seems reasonable and interesting.

The babbling pilots finally pull out of their conversational tailspin with this:

"Why is this so important to you, Earl?"

"You don't know?"

"I don't."

"Because it's something I've dreamed of all my life," Earl said. "I kept up on all the latest certifications all my years in this position, and I've applied for the pilot's job with every new president."

"I never knew that."

"Of course you didn't. Who would admit that and let the world know he got his guts ripped out every four or eight years, seeing other guys get the job? Your getting it would be the next best thing. I could enjoy it vicariously."

And in two short paragraphs readers know more about Earl Halliday than we have learned about Rayford Steele or Buck Williams in nearly 600 pages. Earl's hopes and dreams may not make sense (if your goal in life is to be the pilot of Air Force One, then you might want to join the Air Force), but at least we know he has hopes and dreams. He wants something. It would be possible for an actor playing this scene to get a handle on Earl, but the actor playing Rayford would, like the reader, have no way of knowing what makes this guy tick.

We get another full page of "shouldn't have"/"didn't" until finally — 13 pages into this conversation — it occurs to Rayford to ask what, specifically, this new complaint against him says:

Earl buzzed his secretary. "Francine, bring me your notes on the complaint you got from Dallas this morning." She brought him a single typed sheet …

Typed. Probably on carbon paper. This was written in 1996 and set in the future.

… She brought him a single typed sheet. Earl read it and slid it across the desk to Rayford. It read:

Took a call at 11:37 a.m. from a woman who identified herself as Jean Garfield, secretary to Pan-Con Certification Examiner Jim Long of Dallas. Asked how to go about lodging a complaint of religious harassment against Rayford Steele due to his pressuring Long during his recert this A.M. Told her I would get back to her. She did not leave a number, but said she would call back later.

"This smells," Rayford tells Earl, pointing out that flight examiners don't have secretaries! (dum-dum dummm).

And so they do some "detective" work (Jenkins' word) and discover that no one named Jim Long works as an examiner for Pan-Continental and nobody named Jean Garfield works for the company either. They have proof, in other words, that it was all just a set-up.

So, OK, why? Why would someone do that? And how? And what would the purpose possibly be? Here you have a guy who, by his own admission, has harassed* every single Pan-Con employee he has encountered with only one exception, so what's the point in trying to frame him for religious harassment by accusing him of harassing that one guy he actually left alone?

We eventually sort of get a sort of explanation for this belabored tangent. (Nicolae and Hattie are trying to manipulate Rayford into taking the Air Force One job by trumping up charges to disqualify him from it. Or something.) But I think the main point here didn't have anything to do with the plot. I think it was an attempt to demonstrate the virtuousness of Rayford's character.

The world of Left Behind doesn't have any place for the usual sorts of things that might mark a character as virtuous or heroic. The members of the Tribulation Force don't take decisive action, they do not sacrifice themselves for others, they are not brave, determined, loyal, honest, valiant or clever. And they don't ever really do much of anything. So L&J instead decide, as a kind of short-hand, to show that they are Falsely Accused and therefore Righteous.

I don't really follow
the "therefore" there. I mean, good people may be falsely accused, bu
t being falsely accused does not necessarily imply that one is a good person.

But it's not important here that this makes sense to me. It's L&J's fantasy, not mine. And for L&J, being falsely accused is the hallmark of virtue. Jesus said so in the Beatitude (the way RTCs read the Gospels, there's just the one): "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me."

This is a favorite verse for every American Christian who believes he is persecuted by the store clerk who wishes him a happy holiday, or by the presence of that one congressman from that one district who said he wasn't 100-percent sure of the existence of God. Or — more pertinent here — who feels persecuted by that boss who warns him to stop pestering his co-workers about the damnation of their souls after they've asked him politely to stop for the third time. Such RTCs can reassure themselves by reciting the Beatitude and reminding themselves that they are Falsely Accused and therefore Righteous, just like Rayford Steele.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* Just to be clear, "witnessing" to a co-worker or inviting them to church is not, in itself, religious harassment. The rules against religious harassment are roughly parallel to the rules for sexual harassment. Asking a co-worker out on a date is not, in itself, harassment. But refusing to take No for an answer is. As long as you're willing to accept No for an answer, you're perfectly free to ask out or proselytize everybody in the office. Once. (It's a bit more complicated if you're their boss rather than their peer. With that power dynamic, any religious or romantic invitation becomes implicitly coercive, so such invitations are out of bounds.) Rayford could have done that, but chose not to. He chose, instead, to confront his co-workers not with the religious equivalent of "Would you like to join me for a drink after work?" but with something more like the religious analog of "How's about a quickie in the conference room?" accompanied by an awkward attempt to cop a feel. This approach is just as winsome and winning for religion as it is for romance.

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