The Thing I Like About …

Megaquake: Hour That Shook Japan: the air traffic controller.

Megaquake is a documentary about the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated parts of Japan. It has exciting footage of Mother Nature doing all sorts of extraordinary things and reminding us that humans aren’t really particularly in charge. It has heart-rending tales of people struggling for their lives, for their loved ones; videos of homes and businesses being torn apart and washed away. Every tale of heroism sends chills up your spine. Every tale of loss and uncertainty makes you want to cry. Every image of warehouses being swept out to sea makes you shake your head in awe and wonder.

It’s just so … huge … that it doesn’t even seem like it could be real.

So you wonder how you would deal with something like that, if it happened to you. And you hope and imagine that you would deal with it like a ninja or a superhero or something really accolade-worthy. But deep down you figure something as massive as that is just too big even to contemplate, and you don’t quite know how anybody keeps their heads in such a situation.

And then, in the middle of the documentary, they introduce this regular-looking young man, dressed the way “the young people” dress, with red streaks highlighting his long hair. He’s speaking in Japanese, and, while the audience waits for the English translator to tell us what he’s saying, we watch him lounging in a very casual – though thoughtful – way, in front of the building where he works.

He works at an airport. He’s an air traffic controller. And when the quake hit, and the tsunami warnings started coming in, he had no idea exactly what was happening or where, and no idea in the world how bad it could get or how long it would last. But it certainly seemed that the airport and the runways would be affected, so he just started moving planes.

He had to keep dozens of planes in the air, for an unspecified length of time. Some of them were at the end of their fuel. All of them were close to one another. He had to keep them in the air, dancing around one another, for as long as it took to find out what to do next. His job on an ordinary day is one of high maintenance and strict attention to detail; it can be stressful at the best of times. But on the day of the mega-quake, he had to perform under extreme circumstances, not knowing what would happen to the airport, not knowing what might be happening to his loved ones, not knowing anything really … he just threw all the balls into the air and never let them touch the ground.

He saved countless people that day.

It’s the kind of story that makes me abashed to complain about little things. It’s the kind of story that reminds me not every hero wears a cape. It’s the kind of story that calls to mind that line in Wanted: “What have you done lately?”

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