Monday, September 3, 2012

Pucker Factor

My friend was relating a story about a dangerous piloting mission he had just gotten back from flying - and on my end of the conversation, my ear was glued to the phone, taking in the harrowing details.

"We took off in minimum conditions from a tiny airstrip in the middle of nowhere, headed toward another tiny island in the vast ocean. Our destination airport had clear weather when we took off, but while we were flying the weather fogged in and closed off the landing site."

So where will you LAND?

"We had to quickly re-rout and head to the only other landing site within our fuel range."

Whew, I'm thinking - they are saved.

"But while we were flying and trying to divert to the alternate, fog closed in on THAT landing site too. The weather models predicted it should clear up by the time we got there and needed to land, but there was no guarantee."

So wait a minute - let me get this straight. You were flying, in terrible atmospheric conditions, over icy freezing water, running out of fuel, with any Coast Guard or other help hopelessly far away in case of trouble, and for some period of time there were NO LANDING SITES AVAILABLE?

"Yeah," he said, "That one had quite the pucker factor."

I'll say.

The story stuck with me, not only because of the gray hair I was growing, or because I love hearing adventure stories, but because of that phrase. Pucker factor.

Turns out, that's a common phrase in the military. To quote the NY Times,

In armed services slang, ''the pucker factor'' is the stress that afflicts human beings on full alert. If the factor is missing, the person reacts like a robot, numb to sensitizing tension; if the factor is too high, the person crumples or ''puckers'' in panic.

I'm pretty sure "pucker" refers to the tightening of some, ahem, distinctive muscles rather than "crumpling in panic," but we'll give the NY Times the benefit of the doubt for trying to be classy.

I had never heard this slang before, but it seems like a uniquely perfect way to sum up the feeling. A bit of a flippant phrase - that both brushes off of the gravity of the situation (an attitude that irritates me sometimes when I'm worried for the safety of my friend), but also thumbs a nose to the danger (an attitude that allows folks in those situations to do their jobs and not get overwhelmed).

Now I don't deal with any hair trigger situations in my world, but I bet I could find some places in my life to work this phrase in.

Reserved the lab equipment because the tracking code predicted your samples will arrive, but you haven't actually received the package yet? Pucker factor 4. Writing a conference paper on a deadline and you didn't actually do the experiments yet? Pucker factor 6. Advisor pops in unexpectedly on Friday at 5pm and wants to talk about long term plans and experimental results? Pucker factor 8.

The top of the scale is admittedly different for most of us than for the pilots, given that nothing in research is going to die (except for bio grad students - bless your souls for having to keep cultures alive), but I think the sentiment still applies, no?

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