My Course Correction

Pushing Through Turbulence

In his new memoir, United-executive-turned-author T. D. Arkenberg, ’86, chronicles his journey through personal loss, coping with the 9/11 attacks, and coming out to his parents.

In 2001, T. D. Arkenberg, ’86, faced a myriad of crises. After keeping his sexual identity private well into his adulthood, Arkenberg made the difficult personal choice to come out to his parents. Only weeks after Arkenberg started a new position at United—a company he had been a part of since graduating from Booth—both the organization and the United States were thrown into chaos when two hijacked United flights, along with two aircraft belonging to American Airlines, were used in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. That fall, Arkenberg’s father succumbed to a long battle with cancer, and shortly after, his mother died unexpectedly.

It was a year of learning how to survive. Less than a decade later, Arkenberg left United after 23 years at the company and embarked on a career as a writer. He has published three novels with Outskirts Press: Final Descent (2013), Jell-O and Jackie O (2014), and None Shall Sleep (2016).

Two Towers: A Memoir is Arkenberg’s fourth book and first memoir, an attempt to chronicle the hardest year of his life and provide a testament to how persistence and love can help people get through times of tragedy.

I never really caught my breath at United. I joined straight out of business school. My mother had worked there starting in the 1970s. It was a local firm here in Chicago, and it was just starting to become a global airline. It was where I wanted to be.

I had 15 jobs in my 23 years at United. I was always on a steep learning curve. My Booth education helped me tackle the unknown and leverage my background as I jumped from finance to marketing to operations.

The September 11 terrorist attacks shook the country to its core. Watching the towers fall, the Pentagon burn, and a plane intentionally crash into a Pennsylvania field—these were unspeakable acts of terror. It was personal for United: our airplanes were used as missiles, and eighteen of our employees died. In my final job at United, seven years later, I visited with employees of our Boston airport operation. Not only had staff suffered the loss of two colleagues traveling as passengers that morning; station personnel had dispatched UA Flight 175, the aircraft that was flown into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. Wounds were still very deep. The months after 9/11 were dark, dark days for United, and the attacks had a catastrophic impact on the entire industry.

Almost everybody who has been part of United will tell you that the thing they miss most after they leave is the people. They are what got the company through that crisis. You never had to ask people to do anything, to stay late, to work through the night, or even give up the weekend. We did it; we pulled together. It’s the same camaraderie we experienced as a country—we came together and pushed through that crisis. United made it through the calamity of 9/11 and its subsequent journey through bankruptcy because of the commitment and dedication of the people who wanted to see the company succeed.

I ended up leaving United in 2008. I was burnt out and needed a break. About a month or two later, I was sitting in a coffee shop and just started brainstorming. I realized I had 10 stories, ready to explore. I never really took classes in creative writing, but I always crafted stories in grade school. The seed was there, and it took root—here I am, 10 years later, still writing.

I poured my heart into this memoir because I firmly believe it can help people going through various crises of their own.

T. D. Arkenberg

I had many opportunities to write at United, where I got compliments on my communication skills. Many of my roles required sending memos and letters, often to thousands of employees. Whether I was managing United’s O’Hare Airport customer service or a whole region of airport personnel, salespeople, and cost-center staff, I learned the essence of connecting with people, and zeroing in on a core message. While creative writing is more complicated than a business memo, I knew that I could make the transition because of my success communicating in the corporate world.

Each of my books contains little seeds of myself, but this memoir was different. It was tough to write, because it was a hard time in my life—to lose my parents and also have to focus all of that energy at United. People often asked me how I got through it, but I didn’t know. I just did. I just pushed through to the other side. It helped to be so supported by my spouse, Jim. In a way, I want to succeed for him as much as I want to for myself. He pushes and validates me. He reads everything I write. I wouldn’t be a writer if Jim weren’t in my life.

I think, at the end of day, I poured my heart into this memoir because I firmly believe it can help people going through various crises of their own. A couple months ago, I spoke at a meeting of PFLAG, the nation’s largest family and ally organization for LGBTQ people. I read to them the section of the memoir where I came out to my parents. I could tell the passage connected with the audience. I left very encouraged that I’d helped those parents understand what their child was going through.

Words have an impact, and if this memoir can help someone going through grief, or caregiving a parent, or experiencing crises at work, that will be incredibly affirming and exciting for me. It’s easy to question whether writing was the right path, but I continue to write. I still have many stories in me. So I simply focus on the writing and continue to create stories that people want to read.

—As told to Leah Rachel von Essen