Standing in his kitchen, he held a phone to each ear like an international currency trader. A dozen people were in his living room, a dog was underfoot, four of his colleagues caucused around the kitchen table, and a television crew was on the way out the door.
But James J. Stakem was calm. As vice president and strike coordinator for Local 204 of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, Jim Stakem has to be -- there's too much at stake.
He is the 33-year-old father figure and even-keeled spokesman for the union, which is composed of 400 controllers who work at the Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center in Leesburg.
A community leader at his home in Sterling, Va., and a Vietnam veteran of the 1968 Tet offensive, he remains unruffled, confident of what he's doing, and ready for the government's possible retaliation for PATCO's illegal two-day-old strike.
"I'm standing up for something I think is right and I'm not about to fold," he said yesterday. "When I was a marine in Vietnam. I was sure of what I was doing, I believed in being there. I wouldn't have listened to Ho Chi Minh then, and I won't listen to Ronald Reagan now."
Stakem paid a price for his 13-month stint in Indochina. His right thigh was smashed by a howitzer's recoil, and he contracted a permanent skin disease on his scalp.
But he lives with that, and now he says he is prepared to live with the consequences of the controllers' strike, which has crippled air travel all over the United States and inconvenienced thousands of passengers.
"I'm ready to lose my job," he said. "I've already made a tremendous commitment."
The commitment shows. A blue baseball cap with a Washington Center PATCO patch is on his head, a PATCO tennis shirt on his back. The second phone in the kitchen was installed several months ago because of the possibility of the strike.
The strike also has come to dominate his family's life. His wife attends daily meetins of controllers' wives, and she knows the contract issues -- 20-year retirement, shorter work week, and salary -- backward and forward. And Stakem's two children, ages 2 and 4, have been sent to an uncle's house to spare them the anxiety just in case Stakem is arrested.
"I've always been a very calm person -- i don't usually show a lot of emotion," Stakem said. "Some TV crews have been frustrated because they try to get our people to show some emotion on camera, and they're just not getting the emotion they want. I'm sure it's hurt the way people look at us in the general public."
But the calm self-assurance that Stakem says makes a good air traffic controller doesn't keep, he said.
"You begin to see things happen to yourself -- you begin to see people slowing down when they're 42 or 43 years old," he said. "The guy who trained me -- I won't use his name here -- he was the best, the very best controller in terms of ability I've ever seen. But then he was in it for a while and you could see him going down."
Stakem has been a controller for eight years, and he has another 17 years to go before he turns 50 and is able to collect retirement benefits from the Federal Aviation Administration. But he cites the sky-high medical attrition rate for controllers -- 89 percent of those who retire do so for medical reasons, according to the FAA -- and says he doesn't think he'll make it that far.
"I know I can't put 17 more years in," he said. "Physically, mentally it would just be impossible."
His decision to strike came after what he sees as a decade of fruitless efforts to win concessions from the government.
"I don't even think that air traffic controllers should have the right to strike," he said. "We should have binding arbitration. But we're striking against the federal government now because we have for 10 years exhausted every means at our disposal with the government. At this point, we have been forced into this strike."
Now, Jim Stakem says he is ready to be fired, as President Reagan threatened Monday, and even ready to be jailed as a leader of an illegal job action.
"The strike started on my birthday, Aug. 3," Stakem said with an easy smile. "And it's the best birthday I ever had."