Aloft, I don't know who I was or who I will be. I am simply there with the element of infinity that is the horizon. - From "Saving Grace"
For this Mother's Day Weekend - a Chapter From Saving Grace - A Story of Adoption. Like The Book of Barkley - it's about much more than adoption - it's about hope and survival, a story that any of us here can relate to. I do hope you will read or consider a copy as a gift this Mother's Day weekend to someone special in your life - Love - Brigid
Chapter 29 – Surviving the
Battles have been fought in the air from the first day a small dove dived down from the talons of a hawk. Man was not far behind.
Watching a movie about the dogfights of World War I, I realized the battle was not much different than any sporting event played on a field, the field being simply three-dimensional. The pilots would swing and soar and dive, maneuvering their craft with the unmistakable prodigal swagger that is their testament, over shattered roads and islands of tilled earth, desolate above the destruction which they carried.
A man’s death was much less about firepower than simply the consequence of being bettered in a fair contest with someone much like himself. Those who survived held court not as enemies but as gentlemen heroes, remembering those dogfights as the best of what were otherwise insensible and ceaseless battalions of time.
The few that came home did so to lives that were fixed by gravity and obligation, growing thicker and quieter; raising a glass of amber liquid in the evening; finding that being dead while still breathing was a lot less peaceful than they expected. But most did not survive. Their legacy lay among the tumbled ruins of war; the movement of lips as names were read; a photograph of a pretty girl that had already begun to fade.
I look at a picture in my wallet—so worn from touch as to be as fragile as ancient paper.
My dad was part of the 8th Air Force barely out of his teens. Though not a pilot, he came home with pictures and stories of those years there—metaphors of daring, chronicles of speed that to my mind would always have the indisputable stamp of the heroic on them. My uncles as well were in the Air Force. One of them, Uncle Rich, came back to be an engineer for Boeing, his office filled with drawings that to us were as mythical as dragons, esoteric shining shapes from which fire roared as the heavens shook.
It was not unexpected then that I came home one day as a teen and said, “I’m going to learn how to fly,” which was met with about the same level of support as, “I’m going to shave my head and join a cult.” I can’t blame Dad; with redheaded children he had seen his share of wild ideas—most of which we abandoned before we actually blew anything up.
The fact that I only had a minimum wage job slinging submarine sandwiches didn’t deter me. I got a job at the local airport pumping gas and washing aircraft for minimum wage and was able to get my lessons at a discount, sometimes trading a wash or wax for a couple hours of instruction from the owner who was a certified flight instructor. Dad said, thinking he was out of earshot: “She won’t last the week.” After the first couple of days of driving around that big fuel truck, hauling hose and climbing ladders out in the bitter cold, I was likely to agree with him, but for wanting to prove him wrong. For such are challenges both external and internal, hot and cold, fatigue and muscle pain; the miscalculations that can cost you not just your job but your life.
Still, the old tailwheel airplane I learned in paled against the aircraft of those old stories, bearing in my adventuresome mind all the excitement of a draft horse. So I’d go to air shows, finger tracing the outline of a cowl, taking in the scent of kerosene that bears with it some primordial fragrance of dinosaurs fighting to the death. I’d not touch that which wasn’t mine; I’d ask questions, and I’d simply sit and listen to those stories that fueled my dream. When a couple of biplanes showed up to live on the field where I worked, the fascination grew even as some around me said, “You’re a girl, you’ll never make it in that profession,” or, “You’re going to just get yourself killed.”
But I did not think of such craft by any means as being a threat to me when operated with logic and calm, any more than I think I’m limited by what I can do based on the plumbing God gave me or anything other than my mind. Rather it’s the measure of that which I have proven I can do, of what I can achieve. Some of those early airplanes might have been small, but what they brought to me can’t be destroyed.
Earthbound we have limitations as varied as our lives. As pilots, life is simpler. Our will is freer; our lives, however different, are truer and more defined. No matter what we cherish in life, we cherish it more: home, friends, and the smell of freshly tilled earth from a mile up; the heady gulp of pristine, crisp air that clears both our lungs and our heads.
Like anyone for whom life involves the complexity of hand and will, even when we pilots aren’t flying we tend to hover around the airport, drawn like moths to a flame. We show up to have a cup of coffee and grasp the collective knowledge of those that have gone before us; taking in the stories, the tall tales, the wisdom. The knowledge that is passed on from veteran to youngster and from instructor to student is like a flame—the warmth of recognition of what we recognize in each other, the pulse of blood within the hand that reaches out and offers to share the knowledge and wonder.
Many a day was spent whiling away an hour on little excursions of self-discovery, edged with moments of “&*#*! You’ve got it.” With the help of a good instructor I learned not just colorful language, but the patience to sense the mood of the wind before it knocked on my windshield, the curve of a farm field, and the lay of a grass runway.
There’s something about learning to fly in an old tailwheel airplane. You’ll freeze in her, you’ll sweat like a sumo wrestler in her, dodge seagulls, balloons, and summer rain clouds in her. There’s no glass, no electronic warning systems, no autopilot; simply a pure by-the-seat-of-your-pants adventure that hearkens back to simpler times in faraway farm fields. There’s the wind in your hair, the sound of insects whirring in the fields; and then a quiet night with a glass of amber liquid, not as mourning for what is lost but as communion with what remains.
But it was time to move on; a slot far away to go learn how to fly the big and the bulky, to take up the mantle of doing something with my life that was beyond the safety of a small town—a history without effort. I wasn’t sure how I would do with a life of structure, rules, and “I have to dress like everyone else?” But it was time to grow up and look at the horizon as more than my playground.
Before I left to don that uniform, I took one more flight in my old tailwheel airplane. In that moment I could pretend to be a fighter pilot, dodging sunbeams and sparrows out high above a farmer’s field, smiling at the feel of the plane’s power and the response to my controls. The craft for this one perfect moment in time an extension of both my hands and my will. As I pulled the control stick back, the sun hit my eyes, a flash, a glare—this moment not the steady flame of everyday existence but that one bright flash of a struck match that burns so much stronger than valor or fear, if only for this moment.
Now, sixteen years later I was taking another such flight, this time not in goodbye but in anticipation. It was my daughter’s eighteenth birthday, the day she would be provided my contact information from the agency that handled the adoption.
Life was coming around full circle, my days of flying behind me but for an occasional flight for fun, a new career begun; and perhaps, just perhaps, a chance to bond with the one person for whom time had been held suspended for eighteen years.
As the wheels chirped upon the pavement in that final landing, shadows bowed before a wavering sun, the chill in the air an intractable summons of fall here in early summer skies. This was going to be my last such flight for a while as flying for fun is a lot more expensive than flying for a living. I pulled my leather bomber jacket around me, not because I was chilled but to draw in a deep breath, to sustain me in the airless days ahead.
As I left that little hangar, I looked at the photos on the wall of old pilots and old war birds from generations ago. Even as those men stood there silently, they radiated their destiny, leaning against those winged forms of man’s imagination, looking not into the camera, but somewhere beyond—at some small piece of heaven, glimpsed for just a moment as the sun breaks through the clouds, then disappearing forever with the clap of thunder.
I give a quiet little salute and shut the hangar door to darkness.