Monday, February 15, 2016

For Michael - The Music of Motion - an Airman's Story


What is the first sound you can remember? Most might say their mother's voice. I struggle to remember her voice, she died when I was just entering adulthood.  But  I do remember her smell, a mixture of clean rain and Chanel No. 5. It's a smell, like that of sandalwood, that I can't catch a whiff of now without going soft and quiet, with this little echo in my chest.

Dad kept a few of her things around, her light blue sweater draped over the armchair where she read all her books, her robe, last  in my closet where I took it to wear in her last days in hospice so I could smell her scent.  It was as if their tiny presence somehow compelled this home to remain that, more than brick and mortar, but the place that held the sentience and character of the woman who graced it.  Instead, just looking at them in the silence was simply an affirmation of emptiness, and soon, they too were put away.

I still have them, the sweater, the robe, but I do wish I could remember her voice.

One of my earliest memories of hearing comes from the sound of the ocean during summer vacation, flirting up against the sand while I played with a little bucket and shovel while gulls cried around me like mewing kittens. So many sounds as I grew, the clatter of my Mom juggling pots and pans making us dinner every night, the spray of the garden hose as my father washed our station wagon every Saturday, the wind pouring through the masts of trees, and later . . . . the sound of an airplane.

When I travel, I hate sitting in the back of the plane, it's noisy, but the noise of strangers. Give me the cockpit any day. A cockpit is rarely quiet, but it's a symphony of familiar sounds. The voice of the air traffic controller, a reassuring sotto voice confirmation that two minds are in agreement, and all is well with the world. The clatter of a trim switch and the beep of an altitude alerter, sounds of warning that the earth is approaching, throttles coming back, there it is. The ground. It's solid underneath you, and hard, and if you flared too high you'll break your aircraft against its incontrovertible passivity. But sometimes the earth acquiesces and the wheels kiss the pavement like lips against a warm neck at dawn


Aloft and level though, airplane sounds stabilize into a gentle song with just the occasional background chorus of the controllers, and you would have time to think and perhaps chat a little. Pilots talk of many things aloft settled into a long cruise on autopilot, and the adage is true, when with the opposite sex, pilots talk about airplanes, and in an airplane, pilots talk about the opposite sex. We talk of the spiritual and we talk of the mundane. We talk about families and jobs, spouses, children, food, pranks played, food again and surprise - we talk more about airplanes.

There were nights were we got in a long enough layover to play tourist or simply catch up on relaxation and sleep, carrying the cockpit conversation over to a bar or a little restaurant.  Such were the nights where we'd have a spot of whiskey, telling  tales of adventure of some pilot, who could have been any of us, or none of us, a story that was not boasting but simply a telling, stories that had been lived or inherited, those stories that have been told over whiskey since time began. There was just something comforting in the voices, the words, the recognition of sound in the air, the clink of ice, and if you were in a really low end part of the world, the cluck of the basket of live chickens hanging from the ceiling.

Then, there are the days where sleep was hard to find, the day grinding into the night, when the only words spoken outside of flaps and slats and EPR's were, with a quick look at your "dinner",  "gee, I bet this would taste good warm".  On such days we simply continued on in silence, surrendering our misfortunes and our joys to God and Pratt and Whitney, which sang to us outside like a Mockingbird in the moonlight.

I think of a flight back before I hung up my wings, one last long flight over foreign lands.  Up at altitude, across that vast stretch of blue, we laughed and we shared. Much of it was happy, but occasionally a story would come back from a compatriot Gone West, and through the laughter, tears stung our eyes as a familiar awe-filled sadness enveloped our little space and we grew silent, remembering him, sounds of mourning and respect. Airmen and soldiers are a small community of thousands, and we never forget our dead.



It was still dark as we flew over the Prime Meridian after stopping for fuel in Greenland. The Prime Meridian is the common zero for longitude and time reckoning throughout the globe. The one place where we are all at one point, and the moment stands still, an absolute where for a second, time and motion are tethered to our aircraft like a careless rope.

As we cross over I'll synchronize my watch with my copilots and attempt to capture that time, to somehow gather it to us. Only then does it hit. all we have experienced from this cockpit, Different languages and sights, smells and sounds - the roar of an Allison engine, as it starts with that artistic endeavor of curse words and meditation, the underlying scent of jet fuel, oily and dark, that hangs in the mist on an early morning ramp.


The morning air burning with cold as we trace the soft scratches in the panel with gloved hands, trying to keep them warm while we wait for orders, the worn red ribbons of red laying like frozen icicles against the landing gear as the crew chiefs finish their tasks Yet such thoughts disappear as the sound of the engine brings us back to our tasks; we're still at the Prime Meridian where there is precision and accord, spoken with the deep anesthetic hush of sameness.

We sit in that quiet hush, veins flowing with JP4, the nourishment of salt that comes from flesh and our eyes, that old blood that has explored new lands and ancient skies, the hardships of separation and the circumstances that lurk, to hurl you into wonder, or to snatch you from that blue, into the dark.  We've seen glory, tears and abrogated peace from this windshield.  Though we miss being home, we'd not have missed it, given a choice for this duty, not deferred, is the ultimate protection of those we leave at home.


The sun began to awake as we neared our destination, the shadow of our craft skimming the clouds. The descent was at hand and the day surged towards sunrise or would if we could see it through the prevailing, thin mist of a foreign world. The sound of conversation ended there. We simply basked in the hum of the engines and the view out the window to our world. The clouds gathered up in a huddle of virgin thunderstorms. Up above, through a small portal of light, the trail of another aircraft 1000 feet above, vanishing upward like smoke as we started the ballet of preparing a jet aircraft to land, staring mutely through a spattered windshield across which the wipers swung like metronomes.

The morning sun hits the windscreen, an explosion of white light that leaves nothing, no bone, no ash, just a vast deep plane of blue, the alter onto which we lay ourselves down at .82 Mach.  For just a moment, I leaned my head wearily against the left side wall of the cockpit, as the sun, my ship and I were, for a moment joined, an eclipse of light and sound and motion.

Up ahead the outline of land, there in the thin clouds, dissolving away beneath unfettered rain as if eroded by the sea. For just that instant, I felt, rather than heard, the vibration rattle through my bones, breathing in and letting the surge of the engines push me on into the light.  It's at once, the sound of an ocean, the laughter of a young girl, all wrapped into the bright continuous hum of a jet engine. The music of motion that pushes us towards home. 

3 comments:

  1. Sadness and joy: two sides of the same coin. Common bonds, those things with which we both keep time and mark its passage. Life is often not so much a grand adventure, but rather a series of small moments that add up to more than we thought ... that we can look back on and realize how much we've done and experienced. And remembering those who have fallen along the way makes the remembrance bittersweet, but comfortable like an old friend as well. It's those moments and memories which make up our lives, and make us who we are.

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  2. What Rev. Paul said. Precious are the lives and memories we carry with us.

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  3. Memories like this are best shared with the young, so they will live on after we pass.

    Merle

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