Friday, September 14, 2018
When I was growing up in the 60's Dad got me this toy that was a toy aircraft that could be flown from inside the car with a closed window. With your control stick, you could make it climb and dive and shoot it's "machine guns". The little control panel in front of you had airspeed, turn and bank, oil, and fuel information. To me, it was the closest thing to flying I'd experienced except for one flight on Pan Am when I was six to go to my aunt and uncle's while Mom and Dad when to Hawaii for their 25th anniversary.
We did a long road trip every year to my and uncle's ranch in California (they raised almonds) to visit my two cousins and them. On that long, often hot, two-day drive, that toy was my freedom from "Mom, he's on MY side of the seat" as my older brother tried to pester me. I'd get my hand on that little control stick and I felt relieved at once of a perceptible weight, well, as much weight as a 7-year-old could bear.
For my mother had cancer, she was diagnosed with it when I was only four and she was still fighting it, the first remission come and gone. As a child, she and my Dad did their best to protect us from it, but she couldn't hide the ravages of chemo in a small house with one full bathroom. We simply learned to cope.
In some ways, it was like something I learned later in life. War. It's something, whether you are living in the middle of it, or simply have someone you love away fighting in it, you learn to live with it. Actually, you don't live WITH it, you live underneath it, as if it is a dark sky from which the air is so dark and thick it's hard to draw breath. It's a tornado siren, it's a tsunami warning, it's imminent death from which there is no shelter, no safe place, and even if you survive it, it will touch you with cold fingers, discharging perhaps the physical fear, but marking you forever as one who had fought and paid a high price for the battle.
So Mom did what she could and even with a limited budget, there was money for a toy for my brother and this wonderous airplane.
I'd swoop and dive and bank it for what seemed like hours, no sound in the vehicle but my Mom's quiet breath and the soft rustle of the scarf that covered her head. The silence in the vehicle, merged with the silence of the sky, becoming one infinite boundlessness control by two small hands.
I found a similar freedom on my bicycle. I grew up in those years where no one wore helmets, hills were not off limits, and we would take our bikes out as high and far as our legs would carry us. It was usually up to the top of the hill high above a mint farm where you could get some serious speed going downhill. A wipeout was going to mean a broken arm, but that didn't stop us, we'd sail down that slope in formation flight, the scenery a blur of green and blue. One summer I broke my arm twice. It's no wonder when I came home from high school and said "I want to be a pilot," Dad just put his head down into his hands.
I took a second job on the weekends in addition to the one I had after school, and I started lessons when I was 17. I soloed in the bright surf of a September sky, stamping the runway like a rubber stamp with my little Cessna 150 on my third and final landing.
I have to admit I was pretty nervous, doing the world's longest engine check, hesitant to release my feet from the brakes. Then the sky in my windshield as I stared at it coalesced into not just vision, but scent, the smell of the open air, filling that tiny hot cockpit with a whisper that I could only describe as freedom. I announced my intentions on Unicom and took the runway.
Only minutes later, I couldn't get the grin off of my face as sunspots kissed my face as if a radar blip from the heavens as I cleared the runway for the day. From the taxiway, my instructor, a father of 7 boys that had nerves of steel, watched silently. There will be more stories of that time, but in thinking of that toy airplane today, I couldn't help but think of that little Cessna that was the same color as the toy one and just as much fun to play with.
Such simple things, such simple pleasures. Just simply to fly, to be aloft in the air, the very substance by which I live and with its absence, I would cease to breathe. Years later, when Mom was long gone, I would sit in the cockpit of a jet at altitude, and just the feel of the yoke in my hand would take me back to those road trips with my little aircraft, wondering what happened to that little toy plane.
But then, of course, something brings me now back to today, a cockpit sound, the movement of a gauge, for an airplane at altitude has a way of bringing the irrational into every emotion, every fear. I looked down, seeing what airports were near if indeed an engine ever quit, even if I'd flown years without having that experience. It's not being paranoid, it's those long moments of quiet, especially at night or over vast bodies of water where your imagination takes you to places you don't want to be. The engines know this and will make those weird noises only in such places and times, a bluff, a lie, planned by the gods of maintenance and foiled by the steadfastness of the crew
Power and fuel adjusted, I took the plane off of autopilot, and put my hands on the yoke, a child again, trusting in my craft, and savoring the freedom that it brought.