By lex, on March 15th, 2008
Apparently I was not to fly today, although the weather would have supported it: No customers, and eventually I’ll figure the system out. Call ahead.
Drove up anyway, and met a young chappie in a G-1 leather flight jacket with a VAQ-139 patch, leather name tag and the haircut to go with it and taking it all together I knew him. I introduced myself as “Lex,” and your man took a double-take before asking, is that “Neptunus Lex?” and I had to admit that yes, yes it was. Not having the heart to say no, simultaneously alarmed and flattered.
He had been bought a biplane ride by his bride I take it, and was eager to break the surly. We chatted a bit, turning over the advantages and otherwise of taildragging aircraft, before I left for greener pastures.
Heading south more leisurely than I had headed north, I decided to take the 101 and drift through Leucadia, Encinitas, Cardiff, Solana Beach and Del Mar. You stop in here and there on a motorcycle, places you wouldn’t bother with in a
cage car. Maybe because the parking’s easier. Maybe just because. Back streets close the ocean, where you’d see quirky houses with ocean views. Side streets with the small shops you’d never otherwise see. Beautiful people running by, or riding bikes. The air cool and ocean damp. Clouds scudding.
Had time inside my helmet to turn some things over. You know, one of the things that people ask you when you’re getting close to retiring and thinking about what’s next is, “What do you want to do?”
It seems such an easy question to answer, but I’ll be damned if it’s not the hardest one ever. “I want to fly fighters off aircraft carriers” is no longer a valid response. You’ve done that, it’s over, a young man’s game. The thought itself anachronistic. Doesn’t matter if it’s true. On the other hand, “I want to work in a cubicle for the next ten years polishing someone else’s apple” is hard to deliver convincingly.
One of the questions you’re asked in transition courses is, “What would you do if making money wasn’t an issue?” Which is a pretty big “if,” you have to admit. So big, with two teenage girls on the threshold of college, that you have to wonder if anything after the “if” statement actually makes sense.
Caught up to the Paramahansa Yogananda Self-Actualization Fellowship in Cardiff, past the “meditative gardens.” Thought about taking the bike through there with the throttle wide open. Just for the yang of it. Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, just to worry about self-actualization for a moment or few? Not to worry about the bigger picture, or take the long view? Just live in the personal moment?
Headed towards La Jolla because it had been a while, but got side-tracked just south of the Torrey Pines golf course. Stopped in at the glider port. Soft dirt and sand in the parking lot, and boots off the pegs, hovering. It’s a 500 pound bike and once she starts going past a certain angle, well: Best not to let her get started.
Parked, got off and walked back into my childhood. There were radio-controlled gliders and hang gliders and birds – actual birds – all competing for the updrafts coming off the cliffs. Young people with confident voices speaking of surfing the tides and currents of the air in a way that I could not quite grasp – I, who had spent a lifetime muscling noisily through the fluid with propellers and turbines. I sat down on a log and just. Watched. For a while. And then for a while longer. Captivated. In my element and out of it.
A raven floated by, something in its claws. And we all of us stopped, veteran glider pilots and veteran fighter pilots and watched it with slack-jawed wonder. Silenced. A raven is not a particularly lovely bird, but with a sea breeze coming in off the cliffs it can effortlessly make our best efforts with aluminum and silk seem mean and clumsy. I thought about how the first man, shambling across some weary plain, had looked up at the first bird soaring effortlessly through the ether and envied him his freedom. Sought to emulate him, or – failing that – pull him down.
I’d run a flight school if I could. World class. Bring them up from nothing to everything with a passion for excellence at every step along the way. I’d sell Huskys and Pitts Specials here in California because – unbelievably – no one else is doing it. We’d teach aerobatics in the Pitts and we’d fly Marchetti’s with laser gunsights and smoke systems for BFM.
That’s what I’d do.
Our passionate preoccupation with the sky, the stars, and a God somewhere in outer space is a homing impulse. We are drawn back to where we came from.
— Eric Hoffer, ‘New York Times,’ 21 July 1969, regards the first Moon-landing.
I’ll run my hand gently over the wing of a small airplane and say to him, “This plane can teach you more things and give you more gifts than I ever could. It won’t get you a better job, a faster car, or a bigger house. But if you treat it with respect and keep your eyes open, it may remind you of some things you used to know — that life is in the moment, joy matters more than money, the world is a beautiful place, and that dreams really, truly are possible.” And then, because airplanes speak in a language beyond words, I’ll take him up in the evening summer sky and let the airplane show him what I mean.
— Lane Wallace, ‘Eyes of a Child,’ Flying magazine, February 2000.
Deftly they opened the brain of a child, and it was full of flying dreams.
— Stanley Kunitz, ‘My Surgeons.