Sometimes the simplest thing can shake you loose from your moorings and show you the world again through fresh eyes. I was daydreaming at 30,000 feet above the Pacific with Pachelbel's Canon in D wafting through my headphones when we ruffled through light turbulence. I looked out the window to a world of blue sky, blue sea, and wispy white clouds, and suddenly the wonder of what we were doing struck me. We were flying.
We're among the first generations in all of human history to be able to do this, and most of us don't even notice. Flying has become as commonplace as rooting around the cupboard for breakfast cereal, and these days the thought of a flight is usually viewed as a tedious, cramped, and possibly dangerous necessity to get from here to there. It's not a marvel anymore, but there was a time when flying was so special the mere thought of it generated lively conversation. When I was growing up, flying was the provenance of the privileged, and though we all knew that some day we'd have the experience, flying was definitely out of the norm and as formative as a first kiss. Of course we expected that first experience to be full of awe and magic, and we knew it would be in a commercial aircraftwhat other option would be open to us?
I had long forgotten my first flight, but looking out on the threads of fleece on my way to Maui it came back to me in a rush. It was as unexpected and unlikely as anything that happened in my adolescence. I was 14 years old, pretty much behaving like a normal 14-year-old with the occasional push against boundaries, when a friend who was a bit more daring than I said he had a friend, an older guy named Bob, who had a private plane and would take us flying. All I had to do was meet them tomorrow after dinner and we'd go.
Of course I said yes. I was there at the appointed time, having given my parents a safe explanation for where I was heading, but my friend was not. Bob was waiting in his cherry-red Chevy Impala, but my friend never came.
I had to decide: would I go off alone with this man in his mid-twenties whom I'd never met, hope he really did have a plane and would take me flying, and risk whatever else was on his agenda, or would I go home?
The allure was too great. I took the risk. I went with Bob. Even today I have no idea if I correctly assessed that he was a decent fellow who would do me no harm, or if I just got lucky. Looking back, my guess is he was a lonely guy in search of company, possibly gay, in a time and place where it was difficult and painful to be so.
We drove twenty minutes to an airfield on bluffs above the Minnesota River, the same airfield I had passed on the way to my grandparents' house every week since I was born. We parked in the darkness near a hanger; Bob checked the wings and tail, tires and fuel tank. We climbed aboard and strapped in. He put on his earphones and radioed the control tower. Then he started the engine.
The roar was deafening; there was no question of conversation. My heart started to gallop. Taxiing put me as close to the edge of my seat as the seatbelt allowed. Racing down the runway stole my breath. Takeoff was almost instant, barely noticeable, like coasting downhill on a new bike, absolutely out of this world.
The earth fell away. We swept up into the dark night sky, stars shedding their light from the heavens and mirrored like contrapuntal music in the lights twinkling below. Buildings diminished, cars became toys streaming light, roads mere snaking threads through the dark countryside. The wide floodplain of the river, a lush landmark that filled me with a vital sense of the natural world whenever I saw it, fell away as black velvet meandering through a carpet of lights.
We were only in the air a half-hour or so, a time that seemed both an instant and an eternity. I hardly remember breathing I was so completely enthralled. All the way home the thrill ran through me, but then I wondered, who could I share this with? I couldn't tell my parentsthey'd kill me. My brothers? My friends?
In the end I didn't tell anyone, treasuring the secret as if it were sacred. I carried it so long I finally forgot it, until now.
When we made a big bank turn to prepare for our approach to Kahului, I looked out under the wing to the blue sky above, deep blue sea below, fleece scattered in between, and felt the sensation again of our craft blazing through the air on a perfect day. This wasn't a virtual thing, and it wasn't an ordinary thing: we were flying, and this time it felt as sacred and marvelous as that first flight with Bob, a man I never saw again but appreciate to this day, for initiating me into the wonderful world of flight.
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