Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Endless Skies and Montana Nehis

Dreams come in all sizes and layers of priority. Some qualify as goals as they are truly attainable, some are but passing fancies destined to resurface only during deathbed regret. Some are downright serious, some obliviously whimsical and some, while they have a snowballs chance in hell of coming true, are kept alive in one's heart as if a brightly glowing bead in a golden filigree box. For me that bead was piloting an airplane.

I didn't think about it often, but when I did I became immersed. I could smell the smell of flight, though it was really a memory of the fuel model airplanes use. I'd get a knot in my stomach when I imagined myself in a solo cockpit, fingers wrapped around a leather yoke, pulling back on the stick and centering the rudder pedals as I met the sun face to face. I'm sure sometimes I'd hold my breath as I envisioned myself cruising a few yards over the treetops at a few hundred miles an hour, or switching on the smoke and pulling into a loop while an air show audience whistled their appreciation 5000 feet below.

It was one of the few things I knew would never happen that I would still waste valuable cranial-drifting time on, I let go most of my impossible dreams after first glance; like being accepted to college on scholarship, or being found to have been adopted while truly the secret illegitimate son of a European king, or having sex with Meg Tilly. Well ok, I thought about having sex with Meg a few times more than the first, but you get the idea.

So when my ex boss offered to take me up in his plane I got that familiar knot in my stomach and said yes before I passed out in glee. And when he asked if I'd like to go in with him on buying a plane, I declined, as impossible dreams are hardly impossible if we allow their possibility. It seemed silly, me, actually flying, in a plane I co-owned.

I offered up the average excuses; It must be too difficult for me, high school dropout and all...It's a lovely thought, but where would I go, and why?...It's just too expensive, "why, I couldn't even afford to buy the time to get a license, a plane? Why that's absurd!"

I tend to think he really wanted an airplane and couldn't justify owning one alone. We were friendly, but not really friends. But I'm guessing he saw that bead glowing in my filigreed box and thought to find the key with which to set it free.

He gave me a six thousand dollar raise for starters, a 20% increase in income overnight for doing essentially nothing but not saying the word no, but only, "well gosh, sounds great but I can't imagine...". Then he began to take me flying, handing me the stick, pushing me to figure out waypoints and radio frequencies, cloud formations and drift adjustments.

I guess you could say I'm easy, I rolled over after a month of cajoling and booked pilot lessons in spite of my consistently telling myself, "this can't be happening it's only a dream". Once I'd committed I barreled through school as if a proton in a laser beam, it was less than a month, the fastest time on record for that school, until I had my ticket in hand and was renting small planes to satisfy my craving to be reborn avian.

Within a month of that or so we purchased a well used Piper Comanche, 260 horse, retractable gear, four seat rocket ship, and for the next two years my life was music and flying when not dealing with amputations and heart failures and the other sundry realities of my mid-years.

I may sometimes seem a boxful of regret packed in a dark closet of sorrows, but in fact I hold tight to many blessings I've been afforded, and this was one that near tops them all. It was magnificent, it was a pinnacle, it found me alive and screaming in silent joy every moment I was given the opportunity to be who I only dreamed of, who I could never be. I was a pilot, and in spite of the tales I've told about it already, I was a damn good one save a few minor mistakes that nearly got me and random passengers killed.

I drove it as if it was a car, only further since it was faster. I would take my friend Sparky for a jaunt to a little town a hundred miles from the cities, because it had a Dairy Queen within walking distance of the runway. So we'd wing into Litchfield for an hour on a Saturday morning for a Coke and a cone, and then wing back as if we'd driven to a local convenience store for a pack of gum. Or on weekends we'd sometimes fly a few hundred miles toward the Canadian border to a Lake Superior town airfield, who's runway paralleled a resort parking lot. I could pull into a space, set the brake, step inside for lunch ad a few games of billiards and then drive off into the wild blue as if it were a jaunt around the block.

I'm sure it all sounds too decadent, and maybe by definition it was. But the fact is I never worked for money in a spiritual sense. I loved my job and did it for peanuts long before I was paid in gold bars. I'd have done it for free if someone had fed and sheltered me, money had never been a primary motivator for me. So what I didn't give away to those who needed it more than I, I spent as if it was, well, paper fun.

The plane itself wasn't really an issue, any more than a boat or touring bike or other fairly expensive hobby requiring a one time purchase, and housing it was pretty cheap all told. It was the fuel that kills; my hops to Grand Marais were 100 dollar fillups at the gas pump. Now that seems like nothing as it takes damn near 50 bucks to fill my truck, but then it made me feel like Scrooge McDuck.

There were times I just flew as stress relief, once as far as Livingston, Montana on a Sunday morning, stopping for a Stewart sandwich and a carton of milk before turning around and cruising home. I never tired of the drone of that powerful engine, the gentle sway of my form in a slow turn. I watched the ground and scanned the horizon as if it were Saturday morning television programming and I was six years old, I was as much at home in the sky as I ever was on land and somehow alone was not only palatable, but pleasurable and almost preferable while defying gravity.

But second to the long trip I've written about, the most fun journeys I made airborne were to Chicago with my ex wife on little afternoon getaway dates. There's a small business airfield actually built on the lake near Navy Pier called Meigs field, easy to spot from miles off, little air traffic and incredible views if you're the passenger. Passing the Sears tower while somewhere near the thirtieth floor is quite stunning, but as the pilot I was on final approach by that point and too busy to gawk. Once on the ground we could easily find a cab and zip over to Rush street for lunch at some greasy spoon/blues joint, and then walk Michigan Avenue, window shopping like the big city folk, many of whom are no doubt jaded by what downtown Chicago has to offer. As we had no Marshall Fields at home at the time, we made sure to stop in before we left to buy M'lady a scarf or some inexpensive trinket stamped "exclusive" as if it meant something beyond memory inducer.

It was a six hour day the few times we did it, and some of the best six hour chunks I've spent in my lifetime.

I put on near 400 hours altogether over the 3+ years I lived in my dreamworld. I'm sure I spent a fortune between avgas and maintenance. My divorce killed my ability to continue, I was too deep in debt by the time she'd skinned me to justify renting hangars or days sporting bologna and chips with grape Nehi in Missoula. As the years progressed I lost the will to start over, like a wind up Mister Machine my passion to take to the sky slowed, ground and then stopped by reason of responsibility to other people places and things. Now, Linda won't fly commercially much less even entertain the notion of small aircraft turbulence, so my incentive is limited and my pocketbook dry. But to have lived it, makes regret for its passing invisible. Were I to never so much as stand on a tall building again and salute the stars as one time companions, I am a lucky man.

There was a time when I had everything I'd always dreamed of, even that which I once thought impossible. An amazingly intelligent and beautiful woman/partner, a near perfect job, a sweet little house in a richly diverse neighborhood within a well kept city, and wings that would carry me to the moon and back whenever I wished to make fantasy sing aloud. Though many of my years have been wastelands, those few were filled with magic and so, nearly unbelievable. I pray everyone has their moment when the impossible wraps them in it's cocoon and transforms their dreams into incredible memory. If a guy with negative karma can have it happen, anyone can.

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