FINAL CLIMB

 

I’d worked a couple years with Pop and come to trust him like a father, but we were so busy there was never time to fly with each other. Then one day we both had the afternoon free and I said, “Let’s go up together, Pop. Just you and me.”

“Nah,” was all he said.

I wandered next door to neaten the clubhouse, something I’d never do if there were any excuse. Ten minutes later a knock came. No one ever knocks on that door. Folks barge in as if it’s their place, because it is. There stood Pop. Looking downcast, he said, “Let’s go.” I wanted to know what was troubling him, but if he didn’t mention it neither would I.

Finally to share a cockpit with the maestro! My anticipation was lifting his spirits before our wheel began to roll. Or was it simply being back in stride rather than moping on the ground?

Sweet timeless hours we soared around the local area, observing each other’s methods and comparing notes on how to teach. Each felt challenged to fly as precisely and creatively as the other. He had nothing to prove of course, but his easy smoothness bore a thin strain of self-conscious care to epitomize his highest personal standard. Same for me, and I was glad to see how similar our methods were. “Seems we fly more alike than different, Pop.”

“Uh huh.”

Even passive assent from someone I so admired felt like praise. The biggest difference was our choice of speed between climbs. He said I flew faster than necessary, and I thought he flew too slow.

“Don’t you agree it’s better to err on the fast side?”

“I guess. But if you’re too fast you shoot through lift before you can slow up and use it.”

“Not if you sense it and respond in time.” His silence said I’d too much so I fudged, “You cut your teeth in earlier, slower gliders and I learned in these with wider speed range.”

He thought awhile, then sighed, “Maybe.”

To change the subject I brought up the certification process, always sore point for me. The previous examiner in our region was Pop’s oldest and closest friend Race, whom Pop had given his first airplane ride decades earlier. In his place there were now two designated examiners and no one liked either of them. Our entire time together, Pop and I boycotted both, recommending our students drive hundreds of miles to other jurisdictions rather than submit to what we believed would be an unfair test.

“Race was the best examiner I’ve seen,” I said. “When I first moved to this area he did my CFI renewal, and we met in his kitchen of all places. What impressed me was his practicality. He threw a copy of the Test Standards on the table, slapped it with his hand and said, “Go through this and tell me everything that gives you heartburn.’”

Pop chuckled, “Sounds like Race, alright.”

“I confessed what I really thought, even about some things he could’ve held against me, and turned out we agreed on nearly everything. Kinda like you and me.”

“Yeah, Race got no time for BS. That’s why he was a good DE.”

“Why isn’t he still one?”

“Feds didn’t like the way he bent the test to common sense.”
“Yeah, I can see that.”

“And his health ain’t so good.” Pop sighed again. “Not feelin’ too chipper myself come to think of it.” I had the stick but he yanked spoilers full open and grunted, “That’s enough, let’s take ’er in.”

Was Pop okay? I quizzed him delicately on the way down but couldn’t tell. Either way, our flight had been therapeutic for him and I was honored to study at the master’s hand. Back on the ground, I thanked him formally and hugged him same as the second time we met. Eerie sadness in his eye, he thanked me.

The phone was ringing as we entered the office. Pop took it and listened, turning his back. Then without a word he hung up and slumped slowly into his chair.

“What is it?” I asked.

He cleared his throat and murmured, “Race is down. Half hour ago.”

Synchronicity? Of course. Of course! No one knows what’s really going on here, but those who don’t see that we’re all in it together must not be looking.

 

The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also receives his last sigh.

Chief Seattle

 

Race’s funeral was attended by dozens of glider pilots, naturally. Concluding the service, pallbearers placed their boutonnières on his casket, and Pop’s was last. As he stood back to watch his lifelong best friend lowered into the ground, a sudden gust whirled around the assembly, raising dresses, mussing hairdos, and drawing all those flowers right up into the air. Spontaneous applause broke out, even sentimental laughter, and reverential shouts of, “There goes Race,” and “One last thermal!”

The end?