LIGHT YEARS SHORT OF OLD

We’re all suckers for cliches, not even like we have a choice. We hear some new phrase and get how it works the way babies learn syntax, then it infects our own vocabulary before we’ve even thought about it. Third time you hear the same words in a different context, it’s already a cliche. Fourth is when it spills from your lips unbidden. Cliches may not all live forever, but most will outlast any of us.

I avoid them like ants in a campsite, meaning with little success, and when they persist I try to expedite them somehow. Not only in print for stylistic reasons, but more importantly in general speech, and therefore in thought. Carelessness in thought and speech reinforce each other. Still, however effectively you ‘expedite’, there’ll always be another ant cliche. If they weren’t so small, torturing them might be more fun, but as it is there are better ways to waste my time. Wagged any dogs lately, tail?

Cliches form by verbal accretion because they encapsulate some kind of truth. The ancient bromide about old pilots versus bold ones is… wait for the cliche… a prime example.

Like apparently all kids, I grew up knowing I would never get old, and somehow maintained the self-deception well across one of our vaguest cliches, middle age. How could a simple minded luddite get this far with most of my original equipment still operational? Copious doses of dumb luck is part of the answer, plus some degree of undeserved providence… Wait, you say, there’s a difference? (If there were no difference, silly, they wouldn’t each have their own cliches!) Luck is always dumb, whether it’s the good kind or not, and providence is always predetermined, deserved or otherwise. Sorting that out is like untying a knot, follow one strand first to see where it comes from or risk tightening it before you start.

Anyway… I was coming down from my first flight in something hotter than a 1-26, intoxicated with that godlike feeling, when I woke up on downwind leg screaming across treetops. Yes it was also my first-ever low pass, totally unpremeditated…

Parallel to the runway lay a wide ridge a hundred feet high, that from overhead hardly showed as a hill. Before pulling up I glanced over — and couldn’t even see the airport. Which summoned one of the earliest of a bazillion timely epiphanies in my soaring life. If I misjudged my energy, or pulled up too late, it could be suddenly impossible to reach the runway…

Every moment in flight is subject to prior judgment, and all judgment depends on experience. That day, I had almost none of either. Forty years later I dug out a tattered logbook to find the entry, and it reveals more now than I could imagine at the time:

Greatest flight ever.  Loops, dog fight with hawk, twice below clouds and back up 6000’.  Cloud descents, improvised pattern.

Cloud descents, plural? It was the last flight on that page, and below it my time totaled not quite 157 hours. Bold perhaps, but lightyears short of old.

Uh oh, did I just coin a cliche?