THE MAKING OF AN OPTIMIST

One rainy day sixty-five years ago I was flying a plane that felt so real it seemed to be flying me.  Up and down and back around, it would land on my bed and take off again, dash over to strafe the sock monkey and arc away in triumph.  Going straight and level wasn’t half as inspiring.  The toy happened to be a warbird of course, and my child mind brooded that pilots flew in such thrilling ways only to kill or be killed.  Sad, knowing no other rationale for forms of flight so fanciful.  

Twenty-five years later this memory came rushing back while up with a new student (they were all new to me in those days).  He’d flown Hueys in Viet Nam, and suddenly laughed, “God it’s fun to fly without being shot at!”  

Ain’t that the truth.  

Somewhere between those distant afternoons, on the last day of seventh grade they freed us early — in time to discover where my deepest curiosity lay.  Tipsy at the precipice of a three-month eternity, I sank into soft grass and admired a rampart of towering cumulus chasing each other across the horizon.  Scarcely knowing what they were or why, I ached to float there among them.  “Those are real places,” I told myself, wondering how things would look from so high up.  What gripping regret that I could never go there and explore!  

Not many months later I learned otherwise.  The January, 1967 issue of National Geographic (you can still find it in garage sales for a quarter) features a definitive article about soaring that put me on this circuitous path.  Along with enticing photographs, its centerfold is an artist’s conception of some ordinary fellow in a tiny cockpit, smiling out at the endless landscape while gliding from one form of rising air to another.  I supposed such flight would be very dangerous – with no engine – but knew that to experience it even once would be worth any risk.  

Then when I finally got to try soaring myself, EUREKA!  Turns out dancing across the sky is amazingly easy when conditions are good, and safer than any highway if you fly right.  (Especially when I’m on the road!)  So, was safety the reason I devoted my life to soaring?  Not even close.  

Many times through intervening decades I re-read that article, and studied every illustration.  There’s a wide angle photo of sailplanes, hang gliders and RC craft all in one frame, dodging each other on the sea breeze at Torrey Pines.  Another shows an athlete on a unicycle directing the start line at that year’s National Championships, himself a storied pilot I would later meet and fly with when he was 80.  A somewhat less seductive picture is of Boy Scouts in uniform participating in the construction of a 2-32 at the Schweizer factory in Elmira, NY…  

Now remember our Huey pilot who enjoyed not being shot at?  Even further up this winding trail he bought a well-worn ‘32 in need of TLC and leased it to our operation.  One-six Juliet flew great but looked awful, and some years later we restored her.  Chipping and grinding down through multiple layers of paint and bondo, at the very bottom we found the same shade of blue as in that photo with the Boy Scouts.  On a hunch I dug out the old magazine again, and sure enough our N-number matched that picture.  I’d flown beloved Juliet hundreds of hours by then, without knowing!  Small world, big sky.  

When the brightest thing you can see is streaks of rain on a grey window, remember:  high above us this same primordial Elysium continues arching over all as it has forever, through every weather, world without end.  To go there is a challenge worthy of infinite effort, and living there for even snippets of time imparts a special kind of grace.  After all, it’s what turned one dour little cynic into a patient optimist bound to the proposition that this bottomless sky we breathe is indeed our only limit.  

…as on we sail for far Aeolia.