Going through the airport, I hear the grumblings about the security lines, note the little sign that the alert level for aviation is still orange. No one looks at the sign with anything other than mild disinterest any more. But there is always threat.
Granted, most people don't want to spend the day in fear's blind crush, the breath-stealing conviction that things will always be the worst case. Yet what we fear can happen at any time, there's no guarantee that when we breathe out we're going to breathe back in again. There's a term we use - "shelter in place". It's the opposite of "run away run away!" and it's used in the event of a chemical, nuclear or biological attack, when it won't be safe to go outside.
Shelter in place. I like the concept of that. Make your shelter where you can, a sanctuary even in dismal circumstances. It might be a tree blind, a quiet room with music. For me it's sitting here, typing these words. It's the cockpit of a yellow tailwheel equipped airplane. Quietly aloft, I know I'm not completely free from danger, there's carburetor ice, and geese without transponders and gusts of wind that can come from no where. But it's an environment in which I've tested my mettle. Once you've landed on a strip of gravel 100 miles from another human, in a valley full of bears, no radio signal, no help, just a wrench, some food and a .357 magnum on your hip, just because you have to pee, some things just don't seem all that scary. It's an environment that has given me the courage to go on.
Outside of the bush, and crop dusting businesses, you don't see a lot of tailwheel aircraft any more. Learning to fly one is a challenge, as in giving a cat a bath is a challenge. I was fortunate enough to learn to fly at a small flight school that had the good sense to have a a couple of them around for primary instruction. They didn't have much in the way of radios or navigation features, finding your way around in those aircraft back in the day was a matter of dead reckoning and pilotage, skills going the way of the Dodo in this GPS age. But I got some instruction in them, as well as aerobatics, not enough to make me airshow material, but enough to save my ass years later in a swept wing jet gone topsy turvy. Of course the aircraft had its appeal, the rest of everything on the ramp resembling a Can of Spam with a nosewheel.
When you fly a tailwheel airplane, be it Cub or Stearman, or something in between, you are never more aware of your environment. I remember the first time I flew the Stearman solo. I stood and watched it on the ramp, staring at it, staring at the wind sock, staring at the aircraft again, it seeming to have grown larger in the last glance, staring at the wind sock. I had never been quite so cognizant of the wind before. I knew the crosswind limitation of the Cessna and that old Apache. But in a tailwheel airplane, especially in one the size of a Stearman, the wind is a force, and how it swirls and lifts and pivots was another matter entirely. Wind is a science of chaotic truths; it twists and turns with complex disregard for your plans yet can be made simple merely by bank and the turn, how and when, as you gauge the adequacy of a landing strip against fuel remaining, as you push against wind and time. Like risk itself, wind is a science of geometry, measured sharp angles, the force and will of a cold breeze gleaming with two honed edges; one of laughter and one that can cut the heart asunder.
But it's a valuable lesson, not just for the air, for for life. You learn about chance taken, what you are comfortable with, what you are not. You learn about options. As a pilot those options can keep you safe and renew your faith. Not a blind faith that all will be well, that feeling has been the death of more than one airman, but a tentative faith that gives us the courage to venture onward. You have the knowledge that nothing is fixed and the blessed understanding that as long as you are breathing and that old Lycoming is humming along, anything is possible.
I got my love of airplanes from my favorite Uncle who worked as a senior engineer for Boeing. He traveled around the world, taking my Aunt with him, as they weren't able to have kids of their own. Their small house was filled with the unique; beautifully sublime pieces of oriental wood and glass, exotic smells and book after book of amazing adventure and history. He also came home with more than one airplane model.
We kids were like their own, and we spent a great deal of time there. We saw the door on one of our first visits there, a hefty air tight looking piece of sheet metal, that covered steps leading down to a cement-lined small room. We'd heard about it from the neighborhood kids and we wanted to check it out. As we took a small glance into it we saw lights, an emergency generator, some water, and some canned food. We'd heard about the shelters reading about the Cuban Missile Crises, I knew well the stories. Yes, if ANYONE on the block was going to have a real Cuban Missile Crisis bomb shelter it was going to be our Uncle Rich and Aunt Marion.
That bomb shelter became our hideaway, our fort, our playground. We'd creep down the stairs and lay on the floor, taking in the mysterious earthy smell, the eerie greenish glow of the single outlet casting dark shadows on the wall. Down in the dark and the quiet we'd talk in little trickling bursts of secret murmurings, conversations among best friends, fellow survivors. Our only light would be a small flashlight, the beam shining on the pallet of supplies we lay on, half in the light, half in the dark, the beam on our legs like moonlight.
After my Uncle died only months after retirement while mowing the lawn, my Aunt stayed. My older brother and his son took care of any needed repairs to the place, taking her where she needed to go , for although she traveled the entire world, both with him, and after, alone, she never learned to drive.
I lived far away, out of a suitcase. When I saw her it was always at my Dad's house for all the usual holidays. I talked to her often, but I never went back to her house after I grew up as we always met at Dad's. In the summer of 2001 she died suddenly, and it was after the service I went back to her house for the first time in years.
I never noticed how small it really was, only 600 square feet, the yard a postage stamp of tired grass.. They never wanted anything bigger, their passion was travel and that's where their road lay, their time and income. In that inevitable failing of those who haven't shaken hands with death, I thought our time together was infinite. Each year I thought about making an extra trip to visit her house, but before you knew it, I was grown and the mysterious dark bunker was a distant memory, though she never was. As my family said our last goodbye to the home that week, as it went to sale, I saw the closed shelter doors. I hadn't been down there in probably 25 years. It was still small, and dark, clean, snug and dry. Then I noticed the tiny washer and dryer, the cans of food, the laundry basket. I looked at my older brother. "This was her laundry room" he said, where she had some extra space for her small home.The "bomb shelter" was nothing more than their post war laundry and cellar; with a few supplies in case of storm, a special built little extra space for their tiny home, on its tiny lot.
The bomb shelter story was simply a childhood myth, spread through the years by neighbor kids and embraced as something uniquely strange and foreign to our stable and prosperous life in the 70's. Ours was one of the first generations to live with concept of instant global annihilation, yet as children, a generation who had never directly experienced war, we only thought it cool, a sci-fi like fable.
The same year she died that fable ended, on a September day, a week after I graduated from the Academy. As I closed my Aunt's cellar door behind me that day, there was no laughter of children, simply the deep clang of metal against metal, sealing tight, shutting in the last remnant of naivety I had borne with me to its sheltered walls that day.
For shelter is a beautiful word. It brings to mind soft cotton sheets, a milky bath, a tail wag of a dog, a sip of Jameson, the voice that is like warm lips to cool skin after you've unloaded your long day of misfeeds and misadventures. We often take shelter from such joys, from our friendships.
Sometimes you stay in one place, with only a memory of the past, until you wake up one morning and it's as if you are waking up in a strange place. Daring not to move, you lay there in bed, staring at the wall, listening to the silence, willing yourself to simply get up and quietly leave with what's left of you, listening quietly to see if what's remaining of your heart has enough beat in it to sustain what's left. You shut your eyes and take a slow, deep breath, in and out, trying to get air past that dull ache so you can function.
There is no shelter there; it's like being on the road for days on end. Nights in a unfamiliar hotel in another time zone, the air weighted with unfamiliar smells and the noise of the airport next door banging on your window like an unwanted peddler, and even if you stayed there willingly, you can't wait to get away. Where is the shelter in this, if only in the emptiness that reminds the heart of what it's capable of. With that, you know it's time to move on, and you will, with joy.
That movement might take you to an air strip, a small bit of grass on which I all can launch my freedom. Shelter for me is a destination that I may invite my closest friend to share, yet it remains uniquely mine. It's the soft throated roar of an engine that even as it ceases, remains in the immediate air, an echo of where I wish to go. It's the wheels breaking free of the earth, like a hand lifted above the profound desolation of the past, supplication to the sky. It's the glint of the sunrise ahead, the smile of daybreak hinting at upcoming wonders, a lovers smile of promise. My craft surrounds me, it's tangible and honest and real and if I care for it and treat it right, it will not fail me; it's an affirmation of trust in a web of fabric and wood. When I look up I see only light and when I look around, I see only what is necessary for my happiness, nothing more.
When I'm aloft I don't know who I was or who I will be, I am simply there with the element of infinity that is the horizon, I know that I am alive. I know that I love. I don't need to know anything else, moving forward into the immortality of a small piece of time, of all that my mind is capable of, and my spirit can want. Risk is but a novelty that drives me to excel, to take control of my craft, of my future and my life as I find comfort in the shifting boundaries between earth and the heavens. It's an escape and a shelter, as essential to my spirit as the ocean-like smell of the air and the wave of my comrade with me as I waggle my wings, leaving formation. Away to my future, to a secret place of joy that no one can steal from me
Away to my sheltering sky.