Powerless Flight

“Most gulls don’t bother to learn more than the simplest facts of flight – how to get from shore to food and back again. For most gulls, it is not flying that matters, but eating.”

Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

The summer I was fifteen, my father read Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull. The short tale of a seagull’s rebellious pursuit of the joys of flight captured his imagination in a way I was too young to understand. He began talking, especially in the evenings as he drank, in uncharacteristic and sweepingly poetic ways about the freedom of flight and finding one’s true destiny in life. At fifteen, I was too young to be cynical but I had a vague feeling that this change in him had more to do with the echo of angry voices rattling through our house late at night than it did with any book.

My older brother Tom told me in whispers the truth of the things I could only imagine when I buried my head under my pillow at night. Soon enough the divorce, and both my parents’ drinking would make it all too clear, but at the time I only knew that the book had reawakened in my father a desire to fly which he wanted to share with me that summer. I never considered, and unlikely could not have understood, the feelings my father might have had, whatever demons he might have been struggling with; I only stared out the passenger window as he drove me to glider lessons at the small airport in Endwell, watching the Susquehanna River wind its way beside the road, flanked by rolling hills, thick and green.

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A pilot performs a pre-flight check as a safeguard against regret. Walking around the plane, a laminated check sheet in hand, the pilot observes, handles, and tests the critical components one-by-one: the landing wheel axle cotter pin; the wing strut bolt safety wire; the rudder, aileron, the elevator control linkages. The pre-flight check is thorough – as thorough as necessary to prevent regret at six thousand feet. The pilot completes the checklist with that thought in mind.

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My father was an experienced pilot. I remember as a boy standing with my mother in the apple orchard behind Richard’s Funeral home in Owego, watching him practice take offs and landings in a single-engine Cessna in the field beyond. I was too young then to understand my mother’s apprehension, or appreciate the dark cynicism of learning to fly in a field behind a funeral home. To my young heart, the plane swooping in over the trees, dipping to just brush the grass with its wheels then arcing back into the air, was a simple and thrilling experience. I watched, in the scented shade of apple trees, as my father flew like the birds slipping silently overhead.

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A glider has no engine or any means of propelling itself into the air and relies on a tow plane to pull it aloft in a ballet of follow-the-leader at the end of a two-hundred foot tow rope. The glider feels awkward and ungainly as the tow plane begins to pull it down the grass runway. Its wings struggle to generate lift, the pilot grips the stick tightly to keep the tips from dipping and dragging along the ground. The glider’s single landing wheel hops and jostles, transmitting each harsh bump with jolts that shake the entire plane. As the speed builds up, the glider comes into its own; the control stick feels lighter, the wings more responsive until – only part-way down the runway – the glider is flying.

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When I was in college, I lived with my father for a few months in a trailer he rented near Richard’s Funeral Home. He had nearly burned his house down in a drunken stupor and needed a place to stay. The time I lived with him there was the only time I remember him not drinking. His sobriety, born of fire and nurtured by three months in an intensive care unit, seemed incongruous to me. I was glad he wasn’t drinking, but he seemed unsettled and we would often watch television together in an impenetrable silence. Like his sobriety, the trailer was temporary.

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The tow plane is heavier than the glider and requires more speed before it can lift off. The glider floats behind, ten feet off the ground like a kite, pent up, pulling its string taut, waiting to be released. The glider pilot concentrates to keep from climbing higher and lifting the tow plane’s tail, driving its propeller disastrously into the ground. But the glider is stable, and unless the cross-winds are severe, it glides patiently until the tow plane at last springs into the air and begins the sharp ascent to the release altitude.

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I remember watching the evening news once in the trailer with my father and being overtaken by the feeling that something strange was happening just outside the periphery of my vision. If I turned my head suddenly, I thought, I would catch whatever it was. I looked at my father cautiously and was startled to see that he and I were sitting in exactly the same posture – slouched in our respective chairs, right ankle crossed on left knee, chin cradled in left palm, left elbow propped on an armrest. It was striking, like an unexpected reflection in a mirror. I wondered if that meant I was destined to be like him.

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Once released from the tow line, the glider begins to fall at a rate determined by its glide ratio – the horizontal distance it will cover for every foot it falls. A typical training glider has a glide ratio of 22:1, meaning that for every foot it falls, it will glide forward twenty-two. From a tow to three-thousand feet, the glider will glide almost twelve miles. In order to extend the flight, the pilot searches for “thermals,” currents of warm, rising air strong enough to carry the glider upwards. Cultivated fields, empty shopping center parking lots, warmed by the summer sun, are areas where thermals may form. An experienced pilot searches the sky for hawks or eagles, wings outstretched, soaring in slow spirals, buoyed up in the rising shafts of air and points the glider in that direction. By mimicking the soaring birds, a flight can be extended. But only for hours, not forever. One way or another, gravity always wins.

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For the longest time, the word that came to mind when I thought of my father was the empty and aching word regret. Regret is something a son shouldn’t feel towards his father. Regret is toxic to the human soul. It seeps and festers. It’s corrosive.

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Landing a glider is a lesson in the inevitability of gravity. Giving up the pursuit of thermals, the pilot heads towards the airport in a gentle descent, losing altitude while gaining speed in a series of turns describing a mile-wide rectangular pattern around the airport – the landing pattern. Each corner of the pattern is defined by landmarks on the quickly approaching ground: the housing development at the bend in the river at 1000 feet, 50 miles per hour; the waste treatment facility beside the airport at 500 feet, 60 miles per hours; streaking over the end of the runway at 100 feet, 70 miles per hour. The glider arcs down gently in a parabolic curve, the ground reaches up to meet it, the two nestle into each other.

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The regret I felt about my father is mostly gone now. Regret’s a hard thing to live with for long and finds its way out of a body over time. But sitting in the viewing room of Richard’s Funeral Home in 1985 with just my brother and sisters, my wife and a few friends, struggling with an uncomfortable lack of grief for my father – a man who had determined to drink himself slowly to death – I realized that whatever relationship I had with him existed from that point on only in my memory. There would be nothing I could do to change any bit of it. Whatever faults he had, were in the casket with him. Whatever thoughts or hopes I had, whatever angry words I wished to take back, whatever emptiness I felt for moments not realized… There was no longer anything I could do to change any of it.

Somehow knowing that then, and accepting it even now, dulls the regret enough to make it tolerable. But I don’t know if I will ever fly again.

THE END

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7 thoughts on “Powerless Flight

  1. Your story is very beautifully written as always, but truly said. You know, Jim, your youth was so difficult, I wonder how did you survive all of that! How did you manage to find strength in yourself and become such a nice man! You are very very talented, maybe this awful childhood made you a real master of word! Your soul is very fragile and you feel so deep…
    Sometimes when I read your memoirs I feel like I am watching a very difficult film about awful years of American boy’s childhood…

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    1. What a profound comment, Ann. Thank you. There’s nothing that can be done about the childhood any of us had. All we can hope is that we meet people in our lives with whom we can share small bits of our lives and who will help us along the way to becoming better people.

      Liked by 1 person

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