Those Times When We Are Truly Alive

Standard

I’ve never been a huge thrill seeker. I’m too aware of gravity’s power to take my chances with heights and think drowning in the ocean would be a stupid way to die for someone who had no business being in that nasty salt water to begin with. I mean, I understand, there are risks worth taking in construction or in travel, but there is no need to play games with a terrifying trip to my final destination. Besides, I’m in awe of enough things of substance (science, history, architecture, etc) to have no need to chase after cheap excitement at the cliff’s edge.

Although that is not entirely true, there is one vast exception to my normal cautious streak, that being when I’m behind the wheel of any machine and know it well enough to be confident. From my youth until this very day, there is no better feeling than that dance, on the edge of control, where senses heighten, time slows and instincts take over. For those who have seen my more inspired moments, I’m legendary, or Biblical as in 2 Kings 9:20, “The driving is like that of Jehu son of Nimshi—he drives like a maniac.” And, whether talented or just plain lucky, I’ve pushed vehicles to their outer limits and came out of the teeth of death alive.

One of those glorious moments was a cannonball run out of the mountains. My church youth leader, now a conservative Mennonite deacon, was an equally furious driver, had a slightly more capable car, and was right behind me. My own car, a Ford Tempo, was made for a pedestrian existence (brakes that would fade after a couple hard stops, lots of body roll, and underpowered) was vastly outmatched by the Pontiac Sunbird GT Turbo in my rearview mirror, and overloaded with the weekend’s gear and at least one slightly terrified passenger.

The game? Keep the bowtie derivative behind me through the twists and turns of these narrow poorly maintained roads. A sane person would tread very carefully on these unfamiliar cow paths, some with loose gravel, and especially driving a vehicle built with no purpose in mind besides being cheap basic transportation, certainly not made for excitement nor even to be especially reliable. Fortunately, I had two things going for me: 1) It was all downhill, some portions quite steep and 2) my teenage adrenaline.

The strategy was simple. Conserve brakes, slide the turns, stay in the lane when visibility was poor and take the inside track when available. Oh, and no trips over the edge into the ravines, trees, and rocks below, that would probably be a big ouch and possibly paralysis and permanent disability or death I was young and stupid, but still understood that one bad move could lead to permanent consequences. However, pride, a competitive spirit, and that dopamine reward awaiting me at the end meant embracing the challenge.

So, off we went, testosterone overriding our developing frontal lobes, my senses sharpened, awareness heightened and was as completely alive as one could possibly be.

I wound up that 2.3 liter, the poorly conceived four banger it was, with two valves per cylinder, breathing out the same side as the fresh air came in, probably designed by the bean counters in Dearborn, and more suitable for a boat anchor than any vehicle of the era performance or otherwise. The suspension and braking matched, it had drums in the back that were probably near useless and nearly the body roll of an Oldsmobile station wagon from the 1970s. Still, it would have to do, it was my cherished first car and all I could afford at the time.

The first turns were soon behind me in a cloud of dust. The speedometer, as I recall, only went up to 85 or 95 mph, and I had it pegged. As I tested the outer limits of this habitually understeering, bathtub on wheels, of a sedan, my companion, Alex, the son of Russian speaking immigrants, sat wide-eyed and held on to whatever he could grab—perhaps the only security that he could find at the moment or maybe a desperate bid to keep the car from coming apart? I’m pretty sure he was praying, repenting of his sins and asking for God’s mercy to be upon him.

My brakes were basically mush after the first couple hard stops, so balancing current and future needs became a priority, but the fact that the pesky Sunfire was still behind me ensured that my grin remained wide. I was maintaining just enough momentum to keep him from chancing a pass on the few straights. That and my dedication level, as someone young, single, the clear underdog and oftentimes frustrated, might have given me the slight edge.

The unannounced race ended as we swung onto the interstate onramp. My car, clearly outmatched, would easily outrun on the highway and, besides that, the State Troopers were sure to be out there lurking. I had my fill of exhilaration, man and machine had passed the test, the sun shone more brightly in the sky and it was, indeed, a great day to be alive!

Postscript: Say what you will, I can’t say this was not foolish, but all human progress depends on this love of novelty and risk-taking spirit. Had some idiot not experimented with keys, a kite, and a lightning storm, you would not be reading this blog on an electronic device. Certainly, we should try to temper these urges and try to direct them to more useful outlets, but we should never stifle the youthful in their pushing the boundaries of experience. Yes, to make civilization possible, we may also need to subdue our most aggressive impulses, still, all creativity, advancement, and pleasure depend on engaging in a bit of risky behavior. It is those glorious moments, riding that line between control and chaos when we are most truly alive.

A Shameless Arrival — Mission Accomplished!

Standard

I arrived at Lock Haven’s Piper William T. Piper Memorial Airport at precisely 9:59 a.m.  The plan was to meet at 10:00 and fly to the Ponderosa cabin north of the airport.

I parked my little Ford next to a handsome Porsche.  I stepped out of the car, a twelve year old again, and full of anticipation as I took in my surroundings.  I scanned the tarmac through the security fence for the Cessna 150 or my brother.  I could not identify machine or man, so I headed to the office adjacent to the parking lot.

Inside I struck up a conversation with the natives.  They had not seen my brother, but they did share my enthusiasm for flying and soon I found out the man I was speaking to was an instructor.  I got the full sales pitch for flight lessons from an instructor.  I probably could’ve been signed up on the spot.

“Lock Haven traffic, Cessna 11479 is 4 to the north, inbound for landing 27 right. Full stop landing. Lock Haven.”

The words over the radio sounded.  “That’s your brother?”  I quickly opened the email that told me what Cessna I was to expect and indeed, it was!  I quickly stepped outside looking and listening for that distinct buzz of a boxer-type engine. 

It took a minute or two until I spotted the small aircraft on approach.  He came in over the trees and levee as I cringed as if trying to help him fly, but he nailed the landing with a chirp of the tires and was soon taxing towards me. 

image

I suppose I am allowed some brotherly pride, right?   

The Cessna 150L was remarkably small inside, only two seats, and was a bit hot without air movement, but was comfortable enough.  I put my headset on as Kyle switched on the intercom and yelled “clear prop” as a precaution before turning the engine over…

image

Life!  The four cylinders sputtered to a relatively smooth idle…  

image

We continued through the pre-flight rituals designed to identify those things that could end a sunny day with a violent death and before long we were looking down the length of the runway with the intent to defy gravity. 

The engine revved, the brakes released and we were rolling.  The little Cessna still had what it took!

Soon the ground slipped away and the town of Lock Haven turned into the world’s most wonderfully detailed model train set.  We gained altitude, then turned north towards the sea of trees and swells of mountains north of the town below.  We flew over a baseball game between people who looked like flees.  We passed a gas drilling rig in the wilderness…

image

It didn’t take long before we spotted the small airstrip cut out of the trees.

We were later than the initial plan.  But as we swooped in for a high speed pass we could see the crowd of spectators gathered.  Our siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, parents and grandparents wanted to witness this historical event and also to prevent anyone from crossing the driveway that bisected the small strip while we were on approach. 

image

We circled around for a practice run and were too high.  Kyle corrected for the final approach.  The runway sloped upward at a slightly awkward angle and I made sure my brother was aware of that tall tree nearly blocking the trajectory we were on. 

Kyle wagged the wings ever so slightly to avoid the obstruction as we dropped through the trees and set down on terra firma again.  We survived!  No violent death or unexpected drama either…

image

(Click here for a video of our departure and other pictures.)

On a Greyhound bus to Compton…

Standard

Some of the best times are those adventures most unplanned. Like the time—fresh out of high school—I was a last minute stowaway on trip that took me across the country and to the west coast.

A friend was to be married in Arizona.  He, with the groomsmen, decided to borrow a small motorhome to make the trek together and I was invited to tag along.  It was pretty much a bachelor party on wheels and a great adventure.

We started in Pennsylvania and drove in shifts.  We probably weren’t more than a hundred miles down the road before we blew a radiator hose.  The motorhome was a relic, an old Ford Econoline with a thirsty V8 gasser, clunky automatic transmission and a not so high gear ratio. 
image

Still, as I recall, the old beast would do eighty miles an hour.  We were on one of those long flat stretches of the Midwest when I took the helm.  I was trying to make time holding er flat.  Well, I must’ve been pushing a bit too hard on the accelerator, because eventually when I went for the exit and the thing would not slow down as expected.  As it turns out, the gas pedal was stuck to the floor and luckily we figured it out without any major mishap.  But, I think that might be the last time they let me drive.

We arrived in Arizona with plenty of time to spare before the nuptials, so the idea was that us easterners would get a look at the Pacific ocean while we were that far along.  The initial plan was to go to San Diego and then swing north up the coast to Los Angeles where a school friend of mine had relocated.  However, fearful for their lives, that plan was vetoed somewhere along the way and I still wanted to visit my friend in LA.

What ended up as the solution was me being dropped off at a Greyhound station.

image

I rode the bus into Compton. 

Everything I knew of that city was derived from Dr Dre, Snoop Dogg, Tupac and California Love.  That wasn’t of much comfort to a relatively sheltered teenager from rural PA.  But, I managed not to get mugged, stabbed or shot, and was soon cruising with my friend in his Mitsubishi Eclipse. 

It was fun, just hanging out, enjoying the sights and the sun.  I stayed overnight.  Then was on the bus again, this time to Arizona and to be reunited with the rest of the group.

After a Phoenix Suns game, a trip to the Grand Canyon and the wedding that was the purpose of the trip, we were back on the road headed east in a slightly more smelly van camper. 

The miles went fast, yet the trip was one of those cool experiences not soon forgotten and I have not been on a Grayhound bus since.