© Copyright 2019 by Carol Arvo
It was Saturday at 6:00, a quiet, warm morning with just a hint of a mild breeze. The weather was perfect, but would it be the same 150 miles north of here? I made the call I had been waiting to make all week. The voice at the other end of the line greeted me with, “It’s a go! See you on the field at 10:00.” Yes! Finally, after four weekends of rain or high wind and twenty years of saying, “Someday I’m going to do that,” I was going to have my chance. I was going to experience the freedom of flying without being surrounded by metal and without the security of a motor or propellers. Flight: not as a human, but as a bird.
Oh, no. Fear suddenly struck me. I turned to Ray, my loving, supporting husband and announced, “I can’t do this. What if I get airsick?” He showed no sympathy for me, partly, I’m sure, because I had paid no attention to his warning that I could, possibly, wind up like an oversized cow patty, flattened to the umpth degree by some strange phenomenon known as gravity. He looked at me sideways and mumbled, “Flying around at 2500 feet with no airplane, no motor, and no parachute doesn’t bother you, but you’re afraid of getting airsick. I just don’t understand you.”
It’s true. I hadn’t given any thought at all to the possibility of “falling from the sky, crashing to earth like a meteor, and breaking into millions of tiny little pieces,” as my two daughters had repeatedly suggested might happen. It had never entered my mind until Ray and the girls mentioned it and, even then, I just dismissed it. It wasn’t important enough to keep me on the ground, and neither was the possibility of getting airsick.
We arrived at Hansen Field. Not much of an airport: a patch of worn-down grass where six cars were parked, a large open area of recently mowed grass (the landing strip I presumed), and a blue canopy on one side of the field to give protection from the sun and double as a makeshift office.
We made our way to the “office” and Ray reminded me, “You don’t have to go through with this, you know. We can turn around and go home.”
I answered him with a look that said, “Are you kidding? I’m finally here. I’m not leaving now.”
After all, this wasn’t the ocean with 100 foot cliffs. This was just flat Wisconsin. I must admit, though, that reading the waivers that I had to sign did make my blood move a little faster. In fact, it moved a lot faster when I read the line about no insurance being available because no insurance companies would insure this sport. Ray looked at me and I answered his look with, “It doesn’t matter. I’m going to do it anyway,” and I signed the form.
Yes, I was going to do it, but exactly how would I do it? Ten minutes of instructions answered that question and then, finally, I heard Bob say, “Crawl in here and hold on to the bar.” Bob was my instructor, pilot, just made “best friend” and, at that moment, the person I trusted most in the entire world. He was 35 years old, about 6”2” tall, strong, and very experienced. I did exactly what he told me to do.
I crawled into what looked like a sleeping bag that covered me from my chest to my feet. Now Bob and I were a matched pair, lying next to each other, in our own bag, on a metal contraption that resembled a mechanic’s “creepy crawler” with over-sized wheels, but we were not attached to it in any way. Our bags were attached to the glider by a bar on both sides and in back by cables, poles, and latches which were, in turn, attached to a metal frame with yellow, blue, and green nylon covering it in the shape of a triangular wing that spanned at least 25 feet.
As I lay face down on the ground in my “not-made-for-sleeping” sleeping bag harness with my “trusted,” “best friend” instructor calmly lying next to me in his identical harness, I was excited to the point of feeling spacy. Was this really happening to me? The scene I had been rehearsing in my mind for 20 years was about to start with me in the lead role, center stage.
The sound of the plane revving up about 100 feet in front of us, almost ready to take off with Bob and me attached by a tow rope, made shivers run from the ends of my hair to the tips of my toenails. Bob turned to me with a warm, big brother smile and gave me the thumbs up sign. I had learned in my ten minutes of instructions that if I was ready I was to return the sign. Up went my thumb!
He signaled to the ultralight pilot and, oh so slowly, the rope began to tighten. We started to rumble and bump over the newly mowed grass. I don’t remember what I thought as we picked up speed. Excitement had my brain on hold. I was operating on pure adrenaline. However, I do remember leaving the metal contraption behind and, all of a sudden, I was airborne, snug in my harness, being pulled by a tow rope behind an ultralight airplane.
As we went higher and higher it was a wonderful feeling, but not exactly what I had been expecting. I could hear the ultralight motor and feel the vibrations through the tow rope. “Is this what I’ve been waiting so long for?” I thought to myself, but I didn’t say a word. Bob warned me to expect a jolt very soon. Every ounce of me hung on every word he said. I trusted him to maneuver this combination of metal and nylon safely as I trust God to make tomorrow happen.
Seconds later the vibrations stopped. Bob and I stopped. And my heart stopped. It felt like someone had wedged the revolving door when I was half way through and I slammed right into it. Two seconds later my heart started again when we recovered from the jolt of the tow rope being released. Bob noticed my white knuckles and said, “Don’t worry. We’re fine.” The noise of the motor faded as the ultralight turned and flew out of sight, taking the tow rope with it.
There we were, just Bob and I 2500 feet above the ground, holding on to a thin metal bar attached to a lightweight metal frame covered by yellow, blue, and green nylon which allowed us to float as one with the wind just below the clouds. We were not being pushed or pulled by the wind -- we were the wind. No resistance means no sound, and since there was no airplane or motor, there was no noise; just the exhilarating quiet rarely found in everyday life on the ground. Finally! Finally I truly was a human bird.
I thought of the dreams I had had as a child. Dreams so real that I was convinced I could fly and that I quite often did fly outside my bedroom window from tree to tree, to the ground and back to the trees. How sad I was, as I got older, to realize that my glorious evenings were just dreams. I had never even left my bedroom. Warm summer nights came and went with soft gentle breezes blowing through my window on to my small body, but always the breeze came to me. I never really flew to join the breeze in the treetops. But, oh, how I wanted to.
And now, I had the ability to gently glide, with the help of the steering bar, to the right, the left, up, down and around, able to see the neatly plowed fields of the farms below with various colors of yellow, brown, and green where I presume corn, soybeans, and oats had been planted. The quietness of the sky above the earth was overwhelming. This was better than any dream I had had as a child. This was real. This was the most exhilarating feeling. This was hang-gliding!
Bob could tell that I was enjoying every second of this incredible experience and seemed to feel rather proud that he was part of it. Everything was going as the explanations and instructions given on the ground had indicated. Then, for no apparent reason, he broke our mutual silence and brought me back to the present by asking if I liked roller coasters. Coasters were my favorite ride at Great America. I thought of my anticipation going up the first incline knowing what was waiting at the top when there was nowhere to go but down.
I thought his question was a little strange, but since my new “trusted,” “best friend” was asking, I just answered, “Yes. I love them.” “Me too,” was his answer and without warning, my stomach rose to my throat and took my breath away.
We were free-falling straight to the ground! My new, “trusted,” “best friend” -- I couldn’t even turn to look at him. Fear had me in a headlock. The warnings of my husband and daughters pounded in my ears as if the words were beating a drum right next to my head. The fear I had never thought about was here. The accident I had never considered possible was now about to happen. How could I be so responsible, level-headed, and practical in everything else I’ve done in my whole, entire life and still be so unworried about something as important as dying? Why did I insist on flying like a bird? God hadn’t given me wings. He had given me arms. He meant for me to be on the ground, and now that is exactly where I was headed -- fast.
A scream laced with panic came from somewhere within me as we plunged downward. It surprised me because I had never heard myself scream like that before. Then I caught a glimpse of Ray standing on the ground, looking up at me. Even though he preferred to keep his two feet on the ground, he had never insisted I keep mine there. I thought of how much I loved him for this and was angry with myself for not listening to him when he suggested we could turn around and go home. This time, flying around the treetops would not end happily as it had in my childhood dreams. This time it was real and, for the first time, I was scared.
My clenched hands were numb from the death grip I held on the bar as it began to move; not downward toward the trees and fields as it had four seconds earlier, but upward toward a blue background of sky, swished by a painter’s brush with pink and white. Bob had ended the roller coaster ride as quickly as he had started it.
I felt my heart again and regained enough control of my muscles to turn and look at my “trusted,” “best friend.” His boyish smile said, “Wasn’t that fun?” while his voice said, “Are you o.k.?” While I was thinking, “Are you crazy? Why did you do that?” I found myself answering, “Sure. That was great!” It wasn’t until I was safely on the ground that I believed what I had said. Yes, it truly was great because those four seconds, terrifying as they were, allowed me to feel the greatest, freest, most wildly exhilarating, but also the most frightening and sobering feeling I have ever felt. “Dreaming” cannot compare to “doing.”
Now, when I look upward and see a bird soaring gracefully overhead with the entire sky as its playground, I have a small understanding of what it means to “fly like a bird.” I feel a slight bonding, as if we have something in common. I wasn’t a bird and yet, I could feel the air entirely around me, touching every part of my body at the same time. I could hear the peaceful silence of God’s front yard and I knew, without a doubt, that freedom is as important to birds as it is to humans.
But mostly, when I see a bird soar gracefully overhead, I think about my four terrifying seconds of “hangin’”, like a roller coaster, and am grateful that four seconds was not long enough to free-fall to the ground from 2500 feet. At the same time, though, I can’t help but wonder if it was worth waiting twenty years to discover what the birds just automatically know and feel every day of their lives. After thinking about it over and over my answer always seems to be the same: ABSOLUTELY!
Story list and biography for CarolBook Case