Back To First-Flight Tales
Paul and I spent yesterday -- Christmas -- on a mountain in Pennsylvania, congregated around an outcropping of rock known as "The Pulpit". The Pulpit is so named because a crazy man used to perch atop it and preach, screaming his lunatic sermons at the sinners in the town below. I'm told he was a war veteran, his brain overloaded and finally popped by the sight of too many unattached arms and legs.
So maybe it was the trauma of the war, or maybe the preacher was just demented from the start, but my theory is that the fault belongs to the rock itself. Although the preacher has long since vanished, lunatics still gather by the rock. They're called hang glider pilots.
These strange folks strap wings to their bodies, then struggle up a stony path to eventually straddle a ramp that totters on the rock. The ramp has been plastered with signs warning of its danger. The signs say things like pilots and crew only, danger of falling a million feet to your death. But the hang gliders ignore the signs, and march forward, the way a teenage girl follows her tattooed man into the back seat of his car.
Finally (after being held in place by a crew foolish enough to traipse onto the rock with them), the hang gliders sprint a few steps into the wind and then fall into the air, dangling like awkward birds above the cliff. And now Paul -- my demented husband -- is a member of their odd little cult.
Paul and I learned hang gliding through the aerotow method at Ridgely Airport, flying tandem with instructors until our skills were sufficient to solo. I personally thought it was thrilling enough to have my glider and I dragged up half a mile into the sky behind an ultralight, but the minute the airport closed for the winter, Paul was in search of new adventures. He thought that leaping off mountains looked interesting, and decided we needed to learn to foot launch.
Now, I'm not entirely stupid. Wanting to live to see another spring, I protested that we needed to catch up on our work. Paul ignored me and focused his energy on finding a new instructor to hound. Richard Hayes was the victim of choice.
Richard met us at several training hills -- steep enough to learn on, but soft enough to forgive mistakes. After a few weeks patient coaching, Paul and I had both progressed. My quads, clearly unfit, had mutated into painful lumps of meat that howled at me whenever I dared to move. I couldn't jog, much less sprint. Paul, however, had progressed differently. He was signed off to foot launch.
Our vastly more experienced pilot friends, Matthew Graham and Karen Carra, volunteered to "throw Paul off the mountain". Being "thrown off" is the expression hang gliders use to describe helping someone on their first mountain launch (I think "dumping the fool's ass off the cliff" is an even more descriptive term).
I was jealous of Paul and his rating, but that was before I saw The Pulpit. Just looking at the launch site made me feel like I'd gulped an entire box of Ex Lax. The height could make a falcon airsick.
When we first pulled up in our noisy diesel truck, sheltered from the wind and bathed by the sun, the rock didn't seem like such a radical place. However, as we wandered closer to the lip of the mountain, the air tumbled at us, faster and colder every step. By the time we'd crept up the wooden stairs to the ramp, I had goose bumps under my jeans and ski pants. The wind ripped tears from my eyes.
The ramp itself slanted down, pointed at the cliff below. It ended in nothing, a few feet from where it started; a path leading into the sky. A meager two by four had been nailed close to the top, and I planted myself firmly on the uphill side of it. The valley unfolded beneath us, cars as tiny as ants.
I gratefully rubbed my quads. "Boy, I wish I could jump off of this."
"Screw you." Paul shuddered.
After we set up Paul's glider, we learned how to "crew". Just getting the gliders and pilots to the top of the ramp could be challenging. The wings had to be guided around rocks and bushes. And once we reached the ramp, the gliders would try to fly, excited by the wind, wanting to leap before the prescribed time.
The first part of our job was to wrestle with the wires beneath the wings and hold them down until the pilot had recovered his or her breath enough to consider flying. Matt pointed out that I should stand up, though I considered sitting behind the board a safer position. The first one to fly was Marc.
When the wind looked promising, he hoisted his glider to shoulder level. While we had to be ready to grab and hold on if his glider got impatient, at this stage, our duties changed to merely touching the wires and reporting if they were pulling upward or not. Matt had me hold the keel since it wasn't so important.
When the balance seemed right, Marc yelled "clear". I don't know if he quit breathing for a second, but I sure did. The crew dropped the wires like they were electric and Marc ran -- literally -- for his life. But before he reached the end of the ramp, the magic worked. His glider finally got its wish and climbed, graceful as a dancer, once freed from the earth and its chains of gravity.
Brian, Ellis, Mike and Karen all took their turns. They soared up and down the ridge until the sky tired of lifting them, or until their toes and fingers became numb from cold.
I drove the road to the landing zone and back numerous times, collecting pilots, crew, and gliders, whenever I wasn't huddled on the ramp. Ellis listened to the Chipmunks sing Christmas tunes between flights, while her dog Kia moped by a tree. Karen replaced a batten tie on her glider before leaping into space. Marc scarfed a few cookies, and I think Mike did, too. Matthew organized and put off his own flight. The wind had to be right for Paul.
But then the time rolled around, like time always does, and the waiting was over. Matt did a final check to make sure Paul's carabiner was locked and that all his loops and lines were correctly placed. I hobbled down to the truck as fast as my crippled legs would carry me to fetch Paul's sunglasses. I noticed when I handed them to him that he was whiter than the top of his glider.
Then Paul stood on the ramp, a giant condor of a bird, and I was grateful that my eyes were already watering so nobody would know how afraid I was. Paul had his color back, though, and was focused on the horizon. Brian and Matthew felt the wires and described their pull as neutral. Before I could insist the whole thing was a mistake, Paul said "clear", and took off. He trotted instead of galloped, but his glider knew what it needed to do and reached for the sky anyhow.
"That was the wussiest run I ever saw," Matt said.
"He got lucky." Ellis insisted.
But I felt fine. In fact, I felt finer than a cat at a mouse party. I knew Paul could fly and land, thanks to the Ridgely boys -- that is, Chad Elchin and Sunny Venesky, who have endlessly drilled us. By the way, I can't imagine setting up an approach and flying at altitude without the experience they gave both Paul and I. Kind of allows those of us without sheer testosterone flowing through our veins to enjoy and learn the sport.
I relaxed and climbed into the truck to pick up crew for Ellis, so she could fly one more time. Paul was still busy soaring the ridge when I dragged Marc and Mike from their gliders to help her. Ellis was cool enough to take off perfectly again, and also cool enough to let me hold her upwind wire. Now, that girl has balls.
Paul soared for forty minutes before the sky spat him out like a fly in its gullet. When I kissed and congratulated him, I noticed he had torn a hole in the knee of his ski suit. He mumbled about the gradient and that he didn't pull in for enough speed before landing, but he grinned wider than a deer hunter with an eight point buck in view.
I still had a few more quick trips to make, though, to gather flags and f olks, and, more importantly, pour martinis. After we had packed up, indulged in cookies, and tried to ignite our livers with Beefeaters, Paul and I joined the other lunatics to search for a place that might serve us food.
Alas, the only heathens without turkey to eat and wine to sup seemed to be us. Everyone else in the nation seemed to be clustered around their own tables. Tuesdays, Fridays, and all the other restaurants were closed. A few poor saps remained at the Seven Eleven, but somehow, a Christmas "big bite" didn't sound appetizing. So we all drove home to our cans of Campbell's chicken noodle.
But I have to tell you, I'm a pathetic creature. Because I thought this Christmas was pretty great, turkey or not. At least this Christmas I knew my heart was beating, because I could feel it trying to rise through the skin in my chest, and I knew I was breathing, because my lungs hurt, and I knew that I had things I still wanted to go and do, because I was worried about how well I would perform. This Christmas, I felt more alive than a drop of water on an electric line. There are worse things.