From the Desert


IMG_1582From my perch atop the Hanger Cafe, I overhear the passionate talk of pilots below, passing the time before having breakfast. “Man, all I do,” says one animated forty-ish man, his voice rising like that of an excited child, “is watch YouTube videos of takeoffs and landings.” Another is recounting stories of flying his plane back and forth to California. And the woman sitting near me on the observation deck, cradling a baby, is talking about her plane. This goes on for some time. I look out at the runway, take in the line of planes and hangers to my right. Should I join the conversation, mention that Beach Boy Brian Wilson once wrote a quirky song about an airplane? Probably not.

My wife is a passenger in a Super Cub single-engine plane piloted by my son. “Watch for us,” she texts. “Just getting ready to do a touch and go. Landing now.” The white and red vintage high-wing slides in, touches the runway, and soars upward, the propeller buzzing happily. If I had binoculars, I suspect I would see my son’s slight smile and determined gaze in the cockpit window, like an ancient Kaboutermanneke,* warding off evil. . . well, the troubles of the day, anyway. Flying is his respite and refuge, an antidote for the faux-urgency that life can pretend to have. I suspect many pilots would concur.

Oops. They’re back, the plane taxiing slowly into the line reserved for it, next to an open cockpit Great Lakes. My turn. I descend the stairs and walk across the tarmac.

Entering the back seat of a Super Cub is not the most graceful of maneuvers. You put your foot here but not there, contort your body as you hoist yourself in, then attempt to untangle yourself, assuming you’ve managed to avoid sitting on the stick which protrudes from the floor of the cabin and has such range of movement that it requires you to sit bow legged, as if astride a horse. Thankfully the wing hid me from the other patrons of the cafe. I made it without injury, intact.

The plane I am sitting in has some age, as Piper Aircraft stopped manufacturing the Super Cub in 1994. It started making them in 1949. The plane is prized for its ability to take off and land on short runways and laughs a sputtering laugh (my word) at dirt. It’s a bush plane, a former working plane - trainer, crop duster, border patroller, and military liaison aircraft - now the beloved province of plane aficionados, prized for their nostalgic value but also for their utility as recreational back country transport, enabling you to fly into remote places, pitch a tent, watch the stars in a dark sky, and consider as you lay in your tent the paper-thin fabric separating you from mountain lions. It’s a plane for adventure. And as my son says calmly, “If you lose an engine on this plane out here in the desert, you can land anywhere. You’re basically idling when you land anyway.” It’s a thought both comforting and disturbing at the same time. A grand adventure.

“You doing OK back there, Dad?”

“I’m doing great.” I watch the landscape spread below us, the subdivisions, golf course greens, lagoons, canals, and highways of greater Phoenix; the oddly circular-green irrigated fields; and all around the seemingly desolate desert sands and jagged mountains pressed up against a cerulean sky. I think about the hike my wife and I had near Oracle a few days ago, south of the mountains to my left, where we caught a glimpse of a coyote near a waterhole stalked by what we think was a bobcat, reminding us that the desert is alive with life, albeit mostly nocturnal. I remember the copper mines of Hayden and Kearney, the miners’ houses perched on the hills that we passed en route from Tucson to Phoenix. I remember the wonderful hot dog I had at the Circle K in Monmouth, the best the town could offer, what some might have disdained but which I accepted gratefully.

“They don’t make it easy, do they?” said the weathered man next to me applying condiments to twin and bunless wieners.

“They sure don’t,” I said. I settled for mustard and the catsup my wife suggested. In the car, I ate it quickly, watching the crinkled desert-dwellers entering and exiting the store.

Leaving my reverie, I say to my son, “Can you see Picacho Peak from here?” We look left, Southwest, scanning the horizon for the mountain’s singular peak.

“Not today. Too hazy.” He paused and offered, “Do you want to fly some?”

I look out the window, considering. “I guess so,” I say tentatively. Is he really suggesting that his daydreaming, distracted father take the stick?

“Just put your thumb and one finger on it. I’ll have my hand on it.” I’m behind him, tandem, slightly anxious.

Writing is all about experience, I recall, so I take the wheel, so to speak, for the sake of art. I found the responsiveness of the Super Cub both exhilarating and frightening. I move the stick only slightly away from me, and the plane dips noticeably; I move it slightly to the left, and we bank left; to the right, and we bank right. Hair-trigger, I think. One impulsive, jerky, ill-considered move, I reflect, and. . .

“You can take it now.” The human-plane connection, the immediacy of it, was unsettling, and yet it gave me a sense of how this plane was the real thing, about why pilots must love its tactility, the sense that it is a mere extension of your body.

He banks right, turns the plane for Chandler. The airport in sight, he radios the tower, using his radio voice - an assured, professional, pilot voice that rolls off his tongue. We circle, are cleared for landing, and touch down lightly, taxiing back to our place near the Hangar Cafe. Lunch awaits.

Exiting the Cub is no easier than entering it. I attempted to reverse the steps I took to enter the plane. Advice was offered, but my exit was already in progress.

“Well, I wouldn’t have done it that way, but it worked,” said my son, as my feet reached the tarmac.

On the ground again, I righted myself. Klunk. I hit my head on the wing. They are laughing at me. Surprisingly, it didn’t hurt. The plane is “rag and tube,” that is, fabric stretched over a steel frame, so the wing is relatively lightweight, and soft. My head is harder. They are still laughing at me, my head-banging preserved on video. They replay it, waiting for the klunk.

The point of it all? Nothing, really, and yet everything. We were together, the three of us. I rode in a plane over the desert. I remembered days with my wife in this landscape of life. I flew, barely. I listened to my son talk about all manner of things with passion that is contagious. We talked over lunch with a view of planes and mountains. We spent our days together. We laughed. We prayed. In the twilight of our vacation, we redeemed our time, eking out the minutes, wasting time extravagantly with each other, lavishly if imperfectly, a tiny reflection of a Greater Love, basking in our slight but sure moon-glory.

* Right. I did not know what a Kaboutermanneke was either but ran across it when searching for the name of the decorative figurehead on the bow of a some ships. It is of German origin, referring to a spirit that wards off evil.