Our moment in the sun

We are sitting at Denny’s, Joy and I, taking her grandfather out for breakfast a couple of days after Christmas.  An odd thing happens when I pick up the menu.  This faintly sullen room in a largely forlorn city falls away and I am drawn into a different place.  On the cover of the menu there is a picture of a young couple dining in a booth very similar to our own, but also very different.  Perhaps it is only the photography and lighting, but rays of warmth seem to shoot out of the scene.  The woman in the picture, in particular, is radiant.  Her golden hair emits light, her eyes sparkle and her mouth is open, breathing in the world, breathing out warm sweetness.  There is no trace of pride in her smile, nor reservation.  Her face is a gentle spring sun and there is not a cloud in the sky.

Hank sits across from me.  As I lower the menu, ruminating, his face is the next thing I see.  He settles his teeth, sighs faintly, wears an expression of grim resignation.  Hank is a veteran of WWII, a man of great strength and honor, yet there are many clouds in his sky.  Time has done to him what the Great Depression and the Japanese army and years in the steel mills of Buffalo could not.  He shuffles across the room, gripping the cursed walker without which he can no longer stand; shuffles past faded pictures of his once-young wife, past stacks of CD’s and LP’s of once-popular musicians, past all manner of things which, at times, can raise a memory of the good that is gone.

He is a quiet man.  Probably, there were years or days or even a moment in his walk through this hard world in which the skies cleared, in which he smiled and his eyes sparkled and his hair gleamed in the sunlight, but they are an old memory now that he keeps to himself.  He settles his teeth, blinks in grim resignation, grips the walker and shuffles to his chair.  When it is time to go I touch his arm, say goodbye.  He looks at me and drops, for a moment, his faraway look, and says, “So long”.  Yes, I think; it sure is.

My youngest daughter was sifting through old photos the other day and pulled one out.  I am in it, sitting on the Borisch’s porch some twenty years ago, hair still dark, arms around (what were then) my two little girls.  Emily appeases the photographer with her normal composed and slightly ironic smile.  Annie, impossibly skinny and a world younger in spirit, is not so much smiling as baring her teeth in selfless, defiant abandon.  I love this old picture for the same reason that she does not; it is a moment saved from the wreck of time, a moment before the need for vanity or dignity had occurred to her, a moment in which joy seemed solid and permanent, not the fragile and teetering thing we have found it to be.

It is for this reason that a Christmas tree stands in my living room, even now as we approach the middle of January.  Early every morning, I stumble across the dark room and plug it in, then sit for a while, watching.   What is it that I watch?  Not a memory of something good that is gone, but the defiant gleam of a small light in a dark world.

I hope you don’t mind my saying that this world is dark.  Its every beauty is, at some level, heartbreaking because we  know that it will not endure; every wedding is the preface to two funerals.  Though God has set eternity in our hearts, our other parts will soon enough return to dust.  This is not a dark way of looking at the world; this is the world, however we choose to look at it.

And so, Christmas;  not just the holiday but the holy fact that Christ did come and will come; that every real joy we meet here is a gift from him, that every evil done here will receive his eternal veto.   If I were a braver or wiser man, I think that I would smile as Annie smiled that day, in selfless, defiant abandon, for it is darkness that shall pass, or that is what the Christmas lights seem to whisper to me.

In the Pawnee at Gaylord

An angry spirit inhabits this place.  It slaps and jars my little ship with contempt.  I am accustomed to turbulence, but this is something different.  It has personality.  The gusts and eddies of its breath do not just shove the airplane around, they strike it with sharp jabs from all directions, like a circling boxer.  My head, encumbered by the crash helmet, bobbles atop my shoulders, sometimes raps against the side windows.  I am in a boxing match, but I cannot raise my guard and I cannot fight back.

I have a strained relationship with the Pawnee.  Over the field it is a stable platform and it turns well.  Farmers say that its spray coverage is better than the bigger machines and the owner loves its lower operating cost and ability to get into obstructed fields.  But it has annoying traits which include a small hopper and relatively slow airspeed, leading to endless ferrying, and an abysmal roll rate.  The angry spirit probes, sees an opportunity, and sets its lips into a grim smirk.

The field is beautiful from a spray pilot’s point of view.  One hundred fifty acres with no wires within its boundaries, only a large, self-propelled irrigation line to dodge while spraying.  On the east, a powerline runs along a road, perpendicular to my path.  On the west and north, tall trees bound the field then follow terrain which falls steeply away. The wind, as usual here, is from the north.  It comes roiling up and over the hill then spills sharply over the tree line into the field.

The little Pawnee bobs gently over the crop, climbs briefly to clear the irrigation pivot, then settles again over the field.  She is full of fuel and full of material and flies a little like a bathtub in the hot, humid air.  As the west tree line fills my windscreen I pull and, for a sickening half-second, feel the airplane mush in the approaching downdraft but it soon recovers, scrabbles out of the hole and labors over the treetops.  I have spent most of my zoom and the airplane wallows.  I widen and make shallow my turn.  It is impossible to hold a constant bank angle; gusts shove the wings one way and then another and I correct, over and again, the stick waving back and forth as I fight the lee wind for command of the ship.

The Pawnee has a small windscreen; I see only the tossing heads of trees below as I turn back toward the estimated location of my next swath.  Bouncing along, I restore the bank angle yet again and am hit hard by a stronger gust as I pass through a heading of south-west.  My upwind wing is struck by wind racing over the hill and lifted high, increasing my bank to perhaps 75 degrees.  My left hand jabs the throttle forward, my right hand buries the stick against the right stop but the Pawnee’s little ailerons are a poor match for the lifting force on my right wing and, even with full control deflection, my bank continues to increase as I begin to descend toward the trees. 

At bank angles much over 60 degrees increasing the elevator only increases the centripetal force, committing available lift to accelerate the turn – a bad idea in this situation.  Top rudder could be used to raise the nose but at my airspeed the resulting lack of coordination would soon produce a spin.  The only way to escape the limbs now growing large the windscreen, is to gently move the stick forward while holding full opposite aileron, remaining below the wing’s critical angle of attack while fighting my way back to a level attitude.

The gust, of course, subsided and the whole episode, which I have perhaps inflated to an epic, lasted only a few seconds but I can still see that dark green hole in the forest into which I was quickly and helplessly turning.  Perhaps I was terrified, I just remember being mad.  I cursed the little airplane and increased my margins.  I grumbled through turn after ragged turn over the wind-swept hilltop. The angry spirit smiled. 

During the first load, turns on the east side of the field were smooth by comparison and flight over the field itself uneventful but during the second load the wind began to increase. 

I find it a beautiful and natural thing that an airplane should leave the earth and fly about the sky.  I find it much less desirable that a pilot should leave his seat and fly about the cabin.  Still, as the wind began to accelerate and its waves to solidify, the west tree line had become punishing.  Though my seat belt and shoulder harness were fastened, they were clearly not tight enough.

Turning back into field, I cross the treeline and lower the nose.  Suddenly I am flung from my seat, my shoulders straining against the harness.  A flying bottle of Gatorade whacks my arm; Windex and paper-towels are cascading from the shelf behind my head to my lap and then to the floor.  The ground is coming up fast, but it is difficult to work the stick as my body bounces back to the seat.  I compose myself as best I can during the spray pass and make a wide turn at the other end, taking time to clean house and tighten each harness strap until it presses into my skin. 

So far, I am having no fun, but the work is getting done.  The wind over the field is about 12 miles per hour with minimal gusts.  It is bumpy here, always bumpy.  You could wait a week for calm conditions.  If you can put your spray on the crops accurately without drift and without hurting your equipment, you spray.

But today, the spirit is a little angrier than usual.  Wind over flat terrain, usually, is not a complex foe.  It may come hard and vary in speed, but it is somewhat consistent and, thus, may be compensated for.  And so, even though pounded while over the trees, I was and expected to be in a stable environment over the field.  Crabbing, perhaps, to stay on swath, and using elevator gently to maintain position, but the ailerons are generally still.  This is necessary in any case because the wings and spray booms are near the ground.  Lift one wing and the other drops, very possibly into the crop, bringing a sudden and climatic end to spraying activities.  And so, I was rattled when, while spraying over the middle of the field, a gust hit and one wing dropped almost thirty degrees.  I did not strike but I easily could have.  I finished the load at 8 feet and headed back to park the airplane. 

This, too, at Gaylord is easier said than done.  Over several weeks I concluded that a more suitable name for the little runway we use is ‘the Devil’s Driveway’.  It is plenty long at over 4,000 feet but not much wider than the Pawnee’s wings, the asphalt is rated ‘poor’ and a 20-foot slope appears about one third of the way from the west end.  You may ask, as I have asked, why the runway was laid east to west when the wind is almost always whistling from the north.  You might marvel at the swirling effects created by the broken tree line along the upwind side of the runway.  You might conclude, as I have concluded, that the real purpose of this facility is weed out incompetent crop-dusters.  It has certainly exposed me.

I noted the other day that the Pawnee’s right main shows a bit more wear than the left and I know why.  Most take-offs and landings here are performed on that wheel, the airplane’s nose hunting up and down to maintain the desired angle of attack from one swirling parcel of air to the next.  I have made both horrible and wonderful landings here and, from a non-pilot’s point of view, they probably looked a lot alike.

After one very busy but soft and short upwind-wheel landing I cut power and rolled for about twenty feet then suddenly found myself ten feet above the runway with, of course, very little airspeed.  I jammed in power and fought my way back to the surface and centerline for another soft one-wheel touch-down and thought to myself “That may be the best landing I have ever made and my loader is probably thinking ‘What an idiot!’”. 

Then again, several of my landings on that driveway were the work of an idiot.  Once, after a wind shear-accelerated full-stall landing I bounced into space and, while in this vulnerable state, weathervaned into the stiff crosswind and returned to earth headed directly into a runway light.  I did what little I could with the left brake and braced for the sickening sound of the spray boom being ripped from the wing.  Somehow, I missed the light.  I cannot tell you how, except to say that God often has mercy on this fool.  I tried to taxi in a nonchalant manner as I twirled around in the grass and rolled back to the loading rig. 

That is the last time I attempted a three-point landing on a hard surface in a crosswind with the Pawnee.  Between the springy bungees that support the gear, the big bouncy tires, the low wing-loading while empty and its little ailerons, this airplane seems – in my hands – like a bounce waiting to happen.


It is a family photo, much like any other.  Sabrina, a cute six-year-old, looks back from the center of the image, held securely in the arms of her smiling parents.  Big brother, standing slightly aloof, wears a serious expression befitting the dignity of late adolescence.  The brilliant afternoon sun gleams in their hair and divides the scene into sparkling highlight and dark shadow.
It is a typical family photo, except the family is standing in front of an airplane, preparing for a long ride home.  The smiles, on second glance, appear a bit worn.  And Sabrina is curiously limp; her arm hangs straight down and her father’s hand cradles her chin, his fingers gently directing her face toward the camera.  It is not that she will not look there, but that she cannot.
Sabrina is losing control.  It began three years ago with a steadily increasing clumsiness.  Three-year-olds are not noted for grace, so it was easy to hope that this would pass in time.  A year later, she began to stutter.  Not long after, her arms began to move in strange, repetitive patterns and Sabrina could not make them stop.  There were many doctor visits but no solution and, over the next few months, Sabrina gradually lost the ability to walk and, now, the ability to talk.
The answer came about four weeks ago; Sabrina has Tay Sachs, a rare disease that slowly and relentlessly disables the nervous system, isolating body from soul.  Sabrina is alert and passionate, but her body is a car without a steering wheel; it goes where it will and she is along for the ride.
This week, the family has been at a research hospital in Minneapolis conferring with doctors who study the disease.  They offer little hope; current treatments are painful and ineffective.  Dan and Ensenia decide to spare Sabrina that trauma; to surround her with love, to do for her what she can no longer do for herself, to pray that her little body is not coasting to a stop.
We load up and depart the small airport at St. Paul, swaying in our seats on this warm and gusty afternoon.  When we have settled into a climb over southern Minnesota I ask Dan a few questions.  As he answers, I unwrap the chocolate bar I had just secured from the FBO’s vending machine.  It has been a busy day and, nutritious or not, it looks good.  I break off a piece and offer the rest to Dan.  He declines, telling me that he loves sweets but does not eat them anymore.  When Sabrina became ill he vowed to abstain until she got better.  He does not say this for effect, does not say it to reduce my enjoyment, but the candy bar goes back into the wrapper.  I savor, quietly, the bite I had already taken, savor the knowledge that my three beautiful daughters are well, settle into the awareness that Dan gracefully shoulders a load of loss and worry and sorrow that might crush me.
I remember the moment of looking for them as I walked into the FBO.  They were not hard to spot; it was a small lobby with but one family inside.  A tired family far from home and far from well, but Ensenia’s smile turned on like a beacon turns on, registering recognition and filling the room with its light.  There is much darkness pressing in around this family, but there seems to be something stronger pressing out, a light that overwhelms the darkness.
As we drone along, I look back occasionally.  Ensenia holds Sabrina close, nestled as any young child would into her mother’s lap, and smiles to indicate that they are ok.  In the back, young Adam reads.  He wants to be a physician, Dan says.  Even now, Adam plays an active role in Sabrina’s care and in consultations with the doctors.  He reads their reports and understands much of their discussions and helps Mom and Dad process their recommendations.
I am struck by the irony here: the disease attacks Sabrina’s connection to the world around her, but inadvertently strengthens it.  This family is not just managing the disability of one member; it is reconfiguring itself to remain complete.  Sabrina cannot protect herself, so Dan works and prioritizes and sacrifices to somehow provide the shelter she needs.  Sabrina cannot understand her illness, so Adam lays aside some of his youth and applies his strong young mind to learn how medicine can help.  Sabrina cannot care for her own body, but Ensenia can see in her eyes and hear in her voice enough to understand and meet the need.  Disease has silenced Sabrina’s speech and has stilled her hands and her feet, and so her family has become her voice and hands and feet.  The attack tries to make Sabrina a prisoner, but her family’s love makes her a queen.  What disease has stolen, love has replaced. 
True, to replace is not the same as to restore, and help is provided at great expense.  Sabrina remains disabled and, often, frustrated.  Dan, Ensenia and Adam are not free to do what they might otherwise have done, unencumbered with Sabrina’s care.  But I don’t think they see it in those terms.  Dan speaks of God’s plan for them, even now, as if love’s counter-attack can succeed, as if Sabrina’s story is not, in the final telling, a tragedy after all.  As if, in their serving and sacrifice, the members of Sabrina’s family are not diminished, but rather clarified and made complete and Sabrina, though separated from her own body, is set free from our common fear of being left alone. 
Sabrina’s life is sharply divided between the dark shadow of her terrible disease and the brightness of her family’s love and faith.  She cannot tell me how she feels, but I look back to see her nestled in her mothers’ arms, at peace.
In him was life, and that life was the light of men.
The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.
John 1:5