The dark wind blows on everyone sometime.
Right now I need to find a safe, sane place to go inside my head, not to run away from reality but to rest my shocked and whirling mind for a short while. I suddenly remember someone asked me, “What was your favorite day Barnstorming?” And for once the memory comes to my rescue immediately …
The first passenger of the day is always special. I suppose it is the jolt of remembering how a seemingly straightforward, fifteen minute flight in a biplane can summon up such a bevy of emotions. What appears to be a simple gift often has complex ramifications.
This particular morning a fidgety little girl, about three years old, waits in a long line of eager passengers. Occasionally, she deigns to hold on to her mother’s hand. But, what this kid really needs is a leash. She has waited impatiently for almost an hour while the morning fog burns off and the biplanes are gassed-up. She looks a little lost in the crowd. No, not lost exactly, more annoyed to be way below everyone else’s eye line. I can identify.
As if in response to that thought I wiggle a bit to settle myself farther into the tower of mismatched cushions that allow me to see out of the cavernous, four-seat biplane. Inside the Thruxton Jackaroo, affectionately dubbed T.J., I pick up the check list and begin. At last count, this silver and red beauty is one of only three Jackaroo’s left flying in the world. T.J. started out life as a 1937 Tiger Moth, survived active service in WW11, then was converted in the 50’s to a widened, four-seat version.
My partner, Glenn Norman, and I used to own T.J. way back when, but we put everything we had into sponsoring this trans- continental air dash. It was an amazing, life-changing journey which also left us seriously bereft of funds … but that is a story for another time. Suffice to say that when “Tiger Boy” Tom Dietrich, and his then-partner Frank Evans, rescued and rebuilt T.J. to her present glory, Tom had the grace and forethought to ask me to fly her once again. The invitation was hardly out of his mouth before I was leaping into the pilot’s seat. And now, here we are …
Inside the cockpit I push aside a flood of memories and direct my attention to the task at hand. Any thoughts of aircraft value, historical, monetary and/or emotional must take a back seat to clear-cut focus. For me, it pays to take time in pre-flight checks, because once I start barnstorming I get ‘locked in’ and don’t want to stop. It is a real challenge to try and make sure, as one fella loading passengers for me once commented, “Every one of your people comes back smiling.” This is the challenge that has been passed down through the decades since WW1, when barnstorming was a living and a way of life for so many disenfranchised, war-weary pilots. It is part of the job, as I was taught it, by those who were the real deal. I take it very seriously, and the ultimate goal is to let each passenger find the sky the way they dreamed it would be.
A fellow pilot might want a shot at the controls to get the feel of a unique bird. Some folks want to see their home from the sky or perhaps take in the Oz-like cityscape lurking on the horizon. One teenage boy asked me to really “Let ‘er rip!” And on turning greenish after one falling leaf, I sedately returned him to his buddies with bragging rights of surviving fantastical aerobatics. Another young guy on his first flight ever, was shocked enough to blurt out, “Hey there’s birds up here!” Some passengers want technical knowledge, while others get the lyrical aspect of flying and just enjoy the landscape below.
It’s up to me to try and give each passenger the gift of a perfect moment, a special lasting memory … one that perhaps could last a lifetime and can be trundled out of the dusty file cabinets in the brain whenever life gets too difficult to bear. What the heck. Why not set your goals high?
After T.J.’s run-up, I do a check circuit to feel out both sky and plane and make sure all is well. The wind is starting to pick up and it’s a little bumpy coming in over the trees, but otherwise everything is ticking over quite nicely. I taxi to the loading zone to pick up my first passengers.
Immediately my eyes meet those of the wriggly little girl and the apprehensive mom near the front of the line. I’m glad for the challenge. The girl’s glance is intense, inquisitive. I smile. She doesn’t. Whoa, what a tough little thing. I’ve got to fly this one.
I give ‘the nod’ to my pilot-friend Brian. He gets the girl and her mom and loads them into the two seats behind me. The Mom seems terrified now, the kid is not. A curious combination. I go about setting them at ease. There are the usual polite comments “… safer than driving … unique biplane …”and pleasant instructions—this is how to open/close doors/windows/seatbelts, what not to touch—then I stir the stick to show its breadth of movement. I make sure my two passengers are secured and when I notice the Mom is beginning to sweat, I check she is still good to go. The Mom glances at her fidgety daughter who is raring to go then gives me an abrupt nod. Surreptitiously, I check that a “barf bag” is within reach. I’ve never had a passenger sick yet and wouldn’t want to start the day that way.
As we proceed, I explain what is happening and what to expect then T.J. is trundling down the runway and leaping into the sky. Once established on climb-out I turn and glance at my passengers to gauge how they are doing. The Mom smiles bravely.
I look at the little girl, who is finally sitting still. She breaks into this huge grin and gives me a spontaneous ‘thumbs up’! The gesture from such a tiny hand, with such unabashed joy, makes us all laugh out loud in celebration.
We head north out over the lake and are in luck as the Dragon-Boats are practicing their racing techniques. The ornate vessels are all primary colours with flashing oars scooting over the grey-green waves of the man-made lake. I fly straight but not level, kind of sideways, right wings low and out of the way, so the short one in the back can see better. I know this is a moment she will not soon forget, nor will I for that matter. And that is part of the magic.
Back on the ground, I ask around but no one knows where a three-year-old girl learned to give me a ‘thumb’s up.” She must have picked it up on her own, maybe while she was watching us start the planes. Smart kid that one. She’ll go far.
The last passenger of the day.
They bring her to me in a way that looks like a scene from an old Hollywood movie. A Nubian princess hoisted high upon a human sedan chair. The woman is 93 and it takes three men to load her into the cabin of the biplane. Her facial expression remains stoic, despite the obvious pain these machinations cause her limbs. Even though this long, thin body is frail, the mind is unmistakably lucid. This is a woman who must have been formidable in her prime and who now, in her later years, retains her steely gaze and commanding stature.
We speak little. My own body is finally feeling the effects of a long windy day of hopping passengers and the elderly woman seated behind me seems content to be focusing inward, on a world of promises which live only in her mind. I think this one will be a quick, easy flight then back down to wipe T.J. clean of splattered oil and then maybe a treat—a glass of good scotch. Sounds great.
The wind has dropped, so the take-off is a simple transition from the ground to air as smooth as silk. I automatically glance over my right shoulder to check on my passenger just as she leans eagerly toward the canopy to get a clearer view of leaving earth. Something in this slight movement urges me to give this determined woman a longer, more special flight. Tiredness vanishes. That scotch will have to wait.
We head east toward the nearby, winding river. I keep T.J. low and time it so we will be flying towards the sun as it goes down.
Remarkably, the sunset co-operates and bursts into a stunning spectrum of deep yellows and oranges. The ruins of an old mill set on the meandering shoreline below reveals crumbling stones flashing an array of colours. This once-magnificent, felled structure is ancient, yes, but still beautiful- like my passenger. The water beneath us sparkles gold, the play of cloud-shadow, and sun passage over our four wings takes our breath away. I glance at my passenger to see if she gets it, to see if this beauty is having the same effect on her. The woman’s gnarled hands are primly folded in her lap yet her whole body leans, yearns toward the magnificent view. On her face, I find a gentle smile creasing those steely eyes, which seem softer now. Her broken body is finally as free and as beautiful as her vigorous mind. Calmness settles over both of us. Together we know this is a perfect moment and our minds’ eyes are greedy for the slightest detail. Effortless movement, floating above all troubles and pain, it’s an ideal ending for this—the day of all days.
When we land her solicitous friends immediately come for the woman and as they lift her out of the biplane she suddenly grasps my hand and stares meaningfully into my eyes for what seems an eternity.
Then she is gone.
Later, I learn this same woman had made the arduous journey to fly with us the year before but was physically unable. And this year, fearing the worst for her allotted time she decided to arise despite all.
For some reason, I wish I had learned her name.
Then it dawns on me that my first and last passengers of the day have ninety years between them; one existence just beginning, the other soon to end. This is the circle of life, cradled by four wings.
The memory of one of my best days revives me and gives me strength. I will now lift my head to face the so-called “real” world.
I’ve just found out that my nephew, Greg Goodeve, has been murdered.
Murder. Not a word one uses in everyday parlance. A word more suited for bad television and cheap detective novels than reality. Greg, the Gentle Giant of our family, was cut down in his prime by the soft, yet violent hands that once loved him. It is a thought that can barely be grasped.
My hyper-active mind has always been predisposed to randomly replay the worst unbidden moments in life while burying deep the memories of the best of times. It is a distressing fact that I have never been able to control this tendency. But I refuse to let the shocking imaginings of Greg’s last moments be how I remember him and his half-life. Every time my mind throws up those images I will counter with another memory, his young smiling face at the beach, his soft expression while cradling a baby the same size as one of his huge hands, the intelligence of expression while he attends to our conversations … I will be ready.
The shock of his loss will help teach me to choose what memories I recall and when, whether it be the best of days while barnstorming or his smiling face. Greg will now stand for me as “The Bearer of Good Memories” and he will be with me always. Less than he deserves and all that I know how to give.
For each of us who loved Greg, the gifts he proffers on leaving will be different. But it has already been discovered that his real legacy will be to draw closer those he has left behind.
Thanks for the memories, Greg. Merci beaucoup. Meegwetch.
Gregory Joens Goodeve
November 16, 1964 – February 6, 2010
About the Author
Michelle Goodeve is a Co-Founder and the Creative Director of Why Fly. Learn more.
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