June 11, 1999
13.5 hours

    After take-off, I was climbing out to four thousand feet.  It's becoming a pretty routine thing.  I take-off and set up the climb.  (It's 70 mph in this airplane, and this stuff is carved in stone: it's known as "Vy" in the book, or "Best Rate Of Climb", in plain English.  One fine day, an FAA flight examiner is going to make me hit it within a very picky few miles per hour.)  Anyway, these days, as I'm climbing out, Terri sits in the back seat and files her nails because it's so routine.

        I had the climb going up through calm air, at about 750 feet per minute.  Everything was working just as it should, and I was able to look around at a beautiful sunshiny day, all the way down to the big round gray hump of Stone Mountain about 15 miles to the south.  I had the left window open, and my arm resting on the sill exactly as if I was driving down the freeway.  The hum of the engine was gently throbbing in the grip of the stick in my right hand, and I could feel without looking that my pitch (the nose-up angle) was just right for the climb.

    It was so easy that it wasn't exciting, but yet some of the most fun I've ever had.  The whole idea of sitting in a narrow little steel-tube cage covered with fabric and thrown through space in such a way, struck me with ticklish glee at the audacity of it.  I almost laughed out loud, and then looked around again: a brief instrument scan, and then the little cloud floating past the window on the left; constant moving and boiling transparently within itself; and then past that to the layer of cloud reaching out to the horizon and, above which, a blue so brightly friendly and inviting that the Citabria almost seemed to be conspiring with it to come and play, quickly, because every minute of this is so rare and not to be missed.

    It was perfect.  There was nowhere special to go, because I was already there.  Just to fly: that's all.  Just to be there where I could point the airplane gently with almost nothing more than a thought, or fiercely with a yank on the stick and twice, or more, the force of gravity in building my very own roller coaster in real-time wherever I wanted it and for as long as I wanted.

    "I love this," I said, aloud, and with a tempo and emphasis that's unmistakably solemn when I hear it on the tape.  "I just love this."

    Terri asked, "Isn't it great?"

    It felt that she'd interrupted me with something mundane; that she didn't really get it.

    "It's becoming my church, Terri."

    That shocked her a bit.  "Oh, don't say that."

    "I'm tellin' ya," I emphasized.  "I'm not a religious man.  I'm not."

    "I can tell," she said with a laugh that seemed a tad nervous.  "That's very obvious in your last statement."

    "Well, yeah... well, that was kinda personal, wasn't it?  But this is... really something special."

    We're getting to know each other more closely, in ways inevitable to such a process of working together, but it's also something unique among people who fly.  This connection can be described in all kinds of ways, but it helps to understand that, today in America, a tad more than one-tenth of one percent of us go look at the world from up there, while everybody else sneaks an occasional envious look at the birds, sighs, and drives down the freeway with their arm out in the wind.  To fly is a really uncommon thing, and things that uncommon have a way of bonding people through those raw wounds torn in their souls by such experience.  That's where they touch.  Terri is helping me to tear my soul open: she's fully exposed, and seemingly casual about it, as any teacher might be most of the time, but I don't know if she's yet grasped what she has on her hands, with me.

    She happened to be there and listening when I bled a little: "This is becoming my church."  It caught her by surprise, I think - to realize that she's flying with a heathen atheist - and it had never occurred to me to wonder, before bleeding, whether I was in the company of a devout believer.

    She picked up the personal aspect of it, though, and said that she sometimes wonders what she would ever do with her life if she couldn't fly airplanes anymore.  We kicked that grim prospect around a bit, and agreed that it would be necessary to fly with someone else in that case.  Just to see the world from up there.

    We flew quietly, climbing, with the cold blue air blowing in through the open window.

    Pretty soon, we hit four thousand feet, and it was time to go to work.

    You probably don't want to hear all that stuff - holding a heading with rudder when the ailerons quit working because there's no airflow over the wing as the airplane is falling through the stall - but, right now, that's what's involved in making my way into the church.  It's really the only door, and I have to pay attention to what it takes to open it.


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