“Lincoln tower, Bonanza 473 Alpha Bravo, ready to go,” I said into the mic. It was one of those rare fall days when an airplane responds as if it were simply an extension of your body and mind. I couldn’t wait to line up with the runway and push the throttle forward.
The speaker above my ear crackled alive. “Four Seven Three Alpha Bravo, stand by for traffic.”
That’s airplane talk for “Look out, there’s a plane coming in on this runway. I’ll tell you when it’s safe to go.”
“Alpha Bravo standing by,” I replied. I surveyed the southern sky, the direction from which the inbound aircraft would approach. A dark spot just above the horizon appeared to hang motionless against the crisp, blue afternoon. But where aircraft are concerned, appearances are deceiving. In a couple of minutes, that spot would become several tons of aluminum, steel, whirling blades, and human life that would scream past me and settle gracefully onto the runway.
I went over my pre-flight check list again, and settled down to await the arrival of the incoming aircraft, and my eventual takeoff clearance from the Lincoln, NE, tower.
I shivered, imperceptibly, in anticipation as I watched the dark spot settle closer and closer to the horizon, as its indistinguishable shape sprouted tiny buds that would soon be wings and a tail. I had wanted to fly since I could remember. Thanks to some hard work of my own, and the GI. Bill, I had accomplished my goal. I now flew the length and width of the country as advertising manager for my company, collecting information from our customers, which I turned into advertisements. I wouldn’t have told my company this, but I’d have paid them to work there, so long as I could continue flying.
As I sat there, pondering my fascination with flight, I let my mind drift back to my first experience, and attempt, at flying through a game I played with my cousin, Donny, and my little brother, Gene.
We called it SUPERMAN! .
It was easy to play. The only rule was that it had to start from somewhere inside my house because our “take off” point was a flower box sitting atop a brick retaining wall on either side of the stairs leading to the front porch. To start the game, some one — me, Donny, or Gene — would simply yell “SUPERMAN,” whereupon, we all bolted for the door on a dead run, heading for our launch pad — mom’s flower box full of pansies.
The second part of the game was to see who could get to the flower box first and leap into space, while again screaming as loud as possible, “SUPERMAN!!!”
It was about four feet from sidewalk to top rim of the flower box. A correct launch would add about two feet of height to our leap, which meant landing somewhere out in the front yard with a dull thud and an aching tailbone. And, there was the often unavoidable mid-air collision of two super persons who managed to reach the flower box simultaneously.
The real problem, however, was the part about landing on our tailbones . . . or, for that matter, all the bones in our bodies. I swear, there were days when we actually grew shorter rather than taller owing, primarily, to our rough landings.
Obviously, something had to be done. It was my cousin who came up with what we thought, at first, was a great fix for broken coccyx syndrome.
“Here,” he said, tying a piece of string to two corners of a pillow. He slipped the string over his head so the pillow hung down his back.
Instantly, I was envious. In one motion, he had rigged up something that looked like Superman’s cape, and provided padding for a safe landing . . . or so we thought.
Quickly, Gene and I jury-rigged our own pillows, and someone yelled, “SUPERMAN!!!” Amid thumping, bumping, grunting and elbowing, we streaked for the door, burst onto the porch and, almost in unison, we hurtled into the blue like three miniature clowns shot out of a circus canon, leaving our launch pad strewn with bruised and dying pansies.
However, much to our surprise, we again suffered bruised bottoms, jammed ankles and a small multitude of random aches and pains. We had neglected to take into consideration the physics of fluids . . . namely the pillows that trailed out behind us as we soared through the air. There was no way we could leap and, at the same time, keep our pillows tucked around our buns.
THUMP! And again, THUMP, our tiny cheeks slammed into what only appeared to be soft green grass.
Worse yet, upon contact with the ground, those once trailing pillows continued their earthward journey, only to be stopped with a sudden jerk by the string around our necks. More than once, I thought I had been decapitated or suffered at least a laryngectomy by that damned string. I sported a constant chafe mark around my neck all summer. A couple of smart-aleck uncles of mine kept asking if I’d been hung.
By now, though, we were hooked on the idea of a cape. It simply looked too neat having our “cape” trail out behind us as we flung ourselves heaven-ward.
We considered several ideas for remedying our dilemma, but it was Donny who came up with what seemed like a good idea.
“I’ve got it,” he said, smacking a fist into his palm. “I’ll just turn over before I hit the ground and land on the pillow!!!”
It sounded good to me.
“Go ahead,” I urged.
He streaked out the door, stepped into the flower box, his wiry little arms and legs flailing uncontrollably as he tried desperately to make his body roll over in space and align itself with the earth.
He crash landed. Actually, it was more than a crash landing. Arms and legs got all mixed up in a whir of hands, feet, and a pillow that somehow managed to float above it all through the entire flight. All these years later, I have to say that this single flight, among the millions man has attempted, acappella, came closest to approaching pure levitation. There was that moment, when, reaching his apogee, Donny became aware that it wasn’t going to work, and by sheer force of will, he somehow managed to stay aloft for an additional moment, delaying his inevitable crash landing. The only thing that seemed to remain in sharp focus through this ordeal was his face, which, in a couple of split seconds, changed from supreme confidence, to abject terror. I remember the whites of his eyes growing inordinately large as the ground rose up to smite him.
It took most of the summer to perfect our game. We eventually settled on using bath towels, and remaining in more or less an upright position as we hurtled into space, arcing above the lawn before settling to earth in less than SUPERMAN fashion.
The towels were lighter. They trailed out behind us much better than those hundred-pound stones mom called sofa pillows. And, the chafe marks gradually disappeared from our necks.
Somehow, the towels were better. Once I switched to the towel, my soaring time increased. I would push off with my right foot and sail out into space. Buried somewhere in that flight of less than a second’s time, was all that my world could give to me: Freedom.
When my foot left the flower box, I became momentarily unstuck from everything. I was no longer an earth creature, bound by the rules of earth or the physics of gravity. For one brief second, I, like my cousin Donny, became suspended in space. I was totally free. In that microsecond of freedom, I felt I was a part of the cosmos, that no other human being could touch me or hurt me, and that one day, I would soar alone in the sky.
I was still smiling over these memories when the speaker above my ear barked again.
“Four Seven Three Alpha Bravo,” said the voice on the speaker, “you’re clear for immediate departure.”
Immediate departure means shake a leg . . . you don’t have to be fancy and line up with the runway . . . just poor the coals to it and go. It usually means the guys in the tower are working you in ahead of another aircraft that will be in position to land momentarily. It’s common courtesy to expedite your take off so as not to hold up the incoming pilot.
So I eased the throttle forward and Four Seven Three Alpha Bravo rolled onto the active runway. I toed the right rudder pedal and swung the nose to a heading of 350 degrees, let it stabilize a bit, and then smoothly slid the throttle all the way forward.
It was cool and the air was dense and the Bonanza fairly bounded down the runway. In seconds, I reached rotation speed, and pulled back the control column. The nose rose gently, and then it happened, just like it did years ago when I leaped from the flower box. I was no longer part of the earth or its trials and troubles. I was going up . . . up there where earth and sky join. I was free. I was soaring.
I looked down at the earth as it fell away and as I merged with the firmament, I yelled, as loud as I could, “SUPERMAN!!!”