daily preciousness

Tuesday, October 15, 2002

vol de nuit

“Flying blind!” I think out loud. My voice is tiny, barely audible, but I hear it. My voice is insignificant, a hair-like thread in the twisted knot of the chaos around me. Sandblasted by stinging silica winds, I guide the plane over an ocean of sand that stretches beneath me, invisible -- invisible but nonetheless threatening.

Strobes of lightening nearly blind me. But I don’t need my eyes to hear the left engine as it’s struck by lightening. After the blast of energy, which I feel shaking my rib cage and tickling my fingertips, the engine pops and sputters. Then, it’s mute, impotent. I wonder why it didn’t catch fire. The fuel line must’ve been severed before it had a chance to combust.

As I race through the equations of staying alive with a single engine, the lightening is flashing before me, behind me, underneath me. Boom-crash, boom-crash: Timpani and cymbal accompaniment. I blink away the sweat that drips down from my brow.

The altimeter spins wildly: a kind of Russian roulette, round and round.

Curiously, the acrid smell of the blackened engine reminds me of Thibold, my instructor. I recall a similar burnt dust-and-oil smell from his clothes. It would occasionally mix with the cheap scent of bad port on his breath, like it did once during my second lesson. I can remember the sound of his dirty fingernails scratching his ill-kempt beard and the chuckle in his voice as he reminded me to watch my pitch.

Flashing forward to this instant, this unreal and unwelcome present, I notice my pitch is off by fifteen degrees. I correct it jerkily. In the pitiless grasp of the wind, my biplane is tossed around like a dead leaf in a summer storm. But this is a summer sand storm.

Again, the dials spin mischievously like children’s tops. The gyroscopes fight to keep up with the plane’s relentless tossing.

I at the mercy of an invisible demon. His every breath sends my vessel arcing earthward. I try to pull up, cry aloud to pull up out of this spiral. But I careen helplessly into a descent.

Harnessed firmly to the pilot’s seat, I grip the controls harder and harder still. My knuckles are white marble wrapped coldly around the black controls. Altitude numbers sink down while my stomach hardens to a ball of ice. The lightening strobes around me once again. I don’t hear the thunder so much as feel it, the shuddering thud of it entering through my chest and into my heart and lungs, playing the small cavity of my body, my wholly insignificant body, like a drum.

The reverberation – the pitiful hum of the single engine changes pitch as I descend. My ears greet the sound like an old friend. There’s an eerie familiarity to it: My ears tease, “Yes, we know you. You’re the sound of careening earthward. Adam’s fall in the garden…. The sound of the fall of Icaris. The sound of the fall of mankind. The fall of a single man.” How personal it was! How intimate this sound. The first legato notes in the symphony of my demise.

I cannot make out where the sand meets the sky. But somewhere in the darkness below me, speeding in my direction, is the point where I will spend my last moment on earth. I consider the curious symmetry: I’m earth bound and heaven bound!

With that thought, the smallest hint of light appears at the forward. The horizon glints with a golden spark of sunlight amidst the gray gloaming of the storm. Am I near the edge of the storm? Can I escape the torrent of winds in time?

I’m not out of danger quite yet. The sound of the wind whistling through the wings shifts in key from a steady moan to a piercing scream.

The alternating lines and numbers of the altimeter bob downward, perfectly in synch with the faltering pitch of the remaining engine: 500, line, 400, line, 300, line, 200, line, 100….

The lightening begins again. It flashes then throbs. Ice-blue light seems to inhabit the cabin. I’m gripped with an odd peace. This feeling slips in like an unexpected guest – a presence in the cabin with me. The crystal-blue light turns into a milky white light: a personal Milky Way that I can feel more than see. But it is there with me.

Weightlessness. I cannot feel my hands on the controls. My feet are not curled nervously in my uncomfortable boots. My body is no more.

Then the aching begins. I feel the harness tight around my sore abdomen. Daylight – sunlight startles my eyes. I’m alive. The realization hits me with a shock.

I somehow crashed the plane into a dune. And more surprisingly, I survived! I had a sudden urge to look around me, to survey the 360 degrees of the living world that held me. I wanted to look around to prove to myself that I was still alive. The pain in my neck was a happy reminder that I existed – I didn’t mind it at all!

And I unfastened myself, looked through the wreckage of my craft, and wept, howled and laughed with the irrepressible joy of the living. My voice was tiny, insignificant in the sweeping expanse of the dunes that surrounded me. But I heard it!

I survived!


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