Sky liar

The wind was up, rain interspersed with sunshine.  One of us was being a gentleman about it, and I’m sad to report it wasn’t me.

“I dunno if you want to go up in this,” Justin said politely. “Looks like we’re off for today. I don’t want anyone getting sick.”

“I don’t get airsick.”

“Well…”

“No, really. I never get motion sickness.”

Our lies mature with us, starting as the bravado of ignorance and ending with the memory of youth. In between, there’s a period when we don’t have to lie and rarely get caught out by accident, but it’s mercifully brief. For a couple of decades there, I never lied at all.

Didn’t have to. I knew what I could do, and wasn’t self-conscious about what I couldn’t do (there were other people for that), and it seemed easier and clearer and cleaner all the way around just to tell the truth all the time. Shilly-shallying was for the weak, for officers and entrepreneurs.

As was airsickness. In my family, you fly and ride and drive and hunt and SCUBA dive with your antennae extended, cold-eyed and focused and ready.  You hold yourself undistracted by flutters-by of the body or mind. G-D helps those who remain situationally aware, and that was me, baby.  This dream is true.

Was.

Somewhere in my fifteen-inch stack of VA paperwork is a determination that I have measurable hearing loss (rated zero percent) and bilateral tinnitus (ten percent disability), and something called PTSD which is an acronym meaning “he’s a jumpy cuss these days.” Those findings don’t really tell you why I was lying to Justin, but I can.

Maybe.

Once upon a time, in a  land far, far away… No shit, there I was… It was a day trip, in a car. The day was a duty day, and the car was a TARDEC HMMWV (you can Google that; go ahead and open another tab, I’ll wait right here), and Joey and I were in the company of an airman at the wheel and a navy corpsman up on the gun, pooping along into a rural town in NW Iraq behind another HMMWV full of jarheads. The day was dawning sunny and bright (now there’s a surprise) and as we turned left toward our infil zone at the edge of town I realized I hadn’t charged my rifle. It was late in our tour. I was getting a little tattered, but I lied to myself about that every day. I was fine. Fine.

My muzzled rested on the sandbags that lay on the floor, pushing my knees up ribcage high. Slapping the magazine reflexively (I was fine), I drew the charging handle back with a gloved hand (being fine, I never forgot my mittens) and let it go and BOOM.

Holy shit, I thought, coming out of my blink. I just had an ND. Negligent discharges were for amateurs, contractors, pussies and privates. Not for staff sergeants who were fine.

There wasn’t an entry wound in my sandbags though, nor either foot (I checked) and besides the right wheels were landing back on the road and everyone was yelling. As the vehicle commander, I decided to yell louder and checked in with everyone, starting with the gunner. No major leaks on anyone. The window next to my head, made from two inch-thick ballistic polycarbonate, was crazed over with cracks. My left ear was discharging clear fluid and blood.

To make a long story short (too late?), three years later I went to a playground with my stepdaughter, swung in the sling chair next to her and got so sick I nearly puked in the hog fuel.  Airsick. On a playground.

That side of my head religiously observes a bimonthly outer ear infection, but I don’t see myself as fragile that way so it never officially happens.

And I don’t get motion sickness. I’ve fished in thirty-foot swells, slid cars and motorcycles down forest roads at irresponsible velocities, earned my pilot’s license thirty years ago and flew aerobatics. Besides, I’m a Lewis. Lewises don’t puke. Point of honor.

The skies cleared. Pretty Wife took her ride, came back bursting with enthusiasm and digitized aerial imagery of Oz. My turn.

The Pawnee tug struggled into the air with a pair of 100-kilo men in a large training glider dragging its arse. Up we went, bumpety-bump, searching for an updraft that we didn’t find but anyway bang and off went the rope. Justin chatted cheerfully, explaining protocol as we went knife-edge right away from the left-turning tug and my belly sent up a warning.

There was too much to see to worry much about it and eventually too much to do as Justin turned over the stick to allow me a little clumsy thermaling. Gliders are different; they require a fair bit of rudder and of course your airspeed control is purely angle of attack. “Balls to the wall” is a meaningless term in soaring.

“Step on the ball” is equally irrelevant, as our turn and bank indicator was a string taped to the canopy, just above my nose.

“You want the string straight back,” Justin advised. It stayed straight as a stick, every second during his effortless ascents up the climbing column of warm air. “Keep your nose right at the horizon line.”

Taking the controls, I rotated us around in lopsided circles, horizon bobbing up and down, wings waggling like a baby chicken, tail slewing like a giraffe on ice.

“That’s it,” Justin lied encouragingly. “Maybe a little more aileron.”

Being too busy to puke was a momentary triumph, but then he took the controls back. Wondering how long I could clench my digestive system into submission, I silently prayed for downdrafts.

“We’ve got it now!” Smooth and confident, Justin grabbbed a solid thermal and we rode it to 4,500 feet, the top of our authorized play area. For another half hour, we soared and circled as I tried not to belch into the microphone. It was the longest flight of the day — and not just in my head.

Finally, the gliding club asked for their aircraft back. Justin chuckled.

“I was thinking they might be getting a little impatient. I guess we better head back.”

Hah, I thought. Might pull this one off, after all.

By the time we made the airport, we still had nearly 4,000 feet of altitude. What better way to scrub off height than with a quick display of aerobatics? I nodded grimly, clenched my gut, and ordered all systems dormant as we plunged into steep turns, wingovers and slips.

And it was beautiful. Keeping my hands light on the controls, I felt each incipient maneuver, listening to Justin, alternating my gaze between the horizon and the simple instrument panel, bright-eyed and focused and too busily fascinated to be sick.

“Eighty knots aa-a-nd UP we go,” Justin said, nosing down and then yarding the stick back until the horizon dropped away. Screaming blue sky, laced with white puffs, filled the Perspex over my head and I (might have) rebel yelled as we came over the top, hanging off the five-point harnesses for significant seconds of weightless bliss until the earth came round again, filling my vision with the eventual, sad inevitability of gravity, landing, finitude.

I wasn’t lying about that airsickness. It wasn’t bravado. I just forgot, as I forget so many things these days. Thanks to a friend, I got to forget again. I got to remember the illusion that there is nothing in this world but freedom.

I got to fly.

Comments

  1. Aw, HELLYEAH.

    And that’s how it’s done; keep yourself too busy to puke. If your eyes are on the gages or better yet on the horizon (wherever that may have wandered off to! 🙂 and your hands and feet are busy? Nary a flutter. It’s when I’m stuck in the back of some spam can with my nose in a book, not engaging with the world around me, that I get a rumbly in my tumbly. (That or when the fishing boat starts to dutch roll in the swell… that dissonance between CG and center of motion is *bad* juju.)

    You are one lucky so-and-so, for multiple reasons. (My one glider flight was only about 15 minutes or so… didn’t get any lift!)

  2. http://Christian says

    Lovely story, Jack! I’m jealous– been way too long since I flew a glider…

  3. http://Derek says

    It may be just poetic licence, or a faulty memory on your part, but if Justin started a loop at 80 knots he deserves an arse-kicking…

    Nice story otherwise 🙂

  4. http://Justin says

    Na, somewhere closer to about 95knts though I don’t remember specifically this loop. I vaguely recall saying something about speed build up before entering the loop but was too busy looking out the window and watching Jack to make sure things were OK.

    What Jack didn’t comment on was the wild weather earlier in the day when I was doing my annual check – full airbrakes, u/c down and side slipping – still going up at 2knts as the storms rolled through, turning final doing about 75knts due to wind shear and then getting drenched as we landed. Oh and BTW the CFI was in the back seat for this check flight… we were the sniffer flight for the day!

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