Saturday, January 30, 2010
My Summer of Flying
Snow again. It sends my mind skittering from here, like dozens of waterbugs on the glassy surface of the pond in the woods. But it doesn't take long to find refuge. Mother reminded me at Christmas.
"Remember the summer you spent flying off the M.'s wellhouse?"
Another of my schemes. I took something my brother said -- about physics, about flying, about lift -- and mixed in my own harebrained ideas. My special brand of mental alchemy.
"You cannot be serious," my brother, the future engineer, would say. "Mother, you have to make her stop," was another of his requests. Mother would check to make sure I wasn't about to seriously harm myself or others, then let it go.
So I gathered my materials, enthusiasm bordering on hysteria, which drew a small crowd of followers. These included the believers, the bored and the skeptics. The last generally consisted of the neighbor boys, who enjoyed watching me fall on my face. My experiments frequently failed. But they always entertained.
It was summer and Mrs. M. watched my sister and me while my parents worked in town. No one was hauled off to camp or activities. The high school boys started two-a-day football practice at some point. And they got themselves to and from the field pretty much on their own.
Which left the rest of us to entertain ourselves. All day long. All summer. Three long, beautiful months.
So the first morning of the flying I was ready. I had kites and makeshift harnesses made of belts and ropes. I had money for helium balloons to be filled at the store across the highway. We needed lots of helium balloons. I had my long black satin cape and a myriad of other capes. I had cardboard boxes and tools for the building of aircraft. The materials, loaded into a red wagon and a wheelbarrow, were hauled to the M's with the help of my loyal assistant, my little sister.
I had barely slept. We were going to fly.
The M. sisters were already waiting for us at the big picture window. J., the oldest, S., M. and P.
We got the helium balloons and went to work at the sloping wellhouse. It was the tallest one in the neighborhood, almost five feet at the highest point. We climbed up, dragging our equipment. We were beginning to draw a crowd.
I don't remember everything. I know I was hoping for a windy day for my first attempts. We wrapped ourselves in harnesses, hooked kites to them and helium balloons. I could feel the slight tug of the kite against my weight. I held out my arms. I ran as fast as I could and jumped off the wellhouse.
Of course, I did not fly. But this did not discourage me. Not in the least.
I kept it up. We all did. J., the oldest of the M. girls, helped in between loads of housework and cooking and otherwise helping her mother. She wasn't really ready to grow up.
We went to work on wings, using all kinds of materials. We built aircraft using cardboard boxes and pillows for seats and tried to fly off the shortest point of the the wellhouse. Ouch. Not for long.
We added fake wings to the harnesses, Icarus-like. We interviewed each other and the "witnesses" with the seriousness of rocket scientists. We wrote down responses. Did you feel that? Did you feel any lift at all? Did anyone SEE anything? Just a little bit, you had to feel SOMETHING!
We were sure if we tinkered here and there, added this and that, jumped higher, ran faster, we would find the magic formula that would lift us into the sky. Into the wind. Up, up and away.
And our notion was not so off the wall if you think about what was going on around us at that time. Not for children growing up in a magic time and place. Yes, we were going through nuclear alert drills at school due to the Cold War -- watch for a flash of white light and get under your desk. But we weren't told to actually slide under those desks, like some. Our drills were verbal. Sort of wink-wink drills.
Because we had faith that such a thing would never happen. We also had a secret weapon.
Just to the south of us, in federal installations where many of our relatives reported five days a week, the work was being done to send man to the moon. Not only that, we had Werner von Braun, who had been responsible for some of the most feared German weapons before he surrendered at the end of World War II and came to Alabama to help lead the U.S. space race.
From time to time, we felt the earth move under us. "It's the big rockets," we were told. "They're testing them." So, we knew we were safe. The earth was moving. We were going to the moon. I mean, why couldn't we fly off the wellhouse?
So we tried. Over the course of days and on and off over weeks that summer. We just kept trying.
We never did fly, of course. At least not in a physical sense. But our hearts soared, up and out, over grass dew-tinted an emerald green, into wide open blue skies.
The sun's fire loosened our fluid young muscles. Air cleaned by miles of old forest curled into our lungs, sending blood pounding in our veins. Wind blew through our long soft hair as we stretched our arms high and grasped with small hands for clouds as white as the cotton bursting from the fields around us.
Over and over we jumped, throwing ourselves into radiance -- the sweet arms of a midsummer day in the deepest part of the South. Days we thought would never end, could never end. Drunk with it.
Other children gathered near the wellhouse to watch our whimsical quest. Then later, grownups too. They stood, watching, but not really seeing. Because their eyes had gone soft, remembering what could be seen only in memory -- their own long-gone childhoods.
So now, that wellhouse exists only in memory, too. We're all scattered to the winds. And J. has gone on ahead, without us, off somewhere with Cyn.
I'm going to try to catch a sign of them this summer, when I visit Alabama. When the crickets and Katydids are in full throat and the night sky is blazing with stars. That's when those days feel so close I can stretch arms into the darkness and almost pull them back to me.
I'll find an old wellhouse or another icon to sit on. Maybe I'll wear my black cape, not the satin one, that's long gone. But of course I have a black cape. I've always had one. I might have an opportunity to fly. Or something. And I want to be ready.
So, in the summer I'll look into the sky and recite the old directions. Tell them we'll all be along soon. Because I know where my friends went. And I know how to get there, when the time is right. We talked about it. You just follow some simple directions.
Listen closely. Remember?
All you have to do is hold up your arms, you way we used to do, take off running and fly. Up and away, into the sky. From there, just take the "second star to the right, and straight on 'till morning."
Hold on tight.
Much love, Glimmer