One of a few stories this month of me documenting, through fiction, my youth.
We headed west. The skies were clear, a piercing blue, over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Turquoise lakes and melt-water ponds glistened like sapphires amongst the granite and scraggly pine. Our single engine Cessna had crawled up to 16,000 feet to make the trip over the peaks, more altitude than necessary, just-in-case, and we were now sliding down the California side toward the Bay. From over the foothills the valley looked open for business. Further on, a grey haze obscured Mt. Diablo and the coastal range.
“We’ll head south and see if we can scoot around the South Bay.” Tom, owner and pilot, reminded me that he was VFR only. “If we can see where we’re going, we can fly. Guessin’ where we’re going is a poor second choice. A fatal one.” He chuckled when he’d said that, dying had always been a popular philosophical topic of ours.
“But, let’s get setup,” he said. “Strap the map to the clipboard and dig out the ruler and a pencil.”
I raised my hands, from where?
“Should be in that stretchy door pocket. Yup, that’s the one.”
Our journey back from Montana had begun that morning in Idaho Falls, followed by a gas-stop in Winnemucca. Flying at one hundred and forty miles per hour, bee-line straight, made easy work of such a trip. Our friends had dropped us off in Idaho Falls the night before, a drunken revelry celebrating nothing in particular, certainly not a successful hunting expedition.
“Hmm,” Tom said. “Not lookin’ all that good.”
Down into the valley, we weren’t five minutes flying alongside the cloud bank when things got serious.
It felt like being swallowed.
The sun was bright, the brown hills and green fields fanned out in their San Joaquin mosaic. And then they vanished. Grey folded around us like the movie had ended prematurely. We were just a couple of guys in a clear-windowed box without any notion as to what was up, down, left or right. At first it felt comforting. Close like being cuddled in some great amorphous hug. Even the sound, always a constant roar, diminished in the grey clouds.
The view mesmerized me. I couldn’t quite focus so I kept trying to stare harder into it.
“Don’t look outside. Look only at the instruments.” Tom’s voice held an unfamiliar edge.
“Watch the flight level. Watch the nose angle. Watch the altitude. Watch the compass. Now, take the wheel and pass me the clipboard.”
I balked. I asked him if he was sure.
“It’s just like before. You flew most of the trip already. Just don’t look outside. Keep all the dials just as they are.”
I was unconvinced but handed him the map and ruler.
“This part I haven’t taught you yet. We’re going to triangulate our position using the radio.”
I barely heard him. My ears had quit working. Terror held my eyes fast on the dials and my brain had no cycles to spare for words.
He spun the radio dials listening for distinct beeps and boops of some alien signal. He talked the whole time, drawing lines on the map, spinning the radio dials again and again.
“The VOR system sends out different Morse Codes based on the radio station. We can figure out where we are by…”
Sweat had started to sting my eyes. Wiping them didn’t help.
“You OK? Here, your turn. I’ve got a pretty good idea where we are. We’ll turn around and drop into Turlock.”
He handed me the clipboard. With both hands back on the yoke he banked a hard left. The dial on the compass swung around until it pointed opposite the heading I’d memorized for what had only been seven minutes of flight. Under the sound of the engine we both noticed a deeper rumble. It lasted for only a few moments before tapering off. We looked at each other and shrugged.
He then made a guess that the fog was probably thickest near the ground, so up we went. Within seconds the cabin grew lighter until we burst from the clouds.
As soon as we’d freed ourselves of the grey we flew head-long through a long, dark contrail that angled up and away from us like the remnants of a rocket launch.
“Must have been a military jet. I guess Castle Air Force base is just below us. Whoops.”
We landed at dusk at Turlock Municipal Airport and called up a friend to come pick us up. Hours later we were back home nursing tumblers of scotch.
“Good trip,” Tom announced, his glass held high.
I agreed, drained my glass and reached for the nearly empty bottle.