“For forty years I thought I held a cyclic in my hand when in actuality it was the other way around.”
Illustration: tOm Robbins
Ten years ago today I landed a helicopter for the last time. December 14th 2005 I flew four tours around the island of Kauai, then a fifth… On that 5th tour, I experienced a dizzy spell that took me to a flight surgeon, more doctors than I remember, an FAA medical grounding and to the end of my career in the cockpit. The loss of my flying career led, step by step, to a move from Hawaii to the mainland, the opportunity to be with my father for his final four months and a chance to tie up a few loose ends that I hadn’t realized were loose…or ends. Though I didn’t realize it ten years ago today, as disruptive and painful as it was, that disturbing event in the air above Kauai began a desire in me, and certainly in my spouse, to return to the simpler, gentler and warmer life we’d had on our little island. We’ve always missed what we had there, we just didn’t realize how much. Thus our efforts to replace it by moving to Panama.
About the previous ten years, we learned a lot about ourselves, like how deeply involved we can be when something captures our interest, and demands our attention. Being there for my dad was one of those items. Caring for my father was the privilege of a lifetime, a chance to give back to him after all he’d given me. That by itself was worth giving up a career for.
The grounding held opportunities for my wife and me personally. In my case a chance to finish a long-deferred degree in English at Ohio State. It quickly became one of those dog-with-a-bone efforts. I reenrolled at OSU in the Fall of 2009, haunted the campus every day, dove into classes, did the work (I even made the Dean’s List twice!) and graduated in June 2012. Mariah’s position at OSU’s Ross Heart Hospital allowed her to rediscover work in nursing that captivated her, and it exposed many hundreds of patients to her amazing skills. Together we latched on to the LGBT community, learned of their challenges and were allowed into their midst as they struggled for full equality. June 26th 2015 marked a glorious day in that effort as marriage equality became the law of the land, and we began to ease away from that effort.
In many ways we feel our time in Ohio, and the mandates that brought us here are done. We’ve made many good and wonderful friends—Whole Friends tOm & Sam you’re precious to us, Bertina, you are an inspiration, Cindy will always be the cra-cra na-na, neighbors Natalia & Andre, PK & Peg, our wonderful gay, lesbian & trans crowd with your exotic, marvelous, prideful and sumptuous approach to life and love make us envious. (Where do you get those gloriously goofy but perfect outfits? Too too very very is right).
I’ve been able to pursue my writing jones. No one knows why writers write. It’s a question that comes along all the time: “Why do you write?” Here’s the real question: “Why do you breathe?” Supercilious? I suppose, but this writing obsession is not something I can explain, so leave me alone to pursue it. “Why do you doctor?” Why do you Lawyer?” Why do you Indian Chief?” Writing is my stab at immortality, my statue in the park. I write because I can, and because I must.
So what am I working on? I thought you’d never ask. These blog posts, of course, my explanation to myself and others why I’m about to pack up and schlep off to Panama. Also, I’m about to publish another memoir. The Plowman and The Pilot is about my father and me and our respective choices: his life of hard, plodding, dirty, undervalued and often unsavory physical labor; mine pursuing an ethereal, romantic, notable and technically demanding life in the clean and clear air. It’s also a tribute from me to him, a thank you card to my greatest generation dad from his boomer-baby son that’s long overdue—the thank you, not the son. I also have in the works my epic piece of writing, my magnum opus if you will. Waiting For Willie Pete is a helicopter novel of Vietnam, but it’s much more than that; it’s also about our martial, militaristic society, about war and its corrosive effects, about the bravado of young men who climb into cockpits to show their courage and manage to fool themselves and their peers much of the time how brave they are; it’s about the hubris of national leaders who send those young men off to the wars that they refuse to engage in themselves. It’s Matterhorn meets Moby Dick; it’s what happens when men obsess over white whales. Also, it’s a damned good story with ripping drama and exotically lavish characters one meets only in the pages of books about those wars.
Ten years ago today I landed for the last time. Since then I’ve managed to fly a bit higher and a bit faster than ever. It’s been a great flight, a terrific tour. Now it’s on the to the next mission, and the next…