Tuesday, January 06, 2009

One Flight Home

Bob Barbanes posted a comment to my "Merry Christmas" post: I know you always do, but fly extra safely today - and every day until the end of this hitch. You know what I'm saying.

And y'know, even though I've been flying for a living since the age of eighteen, this last hitch at work was a challenge. Distraction seemed to nibble on my ass as Christmas day approached, and that's pretty much what Bob was mentioning: in the flying game, distraction can get you hurt, or cost your employer a bunch of money, or at the very least, lead to acute professional embarrassment. I was glad to head home for more than just the usual reasons. Even after over thirty-three years, I had to remind myself to stay focused, and it had been more of a challenge than normal.


The United flight took off from New Orleans on my first leg homeward. As usual, I fell asleep soon after takeoff, and slept through most of the flight westbound.

Late in the flight, the captain announced that we could see Phoenix out the right side of the aircraft. Only then did I lower my window blind and look outside. The visibility at 36,000 feet was awesome: looking north, I could easily see 200 miles. At least. The air was so clear, it was nearly surreal.

I spotted Phoenix, and looked to the northeast, where I saw Lake Roosevelt, the Tonto Basin, and further north, one of the most beautiful areas of Arizona, the Mogollon Rim. I thought of my parents. They had a vacation home in the high desert setting of Tonto Basin. I felt sad for a bit, wishing that I still had my parents with me. My Dad died nine years before Dylan was born, while my Mom passed when he was just fifteen months old. But there were happy memories too, memories of hanging out with my parents on the patio, with a fire blazing in the outdoor fireplace, marveling at the sunsets over the mountains. I smiled.

I dozed again for a bit, until the captain announced that Palm Springs could be seen out the left side of the aircraft. Peering across the aisle, I couldn't see the city itself, but I could see Mount San Jacinto looming above. I remembered a backpacking trip I took to the San Jacinto mountains in 1979, shortly before I left the Army. I'd climbed up the aptly named Devil's Slide Trail from the town of Idlewild, spent a night in a campground below the peak, and climbed to the top of San Jacinto Peak the next day. When I write that I "climbed" it, it gives the wrong impression, since a trail leads nearly to the top of the peak; only about two hundred feet of hands and feet boulder scrambling is required at the very top. I watched the sunset from just under eleven thousand feet, then retired to my campsite, nestled in a little clearing between boulders about a hundred vertical feet below the peak. I bedded down in the open, with the stars for a roof.

I think I opened my eyes around one in the morning. A sound, distant. What was that? The stars were gone. Another rumble. I put on my boots, grabbed a flashlight, and scrambled in the darkness to the top of the peak. Off to the northeast, a light show of towering thunderheads illuminated by lighting, but the rumble of thunder no longer sounded so distant. I scurried back to my campsite, frantically stuffed everything into the backpack, and headed downhill.

A stone emergency shelter had been built below the peak in the 1930's, and I was hoping that in my rush, I wouldn't run past it. I turned left, and found the trail. I had run past it, since the trail ended at the shelter. I moved uphill, panting as much out of fear as the exertion of running uphill at nearly 11,000 feet. The approaching lightning was lighting up the trail so much that I almost didn't need the flashlight, and delay between the flashes and the thunder grew shorter.

I found the shelter about two minutes before the rain hit. Three minutes after that, all hell broke loose. The lighting seemed to target the stone hut: FLASH-BOOM FLASH-BOOM. I wondered if something was on fire in the hut, but then I realized what that burning-wire smell was: ozone. At one point, I put my fingers in my ears to block the boom of the thunder, wondering if God was mad at me.


I looked out the window to the north and spotted Mount San Gorgonio, across the desert valley from the San Jacinto peak, and smiled as I remembered the awe I felt that night, as the thunderstorm illuminated San Gorgonio before seeming to swallow it whole.

Approaching L.A., I spotted the Hollywood sign, and smiled as I thought of visits to Dylan's godfather, and how our little man had eaten up the L.A. Natural History Museum, the La Brea Tar Pits, and the L.A. Zoo.

Sitting in the terminal in L.A., I watched as a man and his teenage son sat across from me in the gate waiting area. They looked comfortable sitting together, and that made me smile. The kid was tall and lanky, with longish hair, and stealing glances at the two of them, I thought of what Dylan would look like at that age, and I smiled. There are no guarantees, but I expect that Dylan and I will be comfortable sitting together when he's that old. Expectations can be a good thing.

The mom walked up, rejoining the husband and son briefly. She then walked to get in line to talk to the gate agent. I decided I wanted coffee, and I passed close by the woman. I met her eye. "How old is your son?" She smiled. "He's seventeen." "I was watching your husband and son, and it struck me that one day, yes, my eight year-old will be his age." She chuckled, and said, "When he was five, I wanted to keep him that age forever, but I've kind of changed my mind." Her eyes had a mischievous twinkle to them, so I ventured, "He's a good-looking kid. You guys did well." She chuckled again. "Thanks." "It doesn't look like the mailman was involved, either." The kid looked so much like Dad, it was almost comical. She laughed, louder. "No, the mailman had a vasectomy," she offered. We both laughed, and I wished her a good trip home.


I caught the regional jet for Sacramento, where I picked up a rental car, and began the 160 mile drive home. Soon, I'd be reunited with the two people I loved most, and our Christmas after Christmas would begin.


Algernon said...

Great post, Hal. You lost some text in paragraph 10 - looks like it's in a microscopic font or something...

Debby said...

I was going to point out that something happened to your blog, but Algernon beat me to it. I'm impressed. Microscopic font? I have old eyes. I didn't even recognize it as letters...

Nice snapshot from your past, present, and your future.

Hal Johnson said...

Yeah, I finally just gave up and retyped those two paragraphs. It seemed to happen after I linked the L.A. attractions.

Kelly said...

What a pleasant entry to read on this cold, rainy morning!

I look forward to hearing about your "Christmas after Christmas".

Mary Paddock said...

Lovely post. 'Enjoyed the story about the camping trip especially.

'Looking forward to hearing about your reunion with Dylan and wife. :)

Pam said...

Yes, Hal, I really loved this post! Actually, I enjoy ALL your posts.

I saw a tearful local news report last night with the mother of one of the men who died in the helicopter crash in La.

She said he hated flying and was scared every time he had to fly over water.

It was sad.

I'm waiting to hear about your Christmas at home with Rhonda and Dylan!

quid said...

I inhabited the mountains and the desert, reading your words. My highest compliment...you made me see them through your eyes.


Bob said...

I loved this. I especially loved the part about your parents because we tend to think of them around the holidays. We always miss them yet we always have them with us. My dad's been gone three years this week and I still feel him looking over my shoulder.

And loved the part about the family with the teenage son. You hear the horror stories about the teenage years and some of it's true. But for me, I dare say it might be my favorite stage. They are becoming adults but they're still kids and you can tell them what to do (sort of). And with boys, you can live vicariously, especially when their Mom's not around and you can laugh at stupid things and make disgusting sounds. It's great.

jeanie said...

What a lovely flight - home and beyond.