Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Riding the Roller Coaster of Sky

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Riding the Roller Coaster of Sky

Article excerpt

I AM a flyer.

Not an Icarus: a pilot. Not a remote-controlled programmer of those wide-bodied jets where passengers are jammed 12 aflank either, but a hands-on bush pilot at the helm - stick - in touch with clouds, the earth, updrafts, and storms.

Watch me fishtail, chandelle, crab the wind, loop the loop and undulate, spiral, pique, porpoise, feather, yaw, hedgehop, roadhop, taxi, mush.

Fat chance. Planes huge and sleek are all that fly me; they seldom swerve. All these years my yearning to fly small planes, preferably myself, has gone unheeded. The county airport offers lessons, but I can't justify even their Fly Now Pay Later bargain.

The landlord of our old rented farm near the Chesapeake occasionally zoomed over alone in his two-person plane. His unexpected shadow would darken our tomato, basil, and asparagus patch, the roar would terrify the little foxes and every other creature in the fields and woods, and then he'd hone in on the grassy landing strip between cornstalks and soybeans. But although I hinted broadly, never did he proffer an invitation to the skies.

So I've soared only secondhand.

In one graduate seminar on 20th-century French literature, the other students snapped up Sartre, Malraux, Mauriac, Beckett, and Gide as their mini-thesis subjects. I was about to opt for Camus. But my professor glanced my way and announced, "And you will write on Saint-Exupery."

My favorite authors are adventurers, engage dans la vie. Since St.-Ex had lived a life of perpetual motion. Barely taking time out to write "The Little Prince" and 10 thicker books, he sounded halfway all right. His biography could certainly be exciting.

"Focus on the work," the professor continued, "not on the author, his influences, social context, historical coincidences. This is a class in stylistics."

She may have tried to explain stylistics. The other students seemed to know all about it, and warned me to stock up on index cards. But while I grappled and griped, I didn't grasp it.

Launched into what promised to be a joyless journey, I began to snail my way through St.-Ex's every work and word. Page after page I paused, not just to slice my Swiss Army knife through those uncut French editions, but mid-paragraph to copy - on index cards of various pastels - every image, metaphor, simile, repetitive word pattern. Each category claimed its color.

That wan rainbow of cards remains stashed under my bed, as if by osmosis I might yet absorb, decode, and comprehend their vast veiled message. I haven't. Nor did I complete that course. The only message I received was that, while finally gleaning enough credits for a master's, I am no scholar.

But ... St.-Ex was a flyer. From "Night Flight" to "Southern Mail" to "Wind, Sand, and Stars" to "Flight to Arras," his lyrical language, prodigious with images, metaphors, similes, and his peculiar turns of phrases, shepherded me through the early decades of flight by stick and compass and stars, even stars obscured by fluffy clouds like sheep, storm clouds like whales.

As his weightless passenger, for months I delivered precious mailbags through blizzards enveloping the Andes, navigated through sandstorms over the Sahara, skimmed seas and trees, and learned both glory and what it is to crash.

Of course I began to love St.-Ex. When finally I checked his biographical data, I found we share the same birthday. Gradually I noticed similarities in our writing styles.

I still don't comprehend stylistics. I'm grateful, however, for my semester of vicarious flight.

Meanwhile, another professor, Madeleine Betts, allowed me free rein to study Camus. Somewhere in his oeuvre (which I also had to read in its entirety), I found:

"If there is a sin against life, it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as in hoping for another life and eluding the implacable grandeur of this life. …

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