Sunday, August 1, 2021

On flying and motorcycling


    The New Yorker has categories for all its contents.  In the August 2nd, 2021 issue under the category "Personal History" I read "Flight Plan, When a marriage is up in the air" by Ann Patchett. 

    Ann Patchett's husband, Karl VanDevender, is a doctor who loves to fly.  Before they were married, he bought a motorcycle.  She looked out her front door at it and said she was going to start smoking again.  In a huff he got on his motorcycle and returned home, which was three blocks away.  He skidded in the ice in front of his house and the motorcycle fell on top of him.  With difficulty he got out from under it.  Ann feared motorcycles.  Next came airplanes, and last was boats although Karl went on a voyage with friends in an 80 foot boat and encountered some life-threatening heavy weather. 

    She writes, "When Karl and I met, in 1994, he was divorced and had a 1976 Beechcraft Bonanza, a model commonly referred to as 'the doctor killer' because the plane was so streamlined that it was hard to control.  'Doctors have enough money to buy them,' Karl said. 'But they aren't good enough pilots to fly them.'"  Karl, thanks to early training with his father, was a good enough pilot.

    "The Bonanza he bought had been on the cover of American Bonanza Society Magazine, he'd been told.  He loved that plane, then loved it less, then sold it.  Later, he bought a 1962 Piper Comanche (loved, loved less, sold), followed by a 1982 Beechcraft Sundowner, and then a 1959 Cessna 175 -- each one a gorgeous piece of junk.  They were the kinds of planes that compelled other pilots to stride across the tarmac and offer their congratulations. The planes Karl had were the planes that other men wanted.  They would have been real bargains, too, except that the Comanche needed a whole new engine.  The 175 needed a new propeller.  The Bonanza needed new gas tanks, which meant that the wings had to be taken apart.  The new gas tanks and the wing-panel removal and replacement cost as much as he'd paid for the plane.  Then it also needed a new engine. . ."

    Over in aerospace, if one were a self-respecting engineer, one gravitated toward airplanes or sailboats.  In my case I knew better than to develop an interest in flying.  I have a terrible sense of direction.  I imagined being to able to take off and land, but flying into clouds, coming out, and having to figure out where I was and which direction I ought to be flying was beyond me. 

    So I gravitated toward sailing.  My first sailboat, a 14-foot West Wight Potter, was mostly a platform for free-diving.  The Potter was designed for rough-weather sailing in the North Sea.  But I discovered it to be unacceptably sluggish in the usually lighter California winds.  But it was a satisfactory diving platform.  Also my kids liked it, and then later on Susan liked it, but like Ann Patchett's husband, I sold it and bought a Catalina 22, a boat designed for Southern California sailing.    I would have probably gone on like Ann's husband with bigger and better sailboats, but Susan's illness but an end to that. 

    Back to motorcycles:  Over the years I encountered many people who while not being motorcyclists themselves, would warn me about how dangerous they were.  Susan's mother, Ruth, once chastised me for putting her daughter in danger, although I once gave Ruth a ride home on the back of one and she enjoyed it thoroughly.  There was one time however, when a semi-truck moved into my lane without signalling and I was forced to put my motorcycle down against a curb to avoid being struck.  I ruined the front tire and wheel and had to walk my motorcycle home.  Susan was sick in bed when I told her what had happened and burst into tears.  She had never before imagined that I might be killed on a motorcycle. 

    Ann Patchett also seemed to worry most when Karl was flying by himself.  She writes, "At some point, I'd had a revelation; it would be better for him to die in a plane than to keep talking about whether or not to get a plane.  That isn't exactly a joke.  At his worst, Karl was like a sad parakeet sitting on a swing in a cage year after year.  It was unnatural."

    "Karl was seventy when we bought the Cirrus.  The plane had a fixed landing gear.  Karl told me that it was prohibitively expensive for pilots over seventy to be insured for planes with retractable landing gear, because pilots over seventy didn't always remember to put the landing gear down."

    I gave my Yamaha XV920 to my son when I retired at age 64.  Although I was good at it, I didn't enjoy riding as much as Karl enjoyed flying.  Besides, when Susan became too ill to work, I got her a Rhodesian Ridgeback to be her companion while I was at work.  Part of getting the Ridgeback for her involved taking responsibility for his exercise.  I took care of that by jogging with him as soon as I got home from work. 

    At some point I no longer regretted not having a sailboat or a motorcycle.  My 2002 Jeep Liberty is in excellent condition and will take us to places where we can hike -- when the weather cools -- and if my gimpy leg doesn't cause me too much trouble.  I am sad-parakeetish about not having hiked in a long time, but am thankful that until that happens I have an excellent library and a fondness for using it.  Karl (at 73) doesn't seem to have that alternative although Ann (at 57) will when she gets older.

    In the days when I was traveling back and forth to work, down between the lanes on my Yamaha, I would make a concession and take one of our cars if I wasn't feeling at the top of my game.  After retiring, when I woke not feeling so well, I would say "if I were still working, I would not take the motorcycle this morning."  Karl at 73 presumably wouldn't take his Cirrus to visit his mother in Meridian if he weren't feeling at the top of his game.  He no doubt will relax and day-dream on his flights.  I didn't have that luxury on the motorcycle. 

    I occasionally think about buying a more-modern Jeep, but I've been using mine since 2002 and know all its idiosyncrasies.  The "improvements" I would encounter in a new Jeep might, I fear, find me occasionally "forgetting to put the gear down."



No comments: