I had intended at first to swim in the oceans off Hawaii. I am a fish when properly immersed. But the Pacific here is murky and cold, so I looked to an ocean of another kind. As I watched the hang gliders from my kitchen window across the lake, I knew that was also my destiny. I didn’t have to take the notion of flying too seriously, though, until I had set up a time and place to meet with Paul Jones, from whom I had offered to buy a hang glider. I didn’t know anything about flying machines, just what little I could find on the subject in the library. There was one book about gliding that I read cover to cover but nothing made much sense. I knew gliders were made of aluminum and Dacron now, but in my mind they were simple sails and could be made of PVC water pipe and plastic held together with duct tape. I had made what I visualized as a possible design out of copper pipe and a tarp. It was triangular in shape and only a few feet across. My son, 8 years old at the time, ran across the lawn with it, acting like he could fly. My son spent his days making model airplanes and paper gliders, some of which flew quite well, and I looked over books I thought would give me some clues as to what it would be like to soar like a bird. On the day we were finally going to buy Paul’s glider, I hid my deepest fears from my family and acted confident as I tied a ladder on top of our truck to support the flying contraption while I brought it a hundred miles to our home. Until that point it did not seem like a real danger to dream of being off the ground. It was the harmless type of dreaming one does wandering through adventure magazines on winter days. Now I had to face the reality of what I had talked so much about doing. I had to show my son how to make decisions and follow through with them, lest we be accused of being chicken, all talk and no action. If I had not been serious about really flying, I should never have brought up the subject. So I gassed up the truck. And my wife, ChiChi, my son, August, and I drove to our rendevous at Red Bluff, where Paul Jones would meet us with the hang glider. There in a park next to the Sacramento River, later that day, Paul unveiled the contraption. He lifted a bag twenty feet long off the roof of his truck, and laid it on the lawn. He unzipped the bag, pulled things, hoisted things, put in a few bolts, stretched some wires, popped in a few rods and it was done. There in the park, on a big piece of lawn next to some picnic tables and with people all around, was a magnificent blue and white wing. I tried not to show my excitement, my fear, my naivete, my blackest panic at the thought of hooking myself to it. I was almost afraid to touch the thing. How would I hold onto it? Paul picked it up and rotated it around hurriedly. Whoosh. The wind passed over it. He ran a little across the grass; the wing lifted up and flew over his head. Then he ran back toward me. This time the wing stayed on his shoulders. “Now you try”, he said. I was petrified, but I scolded myself silently, “This is what you wanted all these years, and this is what you are doing. You cannot back out now!” So with sweaty palms I got under the glider and gripped some tubes just as I thought Paul had done. Then I lifted it up on my shoulders and trotted timidly toward the other side of the lawn. The glider was heavy and cumbersome and I fought to keep the wing tips from dragging on the ground. The wings bounced and the burden became so heavy on my back that I had to walk with it to the setup area, setting it down to rest a couple of times. How could this thing ever fly? I was disappointed, but at the same time relieved. Maybe I could just store it in my shed til I died of ripe old age. Maybe I could quit pretending that someday I would be airborne, and from now on I could focus my life on becoming a writer of fantasy. I could live in the safety of my dreams. I looked at the glider once I had set it down next to the truck and pondered every piece of it, trying to act like I knew what I was looking at. Why was Paul, who said that he had flown for years, all of a sudden deciding to sell this elegant investment? Was he scared of it too? Was he really afraid to own it and was he just pawning it off on me so he could go back to living in the fantasy world of adventure magazines, just like I wanted to now, or a world of computer screen flight where nobody gets hurt in crashes. I couldn’t imagine anybody actually wanting to own such a ‘death’ machine. The only reason to want to store one of those things around the house was to have a really interesting subject of conversation when friends would stop by. “Yea, hey man. I bought this hang glider. Wanna see it?” I would say. And they would reply “ Oh yea man, cool. How come there’s so much dust on it?” Maybe it wouldn’t even make good conversation, I drooped. Paul folded the glider up and put it back in its bag. My wife, seeing my anxiety even though I was trying to hide it, wrote Paul out a check. She had a mischievous smile. Paul took the check then picked up one end of the glider and waited politely for me to grab the other end. I looked at my end for a long second, then picked it up and we put the glider firmly onto my ladder on my pickup. The ladder was ten feet. The glider was twenty, so it stuck out precariously on both ends. Paul hopped in his truck and sped away. “See you later, sucker,” I imagined him saying as he waved goodbye. I never saw Paul again. I had a hundred feet of rope and I tied the thing down as best I could, acting like I was joyfully fulfilling my long time dream. When I got home, I had to build a rack in the shop to hold it. That took a day. Then I had to build a rack for the truck. That was another day’s work. On the third day, I put the thing out on our lawn and tried to assemble it. There were instructions but they were vague. They said to keep the tail facing the wind so it wouldn’t blow over, so I did that. I put it together until it looked pretty much the same as it did when Paul Jones had set it up. Then I looked at it for a while, walked around it a few times, lifted it up, then set it down. Then I put it away, back in the bag, and asked ChiChi to help me put it in the shop, where it could sit for a long time, I thought. The fall colors were in full swing and the Indian summer was beautiful. There was a light breeze blowing from the northwest the next day. My son was working in his room, cutting out a cardboard glider with six wings. ChiChi was on the phone. I snuck down to the shop almost embarrassed about my curiosity, to look at my new, mysterious toy. I grabbed it in the middle and lifted it down, set it on the shop floor. Then I unzipped the zipper and looked inside, felt the mylar on the sail edge and the aluminum. I looked at the wires and rotated a fitting. I decided I would try to fly it. That day, by myself, over on the far side of the lake, I made six barely significant low skims across the ground from a fraction of the way up the training hill. The things I called my first flights had long landings on the 12 inch wheels. My shoes and belly dragged the ground all the way and my adrenaline was pumping hard. The situation was so traumatic, I can hardly remember it.
The Wrecked LZ
In late fall the weather got consistently rainy. Storm winds blew from the south so the training hill was unusable. But one day it cleared and I stood by the bay window watching the slope across Emigrant Lake. Trees were fluttering in a breeze from the northwest. It made me upset that I hadn’t been able to take the glider out because of the poor weather. Now I was upset that the weather looked perfect and I would be guilty of passing up an opportunity if I didn’t fly. So I asked ChiChi to look out at the training hill every half hour to see if I was still alive. I loaded up the glider and drove the two miles over to the gentle hill. When I got there I parked and was just about ready to take the glider off of the truck when I heard rumbling in the distance. I turned around to see a long caravan of jeeps and covered transport vehicles winding through the mud on the edge of the lake. I looked at them curiously. They kept coming closer. Evidently they were army trucks, possibly out for a four wheel drive excursion, training mission. They kept getting closer and closer, then they were right next to the hang glider training hill. But they didn’t keep going. Instead they all turned onto my landing area and started spinning doughnuts, driving as fast as they could around and around in circles. The trucks screamed through the boggy field, tearing ruts deep into the ground. And on each pass, the dozen or so trucks ripped the ruts deeper. I ran across to the huge stampede of camouflaged vehicles, waving my arms and yelling in a rage. And I placed myself in their path. The stampede stopped and twenty muscular young men with tattoos and camouflage suits stepped out onto the muck they had created. “What are you doing?” I yelled in their faces. “This is a hang glider training hill you’re wrecking! It’s dangerous enough learning hang gliding without idiots like you making ruts where I have to land!” I screamed. I watched their arms twitch and flex. Any of them could easily have beaten me to a pulp. They could have taken turns smearing my face in the mud, but I was too angry to care. The apparent commander looked at his men and then looked at me sheepishly. “We’re very sorry, SIR. We didn’t know, SIR. We’ll never do it again, SIR.” Then he saluted to me. He signaled to the men and they remounted their trucks, which were noisily idling all the time. In a subdued caravan, they drove gently away, leaving me standing there alone in foot deep muck. “Now what do I do?” I yelled at the lonely lake. “Damn!” I looked at the damage all around me, ruts over the entire landable area of my training hill. How would I land on the wheels? The wheels would fall into the ruts and stop in their tracks, catapulting me through the frame of the glider, surely breaking equipment or my bones. There was one narrow swath that, for some reason, hadn’t been torn up so badly, but it was small and to land on it without injury I would have to aim very carefully, which might not be possible considering how my first and only six previous landings had ended. But, because I was irrationally stubborn, I could not go home that day without trying. I was frustrated and angry as I set up the glider. Then I grabbed the keel of the wing and dragged it on its black plastic wheels up the hill until I was about half way up to the top. There, I hooked my training harness to the glider and prepared mentally for my seventh flight. ‘Seven.’ Was that supposed to be a lucky number, or was it unlucky? I couldn’t remember. It didn’t matter. I was going to do this flight anyway. My luck had already been bad enough that day. Maybe I had used up my allotment of bad luck and now I would have some good luck. The day was beautiful anyway, with a clear blue sky and gentle breeze blowing up the hill from across the lake. I sat under the glider for a few minutes pondering the view and the ruts in the torn up landing area. The not too bumpy area where I had to land looked narrow. Alongside it was an acre of shredded ground with water in the deepest pits. Many puddles reflected the sky. I lifted up the glider and ran toward the muck as fast as I could. I felt the glider lifting up and I jumped on board, dragging my knees on the ground for a ways, then my belly, as I rolled along on the wheels, down the hill. Then the glider popped up into the air a few feet, and for a small moment, I was bird-like. Then it settled back onto the wheels, speeding down the hill, and my belly was dragging again. I could see that I was headed straight for the worst muck of all and there was nothing I could do about it. The wheels bounced and slammed into the ruts. I pushed forward on the control bar as far as I could, hoping to make the glider into a parachute that would bring me to a stop before I hit the worst dips. The glider slowed and slowed some more and I dragged my feet as hard as I could. I was finally creeping along when the whole glider, with me attached to it, plunged into the biggest, muckiest puddle of all. I stopped moving forward and lay there in the freezing brown sauce. Then I knelt and looked at myself and the glider. We were not broken. I unhooked and walked around to the back of the glider. Then I lifted the keel and again dragged it up the hill for another flight. Why did I bother? I was extremely uncomfortable in my muddy clothes and the first flight had been a near disaster. In fact, maybe it had been a total disaster. Was masochism a part of my nature? Was I so impressed with bird flight that I had to become one with the flock, no matter what? I had wanted to sail across the warm tropical ocean, but I could not fulfill that dream right now. The tropics were very far away, so I had decided to sail on the air. I had loved vehicles powered by the wind since I had learned to sail a small boat on a small lake when I was ten. The wind power intrigued me, and so did the gentle sound of little ripples splashing against the bow of the boat, and so did the pop of the sail as it filled with a gust. I was excited by the way the boat tilted and you had to lean hard to one side to keep it from tipping over, then there was a whoosh of acceleration. I loved the smell of the wide open spaces. But that day I was angry and determined and covered with mud. I could see no romance ahead.
Winter came, and it dragged on slowly. During those dark, rainy days, I read everything I could get my hands on about all kinds of flying. It was a relief not actually having to go through the ordeal of learning to fly in the real world. I read that the glider needed to be trimmed to fly a few miles an hour faster than stall speed, and I read about conditions that were dangerous to fly in and how to analyze a ridge to know where one could find the best ridge lift, whatever that was. A thousand pages went before my eyes and most of it didn’t mean any more to me than a foreign language means to someone who doesn’t live in the country where it is used and never expects to. In other words, I was wasting my time and doing nothing but day dreaming. I knew it as I stoked the fire with countless logs and watched the rain fall outside. But I was comfortable in a fantasy world of flight, one in which I would not have to experience the real pain of learning. When company would come, I would talk about my interest in flying. Company’s eyes would quickly glaze over and the consensus of everyone I talked to about it was that I was insane to have spent so much money so foolishly or to have taken so many unnecessary risks. My wife, though, was supportive and never complained about my obsession. She was glad that the rain was keeping me locked up inside, though. Zeek Vladamir, my doctor and the hang glider enthusiast who had talked me into buying a glider in the first place, suggested (one day while I was visiting him at the doctors office to get August, my son, a shot) that I get in touch with a man named Badger Martin, who was a hang gliding instructor. Zeek said, “I’d trust my life with him.” He gave August the shot and then we talked for half an hour about Zeek’s previous summer of spectacular hang gliding. We joked and laughed and then I left the office and walked through the waiting room where a dozen sick and dying people were waiting for their delayed appointments. When I got home, I called Badger Martin, and left a message on his answering machine. No one called back. I left three more messages and still no one called. Then one day, I called again and Badger picked up the phone. He agreed to help me. Winter continued. I went to the training hill and sat at the launch, pretending to fly. The strong south wind blew sideways across the hill and even though it was clear sometimes, the wind made actual flying there impossible. I brought a shovel with me to the hill and tried to fill the ruts with dirt that had filled completely with rain. Finally, in March, the prevailing winds again shifted to the northwest. They again blew across the Rogue Valley, across Emigrant Lake and up the gentle hill at the training ground. But I didn’t hear from Badger. The conditions seemed ideal to me, so I decided to continue my education in the real world of real flying without an instructor. Once again, my fear of heights set in as I wandered down to the shop to load up my glider, which hadn’t been touched in five months now. As I set the glider up slowly and carefully on the training hill, I noticed a gray pickup with a large, clunky rack parked directly across the lake from me. A man was standing next to it. ChiChi came with me that day to record my comical flights with a video camera, flights that were gut wrenching to me, the pilot attached to the wing. To anyone else, watching the videos would be vastly entertaining. They were reminiscent of all-star wrestling on TV. “Look, he’s about to smash his face,” I imagined the spectators saying. “What a riot,” they would laugh. “Look, his guts are squirting out all over the place. Wow, look at those teeth fly. Ha, ha. What a mess.” ChiChi said firmly, “ I really think you should get yourself an instructor, before you kill yourself!” So that night I called Badger Martin one more time. He picked up the phone. Our conversation ended with, “ Meet me at my house the Saturday after next.” And he gave me his address. It turned out he lived a very short ways away. I found out that Saturday that he owned a gray pickup with a big, ugly rack. But that was two weeks later.
In the meantime, Zeek called me, looking for a ride back to his car after landing his glider alongside the lake near my house. There was a field below the rock dam at Emigrant Lake Park where the wind was usually smooth and steady from the north. The distance from Woodrat Mountain, where he’d taken off, to that field was about twenty miles. That is how far he flew sometimes. Or he would call in the morning, begging me to drive to the launch. I was at the launch at Woodrat often, that spring, because I would drive Zeek and Zeek’s sidekick, Eddie there so I could watch them fly. Consistently, they would launch late in the morning, just before valley winds would pick up. Their flights usually began with sprinting launches into almost no wind, themselves running fifteen miles an hour with a 65 pound glider overhead. Zeek was especially persistent in the pursuit of long flights. His patience was probably an asset he had acquired along with becoming a doctor. Sometimes he would launch and, for over an hour, would fly back and forth across the mountainside, coming back to the launch and turning in exactly the same place; back and forth and back and forth without gaining a single inch of elevation. Then suddenly he would find his thermal and soar away until he disappeared into the blue. I would get on the two-way radio and ask him stupid questions like “How high are you?” or “Are you going cross country?” The radio would crackle back at me. “Yeah, I’m at 7000 feet and still climbing. I’m headed for your place when I hit the top of this thermal.” His voice would be filled with excitement. Then I’d drive the car as fast as I could, looking up all the way, trying to see how the flight was progressing. But I could rarely see anyone flying. They were too high or too far away. Despite their 36 foot wing span, the gliders were not visible for much over a mile. I could only imagine, at that time, what it would be like to be up there. My imagination was woefully inadequate. I knew it was not like being in a jet or helicopter. In a large aircraft you are protected from the wind. And there’s always a lot of noise. Looking out of a window of a plane seemed to me like looking at a TV. I tried to imagine a flight moving very slow, almost standing still, and myself hanging from a rope at 7000 feet. A chill would come over me. What I really couldn’t imagine was all the work and persistence it would take to get up there, or how I would survive my own fears in the learning process. I watched the hang gliders as carefully as I could, not really knowing what I was looking at. They were breathtaking, especially as they took off from Woodrat Mountain. I would almost never see Zeek or Eddie land. They would always be resting next to their gliders when I would pull up the truck next to the field they had chosen to land in. They would have big, wide grins on, at that point. They told me stories of their epic flights and dared me to keep up my bunny hill flights so that someday I , too, could fly “The Rat” with them. I didn’t take them seriously. They probably thought I was going to chicken out and quit altogether, but they treated me like a comrade, because how else would they get someone to drive them twenty miles back to their cars? And I played along. I couldn’t figure out any other way to learn to fly. For the hours and hours I got to ride in the truck with them during that March and April, I asked questions and made a nuisance of myself. I got to hear stories about other people who flew gliders. There weren’t many. There was a surge of new pilots in the early nineties when safer hang glider designs emerged. Before that, for twenty years, a lot of people were injured or even killed flying Rogallo gliders, which were triangular shaped. Most flew without instruction. The Rogallos were the first truly transportable hang gliders. They were unstable under certain conditions. A too strong head wind might make one flip over from end to end in mid-air. Or, in a stall, a spiral spin was a possibility. The Rogallos also did not have a very long glide ratio, which meant that a place to land had to be very close to a place to launch. In the ‘90s, though, some of the design faults were corrected and the glide ratio was increased tremendously. Now, on a calm day, you could glide ten miles or more from a launch just one mile high. And so more people became interested in flying. But the interest had tapered off for some reason that nobody could figure out. Eddie speculated that it might be because hang gliding was no longer a spectator sport. Now that gliders could go so far and climb so high, there weren’t many people watching them. Zeek would chime in that flight simulators made it easy for people to pretend they were flying, which was all most people wanted to do anyway. Then they would talk about this buddy or that who was in an accident. Some guy named Tweedie got caught in a rotor, flying a hundred feet up along a coastal bluff, and got hammered into some power lines where his glider was melted and fractured into a hundred pieces, but somehow he was deposited gently on the ground and walked away from the smoldering mess. Then Molly launched without hooking her legs through her leg straps and fell down through the harness while she was taking off, and she dangled there as the glider made a slow circle and smashed into the rocks. She was rushed to the hospital. And though she recovered in a matter of days, she was never seen flying again after that. And Bobby was launching from the beautiful but unforgiving cliff at Dougherty Slide in a thirty mile an hour wind. As soon as he ran over the edge to launch, the glider stalled because the wind ripped the control bar out of his hands. The glider fluttered, smashed into the cliff a hundred feet up, then parachuted quickly to the rocks below. He walked away after duct taping his broken arm to his side. Eddie said, “You ever think about what it would be like if one of your wing wires broke and your wing folded up at ten thousand feet?” Zeek replied, “I don’t bother to think about it. That’s why you got a parachute. I guess it would be pretty hard to get the parachute out if you were spinning and flapping around. When your time comes, it comes, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”