From Horizontal to Vertical to Elevated

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It was on a Tuesday night at a watering hole near my house that I first noticed it. The main course had been cleared, the coffee had arrived and I was contemplating a cognac or a grappa. The company was bright, interesting and warm. I wanted the evening to stretch out ahead, even though I had lots to do the next morning, early. I pushed my chair back, went to cross my legs and discovered that I could not lift my left leg off the floor. In retrospect, I had been having significant back pain. But I've had back pain almost constantly since being in the army 35 years ago, so I made nothing of it. Leg symptoms were another matter. I finished the coffee, passed up the after dinner drink and headed home as soon as it was polite.

The next morning I sought the counsel of a neurosurgeon who works at my university. He said there was no use in seeing me without an MRI or magnet scan. I don't know if you're familiar with the MRI, but I hope not. It is like being inserted into a sewer pipe with no room to move, nothing to see but the gray surface of the machine inches from your face, nothing to hear but a loud banging racket and nothing to do but worry about the disorder that has caused you to submit to this torture in the first place. I thought of fighter pilot training and the ability of those pilots to sustain themselves in very small spaces in preparation for capture, or at least in simulation of such a fate.

The radiologist was shaking his head when I got out of the tube. "There is no good news here," he said. I went upstairs to the neurosurgeon. He was patient, kind, thorough and thoughtful. "You've got a lot of problems," he said in an understated way. I remembered back 20 years ago when I had a broken neck and the neurosurgeon then had said, "Your neck is one thing, but your lower back will be the bigger problem in the long run." It seems the long run had arrived.

Over the next hour my wife and I heard some pretty horrifying stuff, the bottom line of which was basically this: "Do anything you can to avoid a major operation. Go to the pain doctor, the rehab man and take these pills. I'll see you in six weeks." With that I shuffled out the door, my wife drove me home and I went to bed.

Enforced inactivity is a curious sensation for any busy person. There is a lot to see when the world slows down. Many things that you've pushed to the back of your mind come to the front. You see your surroundings differently. Not surprisingly, much of my thinking turned to things that fly.

Over the next 10 days, as I lay on the couch mostly, I reread scores of old issues of Flying. This simple pleasure reemphasized the increased acuity that comes with decreased activity. Stories I had read before were more nuanced and complex than I had remembered. I paid more attention to the ads, saw the graphics differently and found gems of interest in smaller items that had not previously merited much attention. The photographs were more vivid. I remember with particular clarity a shot of the new King Air C 90 GT. That great and venerable airframe dressed out with the newest avionics and powered by those big Pratt & Whitney's caught my lengthy admiration.

I spent several supine hours enjoying the King Commercial Pilot interactive CD-ROM knowledge test course. I had decided before this sudden change of fortune that it was about time (40 years after getting a private certificate) for me to get a commercial rating. This course was just what I needed. I could do it on my laptop, it was interactive and engaging, I could stop and start when I wanted, and I had plenty of time. How John and Martha King can plow through all that material and keep it interesting is beyond me, but I was grateful for their gift.

Despite the buoyancy of the Kings, the days dragged on with only minor physical improvement. Illness has many subtle consequences and, for me, diminished optimism was one of them. I segued from dreaming about King Airs to wondering if I could continue to afford our Cheyenne. A constant ache carried me from fantasy to diminished hope. When, exactly, would I be able to fly again? I would be able to, wouldn't I?

My life in bed and on the couch stood, or I should say, lay in stark contrast to what I had hoped to be doing. I was missing out on work and I was missing out socially and I was definitely not flying. It turns out that my symptoms developed at a particularly bad time on all fronts. I was to have been flying our Cheyenne from Tampa to San Diego for a business meeting, from there to Boston for a surgical conference, from Boston to New York for a friend's retirement dinner, and from there to Delaware to pick up my daughter, her husband and son and bring them home to Florida. None of it was to be.

All this left me gloomy. The lack of physical activity carried its own price. According to the doctors, it looked like my days of playing squash were over. I was despondent about giving up this wonderful game that had brought me great enjoyment since the '60s. My interest in work, my curiosity about our business interests, about sports and about reading were all in decline.

The next morning I sought the counsel of a neurosurgeon who works at my university. He said there was no use in seeing me without an MRI or magnet scan. I don't know if you're familiar with the MRI, but I hope not. It is like being inserted into a sewer pipe with no room to move, nothing to see but the gray surface of the machine inches from your face, nothing to hear but a loud banging racket and nothing to do but worry about the disorder that has caused you to submit to this torture in the first place. I thought of fighter pilot training and the ability of those pilots to sustain themselves in very small spaces in preparation for capture, or at least in simulation of such a fate.

The radiologist was shaking his head when I got out of the tube. "There is no good news here," he said. I went upstairs to the neurosurgeon. He was patient, kind, thorough and thoughtful. "You've got a lot of problems," he said in an understated way. I remembered back 20 years ago when I had a broken neck and the neurosurgeon then had said, "Your neck is one thing, but your lower back will be the bigger problem in the long run." It seems the long run had arrived.

Over the next hour my wife and I heard some pretty horrifying stuff, the bottom line of which was basically this: "Do anything you can to avoid a major operation. Go to the pain doctor, the rehab man and take these pills. I'll see you in six weeks." With that I shuffled out the door, my wife drove me home and I went to bed.

Enforced inactivity is a curious sensation for any busy person. There is a lot to see when the world slows down. Many things that you've pushed to the back of your mind come to the front. You see your surroundings differently. Not surprisingly, much of my thinking turned to things that fly.

Over the next 10 days, as I lay on the couch mostly, I reread scores of old issues of Flying. This simple pleasure reemphasized the increased acuity that comes with decreased activity. Stories I had read before were more nuanced and complex than I had remembered. I paid more attention to the ads, saw the graphics differently and found gems of interest in smaller items that had not previously merited much attention. The photographs were more vivid. I remember with particular clarity a shot of the new King Air C 90 GT. That great and venerable airframe dressed out with the newest avionics and powered by those big Pratt & Whitney's caught my lengthy admiration.

I spent several supine hours enjoying the King Commercial Pilot interactive CD-ROM knowledge test course. I had decided before this sudden change of fortune that it was about time (40 years after getting a private certificate) for me to get a commercial rating. This course was just what I needed. I could do it on my laptop, it was interactive and engaging, I could stop and start when I wanted, and I had plenty of time. How John and Martha King can plow through all that material and keep it interesting is beyond me, but I was grateful for their gift.

Despite the buoyancy of the Kings, the days dragged on with only minor physical improvement. Illness has many subtle consequences and, for me, diminished optimism was one of them. I segued from dreaming about King Airs to wondering if I could continue to afford our Cheyenne. A constant ache carried me from fantasy to diminished hope. When, exactly, would I be able to fly again? I would be able to, wouldn't I?

My life in bed and on the couch stood, or I should say, lay in stark contrast to what I had hoped to be doing. I was missing out on work and I was missing out socially and I was definitely not flying. It turns out that my symptoms developed at a particularly bad time on all fronts. I was to have been flying our Cheyenne from Tampa to San Diego for a business meeting, from there to Boston for a surgical conference, from Boston to New York for a friend's retirement dinner, and from there to Delaware to pick up my daughter, her husband and son and bring them home to Florida. None of it was to be.

All this left me gloomy. The lack of physical activity carried its own price. According to the doctors, it looked like my days of playing squash were over. I was despondent about giving up this wonderful game that had brought me great enjoyment since the '60s. My interest in work, my curiosity about our business interests, about sports and about reading were all in decline.