Playing Hooky

Who hasn't done it? Lane takes a day off from work to go flying and winds up having a blast, with a little scare thrown in for giggles.

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I graduated from high school more than just a couple of years ago. Enough more, in fact, that a whole lot of details from those early school days have long since blurred into blessed oblivion. But when I sift through the pieces that remain, it would also appear that I've retained far clearer memories of the classes I skipped than any of the classroom lessons and moments for which I was actually present. I could argue, of course, that there were fewer instances of the former than the latter, which is why they stand out more in my mind. But the truth is, there is just something eternally satisfying and wonderful about the stolen, illicit joy of playing hooky-of throwing the burdens of responsibility and obligation to the winds and indulging in pure fun and escape. Especially if you manage to get away with it. I may not have hall monitors in my life anymore, except in the sterner corners of my conscience and mind, but I certainly have my fair share of responsibilities to fulfill in the course of any given day or week. This seemed particularly true this past fall, as I watched the pile on my desk begin to take on the appearance of the Grinch's overloaded sleigh trudging up the mountain from Whoville. So the very last thing I had any business doing that Monday, with a video script to rewrite, a NASA book a full month behind schedule, and a column to edit, was skipping out for the afternoon. And if it hadn't been for the very bad influence of my conspirator pilot-friend Rich Karlgaard, I absolutely would have stayed home and worked. Honest. Rich also had a few responsibilities he probably should have been attending to, seeing as he has this slightly-demanding day job as the publisher of Forbes magazine, and his regular editorial column was closing at 5 p.m. that day. But Rich, like most pilots I know, is really nine-tenths kid at heart - which may go a long way toward explaining why we're friends. He takes pride in seeing how many references to flying he can possibly work into his bi-weekly column discussions on business and the economy, and he even managed to convince a publisher a couple of years ago that they needed to pay him to fly his Cessna around the country for a while so he could write a book on people who'd left major cities for saner lives in the heartland (Life 2.0, Crown Business Publishing). You gotta love a creative mastermind like that. In any event, I was deep into a paragraph on roll divergence flight research when Rich called. "What're you doing?" he asked. He didn't wait for a response. "Want to have lunch?" "Today??" I asked, not quite sure I'd heard right. Normally, Rich's schedule is so crammed that we have to schedule lunch several weeks in advance. Maybe he was in the neighborhood with a few minutes to spare before a meeting. I looked at the pile on my desk. Well, if he was just passing through, I could probably swing it. "Uh, okay," I replied. "Great!" he answered. "I thought maybe Half Moon Bay or Watsonville." "Oh ..." I said, taken aback. "We're flying?" That meant three hours, at the inside. "Yeah, well, it's such a beautiful day out, and my plane goes out of annual at the end of the month, so, you know, I thought, what the hey," he replied. "Can you take the time?" Well ... no, actually, I couldn't. Not if I was going to be any shade of responsible. I looked out the window. It was a calm, warm, cloudless day, something more like September than a few days before Thanksgiving. There wouldn't be many more of these days before the cold and rain set in. I sighed. I was a month behind in my work. But there's also a reason "Seize the Day" is a more popular coffee mug slogan than "Be Responsible." Five minutes later, I was forging a hall pass, closing the door to my office, and heading out the door to the airport. There was a gentle breeze blowing off the bay at Palo Alto as we climbed in Rich's Cessna 182 Skylane and headed west to the coast. The surf was relatively calm as it cascaded against the rocky shore, and the Pacific Ocean stretched out to eternity in rippling shades of blue. English class was a million miles away. "It's really remarkable, how quickly you can get to unpopulated areas here in the Bay," Rich commented as we flew south along the shoreline cliffs. I nodded, thinking of the millions of people just on the other side of the ridge who were working in offices and warehouses at that very moment. All these years out of high school, I still smiled at the thought. We headed south to Santa Cruz, banking over the roller coasters at the famous beachfront amusement park there before turning inland toward Watsonville. It was even warmer there than in Palo Alto, and we had a great lunch outdoors on the patio of Zuniga's Mexican Restaurant before meandering languidly back to the airplane for the return flight home. The takeoff was uneventful, and we were in a relaxed cruise climb toward the Santa Cruz Mountains (small mountains, by California standards, only 4,000 feet high), when the cockpit serenity was abruptly shattered by a booming voice of doom. "WARNING! TERRAIN!! TERRAIN!! PULL UP!! PULL UP!!"

Rich and I both jumped, and he yanked back on the yoke, even as both of our minds struggled into overdrive to process our situation and catch up with Rich's terrain warning system, which clearly thought disaster was imminent. Rich was in mid-pull when he suddenly stopped and looked around, like a guy who'd just realized that all of his friends had just pulled a very public joke on him. He looked so confused that I couldn't help it. I started to laugh, even as my own mind mirrored every single thought that was playing out across Rich's face. We were in perfectly clear and open skies, miles from the gently rising ridgelines ahead of us, and at least 2,000 feet above the nearest hill, tree, or telephone pole. What on earth was his warning system thinking? Rich even banked left and right to get a better view of what was beneath us, just in case, but there wasn't even a bird in the vicinity. It was as if the warning system had dozed off, woken up suddenly, glimpsed a patch of green ahead, and panicked, like someone who's been startled awake, misreads the time and jumps out of bed like a rocket at 3:00 in the morning. Rich glanced over at me questioningly, which just made me burst out laughing all over again. "There, there," I said soothingly as I patted the Skylane's glareshield. "It's okay, sweetie. You're all right. There's no big, bad terrain about to bite you." I looked over at Rich. "I think your plane's a little neurotic, Rich," I said. "In case you ever wondered whether it really does have a personality." Rich started to laugh, as well. "Yeah," he answered. "But I want my plane's personality to balance mine. I want a Chuck Yeager who'll sit there and say, 'Hey, no sweat, buddy. We've got a couple hundred feet between us and that ridge. Walk in the park.'" Rich's voice dropped and took on a slight southern twang as he imitated the famous pilot. He shook his head. "But, no. I get a friggin' Tony Randall." "Or Chicken Little," I offered. "AGGHHH!! The Sky is Falling! The Sky is Falling! Pull UP! Pull UP!" We were just starting to get the laughter under control when Rich said, "Imagine if they really did offer celebrity voices for these things. You know, like John Wayne would be ... 'Ya better pull up, pilgrim.'" So much for sobriety. I'll spare all the details, but here are just a few of the customized warning system possibilities we came up with in our ensuing bout of cockpit church giggles: Woody Allen: "Oh, God, I don't know. Pull up or something. We're dead." Jerry Seinfeld: "Like I was saying, PULL UP." Gilbert Gottfried: "OH MY GOD! PULL UP!! HEL-LO, ARE YOU LISTENING OUT THERE? PULL U-UP!!" Bronx Taxi Driver: "YO! Idiot! Pull the f&#$^& up!" Yoda: "Terrain there is. Um-hmmm. Pull up you should." Joan Rivers: "Can we TALK? Ter-RAI-IN!!" I know. You had to be there to get the full humor of it all, but you get the drift. Eventually, we settled down a bit, and I told Rich about some supposedly real-life research studies the Air Force had done to see if different warning voices were more or less effective in getting pilots' attention. "First thing they tried was the pilots' wives' voices," I told him. "But that didn't work at all." "Oh, I know," Rich said, nodding, eyes focused on Moffett Field ahead of us. "It's like that with Marji. I think it has to do with losing some parts of your hearing as you get older. Like, when we're at a party, I often don't hear her. I think it's because she rounds out her consonants." The man said this with a straight face. No kidding. I love human beings. They're so fun to watch, sometimes. "Ummm," I offered with a slight smile, "you don't suppose it might be because you've just tuned her OUT after all these years?" "You know, she has suggested that possibility once or twice," Rich answered with a sheepish chuckle. Fortunately for Rich, his wife is apparently extremely tolerant and forgiving, as well as smart, beautiful, and talented. When we touched down at Palo Alto, Rich and I were still a little giddy from our stolen bout of laughter, sunshine, clear skies, and freedom. As we buttoned up the airplane, I thanked Rich again for dragging me away from my work. "Hey, I'm glad you could go," he answered. "I wouldn't have done it on my own." It's true. Playing hooky isn't any fun without a good partner in crime. It may not have been the most responsible thing I could have done, cutting class to fly to the beach for lunch when I had so much work to do. But walking back to my car, my feet felt lighter on the ground, and the burdens I'd been struggling under four hours earlier now seemed a lifetime of laughter away. The pile still awaited me, but I now possessed four times as much energy with which to attack it. I began to even think that somewhere in the eternal struggle between making a living and having a life, playing hooky every now and then might actually be … well, responsible. Like I said, I love human beings. Especially our ability to rationalize. On the other hand, just because we're exceptionally good at the art doesn't mean our rationalizations are always wrong. Life is short, after all. So in the words of my good friend Rich ... "What the hey." Carpe Caelum. Seize the Sky.