Technicalities

I have visited a certain old house on the south coast of Massachusetts almost every summer for the past 20 years, and have known Sam, its owner, for almost half a century now. He is an excellent fellow — thoughtful, erudite, articulate, earthily funny, worldly wise, impatient of pretension, as apt to quote Cummings as Milton and to discourse on shorebirds as on the Law. He first put me up — I was a college classmate of his stepdaughter then — in Manhattan, where he was a corporate lawyer; later in the hills and woods of the Hudson River Valley, where he owned a farm for a long time; and finally on the shore of Buzzards Bay, where his grandfather had built the big house late in the 19th century. Since it was through him that I came to know those places, he is for me not just a good friend but also a minor deity of forest and seashore.

Perhaps only if one imagines this gabled and shingled old shrine, nestled in woods through whose gaps the sea sparkles, as an object of pilgrimage can one understand why I had for a long time wished to connect it, in a physical way, with the airplane that I had designed and built, and in whose company I spend a good deal of my time in Los Angeles. I wanted to introduce them to one another, so to speak: to bring them together, to take them in with a single glance, and thereby to unite, if only momentarily, two poles of my life that pull at me from opposite sides of the country.

Nancy does not like to fly; only after my airplane had been flying for several years did she consent to make our annual eastward trip in it, rather than the faster, TSA-bedeviled way.

We planned to leave by nine in the morning, make it halfway across the country in two three-hour hops, and reach the East Coast by the end of the second day. Thoughts of us departing early are utopian, however, and we actually took off at 1:30. Shoals of afternoon cloud had built over the desert, and a buffeting wind came out of the northeast. From 11,500 msl the monotonous Mojave seemed barely to move below us, and the Colorado River, which marks the eastern edge of California and the emotional beginning of any eastward trip, felt infinitely remote. (The converse is also true: Homeward bound, it seems to take forever to reach Los Angeles once one has crossed the river and the trip feels, illusively, over.)

At last, the river behind us, convective pillars lining the way ahead, we passed arid Kingman, Prescott, Flagstaff with its forested peak, and Winslow, in the distance south of us, with its lonely meteor crater. By now more formidable storms had erected their battlements east of Albuquerque; we called it a day at Gallup.

With nothing to delay us the next morning, we were airborne as the sun split the horizon. It’s a lovely time to fly, the Southwestern dawn: still, cloudless air, infinite visibility, and miles-long shadows on the brightening ground. The ragged end of the Rockies slipped past on our left, and Las Vegas — the one in New Mexico — announced the great eastward slope. The sun climbed slowly, as befits one very old, up the eastern sky.

An early-born and sigmet-worthy line of thunderstorms was marching through central Kansas, southeast-bound at 35 knots. The great circle would have taken us right through them, and so we turned northeastward, into the wind. We could see their sunlit tops, 40,000 feet up and 200 miles off to our right, and as they slowly wheeled past our wing we turned more and more eastward over the great Euclidean plains — green circles whimsically inscribed in brown squares — of eastern Colorado and northwestern Kansas.

I had hoped to stop only at little rural airports, where fuel is usually cheaper and one enjoys, in small ways, the kindness of strangers. Unfortunately, most of them have no café. We stopped instead for lunch at Grand Island, Nebraska. It had taken well more than the hoped-for three hours to get there from Gallup, and I attributed the delay to the dogleg we had made to circumvent the storms. Later I checked the distances and found that the detour had added only 44 miles. It was really the wind that slowed us down. We were averaging a little under 8.5 gallons an hour, always at 11,500 feet, truing 165 knots or so, but the winds that one counts on to hasten an eastward trip were indulging their malicious impulse to blow in any direction except the right one.

East of Nebraska, we encountered a scattered layer of strato-cu. It grew broken beneath us, and I started to climb. I thought at first that I’d go over it, but after a little while it was solid and still rising. I knew how deceptive those slowly sloping undercasts can be. I turned around and flew for a while in the wrong direction before finding a break big enough to drop through. The visibility below the clouds was good; we turned eastward again at 3,500 feet.

The level, rectilinear landscape had already begun to give way to one more hilly and varied, with branching rivers, irregular woodlands, and a random scattering of houses, barns and silos. I’ve read about the all-devouring monster of industrial farming, but the farms we flew over in Iowa, Illinois and Indiana looked small and personal in scale. From this height we could take in the details: a pond, a few motionless cows, the curious pattern of furrows in a kidney-shaped field, a pickup speeding along a narrow road, kids playing football on an emerald lawn. We were fully 30 knots slower down here, but Nancy liked it better because there was more to see, and we remained at low altitude even after the overcast vanished.

The long shadows of morning now pointed the other way; but the air was strangely calm for a summer afternoon, and the slender white wing beside me sliced the green surface as cleanly as a knife. VFR with no flight plan and, in fact, no plan at all, we weighed the hour, scrutinized the chart as an ancient Roman augur would the entrails of birds, and, with as little reason as the Roman, throttled back and descended toward Kendallville, Indiana. It was 6:30. Jim, the airport manager, was about to go home, but he stayed to chat and pump us fuel. Now I finally figured out the reason for a slimy feeling on my fingers and neck that I had first noticed at Grand Island. One cushion on my David Clarks had sprung a leak. It happened that a Blanik sailplane landed while we were fueling and its pilot strolled over. This fellow, Jim told me, manufactures the silicon goo that I was wiping off my neck. “Will it eat my skin?” I asked. “If it’s okay for breasts,” he assured me, “it’s okay for necks.”

Dew clung heavy to the airplane in the morning, making faintly visible on the windshield the streamline-tracing tracks left by light rain the day before. We flew low at first; you felt you could reach down and stroke the worn brocade of the late-summer Ohio countryside as you would the back of an old armchair. We climbed to cross a patch of ground fog and low stratus in western Pennsylvania. The blazing white of the undercast gave way to an unbroken carpet of dark woods, as dense and primitive-appearing as those in the Amazon Basin that we had overflown almost 30 years earlier and in the predecessor of this airplane. It seemed incredible — but it is true — that all this forest had been cut and then regrown.

The clear air turned hazy, and some cumulus were building when we landed at Orange County Airport in New York. We parked the plane there a few days, during which we drove up to Williamstown, Massachusetts, where our daughter was ending the summer that she had spent as an apprentice at the theater festival. As we approached the dorm in which she had been staying, I observed a sea of luggage outside. “Many apprentices leaving this morning,” I thought. But no. It was all hers.

A few days later we crammed her stuff and ours into the plane — in all about 40 cubic feet of baggage, I reckon — and headed eastward. (Lily herself wanted to remain in New York City for a few more days — fortunately, since no room was left in the plane.) It was late in the afternoon. After less than an hour we were passing Providence, Fall River, New Bedford; Cape Cod stretched out ahead of us as if painted on the ocean; Martha’s Vineyard was a distant shadow; Nantucket hid somewhere beyond it. I tried to puzzle out the anfractuosities of the coastline beside us, and then the pieces fell into place. I banked around the edge of a heavily wooded promontory.

There it was!

Light still glinted from the tops of the gables, but most of the house was already in shade. There was the sloping lawn, surrounded by forest, where we played croquet and Sam used to let our then-young son Nick drive the mower. There, strangely distinct in the oblique light of the sinking sun, were the paths through the beach grass to the Front Beach and the Back Beach — names that always confused me, because the Back Beach was the one in front of the house. There was the marshy area that Sam’s grandfather had ominously entitled “The Deadly Zut-Zut,” and along whose shore Nancy and I had dug soft-shell clams on many a crystal morning. (For quahogs, we went to the Front Beach, which was at the side of the house.) I imagined Sam in the front room — now in his 90s, blind, his cane and tea mug beside him. He was probably listening to a Red Sox game. In a couple of hours we would walk in, announce ourselves, and I would once again brave his fierce southpaw handshake. “Left hand, closer to the heart!” he would say, and laugh as his grip overpowered mine.

In my best turns-around-a-point manner, I banked to put the white wingtip below the house, and we circled, circumscribing the beloved place. Nancy snapped some pictures. Two circuits — there, I had done it at last! — and we turned toward Taunton to tie down.

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