Not in the world of cancer

This week I lost another friend to the disease that while part of my past, is constantly part of my present. A dichotomy, you can be cancer free, but never free of your cancer. The loss makes me want to get away, if only for awhile. When I feel like this my motorcycle allows me an escape, just the vibration and the sound of the engine, combined with the open road, and all else melts away, at least for a moment, a few hours, a day of not being in the world of cancer. So I’m going to escape again, and think about only the road.

It only happens a couple of times a day, and only in certain places. When the sun is low in the sky, and you are driving on an asphalt road. Small particles of quartz, which normally lie hidden from view in the black asphalt, begin to sparkle like diamonds scattered across the road in front of you as the rising or sinking sun hits them at just the Brian Hill, Harley Davidsonright angle. Thousands of them, blinking like the stars you see looking up at a clear sky in open country. It’s magical. When friends hear me talk like this, they are sure that I’ve lost what little sanity they thought I possessed. It’s just a road for Christ’s sake. But they do not see it in its entirety, for it is so much more. It’s part of the magic intimacy of two wheel travel. Of course this is only one small nuance of the motorcycling experience. But as I sit to write this dialog, the experience and vision is fresh in my mind, having recently experienced it on an early morning ride back from Big Sur to Laguna Beach. After almost eight hours on the road, I can’t deny the physical drain of the day, nor can I deny the exhilaration of having done it. Rudyard Kipling said that “All things considered, there are really only two kinds of men in the world; those that stay at home, and those that do not.” I am definitely of the latter group.

My non motorcycling friends find my love of the activity a curiosity. But that surprises me little. Motorcycling, while gaining popularity, is only engaged in by a small percentage of the population. Like the open ocean or the stark desert, people are either fascinated by it, or completely oblivious to its beauty and complexity, an alien experience of pointless purpose. But to the initiates, it can be an almost Zen like experience, even if they cannot articulate it in those terms. There is a place on the open road where nothing exists but you and the machine. The wind in your ears, and the throaty growl of the exhaust have blocked all else, cocooning you in their monotony. The vibration in your arms, legs, and butt are another constant that helps transport you to the place of inner experience. The machines inherent stability at speed is comforting, and the physics of gravity, friction, gyroscopic effect, and more make the ride almost effortless as you follow an unobstructed road to a longed for escape. It is a state of grace.

However at a standstill or slow speeds, the motorcycle is a creature of a different sort. These laws of physics are not at work. You are in a tenuous balance, keeping the mass of motor and metal, plastic and leather, upright between your legs. The inattentive gamble with serious consequences. It happens insidiously, at first a small lean off center at a stoplight, a shift in weight that is almost imperceivable. Then, when the critical point of balance is passed, the 500 plus pounds of machine, which is so gracefully controllable at speed, suddenly asserts its desire to become an unstoppable object intent on a manic bid to meet the concrete with complete disregard for polished chrome, perfect paint, or damaged personal ego. It is a move that even the strongest cannot stop once it has begun. So much for the state of grace. Anyone who has stood next to their machine in a busy intersection as it lays there like a dead animal, will identify with the impact, both to the machine and your sense of mastery, that this event has. So we strike a bargain with the machine, a promise of attentiveness and skill in trade for moments of blissful unity. This theme finds itself woven into much of the two wheel experience, and indeed even into the daily existence of our normal lives.

Motorcycling is a pastime of dichotomies. It is an endeavor which takes you from point A to point B, when what you really desire is the journey, not to get to point B. The risks of motorcycling, which are real enough, are both embraced for their adrenaline producing qualities, and denied at the same time. But then a little denial is a healthy thing, least we live in a world of constant fear and dread. The motorcycle rider simultaneously lives in both the world of controlling operator, and blissful passenger. The duplicity of knowing the freedom of mentally disappearing into the drone of a long ride, when the actions of operating the machine border on the level of the subconscious, and the actual reality that the lack of complete attention can result in consequences of the most dire sort, is approached with the same attitude. Nothing feels more perfect than carving the perfect turn, one executed with just the right entry speed, the correct amount of lean, the line of entry and angle through both executed precisely, all finished with the roll on of throttle accelerating you away from the curve. Put a series of turns like this in close sequence to each other, on a clear perfect day, free from the clutter of automobiles sharing your space, and you have motorcycle Nirvana, commonly known as the twisties. But if the Gods conspire on a given day, to put a little gravel, or a patch of oil, at an unseen spot in the middle of that curve, traction’s tenuous hold lets go. And it can happen to the best. This is the duality of motorcycling. In many ways it is the duality of life. We cruise along blissfully engrossed in the beauty of the passing moments, and without warning a few errant cells change our entire world. A patch of gravel unseen on the road, a patch of cells gone astray – each with their similar consequences. Dire. Sudden. And then the ensuing struggle for control.

Classic aircraft, the essence of simple stick and rudder flight

Pilot Brian Hill in his classic 1952 Piper PacerAfter several years of flying a variety of contemporary “spam can” (all metal and plastic contemporary production aircraft) aircraft from the C-150 that I first soloed in, to multi-engine Pipers and Cessnas, I discovered the world of classic, mostly tube and fabric construction vintage aircraft from the 1930′s through the early 1950′s. With taut fabric stretched over wooden and tubular metal frames creating the shapes of wing airfoils and fuselages, these are flying machines born less of production lines and rivets, and more of hand craftsmanship. My log books are filled with adventures in these extraordinary planes. Any real stick and rudder skills I have, I learned from hours in these classic aircraft.

One commonality to these beautiful planes is the location of the small wheel which allows you to steer while on the ground, being located in the rear versus in the front of the aircraft. To the uninitiated, this may seem a minor distinction; but while they both fly the same in the air, they are two distinctly different animals on the ground. The nosewheel aircraft, with the steering in front of the center of gravity ,wants to track docilely straight down the runway when taking off or landing. But put that wheel behind the center of gravity, and any inattention to correcting the slightest deviation of the planes direction while moving on the ground will quickly allow the plane to swap ends 180 degrees, in an often disastrous manner. This yields the fabled “ground loop,” the mother of many bent props, broken gear, and bent wing tips, not to mention deflated egos. Correctly named conventional gear aircraft, they are also referred to as taildraggers. From the simple cubs to the beautiful Beech 18 twin engine, from the premier fighters of WWII such as the Mustang and the Spitfire, to the beginnings of modern airline travel like the DC-3, the common denominator was the tailwheel. While many pilots fear their ground handling based on stories of mishaps they have heard, (repeated often mostly by pilots that have never been taught their proper management),  the tailwheel is just another acquired skill that takes practice to master, and every landing requires your complete attention until the plane comes to a stop.

From open cockpit Stearman bi-planes that taught our pilots of WWII their basic skills (including my father who went on to fly B-17 bombers over Germany) and after the war dusted our growing agricultural fields with fertilizers and pesticides, to time logged in quintessential Piper cubs that lead lives as bush planes in the otherwise unreachable wilderness of Alaska, and spotted for our WWII artillery units, flying low and slow over enemy territory, my skills were built in a variety of these machines. Flying in these planes has taught me more about the “art” of flying than all the time under an instrument hood, or navigating from point A to point B.

After training in the average contemporary aircraft, the stoic panel in a classic plane can be almost disconcerting. I mean there isn’t much there. And in that fact lies the beauty of it all. It’s about flying outside the cockpit with your eyes on the world around you, not at a bunch of instruments. Needles pointing at directions, miniature planes behind glass – tilting left or right or moving above or below a line that represents the horizon characterize the modern airplane. They are epitome of a video game….. and not part of classic aviation. But in most classic aircraft a panel with an altimeter, a tachometer, an airspeed indicator, and an oil pressure gauge, and you are good to go. Besides the absence of instrumentation, toss out those auto pilots, and the fancy GPS or digital panels that reveal more information than you can possibly digest, or to a degree so finite that it boarders on the absurd – Oh my God! I’m flying at 3,005 feet and not 3000!!! The world is outside your windshield, the attitude of the airplane revealed to you by sight, feel, and sound

In a world of control towers and tarmac, with airspace invisibly filled with protected altitude defined spaces of control and individuals trained to separate you from others, these classic aircraft are born of an era of landing in a open field, a freshly harvested farmers land, and being free of being told what altitude, what direction, or what speed you must fly, or for that matter communicating with anyone at all.

Story in progress…………..

Thoughts from a Vietnam diary

I awake from dozing in the sunlight, uncertain if it is morning or afternoon, one side of my face sensuously hot from the sunshine’s touch. I don’t remember it being so bright when I fell asleep. Perhaps that was in the morning, I don’t really remember. But now the bright light passing through the windowpane paints the dusty floor with bold designs of light and shadow, and the sun is high in the sky. Trapped in its highlights, dust particles spin and whirl in a Lilliputian dance. I try but I cannot shut out the brightness, though I squeeze my eyes tightly closed. The warm light defeats even my eyelids, and with them closed, my view becomes a wash of bright orange red like the sun itself. I savor the warm caress for a while longer, reluctant to wake fully. There isn’t any hurry, and doing so will serve no need, there hasn’t been for months now. I live trapped in a place where time has lost relevance. Staring through slits of partially opened eyes, I gaze out at the winter landscape formed by the rumpled white sheets in front of my view. Empty and barren, a miniature world devoid of noticeable life, the sheets mirror the arctic winter of my emotional condition.

On the windowsill before me the single stalk of a scraggly geranium bends towards the glass. Languishing in soil long ago depleted of nutrients, it lives a marginal existence in a feast or famine world, helplessly dependent on the whims of the passing clouds who snuff out the sunlight, and the sporadic arrival of water from the cooler down the hall. Trapped in a terracotta pot, its only movement has been an almost imperceptible slow motion turn towards the light over many months. A motion which over time has left it in a twisted and unattractive posture, its last singular cluster of leaves pressed into a corner of glass and wood. A crust of white minerals has laboriously worked its way out through the porous terracotta clay to the surface, and now surrounds the pot like frozen frost crystals on the high desert floor. I have watched those crystals appear one by one, though the process took months. Like a movie run at the wrong speed, row after row they gradually appeared in my timeless world, until they nearly obscured the red brown clay itself. Waking further, I rub similar crystals from the corners of my eyes and mouth.

In an earlier time things were different. Resilient green stems struck out in all directions. Pithy, aromatic leaves, each one competing for the most sunlit position, covered the stems, and flowers the color of lover’s lips burst from the surrounding green. The earthen pot was uniform in color, and if you looked closely, you could still see the imprints of the potter’s fingers on its surface. Yes, things were different when the geranium and I first came to this place. But that seems like a long time ago. Now I spend my time drifting in and out of sleep, living on memories, and contemplating the futile monotony of my daily existence. How we both have changed.An Hoa, Vietnam

Down the hall I hear the prattle of the nurses who watch over me. Mai and Dow. Like barnyard hens they incessantly chatter back and forth in Vietnamese. What an unattractive language. Full of harsh breaks and clucks, their conversations, a subtle irritant always in the background of my thoughts, grates on me. How ironic and fitting that phonetically, Dow’s name is the Vietnamese word for pain. They each have coal black hair and eyes, and when they look at me, I feel the gaze pass right through me as though I am not even in their view. I have never been able to fathom their words, and get no sense of their thoughts or emotions from their foreign words. Their expressionless faces provide little clues, and I am clearly only an object of their labor. Looking back into the bottomless black of their eyes I see nothing, infinity. Of course the prattle between them continues while they tend to my needs. Medication, feeding, and an occasional cleaning. But always the touch of emotionless hands, used as if rolling over a bag of potatoes.

There is the clatter of the sheet metal cart on wheels approaching down the corridor outside my room. One errant wheel shutters continuously like a broken shopping cart, causing everything on the pushcart to precariously bounce and rattle. Mai turns the corner into my view pulling the dented, shuddering rig which holds the tools of my imminent bathing. Sponge, soap, razor, mirror, and of course the sloshing bowl of tepid water. My desire to be clean or filthy is uniformly neutral. With my departure from this place uncertain, I have ceased to care about even the most basic aspects of my life.

I am young, though with the slow passage of unremarkable days, I feel like a lifetime has come and gone. Before I came here, I worked hard to achieve my varied goals in life, though it seems now in retrospect the general course of my existence was primarily a product of circumstance rather than intent. My life has been more intuitive than deliberate, though I would like to think otherwise. I had a knack for recognizing opportunity. While others would stare obliviously, my awareness acknowledged the numerous vacancies from which opportunities are born. This sense from an unknown source served me well. In friendships and love affairs, my openness to possibilities brought me many successes. But now I wonder; after so many successes, what has failed me that I should end up here; broken, future uncertain, alone? A series of random chance events working outward from a burst of shrapnel too near to a hydraulic line? A flight too near an obscure village, so meaningless as to not even warrant a name on a map? Whatever the circumstance, I am without means to alter the direction that it has set my life on, nor which my individual days take. One day perhaps I will leave this place, but I know that no matter how distant this experience becomes, it will always be a core part of who I am. Were it even possible to mentally distance myself from this experience, the many healing tears in my flesh will leave a visual reminder of these feelings, re-igniting them in an instant. I am now utterly cognizant that any feeling of control over one’s condition or future is fleeting, and belief in that control or self directed destiny, certainly is an illusion that our ego builds to cope with the reality of the randomness of our existence.

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