Southern Voice: Sherrill French
If you have ever stood on the banks of the Mississippi on a muggy afternoon in late August, you know that there is a certain feeling to the place. It is hot, yes. Almost unbearably so. And it is peaceful. But it is the light that defines it. The light that hangs as heavy as the humidity. The light that outlines the cottonwoods, warms the fields and reflects off each ripple of the water. The light that makes everything seem, at least for a moment, that time is standing still.
It was on such a day that this story began. I never thought it was going to be a story. But that is how all of the best ones begin after all.
I arrived at General Dewitt Spain Airport around three o’clock. You see, I had decided that this particular afternoon, I was going to fly a plane. Did I know how to fly a plane? No. But the romantic in me never conceived that this was a problem. The realist, on the other hand, thought I was a raving lunatic. But the dreamer piped back up and told me it was time. I had waited for ages to do it after all. I never thought I had been holding off out of fear, but perhaps I was. In any event, I finally figured I had no reason to be sitting around saying I would fly a plane one day yet never doing anything about it.
When I entered the flight school, I met the pilot who was going to take me flying. He was welcoming, polite and seemed like he did not think I was crazy to want to fly a plane even though I knew nothing about one. We walked outside and climbed into a small Cessna, which he will tell you is the hardest part of flying. (I would later come to the conclusion that he could only entertain such a maddening thought because he is such a brilliant pilot, but he is not wrong that it is a bit of a challenge to even get into the thing.)
As I pondered what I was doing there, the real pilot began pushing and flipping a mind-numbing sequence of buttons and switches as if this were a typical day. Of course, it was to him. All the while, I was wondering if it was too late for me to just hop out, tell him thanks for his time, and sheepishly meander back home. Because I had no business doing this, right? Who just calls an airport and says, “Hello there, I would like to fly.” I was crazy, and I knew it.
Despite all these thoughts swirling through my head, I did not exit the plane because, to be quite honest, I did not know how to either unbuckle my seat belt or open my door. So, I just sat there, trying to convince myself this was not totally certifiable. And then, in no time at all, the real pilot and I ended up on runway 3-5 heading north. Before I know it, we were in the air.
That is when the feeling of the place, and the light, really strikes you. You can see a sliver of the world from the ground, but you only can see the entirety of it — and feel it all the way to the depths of your soul — from the air. That particular runway sent us off right along the banks of the river. Memphis was to the south, and at a few hundred feet, it felt as if you could reach out and touch the buildings dotting the skyline. I was entirely awestruck, and the pragmatist in me was (pleasantly, I might add) forced into silence for the rest of the flight.
As we continued to climb, we turned west towards Arkansas. The real pilot showed me how to hold the yoke, which controls the ailerons and elevator, and how to apply the pedals, which control the rudder. I still felt certain at that point that I was batty, but I realized that I kind of liked it. And then, out of nowhere, he told me four short words I will never forget: “You have flight controls.”
Yes, me. I was in control. I was flying the plane.
I do not know if the real pilot meant to change my life forever in that instant. He may have been just stating a fact, although I tend to think by his smile he knew it was much more than that. I imagine he too remembers the exact moment that he was given this remarkable gift. And I imagine that everyone who has dreamed of flight has an equally indescribable memory of the time the sky was handed to them.
As you may imagine, I cannot remember much of anything else about that day. I learned to fly “straight and level,” as they call it, which I laughingly thought was a large part of what a pilot had to know. After all, any flight I had ever been on had (fortunately) been straight and level. It turns out that this is not a large part of what pilots have to know, which I would soon realize, but I am getting ahead of myself.
Before I knew it, it was time for the real pilot to take us back to the ground. We touched down as smoothly as we had taken off. (The real pilot can land that plane better than most people can park a car, which, as the learning process continued, would become exponentially more amazing and infuriating). And there I was, realizing with a punch to the gut that Leonardo da Vinci’s oft-quoted saying was painfully yet beautifully true: “For once you have tasted flight, you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return.”
Although da Vinci unsurprisingly managed the perfect words, I was at a complete loss for them. Instead, I was only able to mutter something to the effect of, “Could I learn to fly too?” Not just hold the controls, I meant, but be a real pilot. Here came the lunacy again. I had not one skill that would assist me in my dream of taking flight, but this particular pilot did not seem to be bothered by that. He told me very simply that I could learn if I really wanted to and that he would teach me. (I would discover along the way that there are a lot of tests to “really” wanting to. But I’m getting ahead of myself again.)
When he told me this, I thought that maybe I had not been the only crazy person in that plane. He had to be a bit mad too to think such a thing. But, because doubling down on lunacy seemed to be the theme of the day, I decided right then and there to just believe him. Even though — or possibly because? — I was convinced he was also insane. But the only alternative was not flying. And I was certain that, crazy or not, my place was in the clouds.
Sherrill French is a lawyer, artist, writer and aspiring pilot. She lives in Germantown, Tennessee, with her husband Daniel and her two children, Madeleine and William.
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