Eight Three Zero One Foxtrot – Part II

Piper Saratoga

In July 2007, we planned our most ambitious flight.  It would double as a trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina for a week-long family reunion with my siblings and a once-in-a-lifetime chance for my husband to land a plane at Kitty Hawke, on the very field where the Wright brothers made their famous first flight.

The travel plan was to include two 3-hour flights — the first from Chicago to Charleston, West Virginia, and the second from Charleston to Kitty Hawke, North Carolina.

The first leg was largely uneventful, as we traveled through smooth air, topping out at 5,000 feet.  As we neared the airport, I was stunned to see that the landing strip was situated atop a steep mound of terrain with a sheer drop on either side.  My left hand developed a cramp from gripping the base of my seat so tightly.  But my husband lined up the plane perfectly with the runway, touching us down smoothly.  “Great job,” I whispered, along with a silent prayer of thanks.

After completing the post-flight check and tying down the plane, we checked into a nearby hotel and had some dinner.  We walked around the tiny town, grabbed some ice cream, and returned to the hotel, flopping into bed and falling instantly to sleep.

The next day, Sunday, we returned to the small airport, late morning, ready to begin the second leg of the journey, thoughts of a soulful connection with Wilbur and Orville in our heads (well, in my husband’s head, mostly … mine involved the usual effort to quash my fears of potential turbulence, engine failure, electrical storms, and mid-air collisions).

It was a beautiful day, with a clear blue sky and hardly a breath of wind — perfect for flying, I thought with relief.  We were the only travelers that day, with a polite young airport attendant awaiting us in the office.

We began the pre-flight routine, checking the oil, pumping gas, and re-loading our bags onto the plane.  Once strapped in our seats, with head phones in place, my husband started the check list recitation, calling out, “Clear prop,” and turning the engine key.


“Clear prop,” he said again, turning the key.

Tick-tick-tick.  The Saratoga trembled briefly and went still.

“Clear prop,” he said a third time.

Nothing.  “OK.  This isn’t good,” said my husband, showing his penchant for quietly stating the obvious.  My legs already jellifying, and my palms assuming a clammy sheen, we unharnessed ourselves from the seats, pulled off our headsets, and climbed out of the plane.

We approached the office to discuss the problem with the polite young airport attendant, who informed us that no mechanic was  on duty, given that it was Sunday and all.  He did furnish us with the phone number for the mechanic who was typically available the other six days of the week.  He added that this gentleman usually enjoys fishing on Sundays.

My husband dialed the number for the mechanic and left a voicemail.  I pictured this guy lazily tossing a fishing line onto a glass flat lake somewhere, without his cell phone off.  I silently cursed him.

As the realization of this General Aviation Predicament settled in, I called my sister in the Outer Banks to warn her that we might be arriving a little late.

My husband continued to call the fishing mechanic.  We began discussing our options, thinking that we still had plenty of time to make it to Kitty Hawke before sundown, if the problem could be diagnosed and fixed soon.  If not, we would have to stay another night in Charleston and leave the next day.  By now it was almost 2:30 in he afternoon.

Then my husband’s phone rang.  The fishing mechanic was on his way.  He arrived a half hour later.

He and my husband spoke quietly and peered at the Saratoga’s engine, as I retreated again to the office to submit another progress report to my siblings.  This time I explained that we were reaching the crossroad between leaving and staying.

By now it was after 3:30.  Upon rejoining my husband and the mechanic, I learned that the battery was dead, but that it could be jumped.  The mechanic was already working on this task.  My husband climbed into the cockpit, and on his signal, turned the key.  The Saratoga shuddered to life, and continued shuddering violently.

My husband jumped out of the plane and then uttered to me the eight words he will probably regret for the rest of his life:  “He said it will charge in the air.”

What I heard was :  “This plane has about an ounce of battery juice, and while our chances of survival are about as slim as a fart in a hurricane, I’d like to make a go of it.”

My response, of course, was to assume panic-attack mode, answering in a hitching, “I-can’t-do-this-I’m-not-much-help-to-you-I-can’t-even-take-in-what-you-just-said-I-don’t-think-this-is-a-good-idea……”

Before I could lose another cognitive or physical faculty, he said dully, “OK.  I think we better drive, then.”

My head still jerking with tiny sobs, I returned to the office to make a final call to my sister and share the revised travel plan.  The mechanic continued to work on the plane, and it was decided that a full tune-up would be completed in addition to charging the battery.

After pulling our bags from the Saratoga, we walked in silence to the nearby rental car office, which, to my great relief, was open for business.  A few minutes later we climbed into the rental car, clutching the paper maps provided by the agent — me licking my wimp-wounds and my husband wrestling with thoughts of a dream deferred.

Around 9pm, we reached my sister’s house at the Outer Banks.  We spent two days there, having to make the return drive to Charleston on Wednesday to beat a storm system that was brewing in Iowa.

The flight from Charleston to Chicago was the most turbulent I’d ever experienced.  My husband agreed fully agreed that it was one of his as well — we bumped and dipped and jerked the entire three hours.  I recited a loop of Hail Marys non-stop, in between attempts to unclench my hands, now fused to either side of my seat.

It was my last flight in the teeny weeny plane.

It would be commercial aviation for me from now on.

But, you know  …. the security lines stretch for miles, you’re charged for every bag you check,  the engines are loud, the cabin is dry, it’s crowded, your knees get bloodied by the chair in front of you, pretzels seal your tongue to the roof of your mouth,  and seriously, have you ever arrived on time anywhere ?


Eight Three Zero One Foxtrot – Part I

Piper Saratoga

The last time I flew with my husband was at least five years ago.  I’m talking teeny weeny planes.  My husband pilots single-engine planes, a past time that makes him happier than a Slinky  on an escalator.

“It’s not you — it’s me,” I sniffed.  I really tried to be a cooperative flight companion.  Gave it ten good years.  But I couldn’t do it anymore after the West Virginia incident.  More on that in Part II.

Our very first flight together should have afforded more than enough clues about my foray into the unpredictable world of general aviation.  Everything is really unforeseeable and very, very  small.  Those tiny tubes with wings, some seating four people, some seating eight or nine, with their cracked leather seats that pinched the backs of my thighs; the control panel that rose at least five inches above eye level, causing me to peer over it like a toddler gripping the bar of a play pen; and a typical pre-flight cockpit temperature of 3,000 degrees — just never met my personal comfort and safety needs.  The kicker on that first flight, though, was being strapped into the passenger seat, the dusty control panel inches from my face — with the “Spin Recovery” button set squarely in my sight line.  Really?  “Spin Recovery?”  Was I to discern that this aircraft has a propensity for inverting  like a giant spinning top, twirling toward earth, only to magically right itself when said button was depressed, sending passengers merrily on to their destination?  Or was this a kind of aviary placebo?

The vast differences between general aviation and commercial aviation became apparent to me rather quickly, of course.  This  handy reference comparison outlines the major distinctions.  “CA” refers to Commercial Aviation,  while “GA” refers to general aviation.

CA:  general physical comfort with pressurized cabin.  GA:  coffin-sized, non-pressured crawl space.

CA:  neutral, albeit dry air temperature throughout flight. GA:  cockpit temps may reach 6 bazillion degrees during pre-flight check; A/C can only be used while air borne; flop sweat accompanied by significant water weight loss (not an entirely bad thing)

CA:  trained flight crew of up to 6 people, at least 2 of whom manage take-off, actual flying of aircraft, and landing; cockpit crew only visible to passengers before take-off and after landing.  GA:  one trained pilot, seated, laterally, inches away from passenger, often smearing said passenger with forearm sweat.

CA:  aircraft designed to muffle engine sounds  GA:  head-compressing noise-cancellation head phones required for any semblance of communication; prevent potential hearing loss and bloody-throated shouting

CA:  ground crew pumps fuel and completes maintenance check  GA:  pilot and passenger check gas quality by squeezing a tiny portion from one of the wings and stating something like, “Looks pretty good to me.  What do you think?”  “Yeah, sure, what you said.”

CA:  ground crew tows plane to gate prior to take-off  GA:  pilot pulls plane from hangar with a long fish-hook instrument attached to teeny weeny plane’s nose gear

CA:  in good weather, relatively smooth movement of aircraft during flight, with typical bumps from air currents or clouds  GA:  every microscopic air current and bump sensed to the marrow of one’s bones

CA:  flight crew use very fancy GPS to locate destination airport; auto pilot mechanism lands most larger jets, with some minor maneuvering by pilots  GA:  pilot and passenger visually search for airport from cockpit windows; pilot typically states, “It should be coming up pretty soon,” or “We should be able to see it right about now.”

Now, my husband believed in me and gently brought me along on a journey of General Aviation Education.   We’d take off from Campbell Airport in Grayslake and fly over Lake Michigan and along downtown Chicago.  Other times we took jaunts to Lake Lawn, Racine, or Door County.  He taught me how to change the radio frequencies and familiarized me with many of the instruments.  It was alternately impressive and unsettling to watch him open and fold giant maps placed on his lap, communicate with the radio tower, and work with a hand-held GPS  throughout the flight.  I had to suppress the urge to say, “Shouldn’t you keep your eye on the road … er, sky, or something?”

Our two longest trips were to Omaha and Toronto, originating from Chicago.  These two flights we took in my husband’s favorite plane:  Eight Three Zero One Foxtrot, more familiarly known as a Piper Saratoga — or the “Sahrahtohgaaaaaah,” as he always uttered, with dreamy-eyed reverence.

My initial take on the Saratoga was that it was like going from a Motel 6 to an Omni Hotel.  It was a prettier plane, and I could maneuver inside it more easily, if you consider actually having your legs out in front of you and not wrapped behind your ears.  The bonus feature was the auto-pilot mechanism, a special favorite of my husband’s.  It was stunning the first time I watched as he took his hands off the control yoke, only to see it turn gently along the flight path, all by itself, as if maneuvered by an invisible magic pilot elf.

But that good impression wouldn’t last.  My reference point changed after the death of John Kennedy, Jr., who was flying the same kind of plane when he went down in the Atlantic several summers ago with his wife and sister-in-law.  I was never able to shake that image.

Yet I did go up a couple more times.

And then there was West Virginia.

Green Balls of Doom

Brussels Sprouts

Conversion,  they say, comes from within.  That may be true, but it doesn’t happen without time and a boatload of external influence.  My own  recent conversion was born out of a dinner conversation with a friend.

Conversation topics were far and wide, though at some point we began sharing food preferences and dislikes.  I shared my loathing of Brussels sprouts, to which she responded with incredulity and the myriad ways she prepares those shrunken-head cabbages.  I rationalized my resistance as a minor flaw compared to more serious personal short-comings.  Besides, I had learned to eat broccoli, I stated proudly.  This declaration was met with the stony stare of the unimpressed.

Still, this culinary one-upmanship launched me on a trip down the memory lane of my childhood dinners.  There were six mouths to feed in our house.  My exhausted mother survived by making preparation quick and convenient.  Meat loaf, fish sticks, and pork chops were typical main dishes  – no major problem there.  Vegetables were another story.  Frozen green beans, spinach,  broccoli, and Brussels sprouts alternated with canned peas and asparagus.  Brussels sprouts were, for me,  Enemy #1, with broccoli running a close second.

Said vegetables were frequently overcooked, causing them to take on a brownish-green tint they were never meant to possess, and lie there on the plate, victims of culinary abuse.  Except for the Brussels sprouts.  They held up under the most severe forms of heat torture, sustaining their general structure and doing everything but cackling at you from the plate.

Such dinners wreaked havoc with my gag reflex, my behavior echoing the universal  disgust reaction of infants upon tasting an unpleasant food:  drooped eyes, flared nostrils, shoulder rise, and the final tongue thrust to expel the offending matter.

My parents worked to save the meal by encouraging us to add  vinegar to spinach and Miracle Whip to  broccoli, for example.  My broccoli resembled majestic white mountain ranges you might find in a wall calendar.   I tried my brother’s nose-plugging method, applied in an effort to suppress the sense of taste while eating.  This was only marginally successful.  I later employed a short-lived effort to eat the feared food first.  The time-honored solution, of course, was to initiate catchy dinner conversation while scooping the vegetable into the waiting napkin placed strategically on my lap.

Time, of course, was the only real solution to this vegetable problem.  With age and a little maturity I came to enjoy fresh versions of many green vegetables, so I wasn’t a total loser.  But the Brussels sprouts things just wasn’t happening.

Until I decide to do the thing I feared most.

No, not going to work without make-up.

I decided to turn over a new leaf — to yank on the big girl pants and eat a Brussels sprout.  Perhaps two.  I emailed  my friend to request one of the recipes she’d described.  She complied readily and supportively, aptly dubbing the recipe, “Green Balls of Doom” to commemorate my childhood experiences.

The recipe was straightforward, although the requirement to slice the little creatures without severing a finger and bleeding out on the kitchen floor proved challenging, initially.  After comforting the cat and ducking those that shot like cannon balls from the cutting board and ricocheted off the cabinets, I developed a rhythm, catching the offending rollers before they could topple off the counter.  In a few more minutes, there they lay, coated in olive oil, cayenne pepper, and brown sugar, snuggled between thick slices of bacon.

About a half hour later they were atop the stove.  I had warned my husband about this new food item, extolling the virtues of open-mindedness.  Chicken was the main course for dinner.  The Green Balls of Doom served as the vegetable, with a green salad for back-up, in case of a failed experiment.

Pow!  They were delicious!  The complimentary seasonings were a perfect combination, the cayenne pepper providing a good kick.  No flared nostrils!  We high-fived, congratulating ourselves on having expanded our herbivorous horizons.  They even re-heated nicely the next evening.

I  graduated that night.  I joined the Enlightened Community of Brussels Sprouts Eaters.  Admittedly, my reaction reflects the zealotry of the newly-converted.  That will be tempered with time.

I giddily reported my conversion to my friend, who was surprised and impressed.  A month later, I took another important step in Brussels Sprouts Cool by ordering them while out to dinner one evening.  Since then I have begun collecting recipes.  Did you know you can even prepare Brussels sprouts chips?  Sounds a little like trying to spread peanut butter on corn flakes, but intriguing nonetheless.

I am living proof that there is hope for all of us.

Conquering squash is next.


Brussels Sprouts with Spicy Bacon*


12 Brussels sprouts; extra virgin olive oil; kosher salt; cayenne pepper, to taste; 2-3 slices apple wood smoked bacon, cut into lardons; optional:  2-3 tbs. Turbinado or light brown sugar


Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.  Cut Brussels sprouts into half lengthwise, from top to bottom.  Peel off darker out leaves, if needed.  Toss the sprouts with olive oil, salt, and cayenne pepper.  Set aside.

Mix together cayenne pepper and Turbinado sugar (cayenne pepper alone, if desired).  With bacon strips laid out, cover both sides of slices with pepper/sugar mixture, to taste.  Cut into 1″ – 1 1/2″ strips.  Separate and add to Brussels sprouts.

Place Brussels sprouts and bacon pieces into large baking dish on middle rack of oven until tender. about 20-25 minutes.  Move around once or twice during cooking time.  Fat from  bacon will suffice for keeping sprouts from sticking to pan.

Test sprouts about 15 minutes into cooking time, as they may need a bit more salt.  Use cayenne pepper to personal taste.  They can also be placed under the broiler for 1-2 minutes to crisp up, if this texture is  preferred.

*Used with permission


Elizabeth Emily

Acacia Tree

Dear Liz,

We’re travelling next week to dedicate a tree in your memory.  It’s a beautiful Acacia, growing lushly on the banks of a still pond, deep inside Fairchild Tropical Garden.

I’ve wanted to write this for some time, and with this visit so close, the moment seems right.

You died on June 25, 2010, at 48.  You went out under deplorable circumstances, quietly and neglected.  I still wonder … were you conscious?  Were you in pain?

The last time we were together was at your beach wedding ceremony nine months earlier.  You stood gaunt and rather uncertainly on the sand.  Your calls to me the previous spring had increased, marked by anxiety and admitted loneliness.  You often cried, only to apologize for doing so.  Looking back, I think you knew something was wrong — that you were indeed quite ill.  You resisted my offers to visit, and it was only after you died that I understood why.

You were the youngest of six, and while not unheard of, it’s inexplicable that you passed away first.  Born just months after our move to Atlanta, you came into the world with that soft chestnut hair and those striking emerald green eyes that complimented your tan skin.  The physical contrast to your siblings’ fair skin, pale blue eyes and varying shades of blonde hair called up jokes about whether the wrong baby had been brought home.  It seemed your physical differences and lively temperament set you apart — though I have often wondered if your beauty was one source of the abuses you suffered over the years.

My own grieving process was interrupted three weeks later by Mike’s open-heart surgery.   Others’ attention went directly to him, with hardly a mention of your passing.  While to some degree that’s understandable, their silence left me bewildered and angry.

As an expert in the field of weepery, I’ve  dropped many tears over you during the last three years.  I mourn what might have been.  You’d gone away, but returned like a prodigal daughter.  The years of separation had given way to hope.  You seemed relieved to be back in the fold.  Yet it was clear that your battle was ongoing.

I’ve been thinking back on our life together, and the memories that have been stirred by this pending trip.  Here’s a timeline of my favorites.

My earliest memory of you is watching you awaken, crying, and deftly climbing out of your crib.  You couldn’t have been more than 18 months old.

When I was 5 and you were 3, you enthusiastically took me  up on my offer to trim your hair.  The job was managed with a pair of safety scissors as you sat cooperatively-still on a stool.  Later that evening you cheerfully fingered me in response to Dad’s query about your new coif.    From there I transitioned to cutting our doll’s hair in what was, thankfully, a short-lived foray into the world of hair styling.

Sometime that same year, you padded out the kitchen door, in the total buff, to announce to Mom, during her chat with a next door neighbor, that you had nothing to wear.

You provided continuous visual entertainment at night, after prayers had been recited and lights were out.  I watched you in awe from the safety of my bed, as you gripped the door frame with one hand, leaning out into the hallway as far as you could without falling, to determine if the coast was clear for a trek down the hall.  This was a risky venture since our bedroom was right across the hall from Mom and Dad’s room.  You were successful about 80% of the time.  You had figured out how to lean out far enough  to see but not be seen, drop to a belly crawl, and then climb back up for a final sprint to the kitchen.  When caught by Mom’s bellow of , “Get back in bed this instant!” you somehow managed a wide-eyed, grinning mid-air turn, touching down on one foot and springing all the way to your bed.  Your successes inspired admiration, your failed attempts fits of hilarity.

One day during your kindergarten year, after mastering the requisite shoe-tying skill, you trotted from house to house, knocking on neighbors’ doors, inviting them to observe for themselves this new-found ability.  Mom somehow got wind of this and derailed your plans about half-way through your itinerary.

You willingly accepted minor roles in fantasy games with my friends.  None of them had younger siblings, and I grudgingly allowed your participation, as you had taken to following me everywhere.  I didn’t appreciate your cooperation with our unwieldy plot lines and the sedentary scenes to which you were relegated.  You soon developed your own cohort of friends anyway, leaving me in so much social dust.  I deserved it.

We used to jump into each other’s bed to rub backs when we couldn’t sleep.  I selfishly took the first heat, forcing you to stay awake and  rub my back as I drifted off to dreamland.  You didn’t put up with that very long, though, either.

Around the age of 7, you allowed friendship to trump competitive sports during your heat in the 50-yard breast stroke at a summer swim meet.  You enthusiastically called out to your team mate, Margie, as you took a breath between strokes and she sliced through the water a few lengths ahead of you.  This event was the hallmark of the evening for all in attendance.

That same evening, after the meet, Joe draped a towel around your head, which you clutched under your chin.  The crowd ambled down the dark street toward their cars, and you shuffled along with Joe at your side.  I walked behind you as they guy on the motorcycle cut through the crowd, cruising straight down the center, knocking you down and driving right over you.  You cried as Dad picked you up; you were unhurt, but shaken.  The motorcyclist leaned his bike over as far as he could while Mom shrieked and popped him repeatedly with my wet towel.  Later that night, after you had fallen asleep, I spotted Dad holding Mom as she wept, obviously still very upset.  This rare act of comfort was startling in the glimpse it provided of their  buried connection.

As you grew, so did your natural artistic talent and your gift for drawing others to you so easily.  People took delight in your company, your laugh and your sense of humor.  You developed many friends and a legion of art fans.  You were given the nickname Lizard, which you loved, and soon became the symbol with which you signed all your work.

In our dancing and singing you perfected your talent for comedy and mimicry as well, doing unrivaled imitations of Cher and Tina Turner, and even moving your mouth in perfect sync with the siren of a passing ambulance.  So delightfully naughty were you.

I’ll continue to work through your death, though it probably won’t every truly be resolved.  It’s poppycock to say that it could be.  Loss is managed.

The Acacia tree, soon to have a plaque bearing your name, will keep your memory alive.  I’m so grateful for the time we did have together, for all that you taught me, and that we found each other again.  Thanks for the years of joy and chaos and love.

I miss you.