Air Time

I never thought about heights until we went hunting down on a ranch in the Texas Big Bend. The place was huge, and the rancher drove us around in his war-surplus jeep looking for deer down in the canyons. He would drive fast across the rough terrain, steer for the edge of the canyon, then quickly brake when he could see down into the bottom. We would all bail out and walk the few feet over over to the rim, looking down into the bottom several hundred feet below. It was exciting.

Those old jeeps had two uncomfortable seats up front, occupied by my dad and the rancher, and hard bench-like arrangements in back where my brother, my uncle and I would sit. After the first couple of times we did it, my uncle would jump out the back of the moving jeep as we approached the edge, explaining that he was going to look further off to one side. My dad noted later that my uncle was afraid of heights. I guess his imagination was better than mine, because it never occurred to me until later that we could rather easily have skidded off the edge and plunged several hundred feet to our certain deaths. Plunging to certain death hadn’t occurred to me up to that point.

A couple of years later I had a chance to go snow skiing with another uncle, who flew three of us teenagers up to Colorado in his private plane. After we took off from Fort Worth, he explained that he had had a rough night the night before and it would be really good if he could take a short nap. Since I was in the front seat, he asked if I would be willing to steer the plane for him for a while. He showed me the heading, how to keep the plane level, and to be sure to wake him if anything weird happened.

It was a bright sunny day over the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles and eastern Colorado, and everything went pretty well after he went to sleep. I was near panic for the first thirty minutes or so, but soon lapsed into a near coma-like trance constantly watching every dial and every surface feature we passed. At the end of an hour (seemed like days), I was pretty stressed out, but feeling that I had some control.

My uncle shifted in his seat, sleepily reached out to the control panel and pushed what he thought was the cigarette lighter. If you’ve never flown a plane, you may not know that the throttle is a stick that you pull out to get more power and push in to get less. My uncle had inadvertently pushed the throttle in instead of the cigarette lighter.

Immediately, two things happened: the engine seemed to die, and so did I.

Luckily, I was completely frozen, unable to breathe, speak, move or even panic. I saw us, as replayed in black and white from hundreds of films, spiraling down into the prairie below. I would hear the whine as we neared the ground, but knew I wouldn’t hear the crash that killed me.

My uncle shifted in his seat again, hit the cigarette lighter, then pulled the throttle back out. Maybe two or three seconds had passed and my uncle just took a deep pull on his unfiltered Camel. I found I could breathe, as well. Plunge to certain death avoided.

There was a metal bridge over the lake not too far from the summer camp where I worked. The road bed was about twenty-five feet above the water, and the bridge girders topped out nearly twenty feet above that. Some of us decided that jumping from the bridge would be cool; we heard it had been done before, and no one had died. One of the guys got a motor boat to ferry us back to shore, and he invited some of the girl counselors along to witness our feat of glory.

We arrived at the bridge, and I immediately noticed that it looked higher looking down than looking up from the lake below. With little to no traffic, we walked to the middle and one of the guys leapt off from the road level. I was too scared to do that, but somehow ended up climbing the girder to the top of the bridge, then jumped without taking time to think about it.

It seemed like I fell forever, but I stayed vertical the whole way down. It flashed into my head that my jump would be pretty impressive to any observers, such as those girl counselors in the boat below. Hitting the water was a little less impressive, since I had not kept my feet as together as would have been preferable. As I surfaced, the motor boat with the observers came over to pick me up, but I had to go under a few times to extract the back of my swimsuit from the place where it was jammed. Glory was not without its cost.

I was reminded of that experience when I worked for the Oklahoma Highway Department one summer during college. I was interned to the guy who inspected field welds on highway bridges under construction and overhead road signs. We drove around the state and climbed up in the box trusses made of pipes that held the signs over the interstates. It was pretty exciting being out on one of those trusses when a semi going 70 or 80 blew by underneath us. I learned to always have at least one hand firmly grasping something solid.

The bridge I-beams were welded in place before the concrete road surface was poured, so we had to walk out on the beams, and check the welds with a sonar-type instrument. My job was to go first, carrying some of the equipment, and clean off the welds so my boss could get a clear reading. Most of the bridges had one or maybe two joints, we only had to go out a little way, and we might be fifteen or twenty feet off the surface below. It was interesting.

However, up by Tulsa there was a new, very long and very high bridge going in that soared over a river, a freeway and train tracks. Although the I-beams were pretty wide and tall, shear connectors were mounted on the tops to keep the concrete in place once it was poured. These were rivets, mushroom-shaped steel pegs fixed vertically on the beam, four or six across in rows spaced six or so inches in between. There would be a smooth surface for about thirty feet, then ten feet of shear connectors. While my boss was comfortable walking on top of them, I walked sideways and placed my feet carefully between the rows, moving very slowly. It required me to look down constantly, and I became extremely aware of how high we were.

Out in the middle, as I stepped across some connectors, my boot caught on the lip of one of them. For something between a millisecond and an hour, I fought for balance. I could see the jeep plummeting off the cliff to certain doom; the airplane spiraling down to a fiery impact; and a tightness in my nether region reminded me of my jump from the bridge.

I put my foot back down, lay down on the beam and crawled the rest of the way out. With the big beams, I could hold on to the top flange and walk on the bottom one sideways. It was slow, and not very pretty, but it got me off that bridge without being killed. Plunge to certain death avoided, once again.

I began to appreciate my uncle a little more. Maybe all it took to feed my imagination was a little experience. I was capable of being just as imaginative as my uncle; I just needed a little perspective.

A plunge to certain death was indeed possible.

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