Sunday, December 16, 2007


I used to fly. Have I ever mentioned this? I used to fly hot air balloons, and it was glorious.

The first balloon I flew was a FireFly 5.0, a big balloon for a noncommercial rig, with 52,000 cubic feet of volume when inflated. The envelope (the balloon part) had orange and brown horizontal stripes with a touch of yellow. It wasn't particularly pretty, but it was graceful for something that was so enormous.

For some reason I cannot define, I was suddenly overcome by sadness late this afternoon. I couldn't shake the melancholy, and I'm still trying. With all of the thoughts swirling in my head, one pushed to the forefront and asked to be recognized. It was the memory of being airborne, of flying in near silence. It was my mind begging me to remember how it feels to float, to be untethered.

I am not and never have been afraid of heights. I detest the sensation of free-fall, though, so I will never willingly jump out of an airplane. I don't like to fall, but I love to fly. Commercial jets are of no interest to me, but the intimate space of a balloon's rig, or the tiny cockpit of a Piper Cub make my heart fill with an indescribable joy. Joy is not an emotion that anyone would associate me very often.

I was a terrible pilot. Maybe not terrible, but since I have poor depth perception, everything about piloting was a challenge and I had a particular knack for never sticking a landing. The feeling of being up in the air with nothing but a piece of wood and some cable between me and the Earth 1,000 feet down was worth the stress of taking off and landing. Landing neatly was a whole other thing.

Our balloon was named Mariah, after the Broadway show tune from Paint Your Wagon:
Away out here they have a name for rain and wind and fire.
The rain is Tess, the fire's Joe and they call the wind Mariah.
Mariah blows the stars around and sets the clouds a-flyin'.
Mariah makes the mountains sound like folks was out there dyin'.
Mariah. (Mariah).
Mariah. (Mariah).
They call the wind Mariah.

Flying a balloon is a lot like sailing in many ways, not the least of which is a certain need to acquiesce to nature's navigation preferences. It's also almost impossible to set up a balloon without help, and since you can't steer a balloon, you need someone to follow you on the ground. I can honestly say that working chase crew honed some directional sense that had previously been dormant deep inside of me.

After I was transferred for my job, I met another pilot who was willing to let me trade crew duty for flights and lessons. His name was Jery Hewitt, and he and his brother, Don, and most of their friends, were stunt actors or fire/explosion special effects techs based out of New York. My first ballooning friend was actually afraid of heights and a very conservative pilot, but Jery and Don were flat-out fearless. They also worked training stunt people, so they expected anyone who played with them to be inherently fearless, as well.

My favorite memory of flying was from a New Year's Day flight with Jery and Don. It was bitter cold, and my feet were numb before we even got the balloons laid out on the frosty grass behind Jery's house (the yard was not only big enough to launch two hot air balloons from, but also was home to a 50-foot steel tower Jery used to teach people how to fall off of buildings). I flew with Don in a balloon that was much smaller than Mariah. The difference in flight was startling. Nothing happens quickly in a balloon, and the larger the balloon, the slower it responds to changes in wind or temperature. Don's little balloon was unbelievably nimble.

Because it was so damn cold and the air was perfectly still, we were able to converse easily between the two balloons. We flew over mostly wooded areas, and I practiced pumping short bursts of propane-fueled flame into the envelope mostly to see if I could learn to control ascent in very subtle jumps. I realized that I was controlling the balloon so well, we were weaving through the air just inches above the tree tops, and for once I wasn't hitting anything. I was so cold, though, my fingers and toes had lost all feeling.

Don told me to concentrate on maintaining the balloon's altitude with precision movements. He told me to stay focused on the tops of the trees. I did as I was told, and within seconds, the entire forest fell away and suddenly we were hundreds of feet above a valley, having cleared a cliff I never saw coming. It was like that amusement park ride where you spin inside a cylinder and once centrifugal force holds you against the wall, the floor drops out, taking your stomach with it.

I gasped. Don patted me on the shoulder and laughed. "Surprise! Where did the ground go?" I was too stunned to speak. I was surprised, yes, but mostly I was delighted by this treat, this trick of visual perception, and it left me exhilarated. When we landed, smoothly, flawlessly, Jery congratulated me on successfully "threading the needle" with precision flying in the woods, and then he, too, asked me if I was amazed by the falling away cliff.

Perhaps this kind of intensity is what my life lacks now. I'm busy, I do things to make other people happy, I entertain myself with mostly solitary activities, but none of that brings me joy. I can't remember the last time I felt exhilarated. I don't think I've had the capacity to feel that for a long time. I miss it.

Maybe I've had a hard time feeling for longer than I can recall. From the time I was a pre-teen, I put a lot of mental effort into not feeling whatever I didn't want to feel. Did I spend significant parts of my adult life seeking out intense experiences just so I could feel something? Perhaps. Probably. Whatever I did, it worked, but now I wish I could turn it off. As it turns out, I still don't like feeling. I channel too much of what is uncomfortbale and not nearly enough of anything exhilarating. Given this situation, I'd prefer to just turn off the ability to feel as I did it so well years ago.


Spilling Ink said...

My brain had trouble processing this post, May. Well, you did ask! My brain had trouble here because I can relate only too well. It was easier to avoid having to think about it well enough to be able to form a comment. You said, "...remember how it feels to float, to be untethered." I know about the joy of being unconfined and unleashed and floating along in peace. That was what I used to get from writing novels. I described it once as "flying". It was glorious. I've never felt anything else quite like it. You see, I was free then, when I wrote. I was free because my conscious mind did not really participate, but somehow a coherent, mysterious and exciting story formed. And the characters! Oh, how I loved them. They were my friends. It's hard to explain. But... then bad things happened anxiety-wise. Really bad things. I eventually came to realize that I was using the stories to... tell about things. Worse yet, the telling was symbolic and the implications scared me to death (because of the unremembered). I couldn't look. I couldn't bear it. I had to run away. Sometimes I felt like I was dying after that, May. I still don't know how to get it back. I'm too afraid. I understand more things about that now. I was 'telling' from a variation of a place I used to call "the wasteland". That is the domain of the unconscious for me. It's where the stories came from. It's where I can fly. It's also the 'place' I used to go to hide as a child. My place in the sky. I didn't have any place else to go. I got very badly triggered by a partial memory the other day. I ended up in my old 'place'. The one in the sky. I took pictures. I posted them, but I didn't blog what happened. People have been looking at my hiding place, but they don't know that's what they are looking at. I thought, since you understand the feeling of flying, that maybe I could tell you, and hopefully, it doesn't sound too crazy. If it's TMI, just delete and no hard feelings.

May Voirrey said...

I understand, Lynn. I know that since I wrote this, I've thought a lot about what being untethered represented for me. It's beyond the metaphor itself. I think that in a complex mind, the moments where we can disconnect and just be are precious.

Your comment reminds me of the book, Prince of Tides.