Airplane, taken at Air Harbor Airport
MY FIRST PLANE, TAKEN AT AIR HARBOR AIRPORT, WHERE I LEARNED TO FLY.

Flaps, one notch. Mixture, rich. Sky, clear. Throttle, full. Brakes, released. The plane clings to the ground for an instant, Newton and one of his pesky laws stunts your movement, but soon, another law trumps inertia and you inch forward, creeping at first, then picking up speed, faster and faster, the landscape a green blur down both sides of the peripheral vision. Feet work the rudder pedals, a slight sway from left to right then back again. The stick vibrates your palm as a narrow, white needle springs to life on the airspeed indicator, its silent warning screaming that 30 more knots are critical before you can even think of lifting off. Meanwhile you’ve eaten up half the runway, the trees at the opposite end, the ones that appeared so gentle and kind and docile before, now furious, their faces gnarled in determination as they yank themselves from the ground, shake the red clay from their twisted roots and begin to charge toward you. Against your instinct, you hold steady, fighting the urge to jerk the stick back before it’s time, knowing if you do, the plane will become a mangled mess because you lacked airspeed, that vital element of lift and flight.

The needle creeps, moving through mud, caught in a slow motion time warp as it arcs from 40 to 45. The magic number is 60. The trees blitz within their own time anomaly, but unlike the sluggish airspeed gauge, someone has pressed fast-forward on a true universal remote and the wooden creatures sprint faster toward you. 50…55… They close in, their crooked limbs stretching your way. 58… Too late to abort, not enough runway left to stop. 59… If only you had 30 more feet of runway…but wait…the plane rises, the wings on both sides physically lift, curving upward like a drawn bow pointed toward the ground. The trees strain skyward in final attempts to snag you in their tangled branches, but you sail over them by scant feet. You glance down, realizing now they outnumbered you. The front line hid an army of trees behind them, a whole nation of their wooden brethren, but now the menacing green creatures appear docile again, mere shrubs from your new vantage point.

For almost an hour, you soar over the countryside, scan the sky for oncoming aircraft, monitor the gauges, peek at your winged shadow as it glides across the ground, expanding when it darts up the side of a building and races across the roof before plunging down the other side where it shrinks once more. The setting sun draws your eyes as it brushes against the far clouds on the horizon, singeing their scalloped edges golden before morphing purple and red as the sphere sinks behind them.

It’s time to land. You point the airplane toward the faint lights of your home field, one of the shortest airstrips in your state, and you scan your gauges, paying special attention to the airspeed indicator once again to ensure you carry enough speed right up to the runway threshold, but not too much, lest you land long and ram the same trees you outwitted during takeoff.

Gentle touchdown in the grass field, an emerald sea sloshing against your wheels as you slow. A burst of power propels you to your tie-down where you throttle back, cut your avionics and lean your fuel mixture full back until the engine stutters and the blurred propeller slows until it’s visible once more.

You stretch three braided ropes, heave them taut to anchor your winged mare to earth until you return another day to do it again. Walking away, you wonder if you need ropes yourself, perhaps with sandbags tethered to their frayed ends for ballast because you float across the field instead of walk, the soft grass swaying beneath your feet in the tender night breeze because your mind is light, your body energized, and both are pulsing with life.

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For a long time I thought I knew the reason I felt so alive, so energized after my initial fight training and beyond, but I was wrong. At first, when walking away from my plane after a flight, I mistook the intense energy that clung to my being as elation. And why not? I had finally pursued my dream, a long suppressed desire to fly.

I’m sure elation was embedded somewhere in the emotions I felt, but over time the true reason dawned. For that hour, from the moment I entered the aircraft until it was tied down, I thought of nothing other than piloting the plane. I didn’t conjure the past, futile attempts to relive and regret. I didn’t march through my monumental to-do list in my head. I forgot about bills. I forgot to fret over the future. In other words, I lived in the moment.

If I accomplished my goal in writing the beginning of this piece, you were living in the moment as well, forgetting the annoyances and distractions of life that vie for your attention. Yes, the piece may have taken your brain elsewhere, the reason so many of us like to read novels, but it’s still a “present” you experience real time, even though you may be in a fictional world.

After this realization, I searched for other activities that anchored me in the present. Good novels jumped near the top of the list. Exercise scored high as well. Just as reading locked me in the present, so did writing, an activity I started to immerse myself in with increased frequency. Nature was a biggie. Some claim a 20 minute walk once a day in nature does more for your well-being than any pharmaceutical wonder drug could ever accomplish. I agree with every fiber of my being. No matter what mood I’m in, a short walk in The Bog Garden, a Greensboro park, will cure what ails me. It’s hard to stay down when you glide under green tree canopies while the sky pushes blue at you between the spaces in the leaves.

Want to know something else that tugs me into the present moment and never fails to spread a smile across my face? The sight of a dog’s head thrust out a car window, its eyebrows arched in sheer enthusiasm, tongue trailing in the wind. I guarantee all dogs live in the present. We could learn a lesson or two from them. Next time you’re driving a car, ease down your window, erasing that curved glass between the you and the world. Feel the cold, or the heat. Shoot your arm out, palm down, and let your “wing” slice the air. Encourage your passenger to do the same, especially if he or she has a perma-scowl etched on the face. Who knows what will happen? Perhaps if you’re driving fast enough, you both may sail over that far horizon into the great wide now.

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