MOMENT OF TRUTH

Some things leave indelible impressions. I can remember events that happened in boot camp like they occurred yesterday or even a few hours ago, even to the extent of recalling conversations, feelings and personal thoughts, which is eerie because that was over half a century ago. My first launch off the Big Hill was of that ilk.

The rumors were on the money: the hill was really, really BIG. A few years later, Bill Watterson, the creator of the cartoon series Calvin and Hobbes, perfectly captured the essence of the experience in his depiction of Calvin on his Radio Flyer looking over the edge of a hill to a vague pattern of farmland and communities, some hidden by clouds, that one might observe from the window of a jetliner cruising at an altitude of thirty thousand feet.

The Big Hill wasn’t thirty thousand feet up, but it was a good thousand, which was plenty high enough. The thought of voluntarily running into space with that much air below me was incomprehensible. It just wasn’t Natural.

I vividly remember the lack of haste with which I first set up my glider atop the Big Hill. It was noticed by others, particularly my instructor, whose grin widened with every reluctant minute that I spent on the task. Finally the contraption was together and I was out of both excuses and time. The moment of truth was at hand. With a beckoning motion my instructor directed my wobbling knees toward the edge of the cliff and watched while I hooked in. He stared me in the eyes, began to give me some last-minute instructions, and gave up the lecture when he saw my incomprehension. He simply said “Go for it!”

The shouted command woke me from my daze; I went into denial and willed my legs to move. Before I knew what was happening my feet were no longer connected to ground. But I discovered to my astonishment that I wasn’t in free-fall. I was – Flying! Truly flying, with nothing but air beneath me. I was possessed with a joy of double proportions – first, for having the wherewithal to overcome what could only be described as the onset of panic, and second, for the experience itself.

The experience gave me a deep thirst for more: banking, turning, pushing out for altitude, pulling in to descend. Before I knew it, the five-minute sled ride was nearing its end with the approach of the ground and I had to land. I don’t remember the landing itself, and I doubt whether it was anything I’d wish to recall later. But the experience of flight was memorable. I had thought that the accomplishment of graduating from the training hill was worth remembering. It was nothing compared to this. As I tore down my kite for transport and hauled it off the field, I welcomed the knowledge that my life would never be the same.

Strangely, the dread of launching off the Big Hill didn’t go away after that first flight. The next ten or so launches continued to be dark affairs, so much so that I began to despair of ever making them in relative comfort. But the flights themselves continued to be joy-filled experiences, which mitigated the unpleasantness of the launches. Soon thereafter, however, the fear started to ease and around the fifteenth flight the launch itself began to feel natural. In my novel Rotor, Paul Henry goes through the same transition from fear to comfort, experiencing his share of injuries in the process.

In western Washington there is relatively little thermal activity, forcing serious hang glider pilots who fly in those parts to seek ridge lift in order to remain aloft. The Big Hill wasn’t situated well with respect to the prevailing winds for that purpose. That is why, formidable as it appeared to the novice pilot, it was mostly used as a training hill. There are other hills, though, most of which are a little farther out from the big cities, that are ideally suited for ridge-lift flight. After about twenty launches from the (Big) training hill, it was time to acquire the experience of sustained hang flight.

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