DANNY

Once my frequent flying companion Harold helped me accomplish a task of such personal importance that I won’t forget it as long as I live. For several years before I had taken up my brother’s challenge to go hang gliding, I had been volunteering on a weekly basis at a local home for severely handicapped persons. Among these residents was a young man in his twenties afflicted with cerebral palsy, a terrible disability that so thoroughly restricted his movements that his limbs would fight violently with each other whenever he attempted to move, leaving him entangled and grimacing in frustrated effort. Yet in the face of this he persisted in maintaining a basically cheerful nature, a trait that should put to shame those of us who spend time focusing on our own relatively trivial problems. I know that his attitude has affected me this way, and probably did much to develop my character, such as it is, beyond what it might otherwise be.

As my association with this terribly encumbered individual developed, I began to notice that his intelligence most likely surpassed my own, which just made the fact of his affliction even worse: he represented a mind imprisoned in an almost nonfunctional body. Despite the severity of his affliction he showed an interest in adventure, exemplified by an incident that took place during an outing where I pushed his wheelchair around a few residential blocks near the nursing home. Coming upon a slight dip in the sidewalk, I released my hold on the handles of the chair and told him, jokingly, to ‘go for it’. Fighting unwilling muscles, he screwed up his face in a grin and lifted an arm in a semblance of a pump, attempting to make a thumbs up sign.

It was inevitable with that kind of attitude that eventually the thought of taking Danny hang gliding would enter my mind. In time, this notion became a burning desire. Being but a novice at the time, I realized that I didn’t have the experience to accomplish this on my own. I approached several pilots who were far younger and had more air time than I did but was turned down flat. I wouldn’t say that they were all afraid to do it, although I’d bet that it was at least a factor with some; it was more of an affront: they couldn’t comprehend why a severely handicapped person should be on the big hill. Realizing that if anyone was going to do the job it would have to be me, for the next several months I worked hard at acquiring the necessary experience. Toward the end of that time, I had Danny weighed at 94 pounds and took to the big hill wearing a backpack into which I inserted a progressively increasing number of lead SCUBA weights. I had gotten up to about 60 pounds when I really began to worry about overstressing my glider. About that time also my flying friends, including Harold, were venturing farther afield with their gliders in search of better lift conditions. Not willing to be left behind on the big hill, I went along with them, essentially putting the project with Danny on semipermanent hold.

One morning a few months later I awoke to a strange peace and the certain knowledge that on that day I would take Danny up to the big hill and we would jump off together. I had no idea how that might be done, but I was sure that it would, despite the fact that I had never flown in a glider with another person, even as a passenger, and had no idea what to expect. As a Christian I understood this knowledge and especially the peace regarding it to be a gift from the Holy Spirit. Every year that passes I am more certain of this fact. And very, very grateful.

The first thing I did after getting dressed was to call Harold, asking him to come with me and help to figure out how we were going to get Danny into the air. Then I went to the nursing home, told the staff what I intended to do, and picked up Danny. We met up with Harold on the big hill, where he was already attempting to figure out how the launch was going to take place. He had a rope slung over his shoulder when Danny and I arrived and was eyeing a big stump. He wrapped the end of the rope around the stump as I came up to him, and walked over to the edge. “I think this is gonna work,” he said as he wrapped the other end around his waist, cinching it tightly. “Go ahead and set up,” he continued as he tested it. He had just enough slack to get him over the edge at a 45 degree angle.

Harold was one strong guy as well as brave and compassionate, being exactly the person I needed for help. As I walked the glider to where I’d run off the edge, Harold cradled Danny in his harness. We hooked him into the keel, along with me, while he continued to hold Danny in his arms. When I signaled my intent to go, he ran with me to the edge and, just as he felt the tug of the rope around his waist, flung him away in front of the glider.

I felt a twist of Danny’s harness on the keel and, having not quite achieved flying speed, we momentarily dove in dubious control. But we had a thousand feet to sort things out, and eventually gained a semblance of normal flight. Danny’s excitement was extreme, his jaw dropping as he attempted to grin, and it gave me a wonderful feeling that this strange thing we were doing was being smiled upon by God. This feeling of euphoria continued after we landed, when Danny gave me a look of pure joy.

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