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A Daredevil's Despair
“Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”
The little boy sat at his window, watching the fiery plume of smoke shoot towards the sky. He was clad in blue pyjamas adorned with tiny rocket ships, zooming across the fabric. His mother walked in with a glass of water. “It’s time for bed Larry,” she said softly, “You can watch the rocket launch next time, I promise.” Larry stifled a yawn, and climbed into bed. Shaking from the tremors of the launch, the model airplane above his bed gave the illusion of flight. The year was 1968, Apollo 7 had just launched, and Larry knew that one day he too would be a pilot.
* * *
The boy who was now a man sat at his window, absent-mindedly gazing at the abandoned air force base, former home of the Apollo Space Program. In a couple hours, he would take the Air Force entrance exam, and all his hopes and dreams would either finally be realized or come crashing down around him. At the moment that all seemed a long way off. His mind was lost in his childhood, reminiscing about the old launches he had been so fixated on. Remembering the fire, the smoke, the brilliant white light. Remembering how he had been amazed that the enormous vessel ever managed to lumber into the sky. Most of all, remembering the longing he felt gazing into the vast sky, and how, as the rocket soared upwards into the heavens, all his hopes and dreams soared with it.
The door closed shut with a resounding clash. The quiet house became a maelstrom of objects whizzing through the air. Chairs and tables were overturned, china plates shattered on the ceramic tile, and books flew through the air like flocks of birds. In his fury, Larry overturned his bed, then fell to the floor in a miserable heap. He sobbed quietly for half an hour, then rose and walked to the window. He gazed out at the derelict launch pads, the corpses of abandoned rockets lying on their sides like beached whales. All of his life had led him up to this point, and now his body, the one thing beyond his control, had failed him. The phrases kept running over and over again in his mind. Words like lanky, frail, unfit, weak. He had been born with a congenital heart defect and poor eyesight, and as a result he had failed his Air Force entrance exam. Once again, he felt the rage boil up inside of him. Impulsively, he grabbed his desk lamp and hurled it with all his strength at the bay window. The glass shattered and rained down around him. Too embarrassed to face his parents, he decided to leave. He grabbed his backpack, gathered some clothes, and pocketed his dad’s car keys before heading out the door. All he wanted was to leave this place that was now so filled with regret. But he couldn’t quite bring himself to abandon his dreams of flight.
* * *
The truck’s single working headlight pierced the quiet night sky as it rattled along the country road. The only other sounds to be heard were the swaying of the reeds and the chirping of crickets in the wheat fields. After failing to gain admittance to the Air Force. Larry had worked various miserable jobs at convenience stores and gas stations. They had paid the bills, but he had always felt like he was out of place. It was almost as if he was homesick for a place he had never been. He had been fired from his last job after a misunderstanding with his boss, and had landed temporary work with a trucking company based out of Arizona. As the new guy he had been assigned a lot of the overnight shifts. He had been feeling a bit run down, until one of the other drivers told him about the pills. He had been assured that they were perfectly legal, and that he would never fall asleep at the wheel again. That had been several months ago, and ever since he had been popping the small, red, magical pills with increasing regularity. As he was pondering his life’s shortcomings, a tired mother was driving her son to his early morning hockey practice. As she crossed the quiet, unassuming intersection, the lone streetlight flickered and died. At the same time, Larry’s truck crested the ridge of the hill above, gaining speed as it descended. He snapped out of his reverie at the last minute, but it was too late to avoid the small green pontiac making it’s way across the street.
The world around him was a hazy blur. He was lying in a bed, his leg perched at an odd angle and his head wrapped tight in bandages. He was surrounded by tubes and beeping machines, preserving his life as if he were a Frankenstein creation. People clad in white coats bustled around him, making adjustments to the equipment. He attempted to rise to his feet, and the room began to swirl. One of the doctors injected something into his IV, and he sunk back into a drug-induced haze.
Later, a kind faced doctor filled him in on what had happened.
“Larry, you’ve been in an accident. You’re in the hospital, do you understand?”
He nodded, although his mind was still elsewhere. A single image was running through his head, over and over like a broken record. Him snapping awake, too late to avoid the car in front of him, the passengers’ faces frozen in the glare of the headlights. The boy had been holding something up to his face, maybe a hockey stick, as though it could protect him from the twelve tons of steel hurtling towards him. The doctor brought him back to reality.
“Your leg was badly broken in several places, and you suffered burns to about 45% of your body. Also, a piece of metal shrapnel lodged in your skull, but it’s too close to the brain stem to risk surgery. It most likely won’t cause you any trouble, and you’ll be able to live a normal life.”
“But... but what about the others?”, Larry stuttered, “The other car?”
The woman gazed at Larry a while, with a mixture of pity and indifference on her face. She had seen this type of thing many times before.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but neither of them made it.”
Larry looked up at her, a look of utter incomprehension on his face.
“They’re dead, Larry”, she said softly.
She talked to him for another half hour, explaining that it wasn’t his fault, that there were therapists available to speak to, but none of it registered with Larry. He was stricken with grief over what he had done, the pain he had inflicted, and the irreversibility of his mistake.
Two months later, a ragged tramp walked into a community of squatters outside of Los Angeles, California. The formerly muscular, healthy trucker was now barely recognizable. His emaciated form took up hardly any space at all in the small village of tents and trailers. After the accident, Larry had turned to drinking, hard. He was let go from his job after failing to show up, and the abundant bottles of Jack Daniels had quickly soaked up all the money in his savings account. The accident had cast a dark shadow over his mind, one that would pursue him until the end.
After a few weeks, Larry became friends with another of the vagabonds in camp, who went by the name of Crazy Eddie. He told Larry, with considerable pride, that he would not be homeless for much longer. He had found a job at an army surplus store in Palo Alto, about an hour from L.A. He informed Larry that there was another position available at the store, and encouraged him to apply. A week later he had the job, and he made the decision to turn his life around. He moved to Palo Alto, quit drinking, cold turkey, rented a small but clean bungalow, and even found a girlfriend named Tina.
Larry was back on the right track, but unlike most people, he was not content to simply exist, working during the week, playing poker with his buddies and going hiking with Tina. He was happy, but he was also restless. Like an old childhood toy that’s been lost for years and then found again, his thoughts began to turn increasingly towards the sky. He read books about flight, watched movies about flight, and talked incessantly about his dreams of flying. He peppered his boss at the store, a retired Air Force captain, with questions about flying. But living out his fantasies vicariously through the actions of others was not enough for him. One dreary Saturday afternoon as he and Crazy Eddie were taking inventory and working on their fifth round of beers in the back of the store, they hatched a plan to turn his dreams into reality.
They returned to the store that night with Larry’s rusty old Ford. They pulled the large black tarp off the pile of crates in the corner, coughing from the cloud of dust that they had set off. The five large crates each contained one 1950’s era Navy weather balloon. The balloons were not meant to be sold to the general public, they were merely there to be stored. They also picked up several canisters of helium gas, and an old shotgun. No longer under the influence of the alcohol, Larry was beginning to have second thoughts about their scheme, but he knew that if he didn’t fulfill his dream, he would go crazy.
The following day dawned bright and clear. That afternoon, Larry, Tina, and some of his friends gathered in their small backyard. They had lashed the weather balloons to a grimy old lawn chair, then tied it to Larry’s old truck. Larry sat in the rickety contraption as it rose quickly, then stopped with a jerk as the ground lines snapped tight. He had brought along some sandwiches, the shotgun, a camera, and a case of beer for the journey.
Suddenly the only line tethering the flying machine to the ground snapped like the crack of a rifle. Larry soared into the azure sky with astonishing speed, and his friends quickly shrunk to the size of marionettes. In what seemed like seconds, he was suspended 16,000 feet above the ground, gazing down at the maze of houses, parks and supermarkets below.
Suddenly, a roaring sound filled his ears. He turned around in his seat and saw a giant metal behemoth zooming past him. The jetliner looked as if it was moving in slow motion, it was so large. Larry waved, laughing as he pictured the look of bewilderment on the passengers’ faces. He had consumed most of the beer and sandwiches, so he decided it was time to begin his descent. He popped some of the balloons with his shotgun, but then, to his great dismay, he fumbled the gun and watched as it fall quickly to the ground below. Luckily, he had jettisoned enough balloons in order to begin descending, albeit it very slowly, back towards the earth. Meanwhile, the wind had begun to howl maliciously, and it was pushing him further and further away from his home. In no time at all, he was floating over Los Angeles, an hour from his place of origin. Eventually his craft drifted into a suburb in Long Beach, and he wound up tangled in some power lines. He was able to hop from his perch in the rickety chair to the ground below. He gazed around the lawn, unsure of what to do next. He walked around the house where he had crashed to the front lawn and was greeted by a strange sight. Several police cruisers were parked out front, their lights blazing, and officers had encircled the house. There were also more than a few news vans, reporters and camera crews bustling about. In the distance, Larry saw a detective dressed in a dapper suit speaking with one of the reporters.
“We know he broke some part of the Federal Aviation Act, we’re just not sure what it is yet. I assure you as soon as we figure it out, charges will be filed against this man.”
Larry grinned as he was stuffed into a waiting squad car. Another reporter shoved his way in and asked, “Why’d you do it?”.
Larry thought for a while then said, “Well, a man can’t just sit around.”
* * *
Several years later, Larry stood in the forest and pondered the events that would in all likelihood be the most exciting occurrences in his life. After the arrest, he had gained a great deal of notoriety in the press, making the front page of the New York Times. He had never thought that fulfilling his dream could have inspired so many people, and made others believe that their dreams could maybe one day also become realities. He had quit his job shortly after the flight, doing an advertisement for Rolex and going on a motivational speaking tour across the country. He had then been tracked down by the authorities, who had finally figured out which law he’d broken, and charged him a $5,000 fine. He had appealed, and gotten it down to half the amount. As he walked out of the courthouse, a reporter asked him how it had gone.
“If the Federal Aviation Administration was around when the Wright brothers were testing their aircraft”, Larry said, “they would never have been able to make their first flight at Kitty Hawk.”
Demand for his presentations quickly fizzled out, however, and Larry found himself unable to find any work. With no real future in sight for them, his longtime girlfriend had left him. Larry quickly sunk into a deep depression, packed up and left town. He hiked extensively in the San Gabriel and Sierra Nevada Mountains, and volunteered for the National Forest Service.
When people found out who he was and what he had done, they were always awe-struck and amazed. But to Larry, his achievement somehow felt hollow. His car accident from many years before continued to haunt him, plaguing his dreams and consuming him with guilt. The police had never found out about the amphetamines he had been taking when he crashed, and he had never served time. There had been no other witnesses on that lonely stretch of road to tell the real story. Every single time he closed his eyes, the faces of the mother and young boy he had killed ran over and over in his mind. That boy would never see the earth from above as Larry had. He would never drive a car, go to college, get married, or have kids. His life was over almost before it had begun, and it was something for which Larry could not, and would not, forgive himself.
He stood in Los Angeles National Forest, surrounded by 100-foot tall cedar trees. Their majestic pillars rose high above him, forming a cathedral in the wilderness. A few rays of sunlight pierced through the vast canopy overhead and slowly radiated to the ground. The gun he had brought with him felt cold in his hand, chilling it to the bone. In this vast cathedral of trees, he prayed for forgiveness, asked if it could please be okay. But there was not a sound to be heard except the rustling of the leaves in the wind and the chirping of the birds. No one would answer his prayers.
In the evening dusk, a single gunshot rang out through the forest. Birds fled from their perches, and squirrels rushed for the safety of the trees. The gun fell to the ground with a dull thud. The man’s suffering was finally at an end.