Honey, Baby, Sweetheart: Essay « Deb Caletti
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Honey, Baby, Sweetheart: Essay

Paragliding In Real Time

You never know what a day will bring. I’ve got proof of that now. You can wake up one morning and not even have a clue that a few hours later you’ll be jumping off a mountain.

Here’s what happened. I was setting up the release party for my book, Honey, Baby, Sweetheart, about a girl and her mother with screwed-up love lives who get involved in a book club for seniors and a plot to reunite a pair of geriatric lovers. The book takes place in the fictional Nine Mile Falls, which is heavily based on the town where I live. Issaquah has the same quirky places – the road with the faux castles, the nursery, the church with the sign on the lawn that sports “inspiring” quotes you can make jokes about until you get to the freeway. But it also is a premier paragliding location, and the paragliders are featured heavily in the book. They are the character’s real spiritual inspiration, and a pull away from messed-up men and toward personal adventure. Seeing thirty-five or more of them soaring between two mountains on either side of the road is an amazing and unforgettable sight, a cathartic boost of visual freedom, and one of the reasons I most love living here.

In planning for the release party of the book, the good people at my local Barnes & Noble and I decided it would be fun to include some of the area merchants that appear in the story. We were going to invite Hayes Nursery and the Front Street Market and the paragliders to come out and take part in the signing. I had given a lecture that particular morning, and I drove right past the paragliding school on my way home since I hadn’t planned on talking to them that day. On impulse, I turned back around and swung in their driveway. I parked and knocked on the door, then saw Marc Chirico, in gardening boots and with grass on his nose, come around the corner. Marc and his wife Lan are the energy and force behind the Seattle Paragliding School. Marc is all charisma and good humor, exuding life force and skill of the paragliding craft. Lan, also a paraglider, is more quietly capable, focused and directed. Powerful team.

I had brought the article that another Issaquah fixture, reporter Larry Johnson, had written about the book. I showed Marc, told him about the school’s appearance in my book and our scheme for the release party. But his attention was caught by something else.

“What’s this?” Marc says. He points to a sidebar article where Larry had asked me a lot of questions – some smart ass ones, some more serious. My favorite hamburger. What I thought of Bob Dylan doing Victoria’s Secret commercials. If I’d ever gone paragliding, since it is such a big part of the book.

“Just a few questions that Larry…”

“It says you’ve never gone. It says you’ve always wanted to.” Marc’s eyes lock onto mine and don’t let go. I’m in trouble already, I can tell.

“Sure, but he was just asking because …”

“It says you always wanted to. We need to fix that. We need to fix that today.”

“Today?”

“We can go now.”

“Now?” I am in a dress, high heels, leftovers from my speech. “I’m not sure I’m exactly dressed for it.”

“We can get you a flight suit.”

“I’ve got to go get my kids at school.” I picture the scene. Sorry I’m late picking you up, Guys. I was busy paragliding. Sure.

“Do you have two hours?”

Before I know it, we are walking over to the landing field to meet with Abe (pronounced “Abby”) Laguna. He is lying on the grass landing field, head back in his hands. A baby duck is walking around him, and all I can think of is those stories you hear about where a baby animal thinks the first thing it sees after being born is its mother. In this case, the duck’s mother was this kid with short dreadlocks and a great big grin. I love him immediately, because Marc also points his van out to me. It looks as if it is held together by hope, operates on prayers – old and so dusty that the paragliding folks have decided to just use it as a message board. He may as well be the character in my book brought to life, as my character, too, has a quirky half-alive van that is parked right where Abe’s is.

While I am sure that fate has chosen Abe because he has stepped from my pages, Marc has actually chosen Abe for other reasons: a) he’s really good and b) he takes a camera up on a boom and takes pictures. Marc has decided that this is the best PR he can think of – photos of author in the air – happy, ecstatic, glowing. Our mental images are different – I see a roll of pictures of me screaming, maybe ready to puke. We talk, come up with a more sensible plan than paragliding in heels – I’m to come back at 5:00. Marc says the evening light will be beautiful. Marc says the winds that day are perfect and gentle, that it is the kind of day when he calls up his eighty year old paragliders and tells them to come on out. I confess that this was reassuring. I mean, Marc knows. But it also made me want to prove to Marc that I didn’t have to be treated like an eighty year old. That I was a strong, powerful and still fairly young woman. That I could take on this challenge with daring nonchalance, filled with a casual and easy spirit of adventure. I wonder where I filed my will.

I return at 5:00, with my husband and kids. If you are going to plunge to your death, or if you are going to soar, you may as well have an audience. I barely have time to say goodbye – I am immediately directed into a truck jammed full of paragliders and equipment. I am in the tiny front cab with two other people, and my pal Abe is in the back. We drive to the base of the mountain where another truck is already nearly packed solid with paragliding guys and equipment. We step up, squish in. It’s like riding in my Jeep, only way bigger, with benches lining each side, guys all shoved together and packs and gliders in big lumps on the floor. Abe lays in the center of these, smiles big. Marc introduces me to the truckload of people. I feel like an entertainer at an army base, riding in an overgrown Jeep full of soldiers. The uniforms are wrong, though, as they are mostly canvas pants and sunglasses, REI outdoorsmanship, sandals. One huge guy is wearing a Superman t-shirt. When I later ask if he changed in a phone booth, some guy cracks that he wears a cape when he flies. Marc tells me that there are lots of stories in this truck – the guy next to me escaped from Romania when he was nineteen, for example. Landed in jail, escaped again. And our driver, Michael Miller, an integral part of the school team, has made over 300 flights in spite of his cerebral palsy, overcoming obstacles I can’t even fathom to become the only pilot with such a handicap to be licensed by the U.S. Hang Gliders Association.

We start bumping up the mountain, people and gear sliding all around. I hold on. This is worth the ride right here, better than my Jeep, even, and you have to hold on to keep from flying out. The Romanian man next to me begins telling the group about being jailed, about sleeping in the forest, about the feeling he got when he finally saw that border crossing. The soldiers-at-war feeling continues, until the man on the other side of me, unshaven and sunglassed, starts talking to me about writing and brings me back to the real world again. He’s a writer, too, as well as an adventurer. I ask him what he does in his “real” life. He tells me he is a rolfer. I wonder if this is a cue that I should whip out an air sick bag, but before I begin to panic he hands me his business card and I see this means he does a form of massage that restructures the body. There are a lot of stories, here, all right. People leading double and triple lives, earning a living, finding direction, following passions.

We bump and jostle to the top of the mountain. The bald spot on Tiger Mountain where people take off and sometimes land is called Poo Poo Point. I’m not kidding. That’s its real name, and not based on anything that people do in their flight suits out of fear, although I’m sure that’s a joke these guys have heard a thousand times. It is beautiful up there. And high. Real high. You can see the valley; bodies of water you didn’t know existed. My kids and I have been up here before to watch the paragliders and to check out the scenery. I have pictures of one of those visits hanging in my kitchen. The three of us with the camera held out at arm’s length; my son and daughter at the cliff’s edge; my daughter and I sitting cross-legged and pretending to meditate in Zen fashion. It’s a killer hike up there. Straight up. A My God Call The Aid Car kind of hike. I can’t imagine that some of these guys actually trek up with their equipment rather than going in the truck. Abe lugs his pack up to the jump off point. He is an amazingly strong guy, and even he is laboring a bit with this pack. He drops it to the ground and I try to lift it to see what the problem is. It is so heavy, it feels like it’s got up couple of dead bodies in there. Yikes – dead bodies. Bad image. Rewind, delete.

Abe opens up the pack and there is a flurry of activity all around. Someone shouts something to Michael Miller. You’re still as ugly as ever, he banters back. Packs are set down; Marc begins talking on his radio. The glider is unfurled. Marc helps with this. We are going first.

Oh shit.

A helmet is plunked on my head, and now I resemble an olive. Abe taps the top of it with his knuckles. He puts over-sized gloves on my hands, and I clap them together because this seems what is called for. He tells me what is going to happen. Explains it all, and I promptly forget. I ask him if he’ll remind me as we go, and he assures me he will. He tells me that there is nothing I can do to mess this up. Those are terrific words. Words you wish you could hear in so many other parts of your life. They seem too good to be true.

“Nothing?” I ask.

“Nothing,” he says.

He makes me squat down, and he holds me up by my wrists. Man, that guy is strong. Superman is lounging on the hill, grinning rather sadistically, if I may say. Other people are unpacking, others waiting. They all know the rhythm and the routine. Abe zips into his flight suit. He looks like a pro, and I tell him so. “This is what I do,” he says. He smiles. His confidence is more reassuring than anything I can think of. I learn later that he has lost two close friends recently to paragliding, and in tradition, had inherited all their gear. One man fell into the sea. They found him with shark bites in his body.

They zip me into the harness. It feels like I’m lugging a drooping chair around on my butt, and this is exactly what I’m doing. It is rather difficult to walk with this drooping chair hanging off my butt. Superman is smiling now, all right, and I throw him faux dagger looks. I check out the clips that will attach me to Abe. Two clips. Just two metal clips. I have a mental word or two with those clips.

The glider is lying out along the hilltop. There is some discussion whether we are going to use the runway (which looks like a golf course putting green on a slope), or the side of the hill. At least, I think this is what the discussion is about. The glider is lifted. There is a branch tangled in one of the strings and Abe barks directions to have it removed. We are clipped, Marc is videotaping. They use the videotapes in Saturday morning training sessions, and to blackmail authors with after they leap and give Poo Poo point a story worthy of its name.

“Do you have anything you’d like to say?” Marc asks, one eye behind the camera.

“Oh my God,” I answer, and we are off.

I stumble. I am trying to stand, when all of the sudden we don’t need to bother, as we are flying. I scream. I believe later they politely describe it as a squeal. Flying. I am sitting in a chair and flying. Oh my God is right. I look around. We are on top of the trees. For some odd reason, it is not so scary. Maybe because all you can think of is how beautiful it is. How soft and fuzzy the trees look. How many shades of green there are. How remarkable that this is what the day has brought.

“What do you think, huh?” Abe says. “Do you love it?”

“Abe,” I say. “This is your life.”

We fly higher, and higher. We have caught what is called a thermal, a wind that is allowing us to go amazing heights. We see a falcon. We are above the falcon. We are looking down on the tops of the other gliders. They are beautiful from there. We are talking along as if we weren’t 5,000 feet in the air. I point out a swimming pool. Abe tells me that this is a nudist camp that I never knew was in my neighborhood. We pretend to look for nudists to no avail. I hear Marc on the radio, guiding someone on his first solo flight, someone who I learn later is Superman himself. Lean this way. Feel it. His voice is all confidence building, calm guidance, imparting mastery to a super hero. I see Mt. Si, in the town of North Bend. It is astonishing how things look both bigger and smaller than normal. I can see Seattle, a tiny toy city, and lakes and mountains that are enormous. If this seemed real, it would be terrifying, but my legs hanging down look like they belong to someone else. None of this seems real. I say so to Abe.

“It is real,” he says. “Look, I’m pinching you.” Sure enough, there is a pinch on my arm.

Abe takes pictures. It’s kind of cold up there, and my eyes are watery. He asks me to hold the boom, which requires letting go. We have to lean this way and that to turn and guide the glider. I look down as I’m leaning. I’m not sure if this is such a good idea. It reminds me of what I am actually doing. And if I had to choose one way to describe it, I would say that it is like those fairy tales, the ones where a giant bird flies a person in its beak. I am sitting in a chair in the beak of a bird.

“Put your hand out. Like this,” Abe says. I see him stretch one arm out.

“No way.”

“Come on.” He takes my arm. Gently pulls it straight out. “Now the other one.” He takes my other hand, and we are holding our arms out to either side. “Look. We’re flying,” Abe says. We soar with our arms out. It is a moment I know I will never forget.

I ask Abe if he has children yet, and he says no. I tell him he will be a wonderful father some day. He is patient, and reassuring, and a good teacher.

“I have a dog, though,” he says. At least I think that’s what he says. The wind is whipping in my ears.

“Oh yeah?” I say. “What kind of dog?”

“Mallard,” he answers.

We are flying for over an hour. Finally, we start to slowly spiral toward the landing strip, that bald spot on the mountain. We are going to land there instead of on the ground, as Abe has another flight to make. It seems unlikely, impossible. The spot looks very small. It suddenly comes at us very fast. Something goes wrong and we have to rise and try again. Circling the airport for clearance. After a while we are heading down again. Ground – there it is. I almost forgot about ground. Abe tells me that I must stand when he tells me to stand. I fail miserably at this. He yells stand! and suddenly we meet the ground. We land tumbled together. Abe, me, ground. It is solid and firm, and we are there in one piece and Marc is there with the camera again, getting it all on tape. I am hugging Abe and telling everyone how awesome he is and he is laughing and I do believe I am a little bit high. Higher than 5,000 feet. Drunk on this adventure. My God, what a day can bring. Smiling faces llooking down. A racing heart. Happiness.

And then, earth. The real world, whatever that is. Today brings a new definition of that.

I hitch a ride back down the mountain with a woman who is also a pilot. She tells me about the skill, mental and physical, that is required for paragliding. The day’s gifts aren’t over yet. We see a deer, then a bobcat. Funny thing is, there is a real bobcat doing his bobcat thing, and all I can think of is how he looks just like they do in the pictures. He’s beautiful. Sits and watches us as we sit and watch him. His pointed ears are especially pretty. He’s had enough of us and moves on.

I reach the landing, where all of the nervous and grateful family members wait for their loved ones to come down. There is a duck there, waiting too.

It is improbable, of course, a dog/duck for a pet. But it is real. Just as this day has been improbable and real. I am a novelist, but there are no adequate words to describe flying.

So, I will now stick with what I can say, the simplest thing: Marc and Lan, Abe; Michael and nice lady who gave me a ride; Superman and Rolfer and brave new American; truck full of adventurers; Bobcat and Duck – thank you, all.