Original writings by Adrienne Nater

Digging Deeper     (a transition to Fright Flight)

She opens her eyes. The position of the sun and its mid-day warmth appear unchanged. She stares down at a world eight inches away. Dejected: "I canít walk back the 247 steps through the orchard, the 67 steps across the yard to the house, the 19 steps down the hall to the room: the white ceiling, floor, walls with the photographs, the faces; the 11 steps to the desk to sit in front of a machine, not yet. Her eyes, dry. She cannot cry, she canít remember when she had ever cried; she had, of course, but she couldnít remember.

She brushes her hands across the ground, clearing a space. "Always weeds, memories, so like weeds so why canít I pull them up, now?" Without motive or enthusiasm glimpses upward, the falling leaves. óó one leaf, drifting flying downward then another and another. The poem, High Flight, framed in her room, begins:

Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward Iíve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth

Of sun-split clouds Ė and done a hundred thingsÖ.

She always wanted to release herself from the bonds of earth, be free detached.

Always to be of the sky, had an overwhelming urge, wanted to fly, out of

harmís way, but perhaps into harmís way.

Now, she recollected, a crazy flying time.

"I always wanted to fly." Her body though grounded, sensed the initial exhilaration, leaving the land, the earth diminishing beneath her; breaking through cloud tops to hover above a carpet of uninterrupted whiteness. Now, her heart beating louder and faster, her skin shivering---this, her body had not forgotten.

She had her first flying lessons when she was nineteen years old. Then it was not the need for emotional release and excitement, it was simply practical: she wanted to get from point A to point B without any interruptions. Life happened. Not until she was twenty-eight did the power of flight draw her back into its force.

But, now it was more like falling in love: air races, touch and go, spot landings, takeoffs, stunt work, gliding, traveling, logging airtime in Hawaii: Canada, Alaska, Mexico óóShe loved the challenges, precision, self-reliance.

One memorable adventure:

 

Fright Flight

She could picture, the vast blue panorama over the Pacific Ocean, hear the numbing roar of the engine. Feel her right hand on the throttle, the left on the stick, her feet touching the rudders, in her lap a map, headphones, microphone, the radio squawk.

To her right, her passenger, Father Daniel, the assistant pastor of Cristo Rey Church in Oxnard, California. They are 2500 feet over Oceanside, California, heading south.

Itís Father Danielís first time in an airplane. As she sets their course she has an amusing thought, "Brave man, this 52 year old man in black suit and white collar, his first airplane ride and itís in a twenty year old, two-place, single engine Cessna 140." They are flying to the border town, Tijuana, Mexico.

The Sisters at the Sacred Heart Convent in Tijuana had made the flag, with the patron saint of the school, Our Lady of Guadalupe, embossed on a background depicting Mexico.

Her eighth grade students had arranged and paid to present this special flag containing the painting of their patron saint. The traditional class gift. The flag was to have been ready and shipped a week before graduation day. The Mother Superior called to apologize. They could not complete the flag until June 14th, the day before the ceremony. Today was the 14th. What could be done? Not a problem. A quick flight to the border and back. Just a few hours. "It would be a snap!"

Carefully she explained, "Father Joseph, I need someone to accompany me: well-known by the Sisters, knows the location of the Convent, speaks Spanish." Father Daniel it was. "Great!" The upside, he fulfilled my criteria; the downside. He spoke no English. "Well, two out of three."

The school day ended. The rush to the airport. Off they flew, rising into the gentle western winds and headed southward. The late afternoon was spring lovely, a few gossamer cloudlets hovering over the Topa-Topa range on the left.

She set the course, the Oceanside route. Father would enjoy the spectacular panorama: the gleaming coastal cities, the broad glistening Pacific, beaches, mountains. "We canít communicate with words, but no matter." At first his body was rigid, hands firmly gripping his knees. She would reach over and tap his shoulder, hesitant, thinking "Is it ok to touch a priest?" Despite the engine noise, the language barrier, they communicated. He responded to her waving hand, pointing finger, smiles, tipping of the wings, right and left, with exclamations of tentative approval. She was delighted, sharing the good fortunes and beauty in her life with a person who had dedicated his life to poverty in the service of those who were even poorer.

The sprawling Los Angeles encompassed the entire horizon then vanishing into the haze as they reached San Gorgonio Pass seventy miles east. "San Diego ahead, Brown Field to the east, Roger almost there."

Moments after landing she called for a taxi to make the quick trip to the border. No taxi arrived. "Padre, mas rapido, Encontra persona, Taxi." So much for high school Spanish. He nodded, smiled and strolled leisurely around the tarmac.

As if by a miracle, an old jalopy taxi rolled onto the airstrip. Fatherís mouth came to life. Across the border, through the city, a hair-raising ride over twisting, rutted, dusty roads to the convent that was located on the side of a mountain. "I had no idea it was so far, that Tijuana was such a sprawling area." The border was miles away.

The Reverend Mother greeted them, talked to Father Daniel at length, invited them to enjoy a snack, insisted that she and the Father play a game of checkers. They talked, they ate, they drank tea, played checkers.

The sun was sinking, so was her heart.

Panic inside, polite smiles outside. Her experience at night flying and landing was limited. She paced to the door and back, over and over, smiling weakly, leaning on the latch. Above the door she noticed a picture of the Madonna. She touched the picture, pleaded silently, "Get me out of here!"

After endless farewells, the ride back to the border, the taxi change, they were at the airfield. Between them was the box that contained the magnificent flag. She bounded out of the car, ran to the plane, boxed flag under her arm, crammed it into the back, pre-flighting, shoved Father Daniel into his seat, politely of course, belted in, contact, taxi and takeoff.

The sunlight was gone; the sky was filled with reflected city lights. Should she or shouldnít she? She had to. "Two hundred miles of air space ahead Iím scared" She is determined but scared.

North of Oceanside, entering the LAX airspace, her eyes scanned the instrument panel: somethingís wrong. One by one she toggled the switches: Off, on-off, on. All of the switches were on. The panel was dark. The wingtips, rotating beacon, unlit. The radio was silenced. Turn off the beacon, turn off the radio, turn off the running lights, turn off the navigation lights, check the amp meter. No charge. A total electrical failure.

"We have a big problem, Father." For that moment she had forgotten he couldnít understand English. At the sound of her voice, he turned her way, smiled, nodded, returning his attention to the surrounding beauty above and below.

A pang of terror went through her; she could feel the sweat roll down her back. She fought to keep herself outwardly calm. She taps each gauge on the instrument panel, adjusts the trim, scans the sky, looks over at her passenger, smiles, sees his rosary, thinks, "What a time not to know prayers." Then from the depth of her being she mouthed these words "Father, forgive me for I have sinned."

Then she heard a commanding voice, "As long as I live I am with you, nothing bad can happen." Mother.

City after city along the ribbon of the coast highway twinkled as rank after rank of lights came on. Far to the darkening east the Santa Rosa Mountains extended a shadowy ten thousand feet into the sky.

Beyond Riverside she could see the glistening whitish dome of Mt. San Gorgonio glowing like a heavenly throne more then twelve thousand feet above the earth where the sunset had come and gone.

She knew: "Weíre in an unidentified flying object, heading out of Long Beach air space, twenty miles south of Los Angeles International, unable to notify LAX tower. No options." The hackles rose on the back of her neck. "Canít stop, canít turn back. Itís fly or die." No matter where she looked, she could see moving, flashing red and green lights, interspersed with glaring white landing lights.

She could see them. They couldnít see her. She was in their flight path, their airspace. Altitude had to be her salvation. Fly low, fly fast. Keep going ahead.

Her hands, a strangle hold on the stick and throttle, her knuckles white. Her feet cramped on the rudders, she looked over at the Priest; he was still smiling, still nodding his head, waving and clapping his hands, pointing out the window. She was stunned; "he thinks Iím conducting a sightseeing tour." She babblesÖ

"Father, back there Capistrano Mission, over there the lights of Avalon on Catalina Island, thereís Long Beach, Los Angeles Harbor, Hollywood Park. She shouted, "And we are in one of the busiest air corridors in the world!" Silently, she prayed, "Dear God, let us slip through. Give us a safe corridor. 1,500 feet, heading one-fiver, donít let any other plane be there."

Father reached over, tapping her shoulder, his eyes lit up with pleasure, his hand pointing. She looked--- A Boeing 707; landing lights filling their small cockpit with flashing red, green, white. She pulled back on the stick, applied full throttle. Go, go, go, her internal voice was shouting. The commercial jet, one hundred feet below, roared by, Father Daniel was thrilled. Clapping his hands, exclaiming, "Grandioso, que bonitas, magnifico." Formation flying! And they were out of the traffic. The worst. Was it over?

She knew she could not land at Santa Paula Airport. No lights, no tower, no emergency crews. She had to land at Oxnard.

She could see the lights at the Southern California Edison Plant. Her current position was over the Navyís Pacific Missile Range. She prayed that the plane would be too small for them to see on radar, below their detection threshold.

She prepared for the entry into the landing pattern. FAA Procedure required tower authorization. The runway lights would be illuminated. She was invisible, no lights, no radio. It was an emergency. She buzzed the tower. The FAA controller would hear, flash the green light. Three times she executed a "by the book" fly-by. No green light. "Ok she mouthed." On the fourth pass she flew low, directly over the tower, gunned the engine:

Father was clapping his hands, laughing; She was close to tears. Gas was getting low; she didnít need to see the gauge. Another miracle! Lights from a vehicle flashed onto the runway threshold. She flew downwind, base, final: the landing pattern: Over the cabbage fields, over the water tower, the high school, the beans field. And another miracle! The entire runway flashed with lights. She executed a perfect three point landing, taxied the little plane to the parking area. Shut down the engine and rested her head on the panel.

They both get out: she, shaking from head to toe, he, grinning from ear to ear. Reaching behind the seat, she lifts out the box. She walks around the plane. As she extends her arms to hand the precious cargo to the Priest he grabs her shoulders and then embraces her, exclaiming in Spanish words, three of which she translates as, "A memorable trip!" Indeed, she thinks, undeniably memorable!