The plane's tires skittered along the grass runway, and I could feel every weed, every divot, every clump as it gathered not-near-enough-speed, its propeller straining, the engine whining, the wind in my face... I wondered if I should not have believed the "one or two passengers" ad, but took comfort in the fact that there were indeed two seatbelts, so surely the plane could hold our weight. Right? RIGHT?
We were in a single-prop, red Waco biplane with no windshield, a la Snoopy and the Red Baron. We were even wearing the same leather headgear and goggles. Snoopy had only the scarf to set him apart from us. This was Bill's early birthday present--early because I couldn't stand the idea of being in an open plane and all the wind we would face in December. Brrrrr... So we picked this beautiful November day, when the leaves were at their peak, and the North Carolina landscape was a riot of color and texture, and our shaky little ride above the tree tops gave us a glorious view.
Of the prison in Butner.
Yep, Bill spotted it straight away. Well, first we took a shaky and rattly flight over Falls Lake, and then turned--wheeee--back toward Butner and Bahama. I say "wheeee" because turning in a plane like that means first you're leaning out the side to see the treetops and lake around you, and then you're SIDEWAYS in the air, and the lake and tree tops are now at your elbow. I had thought all week about how I might die on this flight, how it would be worth it to have done something like this, and how, well, if you gotta go... But now I'm looking at a lake at my ear, and I realize my death is imminent. What was I thinking?
Actually, it feels like you could jump out and land harmlessly in the water. Like a James Bond movie. The lake is there and the trees are there, and it feels like you could just hop out. Until you realize that the weird little lump on the sand over there? That black spot with the yellow around it? It's a HUMAN. And if it looked up and waved at you, you wouldn't be able to tell because it's too far away to distinguish something as small as an arm.
Bill on the other hand, was worried about vomiting. As the plane had been taking off, skittering left and right, I had been sure we would not survive the trip. Bill had no such worries. Not one bit. He was simply worried he would throw up all over the beautiful red plane.
I was reassured, though, that the air in our faces and the smoother ride above the tree line wasn't bothering our stomachs. I felt fine. Absolutely. I was contemplating my demise, but I was not at all worried about my stomach. This was not like a roller coaster ride with swooping ups and downs. This was more like a recliner, while large expanses of landscape coast slowly by on an unimaginable scale. Even the turns--you only knew you were turning because you could see it, with the horizon tilting and the ground coming up on your side. The sensation, though, was all smooth and steady. This was cool, we could handle it.
And indeed, that's when Bill pointed out the prison. A huge white swath cut in to the landscape. Interesting architecture, I must admit. Triangles sit on top of squares, and it's an interesting design from this high up. I imagine (you may notice an emerging theme) that we might crash into the prison, and I think about how ironic that would be for Bill.
We continue along over trees and neighborhoods--the new kind with the ticky-tacky houses in their ticky-tacky rows, looking like Monopoly buildings--and over Lake Michie, and along along along. The air is pushing so hard against the plane that you feel like you can't breathe, except that when you inhale, there's plenty of air and you're fine. The hum of the propeller trying so hard has faded into the background of my brain, and I am actually enjoying the view of Central Carolina life from up here. I am looking for the top of Spruce Pine Lodge, where we will have our wedding next year. I'm hoping I'll recognize it, since it will be on the water, and have a large parking area. I never did find it, but no matter.
The trees were particularly beautiful in one stretch. The leaves were a blanket of soft autumn colors, the overcast sky let us look out across everything without squinting, and I thought I might not die. I might actually get used to this. I had a fleeting thought of pursuing a pilot's license. I remembered the house set along the runway and thought how cool it would be to live at a small airport. I wondered if I could make these people my people.
And then Bill puked.
At first he made the puffy-cheeked puking gesture like he was getting sick. And then I realized it wasn't a gesture.
Ever the gentleman who didn't want to mess up the beautiful plane, he tucked his face into his shirt and kept the mess to a minimum. And then he puked again. This time like he meant it.
Ahhh, such a great birthday present, don't you think?
He chose not to cut the ride short, and we finished out the 30 minutes with Mike, our pilot, unaware of Bill's plight. Eventually we turned back toward the highway, the grass runway visible just on the other side of it. In a few minutes, we had dropped out of the sky with remarkable speed, and were bumpbumpbumping along the grass again.
Mike was shocked to hear Bill had gotten sick. In 25 years of doing this, only three other people have had that honor. Something about the air and there being no windows--people don't get sick when there's plenty of air.
Bill, though, was the first to avoid getting it all over the plane. So there's that.
Anyway, we had fresh clothes in the car, and he changed up and all was well. (Until we got in the car on the way home, and a new wave of pleasekeeptheearthstillforamoment sickness hit him. He spent the rest of the afternoon sleeping, and it might be the worst birthday present he's ever had.)
But I still recommend it. I loved it. And I didn't die.