A Good Day For A Long Walk Jun06


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A Good Day For A Long Walk

A very nice rainbow arched the low dark blue waves.   There was no rain so the air must have been very heavy with that potential.  The rainbow’s colors lit up the western sky with the morning sun as it first peeked over the eastern range of still dark hills.  It seemed to pause as if holding its breath while deciding on the type of day it would like to present.

Those of us observing waited impatiently for that crucial information.  It would very much color our plans one way or the other.

If it was to be as clear and peaceful as the low waves suggested, it was one thing.  But if the rainbow was a precursor of coming rain, and the heavy clouds and thunderous sky the rain often brings with it, then it was of course another.

If it was clear and smooth high in the sky, Cliff would take his first flying lesson today.

Cliff was no longer a child at this point.  He had in fact just passed his 27th birthday on April 19th… but he had not yet become a man either.

He had worked at that intermittently, as far as a casual onlooker could tell, by enrolling in and even sometimes attending college.

Starting very young, he took up one musical instrument after the other including his voice and always showed great potential for each and everything he attempted, but not the necessary drive.

From as soon as he could climb upon one without adult aid, Cliff had taken to horses.  When he rode in jumping competitions, people in the viewing stands stopped conversing mid-sentence just to watch him.

All around was quiet as that boy rode into the arena.  It was as if the boy and the horse were a single animal flying over the various bars and fences as smoothly as one, almost commanding the audience to observe and follow every jump.  Neither the boy or the horse were aware of this effect, they were just doing what they had been doing together forever.

The horses seemed to have taken a backseat in his life after High School, between some College and an occasional job in his parent’s Home Care business.  Then as if flying over fences on a horse was not high enough, he began to study flying in airplanes.

True one of his older brothers had completed his education at a College in Arizona that graduated pilots and aviation engineers and was now making a living for himself and a wife and two little babies, by piloting charter jets for a private firm… while Cliff, during all of that time, had shown very little interest.  Why now?  Cliff expected to find that out by doing it, if only to achieve his private pilot’s license and then perhaps nothing much more.

Several members of the extended family had taken it that far for their own enjoyment and a couple of them even owned small planes, so it was not that unusual. It just seemed to be for Cliff.

The rainbow faded, which was a good thing for the weather watchers. The romantics had already taken their photographs of the beautiful short rainbow event.

Cliff headed for the airport on a motorcycle, where his first lesson was waiting. He had been dressed for it since he got up in the morning.  Only a person with that many accomplishments was that naturally optimistic.

The rest if the family went about their lives trying not to look as fearful, yet proud, as they felt.

The fear won out when Cliff failed to return.

A call to the airport confirmed that a plane was missing in the local mountains.  It was the plane in which Cliff was a student and Brad Baker was the instructor.  They tried to assure the anxious parents that Baker was very accomplished and even though there was a search in progress, they felt that the pair of men would very likely be alright.

Not waiting to be called one way or the other, the parents headed for the mountains where the search had begun.  If they could not search themselves, they would at least be nearby the ones who were.

In the mountains the small plane had experienced a failure and Brad being very experienced knew finding a place to set down, while scarce in that area was crucial to survival.

He had just previously been explaining to his student, Cliff, that always knowing where you would descend for a landing in case of a problem was very important.  So no matter how great the flight feels, keep that always in mind.  Make a mental note of small airports and highways are good.  If you can give the radio a warning, they will get the Police to clear the street of cars for you.

At the time the plane began to signal trouble, Cliff had already been searching for that important land change that might do in an emergency, just for practice. He intended to point out his choice for Brad’s comment, but hadn’t yet actually seen anything worth mentioning.

Now suddenly it was for real.  So far he really had not seen anything that was not tree filled or straight up and down cliffs.  There were a couple of small lakes. And their flat appearance was tempting, but Brad had laughed,

“Never,”  Brad said loud and firmly,  “Never choose water over land of any kind.  The plane will look like it is going to be fine on it.  Water looks so flat, but upon hitting the water the plane stops fast and will nose over and fly deeper sinking and drowning us before we can escape.  Brad stopped to take a slow breath and explain quieter in his instructor voice,

“It’s much, much, better to suffer a couple of broken bones, or even a bump on the head than drowning.  Please remember that, because it happens so frequently!”

Cliff did recall that a plane had gone down in the Back Bay near their house a while back, just after the Police had cars at both ends of the street, stopping cars on Jamboree Road, for the incoming plane, but the pilot had chosen the bay, with the result that both men had drowned in fairly shallow water before help could reach them.

The Police had complained that they could not just drive through water to rescue those in an accident twenty feet from land. Why had the pilot not landed on the street?  No, Cliff would certainly not forget that.

So as events occurred, Cliff didn’t need to remember it for long, as he and Brad were both searching both sides of the plane for that good, or not the worst, place to go down, as the plane sputtered on and off again making the choice about to become urgent.

Cliff looked down upon a small lake and understood its instinctive call to put the plane in the flattest place he had seen so far.  He pulled his eyes away and continued to look ahead at what the up-coming choices might be.

The plane was now closer to the trees, millions of trees.  Some of the tree tops were above them on each side.

Brad pointed to a break in the mountain that had a brook which had wormed its way between the ridges and created sand bars and yes, boulders and rocks, as it widened the space between the cliffs, for and with, its own higher, much faster, flow for weeks after rains or snow melts.   Today the water was barely running.

“We will try for the widest place up there to get as much wing space as possible.”  Brad let the plane slow down as it descended.

“”You want to be as slow as possible, just above a stall, we will kind of sneak down between the cliffs, carefully watching the bends in the valley and be ready with gear up, if possible, ours are fixed, if the wings go they go, but you want the fuselage to remain intact for your protection.  Keep the nose up so you won’t flip the plane.  Brad kept up the constant narrative as he did what he said with calm control.

If it were not really happening as he spoke, Cliff would have thought Brad was doing all of this just as a lesson for him.

Cliff watched, although tempted to duck under the controls.  He felt the plane slow to almost a stop, just as he noticed the bush that caught the left wing.  The bush and the wing met and both gave the same amount.  Strangely the bush was shortened and the top branches went away with the now slightly bent wing, as the plane tried to swing left and Brad fought to keep it on the same course as the channel.  Cliff gripped the front panel as he thought he felt them touch down, but they had only struck a boulder with their non-retractable wheel, and the bounce up was sharp.

“Put your head between your knees now!”  Brad called out loudly. And Cliff did as asked.  He did not see what Brad did.  But he had a blood on his forehead when the plane had stopped long enough for Cliff to lift his head.

From the view of their new, outdoor, resting place on the right side sand bar, a few feet from the just abandoned plane. It looked like it would fly, but there it sat in the center of the stream surrounded by rocks and small splashes of angry water that now fought its way around this odd new obstacle.

Brad had taken the package that always sat ready at his feet for this kind of an emergency, as he explained,

“If it had been in the back, we might not be able to get it.”  So he continued with his habit of making everything a teaching moment, “You should have everything possible on your body so that it will escape with you.”

Cliff automatically patted his many pockets that contained all of the seemingly unnecessary things he had been told in advance to bring.  He looked up at the clear sky and knew he might just need it all before they got out of here.

It was only noon the sun was straight up.  He wished he didn’t associate noon with lunch time, as he knew they had not passed a Taco Bell on their way in.

They took off the boots and socks that had gotten wet as they made their way to the shore and put them to dry on a warm, flat, rock in the sun.

As Cliff spread out the 100% cotton socks, he was reminded why he had searched the stores to find them and had worn them for the flight.  It made him more grateful that the plane crash had not involved a fire.  His preflight training taught him that his entire flying wardrobe, including underwear, needed to be all cotton with no synthetic fibers, as in a fire, and that was very common in a plane crash, they would melt to his body and be impossible to remove, possibly causing death.

They both looked up as a plane flew high above them, not that anyone knew they were down as yet.  They carried their cell phones with them even though these vast miles of sparsely inhabited mountains that held them captive right now didn’t have a signal. The plane radio went off as the engine began to fail, so they had given no S.O.S. calls.  The general flight plan was on file, however, no one would care until they didn’t report in.

Brad opened the first-aid box to clean his still dripping forehead with disinfectant, before covering it with a large band aid.   He checked his student for wounds and found none.

That was when Cliff noticed that Brad was limping and asked about it.

“It’s only an old injury.” He rubbed his left knee, as he tried to play it down.  “ Just that same old knee giving me a bad time. It can’t take a little bump.”  Brad turned to the open rescue bundle to replace the first-aid box and handed Cliff a bottle of water and a food bar, as he announced cheerfully…

“Lunch time! And would you like fries with that?”  The both laughed… probably because they were happy that they could. “Save that bottle.  We can refill it at the brook.  The water is pretty good up here.”

The plan to follow the river down seemed like a good idea.  Any settlement or camp site was most likely to be near the water source, also a road would be close to either one. Down the hill couldn’t go on forever.  Sooner or later they would be out of the mountains.

Brad finished his bar and took out a pad of paper. He looked at Cliff.

“What is your call… Stay by the plane as it might be spotted or begin to walk down?”
This was when Cliff began to worry about worrying his parents.  He knew that it was considered good to stay by your vehicle… car… motorcycle and possibly airplane, however it was still early in the day and they would not be missed for hours.  Walking might get them to civilization before they were even missed and no one ever needed to worry.  So Cliff gave his instructor his opinion.

“I Vote for walking, but only if your knee can take it.”

“Okay, let’s write two notes.  One for the cockpit and one for…”  He looked around, “maybe this sand bar rock, we can mark it with something bright, so when they find it, they will know which direction we took.”

Cliff began his note but confided to Brad,

“I’m hoping we get out this mountain and home even before we are missed.”

“That’s a good thought, kid.  Hold it as long as you can. But how long were we flying without seeing any signs at all of humanity?  That may require a lot of walking.”

Cliff accepted that, but that they might have to camp tonight worried him a bit, though he decided to face that when and if it happened.  To tell the truth, Cliff didn’t like to admit it, but he preferred his camping to be in a four star hotel.

As they began their slow careful walk beside the drying river, Cliff began to compare his camping with the Boy Scouts with his finer trips with his parents and he realized why he preferred hotels.  He had stayed in some very nice ones.  A kid could get used to all of that elegant service.

He smiled to himself as he remembered that evening in England when he found himself pretending to be the English Prince William.  It wasn’t his idea, it just happened that way.

His parents and the two youngest children, his sister Kelly and he had been seeing the sights of London, where pictures of the Royal Family were everywhere.  He learned their names and how they dressed and how they spoke.  The Prince, who would one day become King was his same age, about seven at that time, and as he looked in the mirror that morning, he realized that if he combed his hair down, instead of up, he looked a little like him.  Anyway their hair was the same color.

The being a Prince time occurred that evening.  His parents stood at the box office of a theater showing “Grease”… the play that his mother was in at one time, before he was born, so of course he didn’t remember even ever hearing about it before this.   There were no tickets available and they were about to leave, as mother had mentioned, sadly, that she was in Grease when it played in Hollywood and she had really wanted to see their London version, wondering if it was somehow different here.

So the lady in the box office had an idea.  She said the Royal Box was free tonight as no one in the Royal Family planned to come this evening.  Box seats were kind of expensive, but if they were interested?  Dad said they were and they soon found the four of them seated in the Royal Box waiting for the play to start.

The theater lights were still on and everyone looked around to enjoy the beauty and elegance of the theater.  Mother noticed first that the people below were looking them over with interest.  She supposed, they were wondering who was in the Royal Box.  They had mostly settled on him and that’s when they decided that the young folks thought he was Prince William.

He had been standing and peering down at no one in particular when some youngsters had timidly waved at him. At first he just laughed at the thought, but then decided that if he did not wave back, the disillusioned kids below would think the Prince was a snob.  So he lifted his hand in a tentative wave.  The result of that wave was more waves from more directions.  He returned all that he saw.  My goodness but those kids were happy about it.  It must have been strange to really be the Prince and have this happen often and everywhere.

The lights went off and the play began.  At intermission it began again.  His arm got tired and he sat to help stop the attention.  He still smiled at the memory of trying to help the Prince keep his good reputation.  Even at the Princes’ more recent wedding, Cliff couldn’t watch it on T.V. without smiling inside. Memories of his frequent travels with his parents took Cliff through most of this afternoon’s walk down stream.

Cliff was brought back to reality when he realized that Brad had stopped to sit and soak his bad knee in the icy stream.  He took advantage of seeing it exposed, as Brad had removed his pants to keep from getting them wet.  He was shocked at how swollen it was.  Brad sure did a good job of pretending it wasn’t much.  No wonder Brad had asked him to take the note across the rocky stream to the cockpit of his plane.

“I guess we’ve traveled too far to reconsider leaving the plane area.”  He remarked to his instructor.

“I’ll be alright, perhaps just a bit slow.  Still I think we should keep together.”

“I agree.”  Was all Cliff could think to say until he wondered, “Are you sure it is not broken?”

“Pretty sure.  Dislocated maybe.”  He stood, dried the leg with a T-shirt.  Cliff watched as Brad carefully worked back into his old, one piece, flying suit, that was just like his brand new one, being worn for the first time.  He couldn’t help but think that his suit will be much older looking too, by the time they get out of this.

They continued on down, but as they came around a bend they found themselves looking at a narrow place where the stream was confined, thus a tiny bit deeper and much faster.

They took a break to share a food bar and consider how to handle this new obstacle.  Cliff tried to walk it, but the steep cliff rose up too close to the water.  The other side seemed to be a shade wider and they decided that they should cross over… but how.  There were no logs to place across as a bridge, so Cliff took off his boots and socks and waded in and began to pile the plentiful rocks in one place while Brad took advantage of the time to soak again.    It did seem to bring the swelling down.

It took longer than he would have guessed and he was accidently getting splashed until he was soon more than just damp, as soon as they were on the far side, Cliff gathered the driest of the washed up sticks and twigs so Brad could make a fire close to the cliff.  Before it was all burned out of available fuel, Cliff had managed to get pretty dry, and they moved on again.

As the sun was getting low they had to begin to consider finding the best place to spend the night.  They would need fire fuel and maybe a short cave.  They settled for the cave.  No fire tonight, so no hot food.  Cliff was barely able to consider what they had as even being food.  But the small packages of freeze dried fruits and jerky were, if nothing else, nourishing.  Water was more than plentiful.

This was where Cliff learned that out in the wilderness a person did not just go to the toilet around a corner and leave it like an animal.  A small pack of plastic bags were for the very purpose of holding the shit until you could get it to a suitable place for disposal.  At this point he did not know where that place was.

Morning came in spite of the discomfort of the night.  As soon as it was light the two uncomfortable men sleeping on the ground without benefit of pillows and only a very thin silver, survival blanket to keep them warm, welcomed the thought of getting started.

What little conversation they had on the way to sleep centered around Brad asking him questions that made him sound like his grandfather, as he tried to uncover the reason why he was, at this age, still living in his parent’s home with no firm goals in sight to take control of his life.

This was not Cliff’s favorite subject.  It almost always led to the way his sister, four years younger than he and who had already graduated from college and was working at their parent’s Company, as she was trying to decide between learning it all, so their parents could retire one day and know the Company they had started from nothing and which now supported somewhere over a hundred employees, or going back to get a higher degree.

He was the obvious heir to the Company, His father had always said so when he was in his bossing mood. But… Well he could not explain what to an outsider.   He really did not know himself.

Time was passing him by, and one day his oldest cousin, who had been a little bit in this same mental boat, when he was that age… but without the family Company to fall back on… had been trying to encourage him forward.

He said he had watched the Disney movie, Pinocchio and seen what he was doing wrong, so he solved his problem by joining the Navy and accepting the challenge of succeeding there.

He had done very well with that and speaking from his own experience telling Cliff that five years later he had gone back to College seriously and gotten a degree and was now working in an interesting and rewarding job.

It worked for him and he was only telling this cousin because from his happy view point now, with a pretty wife, living in a home of their own, just purchased, and two tiny daughters who even Cliff, not much for little kids, thought were adorable.  Yes he might watch that movie one day.  Which one was it?

But thinking it over, as they walked beside the tiny stream that seemed to be taking them someplace helpful, he began to wonder why he found everything so easy to put off.

He had certainly not expected to have this wilderness bathroom info be a part of his first flying lesson.  And he had every reason to hope that landing a plane would be, but with the plane parked in a mountain stream… that was out of the question now.

He wondered what would happen to that expensive little airplane.  Would Brad return so salvage it, or even part of it?  Most of the plane was in fairly good condition.  Even the engine which had failed and caused this problem could probably be fixed.  He thought to ask Brad, but as they were making some headway toward getting out, he chose not to start that conversation just now.

The next bend gave them concern as it began to descend steeply.  Cliff took the lead so Brad could use his shoulder to help him go down the steeper places by leaning on his shoulder.

“I hope,”  Brad started, then wondered if he should mention this and stopped.

“Hope what?”  Cliff asked.  Brad chuckled.  “I don’t want to worry you, but I hope this next bend doesn’t find us standing at the top of a water fall.  It’s getting so steep fast.”

“I think I would jump.”  Cliff laughed.  “The bottom would be closer to getting us home.”

“Then I will hope for a short one.”  Brad joined in the joke.  It felt good to laugh.  Bad knew they were lucky to be alive.  “Imagine all of the new pilots who had studied the part about finding a good place to land in an emergency and then looked for those places for years and years never having to use one.”

“I know what you’re saying.” Cliff continued the thought, “While I was put down on ours in my very first flight.  Then there’s this, what about watching for perfect landing places for years and years then finding one when you need it and getting killed anyway?”

“That happens.”  Brad told him honestly, “Probably to every smashed, rusting old, abandoned plane we will pass over as we fly.  I’ve seen hundreds and wondered about them.  Some may have never been discovered on foot and may even still contain old bones.”   Feeling that he had gone too far with that part, he asked his new student, seriously,  “Do you plan to continue to learn to learn to fly after this?”

“Well… “  Cliff answered slowly as he wondered about it himself.  “I should very much like to get good enough to land by myself before I quit.”  He let the picture of old bones and abandoned planes settle in his head before he continued.  “I have learned one thing for sure.  Flying is better for going places than walking!  I will be flying for the rest of my life.  Whether I will be the pilot is the question.  I love to fly with my brother and wanted to learn what makes him so happy doing it.  I also have a cousin who is a real Test Pilot in the Air Force.  Everyone is so proud of him, even me.  I know that is not in my future. He went into the Academy right out of High School, so certain that he knew what he wanted.  It’s not that I envy him being in the Air Force it’s that I envy everyone who know what they want to do and then do it.  My Aunt Pamela decided she wanted fly, so she just up and did it, even though she was already almost 60!  Can you imagine?”

All of that talking had moved them along without noticing every step. So Cliff asked Brad, “When did you know you wanted for fly?”

“Always.”  Was the short answer, but Brad continued to explain sounding almost exactly like his own brother, Sam.  He was still telling his story when they stopped for some water, because they had come to a wide sand bar with scattered wood that made them want to make a fire and cook a hot breakfast or lunch or whatever time it was… to eat.

Whatever it was that Brad added to the water and heated, actually tasted very much like real food to Clifford, he was that hungry.   It was too early to plan to stay the night, although they would have loved this location last night.

A piece of civilization, no matter what or how small, might be just around the next bend in the river, so after they carefully put out the fire, they continued on down their only choice of paths.

Still no sign of the dreaded water fall, but only an hour later something very welcome appeared.  Not in front of them but from behind.

A helicopter sound was heard and they stopped, listened and scoured the sky, as the familiar noise drew closer.  There it was… coming down the river.   They agreed that it must be looking for them, or it would surely not drop so low otherwise.

Cliff waited impatiently for it to get close enough to see them.  Worried as it rose much higher as the pass became narrower.

Brad had quickly found the small mirror in his only pack and was trying to see if the light from the sun was right to send a signal in the direction of the chopper.

As they knew they were in a wider location they both smiled as they watched their rescue grow closer, high for now, but sure to drop soon.

It didn’t.  Almost frustrated enough to cry, Cliff watched as the chopper began climb away and return back toward the wrecked plane they had left behind yesterday.

With a shrug of disappointment, they silently traveled on down.

As if to add insult to that disappointment, the half expected water fall appeared before them late in the afternoon.

They stood looking down from as close to the edge as they dared.  It was much too high to jump down and what was worse, very little water was in the pool at the bottom.  In fact the waterfall was only a trickle.

“I’ll bet this is a beauty after a rainy winter.” Brad remarked.  Cliff smiled as he asked,

“Is anything beautiful, if there is no one to see it?”

Forward travel down the hill had become impossible, so for now they decided to make camp and start up the mountain from where ever they could find a possible way to climb it… but early tomorrow.

Back a few yards, on the widest flat space, they put together a new fire. This one was a big roaring fire like they wished they had been burning when the helicopter had come so close before turning away… they could have been home by now.

They sat and enjoyed the warmth for almost the first time in this walk. Finally each bundled himself tightly in a light weight silver blanket which although it did the job of keeping out the cold, Cliff decided that it made him feel like a giant hot dog ready for the grill.

Cliff was now afraid that the way up would be impossible for Brad with his injured leg.  Then what would he do?  There were only two options.  Leave him and go for help alone, or use the little rope in Brad’s pack to help get him up somehow.  It would have to be Brad’s decision.  He alone would know what he was capable of doing.

The morning brought something more welcome than the sun.  It brought the helicopter back.

They were in the business of inventing a sling for Brad to step into with his good foot, so Cliff could get onto a higher ledge and after securing the rope end, pull it up to assist Brad onto his narrow ledge.

The sound of the rescue chopper coming back was more thrilling than last night’s warm fire.  But both men were leery of showing hope after last time.  Still Brad had the mirror handy just in case.  He really didn’t need it .  The helicopter found a landing place high on top of the hill they were attempting to climb.

What the guys didn’t know was that the helicopter had turned away last time because the pilot had received a call telling him that the missing airplane had been found just up the canyon he had just flown down.  He went back quickly to help with the possibility of finding someone injured inside of it, or nearby.

After reading the notes, they knew to head back down river at first light.  Meanwhile they had notified the families and the home Airport that the rescue would take place for sure in the morning.  The men said in their notes that they were okay and were walking down river.

With the helicopter parked, engine running, on top of the hill, it was easy to get both men up and on board with the rescue lift.

Families had to fight their way through the crowd of news-people to greet their missing men. The press had been standing by the radios, as usual, to be the first to hear the exciting tale of the crash and the wonder of being home again.

There was tendency for Brad and Cliff, both, to play it up for excitement to some people and play it down, with a calm… it was nothing, to others.

Cliff wanted the press to know what a good pilot Brad was and how carefully he had let the failing plane down to a safe landing in the bed of the rock strewn river. And how they had to wade to shore, leaving out the injured knee, that part was up to Brad, but he was also impressed with the way his instructor had the few things they needed to survive in the cold wilderness right beside him ready to go. When he became a pilot he wanted to be just like Brad Baker.

Cliff was soon preparing to go to the hospital where Brad was having his knee tended to right for once.  He wanted to know when the instructor would be back on the job.

“Hey!” He said as he entered the room and saw the man flirting with a cute nurse, “You still owe me a landing lesson!”

“You’ll be the very first in a few weeks.”  Brad promised, “Meanwhile, keep reading those manuals I gave you.  There is so much to learn in those things and you can’t just look stuff up when you are in the air.”

“So I noticed on my one and only flight.”  Clifford told him.  “So I noticed.”