You get to a point in life where you ought to make out a will. I’m passed that.
You get to a point in life where you wonder if any of it—all the things you did or did not do—will be remembered, and for how long. Not whether or not any of it should be remembered. That’s not for you to judge, after all. But it was important to you. That’s all.
Nevertheless, in the scheme of things, I think some of what I did is worth something, and worth remembering—especially by the grandchildren. My kids have heard it all, pretty much. Their mother has seen to that. And too, she was never good at most secrets anyway. It was always best, if there was something you wanted everyone to know about, to tell her first. But then again, you didn’t have to tell her all that much. She always knew, anyway.
So listen to this if you haven’t heard it before and listen anyway if you have. I might be able to add a thing or two.
This is the way it worked—still works, I think.
I was a freak of nature. Not like your grandmother true, but different, in my own way. Claire’s talents are just better known.
Now, if you speak too readily or too often about a circumstance like this you’ll be thought of as nuts, as in crazy, or mad, and thereafter ignored. It’s our way as a society, I think. What we don’t understand we dismiss as impossible or accidental or incidental. And what we do understand, or think we do, we quickly tire of. We give little value to the familiar.
So, there’s the trick, isn’t it? Ambiguity. Our attention is maintained then by the fact that we recognize some part of the matter but not another and it piques our curiosity. And curiosity is the best thing to pique. And in my time, I have always piqued a lot of curiosity.
Yet, outside of the immediate family, not many know. And funny thing, you can give credit to your grandmother for that as well. When Claire does not want something known, you might as well talk to a wall about it.
And it is for that reason that you might be surprised about a certain facility I have. Not an ability, mind you. I’d say, more of a predilection.
I imagine some of you now looking at your watches, or phone screens, or whatever, and wondering why the old coot is out without a nurse. But listen here. You might learn something you can use yourself. I have never known anyone who did not want to fly.
I did not learn to fly. I was not taught. It just came naturally. And it might not be flying at all, as a former girlfriend used to tell me, but floating. But that’s the fact of it.
Now you can turn away from this absurdity and go on about your business. Over the years, most people have. And that’s because I can’t do it for show.
Importantly, I am not in any real command of this phenomena. It often comes unbidden and more often, it does not occur when I want it to. I am not, then, my own sky pilot. So to speak.
Because I’m unsure what ‘it’ is, exactly, or what to call it, perhaps telling you what it is not, will make the thing more clear.
I cannot jump from high places. I fall like a stone, as much as anyone would. But I can rise, on occasion, and find myself high above the ground.
I cannot soar, like a bird, but I can glide after a fashion—if I’ve been able to give myself a good push. And the wind helps, but that has been hurtful on occasional as well.
Just as my floating is not under my command, my direction is also uncertain. Perhaps that’s the wind again. You cannot feel the wind when you are in it.
I took a day trip in the gondola of a hot air balloon once from Sioux City to Dubuque and I felt very much at home. A little too much so, actually. I did it for Claire so she’d get an idea of what I was talking about but I lost my head at Waterloo and the balloon left me behind. The fellow in charge of operating this Montgolfier—he called himself an aerialist—totally lost it. I think he saw it as some sort of religious experience. That is, me dangling out there in thin air and trying to walk and swim my way to catching up to the basket. But Claire changed his mind about that. She’s a Lutheran and isn’t prone to such extrapolation.
And I cannot float indefinitely. Gravity is still at work. But there is no particular limit.
Those are the facts of it. I’ve spoken about this to others in the past and suffered the consequence. Now I just go about my life like anyone else. I don’t think about this talent at all, these days, or as little as I can.
You’d think I would make something of it, wouldn’t you? In this age of reality TV, couldn’t they just strap a little camera to my forehead and sell the advertising time? Everyone secretly wishes they could fly. Almost everyone, I think. But it doesn’t work like that. The authorities don’t like things they don’t understand or can’t schedule. When they find out, first thing they do is strap you all the way up and put you away for observation. Then they make you sit in uncomfortable chairs for hours and listen to some idiot ask the same questions over and over as if they are going to get another answer the next time around.
“When did you first believe you could fly?”
“I never did. It just happened.”
“What just happened?”
“Whatever it is.”
“What is it?”
“You tell me.”
You are cataloged. My file at the State University of New York, Department for Psychological Research in Albany is several inches thick. Or was. Now it’s digitalized and I don’t even have the comfort of watching that folder fatten with each visit.
When I was a kid, I learned quickly not to elaborate. Any elaboration added hours in that plastic chair. I learned not to lie, either. Lies would have to be corroborated by some other occurrence of a similar type. Everything was categorized that way. When I mentioned something a little different, a new sheet was started and the interrogator (for that is exactly what the typical PhD candidate or resident psychiatrist really is) would return to that new sheet again and again until I could relate a coincident occurrence. Like the time I woke up in the middle of the night and I was floating on the ceiling. That was proof to them, of course, that I was only dreaming. Not the fact that it scared the bejesus out of me, I broke the ceiling light with my foot, and I fell and chipped a tooth on the night stand. But see, it never happened again that way. And they just love patterns. Groupings. They love sequencing. Something unique or eccentric is immediately suspect.
I have often thought I would have fared better in 19th century Britain. That would be England, Scotland or Ireland, not the colonies. Australians, for instance, are way too practical, and Canadians are just Americans but without the temper. I’m not so sure about the Isle of Man. And I’m talking about people believing in ghosts and fairies and lake monsters. Any reading at all will tell you that they used to treasure their eccentrics in that time and place. Unfortunately, I visited Britain only once, in the second half of the Twentieth Century, while I was a graduate student and ended up in a clinic in York. ‘Old’ York. And I can tell you it’s not the same country now at all as it once was. But that was why I never got to finish my original thesis.
Did you ever read any of the Leslie Barringer novels? Lovely stuff. It’s all set in the 14th Century, sort of, not the 19th, but there is an eccentricity to it that is beguiling. So, anyway, I went to York to see if I could find out anything more about the fellow; sorely forgotten now. But I never even really got to see the city at all.
Perhaps that incident would explain a little.
On the very first day, just off a train from King’s Cross Station, I was walking on a rather drab asphalt street lined with simple brick housing just outside the old medieval wall in York, and looking for an address. Supposedly, it was the place where Barringer was born. But I had gotten my map backwards because it had fallen out of the guidebook. The guidebook itself was completely missing by that time, probably still lying on the train seat where I had drifted off to sleep, but at least I had marked the map up with a pencil and I was looking for a bookshop I had seen mentioned that turned out to be totally on the other side of the town. I was still tired. It had started to rain. Or it had never stopped. I can’t remember. And the old wall first built by the Romans was right there, and there was no opening through it in sight. Just then I wanted to be up there on the top where I could see where the heck I was. And as quickly as I thought it, I knew I had the capacity to and I leapt. Just like that. It’s something instinctual. You know when you can. Just a push of my foot and I floated upward in a nice lazy arc through the drizzle and landed very neatly in the walkway atop the wall, but right in front of several tourists wearing slickers.
That was the mistake. They take their tourists very seriously in York. It’s a profitable industry, what with the Shambles and all. People love ruins.
One fellow in the group, an American of course, kept shouting at me, “How did you do that? How did you do that? How did you do that?!” He would not leave me alone.
But the guide who had been showing them the local points of interest had called the police and the cops took me away to a clinic. Just like that. As if I was dangerous because I could fly.
So when I get the impulse, I don’t do that very often. It’s more trouble than the brief pleasure of the flight. And I can tell you that flying is a very great pleasure indeed.
Something about my parents may be in order. They were tolerant. They loved me. But they were private people and they have begged me not to do it unless I was alone. They didn’t even want to watch. But that’s another story too.
My mother, especially, got tired of driving me to the hospitals and psychiatrists’ offices. My father wanted even less of it. He taught me how to throw a football and I made the high school team until I sort of lost my head during a play and jumped the defensive line. That’s considered a flagrant foul. (Not a fowl, mind you. . . A little humor there. You have got to see the humor in things). Dad also taught me to play baseball, and that was better, for awhile. These were ‘manly’ sports and would teach me discipline and teamwork. But I don’t have a good eye, so in Little League I usually batted last and they stuck me in the outfield until I jumped a few feet too high one day and robbed Peter Raskin of an easy home run. No one seemed to be happy about that but me. I spent the rest of the season on the bench. Every game, when we were ahead and the coach was thinking about limiting the other team’s runs he would look over at me. And then just shake his head.
The key matter then was that I could not ‘perform.’ I could not simply jump into flight, or float, on request. I could not ‘prove’ anything. I was just a freak. Things happened. Eventually the people in my hometown started to ignore me. And frankly, that was good.
Not completely, of course. Not at school. Kids can be cruel about oddities. So I had to learn to defend myself. Being ordered to “Fly, or else,” doesn’t leave much of an alternative.
Yet, even this assessment is not exactly accurate.
I can rise when I really want to. I simply have to be in the mood. A very arbitrary standard, I know. But I just can’t command it. Never have. It just happens.
My first job out of college—well, my second; the first was as a busboy at a restaurant, but that didn’t last long and it’s another story entirely—my first real job was in a used bookshop, in Boston.
This was a place I’d previously discovered while I was still in school. Tom, the owner, had converted a former neighborhood fire station to his purposes and it was nearly ideal given the rent as well as his capacious needs as a result of a trust fund and undisciplined buying habits. He had the books going up sixteen feet and used a bunch of nice oak-tread industrial ladders he had bought at an auction and set those against runners to reach the upper shelves. People would come in through big arched doors at the front, big enough for a couple of fire engines in the day, and see the shelves and the ladders and they would go nuts. Now, that was magic.
Tom had two dogs, Skip and Jump. Both rescues. His first dog, Hop, had long passed by the time I got there. But they were all good mousers and worked in tandem with one barking at a shelf at one side and the other waiting quietly on the other.
I had gotten to know both dogs pretty well. Jump, a small short-haired black and white terrier of sorts, well named because he particularly liked to climb the ladders like a circus dog, which he might have been for all we knew, had never mastered the going down. He’d start and then after a step or two he’d jump. People would try to catch him if they were close, but it didn’t matter.
The aisles there were long and the ladders did not always run smoothly on the brick floors and pretty soon I was ‘cheating’ when I wanted something for a customer, or wanted to put a book away, and just started rising up to grab it. But never when someone else was close by, you understand. And naturally Jump caught me at it and started to whine for being left on the ground. He would follow me and patiently wait until I had taken my chance and then look at me in the most wide-eyed and pitiful fashion. So I started grabbing him up in one arm and taking him with me. His tongue would be out in a flash and you could see the joy in his eyes.
Inevitably, one day Tom caught us at it.
I happened to turn in the air and saw him there, watching.
He just shook his head. All he said was, “I wondered.”
Tom would have fared very well in Old England, I think.
On that particular day, he didn’t say a thing, but soon after he asked me, “How high can you go?”
And I told him the truth. “I don’t know. It gets a little scary. In here I can just grab a shelf and give myself a shove. Out there I have to worry about the wind. My mother made me promise never to get up in the wind. But I have. Pretty scary.”
Tom was given to shaking his head at me anyway, but that must have made him dizzy.
“Then, stay low.”
From then on, that became a tag on whatever instruction he gave me.
Once, just outside of Brattleboro, Vermont, some idiot shot at me.
I was showing off at the time. I was nineteen and still in college and trying to impress a girl. I’m afraid that happened more than once—not the part about getting shot at, of course. But that time I could not get down fast enough and I was swimming with the best air stroke I had learned at that point which looks pretty foolish unless you’re Esther Williams, and that fellow was shooting at me as fast as he could reload. This was winter and we were on January break and that girl had taken me up to a ski jump they have there to show off to me. And then I just got it into my head to sort of rise above the situation.
Thankfully it was a single barrel shot gun. I had the lead shot in the soles of my shoes for some time after that so that I made quiet a little tap dance in the halls at school. Anyway, I got myself to a line of trees and climbed down and went after the idiot. He was out of cartridges by that time and started to run down the road toward town. I caught up to him and beat the crap out of him but not before asking what the hell he thought he was doing? You won’t believe what he said. He said, “I thought you was some sort of balloon!” And that’s the way most human beings tend to be.
Now, freaks fall in love. Just like anyone else, I suppose.
But I admit that my standards were skewed pretty quick.
When I was in high school I had become infatuated with a girl named Deborah. And I thought she had taken a liking to me. We went to the movies a couple of times and she seemed very open to my ideas for further exploration and discovery, but she messed it all up one evening by asking me to fly.
At the time, I had very carefully avoided this in public. But her brother had been on my Little League team and he had seen me make the catch on Peter Raskin’s almost home run. What Deborah really wanted was for me to pick her up the way Superman did to Lois Lane in the comic books and soar with her. Or whatever.
I did not have another legitimate girlfriend until the second year at college. That was the ski jumper. But all of that was pretty much ruined on the opposite account. I jumped a little too high with youthful enthusiasm on a couple of occasions and she made me tell her about my predilection and it put her off just enough because I was ‘weird’ to make me see that we were not really made for each other after all—even for the short term.
After school the Army didn’t want me because of my psychiatric medical records, and so I had gone to work for Tom at The Fireman’s Books and stayed on a little too long before I finally made the break and set out on my own. I figured I had better get some more traveling done before I tried to find a job teaching history to a bunch a kids who think it all started with them—a thought I was quite familiar with myself.
Liberal Arts majors were a dime a dozen in the inflated currency of the 1970’s and dimes didn’t pay for much, even then, so I just started to walk. My joke to myself was that you have to walk before you can fly. It became something of a mantra.
My objective was California. Everybody was going there, or had been there, or wanted to. I filled a knapsack with some socks and underwear and set out in the spring of 1975. March 21st, to be exact. I took jobs as they came along to pay my way. I lived on the cheap. There are a lot of fine State Parks in Pennsylvania and Ohio and Indiana and Illinois. I learned how to operate a forklift and a hay bailer. But that was later, in Illinois. Mostly I washed dishes. I was good at that and it involved free food. And I cleaned windows and even painted houses for a week or two. But I’m not so good with the paint.
Which made for another example that was a funny circumstance too. With all my tendency to levitate, you have to know that I am afraid of heights. That’s right.
It’s one thing to be ‘soaring.’ Which for me is just floating kind of fast. But I have never fallen when I was doing it. However, when I was very young and still trying to make myself fly, I must have done a lot of stupid things. I have several unexplained scars. I had a concussion at least once. Maybe that’s why I don’t remember more, but I do remember my mother carrying me in her arms into the hospital on one occasion, repeating the words, “You are not a bird! Say that. Say that too me, right now! Say it! I am not a bird.” The look on her face was sobering. I thought I would die.
I guess ‘irony’ is the word for that.
In any case, I don’t like to be high off the ground, and house painters spend a fair amount of time there. Most are ‘gypsy’ outfits that drift from state to state and the scaffolding they use, where ladders won’t work, can be fairly flimsy. I suppose the idea is to get in and out with as little equipment as they can and as quickly as possible—especially if the work is not as promised. There might be four or five houses on the same street that succumbed to the salesmen’s pitch. And the fellow I worked for had a small crew. I was out there on my own some days, with the equipment dumped hastily at the curb and the truck gone on to the next job.
On one of those days near Akron, Ohio I could not get the aluminum legs of the scaffold to set solidly on the blocks. It was quiet enough, with the householder and his family gone, and the natural thing for me then was to simply go to it, without the damned rigging, which I didn’t trust anyway. So I just took off, so to speak.
The next thing I knew there was a State Trooper pulled up in the driveway. And I lost the job. A neighbor was worried that I was peeking in windows.
My objective was to walk the whole damned way from New York to San Francisco, and stick to what they call ‘Blue Highway’ now but on most of the gas station maps I picked up for free or for the price of a candy bar and a Coke those small road lines were black or red or green. Usually I penciled in the next leg of the journey with my little flashlight trapped in my teeth, just before I fell asleep. I avoided cities, where I could. And whenever I couldn’t make it to a State Park before dark, I just asked someone and they usually had good advice. Once I slept in the back seat of a 1952 Oldsmobile sitting on cinder blocks in someone’s driveway—that was also in Pennsylvania. A few times I slept on picnic tables in local parks if they had a shed roof over them to keep the rain off. Thankfully, the police were never too difficult about that.
The fact is, my resolution to walk across the whole continent got compromised pretty early on, near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania when it started to snow and blow as if the snow was not enough, it being almost April. A fellow in a pick-up stopped with a second thought after he had passed me—just a couple of tail lights a quarter mile away in the dark and then backed all the way up. I couldn’t say no then even if I had wanted to. After that, if the opportunity stopped, I had no second thoughts myself. If I was tired or my feet hurt or the weather was just more than I could stand, I stuck my thumb out and hitchhiked here and there. It was a wet spring. Often enough though, I just did that when someone stopped to ask if I needed a lift. People out here are like that. Never happened to me once when I was in New York. And mostly I just walked—through two pairs of boots and five pairs of sneakers, not counting the ones that got covered in paint. And that was just to get me as far as Iowa.
My habit was to stop at a laudromat every few days, take everything off except my bathing suit and my Dad’s old Pee Wee Reese number 1 Dodger’s jersey, and washed the rest of it up. One of my intentions was to get a picture of myself at Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles wearing that Jersey and send it to him. I grew up with a picture of him wearing it at Ebbet’s Field, so I didn’t wear it at all except to do my laundry. As Spring warmed up I sent my coat back home and then my sweaters. This gave me a little extra room for more socks and more underware in my backpack, as well as a second pair of jeans and a couple of shirts and I could go five or six days without trying to find a place to strip down so I could do my laundry and saved on a lot of quarters. You can work up a good sweat when you walk.
Walking across Iowa in late August can be a particularly unpleasant affair. The asphalt radiates the heat of the sun and doubles it. It’s wide-open much of the way because the trees are not along the road there like they are in the East. They’re mostly along the creeks, or set out in skinny rows along the crop lines to break the winds. You can trail along back roads as straight as an Interstate and get far from any other noise except for crickets and the breeze in the telephone lines, and it’s beautiful most the year, even in the winter. You do have to be careful with the electric wires just about anywhere. You just have to watch where you jump.
But the corn sort of hedges you in when you’re walking. I’m not short but an elephant’s eye is above my head. It just seemed the natural thing for me to do was to get up and away from the heat of the road on a few those really sunny days. There is actually more breeze up above and the brief buffeting is nice but you can’t get too high or else you get blown off course and going east to west the wind is mostly in your face. I learned then that landing in the middle of a cornfield can be a strange experience. Like being in a jungle. You have to get down low to the ground to tell which way the rows are going, and some times there is a skunk or some other lost thing staring right back at you.
Now, as I say, there are trees in Iowa, despite rumors to the contrary. Lots of them. And when I jumped a little more than I should, trying to perfect a sort of ‘bound’ I was working on, I got caught in an up draft and soon found myself clinging to the top branches of a tree right beside an empty bird’s nest.
It’s happened before, of course, and I actually am better at climbing down from trees than climbing up.
But it was when I got down from that particular one of those trees on August 24th, 1975, that I met Claire.
She was just there, as if waiting for me in the shade below, hands on her hips, wearing a pair of cut-off jeans, her father’s old Sioux City Soos blue baseball cap and her faded University of Iowa T-Shirt.
Remember, she has a sense of humor that takes getting used to.
She says, “You are not as fast at that as I thought you’d be.”
All I thought to say was, “I didn’t know which branches would take my weight.”
She nodded as if it happens all the time. “Yeah. That’s a problem I suppose . . . You want a glass of lemonade?”
Instead of the usual wide-eyed, ‘what the heck is that all about’ look, the matter of factness of her delivery under the circumstances had me perplexed and off balance while standing right there on solid ground. That, and I think I was already a little enamored.
So, of course, I said, “Yes.”
She says, “There’s a storm coming. We’re expecting some fireworks tonight. Maybe a tornado or two in the area. You better stay outta the trees for awhile.”
“I thought the air felt a little different. I was just trying to make it to Sioux City.”
“Well, you won’t make it there that way.” She pointed up in the tree. “You won’t make it today even if you walk. It’s another forty miles.”
Now I was pretty curious myself.
Straight-faced, I say, “You get a lot of strangers just sort of floating through?”
And she says, “No. Just you. I’m strange but I live here already.”
Which was, for me, a very unusual happenstance.