By John Wesley McDuffie
My Mother would say, “You came by that honest,” a double dose of adventure seeking courage. At the age of three, I found soaring through the clouds to be so peaceful that I fell asleep before the wheels touched the tarmac. I was less than fearless; I was simply at home. My love of flight became a channel for a miracle that would someday bring a sense of peace to a beautiful person who suffered tremendous loss.
Both my maternal Grandfather and my paternal Uncle lived life with their feet firmly on the ground and their heads forever in the clouds. They both flew Cessnas with a talent comparable to anything you’d see in a Blue Angels show. My Mother’s last ride with her Father began with a steep climb, a stall, a twirl back down through the ascending smoke, and a magnificent pull just before meeting the ground. My Grandfather was an instructor and a crop duster. He was capable of making the most daring and daunting drops and climbs inside the parameters of the tallest Georgia pines that grew along the farms.
As time passed, my love for flying grew. By the time I was in the second grade, I asked my Grandfather to take me up in the airplane daily. My craving for flight became an insatiable desire that left him having to tell me no all the time. So, we struck up a deal; flying the plane became a Sunday thing. Going up in that plane with him was pure magic. His plane was set up for teaching; the passenger side had its own steering column attached to his steering column with a steel bar. Every glorious Sunday was the same. I would circle the plane conducting the mandatory preflight check under his careful supervision. Then we would unhook the tethers and climb in. As my Grandfather warmed up the engine, I would pick up the CB and radio the airport office; “Breaker 1-9. This is Whiskey 1-8-niner requesting permission to taxi. Over.” I felt like the most important person in the world. The radio would crackle, “Breaker Whiskey 1-8-niner, permission granted.” Within minutes we were at the end of the tarmac, the engine humming with excitement. “Breaker Whiskey 1-8-niner, requesting permission to take off.” With the final crackling of permission, my Grandfather would release the foot brake. The plane would jump forward and begin racing down the tarmac. The momentum would pin my head to the seat. My heart would race with the same excitement the engine experienced.
I never got to take off or land. Once we left the ground and were at the legal altitude, my Grandfather would sit back, put his hands behind his head, and smile. Where we chose to fly was up to me. My favorite place to fly was over my Grandmother’s farm; that was my Uncle’s favorite, too. My Grandmother, aware of our weekly flying arrangement, would run out into the yard and wave up to us. Oh! How I loved to turn the steering column to the right, then to the left, and then back to the right. It was the first showmanship I learned; how to wave to my favorite people using the wings of the plane. And, believe me, I waved at people every chance I got!
When I was in fourth grade, I walked home from school at the end of a normal day. I entered the house and saw my Dad. He was home early, and that in itself was strange to me. But, what I remember most, was the look of panic in his eyes. To this day, I can see him rounding the corner and picking up the phone. I can see his face, a face that never showed any fear, reeling with emotion. I remember him collecting his things to rush out the door. As he took the phone, I heard him say something I will never forget. “I don’t know yet. I was at work and they came and got me saying, ‘Larry you better go on home. Your brother has crashed his plane.’” I froze. In my world they flew majestically; nothing ever went wrong. I spent that afternoon at my neighbor’s house. The rest of my family stood close by all night as rescue crews drug the river.
My Uncle was every bit the master aviator as my Grandfather. Though they were from opposite sides of my family; they were the same spirit. The story of his transcendence was as grand as his marvelous stunt pilot life. He had flown down the river. He’d done successive full 360-degree loops of the Altamaha Bridge. He was the only person I had ever heard of attempting the double loop, let alone accomplishing the stunt more than once. He continued down the river and dropped low to do a simple fly-by of some friends in a fishing boat. But this day, when he attempted to ascend again, the plane’s wings hung low and to the left.
The wing clipped a tree and the plane spun to the bottom of the river. That day, our small county lost four lives; my Uncle and three brothers from another family.
How could such an accomplished pilot complete such an amazing series of loops and lose control over a simple fly by? Earlier, my Uncle had gotten into trouble and the FAA had seized control of his plane in St. Mary’s Georgia. My family does not like to hear no. My Uncle used a set of bolt cutters to liberate his plane from the hanger and brought it home. When he landed, the authorities were waiting. The plane was locked away, and the man on the other end of that crackling radio was told that if he sold my Uncle any fuel the airport would be shut down. But, as I have stated, my family just does not like to hear no. He showed up that morning, filled his plane with the highest octane fuel he could find, and he flew off that tarmac with automotive gas. The pilot was as accomplished as ever. The plane simply did not have enough octane to perform stunts; especially not with four adults in the cockpit. There are rumors that GBI helicopters were chasing him around the sky as his plane fumbled. The closed-casket funeral was filled with people.
The following Sunday, my Grandfather and I took our traditional flight. In hindsight, he probably wanted to make sure the accident didn’t scare me away. I turned the plane towards my Grandmother’s farm and prepared to give her a most loving wave. Surely she could use that wave now more than ever. As we neared the farm, my Grandfather instructed me to turn the plane around and fly towards the beaches. He explained, through the radio headgear, that today was not a good day to wave at my Grandmother. I never flew by her farm again. We were all too aware that the plane might only upset her, and no one wanted that. Soon after that, my Grandfather retired and moved back to Kentucky to live out the rest of his many days in his hometown, the place he loved. I always remembered that day, but never thought too much about how close I actually got to the farm before turning around.
Around a decade later, I was listening to my Grandmother sharing the details of her life and her faith in God. She told me a story about being a young girl, whose Father had just died, and whose Mother was attempting to make a big decision. She said they were dirt poor when her Father passed away. Her Mother considered a job as a live-in housekeeper in a new town; a job that would keep them all from starving. She said her Mother, unsure of what to do, prayed to God. She said her Mother told God, “I will do whatever you ask of me. If I am supposed to move my entire family so far away from home, please give me a sign.” My Grandmother said the sign came the next morning with the sound of horse hooves coming up the drive. Then she told me another story, about the greatness of God. A story that would teach me about the greatness of God, too.
One Sunday afternoon, a few days after my Uncle’s funeral, my mourning Grandmother heard the all too familiar hum of a small Cessna. She wiped the tears from her eyes and ran into the yard. She said she could hear the plane, but she never could see the plane. She explained how she knew in her heart it was my Uncle flying past one last time to tell her that he loved her, to let her know he would always be looking out for her, and to tell her goodbye. She explained to me that God had given her a chance to say everything she needed to say to her son. God had given her a chance to say I love you one last time, and God had given her a chance to say goodbye. I couldn’t help but smile through the tears. I never told my Grandmother that the plane she heard, but never saw, was probably me and my Grandfather. I am glad I had enough sense not to say anything. That moment for me was a minor disappointment; but, for my Grandmother, that moment meant the world.
In the last year, I have learned so much about God. I have learned how we are each manifestations of God, moving about this dimension, and spreading his infinite Love. That day, 27 years ago, God reached through the heart and mind of an unsuspecting 10-year-old to comfort a mourning mother. God is just that Great. My love for flying, my Grandfather’s refusal to allow me to stagnate in fear, and the momentary indecision of whether to let me fly by my Grandmother’s farm or not; all seemingly separate, but all Gloriously synchronized. What I once undervalued as a fantastic coincidence, I can know see as a manifestation of my Grandmother’s purest desire and intention. I now understand that me flying towards my Grandmother’s house and my Uncle saying goodbye were, in fact, a single multidimensional, simultaneous miracle. She transcended this world three years ago. One of the greatest gifts I ever gave anyone, was the gift of my silence that day. I often wonder, when she became part of that great omniscience again, how hard she must have laughed.
As for me, life has become a beautiful flight again, every bit as magically exciting as the engine of those Cessna planes leaving the tarmac with their sights set on the Heavens that surround each of us every single day. In this world, whether we know it or not, we all come by something honest; God’s miracles worked out through our own hands and lives in everything we say and do.