Candide over Nebraska
Once I flew through a thunder/lightening storm in Nebraska, naked, in a 1948 Stinson 4-seater cloth airplane with my schizo-affective (schizophrenic plus bi-polar) boyfriend - who was a 3-pack a day chain smoker. I was naive...
I did not realize how seriously mentally ill he was - that came a few years later after he had a psychotic break. At this point, he was simply quirky, introspective, and made peculiar statements. Some people thought he was profound.
I met Sigmund through some mutual friends. What I noticed is that he was quiet, handsome, had a degree in aviation and a minor in meteorology. He was funny and sweet and said very unpredictable things. He was unabashedly eccentric but at that time, to me, being unusual was a ringing endorsement. I was not interested in status quo men. Then he told me that he had his own airplane... a pizza delivery guy who just happened to have an airplane. This really peaked my curiosity.
He took me to see it. It was a 1940's Stinson, canary yellow, with a brown pin-strip down the length of the plane and two large supported wings. He showed me how he put the gasoline in the wings of the airplane - how much he loved the smooth steel propeller - how the exterior of the plane was made of cloth. He pressed the backside of the plane with his index finger and it indented slightly then sprung back to it's taunt position like a drum. Inside, the cabin had dark blue plastic seats and carpet and a busy array of old fashioned dials. There was a chrome embossed Saint Christopher medallion pressed into the dashboard and tiny chrome ashtrays on the doors - just like a classic car from the same era. It flew about 100 miles an hour... not exactly speedy, but way cooler than the 54 Buick my former boyfriend had, by a landslide.
The following week he invited me to fly with him to Minnesota to get some cheese. I packed a few things and he threw a tent in the back of the plane. I developed a routine for flying with Sig in the Stinson: I put in my earplugs; steadied my shades; located my barf bag and closed my eyes in preparation for take-off. The engine made a deafening noise and everything vibrated wildly. My assumption was that Sig was an excellent pilot but this was based on virtually no experience with private planes. He chain-smoked - as did I, but I was not cognoscente of the facts -- cloth wings, ash sparks - go boom, fall down. When he was flying he lit cigarettes with cigarettes and stacked them neatly perpendicular to allow for maximum room to extinguish multiple butts. Once we were in the air he told me that I needed to keep the smoking down because it was dangerous. A few minutes later he lit another cigarette. The engine was very loud and I was searching the landscape for markers on an aerial map so we could tell where we were. Switching views between the terrain below and the map in the cabin made me motion sick. The only thing I could do to keep from throwing up was to stare at objects inside the cabin.
For some reason he wore a miner's lamp on his forehead. Once we were somewhere over northeastern Colorado he started shifting around. He got up and took off his shirt, then his pants and finally his underwear. He was naked with the miners lamp, dark sunglasses and a cigarette clenched between his lips in a grimace. I asked him why he took his clothes off and he just chuckled and urged me to join him in nakedness. At first I protested and said something stupid like, what if someone sees us, and he pointed out that there was no one up there. Trapped by the logic, I gingerly agreed. There we were flying over the Bible Belt, butt-naked, chain-smoking, laughing and spotting highways, ravines and towers over the great plains of America.
The Stinson wasn't capable of flying above the clouds like a jet (or Sig was afraid to), so we were flying just under them. There was an eerie fascinating glow to the sky. At one point he became very concentrated and quiet, not giddy anymore and he stopped smoking. I noticed that he was sweating, shifty and nervous. Out of the windows, I could see lightning bolts in the clouds around us. I watched a large flash of lightning happen out my window. My long hair became static and the air felt thick and different. I realized that there were probably five or six clouds that were discharging lightning around the little cloth plane we were in. Sig yelled, "We're going to have to land because we could get killed in this storm." We had just crossed-over the border of Colorado toward a small town in Nebraska. Sig maneuvered through the storm down to the little rural airport. I was mesmerized and enthralled at how beautiful lightning looked up-close but was disappointed that I had to put my clothes back on.
There was a clearly marked landing strip in the little airport that was dotted with tiny blue lights on both sides. Once we were on the ground it became apparent that the airport was closed for the night. Sig secured the plane to something (I can't remember how now - but it wasn't very windy - small planes like that can blow away in strong winds), and we started to look to see if there was anything to eat... maybe a vending machine or a diner within walking distance. It took a few minutes for us to realize that we were essentially locked-in behind a tall barbed wire chain link fence that stretched around the entire airport complex. Sig dragged the pup tent out of the back of the cabin and pitched it on the grass right next to the blue lights on the runway. We found a pay phone and called Pizza Hut for a delivery to the airport. They slid a hot pizza box under the locked gate at the entrance and took our $20. We carried it back to the tent and ate it in the blue glowing grass. It was a completely surreal moment of calmness. A caretaker of the grounds came across our little campsite as he made his rounds in a golf-cart. He freaked out at first, then laid off the Barney Fife routine and just let us sleep there. In the morning we flew the plane back to Denver.
I didn't completely realized what a dangerous experience that was for many years.