Some days during my writing residency, on my 20 minute walk through the woods back to the main building, after grappling all day with some of the most painful memories of my life, I felt a sense of triumph as the trees parted at the edge of a large field and I saw this:
I had survived another day--accomplished something and I know it sounds absolutely ridiculous, but some days I felt like Sam Shepard in The Right Stuff with the plane wreck of my life burning in the background as I walked toward whatever constituted civilization, my face singed and carrying what was left of my parachute--or to be more precise, the empty picnic basket in which my lunch had been delivered to me earlier.
We'd watched the movie about Chuck Yeager and the other fly-boys in the days before I left. I'd seen it long ago and I'm sure during my original viewing I'd been caught up in its rampant macho energy, but when I saw Yeager, unauthorized, take that jet down the runway just to see how high he could fly it, all I could think about was how many gazillion dollars that thing must have cost and that he was absolutely going to crash it.
Regardless, the image that stayed with me during my residency, that I'd remember when walking the dirt road through the woods to the clearing on the other side, the image was of the jet's nose rising in silence, up and up, so high the altimeter cracks and g-forces push Yeager back against the seat while he struggles to stay conscious.
The obvious analogy is with Icarus, although I'm not interested today in obvious analogies.
A moment in life will come when you push the jet as far as its mechanics will allow. The altimeter will break and the sleek beauty of the aircraft will stall at first just so quietly and then it will pitch into a flat spin, the world cycling around you faster than you can imagine--the horizon here and then gone again--and all you will hear is the sound of your own breath in your own ears.
You may wonder then if hubris drove you this far, or whether necessity compelled you. For some, there's little difference between the two. I often wonder whether my belief that Robert is a human being no less deserving of society's acceptance, first-rate medical care and an education is hubristic on my part or an ethical necessity that drives me to fly this jet I have no business and no right to pilot as high as I can take it.
Look, I know I don't have the skills to fly this plane, to make it do what it must, what it was made to do--set a benchmark.
And that seems to me the point of Yeager's unauthorized ascent: to do what must be done, to make the vehicle achieve what it was meant what it was built to do. Necessity drives him, not hubris. After all, he's out in the desert alone, away from the glam astronauts and the nation's spotlight.
I remember writing last year about the Blackbird, the plane built to fly three times the speed of sound, the plane whose turns had to be planned 200-300 miles in advance. And how that made me think of Phoebe Snow and her disabled daughter and the risks we're forced to take, the flights we buckle ourselves in for without understanding how powerful the ride will be.
That is life with Robert, flying faster than my skills allow, hoping I can make the machine accomplish what it was meant to do: fly faster than the insurance companies can head us off, out-race ungenerous predictions of Robert's future, outrun this insane political climate in which ingratiating smiling jackasses simultaneously invoke American exceptionalism and poor-mouth the possibility of a shared effort and responsibility in accomplishing what this nation needs to do for us all--to prove the point, that is, that we are an exceptional and unique people (if that is indeed, the hegemonic and ultimately obnoxious point we'd like to make). I am, frankly, worried that under either a Romney or an Obama administration we will see Medicare vouchers tossed casually to people like my son. Because asking Romney to fly this sleek beautiful craft we call the United State of America is like strapping a black lab on top of the cockpit and Obama doesn't seem to want to get into the cockpit at all right now (hey, what gives with his no-show in Wisconsin?).
So I settle myself into the cockpit and put my flight helmet on and chart my course and hope I can control the jet. In her excellent recent memoir about grief and about living, The Guardians, my friend Sarah Manguso says she believes in the possibility of unendurable suffering. I don't know that I disagree, but I desperately want that to not be true.
But I know the flat spin may really come and when it does will I have the presence of mind to react or will I simply panic? In the film we see the plane spin in silence, we see his body eject, the seat bottom rising away from the camera, and for long minutes as the plane dives toward the pale brown and green surface of the planet we don't know if Yeager will survive.
But we're Americans, the film seems to say as Yeager strides from the wreckage--finally, music--that's part of what we do: live hard, drive fast and crash a few jets worth hundreds of millions of dollars in the service of seeing what this country can do.
A seminal moment in what I'll call my youthful awakening as an American was when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. I was in kindergarten, but from then on I knew that's what it is to be or to become an American--think big, make it happen. Do it because it was waiting to be done.
I'm sure this seeming romanticization of the military-industrial complex will distress many of my friends--but, frankly, this Yeager-esque attitude is similar to that which drove the Civil Rights movement or social justice in general or the 2008 speeches of the Obama campaign.
Yet now we've got a cry-baby Speaker of the House and a budget "visionary" by the name of Paul Ryan who lectures us like a little girl as though the vast resources of this country, our sprawling hellishly complex economy, is nothing more than a fistful of dollars drawn from Mom's bank account to apply to a grocery list with the explicit direction that we are not to buy any gum with it.
And isn't that what Yeager asks to borrow, a stick of gum, before every dangerous flight on which he embarks? A stick of Beeman's chewing gum?
So we may crash a few expensive jets in our quest for medical breakthroughs, top-flight education, care for the disabled, social justice--hell--the moon. Maybe we'll even have to steer the plane with our eyes as g-forces pin us to our seats for a while. Not lost on me is the irony that Robert's eye gaze technology was originally developed by the military for the benefit of pilots like Yeager.
All our politicians, though, are too busy showboating like lazy astronauts on display at fundraisers to actually drive out into the desert, get in the cockpit and fly the damn plane and see what we can get this still beautiful sleek engine of a country to do for all of us. Even if it takes us a few planes to get it right.