On the wide South Australian desert horizon, flat and vague, slowly appeared low undulating mounds. Nothing spectacular – but the nearer we got, some appeared strangely, smoothly, cone-shaped. Mysterious piles like giant anthills – but not. As we descended to land, we saw that these regularly spaced cones had a black hole in the middle, just like an anthill. Coober Pedy was a mining town, and darned if they weren’t tailings.
Tailings? Tailings from coal mines we’d seen… discards from underground excavations. Huge hills of black. But these were tiny, whitish, and surreal. Like ants, workers digging below ground had hoisted the earth out and up a shaft to the surface, where each shovelful made an ever-growing, symmetrical hill. Our curiosity was hugely piqued… We peered with interest at the rough edges of this mining town as we circled over it.
Since back in 1915, when as they were out walking an explorer and his boy spotted colorful rocks gleaming in the sun, Coober Pedy has been the home of the world’s best supply of opals. Opals are splendid gemstones containing a wee but critical percentage of water – gems of shimmering rainbows, so fragile they don’t last very well. You mustn’t let them dry out, or they’ll crack and splinter, fade and lose their beautiful color.
I wanted one.
Whirring our wheels down onto the hot macadam, we taxied to parking, there scooped up by our hotel rep. Oh, the famous underground hotel. The desert heat of Coober Pedy was hell-fire hot, but folks had long since figured out a way to beat that – they burrowed like rabbits beneath the surface, making cozy, earth-cooled homes. (Soldiers returning from war to work, back in 1916, brought the concept of dugouts to the new town, which morphed into underground living.) There was even a lovely below ground chapel for Sunday worshipping. And similarly, in time, they had carved out a terrific cavern of a hotel, full of handsome wandering tunnels chiseled out of rock, leading to cool well-appointed cave bedrooms. Sometimes, if you squinted closely, you could spy a speck of opal in a tunnel wall.
Ah, opals. To find them one had to stroll about town (yes, there were buildings on the surface with a grid of streets) checking out opal salons, following signs touting bargains of finest quality gems. But walking about “on top” outside the main drag with cameras to the ready, tourist-like, poking around the curious mounds – was vehemently discouraged. There were abandoned holes, de facto traps for the unwary. We had a guide; we did the right things. No traps for us. (Except for our wallets.)
We happened to be in this unique desert town on ANZAC Day… as important a day to the Australians and their war veterans as our Memorial Day is to us Americans. ANZAC. The Australia and New Zealand Army Corps, those who fought in the horrendous bloody battle of Gallipoli. We watched from a shady restaurant porch as a wiry little handful of aged soldiers strode in the morning down the middle of the street, proudly marching to a brass band. It was so poignant. The straggling little parade evoked the universally felt pain and compassion for the failures of the human race to be peaceful. And an ache for the wreckage of lives brought by this failing.
In later years a song was written about this 1915 battle, called “And the Band Played Waltzin’ Matilda.” Please find it on YouTube, and listen. It is powerful.
It was an interesting stopover, with the chance to purchase the coveted opal. Got one, love it, never wear it. Afraid of its drying out. Bah. Such is a woman’s life.
So. I signed up for flying lessons, got an instructor (old cigarette-breath baggy-eyes), and eventually struck a neat deal with the flight school. They had a “discount club” that got you scrip to use for payments, instead of real money. All were encouraged to join. $80 bought $100 in scrip; play money, we called it. The guys who’d been around a while pointed out to me that when the bills were due for the company – once a month – the boss would do anything to get more cash – including giving “club members” a better scrip swap for dollars. Naturally we waited till the moment when he was scampering desperately down the back stairs to avoid creditors coming up the front ones – and there snagged him for a better deal. I got 100 scrip for 50 real. Not bad.
This company CEO was a round, bowling-pin -shaped fellow. Short, with feet that pointed outward like a penguin, and wore coke bottle thick glasses. Those enlarged his eyeballs like bulbous fish eyes. But they also enabled him to fly, with a waiver. He could settle a plane on the runway just like thistledown. Not seeing well, he did it like this… First he slowly descended almost to the end of the runway, just a 100 hundred feet up so he could see the big runway numbers, then fully extended the flaps and slowed the plane to a walk – and peering out over the panel he cut the power, sank gently to the concrete – and tip-toed it on. I can still see him leaning forward, pointing his nose with those thick glasses on them, to see through the windscreen and down onto the runway.
Penguin had high ambitions about a large flight school and charter business. To this end he had rounded up 12 aircraft, mostly single engine for training, most on lease-back (“buy this Cessna, Donnie – lease it back to me to use, and you can pay for it with the income from rental and lessons! Just put it on our flight line… Fly it whenever you want!”) – and thus he had a bunch parked behind the maintenance hangars. Apparently he overextended himself with promises, believing rentals and training would indeed pay their bills. That was Cessna’s leaseback sales mantra, and he believed. And they might have – had the aircraft continued to be airworthy. You know – a workable set of wings, usable propeller, nice upright tail. Well, in his eagerness, he took his eye off the ball. He gave orders for tie-downs – but he neglected to make sure that happened.
There is a reason to tie down an airplane. A strong wind, all by itself, will lift it right up – and not nicely. When disaster came, five were merely set with parking brakes, awaiting the ropes. You know how workers can be… You have to remind them, maybe be on their case. The Penguin wasn’t. He liked to analyze, give orders, sit back – and wheel and deal. It was summer, there were storms. One afternoon while he was leaning back in his office chair, ear to the phone with his mind on his dreams, a shocker of a squall line suddenly whapped through with 80-mph winds punching over everything upright. Buildings shuddered, people grabbed supports, cars wobbled.
From way off you could see it coming, the black clouds ferociously bucking in, with serious force. But he hadn’t been looking out of the window. Behind the hangars, those loose airplanes got flipped into total ruins. Baggy-eyes and I looked at the sad aftermath and clucked. What would he use for a trainer? That scrip was going to be useless. Poor Penguin.
An old wheeze from the field: “How to make a small fortune in aviation? Start with a big one.”
When people speak in awe of the vastness of the universe, of how the billions upon billions of stars, galaxies, and perhaps even other universes – make them feel insignificant – a mere speck in the cosmos – a nano-speck, if you will – I nod dumbly and say “right.” But that doesn’t mean that I myself feel that way. I feel like me, plain old me, and not a mere speck. I feel like a hot-blooded carnivore on a corrosive, interesting, beautiful planet, glad to be here most of the time and hoping we don’t all blow each other up any time soon. A member of an assertive, pugnacious species that often cannot get out of its own way. But I do not feel awed into oblivion by the size of the universe. It truly is awesome – but it’s supposed to be that size, and I’m supposed to be my size. QED. And God? Whatever he/she/it is – I have experienced his proddings, his guidance, his Mind tsk-tsk-ing my actions – usually too late for me to do anything about it. Because I had not been listening. You have to listen. You have been equipped by the Creator, God, Allah, the Force – take your pick – with an inner guidance system tuned to Its frequency. The inner voice, the quiet still voice in our head. Conscience. Instinct. We just don’t pay attention to it. We choose to be deafened by desires, by greed…by evil? You can name it. There are none so blind as the willfully blind. You will yourself not to hear, not to believe. It would be too hard, too inconvenient, to believe in the nudgings from common sense, from logic. Those messages perhaps sent from the Cosmos. We are lazy, we are foolish. We are assuredly selfish.
But we are not specks.
copyright 2015, Michelee Morgan Cabot
It’s just too easy to roll back the years, and be there. I’m back to eight years old. The images are strong – I’m there, digging my toes in the dirt and stirring it until it becomes a fine powder at least 8 inches deep, thus violating the rule to always wear shoes. That was to protect against whatever parasites were lurking in the loam. Ha. Although my shoes were a little girl’s dream, wooden platforms with banana trees carved and painted on the side, pale green straps criss-crossing over the toes – I was a barefoot kid. But I adored them, for they were, in fact – high heels. I mastered them instantly, being only eight years old and thrilled to the bone. They were just my size… Filipinos were a small people. We got them in the local town of Tarlac near our military post.
It was in Tarlac that I learned humility. It was an epiphany – a pivotal moment in my life. Mother and I were shopping with her friends. A crowd of natives gathered to stare at us Americans, following us closely as we moved about. I was the first white child, and blonde to boot, that most had ever seen. I was a curiosity to be examined. Watched. I preened, I held my head high, I walked with dignity. I pictured myself a princess, above them all, in my own mind. I stayed close to my mother through the clothes market, peering at and examining clothes, acting interested and, I thought, oh so very grown up. I walked proudly in my shoes.
Then we wanted to cross the street. Cars were non-existent, except for the jeep that had brought us. The village was dirt roads and dirt-floored stores, the occasional wooden walkway mocked up in the aisles, and outside here and there to pass over deep mud puddles. Dogs trailed, chickens scattered, children peered, adults stared. I felt very superior in this sea of black hair and black eyes. The crowd parted for us to cross to another store. I lifted my head the way I thought a princess should, like out of one of my fairy tale books, nose up – not deigning to look down in front of me. A princess wouldn’t look down. And guess what… OH yessss…. There was a banana peel. SO classic. Whoop! Thud! – up my feet flew – and down I went. Big ouch!!! I dared not show pain, anything. I, the princess, had to carry this off, thought I to myself. Get up and smile, brush myself off. I did. Nobody smiled. They just stared.
I learned humility. My pride had shriveled. But my shoes had stayed on.
We were going home – to a home we didn’t know yet. What would it be like, on the other side of the world?
Behind a giant V-spray of water, for 21 days our MATS transport ship muscled the sea out of its way, leaving behind spouting whales – and sometimes, escorting flocks of flying fish. Finally, finally it settled into a thrumming drift towards the Manila dock. Arriving at the pier, impatient dependents crammed against the railing, calling out to joyful fathers and husbands. The dock below was a mass of men with grinning faces and waving arms. We excitedly spotted who we belonged to, pushed down the gangplank, did fierce whirling hugs – and then agonizingly waited to be processed. Stuff had to be offloaded from the cargo, slowly swinging on hooks and ropes.
That done, a government car picked us up and hauled us away to distant Clark Field. It was full dark by the time we got there. The road had been full of bumps and mysterious shadows, headlights briefly illuminating… something. I could see nothing outside. We eventually passed through Clark Field’s tall gates – formerly Fort Stotsenburg– a prewar post my mother had always spoken of in reverential tones. We pulled up to the commanding officer’s mansion. Here we would spend a few days until we traveled on to Daddy’s post. And new home. Plantation-style, these Clark Field commander’s quarters were grand. Second floor bedrooms had screened balconies and wide porches. Downstairs, too. Inside, the floors gleamed with overlapping circular patterns of wax. How fancy, I thought. How did they do that?
How? The next day I saw how – barefoot house boys swooped around on coconut halves, bending and skating in sweeping circles to bring back glow and shine, scuffed up by footfalls. Boy-powered waxing/buffing machines! Intrigued, my eyes followed their graceful moves, sometimes with a candle stub grinding under the coconut against the floor. “Missy do?” They grinned. “Oweeee!” I yipped… the hard coconut cups hurt my feet. I toppled off, giggling. As I walked around, my bare soles picked up a stiff layer of wax. (Shoes did too.) But the floors gleamed richly, in this commander’s showplace. Candle wax subbed for floor wax. We were in a land of make-do. Mama whispered “Yankee ingenuity.” “Mommy,” I said – “looks like Filipino ingenuity.” She sniffed.
Was our house going to be grand – like this? “No, no, buttercup…” said my daddy. “Our house is nice, but not a mansion. But it’s built on a concrete pad… You can even roller skate in it!” Oh boy – I could settle for that. Our new home would be just the best.
We were adventurous, curious, and rambunctious, we transplanted military offspring. We were on Luzon, at the Army Air Corps base Florida Blanca – still Air Corps, not yet Air Force, that year. Newly reunited with our warrior dads, gleeful to be back in their arms, on their laps – and swung high on their shoulders. We were all ages of course – but this day’s gaggle was aged six to ten. Littler ones were left at home, while we were on out on a forbidden foray. Forbidden because of the danger of landmines, heinous wartime devices planted to demolish the stalking enemy – now perilous, of course, to the meandering innocent. There had been scrupulous cleanups; yet every week some poor GI was blown to bits while walking around in the fields – to pee, guy-style.
The Philippine Islands were home to a marvelous plant – a low-growing, fluffy sensitive plant. Think of our weedy little pinky puff-flowering touch-me-not, and bring it to a higher level. The kind that when you touch it, recoils and folds up its leaves to escape. Then on its own timing it slowly unfolds to again capture the sunshine. These grew knee-high and left an intriguing path as we kids plowed through them. As we stirred the greenery, up flew myriads of flying insects, from tiniest butterflies to gnats and mosquitoes – which circled maddeningly. When we passed through the field and looked back – we saw the sensitive plants delightfully filling in the channeled footpath we had forged. No one would ever have guessed we had passed by. Just the kind of field for landmines. If there were any, we missed them. Our guardian angels were busy.
Way across the open field, at its edge, arose a thick jungle of bushes, vines, and trees. It was after all, the tropics. As we pushed through, making our way to the edge of the valley beyond (at the right season, we saw agri-burnoff down there done by the farmers… mostly sugar cane) – with a shock we stumbled onto an airplane wreck hidden in the deep jungle shadows. Tentatively, a couple of us stepped gingerly into the crashed Japanese fuselage, tell-tale red circle on its side. Then we saw the upright helmeted, uniformed skeleton in the pilot’s seat. We didn’t go further to see the face, the actual skull. We pivoted and breathlessly rocketed out – shrieking in terror. Silly us… the dead couldn’t hurt us. Oh yeah? Maybe yes, maybe no. We could not report this – we were doing a forbidden thing.
It was Luzon, 1946. Small wild horses grazed the lands. When one soon met his grisly demise in that same field, we kids gathered and huddled, and marveled at our luck.
I finally confessed it, to a non-plussed father. He growled his disapproval – but it was way too late. “I’m sorry, Daddy,” was hardly enough. His hug gave forgiveness, and showed his relief.
The wild sight is burned in my memory – Chinese Joe the cook, enraged, crazed, chasing fleeing terrified Lupe the housemaid with a carving knife held high to plunge into her back. His slitted eyes were on fire, his lips drawn back from his teeth, gaunt cheeks sucked in in fury. It was reflex – glaring, I bellowed “Joe Stop!! – give me that knife!” and lunged forward to grab it from him. He stopped, trembling.
I was eight years old, a yellow-haired brat, daughter of the conqueror. It was 1946, on Luzon. End of WW2. Head wavering, he gave it to me. The commotion drew my parents to the scene. “Give me the knife, Mike!” said Daddy, grimly – mother horrified and Daddy appalled. What had happened?
Joe was a gifted cook, master of the delicate merengue and flaky crusted rolls, creator and chef of dream-like, mouth-watering cuisine. He had come to us via an old restaurateur friend of my father, one he had bailed out of a Manila restaurant closure before the Conflict, back during a prewar posting. Lt. Morgan, my Daddy to be, had coughed up $50 to keep his restaurant open (a lot back then) – this money had enabled him, through the intervening years, to expand throughout the south pacific. He believed he owed his success to my father, and in the philosophy of the East, he was indebted for life. He was known to us as Charlie Corn, a vague approximation of what his name sounded like to Yankee ears. So when Charlie Corn heard that my father was back on Luzon, he appeared like a welcome genie with a cook for the household, someone he drew out of his army of restaurant cooks. And he had only the best. That excellence is what had prompted my father to keep him afloat all those years before.
Joe was a genius – but a temperamental one. Like most artists, he held his secrets close to his chest. NO one could watch him cook. Once day mother peeked in and saw him making his golden buttery rolls… he was spitting the glaze from between his teeth onto each before slipping the pan into the oven. Pit-tooey! pit-tooey! pit-tooey! And so on… Quietly she snuck away, deciding the oven’s heat would burn off the germs. The glaze was so lovely.
But foolish Lupe was not smart. She teased paranoid Joe relentlessly, peering into the kitchen from around the corner. His artistic license was threatened… He had secrets he would not, could not, share. He loathed Lupe and her teasing… He finally snapped. Violently. They were on a chase through the living room when high-pitched oriental screams reached my ears, and I stepped up.
You never know what life will bring. If I had been older, I might not have been so bold. Yeah, I would have.
Some of us don’t have much sense.
As we poked along, near Moreton-in-Marsh by now, we came upon another of those huge runways – this one adapted to creative reuse as both a truck-driving training school at one end (lots of maneuvering room) and a flight school of ultralights and microlights at the other. It would never happen in the USA. We were bemused. And drawn in. As pilots, we were itching to get the overview of all the hedgerows and villages, sprawling picture-book pretty across the rolling countryside. Would the school sell us rides? Hesitating, we idled the car down the concrete till we found a shed, a few winged moth-like contraptions parked outside. Neither of us had been in one before – this could be a first. Inside, the instructors acted as if they had been waiting for us. Fiona would be mine, Hal got the very heavyset guy. And the microlight. Hal was tall and hefty… he hid his angst over the strain the two of them would be putting on the little craft – quietly sharing his worry with me. Fiona liked the enclosed ultralight, so that was that.
Fiona was a slender, lovely, fair-haired young woman, coolly assertive and authoritative. Tall. I felt like a shrimp, beside her. But we were to be cabin mates for a brief half-hour, and I could take that. My logged flight time, many more than hers, had been built in single engine aircraft and gliders – this invention I was climbing into was another class… like a glider with a motor. But smaller.
So we signed up and rolled out… belted in firmly with the advisory to stay at or below 2,500’ – Fiona stated that was the permissible layer of airspace available to us in that area. The ceiling was flat and pale gray above us, a little disappointing.
I of course acquiesced to Fiona’s know-how. The little winged thing was, well, worryingly kite-like. At least we were out of the slipstream. Took a moment or two to get used to it. Then I found a bit of lift and attempted to circle in it to gain altitude – an action that startled and sent pretty Fiona into a dither. “Fiona,” I chided, “I’m a glider pilot!” Never mind. She reminded me of the altitude restriction for us in this area, so I straightened out and flew level. And did what I was there for – enjoy the overview, while carefully managing the controls. The hedgerows did indeed mark off one field from another, with intriguing peeks at medieval villages here and there – we could even see ancient footpaths trailing town to town across lots, avoiding roads. (Author Bill Bryson has written a definitive tome on his walk-about through Britain. Amazing place.)
The half-hour whizzed by, and we aimed back towards base (always within sight) to compare notes with Hal. He was happy. The avoirdupois of the two men seemed to have no effect on the microlight’s performance; they leaped aloft quickly upon the initial acceleration, much to his relief. He had no desire to have his corpse shipped back to the States. Me neither. Fiona was relieved to offload her curious American passenger.
We paid and thanked the flight school, clambered into our car, and wound our way through the byways onto an A something or other, and got back to our digs high on our day’s discoveries. In the air or on the ground, travel is wonderful, from tight little one-track roads to soaring the overview. Life was good.
So there I was, on a hot summer day, sharing a flight with fellow student Danny. Danny was a Boston bartender with flying dreams. (We all liked to split expenses in those days, when we could.) I’m in the pilot’s seat, and Danny is directing me over a big Boston area reservoir, to see if we can spot a sunken boat. We’re circling and circling, and Danny opens the window to see better. And cool off. He forgets the force of the slipstream – it could rip his nice sunglasses off and fling them into the reservoir… oops. And sure enough, whip-snap there they go. “Oh s**t” says Danny. But what can we do? Not a thing.
On boats, especially. I mean, there you are, rocking about in the breeze… Or maybe still tied up at the dock?
The silliest, saddest I ever heard of – way above the angst of fleeing glasses – was when a friend was getting ready to sail the Atlantic, taking along a techie know-it-all sailing pal. Captain John was a Master, one who gave advanced celestial navigation classes. (Having taken his classes, I can give five stars to his expertise.) He sniffed at his pal’s marine GPS (global navigation system) but was argued into it. “Hey, captain, we’re headed to Bermuda, you know!” Seemed like a cheat, to him. So our second-in-command places his treasured GPS on the flat rail, unsecured – I mean why not, they’re still at the dock, right? Caught up in the details of helping with casting off, he forgets the GPS. A motion catches his eye… he sees with horror from across the deck its response to the physics of the rocking boat – and watches helplessly as it slides with a happy splash into the harbor. Rushing to the railing, he watches it fade into the dark waters. Try to recover it? Not an option. They had cast off, they were moving out. Search in the harbor muck below? A time-waster. The salt water would have totaled it anyway.
OH yes… S**t happens. Especially when you’re not watching.
THE INNER VOICE
Can it save your life?
We all get nudges from our Inner Voice. Some say it’s your Conscience – some insist it’s your Guardian Angel – some say instinct. Or psychic events. Whatever you call it, I pay attention whenever I get that scalp-prickling Heads Up. You know… “Don’t get into that elevator with him.” And “Your kid is straight ahead through the crowd“ – and wow, there he is.
Another thing. If you listen, people will spill their guts when it’s something you really should know. It’s weird.
We were at the annual 7-day EAA Oshkosh, Wisconsin, fly-in event, a gathering of aviators from literally everywhere. It draws the aviation field’s smartest inventors and cleverest entrepreneurs. You rub elbows with fighter pilots, old and new test pilots – and astronauts. Lord Branson of Virgin Air shows up to tout his newest. They all come to strut their stuff. There’s a magnificent line-up of antique warbirds, a splendid separate area for ultralights… It’s vast. Acres of giant hangars are committed to sales booths – av-related products: avionics, aircraft parts, theme clothing… even jewelry and gorgeous paintings. And yes, grandly tented pavilions of new aircraft for sale… yum.
Some 15,000 aircraft and a cajillion motor homes assemble to offload aviation buffs for seminars, new products, view the latest aviation improvements and static aircraft displays – and watch, of course, fabulous flying shows. Rooms are booked a year in advance or more. Many camp in wing tents in the aircraft parking area.
A couple of years back, we were humming along in a van from Oshkosh to Appleton’s airport, with the pilot of his own Meridian – a guy who was going to give us a demo ride. The oh-so-upscale Piper Meridian is the fancied up version of Piper’s Malibu Mirage. (Remember aviation’s early days and the sweet little Piper Cub? They’ve come a long way, baby.) We were browsing, admiring – not buying. It’s SOP. Everybody does it. We had assured the folks at the Meridian pavilion that we were not in the market for a plane, especially not one that cost over $1,000,000, but they insisted we experience it. Pushy salesmen, but what the heck? Maybe we’d want to trade up from our sweet Cessna 210.
Ok. A free ride in a Meridian – why refuse it? They were hopeful. They were forceful. They were salesmen. We were weak.
So along the highway we rode. It was an hour’s trip away, our pilot-to-be got chatty. Apple-cheeked and gray-haired, a comfortable, nice-looking man. He had brought in his Meridian from another state on behalf of this company, to demo. As he prattled on, turning around to talk to me from the front seat, I started paying attention.
Whoa….! What’s this?! He was telling us how for terrible years he had suffered debilitating convulsions that ruined his life, until finally a chip was implanted in his brain, a nano-width from the focus of his illness, blocking its malfunction. My scalp crawled. Overwhelmingly, I sensed the Nudge. Hm.
“So… What does the FAA say about this?” (One must advise FAA of all medical problems and surgeries.)
“FAA? Oh – they don’t know about it.”
Oops. The hair stood up on my neck, like a dog.
I desperately peered at the leaden skies stretching way beyond the horizon – no blue. Appleton would be no clearer than Oshkosh. An escape! We could tactfully duck out of this. I glanced at my husband and said in a voice that carried, “You know, I really would rather go up on a nice day. With this overcast we won’t be able to experience the Meridian the way we’d like.”
The pilot looked at us and said “Oh, we can fly right up over the deck – I’ll file IFR (instrument flight plan to be in clouds). It will be sunny on top.” I pretended to chew this over (no way was I putting my life in his hands) and said – “I’m sorry. That doesn’t do it for me.” The consensus was to turn around, return to home base – and go on a sunny day.
The Inner Voice whispered “Atta girl;” my guardian angel smiled.
Maybe it would have been absolutely ok – I never later heard of an accident happening to this nice guy. But I just knew that day I wasn’t supposed to go with him.