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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 01/26/2004
Volume 2, #110
Alvin is on secret assignment. In the meantime, please enjoy this classic reprint...
I Get a Flying Lesson
Before we moved to the outskirts of this farming village just south of Ottawa, we spent nine years in Florida. Down there, I used to consider the pelicans the real masters of flying. Forget the agony of their clumsy takeoffs. Once airborne, they moved across our visual horizons with an elegance so natural you could easily imagine they never really had any consort with the ground. They were creatures of the air, pure and simple. Way back when I decided that Superman should stop hopping over tall buildings like a bunny-rabbit, and eased him into flying, I had never seen a pelican in flight. But if I had, that would have been the model for my idea of Superman. As it was, I had to go by trial and error, and wasn't really content until Wayne Boring came up with a way of drawing Superman in flight that was far more satisfactory than any other artist who worked on the Man of Steel. Wayne's Superman, I realized later, resembled what I admired about pelican flight. So by the time I moved to Chesterville, I considered myself something of an expert on flight until I met an old farmer named Rawley.
For the move north we had saved some money by hiring a couple of youthful movers with a solid looking but fairly ancient truck. And the truck made it almost all the way-but not quite. Embarrassedly, it broke down right at the entrance to our new driveway, and in doing so, it effectively blocked the gravel artery known in these parts as "the road." It didn't have any other name but was about three miles long and about ten families lived in isolated if somewhat shabby splendor along its borders. Half of those families were farmers. So when our moving truck broke down at an hour when almost all of those ten families were coming back from trips to town or trying to get their big rigs, harrows, seed-spreaders, manure distributors and pickups back to their land, they were all forced to line up and wait until someone, somehow, managed to get our moving truck out of the way. The huge ancient vehicle was absolutely obdurate. Nothing could coax its engine into life again. It was an easy way to meet all of our new neighbors at the same time. And that was how I met Rawley.
Rawley (probably at one time the family name was Raleigh) was a short burly man of maybe seventy. His pickup was among the first to be blocked by our moving truck. So he got out, introduced himself and after a few minutes joined all the other neighbors standing around and trying to give advice to the two young men who were frantically trying to coax life into the engine of the broken-down truck. Twenty minutes passed. Everyone managed to offer a smidgen of advice. But nothing worked and nothing happened.
That was when Rawley took over. His farm was about seventy meters further down the road. So he set out on foot, promising to return with his midget tractor. And while we waited, we stood around and got to talking with all the other stranded residents of the road. Nobody seemed particularly put out by the delay. Nobody seemed in a rush. And before we knew it, Rawley was coming down the dusty gravel strip in that tractor that just managed to work precariously around the drainage ditch at the roadside and then maneuver into position in our driveway directly in front of the stranded truck.
Hooking up a chain, Rawley then got into the tractor and slowly pulled the recalcitrant old vehicle fully into our driveway and opened the road. Everyone got back into their various conveyances, waved goodbye and trundled off home. Except Rawley. He stayed for a few minutes to offer advice to the young men who could now proceed to work on their truck without pressure.
I went over and thanked Rawley who seemed in no hurry to leave. As his nearest neighbors, we had clearly roused his curiosity and he started right off by asking me whether I had anything to do with farming which, from the way he said it, he expected the answer to be no.
On that score, he was only half right. My wife Kay had been brought up on a farm and was still into heavy gardening, spending a good part of her days working in the soil as soon as spring returned to the icy purlieus of southeast Canada. On the other hand, I naturally enough got around to confessing to Rawley that I was a writer, and before I knew it, we had gotten onto the subject of Superman.
"You used to write Superman?" Rawley said, looking at me with an expression I couldn't quite fathom. He'd pursed his lips and pulled in his cheeks in a way that suggested restraint. As though he wanted to express some disapproval but felt it might be impolite.
"You don't like Superman?" I suggested.
"Superman's all right," he said. "It's just that-"
"It's something I did many years ago, " I explained.
"It wasn't such a bad idea," he said. "All that strength, coming from another planet- you know I used to collect the stuff. Only thing I could never take was- well- why'd he have to fly like that?"
"You didn't like that?"
"When a man, a human being- after all, Superman was a human being-you'll grant that, won't you?"
"Well-sure. I'll grant that. Technically, I'd say humanoid. But when I wrote about him, he was a human being sure."
"So why should a human being reduce himself to flying like he was just a bird."
"Hold it," I said. "Reduce himself?"
"Say a man wants to go someplace- like from here to Philadelphia. He's got to go through all the rigamarole of flying to get there? That's what birds do. But a man can take a train. If he's in a hurry he can fly in a plane. A man should only fly when the purpose of flying is as lofty as being human. Otherwise he's just showing off."
Rawley, once started, had a lot to say on the subject. "It all came down to just being a comedy."
"A comedy? Superman?"
"Over and over, you see him jump into his flying condition just to keep Lois Lane from falling off a roof. It got to be like a vaudeville routine. Superman was supposed to be a serious idea, so how did you allow the flying stuff to turn it into something so silly? You see what I mean?"
I saw, but I still didn't quite get it. "So Superman looked silly rescuing Lois all the time, and that's what was wrong with his flying?"
"I never said that. What I said was- he shouldn't have been flying around like that in the first place. That's why it had to end up silly."
Rawley was looking at me very seriously. I knew he wasn't pulling my leg. We sat down on the front steps and I asked him to enlighten me further.
"When a human being flies, it should be to a place you can't get to any other way," Rawley began. "There's lots of ways of getting to Philadelphia. Even lotsa ways of rescuing Lois. Like Batman did-with ropes. Lemme explain it like this. You ever dreamed of places that don't exist on any map? Places you can't visit because- well- they're only in your head, so to speak?"
"Well, yes. I suppose I have. In fact, I've written about such places. In my novels."
Rawley nodded. "Now you're getting the point. How do you get to those places not on any map?"
"Imagination, of course."
Rawley shook his head. "That's just a word. It don't explain nothin'. I'll tell you how you get there. You fly there. I mean- go into flight mode, you see, and stay there until you find what you never knew was there until it pops up before you. Now-that's what I call flying fit for a human being."
"Well," I said, non-plused, "I suppose you could put it that way if you like. But-"
"Me? I never put it no way. I read this fellow a long time ago in school- a Yank named Thorough. He talked about not needing to go anywhere, because by staying home, he said, you could visit the Africa of the heart, the Mount Everest of the mind. He said-"
"You're talking about Thoroeau- Henry David Thoreau. Yes-he did say all that. But he never called it flying."
Rawley shook his head. "Don't matter in the end what you call it. It's real flying." He gave me a nudge and a wink and stood up suddenly. "I think you should know- I'm one of those real flyers myself. Time for me to get back home and do some. I got this place in mind where all the beans comes up in one night-just like that. Knowing that, I don't worry about the forty acres of beans I got that'll take all summer to come up. I know it's already done. The rest is just letting it spin out in time." He started heading for his tractor and I stood up.
"Anyway, Rawley," I said, "thanks for getting our truck off the road. And- come by anytime and tell me about some of those places you'll be flying to."
He nodded, gave me a strange smile. "Sure, and you can tell me about some of yours."
He got back on the tractor which started with a few loud bangs. I couldn't hear him,. but from his expression I could see that he must have been chuckling as he rode off up the road.
<< 01/19/2004 | 01/26/2004 | 02/02/2004 >>
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