The first event of my birthday was Ginger giving me a t-shirt that read: “fifty is the new thirty.”
I then had a wonderful breakfast with Ginger and both sets of our parents at Percy’s Place in Plymouth, a wonderful breakfast cafe that boasts the biggest breakfast menu in New England and has good biscuits and gravy (not easy to find in this part of the world). After the meal, I got to open presents. All the gifts were thoughtful and meaningful and made me feel both known and loved. My parents gave me a four-volume scrapbook of my life – a two-year labor of love on my mother’s part. It is truly a treasure.
When we left the restaurant, Ginger drove out of town in the opposite direction of home. As she continued to drive, the road became less and less habitated and I had no idea where we were, but I knew it was going to be good. One of the traditions Ginger and I keep on our birthdays is to do something we have never done before. The something may be big or small, but beginning a new year with a new adventure is our way of looking to the future with open hearts and minds. While I was trying to figure out what was going on, she made one of several turns and we were driving on a road that ran beside the Plymouth airport. As she turned into of the driveway of the Alpha One Flight School, she said, “You’re going to take a flying lesson.”
How we got to that point goes something like this: Ginger was trying to think of a surprise for me when she found a coupon for a one hour flying lesson in the Val-Pac envelope that comes in the mail (see, you knew you ought to open that thing), called them and made the reservation. What the hour involved was about twenty-five minutes of orientation and thirty-five minutes of flying. Jeff, my instructor, was a great guy who enjoyed helping me mark the beginning of my fifty-first year. He walked me around the plane, talked about how to check it before take off, and explained how the different flaps and things worked. Then we got inside the Cessna two-seater and he explained the different gauges, switches, and levers.
The first thing I had to learn to do was steer with my feet. The rudders and the brakes are controlled with foot pedals, which were quite a challenge. We serpentined to the end of the taxi way and then Jeff talked me through turning the plane onto the runway. He raised the throttle and we began to gain speed as we moved down the runway. “Pull back on the yoke (airplane for steering wheel),” he said, which I did and we were airborne. We flew at about 2500 feet over Plymouth Harbor. I could see the beach near our house, which was not far away, as well as Provincetown and the Boston skyline in the distance.
Once we reached the altitude he wanted, he taught me how to gauge how the plane was sitting relative to the horizon and then told me to make a 360 degree turn and come back to where I could see the same view of the bay in front of me. I stepped on the rudder pedal and turned the yoke and the plane banked into a circle. When I made it all the way around, he had me do the same to the right. Then he began to talk about stalling, which he said is what most folks worry about when they get in a small plane. As he talked, he instructed me to continue to climb slowly. He wasn’t increasing the throttle, so we keep losing airspeed. When we fell to forty knots, a small alarm began to go off. He asked me how we could increase airspeed without opening the throttle; I answered by going down instead of up. He told me to lower the nose of the plane and head down, which I did – quickly. For a moment, it felt like we floated.
He smiled. “Most people are a little more frightened of that particular maneuver than you appear to be,” he said.
As we gained speed, he had me make the reverse move to slow us down and I could feel the increase in gravity as we started to climb. I was laughing out loud. We made a wide circle around the airport and came back in to land and I foot-steered us back to the hangar once we were on the ground.
Amazing. Absolutely amazing.
Until today, I don’t remember ever thinking about what it would be like to fly a plane, or wishing for the chance to do so. After my hour in the sky, I’m ready to go again (though flight school is not in our budget anytime soon). The experience reminded me I’m not through discovering or experiencing the wonder of living on earth.
We ate dinner at Cafe Brazil, also in Plymouth, where we were joined by our chosen family members that live in the area, and then Ginger took me into Boston – under the guise of taking Jay and Cherry back to the train – where I was surprised by friends who span all of our time in New England at one of my favorite haunts, The Burren. We laughed and talked until we had used up what was left of my day. Again, I left feeling known and loved.
All of my life, my birthday has been on the way to Christmas. When I was a kid, my parents didn’t decorate until December 13 so I wouldn’t feel like my birthday got swallowed up by the holiday. Becoming intentional about observing Advent has meant erasing that line, but my day has only grown in meaning. The photographs in the scrapbooks stack up like stones in an altar to show me a picture of the “me” it has taken fifty years to build. My family and friends gathered remind me that the building project has been a community effort: they are helping me to become who I am, just as I am a construction worker in their lives. Ginger, who has been a part of almost half of my history, stokes my dreams into a blaze of imaginative possibilities that give my heart wings. We drove home tonight under a starlight sky and she reached across and took my hand, as she has done countless times before.
I trust there are still countless times to come.