Several years ago I had the idea that it would be neat to visit my mother on mother’s day by plane. I have a friend who is an ophthalmologist, a pilot and owns a single engine plane. I asked him if he would fly me down to LaGrange, Ga on mother’s day, pick her up, fly back to Gainesville to spend the day and then fly her back. In retrospect and even just typing the itinerary for that day, it seems a bit much. My mother was about 75 at the time. I really don’t know what I was thinking. Anyway both my friend and my mother agree to the plan and one Saturday morning I met Steve at the Gainesville airport to embark on the little adventure. It was a cloudy and overcast day. I did not appreciate the significance of that at the time, but anyone who knows anything about small single engine planes is that you don’t fly on overcast days. The reason is that if something happens to your “single engine” by the time you descend out of the clouds there is no time to then find a place for an emergency landing. Unbeknownst to me Steve had been recently rated to fly with no visualization using only his instruments, i.e. instrument rated. He was looking forward to utilizing his new skills and quietly excited about the prospect of flying by instruments for the trip. (John Kennedy Jr. was instrument rated.)
I had been in a small plane before. I flew around Augusta one time with another friend and I have been in them on fishing trips out west so I was no stranger to this type of plane. The cockpit was very small and of course once the plane is running it is very loud. Steve gave me a set of headphones by which we were to communicate and as well serve as noise reducers. So off we go. The sky which to my appraisal when we got to the airport was scattered clouds, once we became airborne was much less scattered. In fact all I could see is white. It was if we were a tiny capsule and then placed in a sheet or something. Nothing but white, tight quarters and noise. There was no view, which I thought would be the fun part; you know looking out the window on the way to LaGrange like a kid would. None of that white all the way there.
Steve then told me of the flight plan. “We’re flying over Atlanta’s Hartsville Airport.” I joking said, “The busiest airport in the world?” “We’re okay, I have a flight plan. I won’t be flying where the other planes will be.” I ask, “Wouldn’t it be better if we could see?” “John, I have a flight plan and I have my instruments. The airport controller will be directing me. We’re good. Don’t worry about it.”
About two hours later Steve says we are about there and we begin to descend to the LaGrange airport, still no vision but I can see the altitude change on the instrument panel and I see a diagram of a runway. As we come down out of the clouds, I see was appeared to be airport type structures and then he opens up the throttle and we go back up quickly and begin to circle around. “I overshot the runway. I’ll get it this time.”
Meanwhile, I was later to find, my mother was in the terminal talking with the attendants there and witnessed the whole missed runway thing. Before they knew that the plane they just witnessed was the one my mother was waiting on someone said, “Who are those idiots. They shouldn’t be flying today.” My mother said sarcastically, “That’s my ride.”
On the second pass Steve lands the plane without a problem. He then pulls out a black eye patch and puts it on. The significance of which had to do with Will Rogers and Wiley Post. Wiley post set records for flying in the 1920’s and had an eye patch that distinguished him. He and Rogers loved to fly together and in fact both were killed in a plane crash in Alaska. Post had jerry- rigged the plane for more power and that was felt to be the reason for the crash. My mother comes out to the plane to greet us and says, “They are laughing at you two. Did you over run the runway?” I say, “Put this on mom. It’s a Wiley Post eye patch.” We take some pictures of mother with the eye patch in front of the plane. She then said she wanted to think about the rest of the trip over lunch.
One of the things I used to love about visiting my mother was going shopping and eating with her during my visit. We’d go to Wal-Mart to get various things for her home and a few Sinatra C.D.’s and go eat some where. She loved Ryan’s buffet style menu because she could put things like cornbread and meat in a napkin and take it home. She’d say as she slipped the food in her purse, “This for Cooper. He loves Ryan’s cornbread.”
We first drive to Belk’s at the mall to get mom some shoes. She tried on several pairs, walked around a bit and we bought two. She got some lingerie as well and then we headed to Ryan’s. Something that is important about this portion of the story is the situation my mother found herself in when we had to move back to LaGrange. She was divorced, no job, five boys, and had to live on the good graces of her mother that was 73 at the time. It hurts me sometimes to think about what that meant to her self esteem or ego. I often make my self remember her plight in down times to make me realize how good I have it compared to her; she was fifty and had nothing but her boys. I worked in a Napa parts store all through high school and gossipy men would ask me about my mother. Invariably it would be someone that grew up in LaGrange with my mother. “John how is Jennie these days. Is she working?” To me it was a dig (as my mother would say) and salt on an open wound when they would ask things like that. They all knew she was living with her mother, and had returned to LaGrange in not the best of circumstances. I am sure it was juicy fuel for gossip. One of the reasons I had the drive to be a doctor was for my mother, thinking it might give some degree of “bragging rights” some degree of respectability. I was also in hopes I could be a financial anchor for her as well and that she’d never “want.” So keep this in mind for the next part of the story.
My mother, Steve and I were eating, mother was squirreling away her food when this lady comes by and stops. In a tone very familiar to me and one I had heard so many times growing up when gossipers spoke to my mother, “Well hello Jennie. How are you?”
The lady began to condescendingly inspect my mother’s clothes and hair and the biscuit in the napkin. “I am fine Mary Louise. How are you?”
“Just fine. Just fine. Who are these young men you are with?” Now she was inspecting Steve and me.
“These are two of my sons. They are both surgeons. This one flew down here on his plane to visit me on mother’s day.”
Bam! Take that. Man that felt good to me then and every time I reflect on the occasion. I know it must have felt good to my mother. Steve did not quite know what to make of it and just sat there. A classic mom remark, a sarcastic white lie with a bite and purpose. One thing about her. She may not have had the best situation financially or position on the social hierocracy, but she never felt inferior to any one. She’d remark that Eleanor Roosevelt would say and she said to me many times,” No one makes you feel inferior without your help.”
We drive back to the airport, park and walk toward the plane.
“So mom. Do you want to fly back with us to Gainesville?”
“John. There is no way in hell I’m getting into that plane. Not after what I saw.”
“Well. I’ll call you when we get back.”
“Don’t bank on it,” she said sarcastically.
Back in the plane Steve says he has the option of different flight plan for the trip home.
“We’ll go by way of Athens this time.” Again, white all around all the way home.
We get back without a hitch and I call my mother that all was well. I swore to myself I’d never fly in a small plane unless there were clear skies. The next day I am doing a prostate biopsy on a retired airline pilot. I mention to him about my experience and he looks at me incredulously. “You went flying in a single engine plane with no visibility? That’s stupid. I’ll fly a 747 in a thunder storm, but I wouldn’t be caught dead in a single engine plane with clouds around.”
I did not really get the “clear skies” concept before the flight. I do now.
Are you getting a feel for my mother?