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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life
Broken News
The Aerodynamics of Alzheimer's
by Dale Shank
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I'm a student pilot. I'm flying solo, lazing along in a rented red-and-white Cessna 152. Just me and the wide open spaces. I'm looking down at the ground. That's where the good stuff is. Up here, there's only air, and I've already seen it. Backyards and creeks and cow pastures-those kind of things interest me most.
     Flying over a pond, I remember catching a bucketful of rough-skinned newts with my dad at our neighbor's pond one Sunday afternoon. I must have been seven or eight. I turned them loose in the living room and Mom went nuts when they disappeared under the sofa. Dad laughed.
     I see a river and decide to follow it for a while. No telling what I'll find. I might see a swimming hole or an old dredge; maybe a fishing shack. The river is ancient, with many meanders and abandoned oxbow channels. I see a muddy backwater alcove. Its shape reminds me of the CT-scan images of my dad's brain, with its empty pockets caused by Alzheimer's disease. Dead, wasted hollows. I wonder if favorite parts of my own brain are already developing the same cavernous pockets. Lines from Dylan Thomas come to mind: "Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage, against the dying of the light." Dad is not raging. His brain is slowly drying up, like a cracked mudflat in the middle of a hot summer, and it's not a good night for any of us.
     But it is not night. It's a bright sunny day.
     I catch sight of several female hooded mergansers. I make a mental note that that's a pretty good I.D. for someone who's not using binoculars and who's clocking 95 knots at 800 feet in a nice little rented plane. I imagine some day flying over the Serengeti Plain, watching herds of wildebeest and zebra. I imagine flying over the frozen tundra in Siberia, following the caribou migrations across the snow fields, maybe seeing polar bears or arctic foxes.
     For some reason I happen to look straight ahead (as Beth, my flight instructor, so dutifully suggested I do occasionally) and notice I'm a tad lower than I thought. In fact, I'm headed straight into a high river bank. The bank has late-Pleistocene written all over it. The soil near the base is fairly consolidated, probably a clay/shale mix. The top 60 feet or so has intermittent lenses of coarse gravel sandwiched between thick bands of depositional sand. I see swallows, probably northern rough-wingeds, circling nearby, and two fledgling belted kingfishers are sticking their heads out of a hole in the sand.
     I have the pilot's sense to realize this situation calls for some kind of immediate action on my part but, sadly, I can't remember a single thing Beth has ever told me. I do remember that no matter what happens, good pilots always fly the plane first. Other things can wait. So I do a couple of perfunctory tail wags with the rudder to make sure that vital part of the plane won't fail me in this moment of need.
     Two things seem urgent. I need to turn away from the river bank or I need to slow down. Relying entirely on my keen student pilot's wits, I decide to try both. I throw the plane into a steep 60-degree left turn and yank back on the yoke. And, bigod, the sucker stalls on me.
     At this stage in my flight training I'm fluent in stall recovery, having done them at least two or three times. Instinctively, I stand on the right rudder. I notice the sudden twist of the plane gives me a bit better view out the right side of the cockpit. I see I've scared up a pair of great blue herons, one in breeding plumage. There's probably a rookery nearby.
     Heron rookeries are noisy and messy. As a kid I found one in a grove of cottonwoods along the Pudding River a few miles from our church. It had a couple dozen nests high in the trees. Sundays were supposed to be quiet times but my dad let me go birdwatching in the afternoons as long as I got back in time for the evening service. God created birds, he said, on the fifth day of the Creation. I pause briefly to reflect on whether I've ditched religion a bit prematurely. I may need a miracle of some kind. I may need to walk on water or bring Lazarus back from the dead. Turning this plane into a bird might be nice.
      But now's not the time to revive my neglected meditation skills. I nudge the controls forward a smidgen (Beth always told me to not over-control the plane; flying is a subtle craft, she said.) and add a touch of throttle. Since I can't see any future in going in circles at this point, I level the ailerons.
     Call it a miracle, call it dumb luck, call it serendipity-whatever, but wouldn't you know it, the plane actually recovers from its stall. I'm delighted. And it illustrates the true beauty of aerodynamics. Push the right buttons, pull the right levers and these little planes will fly.
     I miss the river bank by a good three or four feet and, suddenly remembering Beth's excellent advice about ground effect, I float lazily through a cluster of gigantic cottonwood trees, over a lovely pool-riffle reach of stream, and into open clean air.
     The sun is behind me, bright.
     Somewhere, tree frogs are croaking and dogs are barking. Somewhere, children are playing ring-around-the-rosy.
     Somewhere, my dad is trying to say "bug."
     Flying is pretty damned ducky.

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