Life in the afternoon - Part 3 - I have a flying start
Life in the Afternoon - a story of soaring - and reflections of that on my life by P.K.Odendaal. 23 October 2011.
Part 3 - I get a flying start ....
The previous part ended with my prayer being answered ... and myself reaching home.
My words flew up, my thoughts remain below
Words without thoughts never to heaven go. (from Hamlet, by Shakespeare)
My story began with the glider reaching two thousand feet, and I, cutting myself loose from the surly bonds of earth, by shutting down the engine, but to have come to that stage, I had to have had a flying start.
Why am I ending with the start?
To have started with this section as the first part, would have been too heavy, difficult and dangerous.
The take off is always the most difficult and dangerous part, as there is not much room for error. Take the glider up to 14000 feet and make the most negligent and gross errors, and she will forgive you, but do not try that at two hundred feet. Down there, near to the ground, at or after takeoff, the choices you have in case of an engine failure or other emergencies are very limited and dwindle very quickly. There is no real lift at that altitude, or hope, or of someone coming to your rescue. You are alone.
Growing up is the most critical stage in our lives. It is here that our choices are so limited, and where we fall prey to so many emergencies, called adolescence. There is no good pilot's operating handbook on the emergencies which may occur during adolescence.
Many years ago, when I was a purist as I soared with a glider without an engine. I had to have at least four people to catapult me into the air with the winch. The winch could only catapult me up to an altitude of 1200 feet, and that was, most of the time, not enough to place me into lift or into a thermal, as the thermals are small, weak and scattered so near the surface. However, I was proud to be a purist and to soar like an eagle, and making unsolicited landings when the cable broke, or there was no lift, required honing my skills, so that any emergency could be thrown at me anytime. After all, that is what pure soaring was all about.
But, then one day, I left the flock of purist birds and bought myself a self launching glider.
With this new glider, I can have a flying start. Firstly, because I can take-off without any help from anyone, and secondly, my engine propels me anywhere I wish to go - which is mostly into high lift situations of my choice at 2000 to 2500 feet above ground level. So I always have a flying start.
But, I did not always have a flying start. It was only when I got to matric, that I got a flying start.
I am in matric and the war in Namibia and Angola is building up. The Defence Force needs more and more conscripts every year, and they do that by lottery. I have seen the percentage male matriculants being called up, rise from 40% a few years ago, to 100% this year, and I know that I will have to go the Army and become cannon fodder - and I wait for my pink card saying where I must go to, but that card normally does not tell you where you must die.
And then one day it arrives by mail.
A classmate who also got his, comes to me and says that if we join the Air Force temporarily, we will get exemption from joining the Army. I should apply, together with him, to the Air Force to become Navigators. Sure ... , but what is a Navigator? I have never even seen an aeroplane, and now you want me to become a Navigator.
My brother was called up to the Army two years before, and if I listen to what he says, I will become whatever the Air Force wants me to do - even a job as cook will do. He also gets another of our classmates to apply to the Air Force, but in the end, only I get selected and it is off to Valhalla for the long selection process and basic training of eight weeks.
Valhalla means 'hall of the slain', but I was not intent on the prospect of being slain - I was intent on missing the Army. When I enlist, I hear that there are over a thousand conscripts who have applied for training as Pilots and Navigators, and that they will select only sixty Pilots and sixteen Navigators. For me, chasing this wild goose was much better than being slain in the Army.
I cannot say that I was a good sportsman ever - I was much too lazy to run after a ball and do that wild goose chase thing, but the Defence Force has many ways of making anything unpleasant.
And then our first sport period commences in the Air Force ....
When my family saw me off at the train to Valhalla, my brother told me that I should not play rugby when I get there, because they will let me run hundreds of kilometres just to get fit, and he knew I was not the rugby type. So, I decided to join the soccer team.
At sport parade, the first Wednesday, they call out the sport types, starting with rugby and each group goes to their instructor. When rugby is called out, about a thousand conscripts are takers. When they come secondly to soccer, we were about twenty. Good ! This is going to be heaven - I will not be mauled in the scrum again.
When our soccer group reaches our instructor however, he tells us that we are going to run hundreds of kilometres to get fit. We start off with about ten kilometres in the hills around Voortrekker Hoogte which is quite hilly, and after a few hours we arrive at the camp exhausted and ready to sell our birth right for a plate of lentil soup. We also hear that the rugby guys have had a particularly bad running bout, having been driven even farther than we were.
As I reach my bungalow, I see about ten guys cleaning their rifles, and it looks like they never even moved a yard during the sport period. I ask them why they are sitting there, whereupon they said that they are doing target-shooting and that they are preparing to shoot in the Administrator's Cup. In the absence of pool or darts, that was just the sport for me, I thought, but I was not the only one who saw them sitting there enjoying themselves.
The next Wednesday at sport period, the rugby call was first again, but this time only eight guys joined that group. The soccer group attracted nobody and when target-shooting was called out, about a thousand guys joined the group.
The Sergeant Major thereupon said that for this sport we had to be fit, as in the Administrator's Cup, we have to run a thousand yards with our rifles, fall down and shoot at a target, jump up again and do another thousand yards and so on and so on and so on ... and so today we are not going to shoot - we are just going to run with our rifles, fall down, jump up and run, fall down, jump up and run ....
Running with a rifle, falling down on coarse gravelly ground on your elbows, is much more tiring and painful than running with PT shorts on for soccer!!!!
That was the last of my target-shooting practice.
And then the message came one day ... you have been selected to join a group of fifteen other conscripts to become a Navigator and go to Nav school in Ysterplaat .... I am off to a flying start ... I am alive!!!
But, then again ... I have not always had this flying start, especially in sport.
Eight years earlier ...
I am nine years old and in standard three, and my father is my class teacher in some God forsaken town in the western part of the old Transvaal - a place I have no inclination to be taken back to - so I never sing that song : Take me back to the Old Transvaal ...
It is sport period and we are going to play rugby. Rugby? What is that? I have never seen or played rugby before and here I find myself unwillingly being drawn into a game I know nothing of.
To make matters even worse, we do not even have a rugby field - whatever that may look like, but my father tells the class that we are going to play on one of the big open erven in the town. It is almost totally overgrown with long grass and smaller bushes, but it will make do.
There is no introduction into the rules or objects of the game, only a whistle to tell us to start playing. I see the other children are running around, presumably to get to the ball, but I do not even get to see the ball being thrown from the one to the other in the long grass - and we are not fifteen players per side - we are about thirty players per side - at least it felt like that, and it probably was.
After ten minutes or so, the whistle suddenly blew for the first time, and my father calls for me and for the ball. This talented son of his has never even touched the ball in these ten minutes, not even mentioning scoring a try. He takes the ball and throws it hard at me, hitting me on the chest, so that I stagger a few yards backward. The children start to laugh at me and I become as red as a tomato. I do not know whether I cried and it did not matter to me whether I did. What mattered to me was that this game of rugby was not for me. It was the end of my rugby career - I never played serious rugby again - not that this sport period was such serious rugby after all - there in the long grass and thickets.
But, I learned later that nothing is bad in itself.
... for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so ... (Hamlet)
Eight years later ...
I am seventeen and I find myself in Nav school with fifteen other conscripts. We have been here on the course for three months and despite the clear instructions of the OC (Officer Commanding) to us, to participate in active sport or PT on our own, as the Ysterplaat Air Force Base did not have any formal physical training programmes, we have done nothing.
So, one day he comes into the class and asks us to write on a sheet of paper he sent around, how often we did sport or PT in the past three months. The sheet of paper returns to him indicating sixteen non responses. TROUBLE!!!! I can sense trouble even before it is here.
He gets the PT instructor (who was even more lazy than we were) to try and murder us. The Ysterplaat AFB is large, as big aeroplanes land there and the perimeter must be over six kilometres long. Every day we have to run around the base before lunch, to become fit again, while our instructor leads us or follows us with his bicycle - depending on our pace. When we are fresh, we outrun his bicycle, but later he catches up again. In Valhalla we got very fit, but that has gone now.
After a month of this, we have to promise the OC solemnly that we would join a sport club. All the guys join the Garrison Rugby Club - and so must I, due to peer pressure, despite my earlier decision to stay far away from this plaque. I had thought that darts or croquet would have been much more in line with my usual lethargic disposition.
So, the first game starts and I play full back, thinking that it was much better than being mauled in the scrum, which I have always been exposed to at high school. This ball has the dirty trick of bouncing in totally unexpected directions when someone kicks it in my direction, and I miss most of them, being elsewhere, thereby losing our game disastrously. I know the other guys are cross with me, but they say nothing.
The next Saturday, I see that I have been omitted from the team - the position of full back having been left blank. I ask the coach what the matter was, as the OC compelled us to play. He replied that he was more inclined to play with fourteen players without me, than fifteen players with me included.
I finish my training as Navigator at the end of that year, and I am under immense pressure by my father to go to university. I write him a serious letter of two pages to tell him that I have decided that I am going to join the Air Force full time as a permanent member, and that I will not be going to university. This way I will be able to see the world - compliments of the Air Force.
I get a letter back from him by return mail - a letter of sixty five pages - in which he tells me that I am going to university and that he has already reserved a place for me at Stellenbosch University with a place in the hostel as well, and I am going to study Civil Engineering. Civil Engineering - what was that??? I only knew a little (crying) bit about Mechanical Engineering, from that fateful day when my mother took me to the Industrial Hall at the Rand Easter Show.
My father used to visit the Rand Easter Agricultural Show yearly to buy pedigree bulls, and the whole family would go together and we would spend a week looking at cattle. Of course I don't look at cattle - cattle looks at me, so I sit there and irritate everyone else as most nine year olds do. One day my father got fed up with me and told my mother to take me to the Germany Industrial Hall on the show grounds, and show me the machines, as I was going to become an Engineer.
So, my mother and I go hunting for the Germany Industrial Hall. When we get there, my mother tells me to go in first and she follows me. I went in through the main entrance and immediately caught a glimpse of some mechanical equipment being put on show - machines that can be used for canning and bottling and many other purposes. I immediately know I can never love these dead and cold and impersonal and complicated machines. I am utterly disappointed in myself, my father will be utterly disappointed and I want to cry, but I cannot, as I do not want to upset my mother standing behind me. Fortunately she does not see my tears. I immediately leave the hall and walk back to the cattle section, trying to look at them, in absolute silence and dismay and I stayed like that for the rest of the week.
I decided that if my father enrolled me for Civil Engineering, I should at least try and find out what it entailed, so I go and visit my old classmate, who skipped the Army, at university. He tells me that it is a very good course, but the guys there have to study very hard - their lights do not go out until late at night. But, says he, you are very good at mathematics, so it should not be a problem, come and try it.
To try and to fail is at least to learn, but to fail to try is to suffer the inestimable loss of what might have been.
On those few vague words of advice, I decided that I will be obedient like a good child should, and listen to my father. Many years later I was very happy that I took this chance, as I acquired a flying start in my career.
Why did I do that - I ask myself that question even today. I was so intent on becoming nothing, having been termed hopeless as a farmer, by all my family.
I am sure it is because God wanted to give me another flying start.
Three years earlier ....
I am a junior at the senior hostel called Prima, at a well known school at Stellenbosch. My brother is senior in this hostel, and gives me some grief now and then, just to show the other hostel hogs that he does not favour me above the other faggies - from the word meaning to toil and labour and swot (sweat). I am, of course, a slave of one of the other seniors, so he is not allowed to push me around too much.
One day after school my class teacher congratulates me in front of him and other seniors at the hostel. I am not allowed to speak to any teacher on my own, or to greet them with the hand. It will spell disaster for me, as the other hostel hogs will think I am currying favour for getting one or other advantage that they cannot get. There is nothing as vulgar as a teacher's pet in hostel.
My brother asks me why I greet the teacher with the hand. I said he congratulated me and walk away, trying to avoid further exposure as a possible teacher's pet. He follows me until I tell him I got 98% for my mathematics exam. It was the biggest eyes I ever saw, as he thought I was very dumb and not able to milk a cow.
The story spread like a veldt fire. I would never again be able to study the few evenings before a maths test or exam - not that I studied during anyone of many the other evenings at all. The other hostel hogs - junior and senior - would line up outside my room ten to twenty deep, and wait for an opportunity to see me, so that I can teach them math. Of course, this also helped me a lot, as they brought the most difficult sums to me, and thereby I learned to solve the most difficult problems.
This culminated one day in our maths teacher, after the winter break in matric, telling me to go and sit at the back of the class, as he could not teach me anything more about mathematics. I could just sit there and do what I wanted - maybe work through some exam papers. I listen to my teacher and prepare myself for the matric end exam.
I have had another flying start!!
Ultimately, I also learned to respect and love many machines - no - not the ones in the German Industrial Hall, but machines called aeroplanes, gliders, helicopters and computers. In fact, I have a recurrent joke with my wife. Every time I buy another aeroplane, I tell her that she has moved down one place on the list of the things I love most.
A flying start in a self launching glider, such as the ASK21Mi, is not such a joke.
It has only one row of wheels, with the result that, unassisted, it always lies on one of its wings - and that is how you start the take off. Both wings have very small wheels attached to their undersides, and I start off by letting the lower left wing rest on the left side of the very narrow tarred runway. The other wing protrudes seven meters over the rights side of the runway, where, these days, there is only long grass.
I open the throttle and at this stage I have no control, because there is no airflow over the wings and rudder - they are not alive yet, and the take off roll starts with a severe yaw to the left, due to the friction with the tar. I try to stop this yaw fruitlessly, and try to pick up that wing as the airflow starts to increase over the wings. If I pick up this wing too fast, the right wing will travel too far downwards and stick in the grass to the right, causing a severe yaw to that side. But, I have to make this delicate balancing trick every time I take off.
Balancing myself emotionally, has become very difficult, during my third and forth years at university. Somehow, all the effects of the ill-causes I have been exposed to in my life, take their effect and I once again become an innocent bystander in this fight for my identity between my heart and my mind. I suffer, as Hamlet, severely, as I pick up the collateral damage and stray bullets of this war, but contrary to Hamlet, in the end, my mind and my intellect wins, and I finish my studies.
... so horridly to shake our disposition, with thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls ... (Hamlet)
What I learn a few decades later, is that in those turbulent years, I did not have a role model to map my identity to. My father and brothers were farmers - and I hated farming - I did not want to identify myself at all with anything related to farming. I had had enough of droughts, rinderpest and what not.
I was a man of books - technical, scientific, historical, poetical, philosophical, architectural, metaphysical, spiritual, psychological and what not - please bring it on.
Well, I must close now, as the flight of the day is over, but still the one in my mind lingers on, as I lock up the hangar - and my adorable aircraft - for the night. I also realise that I am in the afternoon of my own life, and will one day have to lock up my interests here and leave the ones I love behind, and in the process hoping that mine will not be death in the afternoon, but that I will have an opportunity to lock up the hangar and say goodbye to my loved ones, before I take that final flight Home.
It was my intention to include three other chapters in this story, but as the flight is over, I cannot do that, and you will have to wait for another flight on another day to read it - a day that I have no doubt, will come soon, after I have replaced those three essential batteries in the glider.