I drove the motor home down to San Diego for servicing yesterday for its final repairs and detailing in preparation for sale. It has been sitting in storage, and after driving it around the country for over a year, I hadn’t been behind the wheel for two months, since we moved out of it into our present digs. It was quietly exhilarating to have my foot on the pedal again, up high above the rest of the traffic, moving through a world that rose up to meet me on the face of a giant windshield like a panoramic movie screen.
The tow plane released, and we dipped and soared again in whispering silence, banking over the mountain sides of New England in the knowledge that only wind currents and geothermal waves prevented the sheer drop back to earth.
On the way south I passed along a stretch of Interstate 5 between San Clemente and San Diego designated the Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone Memorial Highway. Fans of the HBO series The Pacific will recognize the name as that of “the hero of Guadalcanal,” the Pacific war’s first medal of honor winner, who after more than two years back home chose to return to combat at the head of fresh recruits he had trained himself, and who was killed in the first hours of the Iwo Jima landing leading his charges off the bloody beach. For a few years, Basilone was a famous, honored man in the United States. Today, very few drivers on that stretch of road know he was. I wouldn’t have known two months ago.
The service center is across the road from the Miramar Naval Air Station, which, if you are a Tom Cruise fan, you should know was the location of Top Gun, both the movie and the real thing flight school, until the latter was moved to Nevada. Now it is a Marine Corps Air Base. As I sped along the interstate on my approach, two fighters ascended my panoramic screen, splitting directions on their path out of view. Like most of us, I have flown commercially, of course – large planes, small planes, props. But what could ever have approximated what those fighter pilots experience in their rapid, wrenching loft over the earth? Nothing. Not the speed or the pressure on the body. But the motion, up and across the earth, so that one is able to lose a sense of containment on it, and in one’s life, and imagine instead some mastery over the geography diminishing in size below, and turning, in its relation to you, not because of its movements, but your own. Some people do get to live that grandest of illusions: the transcendence of boundedness by space, in place.
In the years when we took beach vacations along the Pacific in Baja, there was a local Mexican who built and sold ultra light airplanes and flew them along the coast between Rosarito and Ensenada. They are basically oversized tricycles with kite wings. I’d fly with him sometimes after he landed on the beach, maybe a thousand feet up, probably less – once, mistakenly only in my bare beach feet, which ached all the flight from the wind chill. But nothing could diminish the sense of release that the sky and the passing coast below could deliver. Once, over the Green Mountains of Vermont – I was holed up at the Vermont Studio Center on a grant for a month of poetry writing– my oldest friend, Arnie, and I were lifted into the sky by a tow plane, seated behind the pilot of a glider. The tow plane released, and we dipped and soared again in whispering silence, banking over the mountain sides of New England in the knowledge that only wind currents and geothermal waves prevented the sheer drop back to earth. Twenty years earlier my insides floated with fear as I sat pressed against what seemed the tissue-thin fuselage of the small prop plane in which I awaited my first jump. Then I shifted over the floor to the open cargo door and sat at its edge, New Jersey passing below as the wind blew me back. Count, one, two, three (don’t freeze with fear, don’t fail to launch) and push off. Fall. Spread. Tumble. Open shoot. Unwind the tangled lines above. Look around. Float. Why does silence always whisper?
It wasn’t just the motion in the motor home I loved during our travels. There were the motor scooters we carried along. The test monitor at the Department of Motor Vehicles, for our permits, before we left town, confided to Julia, “Just wait. He’s going to want a motorcycle very soon.” He was right.
A week or so later I’d be eyeing Santa Barbara through the windows of a hearse, which had picked up along the road two teen boys, and a girl who had fallen nude on acid into their laps at the Blind Faith concert the night before.
The last time I had been on a motorized two-wheeled vehicle, I was seventeen years old. Jerry, a friend two years older and twenty more daring, and who led me into many adventures and some trouble, possessor of a fringed suede jacket the likes of which was only otherwise seen on Roger Daltry during his Tommy years, and which was the envy of every freak from the East Village to Rockaway Beach, according to which Jerry became known as Jerry Jacket – Jerry had bought himself a motorcycle, bought it cheap, too, owing to its not having any brakes. Around midnight and the end of a weekday’s partying, everyone else preparing to crash back home, Jerry asked if I wanted to go see Ed Carlin’s new place in the Bronx. Whatever answer but “Sure!” even if it meant traveling ninety minutes over expressways, from the bottom of New York City to the top, riding a motorcycle with no brakes?
Jerry downshifted to slow all along surface streets of Queens, the Van Wyck Expressway, the Grand Central Parkway, and surface streets, again, of the Bronx, both of us dragging our Frye boots against the roadway to assist. We arrived to a sleepy residential neighborhood, our soles worn through, near 2 a.m. and climbed the garage over which Ed’s rental apartment in a private house was located. Jerry jimmied the window and we slipped through. We crouched and stared at Carlin’s gaunt, sleeping John the Baptist visage. Jerry nudged him, nudged him again.
“Carlin. Carlin, wake up.”
Ed opened his eyes.
Jerry smiled. “Got any dope?”
The next morning Jerry went off on some other escapade and I headed home by subway, two hours through Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, over Jamaica Bay to the Rockaway peninsula. The ride across the bay, past wetlands and inlets, over channel islands, in sight of JFK Airport, was always a reflective one for me. Even then I loved the motion of travel, and to think about life by its rhythms, and windows, any windows, car windows, bus windows, motor home, plane, and train windows were like a screen on which to project the footage of my memories, my anticipations, superimposed on the passing scene. Sad young man in search of adventure that I was, I preferred always to sit moving backwards, whichever way I was traveling, with a view of what I was leaving retrospectively, melancholically behind, even as I aimed myself with eagerness ahead.
Some months after that motorcycle ride, still seventeen, I took my first plane flight, with a hundred and fifty dollars in my pocket I had earned over the summer, off on my California adventure with Arnie. A week or so later I’d be eyeing Santa Barbara through the windows of a hearse, which had picked up along the road two teen boys, and a girl who had fallen nude on acid into their laps at the Blind Faith concert the night before. Now, though, it was a Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet, a big deal in flight at the time, and when the monster banked over Jamaica Bay, my throat caught with the fear we’d drop like a stone into the water. But we straightened out, and I settled in, and for five plus hours, my headset over my ears, my nose never left the window pane. I gazed at every quilted square of farmland, every coagulation of humanity and cement called a city, every lone car on a lonely road headed straight across a prairie or winding through some hills. Then we reached the Rockies. Months before, love had wounded me for the first time in my life. Three weeks later, I would stare up from the grass of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, a yearning seventeen year-old, and see a vision in the sky of all my decades to come, and how they might deliver me from pain, carry me into some kind of fulfillment it was too early on to know. All those years to live in which I might yet be happy.
But for those minutes in the plane, it was the Rockies in all their majesty and whiteness below , and in my ears it was “The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me.”
Joy rose up. I was in motion. I was going somewhere. And maybe love would.