“Courage is found in unlikely places.” 

― J.R.R. Tolkien

“Since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.”

– C. S. Lewis

Chapter One: The Transfiguration

The airplane sliced easily through the thick Tennessee sky that held just enough water to soft-focus the horizon into a travel poster. The Cumberland River below curled lazily between the rounded, hardwood-covered hills west of Nashville. The contrasting smell of aviation gas and the muscular drone of the Cessna 152’s engine brought a satisfying sense of adventure to the wispy scene.

“Step on the ball,” said the voice at my right shoulder, indicating that I was not coordinating my rudder and ailerons properly in the turn. Dennis E. White, certified flight instructor, had been recommended as the best but no one said he was the easiest. 

I didn’t mind. The constant stream of instructions was one of my three favorite things about learning to fly. The concentration required allowed no time to think. And overthinking is my nemesis. 

The freedom was the next thing. No problem could follow me into the air. They were all left below  and behind. No one could call me for a last minute session. No bills came. No business ideas or  taxes could find me. No musicians asked me to adjust their headphone mix. In the engine noise, my mind found peace and quiet.

The staggering beauty was the best of all. By now, I’d spent years in sealed control rooms with one window leading only to another sealed room with no windows, no sky, no trees. It was a kind of sensory deprivation that sparked an intense desire for nature. The perspective of seeing the world like a bird in flight was mesmerizing. Just to see the sky was a relief. But to be in the sky was intoxicating.

I had climbing and descending turns nailed so the cockpit conversation grew quiet and my mind drifted. This was it. My last dream.

Spiraling up to 5000 feet, I was Chuck Yeager. The gutsy test pilot’s slow, Southern, sing-song cockpit radio communications were legendary to the point of being imitated by airline pilots everywhere. Unflappable, fearless, deadly calm no matter what .

That was my goal at the recording console during an intense session. Calm, while meeting the musical legends of my youth. Cool, when I became friends with the VP of A&R at Capitol records. He talked me into flying so he could have a copilot who could take over the plane on longer hops. It was an easy sell. Serene, even as my wildest dreams fell into place around me.

At home, I had a strong, smart wife who loved me. There were three amazing and challenging children. We’d moved away from home to the hard, cold city and survived a year of poverty. Out of persistence, I got a chief engineer gig at a funky studio populated by the best musicians in town.

Through stubbornness, I worked my way up to a better studio. Random chance rewarded my determination with a producer who had a habit of making gold and platinum albums. Then came the money and the gear. I was working with the best. I went freelance and fell into a regular situation with an L.A. producer. The future whispered promises of more.

“Level out at 5000 feet,” he said. 

And now, flying. It had been my dream since my first Rick Brant Science-adventure novel in elementary school. This was it. All my dreams were coming true. It was a problem I never imagined. And there was only one solution.

I needed bigger dreams. 

As if cued by a Hollywood script writer, the steadfast drone of the engine coughed, then hacked, then wheezed into silence. The blur of the propeller strobed into view and one blade rocked into stillness in front of my eyes. The shocking silence of the engine exposed the soft hiss of air.

It was a sight and sound I’d never heard above the tarmac. The cold reality of gravity pulled the nose toward the ground. We were now riding a glider. I turned toward my instructor.

“What now?” I asked, Chuck Yeager calm.

He turned his shoulders sharply and stared me straight in the eyes for a five count, looking for fear. Then he snorted in disgust as the realization came. He held my eyes for two more disapproving seconds then reached under the seat.

• • •

The small brick house sat behind chain-link on a busy corner of Macon Road in Memphis Tennessee. Across the street,  Burgess Pharmacy taunted us. With permission, you could walk across the busy street, climb up on a tall stool, sit at a soda fountain and order a chocolate shake. Anytime.

I had no idea why my grandmother didn’t.

She called my dad William, pronounced Wiyum. Mom called him Bill but Grandmama claimed a mother’s privilege and he was William to the family. Somehow, my cousins called him Uncle Bill. I’m not sure how these things were worked out.

Between my siblings and cousins, the “kid’s table” was overflowing.  Usually, one of us ended up at “the big table” with the grownups due to seating problems or misbehavior. I can’t recall which method got me there but I considered it high adventure.

It was here that I first heard the stories.

After chicken and dumplings, after coffee and pie, Uncle Charles asked the question and it began. 

“Hey William, do you remember when you went AWOL and hoboed all the way across Korea just to see Ray?”

I looked at my father. His face was red and he had a slight grin of embarrassment. I expected denial but none came. My dad would never go Away With Out Leave. He was the most dependable person I knew.

“I’m just glad I got your letter,” Grandmama said. There was still no denial. Even as a kid at the big table, I couldn’t let it stand. 

“Wait. Who went AWOL?” I asked. There had to be a mistake. 

“Your father!” Uncle Charles said with a big smile. I turned and looked at Dad with my mouth open. 

“Well, I hadn’t seen anyone from home in two years,” he finally said. “And I did ask permission.”

“What?” I couldn’t believe it. 

“Tell it again,” Uncle Charles prodded. “You got on a boxcar, drew your .45 pistol and held them off at gunpoint for hours.”

“What!” You couldn’t have surprised me more if you’d told me my father was Batman. 

“Well, it wasn’t like that. Soldiers took off their uniforms and put on civilian clothes. You couldn’t tell who wanted to kill you. So, I backed into the corner and held my gun pointed at the ceiling.”

It was the first war story I’d ever heard him tell. It went on to include a purple heart, a burned down hospital, lost records, a missing in action report and, after he got back to his unit, one apoplectic sergeant.

“I couldn’t believe it when my brother came walking up on the other side of the world,” Uncle Ray said.

“I got your letter a week before the MIA notification arrived from the government. So, I knew you were okay,” Grandmama said. 

I was thunderstruck but the transformation wasn’t complete. Turnabout was fair play.

“Ray, what about the time you split your foot with an ax?” my dad said to get the attention off of himself. “And ran to the house yelling, ‘My shoes! My new shoes!’” Everyone at the table laughed and pointed.

“What about the time Ray stopped a kidnapper after they chloroformed the house?” my Aunt Lois joined in. The next saga began and my family were no longer adults but were brothers and sisters teasing each others. I watched as the years rolled away.

Aunt Lois had fed a baked squirrel to the dog because she thought her mom had cooked that cat. Uncle Charles survived scarlet fever and trained himself into such good physical shape he set records on the Army’s obstacle course.

Slowly, they became more than teasing siblings. They were transfigured before my eyes into survivors of some of the world’s most horrific events. The personal stories interlocked with historic events that changed the world forever.

The little old woman at the kitchen end of the table had gotten another letter from France when her young husband was gassed during World War I. My granddaddy survived that attack only to get hit by the Great Depression. Their children, seated around me, had survived the Depression only to hit World War II.

I learned that the only reason I hadn’t grown up in California was because a Model T Ford caught fire in Texas and exploded along with everything they owned. After a tornado hit, my grandmother prayed to go home.

Who were these people? What kind of family had I gotten myself into?

But it was more than just what happened to them. It was how they handled it. They pulled together in the worst of circumstances. They somehow kept their humor and their faith. Music, church, and laughter kept them going. They made it sound like fun.

This dirt-poor family of blacksmiths and sharecroppers had pulled themselves up through the most harrowing of times and apparently had fun doing it. Railroad jobs after the war changed everything. They spread out along the Illinois Central tracks from New Orleans to Centralia and then to upstate New York.

And now, at a crowded dinner table in Memphis Tennessee, the legacy was passed on to me. Courage was my birthright. Faith, laughter and song were my tools. No trouble was too great. No whining was allowed. The world waited to be conquered.

The fact that I was a scared bookworm with a crew cut and thick black glasses didn’t matter. The fact that they’d given no clear explanation as to how they’d done it all couldn’t be helped. The fact that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing was no excuse.

Courage found a way.

Until then, I’d just have to settle for stubbornness. 

• • •

Dennis C. White, CFI, knew he had been set up and he was not happy. He might have been angry but it was hard to tell. When it came to channeling Chuck Yeager, Dennis was the real deal.

He had survived a plane crash into the Cumberland River when one of his former students came by to show off his brand new aerobatic biplane and took his old instructor for a ride.

Dennis was banging on the fuselage and screaming for him to pull up when a guy wire across the Cumberland River sliced through the wings and slammed them into the hard surface of the water. He managed to get out of the five point harness and swim to the surface just in time. Nothing else ever surfaced but debris. 

He was flying copilot in a Lear jet out of John Tune airport when a deer ran across the runway and was sucked into an engine. As the alarms sounded and red lights flashed the pilot pulled the plane into the air, having no choice. They both knew full well that one engine normally powered you to the scene of the crash but there was no room to stop. 

Dennis calmly handled the radio communications as they were vectored to an emergency landing at Nashville’s BNA airport with firetrucks and ambulances rolling. His voice was calm, cool, fearless and he never talked about any of it. I heard the stories at the airport, told with a look of unvarnished admiration.

CFI White was deadly serious about flight instruction and knew that I’d been told about his emergency procedures test. He had dropped his clipboard and turned off the emergency fuel cutoff valve as he picked it up. When the engine starved of fuel and shuddered to a stop, one look in my eyes confirmed my cockiness.

It would not stand.

“What’s the best glide speed for this aircraft?” The emotionless shift in vocal tone was noticeable.

“60 knots,” I repeated from memory. The reason for my lessons came into focus.

“Well get us on it.” I looked for the right dial. “Now!” he demanded. “We don’t want to stall.” I pushed the nose over. “Do you see the airport?” he asked, giving me no time to think.

“No,” I admitted, humiliation begun.

“It’s a good thing I do.” He pointed. “Turn to a heading of 060 degrees.”

“060,” I echoed.

“Do you see it now?” Seeing things from the air is a real shift in perspective. There was a hazy white line in the distance.

“Yes!” I congratulated myself.

“Do you think we can make it?”

“No,” I answered dejectedly. It was miles away and the nose was pointed down.

“Well, I think we can. Level your wings.”

He had me restart the engine and set it to idle. He asked for carburetor heat to keep it from icing in the cold altitude. Then he turned up the heat on me.

On the way back to the airport, he tortured me with an endless cascade of instructions to “load me up.” He pushed me. When I responded, he pushed me harder. He had me put on the instrument hood, blocking out all view except the instrument panel. It was far too soon for instrument training but he couldn’t let me sink into overconfidence. It got people killed. 

He icily called out turns and airspeed targets. He gave me blind compass headings until he let me take the hood off. 

“Where are we?” he asked.

We were over the center of the runway at John Tune Airport, a terrible position to be. 

“Do you think we can land?” he asked.

“No,” I had to answer. It was far beyond my skillset. I waited for him to take over the controls. 

“Sure we can. This is the safest place to be. Line us up and give us full flaps.”

The plane felt like someone had stomped the brakes.

“Put the nose down. Further. Keep your airspeed up.” His voice was placid.

I was breaking into a sweat. I slid forward in the seat until the belt and shoulder strap caught me. I hung there staring straight down at the runway as it filled the windscreen. I refused to let myself think. It took a remarkably long time to reach the ground.

“Alright, pull it up and touch us down,” came the calm voice from my right. The end of the runway loomed. The flaps slowed us to a crawl. The wheels squeaked on the concrete. The nose wheel settled with a solid thump.

The runway seemed a mile wide. There was plenty of room ahead. I let out a deep breath and stared as we rolled to a stop.

“Get us off the runway,” the calm voice said.

I realized I was sitting still, pushed the throttle, taxied in and shut the engine down. “Tie it down and meet me inside,” he said. He snapped off his belt, grabbed his gear and climbed out of the plane. Then he paused to catch my eye.

“Nice landing,” he said.

I nodded. He slammed the door in my face and walked calmly across the tarmac like he was coming back from lunch.

I sat for a long while and stared at the propellor, my clothes clammy from adrenaline sweat. It had stopped in the same position it had at 5000 feet. A few minutes ago but it felt like hours. The scenario replayed in my mind. It was a list of errors, any one of which could have gotten me killed. 

What would I do in a real emergency? Would I have found the airport if I’d been alone? Would I have kept my head or ended up in the river? Would I have remembered the flaps? Would my slow airspeed have caused a stall? The questions came without answers until I slowly pulled myself from the plane. My sweat-dampened clothes clung to my body. 

Courage was still a dream.

• • •

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