We arrived at the little airport in Ashland, Alabama, at 9 am. Although it didn’t look much like an airport. Actually, it looked like a pole barn in the North Alabama woods. Somewhere nearby, you could hear banjos.
The Butlers arrived with Becca, their daughter. Becca is 11 years old and blind. She is a child with more raw energy output than a small municipal dam. She leapt out of the backseat, brandishing her white cane, vibrating with pure excitement.
“I’m gonna fly today!” she shouted as she began applauding herself. “I’m so STINKING excited!”
I first met Becca by email last September. I did not expect to become such good friends with an 11-year-old. But you can’t plan these things.
Our friendship officially happened when she first hugged me. Becca gives good hugs. At the time, we had just completed our first lunch date, eating at Bama Bucks, a steakhouse and wild game restaurant where they have a cage of wild deer grazing across the street, sort of like lobsters at a seafood restaurant. Before I left the restaurant Becca hugged me tightly and said, “I really think we should be friends.”
And so it was. We became instant pals. We wear friendship bracelets and everything.
Fast forward. Several months ago, I was on a commercial airplane, about to go make a speech somewhere. I was flying livestock class where you have to ride with a chicken on your lap. My phone lit up while we were still taxiing on the runway. It was a text from Becca.
“What are you doing?” the text read.
I told her I was about to fly to Kansas City. She told me she had never flown before. “Would you like to fly someday?” I asked her. Her text came back as something akin to, “Does the Pope go in the woods?”
One thing led to another. And here we were. At the Ashland-Lineville airport. About to go flying.
Our pilot today was Mark Brereton. Mark is a small-craft airplane pilot who, before that, raced motorcycles professionally. Mark is your typical motorcycle racer and is, no offense, completely insane.
“I’m going to let Becca actually fly this plane,” Mark announced.
“But,” I pointed out. “Becca is blind.”
Mark assured me this would be fun.
Here’s a tip. You and a former professional motorcycle racer do not have the same definition of “fun.” Your motorcycle racer is not a normal human being. This is a person who, as a child, was riding his bike “no-hands.” You probably did this, too, but your future motorcycle racer was doing it on the roof of his house.
When Mark told Becca she would be flying the plane, she gave herself a one-woman standing ovation. And I knew we were screwed.
Becca and I crawled into Mark’s small plane. I sat in the backseat. Becca sat in the co-pilot’s seat and played with the controls as Mark gave her a 20-second course in advanced aeronautics. Becca nodded her head as she chewed candy.
When Mark was thus satisfied the 11-year-old fully understood the finer points of single-engine piston aircraft operation, he said, “Let’s do this.”
Within moments, we were 3,000 feet above the earth, Whereupon Mark handed Becca the flight controls. Mark released the yoke and folded his hands into his lap.
He said, “Fly the plane, Becca.”
So Becca quickly finished her candy and took the controls in both hands. Her first move was—why not?—a nosedive.
The plane spiraled downward. The engine was straining. I could feel my stomach in my butt.
“WEEEE!” shouted Becca.
“YEAH!” shouted Mark.
The cries from the backseat were indiscernible.
Then Becca maneuvered the plane for a few “side-to-sides.” Becca did not finesse the controls. She violently jerked the yoke left. Then right. Have you ever seen those slow-motion car commercials wherein crash-test dummies undergo fatal collisions and their bodies are lurched by powerful forces capable of snapping the necks of rhinoceros? That was us.
“WEEE!” shouted Becca.
“YAY!” shouted Mark.
The cry from the backseat sounded almost primal in origin.
Then Becca pulled the control wheel for a sharp climb. The nose of the aircraft pointed toward the sun. The engine wheezed. Mark’s hands were still in his lap and he was smiling. Every sphincter in my body was compromised.
“YAY!” said Becca.
“AWESOME!” shouted Mark.
“I think I just ruined your upholstery,” came the voice from the backseat.
When we finally landed, I was first to deboard the plane. My face was the color of Elmer’s Glue. I was covering my mouth. I staggered to the grass, doubled over, and I entered into a new relationship with my own stomach.
When it was all said and done, Becca gave me a giant hug. “Thank you for taking me flying,” she said. “I love you.”
It was miserable. I was green. I cannot remember a time when I have been sicker. But I’d do it all over again.