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To touch the clouds

`THERESA, come here quickly,'' my husband called from the yard. He was manning the barbecue while I was putting the finishing touches on a potato salad that never tasted quite as good as my mother's -- although I used her recipe and exactly the same ingredients. I considered her salad's secret touch as one of the minor mysteries of life. Despite the urgency in my husband's request, I dawdled a bit, wiping the kitchen counters clean and idly re-arranging the refrigerator's contents to make room for the salad. I'd heard this kind of enticing invitation before and hastened to answer only to find him enraptured by such things as a small gray tree toad that had hopped from its bed of gravel camouflage and contentedly rested inches from the tip of his shoe.

True, a tree toad was an unusual visitor on a summer afternoon in the city, but I've never quite shared his enthusiasm for critters that hop or slither.

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When I recognized the unconcealed zest of his call, I knew what to expect. I moseyed to the yard, anticipating an introduction to our latest amphibian or reptilian guest.

Instead, he simply pointed skyward where, against a mosaic of blue sky and sculptured, whipped-cream clouds, there was a lone hang glider suspended in the air by man-made wings and sheer courage. I quickly fetched the binoculars to focus in on this carefree spirit mingling with the clouds.

He was harnessed to cardinal red wings highlighted by a vertical amber stripe, and he wore a tubular body sock that streamlined him so that only his arms appeared to be free. The effect made him one with the wings. He seemed to belong in the sky, like a bird or a cloud or a colorful kite.

Yet, his presence commanded admiration that a person could so freely, so magnificently, glide on the wind. We were mesmerized by this bewinged being, marveling at the fluidity and agility of his movements as he boldly defied the fate of Icarus.

A flutter of color teased my peripheral vision. I glanced in its direction and saw a second hang glider poised on a small wooden platform nestled amid the trees and craggy precipices crowning a nearby bluff. He gave himself to the wind and joined his companion on an aerial center stage.

We watched them gracefully maneuver, often side by side, as if performing a pas de deux choreographed by the wind. Fifteen minutes later, the second glider, as if responding to a cue, slowly spiraled downward and out of sight.

The red-winged glider remained aloft for well over two hours. We perfunctorily carried on with our tasks, stopping occasionally to look skyward and daydream of floating on a breeze. The hang glider performed no breathtaking acrobatics.

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In fact, he seemed to move not at all, as if entranced by the panoramic view beneath him. He looked down upon a blending of environments -- land and water, bluffs and valleys, growing cities and family farms -- that combined to create a richly textured, vibrantly colored tapestry.

I admired the intrepid stranger in the sky. He belonged to a rare breed of people who dream the unthinkable and have the courage to challenge the dream. I envied his freedom of flight from the mundane drudgeries of daily routine and wished that I, too, could be carried on the wind to touch the clouds.

Alas, such flights are for the more stouthearted. I belong to the legion of dreamers who experience such thrills and perils in Walter Mitty fashion -- borne on the wings of imagination. Such blissful reverie leaves the ambiance of mystery intact, and it is the mystery that gives the unknown its flavor -- in hang gliding or, for that matter, my mother's potato salad.

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