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Riding the Roller Coaster of Sky

I AM a flyer.

Not an Icarus: a pilot. Not a remote-controlled programmer of those wide-bodied jets where passengers are jammed 12 aflank either, but a hands-on bush pilot at the helm - stick - in touch with clouds, the earth, updrafts, and storms.

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Watch me fishtail, chandelle, crab the wind, loop the loop and undulate, spiral, pique, porpoise, feather, yaw, hedgehop, roadhop, taxi, mush.

Fat chance. Planes huge and sleek are all that fly me; they seldom swerve. All these years my yearning to fly small planes, preferably myself, has gone unheeded. The county airport offers lessons, but I can't justify even their Fly Now Pay Later bargain.

The landlord of our old rented farm near the Chesapeake occasionally zoomed over alone in his two-person plane. His unexpected shadow would darken our tomato, basil, and asparagus patch, the roar would terrify the little foxes and every other creature in the fields and woods, and then he'd hone in on the grassy landing strip between cornstalks and soybeans. But although I hinted broadly, never did he proffer an invitation to the skies.

So I've soared only secondhand.

In one graduate seminar on 20th-century French literature, the other students snapped up Sartre, Malraux, Mauriac, Beckett, and Gide as their mini-thesis subjects. I was about to opt for Camus. But my professor glanced my way and announced, "And you will write on Saint-Exupery."

My favorite authors are adventurers, engage dans la vie. Since St.-Ex had lived a life of perpetual motion. Barely taking time out to write "The Little Prince" and 10 thicker books, he sounded halfway all right. His biography could certainly be exciting.

"Focus on the work," the professor continued, "not on the author, his influences, social context, historical coincidences. This is a class in stylistics."

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She may have tried to explain stylistics. The other students seemed to know all about it, and warned me to stock up on index cards. But while I grappled and griped, I didn't grasp it.

Launched into what promised to be a joyless journey, I began to snail my way through St.-Ex's every work and word. Page after page I paused, not just to slice my Swiss Army knife through those uncut French editions, but mid-paragraph to copy - on index cards of various pastels - every image, metaphor, simile, repetitive word pattern. Each category claimed its color.

That wan rainbow of cards remains stashed under my bed, as if by osmosis I might yet absorb, decode, and comprehend their vast veiled message. I haven't. Nor did I complete that course. The only message I received was that, while finally gleaning enough credits for a master's, I am no scholar.

But ... St.-Ex was a flyer. From "Night Flight" to "Southern Mail" to "Wind, Sand, and Stars" to "Flight to Arras," his lyrical language, prodigious with images, metaphors, similes, and his peculiar turns of phrases, shepherded me through the early decades of flight by stick and compass and stars, even stars obscured by fluffy clouds like sheep, storm clouds like whales.

As his weightless passenger, for months I delivered precious mailbags through blizzards enveloping the Andes, navigated through sandstorms over the Sahara, skimmed seas and trees, and learned both glory and what it is to crash.

Of course I began to love St.-Ex. When finally I checked his biographical data, I found we share the same birthday. Gradually I noticed similarities in our writing styles.

I still don't comprehend stylistics. I'm grateful, however, for my semester of vicarious flight.

Meanwhile, another professor, Madeleine Betts, allowed me free rein to study Camus. Somewhere in his oeuvre (which I also had to read in its entirety), I found:

"If there is a sin against life, it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as in hoping for another life and eluding the implacable grandeur of this life."

In truth, I have spent more of my time enjoying "the implacable grandeur of this life" with my feet on the ground, or in the sea.

SUDDENLY my feet are in snow. Arctic snow. A last-minute assignment materialized: photograph the historic meeting between two Chukchi Eskimos from the farthest eastern tip of what was the Soviet Union, and the Inupiat Eskimos of the farthest western tip of Alaska. My first trip north, and I've been as excited as a child at Christmas.

Now a smallish jet, which flew along the coast of Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska, over mountains so dazzling I forgot to photograph them, has left me on a spit of snowbound sand and grit.

Tucked near the runway is a scarlet plane. Looks tiny enough to hang on a Yule tree or stuff in a Christmas stocking. Delicate. Flimsy. Safer to travel by dog sled, hitched behind a pair of those huskies howling behind the hanger. Or in a more substantial snowmobile - even 10 year olds are whizzing them over the five-foot-thick ice of the cove.

Cumbersome in my balloon of a down snowsuit and elephantine white boots, I resemble a spaceperson. Except that I clump planeward all too conscious of gravity. Will that fragile craft be able to resist Earth's pull?

And what happens to a compass here? My National Geographic map of the Arctic shows not only a North Pole but a North Magnetic Pole, and warns in blue print: "Magnetic compasses swing dependably toward this spot and its Antarctic counterpart from distant points but become uselessly sluggish in their vicinity."

Our sluggish course is set somewhere west-northwest from the village of Kotzebue to the hamlet of Kivalina. Fortunately, an experienced bush pilot is in the cockpit, so far the snow is only on the ground, and gravity is a state of mind.

But at 10 a.m., it remains night. Snow hides in black skies. What if a blizzard breaks its traces? Even close, the plane is Lilliputian. Clambering aboard bulked out by all these layers, I feel like a whale hoisting himself into a helicopter.

Inside, the seats are geared for elves. No elbow room to fasten straps. The ceiling must be held together by those random strips of duct tape. The pilot demonstrates how to lock my door, how to reverse the handle and unlock it in case of emergency. Don't most emergencies happen aloft?

He climbs in the pilot seat, revs the motor, warms it, if not us, up. That propeller is merely a giant fan. Wind whistles in through cracks where doors and windows aren't snug in their frames.

"Not so cold today," he shouts over the engine. "Only 10 degrees."

Unsure if he means above or below, Celsius or Fahrenheit, I bless my clumpy suit, clunky boots, three pairs of socks: cotton, wool, and between them, socks made of spun aluminum.

The propeller is spinning, we are in motion, a bumpy motion on the snowy runway. Like the princess whose authenticity is tested by making her sleep on 20 piled mattresses with a dried pea underneath, I feel every pebble of ice.

A whale of a bump as we kick gravity aside and rise through ebony air. We are flying.

Not terribly high. In fact, precariously low over the snowy shore. I still feel every current of air, wisp of wind, snowflake.

The land is no longer so dark, snow reflects the waning stars. Here and there, sparkling in vales between conical white hills, are - what? Fallen stars?

Beacons planted like flashing buoys to mark a harbor, warn of rocks, guide us - somewhere.

By flashlight I flip open "Terre des Hommes" ("Wind, Sand, and Stars"), which I haven't looked at for 15 years:

"In a plane, when the night is too beautiful, one lets oneself go, one scarcely steers any longer, and little by little the plane tilts to the left. One still believes it to be horizontal when one discovers a village under the right wing. In the desert there is no village. Then a fishing fleet at sea. But in the whole breadth of the Sahara there is no fishing fleet. Then what? Then one smiles at one's error. Gently one corrects the plane's position. And the village resumes its position. One hooks back on to the panoply the constellation which one had let fall. Village? Yes. Village of stars. But ... it is only a desert as if frozen, waves of sand without movement. Some well-hung constellations."

Dawn above this white desert reveals, off the port bow, a slate-gray, slate-hard sea. To starboard lies tundra, the snow cones of hills. Careful not to lean too far, unbalance, tilt the plane, I peer down at what could be shadows of polar bears, shapes of whales.

When the sun finally creeps up, it remains behind clouds still programmed to explode their snow.

Suddenly an amoeboid patch of bare ice, blown clear of snow, is alchemized to beaten gold. It shimmers beneath us, almost warm. As if riding updrafts of light emanating from ice, the plane dips and rises, dives and lifts, not of its own volition but the sun's. I learn to ride the roller coaster of the sky.

Now we are soaring, my head is spinning, and I am in no hurry to return to Earth.

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