By Mandi Donohue
On Saturday morning, an 89-year old Pilot-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named crashed his plane at Lost River Airport while attempting to take off. To save him the embarrassment of using his real name, I shall refer to him as The Red Baron. Thankfully, he walked way unscathed. Despite concerns from the community, warnings from his doctor and the trash talk given to him by the local SLIME crew and bakery ladies, almost every year he makes his way up into the wild blue yonder. We always assume the worst — that he will crash into someone’s house and/or burn down the valley.
Once he gets off the ground, it’s another story. Our bated breath relaxes and we are charmed, playing witness to loop-de-loop aerobatics, watching the magic of one of our elders relive their glory days.
This week, however, his little plane, the Tumble Bee, was forever grounded and some of our greatest fears came true. I couldn’t help but ponder what on earth would cause an 89-year-old man to even consider flying his plane at his age. The Red Baron is a stubborn old goat who does what he wants on any occasion despite how it could affect others. To some it may seem a selfish and unsettling combination. So … why?
Of course part of it, I’m sure, is passion for the thrilling moment when those wheels leave the ground and your breath catches as you become one with your plane. You soar into the sky, your heart is racing and the wind rushes through you like a miracle. The way The Red Baron talks about flying and in the old pictures he brings in, I can understand that longing. We overlook our lonely elders and forget, they too, have stories. Once upon a time, they were our heroes.
But it also has me thinking a lot about identity. When I revisit the past few years, you can see that being a pilot is what The Red Baron knows. It’s where he finds his lasting value.
On another island … This week I had the pleasure of hanging out with the remarkable 9-year-old Ethan Grayum. He’s been working on climbing the top 100 peaks of Washington and last week he bagged three of those peaks in one day — with a cold. He climbed Mount Adams at the age of 5. He finished the Black Mountain High Route at the age of 6, which Linette tells me was three days off-trail during a frightening thunderstorm. And while most adult climbers dream of finishing our local 5.12 “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” rock climbing route, Ethan scaled it at the age of 9 (Google for video online).
He is as thoughtful and curious as he is chatty and accomplished, having read over 40 books this summer, including Andy Weir’s The Martian twice. Linette is a proud mama and she should be. She appreciates that he shows an all-around interest in things. He is at that magical age where everything is fun and attainable — sewing, cooking, even cleaning!
With The Red Baron on my mind, I couldn’t help but hope the world for Ethan that he finds his identity in more than being the perfect kid or in his amazing accomplishments. To take liberties with Fight Club, you are more than your khakis, kid. We are more than our Patagonia. Or our pickup trucks. We are more than the newspapers we run or the number or prayer meetings we attend. I am more than my job at the bakery. How do we define ourselves? Do we need to? What happens when we can’t fly anymore or we pull a shoulder?
As the sun sets on The Tumble Bee, there is a choice to be made and it’ll be interesting to see what The Red Baron does next. His flying days may be done. Does he become a part of the wreckage, forever grounded? Or out of the ashes like the Phoenix, does he redefine himself and soar in a new way?