"Straight ahead is Kitchener. Guelph's at 2 o'clock. Can you hear me?"
I breathe slowly and deeply to fend off panic. It doesn't do a goddamn thing. Every inch of my body is shaking. Good thing I'm sitting down.
"Do you want to take the controls?" yells Steve. I bring my right hand to rest on the joystick. I can't keep it from trembling, much less steer the plane.
"We're hitting a thermal," he says.
Nauseated, about to pass out, I clench my teeth. What if the wind tears us apart? What if my instructor has a seizure or a heart attack? Terror squeezes the oxygen from my lungs as I brace for a wild ascent.
This is one of the best days of my life. Things had been dull of late. Where had the edge gone? Where were the highs? My life seemed like a windowless, airless, fluorescent-lit room stacked with reports no one ever read. On the subway, on the street, in meetings and shops, I felt the creeping approach of decay and irrelevance. I prayed not to do anything stupid.
Then a letter came in the mail.
"One Free Introductory Gliding Lesson," read the gift certificate. On the card, a pilot wearing shades sat in the cockpit of a glider, vertical toward the stratosphere. The Southern Ontario Soaring Association, or SOSA Gliding Club, invited me to quit whining and fly.
Gliding as a sport started more or less because of the Treaty of Versailles. After World War I, Germany was not allowed to manufacture or use powered aircraft. Aviators, jonesing for the sky, developed, designed and flew motorless planes. They discovered how to surf the natural forces in the atmosphere to fly farther and faster. By the time World War II came around, the Germans had a supply of pilots ready to be trained in warplane operation.
Some of the old guys who run SOSA look like they could have flown in World War II. Some members are hardcore aviators, retirees who live to fly. My guy Steve has been in the air for 30 years. You're in good hands at SOSA.
The most frightening part of the lesson is being dragged to 3,000 feet by the tow plane.
Every lurch, bump and dip feels extreme. Imagine turbulence. Now imagine being able to see turbulence in front of you in the bobbing and weaving of the tow plane. There's no in-flight entertainment system to distract you, no episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm. This is flight - heady, exhilarating, weird.
At 3,000 feet, the rope connecting the tow plane and glider is released. (Yeah, it's only a rope.) Then off we go into the wild blue yonder, soaring, dipping, rising.
I begin to relax halfway into the flight. The terror of surrendering to natural forces eases into wide-eyed awe. Stretched below, verdant, bucolic southern Ontario, the cities of Kitchener, Waterloo, Hamilton shiny grey clusters. Above, cumulus clouds, white wisps and patches of condensed air, the friend of gliders everywhere.
By the time we sail down to land on SOSA's grass airstrip, I want to grab the control stick and head skyward again. Sheer bare-headed bloody freedom.