Dream Take Flight: The True Story of One Woman's Journey Building and Flying an Experimental Airplane
Welcome to the Dream Take Flight "IN PROGRESS" page. So many people over the years have asked me to assemble the whole story of how I came to learn to fly and build an airplane I decided to write it. People have told me that they gave the original Kitplanes stories to their sons and daughters to read for inspiration. The lessons that I learned along the way may help others achieve the lifelong dreams of both childhood and adulthood, and come to discover joy in achievement.
In this space I'll begin posting snippets of book sections. Note in the EXCERPT below, some chapters are in bold face. This simply means that I am currently working on these.
I hope to complete writing the book by the end of 2017.
Dream Take Flight is the story of how Lisa Turner built an experimental airplane in her garage by herself in the 1990s and flew it from Florida to Maine and back. The “why” is as much fun as the “how” in a fast read peppered with colorful stories of how Lisa overcame both self-doubt and disapproval from others.
Lisa grew up as a tomboy and didn’t realize it until she asked her guidance counselor why the boys were taking shop class and she wasn’t in it. As an introvert, it was always a stretch for Lisa to ask for something she thought she should have, and the story highlights her at times painful growth of self-confidence in order to forge ahead with her dreams.
Lisa will tell you today that building and flying her airplane was the single most significant contribution to her appreciation of life’s gifts and her enduring happiness. Perspective and balance finally come to a once awkward and self-conscious woman through perseverance, discipline, and the euphoria of flight.
Don’t miss this adventure-memoir with scary moment suspense and humorous tales combined with lessons we can all use to create more creativity and happiness in our own lives.
. . .
This book is for anyone who has ever set their sights on the improbable.
Every conversation I have had with people interested in how I built and flew an airplane in the 1990s prompted comments of “you should write this down for today’s youth,” and, “you should show others how you were able to do this.”
This book, as a project, has been trying to “get out” for 15 years. I finally collected all of my snippets and stories, and along with encouragement from my family, here it is.
Read the stories and take from the lessons to accelerate your own journey. The techniques that I used can be used by anyone to determine their true path and pursue what they love.
Since I wrote the first article on building an airplane in KITPLANES magazine in 1996, I have had the opportunity through the Experimental Aircraft Association to help other people build and fly their own projects. The encouragement and joy that flows from helping others accomplish their goals will always be the reward that I seek in sharing the tale.
. . .
The Lawn Mower
The English Teacher
The Flying Car
The Bicycle Apprentice
Bicycles, Mopeds, Cars
A One Eighty
The Flight Pattern
Sun N Fun
Florida to New York
New York to Maine
Start Over Again
You Can Too
"You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You're on your own, and you know what you know. And you are the one who'll decide where you go." - Dr. Seuss
This day might be starting out all wrong.
The sun glowed a pale yellow through the thick mist to the east. The vivid forest canopy below my little craft seemed ephemeral as the mist parted and then reattached itself to the tree tops. Humid warm air snaked through the air vents as I held the control stick in a sticky palm.
Tingles of concern moved like tiny tentacles up my neck. The tendrils of mist grew and began to obscure the landscape below. I took a deep breath and willed calmness into my growing panic. The engine purred smoothly, without a care, as if to wave a magic spell over the unruly fog banks.
Looking out the Lexan canopy to the left, the perfect round orb of the sun grew in intensity to the east, a multicolor aura circling the bright yellow core. Fingers of peach colored sunlight reached out and touched the shiny white wings of the Pulsar XP. I scanned the instrument panel. 138 mph, 3 miles inland and flying at an altitude of 700 feet, I was threading my way between civilization and the desolation of the Loxahatchee swamp, heading for the Florida coastline.
Below me stretched a vast pockmarked expanse of pine forest and glimmering pools. With alligators cruising through stagnant water pockets and ragged islands of tall grass, this would not be an inviting place for an emergency landing.
What should I do? The ground mist continued to grow, moving in patches. In flight training they tell you that little mistakes in judgement add up until you have a serious set of problems. I vowed to not get myself into a dangerous situation. But technically I was still VFR – having the ground in sight, one mile of visibility, and clear of clouds. But it wasn’t getting better.
This is not good. Make the right decision, Lese.
I pointed the nose of the little airplane up and applied power.
I need to get out of this soup.
I leveled off at 1000 feet. I could no longer see the ground, except for holes scattered in the clouds, the silver sheen of the swamp pools reaching up to my canopy in dancing beams, as if to draw me down and in.
Disappointment joined the knot of uncertainty in my gut. This was my first major cross country in the airplane I had built, on my way today to western New York and then to Bar Harbor, Maine.
Damn.The day I’ve dreamt about my whole life.What am I going to do? This wasn’t in the plan. I’m a new pilot, inexperienced.
I took a deep breath, trying to will calmness into my tight grip on the control stick.
Do the right thing. Turn around. Now!
I banked my little craft to the right, changing course one hundred and eighty degrees, heading back the way I had come, threading my way down through the gaps in the cloud banks toward my home airport, 10 minutes away.
Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.
~ Helen Keller
1 First Flight
ran through the clearing as fast as I could. The night air was heavy with mist and the fresh aroma of pine. My bare feet sank into the emerald moss carpet of the forest, soft and lush. Full of energy, I spanned the moonlit cathedral floor in 4 strides and re-entered the dense landscape on a foot-worn path filled with damp fall leaves and spent pine needles.
Out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of motion behind me and heard twigs crack.
Faster. Run faster.
I dared a quick glance behind me. Flashes of silver fur, oval blue eyes, and ivory claws pounding, gaining on me as I broke out of the tree line sprinting to the cliffs.
Go go, go! Now!
I floated my arms out from my sides and caught the heavy air in a quick jerk. Lifting effortlessly on air wings, my body launched out over the silver speckled granite cliff edge. The galloping tiger came to an abrupt halt just short of the cliff line, disoriented. Rocks fell from the turf edge, tumbling down the steep bank. The sleek animal stood motionless at the edge and shook its head in confusion.
Sliding on a wind fold, a valley of diamond lights below me in the valley twinkled like a thousand chandeliers. The air supported my thin frame in a soft caress, my hair swirling. Air rushing now, faster and faster. Was I falling or flying?
Fear stabbed at me as I looked down into the twilight.
I need to get closer to the ground.
I was much too far away from the small homes tucked into the mountain valley. Now I felt disconnected. Would my powers hold? What if I fell now?
No, you won’t fall. Float, like its water, just float, relax.
I took a deep breath. My heart was still pounding from my run through the forest. I cocked my body downward and caught the air again with my hands, accelerating toward the tiny lights below.
I have control. I won’t fall. I am an airplane.
Faster I went, the air buffeting through my long hair and flattening my shirt. Fly up! Up! I swooped upwards and banked to the left. Then to the right.
Flying! I am flying!
Exhilaration replaced my fear and the breath of the planet flowed with mine as I glided down towards the glowing lights of the valley.
I raised my head back and moved my arms out flat against the airstream to slow myself. The ground was coming up fast.
Too fast! Control, control. Concentrate. You have it.
As my descent slowed, houses and neighborhoods came into clear relief. Which house? I was lost. No, I would find it. I always did. I floated along, slowing, looking for landmarks. Slow, float, slow . . . fifty feet above the trees, this was vividly real. Euphoria surged, my powers holding. I recognized the streets, I knew the way to go.
I floated up slowly and deliberately, my arms treading air. Like a helicopter descending slowly to its landing pad, I lowered, slowly, concentrating. My feet gently touched the wet summer grass. All of my weight now on the ground. Suddenly I felt my weight sink in to the ground and I shivered with the cold reaching from the bottom of my feet upward.
No one saw my early morning descent into the back yard of our modest suburban home. This is the way it always is. I wasn’t sure why no one noticed me, but I was glad, because the concentration felt enormous.
My mother’s call was urgent through the open bedroom door.
“It’s time to get up for school.”
I blinked my eyes open and shut them again.
“No, Lese, come on, please get up.”
“Ok, Ok, I’m up.”
I yawned and thought about going back to sleep. Back to my flight. I loved the sensation of flying through the night air, with almost complete control. It was so real. When I dreamed I was flying, I really was flying. The exhilaration and the fear competed, and was totally and completely real. Escape. Go back to sleep. Dream and fly. You are the airplane.
I moved the blanket aside and sat up. I rubbed my eyes and ran my hands through my sandy blonde hair. I never looked forward to school days. I got into trouble at school. I couldn’t do anything the way the teachers wanted. What is wrong with me? But today is Friday. Tomorrow is Saturday. Maybe I could live through today. I have a plan.
Standing up, I navigated the path though comic books, Tom Swift and Hardy Boys mysteries, clothes, and plastic parts to a transistor radio to the closet. I gathered up an assortment of clothes from the floor and padded down the hall to the bathroom.
* * *
I pulled a cereal box off the kitchen shelf. Mom had placed a bowl and a pint container of milk on the counter. She sat next to me in her pajamas, looking disheveled. I knew she would go back to bed after I left for school. She lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply.
“That thing smells awful.”
“I know. I shouldn’t do it. Don’t ever do this Lese,” Mom shook her head.
“Mom, why can’t girls be rocket pilots?” I asked.
“Who said you couldn’t be a rocket pilot?” Mom replied, puzzled.
“Who is Neil?”
“My boyfriend at school. We sit together in reading class and homeroom.”
“What did Neil tell you?” asked Mom.
“That girls can’t be rocket pilots because they might need to be rescued because they don’t know how to work things,” I replied.
Mom tried to suppress a chuckle unsuccessfully and then looked at me with a suddenly serious face.
“Lisa, you can be anything you want to be. If you want to be a rocket pilot, then you can be a rocket pilot. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you anything else. If you think you can’t be something then you won’t even try. Both boys and girls, and grownups, have to be rescued from time to time; it doesn’t have anything to do with whether they are a boy or girl.”
Mom got off the bar stool unsteadily and moved over to me for a tight hug. She was so smart and she knew exactly what I was thinking all of the time, which made it difficult to get away with anything. I knew that she cared, and I craved the attention that she gave me.
“Ok, so I want to invent a rocket ship like Tom Swift’s rocket and take off from the back yard. Or, even better, make a backpack for flying through the air.”
I wouldn’t mention to mom right now that actually I could FLY through the air all by MYSELF. But I would tell her, soon. We were best friends, I had to tell mom everything, no matter what it was. Even when I was bad, she listened to me carefully before the admonishment came.
“Lese you can do all those things but there’s one thing you will need to do first.”
“What do I need to do first?” I was so happy she was taking me seriously, or so it seemed.
“School. You need to pay attention in school. You need to learn about physics and math, and the other details that making a rocket ship require,” replied Mom. “I know you love to read, but there’s more to navigating life than just being able to read.”
I knew my mother was right, but I didn’t want to think about it. She was being gentle with me. I needed some discipline but my mother didn’t have the heart to deliver it. She spoiled me.
She went on, now sternly, “Yesterday the school administrator called me to say that you’d missed two days of school with no written excuse. It caught me off guard, I didn’t know where you were.”
I sighed a big sigh. I didn’t want to go to school. I hated the little skirt I had on with the tartan design and the white plastic belt. It was impossible to climb a tree in it. Usually I wore shorts underneath my dresses so I could get out of them quickly when school was out. Mom didn’t know that I was skipping school. I would tell the teacher an excuse, I would make it up, and she would write it down in a notebook. I thought they would let it go.
What was I thinking?
Mom knew now. I felt trapped. My face was hot and my stomach knotted up. I was going to have to tell her everything. But not now. Not now.
“Ok, Rocket Pilot in Training, finish up your cereal and brush your teeth. You need to get going.”
Change the subject. It always works.
“Mom, have you seen Eric?”
“No, I haven’t, did he escape again?”
“Yup, he did. I think he got out of his cage the day before yesterday, because I went to feed him last night and he wasn’t in there.”
“Didn’t you end up finding him on that Rhododendron plant by the front window in the living room last time? I think he likes that plant.” Mom came over to me. “We’ll find him. Come on, get ready for school.”
Eric was a chameleon. He was a gift from my brother Jeff. Why Jeff chose to do something this nice for his little sister was unexplainable. I made a terrarium for Eric with bugs, worms, twigs, and moss. But every few months he escaped. We always found him on a plant. Eric was a lime green American Chameleon, also known as a red throated Anole. His end to end size was all of five inches, so he blended in perfectly with the plants.
I’d look for him when I got home from school.
The nicest thing about not planning is that failure comes as complete surprise rather than being preceded by a period of worry and depression
~Sir John Harvey-Jones
2. The Fort
Sunlight sifted through the trees in dancing patches on the footpath to the aqueduct. An autumn chill hung in the air, dew drops sparkling on the tips of leaves and silver orbs hanging from the boughs of the pine trees. The same rich pine aroma of my flying dream forest enveloped me and I drank it in gulps as I started running. A stillness hung in the morning air like a spell. I heard only my sneakered feet crunch the pine needles and remaining crisp fall leaves on the path from the back yard of my house. I reached the aqueduct and made a right turn, towards Happy Hollow Elementary School.
An eight minute walk brought me to the edge of the school yard. I could have taken the school bus, but the bus trip was 20 minutes long with all its stops. The aqueduct was a straight shot, making the walk private and fun.
I looked through the trees at the red brick school building. The last two days I had stopped exactly like this and decided not to go into the schoolyard, but to go back home and play. If I entered school now, would they send me to the principal’s office? What excuse would I use for the last two days? What had Mom told them on the phone?
I’m afraid. I’ll be in trouble. I’ll have to go to the principal’s office again. I’ll have to stay after school again. I will have to write a message over and over again. The children will laugh at me. I’m trapped.
Emotions flowing, I turned away from the school path and walked the half mile back home.
I quietly inched open the side door to the garage. I listened for activity. Nothing. My mother had gone back to bed. This is how it always was. She would stay up late at night and then sleep until 3pm.
I entered the basement and snuck down the hallway. Across from my brother’s room was a clothes closet packed with coats and shirts. I slid past the clothing to a small square door in the wall under the landing of our compact split level home. I got on my hands and knees and moved the 2 latch bolts outward and moved the door aside. After crawling inside, I placed the door back into position. I had mounted 2 latches on the inside, so it was a secure fort and no one could break in.
My “fort” consisted of a six foot by five foot space, with another three feet extending back under the stairs. Piled in layers on the concrete floor were four blankets and 2 pillows which I propped up on one side to provide sitting comfort while reading.
Stacked along one wall in between the two by fours were sets of Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Tom Swift hardback books, and three stacks of Superman comic books. A single 40 watt light bulb in a fixture hung bare from the three foot high ceiling.
A safe haven! Don’t think about school.
The comic books were creased and worn, I had read them so many times. I reached over to the stack and pulled out the one on the bottom. I propped up the pillows and leaned back, reading. I felt the cold coming through the blanket layers from the concrete floor. I needed to get another blanket or maybe some towels from the upstairs closet. I lay on my side, trying to get more comfortable.
I began reading, losing track of time.
I was startled and surprised as there was a loud staccato knock at the front door, directly above my hideaway.
I knew my mom was not going to wake up to answer the door. Her bedroom was upstairs and down the hallway.
“Wait a minute!” I shouted from the crawlspace.
I crawled out the hatch and into the closet, where I stood up and navigated through the clothing to the closet door. “I’m coming!” I shouted once more.
I ran up the short flight of stairs to the landing and opened the front door. We seldom locked the door. A tall woman in a dark green dress with white piping trim stood at the door holding a brown leather portfolio case. Her auburn hair was pulled up on the back of her head in a bun, making her face look stretched and thin. She had a stern expression on her face and I instinctively shrank back from the threshold.
Oh no! From the Principal’s office!
But she also looked like someone else . . . The Wizard of Oz . . . the Wicked Witch of the West! In disguise!
“Are you Lisa Turner?” she uttered in a low, almost guttural voice, emphasizing YOU.
“May I come in? Where is your mother?” The witch-in-disguise moved through the doorway and on to the landing without waiting for me to answer.
My heart sank and my stomach began knotting. “I’ll get my mom, I’ll get my mom,” was all I was capable of uttering. I ran up the stairs and down the hall to my mother’s room as if I was being chased by a monster.
Bursting through the bedroom door, I ran to my mother, who was sound asleep. The clock by her bed indicated twelve noon.
“Mom, Mom, someone is here to see you!”
Mom opened her eyes as I shook her shoulder urgently.
“Ok, Ok, give me a minute. Please go escort the woman in to the living room. I’ll be along in a few minutes.”
I ran back down the hall. The wicked-witch-of-the-school stood on the landing, looking up. Yes, definitely she was looking more and more like the witch from The Wizard of Oz. A scowling, pinched face . . . about to yell . . .
“Uh, please come in, please come up to the living room and my mother will be out in a few minutes.”
“Thank you.” The woman walked up the stairs and followed me in to the living room.
“Have a seat, my mother will be right here.”
At least my mother had taught me how to be polite in the face of adversity.
The woman chose a chair by the window and sat down, not saying a word. I didn’t know whether to leave, stay where I was, or sit with this stern woman. She wasn’t saying anything more, so I stood uncomfortably. The time slowed to a crawl and it must have been at least 4 minutes before Mom came down the hall. To me, it was forever. All the woman did was look out the window like a statue.
The woman stood as my mother entered the room.
“Mrs. Turner, I am Miss Baker, the truancy officer from the Happy Hollow Elementary School Principal’s office. This is an official visit.”
“Please have a seat, Miss Baker,” my mother said courteously, with a smile, and sat down in the next chair.
How can Mom be so composed and polite? She is amazing.
“Would you like to speak privately or would you like Lisa to be present?” asked Mom.
“That’s fine, she can stay here. In fact, it might be good for her to hear this,” said the Wicked Witch of the School.
My stomach was in knots. My throat was dry. I sat down but wished I could run down the hall to my room. Maybe I should leave . . .
“Are you aware, Mrs. Turner, that this is the third day that Lisa did not show up for school?” Mrs. Baker looked very serious and uttered this statement with such venom that I shrank back in my seat.
Mom looked over at me with concern.
“Lisa, I thought you were leaving for school this morning after breakfast? Didn’t we talk about this?”
I tried to make myself disappear into the upholstery.
“Did you come back home and go to your fort again?”
I bit my lower lip and lowered my head. I was speechless.
“Mrs. Baker, I do understand that this is serious. Lisa is having difficulty with her school subjects for a variety of reasons. One of these is a lack of discipline and oversight from me. Another is having to repeat a grade and being teased by the other children. Another is perhaps an absent father.”
Mom turned to me. “Lisa, you can see that this is troubling. School is very important. I’d like you to take the school bus from now on, and not walk to school. We’ll talk more, ok.?”
My mother continued, “Mrs. Baker, please tell Mr. Garner and Mr. Charles that Lisa will now be riding the school bus. Add her name to the ridership list and call me immediately if Lisa is missing.”
“Mrs. Turner, I will be happy to tell the principal and administrator of your plan and I think it is a very good idea. We have never been happy with the walk to school idea, especially with a child only 11 years old and one the small side, you never know what could happen.” Mrs. Baker wrote furiously in a notebook she had pulled out of her satchel while she was talking.
I sighed and looked around nervously. Would the Wicked Witch never leave?
Out of the corner of my eye I spotted Eric, the chameleon, on the Rhododendron plant. His bright lime green head was nodding up and down, up and down. He cocked his head towards the Wicked Witch, moving his angular jaw back and forth. He took a few quick steps on the large leaf, and crouched.
Mrs. Baker began speaking again, but I wasn’t listening.
“Alright then, but I will need . . . OHH!!!.”
Eric jumped directly on to the Wicked Witch’s green suit, and blended right in. She jumped up, hopping on one foot and slapping at her dress, shrieking “Get off, get off!”
Poor Eric, oh no!
“Oh, oh, oh, off, off, get off!,” she exclaimed loudly as Eric went flying.
Miss Baker ran to the stairs. “We will talk again,” she shouted from the landing. We heard the door slam.
Mom and I both looked down at little Eric, who had somehow survived the awful encounter with the Wicked Witch and had hopped back on to the Rhododendron leaf. He cocked his head to one side.
We heard a car start and then roar up the street.
Mom looked back at me, trying very hard to be serious but with a sparkle in her eyes.
We both burst out laughing at the same time.
To achieve goals you’ve never achieved before, you need to start doing things you’ve never done before. – Anonymous
3. The Lawn Mower
I awoke to the sound of the garage door moving noisily in its tracks. My room was directly over the garage. It was a loud, complaining noise on this early Saturday morning, breaking the stillness of September songbirds beginning their soft morning chatter. Pale filtered sunlight began its dance on the wall of my bedroom. The casement windows were both cracked open, the air cool and clean smelling with a hint of decaying leaves. Soon the neighbors would be mowing their lawns, further disrupting the morning calm.
I moved the blanket aside and stood up, the mist of dreams still clinging like tendrils.
A flying machine. A flying machine.
Walking over to the window in my bare feet, I climbed up on the wooden toy box under the window and looked out. My brother was pulling a Toro lawn mower out in to the driveway.
I smiled. I have a plan. Watch carefully.
Jeffrey fiddled with some cables on the machine and pushed a lever. He pulled a cord with a red handle and the engine made a scraping noise. He pulled the cord again, harder. The same noise. Then he pulled the lever back to where it was to begin with. Again he yanked on the cord and this time the engine rumbled to life unsteadily. I watched as he walked the mower to the edge of the lawn. He pulled on another lever at the top of the handle, and the mower began moving across the lawn. I watched as my brother allowed the machine to roll across the carpet of lawn in neat, manicured rows.
I inhaled the air with the earthy, cut grass smell.
Can I do that?
I went to the closet. Saturday! No school, just time to play. Time to put my plan together. I pushed the closet track door to the left as toys and belonging fell out into the room. The problem with my room organization was that I thought everything should be within reach. I had arranged a dual path through the room, with stuff on either side. That should work fine. But I still couldn’t find anything. I pulled on a bright blue t-shirt from the closet floor, a pair of shorts, and navy cotton socks. Where were my sneakers? I walked across the room and picked up the left one and looked around the mess. I found the mate under the bed.
At four feet seven inches tall and barely forty-five pounds I thought I could accomplish anything. I delighted in running up to the door jamb where mom measured my height and marked it with the date.
I always figured out a way to reach things. Sometimes my plans didn’t go well. The day I decided to wash my mom’s 1956 Lincoln Premier was one of those days. Just getting the garage door up was a challenge. To get the car out into the driveway for washing, I went to the front of the car, lodged myself between the front bumper and the wall, and pushed with my feet on the wall. I pushed and pushed, to no avail. Then I realized that the parking brake was set. I figured out how to release the brake. Then I tried again. This time the car began moving, very slowly, out into the driveway.
A 12 year old has no concept of a 4,000 pound metal mass on a slope. I ran to the car door, jumped in to the driver seat, and had the brake on just before the car reached the street. I had no idea what would have happened had I not applied the brake in that moment.
I was delighted and so pleased that I had the car out. For the next hour and a half I putted around and washed and dried the entire car. I knew my Mom would be surprised and pleased. After I had washed the car, however, I realized that I had not planned on how to get it back into the garage. This was a real dilemma. I could try to push it back in, but with the slope on the driveway, I doubted that I would be able to release the brake and then run to the back of the car to push it.
It’s a surprise. I have to put the car back in the garage.
My second thought to get the car back in the garage was to find the keys, start the car, and drive it in to the garage. I considered the fact that I didn’t know how to drive the car, and even though I’d watched my mother and my brother very intently, I really did not know what all the controls did.
The day ended well, with my mother waking up to my search for her car keys as I rummaged around in her pocket book in her bedroom.
My attention turned back to the cool fall day outside my window and my brother walking with the mower up and down the yard. I needed to think this plan through all the way, unlike the car washing project. I didn’t want to get in trouble again.
Suddenly the mower shut off. Jeff was pulling the machine back into the garage. The garage door closed, and Jeff got into his car. The strange looking Isetta with three wheels started and Jeff was off up the street. I know he would be gone all day.
* * *
I pulled the mower out in to the driveway and located it sideways so that it would not roll down the slope. I pulled the paper out of my pocket with the directions I had written.
I knew that if you had already run an engine, you didn’t have to use the choke lever. I didn’t know why this was so. I decided I would ask Jeffrey later. But I wouldn’t’ tell him about my adventure. If I did, I knew I’d be in trouble.
Next, I pulled my red wagon out and lined it up with the back of the mower. I took the wagon handle and placed it low on the back of the mower. I sat down next to the mower and tried to determine where to tie the handle. I realized I had to tie the rope around and across the lower bars. I wrapped the short section of white cotton rope around both bars and then around the crosspiece, bringing a section through the wagon handle. I did my best at a square knot which I tied as a granny knot and then deliberately undid it, re-routing the rope under-over to make the square knot. I never could figure out why I couldn’t tie the square knot first since every time I tried it, it turned out as a granny knot. Maybe it was because I was left handed.
I tested my tandem arrangement by climbing in the wagon and kneeling. I grabbed the dual handle assembly to see if I could turn it, but there was no way of finding out until the wagon was under way. I would just have to test it.
So far, so good.
Next, I would start the mower and pull the lever to get it moving. I would have to jump in to my wagon while it was moving. I didn’t think this would be a problem; the mower was so slow.
A trickle of apprehension stopped me and I sat down in the wagon. Was there something I was missing? I was planning on riding down to the end of the street, a cul de sac, and coming back. Would I hurt the mower? Would my wagon overturn?
No, it would be fine.
I grabbed the pull cord and yanked. The cord wouldn’t move at all. What was I doing wrong? I pulled harder. The cord moved about 3 inches. I pulled again. Three inches. When I watched my brother start the mower, it looked easy! Disappointment soaked my excitement.
“Lisa what are you doing,” came a voice from behind me. Startled, I turned to see Will, my friend who lived across the street.
“You scared me!” I said.
“What are you doing with that lawn mower?” Will said.
“Don’t tell anyone, Will.”
“How can I tell anyone if I don’t know what you are doing?” Will was 2 years older than me, but with the same slim build as mine. His shock of blonde hair flopped across his forehead and stuck up straight on the top of his head looking like he just woke up.
“I’m trying to start this thing.”
“Uh oh.” Will saw the red wagon. “You’re gonna get in trouble with that.”
“I won’t! I won’t! But someone is going to see you for sure.”
“Will, here, come on, I can’t start it, the pull cord is stuck or something. What do you think is wrong with it?” I grabbed the pull cord and yanked. The cord came out 2 inches from the top of the engine case and stopped.
“Oh boy, will I get in trouble.” Will looked carefully at the choke lever, and switches. “Well, for one thing, if you had started it, you wouldn’t have gone very far. The fuel selector is set to OFF.”
He moved the switch to ON. “Stand back,” Will said as he struggled with the pull cord. It came all the way out and the engine turned over but did not start.
“Wow!” I exclaimed. “How did you do that?”
Will pulled the cord a second time, faster. The engine sounded like it was going to catch. On the fourth pull, the Toro roared to life. Will grinned and said something to me, but I couldn’t hear it. Debris from under the mower was redistributing itself across the driveway.
“Thanks!” I shouted as I jumped in my wagon. I pulled the traction engage lever to the first stop and the mower moved forward with a jerk. The rope went taut and away I went, down the driveway towards the street.
Will stood at the end of the driveway, shaking his head in disbelief.
The mower had picked up speed on the driveway slope and I had just enough room to turn the wide Toro into the street.
My trepidation gave way to jubilance. I yelled out “Wow!” and looked down the street. The mower was chewing up leaves and small stones on the pavement, and dust and pebbles spewed from the discharge chute. The machine was so loud I couldn’t hear anything else.
I looked at the power lever and thought about moving it to “2” to go faster and then thought better of it. This was great, this was just great.
I heard shouting behind me over the roar of the mower. I looked back up the street and saw Mr. Hunter, a neighbor, come running down his driveway behind me.
My red wagon-mower powered tandem rig was too slow to outrun Mr. Hunter. I thought about putting in more power to escape.
“Hey! Hey, hey,” said Mr. Hunter as he caught up with me.
“Stop! Stop! Stop! He said.
“Hey, hey, hey!” Mr. Hunter’s eyes bulged wide with consternation.
I wondered if Mr. Hunter always said things in threes. I pulled the power lever to stop. The mower’s forward motion stopped so fast I fell forward in my wagon and almost fell over into the street. I hit my knee on the side of the red wagon and winced.
Mr. Hunter reached me and grabbed my arm and the mower handle. He looked at the handle and pushed the lever to OFF. The engine sputtered and died.
Oh gee, great, how am I going to get this thing started again.
“This is dangerous!” said Mr. Hunter. “Do your parents know where you are?” His eyes were wide with panic. His breath came in spurts as he blurted the words.
I sat in my red wagon, quiet, my knee throbbing. I did not know what to say. This is always what happened, I just couldn’t figure out what to say or do when confronted with a strange adult.
William came running down the street, stopping in front of us.
“Will, you need to help this little girl get back to her house with this.”
Mr. Hunter turned back towards me.
“Are your parents home?”
“Um, my mom is home.”
“Where is your dad?”
“I don’t have a dad.”
“What do you mean you don’t have a dad?”
“He is not with us anymore.”
“Oh, I’m sorry!”
“No, I mean he lives in the city, he left us to be with someone else.”
“You mean he divorced your mom.”
“Yes, that’s it.”
“Ok, well, look, Will can help you get this back home. This not safe. See the blades under that cover?”
“He pointed to the mower casing.”
I looked at the mower blades.
“The blades are always going, and if the machine overturns and hits you, it would be a very bad accident. It could even kill you. Will you promise not to do this again?”
“OK, I said. I looked down at the street and the areas of grass debris scattered about.
I couldn’t wait to get home, to get away, to stop being in trouble. My plan was perfect, except for Mr. Hunter having nothing else to do on a Saturday morning than to prevent a little girl from experimenting with machinery.
I got out of the red wagon painfully, trying not to show I had bruised my knee. William and I untied the wagon and he pushed the mower and I pulled the wagon back up the street to the house. Mr Hunter stood in the middle of the street, watching us, shaking his head.
I hope he doesn’t call Mom.
Well, you got out of that pretty good,” said Will.
“Yeah, well if Mr. Hunter had more interesting things to do inside his house instead of running out here to stop me it would have been better. I was just getting going. I was going to continue to the turnaround circle and the end of the street and then come back up this way.”
“It was kind of fun, huh?”
“Great! It was great! Will, we need to make a machine that runs with an engine but it’s safe and you and I can fit in it and go exploring.”
“Just buy a motorized cart, a go cart, I’ve seen them,” said William, throwing his hands in the air. “You’re making things too complicated.”
“No, no, no. How am I going to buy a go cart? They must be at least a hundred dollars. Second, what fun is that? The fun part is making it.”
Will looked at me and laughed. His blue eyes danced with amusement in a calming way.
We reached my driveway. I looked around to see if anyone was looking at us. The neighborhood was quiet and it looked like only Mr. Hunter had discovered my bad deed. Mr. was no longer in the street watching us.
Come over to my house, Lisa. Let’s play in the fort after we put this back in your garage. Hopefully no one will know what you did.”
“Me? You helped!”
“I was afraid you were going to say that.”
I hope Mr. Hunter doesn’t tell Mom.
We put the mower and the wagon back in the garage in the corner. I looked around. Except for the morning songbirds, the neighborhood was quiet, awaiting the hustle and bustle of weekend chores.
fter the Wicked Witch of the School incident, Mom and I had a long talk. It was clear how much she wanted me to learn and succeed. I agreed to take the bus to school, and this did improve my attendance. But I was still introverted and reticent during classes, and this did not sit well with my teachers. It felt like a downward spiral to me.
At home I was taking things apart and trying to reassemble them. No girls my age were in the neighborhood, so I hung out with the boys. We made forts and designed spaceships. We borrowed each other’s comic books. I spent the majority of my time alone, reading or dreaming up construction projects.
Elementary school did not have any science lab classes or mechanical classes. I assumed we were too young to do anything interesting like read about engines, play with electronics, or run experiments. I asked one of my teachers why this was so, and she looked at me like I was from another planet.
“Because that’s the way it is,” She would say, matter of factly.
I wanted to ask her why we only studied reading, writing, math, and history with a smattering of science, but I was not bold enough. I seemed to swing from impulsive risk taking to quietude and social fear. The inner substance of twelve year old, totally normal.
When I was at home, I asked my mother for money so that I could send away for airplane model kits and electronics kits. She would give me ten cents and I painstakingly printed my name and address on the order form and taped the dime above it, filled out the front of an envelope, pasted a four cent stamp on it and waited patiently for the model brochure to arrive eight weeks later.
Mom spoiled me by acquiescing to my weekly demands for coins and help ordering everything I could find in Popular Mechanics and the comic books. Intercoms, science labs, transistor radios, the Allied catalog, Edmund Scientific, and Hawk airplane models graced the pages of Boy’s Life.
“If we are going to build an airplane, we have to have a radio,” I said to Will as we got off the school bus.
“Why do you need a radio?” asked Will.
“What if you are up there and get lost?” I replied.
“Oh, well that does make sense.”
“Plus, when you’re bored going somewhere, you can listen to music. The AM band will reach a long way.”
Will looked at me and shook his head. “You’re the only girl I know who talks like that. My sisters all wanted to play ‘house’ and make little tiny sets of clothes for the dolls.”
“Ick,” I said, laughing. “I’m glad I don’t have to do that.”
“Me too. You’re a lot more fun to play with.”
“Caves, cowboys, forts, lawn mowers, radios, what else is there?”
“I like you,” said Will.
“I like you too Will.”
“Do you want to get married and start a family?” asked the sandy haired 14 year old.
“No! That sounds awful.”
Will burst into laughter.
I managed to pass 5th grade in the repeat year. I think the school took pity on me.
Summer came and I spent the time reading and making up games. Mom sent me to 4 weeks of summer camp to get me out of the house. Camp frightened me and I felt awkward, but it was a tonic given my low level of socialization. Mom and Dad had tried earlier to send me to camp when I was six years old, but it did not turn out well. I hid in a variety of places on the camp grounds and the counselors had a terrible time trying to locate me. I would wet the bed and get teased by the other campers.
September arrived, and I enrolled in Wayland Junior High School. The school was “downtown” about three miles from the house. It was a different bus route, and a different set of classmates. I was apprehensive.
The night before the first day of school Mom asked me if I understood where to get the bus and if I had everything I needed. I wasn’t sure, but I said yes. I was hoping that she would take me to school on the first day.
“Mom, would you take me to school tomorrow?” I asked tentatively at dinner.
She looked at me with her “no” face but there was more there that I couldn’t decipher. A sadness; a sense of emptiness, and fear. The emotions swirled out and caught me by surprise.
“Lisa, I’m not feeling well. I’m not confident driving the car. I don’t think it would be safe. I’m sorry to disappoint you, will you be ok taking the school bus?”
I was shocked. I had always thought that my mother could do anything, and would; that she was ageless and made all the right decisions; and that she was always going to be there for me.
“Of course, Mom, of course, that will be fine.” I tried to hide my reactions and disappointment. “Why don’t you feel well?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s nothing, I’m just tired, I’ll be fine, please don’t worry.”
Mom opened the refrigerator and took out a bottle of Tawny Port. She poured about six ounces into a glass.
“Want a taste?” She offered the bottle to me.
“No,. no, Mom, that stuff is awful, I already tried it. Besides, I’m only twelve, I don’t think alcohol is good for me.”
“Of course you’re right, Lese, I wasn’t thinking.”
As my mother walked unsteadily down the hall to her room, I felt a seismic wave of emotion overtake and engulf my entire being. As I stood there in the kitchen, I aged from 10 to 14 in a shock of recognition.
I’m no longer a child. My Mom is sick. I need to help her.
The picture materialized before me. For years mom ordered grocery deliveries from S.S. Pierce and only left the house for doctor appointments. Instead of dinner, she drank.
Would could I do?
That night I went to sleep worried. Worried about starting a new school, worried about growing up, worried about mom.
My nature of optimism could not be suppressed for long. Although emotional tempests could wash over me, I always righted, like a small sailboat, and set off again.
Teachers in the new school took extra interest in me, probably because I had just spent 2 years trying to get through one grade. But finding myself in a class with 30 other students arranged “A to Z,” I became frustrated.
“How are you supposed to hear what she is saying?” I said to Tom Yager as we strained to hear Mrs. Wilson from the last row of desks.
“Shhh, you two!” exclaimed Mrs. Wilson, who could apparently hear us.
“I guess we will need hearing aids!” said Tom.
As we laughed uproariously, Mrs. Wilson said, “I’ll see you two after class.”
As fall turned to winter my mother began to show more confusion in between her normally lucid and witty conversations with me.
“Lese, I can’t find my checkbook, I saw a man come in to the house and remove it from the table over there.”
“Really? What did the man look like? Did you recognize him?” I said, incredulous.
“Yes, actually I think it was Fred from the house up the street.”
“I didn’t know there was anyone names Fred up the street,” I said, quizzically.
I went over to Mom’s writing desk and opened the second drawer.
“Look, Mom, here is your checkbook!”
“Oh my goodness, he returned it! Are checks gone?”
I opened the check book. Mom taught me how to write checks, and I sat with her every month to sort and pay the bills.
“No, Mom, they are all here. He didn’t take any,” I said, humoring her, even as confusion and concern filled me.
“Oh, ok, that’s good then.”
I replaced the checkbook in the drawer and wondered what to do.
“Mom, what is Aunt Olive’s phone number? Don’t you think it would be nice if we visited with them next week?”
“Oh, Lese, you can go out with Olive and John. I’ll stay here, I really don’t want to go anywhere.”
“Well, ok, that’s fine, I’ll call and see what their schedule is,” I continued in as normal a voice as I could manage. I was very worried. I didn’t know what to make of mom seeing things that were not there, and telling stories that clearly had no basis in fact.
Mom was my best friend. She was my confidante; she was my rock. She told funny stories; she was fun to be around; she treated me as an equal. She encouraged me to explore, to grow, to create, to persevere. She showed me how to write notes of appreciation. Most special of all, mom encouraged me over and over again to make the best of every situation, remaining positive and enthusiastic.
Aunt Olive answered the phone.
“Hi Aunt Olive this is Lisa.”
“Oh Lisa, dear, how are you? How kind of you to call.”
“Um, I’m fine, do you want to visit?”
“Oh my Lisa dear, why we would love to see you. Would you like to see a movie?”
“Ok, yeah, sure, that would be fine.” I said, automatically, trying to figure out how I would get my mom out, or Aunt Olive to the house. I could figure that out later.
A few days later my aunt came to the house to pick me up. I always enjoyed Aunt Olive. She was somewhat like Mom, someone you could confide in. I hopped in to the Volkswagen Beetle and we were off to the movies.
During our time together I described the confusion that Mom was showing. Olive was concerned and came in to the house. The shock on her face as she looked at my mother, gaunt with jaundice, was palpable. I was quiet.
“Heath, I think we need to get you some medical attention.” Olive spoke matter of factly.
I was relieved but worried.
Olive took my mother to our family physician the next day while I was at school. When I got home, I asked Mom how things went.
“Dr. True is concerned about my liver,” she said straightforwardly, “he wants to run some tests.”
“That’s a good idea Mom. Find out what is wrong. You know you are my best friend! I love you so much Mom.” I went to her and gave her my typical bear hug but I was gentle. She felt frail to me.
I was relieved that there was a course of action. I went to my room to do homework. I couldn’t keep repeating grades.
The next morning I was surprised to see Mom come into the kitchen showered and dressed as I was eating breakfast. She rarely got up before noon.
“I wanted to see you off to school.” She said. She smiled at me. I sensed her apprehension about the hospital visit. “Olive is coming to pick me up. They are going to keep me overnight. I would like you to get off the bus at the Addens, Ok?”
I gathered up my books and we went down the stairs to the landing. “That’s fine, Mom, it’s just down the road from school. I like Aunt Olive and Uncle John.”
“It’s just a few days.” Mom looked at me.
“Lisa, I need to tell you some things.”
I set my books down on the stairs. Mom and I could talk openly and seriously about everything, but this was a new emotional tone that caused me to stop my train of thought and turn 100% of my attention to her. The fatigue I was used to seeing was gone from her eyes. She reached out and enveloped me in a long embrace. I felt infused with warmth, happiness, joy, and approval.
“Lese, I love you.” Mom looked at me, her eyes dancing.
“I need you to do a few things for me.”
“Of course, Of course.” I looked at Mom intently, wondering what she would say.
“Never forget your sense of humor. I am not talking about joking, but about balance. Having a good sense of humor means you won’t take things too seriously and allows you to remain optimistic and make the best of whatever happens.”
While I had heard my mother say this before, I was mystified that she would be here on the landing at 7am saying this to me. I nodded quietly as she went on, now more urgently.
“Lese, you know how I feel about your schoolwork. I am so proud of you this year working as you are to get caught up. School is going to be the key for you to do what you want in life. I know how you love your independence. School will teach you how to learn anything you decide to do. School will show you how to master yourself, how to master your life.” She continued to look at me with a serious yet enthusiastic demeanor, full of energy, smiling. Her hands caressed my shoulders. “Will you do this for me?”
I was transfixed. An emotional wave rolled over me, leaving me speechless. Time stopped. I took a deep breath as Mom gave me another hug and stepped back as I picked up my books from the landing. I opened the door and then turned to look back.
“Yes, you can count on me. Don’t worry. I’ll do whatever you need me to do, ok? Please come back home soon, ok? I love you Mum.”
Mom left the door open and stood in the doorway, watching me walk down the driveway to the street. As I started up the street I turned to wave. She was still at the door, and waved back.
That was the last time I saw her.
* * *
The sun glowed a pale yellow through a thick mist to the east. The vivid greenery of forest canopy below my craft ephemeral as the mist parted and then reattached itself to the tree tops. Moist warm air snaked through the air vents as I held the control stick in a moist palm.
Tingles of concern moved like tiny tentacles up my neck. The tendrils of mist outside consumed the tree tops and came at me in waves. The engine purred smoothly, as if to wave a magic spell over the unruly fog banks. Uncertainty. What if. . . . . . . . . . .
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