“Why don’t you give up hang gliding? It’s obviously not good for you.”
This question/comment has been offered by so many people in conversations, cards, and emails. Those who know a bit of my recent history are aware that I’ve had one other heart attack, and it took place at the flying field where we are towed into the air by an ultralight aircraft or by a stationary ground-based winch. Questioning my involvement in the sport really does make a lot of logical sense.
After the first heart attack in October 2005, my cardiologist assured me that there is nothing particular to hang gliding that would specifically promote cardiac issues more than any other sport where the participant exerts himself physically and aerobically. But, after more than 3 years of event-free living it happened again…and this time I was in the air. I’ve got to admit, the question about whether it’s safe for ME to fly was nagging at me incessantly as I lay in the hospital bed. And it was obviously bothering Donna. She knows how important flying is to me.
After all, the second time Donna flirted with me in high school, it was around hang gliding (maybe I’ll write about the first flirting incident in a future blog!). Back in 1973, I had assisted my brother and a friend he met at Columbus Technical Institute in building a rogallo wing hang glider from aluminum tubing, aircraft-grade hardware, and big sheets of polyethylene plastic. We tried, with minimal success, to get airborne on the gentle slopes around central Ohio. The happening place for flying in the upper Midwest was at Warren Dunes State Park on the western shores of Lake Michigan. In October 1973, my brother, his friend, and I spent a weekend at Warren Dunes with our humble glider. In many ways, that weekend was a rite of passage into manhood for me. Having just turned 17 years old, it was the first time I had spent an extended weekend away from home with no “adult” supervision at all. My brother was just 20, and my parents trusted him to watch over me. He did a great job, even though I saw and heard things that I’d never experienced personally – like my brother’s friend and his girlfriend (who tagged along) got somewhat tanked around the campfire, they slept in a tent together, and they took a shower together in one of the single shower stalls in the campground where we stayed. We didn’t do that stuff on Boy Scout camp outs!
I’d never really been airborne in our glider until that weekend. I was a private pilot, and I even had my own key to our airplane. I didn’t need to ask Mom or Dad if I could go flying. I spent a good bit of time as a teenager in the air. But when I first jumped off that sand dune, I knew I had come home. The feeling of powerless free flight eclipsed the joy I experienced while flying our airplane. I had imagined for months how it would feel to fly a hang glider. I practiced in my mind and in my dreams. When I first experienced the feeling of being picked up off the ground by that plastic-covered contraption it was everything I imagined and more. And to top things off, a sizable crowd of spectators watched as we made 20 second-long flights from the top of the dune down to the bottom, and they cheered each time we made a successful landing. Talk about a heady experience for a 17 year-old kid! I was hooked! Never mind that it took 20 minutes of excruciating work to carry that thing back up to the top of the dune.
A few weeks later, our hang gliding friend handed my brother an 8×10 black and white photo of me flying at Warren Dunes. Of course, I took it to school and showed all my friends. As I was fielding questions in the gym where we hung out after lunch, Donna came up to us and said “Let me see.” I showed her the photo. “Is that you?” she asked. I nodded, affirming that, indeed, this hunk of hormone-driven, shaggy-headed, teenboy standing in front of her was, indeed, the super human in the photo. “No, that’s not you. You’re too much of a sissy.” I pointed to the bell-bottomed jeans of the person in the photo.
“See those stars sewn around the bottom of those jeans?” Back then, your jeans had to drag on the ground or you just weren’t groovy. If our jeans shrunk a bit, we rectified the situation by sewing around the bottom of each leg ribbon-like trim material sold in spools at the fabric store. For these jeans I had chosen a multi-colored star pattern, and Mom sewed it on my jeans. The pattern was clearly visible in the photo. I pointed to the stars in the picture, then I pointed to the same stars on the bell bottoms of my jeans. Providentially, I had worn those very same jeans to school that day. “Look. Isn’t this proof that it’s me?”
Donna glanced down, then back at the photograph. “Huh, I guess it is you. But you are still a sissy.” It was right then that I started to fall in love with this spunky 15 year-old girl.
I’ve reminded Donna many times, as she has struggled with the risk that is inherent in the sport of hang gliding, that she married me knowing it was part of the total package. I’m not sure whatever happened to that glider. In 1980 my brother and I bought a used rogallo glider from a classified ad in the newspaper. We lived in Kentucky at the time, and we would go out every once in a while to fly the glider on the hills outside Lexington. We sold that kite when we moved back to Ohio in the mid 80’s. Kids, school, work, and just trying to carve out an existence kept me from flying gliders again until I discovered the Ohio Flyers back in 2002. The sport has consumed me ever since.
Just prior to me being discharged from the hospital we had a conversation with the cardiologist. I’m not sure whether Donna or I brought up the question first, the one about whether I needed to give up hang gliding. The doctor said “Well, I do not know a lot about what’s involved. If you are flying so high that the air is very thin and very cold, it could be stressful on your heart.” I explained that I wouldn’t ever put myself in a situation that would jeopardize my ability to breathe. “Then, no, there is no reason to give it up.”
He went on to explain that physical activity, even strenuous physical activity, is very good, and not only because of the benefits of the exercise alone. Exerting oneself frequently will serve to reveal problems much sooner than a to person who is totally inactive. Then he spoke directly to Donna. “Had your husband not been working his heart so much, this might have gone unnoticed…until the day that he’s just sitting at his desk, and the tiniest clot forms in a 99% blocked artery, and he dies instantly from a massive coronary. Plus, interests like hang gliding give people who have suffered health problems another reason to continue to live life to the fullest instead of becoming discouraged and not taking care of themselves.”
I can’t tell you how much his words encouraged me and how reassuring they were to Donna. Sure, there are lots of activities that keep us all motivated and occupied. Flying does this for me, plus so much more. I love to constantly put myself into new challenges, and I love to explore God’s creation in this very unique way. It is easily a form of worship for me as I glory in His magnificent goodness and witness the world from such a unique vantage point. The brotherhood of like-minded people brings with it unique opportunities to share God’s goodness with others and to recieve humbling reprimands and soul-building encouragement. Oh, and did I mention that flying is an adrenaline-pumping blast?