I dragged the wet mop across the cement floor of the hangar at the Marshall County Airport, my mind a thousand miles away.
A beautiful sky-blue airplane taxied down the runway. I stood there and watched it soar into the air, carefree, nothing holding it back, and thought to myself, Lord, is this what you had in store for me?
Retirement wasn’t supposed to be like this. I’d had it all worked out for how I wanted to spend my 50s and 60s. A second act, I called it. I was going to land a good-paying manufacturing job. (I wasn’t afraid of hard work.) Earn some extra money. Have regular hours. Learn a new skill. Spend more time with my wife, Monica. And restore my old Harley motorcycle.
I just needed a change. I’d worked forever for Peoria Lock and Dam on the Illinois River, shepherding barges and towboats through the passageway, opening and shutting the gates, working in rain, sleet and snow—you name it. It was a good, honest job for a young man, but I was now 55.
The worst part about it was the shift work, constantly rotating around a 24/7 schedule. On top of an hour-long commute each way. My mind, my body couldn’t adjust. I couldn’t sleep. Year by year it wore me down until, finally, I was exhausted.
“Be careful,” Monica would say when I left for work. “It’s dangerous how tired you are.”
“Don’t worry,” I’d tell her. But I knew she was right. I didn’t have energy for anything. Not for that Harley or for making repairs on our century-old farmhouse. If God did have a plan for my life, he hadn’t clued me in on it.
The day I got in my 30 years with the locks, enough to retire with a full pension, I was out of there, convinced my best years were ahead of me.
Problem was, the plant where I’d planned on working was laying people off. I sent my résumé to at least a dozen other decent-sized companies. Not one response.
I kicked myself for how things had worked out. I didn’t feel like working on the Harley. Definitely didn’t have any interest in doing home repairs. I’m not a golfer. Didn’t have any hobbies. Monica and I had been looking forward to having more time together. But she had her own routine, working at home as a freelance writer. She needed peace and quiet.
I found myself missing the responsibility of getting those barges through the locks, the camaraderie with the guys on the towboats. Not to mention the money. My pension stretched only so far. I grew more anxious by the day.
Then Monica told me about a job a friend had posted on Facebook. “It’s at the airport,” she said. “Doing maintenance. Part-time.”
I wasn’t sure. I’d never had any interest in planes or flying. Besides it wasn’t like I’d be working on engines. I didn’t have the training for that. This would be pushing a broom, pumping gas, cutting the grass. Mopping.
Still, I figured it was worth a shot—it wasn’t as if I had employers beating down my door. Which is how I ended up dragging a wet mop across the hangar floor at the Marshall County Airport, watching the planes soar off into the sky and feeling like I was the one being left behind.
I’d gotten to meet some of the pilots. Heard their stories. When they talked about their planes—about IFRs, altimeters and approach speed—it was as if they were speaking a foreign language. I couldn’t help but feel a bit envious of everything they’d achieved.
One day I was working in a hangar when an older flight instructor named Barb walked through with a student. “You want to go up with us?” she asked.
For a moment I thought she was talking to someone else, but she was looking right at me. “Really?” I said, practically dropping the mop.
I loved speed. Fast motorcycles. Fast cars. But this takeoff was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. Roaring down the runway, then lifting into the air. The fields and the woods below us quickly transforming into a neat patchwork. The concentration of the student pilot. The obvious skill required.
Barb was patient, always coaching, demanding, in a gentle kind of way. She was talking to the young man with the stick, but it felt as if she were talking to me. I’d never wanted to fly before. Now I wanted to fly more than anything. You’re crazy, I thought. You’re way too old.
All too soon, we were back on the ground. “Do you want to take lessons?” Barb asked me.
I said yes before I could say no. I worked out an arrangement with my boss to put in extra hours in exchange for flying lessons. Barb, by the way, was 85 years old. I was a young man in her eyes.
That first lesson was almost my last. There was so much to monitor: gauges and instruments, wind speed, keeping the rudder pointed in the right direction, using my feet to position it. Just the meticulous preflight check made my head spin.
Still, I wasn’t going to quit. This was so unexpected, it had to be God’s plan! Student pilots who started taking lessons after me passed me by, earning their certifications. Barb was ever-patient, but I was sure I was the worst student in her 50 years of flight instruction.
One day we were in the air, circling the airport, landing the plane, then immediately going up again. I felt as if I was sort of getting the hang of it.
“Taxi over there,” Barb said, after we landed. “I’m hopping out. You’re on your own. Go around three times.”
I could feel my heart pounding. I was not ready for this! Barb was out the door before I could protest. I went over everything I needed to do, twice, then taxied down the runway, my palms clammy, my throat dry. The plane lifted off, swoosh, just like that. I couldn’t believe it. I was flying! On my own! I circled the airport three times, then came in for a landing. Not perfect. But it hardly mattered. I walked into the pilot’s lounge like I owned the world. Like I was Chuck Yeager.
My joy was short-lived. Bad weather and scheduling conflicts kept me out of the plane for weeks. The next time I went up with Barb, it was as if I’d forgotten everything. Worst of all, I couldn’t manage the landing. Not during that lesson. Or the lesson after that. I’d come in too fast. Or too slow. I’d see the ground coming up toward me, panic and pull up at the last second.
“You have to see the landing. You’re overthinking it,” Barb told me. “You know how to do this. Just relax and let it happen.” I only got worse. That solo flight? It seemed like a total fluke. A dream. I felt like an idiot for letting myself get so excited.
Even if I somehow managed to pass the solo flight, I was sure I didn’t have the knowledge to get through the written test or the oral exam, which required being quizzed by a flight examiner while I was flying. There would be a night-flight component too.
I had no business being in the air. That was obvious. I’d been floundering ever since I’d left Peoria Lock and Dam. Retiring? That had been my first mistake. I should have toughed it out. Life’s supposed to be hard, isn’t it?
I told Barb I was quitting. “I’m wasting your time,” I said.
Barb glared at me. As if my wanting to quit was a personal insult. “You’re not,” she said. “You’re going back up.”
I wasn’t about to tell her no. We took off and circled the airport, then came in for the landing. I clenched the yoke, concentrating on my airspeed and my descent.
“Too fast,” I heard Barb say through my headphones. “Take it back up.”
I came around a second time. “Try again,” Barb said, her voice calm. “Relax, Joe. Visualize.” The next time I came in too slow. The plane stalled. A fourth and fifth time. Pointless.
I glanced over at Barb. How could she put up with this? I was too old to learn something this complicated. I breathed out a short prayer. It was now or never.
“See the landing,” Barb told me. “Visualize.”
“Lord,” I asked, “give me that vision.”
I made a big circle around the airport, let up on my air speed and began my approach. Gently, gently, I pushed the yoke forward. The ground came up toward me. This time something clicked. In my mind I saw it all in front of me, like a movie, like a vision, the plane descending, my hands guiding the yoke, the wheels touching down. The plane perfectly positioned. Seconds later we hit the runway, a nearly flawless landing! Whew!
“Good job,” Barb said. “Let’s go around and try it again.”
I glanced over at her. Her eyes were trained straight ahead. There was barely a hint of a smile on her lips. But I could tell she was pleased.
I was thrilled. All at once I had a confidence I hadn’t known since my days with the locks, a realization that my hard work was paying off. I had a long ways to go before I could become a pilot. But it didn’t seem impossible. I could see it now. Every step was laid out before me, like a detailed flight plan, one that surely God had mapped out for me.
I continued my lessons and on a spectacular summer evening, I made my night flight. The next step was my written exam. I passed it easily. The oral exam with the flight examiner was a different story. I felt my old doubts creeping in. But I doubled down on my studying, and I remembered that perfect landing, how I’d visualized it. The day of the test, I was ready.
For the past year and a half, I’ve been a licensed pilot. I still work at the airport. That part hasn’t changed. What has changed is me. Monica and I are enjoying life together. I’m relaxed. Happy. I see a world filled with possibilities. Of one day teaching flying lessons myself. Of owning my own plane. My best years? They’re definitely still on the horizon.
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