The flight from Hope, B.C., to Alice’s sheep pasture on South Whidbey Island had been hypnotic on this balmy, clear, August afternoon. Looking down at the Peace Arch Park at Blaine, she had pointed out a mile-long line of cars and RVs jammed up for inspection at the border.
She and her passengers had skipped all that and breezed through customs at Bellingham Airport. It was little more than a touch-and-go for four old coots in a Cessna Comanche. No pat downs and bomb-sniffing dogs. No luggage inspection or metal detectors. No body scans. Just a short chat with a handsome, young, United States Customs agent and a quick once-over of their aircraft.
The stocky, silver-haired, 70-year-old pilot and her lanky, mustachioed husband, George, and their friends, Roger and Lynne Risk, were longtime patients of Dr. Floyd Carey, whose funeral they had attended today in Hope. They were an odd group –bush pilot, sheep farmer, choir director and logger.
The man they had traveled to honor, Doc Carey, was the intellectual in this band of friends, a family dentist who had practiced in Freeland on South Whidbey Island for 27 years. Carey was a voracious reader with wide-ranging interests from bee-keeping to ethnomusicology to glacial geology. He and his Canadian wife, Marilyn, had moved north just a couple years earlier to pursue one last dream of alpaca farming. Esophageal cancer had cut it short. The end had been slow and hard for the six-foot-two, trim, fit septuagenarian who loved life and brought out the best in others.
But today’s service was not about the way things had ended. It was about celebrating a life well lived and the love between a doctor and his patients. Funerals also have a way of stirring up unwanted thoughts. Unknown to them all, this planeload of genial friends carried plenty of those.
Alice was planning her own death but had not told George. Her mother had lived her whole life dreading just three things — cancer, nursing homes and bees. Alice had taken the lesson to heart and feared all three, too. She would not go the way of Floyd Carey. She would die fast and alone on her own terms. News stories would remember her as a seasoned pilot who doted on her aircraft and left nothing to chance. “Investigators are poring over the wreckage, trying to understand what claimed the life of this storied bush pilot who learned her craft in the wilds of Alaska.”
Roger Risk was thinking of his own mortality, too, and whether it would precede or follow the divorce he sensed was inevitable from the wife whom everyone agreed was the life of any party.
At 60-some-years-of age, the self-employed owner of Risk Tree Service still shimmied up trees bravely every day to remove threats that keep homeowners awake during windstorms. The wiry, white-haired, pony-tailed ex-hippie and his unlikely friend, the cultured and well-educated dentist, had grown close over the years while fishing for salmon off Possession Point in Roger’s small motorboat. The hours the two men spent bobbing in that boat had given them time to reflect together and share life’s quiet joys. Going to Carey’s funeral was a debt of honor Roger owed his friend, and also his friend’s wife, Marilyn.
Roger was thinking about that as Alice pushed down the nose and rolled the plane hard on its right wing to bank westward over the Chuckanut Mountains. G-forces pressed them all to their seats. The old bush pilot still loved any thrill she could coax out of the safe-and-sane Comanche.
Beside her in the copilot seat, Roger chuckled.
“You starting to like the ride, Rog?” Alice asked.
“Hey, you know me. Afraid of heights! Where’s my rope? No, I was thinking what Doc would have said if he’d had to listen to those embarrassing stories people told about him today. He’d have said, “Tell me when you start to numb up.”
“Yeah,” George agreed. “And just keep your mouth open like that because I might want to drill some more.”
Alice laughed. “You know what he said last time I was in his chair? I had a jaw full of Novocain and was blathering some story and forgot he was in the middle of a big project. ‘Alice, don’t make me stuff any more clamps, cotton wads, anesthesia and suction tubes into your mouth. I’ve done everything one man can do to incapacitate you. One of us needs to sit quietly and the other needs to stop laughing so he can hold the drill on the right tooth.’”
“My god, would you look at that view!” Roger enthused. Alice was going out of her way to squeeze every minute of magic from this picture-postcard day. They were flying west over a jigsaw of forested islands and deep, blue channels, wave-tops glistening in the late-afternoon sunlight. Powerboats and sailing vessels of all types were threading among them.
“I’ll tell you what meant the most to me,” Roger continued. “Doc built me up. He’d scratch his bald head and say he couldn’t fathom the guts and sense of mathematics it took to climb a leaning 80-foot fir and pull the top out without dropping it through the roof of a house. And of course he also kept track of every single one of our girls and asked about each one. We had him to dinner many times, and he and Marilyn had us over to their place for back-yard barbecues. Doc and I went out fishing often in my boat, and you know Marilyn sang in Lynne’s choir, so we were all close.”
Lynne winced in the seat directly behind her husband. Luckily, he couldn’t see her. Roger wiped an unexpected tear from his cheek, but Lynne couldn’t see that either.
Roger had felt for some time that he was losing Lynne – that she’d leave him or he would die, and he didn’t know which it would be. Lynn was increasingly remote. Roger hadn’t told her about the racing heartbeat he’d been having for several months and didn’t know when he would. He’d been fighting depression for years and had confided in Doc Carey about it.
Now, with the heart warnings, the last thing Roger wanted was to give up his dangerous, physical job and go into a long, slow decline. Better to fall from a tree, but make damn sure he was high enough when he did. He kept his life insurance paid so that if anything happened, Lynne would have something on which to live.
“Doc always said Marilyn was put on this earth to balance his shortcomings,” Roger said. “I feel the same about Lynne. I don’t know what I’d do without her. She picks me up when I screw up, and that’s more than you want to know.”
The vivacious and pixie-like Lynne, choir director at Freeland Methodist, had stiffened when Roger mentioned her choir. She was having an affair with a choir member. It was preposterous for a middle-aged, respectable, church-going mother of three and the last thing she needed, but she had fallen hard. He was a 50-ish, high school, drama teacher and fellow musician who shared her passion for hymns. Worse than that, he was married with five children, and Lynne knew them all and liked them. His wife, Freida, was a friend.
The risks they were taking were mind boggling, but was it wrong to want passion one last time in your life? The hours Lynne had stolen with this man had made her feel like the most beautiful, exciting, forbidden woman in the world. At home with Roger, life was just about “getting along” in a reasonably good partnership with a reasonably good man, and being there for each other as they grew older and died.
Their three children just added to her guilt. Roger and Lynne both loved their daughters, who were starting lives of their own now. What would it do to them if their mother’s betrayal became public?
What Lynne knew and most people didn’t was that Roger could not control his drinking. He hid it pretty well, but the alcohol and depression had weighed heavily on Lynne, holding her back from what she wanted from life’s final chapter. She wondered when Roger’s dark side would make it impossible for him to work any more.
She also wondered if Doc and Marilyn had ever faced a trial and strayed from the path with each other. It didn’t seem so, but you never knew about people’s secrets. She guessed they had been faithful. They seemed to share an outlook that was focused outward on others, rather than inward on themselves. Maybe that was the secret of their marriage and also of being so beloved.
Lynne jumped into the conversation. “Did you know, Alice, that Doc didn’t charge some patients? He didn’t want anyone to feel they were taking charity. I don’t know if you knew the Norgards. They were just scraping by. Fred was out of work and they never had insurance, so Doc just asked for a bag of big, golden plums from their tree. ‘I make a good living and charge on a sliding scale,’ he told Fred. ‘Those plums of yours are pure gold to me. Never tasted any like ‘em. Spare me a bag of plums and we are even – more than even.’”
“What I remember was that Border Collie of his and how the kids loved him,” George cut in. “What did he call that dog?”
“Oh, um . . . Jaws,” Lynne laughed.
“Yeah, Jaws,” George said, shaking his head and smiling. “I’ve never known a dentist who could get away with a dog in the office. Aren’t there health regulations and liability issues with that? You couldn’t separate those two. When the Doc had kids in the waiting room, he’d put Jaws out there to soften them up. And then he’d let Jaws come in with them to the exam room. I swear, you never saw kids have so much fun at the dentist. Doc and Marilyn never had any kids of their own but they sure always had a dog, and that dog was the Doc’s constant companion.”
“God, I miss that guy,” Alice said. “It’s hell getting old and watching your friends go.”
“Yeah, and your mind,” George added. “We both see the forgetfulness creeping up. I don’t know about you, but I’m forever walking into a room and can’t remember why I’m there. If I leave and come back, maybe I can trick myself into remembering.”
“I follow Alice around,” he continued, “turning off burners. I tell her, focus on one thing at a time. Don’t read e-mail while you’re heating soup. And if you’ve got a to-do list for me, write it down because neither you nor I are going to remember what’s on it for more than a few seconds.’”
Alice laughed. “I keep buying lottery tickets and forgetting to check the winners. I must have a drawer full.”
George downplayed Alice’s forgetfulness but sensed bigger changes were afoot in his spirited, brilliant partner of a lifetime. The mistakes were coming too often.
“Yeah,” Alice laughed. “I allow an extra hour in the mornings now to search for my glasses. What a life. Wake up. Figure out what hurts. Search for my glasses. Check the obituaries and plan my week. Sooner or later, something will get me and I probably won’t see it coming. But that’s another day. Right now, a good send-off for a friend isn’t the worst way to spend an August afternoon.”
“Don’t you love it?” George said. “We all know how the story ends, but don’t know what’s on the last few pages. We’re finally old enough and smart enough that we know what’s really important, but we’re also cranky and forgetful, and carrying some heavy burdens. Alice and I bicker too much, ‘cause Alice thinks she knows more about sheep than I do . . .”
“Watch it, George!” Alice interjected.
“. . . but you know what I tell Alice. ‘Damn it, Alice, I wouldn’t trade our marriage for all the happiness in the world.’”
Laughter filled the cabin.
They were finishing a wide, sweeping arc to the west, their view filled with the Olympic Mountains, as Alice swung the nose south and then east toward Mutiny Bay to start her approach from Admiralty Inlet. The sun was just dropping below the peaks behind them and the sky was filling with orange and red.
“Isn’t this something?” George asked. “Nowhere I’d rather be than right here, right now, with the three of you.”
Just ahead, the beaches of Whidbey Island’s exposed western shore stretched to the right and left as far as they could see. Alice had been watching the altimeter needle spin down for several minutes as she drew closer to the clearing where they would land. She banked sharply for a clear view of any dark smudges in the gathering gloom that might be deer on the field. She finished her downwind leg, set the flaps and throttled back to 65 mph.
“Ok, hang on and clam up. Keep an eye out for eagles, will ya?” Alice asked her passengers. “I love ‘em, but not in my prop. Flight attendants prepare the cabin, and passengers remain seated till I bring this baby to a stop, ‘cause I’m never quite sure how I might do it.”
This is what Alice relished, a taste of her old glory days in the bush. She’d go in at a steep angle toward that little pocket in the trees. Tall firs at either end of the property meant she must commit to the landing — tuck the plane tightly, pick the end of the strip, miss the big rock and bring the plane smartly to a stop. She’d done it a thousand times.
Settling toward the ground, the aircraft swayed and dipped in the thermals — up, down, left, then right — as they dropped toward the shadows, leaving the sunset behind. It was spellbinding and scary at the same time. With a master’s touch, Alice corrected for each twist and laid the plane square and straight onto the grass at the trees’ edge.
It hit hard with a horrible scrape, with no tricycle gear to absorb impact. The plane skidded a few hundred feet, its left wingtip lightly kissing a Volkswagen-size glacial erratic and spinning the fuselage gracefully toward a nearby stand of firs. Then the windshield exploded.
“Holy crap,” Roger exclaimed from the copilot’s seat, tasting blood. “Everyone ok?”
* * *
Damage was light. The National Transportation Safety Board found all systems in good working order, so the questions turned to the pilot.
Why had she not lowered the gear? Had she blacked out in the final seconds? Stroke? Alcohol? Drugs? Prescription pills? Was she well rested? How had she been acting the day of the flight? Exactly what was her procedure as she prepared for the landing?
“She was just flying the plane,” George said. “Four old friends coming home after a magical day, probably having too much fun talking. High on life. She just forgot. Plain as that.”
Roger, Lynne and George were uninjured. The windshield and propeller needed replacing. A small dent on one wingtip probably could be pounded out, where the wing had bumped the glacial erratic. The aluminum belly was scratched from sliding a short distance on grass and dirt. But the Comanche would fly again soon, after a few simple repairs and a thorough inspection.
The glacial erratic had lain in that exact spot for 10,000 years, left behind by the retreating Vashon Glacier. The rock had steered the plane toward a Hemlock snag that had given way recently.
The long, thin snag, maybe 8 inches in diameter, lay propped across a stump in the grove of firs where the aircraft had slid to a stop.
The snag had grown slowly for 80 years, died and remained standing for three more as woodpeckers and ants worked on it, to fall only recently. George had intended to clean it up but hadn’t gotten to it yet.
It had been wedged on the stump at just the right angle to catch the windshield, striking Alice squarely in the head. She was killed outright.
“This plane sustained so little damage,” the NTSB investigator commented to George. “I’m just terribly sorry about your wife.”
“Thank you,” George said. “I appreciate that and miss her terribly, but my tears are are selfish — not for Alice but for me. She’s sitting up there somewhere with Doc, slapping her knee and saying, ‘By golly, I didn’t ding up the plane too much. It’s in one piece. Everybody walked away. I won the lottery.’”