Forty years ago, I rode the mechanical bull to satisfy a drunken dare. It was a short, chaotic ride, and by the next day the memory of how it felt had drowned in a bellyful of beer. It came back to me during a series of nasty lurches in a situation that was critically different.
No one would stop this ride if it went badly.
The floor was several thousand feet farther away and carpeted with jagged peaks and steep valleys instead of vinyl pads.
Climbing off softly was out of the question, and I was inside the contraption instead of on top of it.
If I held on to the bull, I would get off without falling. No matter how well I rode this airplane, if it plummeted, I would plummet with it, and there would be no question how hard I’d land.
I looked at the compass when I could focus. It was inconclusive. On average, we were going west, jerking northward and then southward because the pilot couldn’t hold our nose steady. It pointed in the direction we were flying by coincidence during each radical left and right swing.
I suffered car sickness on a few road trips when I was a kid. Seasickness once, on a fishing trip off Vancouver Island when I’d drunk so much company-provided alcohol the night before, I would have puked even if I’d stayed in bed. Airsick, not yet. But there had been first times for the others, and my first time for dying in a fiery crash would also be my last.
Along with the swing dance: the turbulence, like we were flying on a mushy coil spring that could become stiff and jarring without warning.
The pilot was a man’s man whose self-confidence and denial overlapped so entirely there was no difference between them.
“We’ll drop below this in another half hour. Maybe longer. Part of the time, we’re not making forward progress.”
With that abrupt full stop, he looked at me and grinned like Ahab on his whale. He had a broken front tooth that was darker than the rest.
“Why don’t we drop below it now?” I said. “Or go around.”
“I’ll tell you, Rigger. These mountains are always like this, more or less. Mostly less. Today’s a stiff one. What I mean by dropping below it is touching the ground. We don’t want to do that before we find the strip.”
He lifted one hand from the yoke to wipe his nose and put it back when the other hand provided insufficient leverage to hold on.
“Going around would be several hundred miles out of the way toward the arctic circle or Mexico. Our best bet is to ride it out.”
Best bet. Pilots in command of big ships that could swallow ten or a dozen of this shuddering leaf knew better than to say words like “best bet.” No one wants to hear that the wings carrying them are bouncing dice hoping to come up seven. Among real men, though, you can say things like that. I wasn’t a paying customer and real men will not repent and holler for their mothers until they are certain they and everyone who hears them are going to die.
“Yesterday would have been better,” the pilot said.
“How do you know that?”
“Odds. Almost every day is better than this.” …