Sunday, September 23

Contrails


When I was very young, I imagined that I could hear the contrails that jets passing overhead left behind, that they were a sort of wispy corporeal thunder. I didn’t realize that they were a manifestation of a flying machine, fueled with tons of volatile liquids and set in motion by the hand of man.

Later, as I realized the truth of the matter, I became even more fascinated by the silver ribbons that weaved across the sky. I came to understand how vapor trails were created, the condensation of water vapor into crystalline ice and liquid water miles above the earth. That they were understood made them no less fascinating, and I still strain to see the aircraft leading the cloudy pointer to the horizon. 

On days like these, as autumn approaches, the air at altitude is cold - minus 40 degrees fahrenheit - and a jet turbine engine spinning at ten of thousands of revolutions per minute compresses the air and burning kerosene fuel into a narrowed venturi, further compressing  the mixture, and sends out small particles of soot for the water vapor to cling to. Almost instantly, the water freezes into water ice, and the multitude of particles forms the silver diaphanous trail behind the aircraft.

The game for me, from my vantage point on the veranda of my suburban ranch castle, is to spot the plane and contrail before I become aware of the sound. Hundreds of planes pass here a week, many at low altitudes as they make their final approaches to the commercial airport some thirty miles from here. The sound they make is a sort of mechanical whine, almost a buzzing sound, as they throttle back and drop their flaps to scrub airspeed and yet maintain enough forward velocity to keep from falling from the sky. 

I have imagined that it is my own belief in the Bernoulli Principle that keeps the average airliner from plummeting into my back garden. A sort of Tinkerbellian belief in the age of space travel.

At altitude, airliners are seemingly ghostly silent, providing no clue as to their whereabouts until the cone of disturbed air that carries their sound waves finally reaches the ground and my ears. So I scan the skies, hoping to see a spear of silver-pointed white before the game is tipped by the muted thunder of burning jet fuel.

I sat on this lazy Sunday afternoon reading, occasionally napping, but all the time watching the sky. Hawks circled on thermals, carrying them spiraling ever higher until they are spat out into still air to find a lower altitude and another thermal. They seem to do it for the pure joy of flying, as their sustenance is scuttling about in the undergrowth, intent on avoiding the fate of becoming hawk entreƩ dujour. I believe the raptors are making notes as they circle, of where the fattest mice are, or where there might be a tender and unsuspecting chihuahua napping on a sunlit stoop.

My wind chimes catch a small gust of air and play for me. Tuned to a major A, they recall the signature notes of Joni Mitchell’s “A Free Man in Paris”, then quiet again as a 747 bound for Los Angeles glides silently overhead, followed by its distinctive four vapor trails, then almost as soon as I spot it, the sound arrives, a baritone rumble that sponsors the lives and travels of four hundred strangers, locked in a sealed and pressurized aluminum tube, destination and timetables in common, if nothing else.

The last stragglers of this year’s hummingbird population stop by the feeder to carb up before setting out on their annual migration to the warmth of Mexico. As a fattened female chirps and buzzes toward the lilac bushes, I hear behind me a muted growl, and I see an Airbus 380 flying southwesterly, imitating the hummingbirds’ path to a new cycle of life and a new season in the sun.

It seems strange to me, now that I fully appreciate the magic of travel, the call of adventure beyond my garden, that so many things are flying above me, from insects to birds of prey to unseen businessmen, and I wonder how many of the more sentient of that collective really appreciate how fortunate they are to have slipped the bounds of earth for a few hours on their way to or from whatever occupational or evolutionary goals have been set for them.

I imagine the people in the planes, sleeping, listening to their iPods, or catching up on work on their computers. I also know that there are a few, who, like me, are required to maintain the illusion of flight for the others, only by believing it to be possible and practical. There are also a few, who sit at their small plastic windows and stare past the silver wings to the earth below and wonder if there’s anyone down there looking up at that exact moment, anyone counting seconds between appearance and sound, anyone who wishes he was in the air, looking down, going somewhere, anywhere.

Thus spake the rabbit.

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