Extreme Flying and the Vagary of the Wind


Just when you think you are finished you may find out you are only beginning again.

Shortly after I had finished Learning to Fly, I felt I had peaked as a flyer and had no books left to write. Age and limitations were drawing a line–finis–beneath what had been a marvelous and surprising era in my life–my late blooming affair with the flying trapeze. Friends congratulated me and assumed I must be happy that the book was done and had gone to find its way in the world. But, truth told, I was depressed. Post partum blues. One step nearer to final endings, and Augustine had it right about mortality when he allowed that “anything that ends is too short.” If I hadn’t managed to grasp the brass ring of immortality while flying on the trapeze, I had at least soared to the edge of the human condition and touched the edge of eternity.

I fight fiercely to avoid losing the magic in life, so I always feel anxious when the quotidian threatened to turn into tedium. I want to live with a sense of wonder. I believe there is a spirit that animates, a breath that inspires, a wind that blows through time and makes music in our bones like an Aeolian harp, bringing echoes from the past and future and a hint of symphonic harmonies from beyond time. Both my faith and the implications of quantum physics suggest that every instant in history is the moving image of eternity.

Beyond the realm of wonder in which I dwell, from somewhere out on the far edges of human experience where I have never been privileged to travel, there have always come reports of the miraculous. The religions of the world specialize in miracle, mystery and authority. Alas, in religious matters, I seem to be able to recognize only the authority of my own experience.  And, I have no direct knowledge of “supernatural” occurrences. I have experienced clairvoyant moments, synchronicities, and days of extraordinary grace, but for some reason (possibly related to my advanced degrees from Harvard and Princeton) angels, extra-terrestrials, flying saucers, reincarnated gurus and fully enlightened beings never appear in my backyard.

Nevertheless, I listen to reports of strange happenings beyond my ken because they keep me open to possibilities that transcend the present limits of my mind. It is in this spirit that I pass on an account of an incident reported to me by my trapeze guru and friend Tony Steele —the first person ever to throw a triple and a half somersault to a catcher.

In the fall of 1969, Tony said, I was finishing an engagement with the Circus Krone in Europe when I got a call from a man in Scotland who identified himself only as McNab of the Flying Highlanders. He explained that theirs was a three-person act and his fellow flyer had fallen and broken a leg and he needed a replacement immediately.

When I arrived in Inverness and made my way to the circus ground I was disturbed by what I saw. The “circus” stood on a narrow peninsula jutting out into the Moray Firth and was more county fair or carnival than circus. The midway was a series of booths and small tents that contained gambling concessions, agricultural exhibits, freak shows and a burlesque queen. The flying rig stood no more than a taper throw from the water and was engulfed by a sun-suffused mist that changed in an instant into a heavy fog when the wind shifted directions.

I was standing and wondering what kind of weird situation I had gotten myself into when two men wandered up. The larger of the two—a man about 5-11 and approximately 180 pounds with a full beard and a tartan kilt–introduced himself. “I am McNab and this is McMurray, and we are all that is left of the Flying Highlanders. Welcome to the troupe” he said, handing me a tartan kilt (what does he wear under it?) identical to the one he was wearing. I looked at the smaller man who was about my size and said “And you would be the flyer and McNab the catcher.” Oh, no” McNab replied, ” I am the flyer and he is the catcher. As you will discover, his power lies in his smallness.” I was not certain what the remark meant so I turned the conversation to what was worrying me.  I have flown in all kinds of arenas, I said, but never in the fog and shifting winds and I would like to practice before the afternoon performance to get a sense of the rig and the lay of the land, or in this case the vagaries of the air.

By high noon the fog had burned off, the wind had died down and it was a bright Fall day. I dressed in my tights and kilt and returned to the rig for the practice session and saw McNab and McMurray sitting back-to-back on the ground beneath the net. I was just about to say something when I realized they were doing some kind of strange ritual. Every couple of minutes they would stand, make a quarter turn, sit down back-to-back and resume their meditation. They repeated this dance four times until each man had faced North, East, South and West. Then they turned to face each other and began a kind of coordinated loud, rhythmic breathing.

McNab saw me watching them and said: “You’re probably wondering what we’re doing.. For many years we have been trying to recover the ancient art of establishing harmony between the breath, the winds and the soul. As without, so within; as the breath, so the wind. “You might say” McMurry added with a belly laugh, ‘that we are trying to revive The Church of Pneumatology— but nobody would know what you meant by that.” McNab continued: “Before we fly we savor the winds to see what gifts and problems they will present. To know what kind of tricks to attempt on any day you must let your soul hang out like a wind-sock at an airfield. At the moment, the West wind is clear so we are going to be flying very high, crisp and light today. But there is a hard and harsh fragrance coming from the North that could make unusual demands on our strength and courage before the end of the week.

I wanted to ask more about their odd beliefs but held my tongue because aerialists are reluctant to reveal the religious practices and private superstition that protect them against the dangers of their trade.  I have know Catholics who cross themselves, Protestants who say a prayer and atheists who wont fly unless they have a special lucky pair of hand grips or tights.

The practice session was routine. McNab was an accomplished flyer and McMurray an agile catcher and we worked for an hour to get used to each others timing and to decide who would do which tricks in the performance. Afterwards, I fell asleep in my room and woke shortly before the 4:30 performance to the sound of a whistling wind. By the time I had dressed and gotten to the rig there were white caps on the firth and the flags attached to the top of the cranes were fluttering fiercely. When McNab and McMurray appeared, dressed in tights and kilts, I expressed my concern. It is pretty dangerous to fly in a wind this strong, I said. “Aye” McNab answered, “dangerous or interesting. But, we will just tame it a bit to give you a chance to get accustomed to our Scottish weather.”

You are not going to believe this, Tony told me, but I swear this is what happened. McNab and McMurray stood at opposite ends of the rig sighted along the middle of the net and nodded to signal some agreement they had reached. Then, McNab took a hunting knife whose handle was fashioned from a deer foot from his kilt and threw it into the ground. And, honest to God, the flags stopped fluttering and the wind seemed to go around the rig. When we climbed to the pedestal it was even more uncanny. I could see that the wind was still blowing all around us, but the rig seemed to be enclosed in a vacuum, as if we were in the eye of a storm. After the performance, which went smoothly enough, I asked McNab about the ceremony with the hunting knife. He just laughed and said: ” If you want to be a flyer you have to be able to control the wind, don’t you?” I didn’t know what to believe. In this case, seeing wasn’t believing and I thought the whole thing was some kind of coincidence.

That night things got even stranger. By 7:30 the fog had rolled in so thick it was hard to see from one end of the rig to the other. Since Inverness is so far north there was plenty of daylight left but it was filtered through the fog in a way that made everything seem to be suspended in a thick cloud. It was like a dreamscape. To add to the eerie atmosphere, a bagpipe band was playing a slow, almost melancholy, tune. I was accustomed to flying to the accompaniment of upbeat Strauss waltzes, so this really disrupted my inner rhythms. When we climbed to the pedestal I could hardly see the catcher. He was so obscured by the fog that I couldn’t figure out how I was going to determine when to take off from the board for my tricks. “What do we do in a situation like this?” I asked McNab.

“Well,” he replied. “In the first place, you have to have a little more faith than usual, a little more blind faith,” he said, chucking as he emphasized “blind”. “We don’t fly in the fog. We glide.  All you have to do is slow everything down by half.”

“What?” I asked, completely baffled.

“Just do your tricks in slow motion,” he said.” Don’t worry. I’ll show you; watch this layout” he said. With this, he grasped the trapeze, took off languidly, and disappeared into the fog at the far end of the pendulum. Sure enough, it was an abnormally long time before he swung back, set high over the pedestal and, once again, disappeared into the fog, presumably to complete his trick to the hands of the catcher. I grasped the trapeze, held it until I heard him yell “bar”and dropped it blind. A long moment later he returned to the board and I swear to you, his trick took twice as long as it would have under ordinary circumstances..

“How do you do that” I asked. ”

I’m a student of the spectrum of the winds and the spirits of the air, he said, and I have absolute faith that I’ll be supported in my flight if I get rid of anything that is depressing me. I have learned to change the density and gravity of my body by practicing angelic breathing. First, I imagine I am being bathed in light and all that is heavy, old and melancholy is washed away. Then, I begin to take long, slow, deep breaths and expand the boundaries of my body until my ego is shattered by the pressure from within. This makes me feel lighter than air. When I have finished all these preliminaries, I swirl my kilt out like a parachute, open the pores of my body so I will be upheld by the denseness of the fog and launch myself from the pedestal.  Time slows down and I am so light that I float and make contact with my catcher by feel rather than sight. Once you get the hang of it, you can fly much better at midnight when there is a touch of the moon than in the harsh light of the noonday sun. Too much light destroys faith.”

That’s fine for you, I said, but, I don’t have absolute faith and I am the one who is supposed to do ‘the legendary triple somersault” in this show.

“I know ” he replied. “But you have done the triple with a blindfold often enough. That’s why we asked you to join us. Just pretend you can see no more than you could through the blindfold and the fog will not dismay you.”

I am ashamed to tell you I couldn’t muster the trust to throw the big trick under those conditions, so I shouted over to McMurray that I was just going to do a plange. Even that was weird, because when I released the bar and floated down I couldn’t see him until the instant we made wrist contact.

It wasn’t until after the performance that I remembered I had heard applause and realized that the audience couldn’t have seen much of the show because of the fog. When I asked McNab about this he said matter of factly: ” Oh, no, they didn’t see us at all. It was our faith they were applauding, not our performance.”

Things were getting more bizarre by the minute, but, fortunately, the next few days were calm and clear and we did our twice daily performances without any more strange occurrences. The three of us usually had lunch together and went out for an ale after the evening show and I felt included in the warm friendship that bound McNab and McMurray together. They talked a great deal about flying, but never about the technical parts or about other flying acts. I never did get any idea of where they had learned the art of trapeze and as near as I could tell they performed only one week of the year at the Inverness festival. My approach to flying has always been very down-to-earth and technical, so some of the things they talked about seemed fantastic to me. McNab had developed a theory about what he called aeromancy and he claimed that a study of the various qualities of the air —  breezes, zephyrs, gales and gusts — gave him access to the currents of the spirit. And he and McMurray were trying to develop something they called “aerotherapy” which involved learning to fly with the various vagaries of the North, East, South and West winds. As nearly as I could tell their theories were inspired half by St. Paul’s warning that we should “discern the spirits” and half by Carl Jung’s notion that everyone is faulted and blessed by some deficiency that must be corrected for there to be fullness of being.

As the time approached for our last performance it looked as if the Scottish weather was finally going to force us to cancel the show. A severe storm was gathering and gale-force winds were blowing off the water. There were only a handful of people in the audience and I joked with McNab “O.K. Moses Get out your knife and part the winds, so we can fly.” To my surprise, he took my joke seriously. “This storm is beyond my power to change or tame. We will have to do extreme flying” he said.  I was afraid to ask what he meant by “extreme flying” and followed him up to the pedestal; I guess you might say on faith. He reached deep into the chalk bag and came up with three small leather bags that were weighted with BB’s or stones. “We’ll have to test the wind” he explained. And he proceeded to toss each bag into the air to determine the direction, velocity and frequency of the gusts.

“Violent and erratic cross-winds. Perfect for extreme flying” he said. In utter dismay, I asked “Could you explain this to me before I get myself blown to kingdom-come by the north wind?”

“It is simple enough” he said. “When the cross-wind is too wild to tame, and the spirits shake you unmercifully, you have to transfer all your skill in soaring in the vertical dimension to the horizontal plane. Instead of trying to ascend you must fly parallel to the earth. When you are assaulted by elementary powers over which you have no control–whether storms or the madness of the masses– everything is turned in a cockamamy way and you lose your sense of direction. You can’t tell up from down or right from wrong. When the conditions call for extreme flying you have to use the wind itself as a counter-force –the force of spiritual gravity– so you can fly in a sideways direction.”

With that said, he moved to the far right side of the pedestal and grasped the bar at its right edge. He waited for a particularly strong gust, swung out, kicked back so hard his body was parallel to the net, released the bar, spread his arms and legs and flung himself into the cross wind like a boomerang . With the wind behind him, he sailed out in a horizontal plane to a point a good ten feet beyond the side boundary of the rig. “Oh, my God, I thought, he is going to land in the water or crash to the ground. But, just then the gust died, his outbound momentum ceased and the prevailing wind blew him back and into the hands of the catcher. When he left the hands of the catcher he repeated the boomerang maneuver, out and back, caught the trapeze and returned to the pedestal. “It is kind of tricky” he said, “but you will catch on when you fly enough in rough weather. I will show you one more trick and then you can give it a try”. This time, as he flung himself into the wind instead of extending his body in a flat plain he did what acrobats call an “Arabian” somersault. Using the force of the wind he turned a triple in a sideways rather than a vertical direction.

I was flabbergasted. I guess you would say I was in a state of acute cognitive dissonance because I didn’t believe what I had actually seen. The notion of conjuring the wind blew my mind. I remembered that I had read in Scientific American that an egg picked up by a tornado might be deposited unbroken two miles away and I speculated that maybe McNab and McMurray had learned some secret of applied aerodynamics that allowed them to maneuver inside the windscape.

I am thankful to say, the next thing that happened reaffirmed my faith in the power of simple, fervent prayer. I think I must have uttered a desperate prayer to the rain gods to save me from the challenge of extreme flying because, at that moment, the heavens opened up and rain and hail fell so thick that the audience fled and the Flying Highlanders were forced to cancel the performance and descend to earth. One of them was profoundly grateful for the deluge.

I never heard anything more about McNab and McMurray and I’ve never met anyone who had seen them fly.  Sometimes I think I dreamed the whole incident, but I still have the kilt I wore in the performances so I know it really happened.”

I don’t know what to make of the story Tony told me. I know Tony doesn’t drink any more and is exceedingly honest for an Irishman. I can only speculate that something extraordinary, nearly supernatural, occurs in and around those rare people who have absolute faith. Perhaps, their radical trust triggers an interplay of forces in the psyche and the exterior world that allows strange things to happen. It is as if, in their ambiance, all the normal laws of time, space, gravity, cause and effect are bent. Not broken, but at least stretched. I, myself, am a man of tentative faith and a skeptical mind, so I will probably never attempt extreme flying. But I know there are those who have powers and graces I lack; and that is enough to remind me that the world is stranger than I can ever know.