Yesterday I flew my Cessna 120 home to Port Townsend with a lavender bush; some dirt and an earthworm still clinging to its root ball, the fragrance of lavender filling the cockpit, mingling with the faint smell of 100 octane avgas.
A picture perfect Spring day, the Puget Sound air was scrubbed clean and I could see all the way north from the Auburn Valley to the misty blue San Juan Islands. A small layer of puffy white clouds added to the beauty, and I enjoyed views of downtown Seattle, the jagged line of waterfront skyscrapers, the Space Needle and the city’s newest addition, a waterfront Ferris wheel on a pier north of the ferry landing. The tops of the Cascade and Olympic mountains sparkled with snow, the sun glinting off the waves of the Sound, the plume of smoke from the Port Townsend Paper mill visible on the horizon thirty miles away.
A few hours earlier, I had arrived at Auburn municipal airport, touching down on runway 34 in light winds, pleased that my landing was perfectly aligned and on the center line. Even after all these years, a good landing is something I never take for granted.
I taxied to the ramp and shut down in front of the old flight school, newly vacant after forty years of continued service. The squat building felt empty, and it was. The windows were void of their blinds and revealed a desolate lobby where shelves of aeronautical books, headsets, plotters and sectionals had been, dust settling on the floor. The water cooler, coffee pot and front desk had vanished. I couldn’t see beyond the lobby into what had been one of the Puget Sound’s oldest flight schools, but I knew that the classrooms were empty too, cleared of the tables, desks, chalk boards and instructor’s lectern, the row of computers unplugged and removed, a map that had hung on the wall taken down. After decades of students, nothing remained but the empty building and a lavender bush.
Over the years, I had visited the flight school several times as a traveling pilot examiner. Sweaty palmed test applicants would be waiting for me with their flight instructors in the lobby. After greeting everyone, I would check paperwork and logbook endorsements, and if all were in order, I would begin a flight exam.
The flight instructors at the school were good at their jobs, and more often than not, after their students and I had spent several hours together on the ground and in the air, I would determine that the student had met the test standards established by the FAA, and issue them a private pilot license, an instrument rating, or their commercial pilot license.
On these occasions, everyone present at the flight school, the instructors, other students, the receptionist, and family members would share in the newly licensed pilot’s joy, and many smiles and thanks would usher me out the door as I walked to my airplane to leave. Just outside the lobby door, near a patch of lawn and a picnic table abutting tie downs for the training airplanes, a huge lavender bush commandeered twenty square feet of space, pushing through the chain link fence, threatening to take over the side walk. In late summer, the fragrance of the blooms was sweet and bees hummed as they busily dipped in and out of the purple flowers. I would pick a few lavender sprigs, laying them on top of my instrument panel, smelling them while I flew home.
Yesterday I landed at Auburn municipal, taxied to the ramp and tied my airplane down in front of the vacant flight school. As I placed chocks under the Cessna’s wheels and studied the empty building, I saw the lavender bush, still thriving, still alive. Before I left a few hours later, I borrowed a shovel from the airport manager and dug a small piece of the lavender bush up, shaking off the excess dirt and placing it root first behind my seat in the Cessna’s baggage area. I saw the earthworm then, bright pink, small, and tightly wrapped around the root. I briefly considered taking the worm and placing it back in the dirt by the mother plant, but I didn’t.
Instead, I flew home with a living piece of shared history and a young worm, a marine layer of fog creeping in from the Straits of Juan de Fuca, covering up what was.