I have a friend who goes barefoot most of the year. She’s done so all of her life, and she says it keeps her grounded. Her feet are beautifully shaped, with well spread symmetrical toes. Sometimes she adorns the toe next to the pinky toe with a silver ring. By the end of summer, her soles are so thickly calloused, that she files the excess skin on the bottom of her feet with the fine edge of a hoof rasp, walks freely across sharp gravel and stubs out cigarette butts with her heel.
Following the long days of northwest winters; dirty cars, muddy floors, wet dogs, dark clouds, rain and wind storms that bring trees down and litter the streets with branches and garbage cans, any indication of springtime is celebrated.
When I see my friend’s bare feet for the first time in months, I know that winter is truly in the past. There are also the bulbs. Every year I am amazed that despite the frosty temperatures of late winter and very early spring, the crocuses emerge from the ground though I have neither weeded nor remembered them for the previous eleven months. Exotic and bold, they open their shimmery violet petals wide in the afternoon sun, and close them in the evening chill. Close behind the crocuses are the sweet daffodils who spring up quickly and unfurl their yellow tops; smiling and waving in the breeze, nodding their heads, keeping tempo with the songs of the frogs.
Sometimes it will have been months since I have rolled the green hangar doors on their tracks, sunlight slicing through the opening and illuminating the Student Prince.
I rarely fly the biplane in the winter. On those infrequent winter days when I do fly, I am inspired by a high pressure system producing deep blue skies and endless sharp visibility. On cold clear days, the radial engine on the Prince must run for several long minutes at idle before the oil temperature has warmed enough to fly. Bundled up under so many layers of clothing that stepping into the rear cockpit is challenging, I am nearly frozen sitting behind the icy slip stream with no heater as the oil warms.
When I finally taxi onto the runway and takeoff, my discomfort is rewarded as the biplane springs into the thick cold air and climbs heartily, the winter views of the Cascade and Olympic mountains surreal in their snowy craggy beauty, the fresh icy air stinging my nostrils.
Last Saturday, it had been months since I’d flown the Prince. The crocuses had long since bloomed and faded, and the daffodils were in full glory. I impulsively drove to the airport and parked by the hangar, rolling the metal doors open. A swath of sunlight landed on glowing red paint, the Student Prince sitting quietly on the concrete floor, its nose pointed skyward.
My fingers brushing its cool taut fabric skin, I walked around the airplane and checked the oil, the tires, the fuel, the stainless flying wires. Satisfied, I stood in front of its spinner, grasping each wooden blade of the propellor and rocking back on my heels, pulling, I slowly coaxed the airplane out into the sun.
It looked like a jewel, a piece of art, each line so functional and lovely, the cream wings shining in the sun, the red fuselage assuming an orange cast in the bright light. More than the sum of it’s parts, the metal framework covered by fabric, two wings, a wooden propellor with five cylinders sticking out of a metal cowling. A flying machine.
My mechanic Scott pulled up on his motorcycle with his little boy riding in front of him on the gas tank. Telling his son to go play in the ditch with the frogs, Scott walked to the biplane and stood in front of the propellor as I stepped onto the lower wing, swung my leg over the rim of the rear cockpit and sat down behind the control stick. I adjusted the cushions, straightened the seat belt and fastened it. Turning on the fuel valve, I twisted the primer knob on the wooden instrument panel, pulled it out and pushed it in, repeating it four times before securing it. Pushing the mixture control forward and pulling the throttle to idle, while confirming the magneto switch was in the “off” position, I said loudly to Scott as he stood near the prop, “OK, the switch is cold, let’s pull it through to prime it.” Scott stepped in front of the propellor, grasped the blade and pushed in down as if he were winding the rubber band on a giant balsa wood model. He pulled the propellor through several times, and then said, “Shall we try it?” I replied, “Sure,” and turned the magneto switch to the “L” position. I called, “Switch is on, brakes are set, mixture’s rich, throttle closed. Hot!” Scott grasped the propellor blade again and pulled it briskly down. The engine coughed, sputtered and caught, the propellor spinning in response to the RPM, a cloud of gray smoke blowing from the exhaust.
My hair swirling about my face, I grinned broadly at Scott, giving him a happy thumbs up. I placed the magneto switch to “Both,” leaned the mixture, and put my leather helmet on before I advanced the throttle, the biplane beginning to move. The smell of freshly mown grass and engine exhaust made me hum while I taxied to runway 9, the Kinner engine clattering in my ears. I eagerly anticipated the sky where I would share views of the Sound with birds and returning to earth, I would see bare feet.