This story was written and performed by Cindy Corpier for the live, personal storytelling series Oral Fixation (An Obsession With True Life Tales) at The McKinney Avenue Contemporary in Dallas, on January 22, 2013.
The theme of the show was "Cloud Nine."
Oral Fixation creator and director Nicole Stewart says, "We all do things we don't think we'll do once we fall in love, and Cindy faces one of her big fears when she goes up in a helicopter with her husband in Hawaii. Read her story of how love expanded her horizons and don't miss her performance in the video below."
I married a man whose obsession with flying machines began in elementary school with radio-controlled planes and helicopters. He eventually graduated to full-size planes and a career in aviation, but when we met 20 years ago in Louisville, Kentucky, he was a biomedical engineer with a yen to fly.
Since the day he asked me to "Pencil him in," Stephen and I have each done things we never would have done without the other. He took me to the Santa Fe Opera for the Marriage of Figaro and has seen a score of movies he'd love to forget, like The Hours and Moulin Rouge. Meanwhile, I dove in frigid quarry water for my scuba certification, took the Jack the Ripper Tour in London, and can recognize a Deadliest Catch rerun in less than 30 seconds. I've also flown thousands of miles with him. Sitting alongside wearing a pale green headset that matches his, I eavesdrop on the unflappable world of aviation, fascinated by its precise vocabulary and soothing cadence. "Bonanza two-one-niner Charlie Alpha, traffic one o'clock, one zero miles, same altitude."
One of our early getaways was to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, for hiking in the Smoky Mountains. Driving through Pigeon Forge on our way home, Stephen spotted a handmade sign, "Helicopter Rides, $25 a person." He did a quick 180 and headed back to the open field for a closer look. Twenty-five dollars seemed a dubious bargain, but I was in the stage of being "in love" that demanded a full-scale commitment to any activity that made Stephen happy. If it took white knuckling through a cheapo ride in this giant mechanical dragonfly, I was doing it.
The flight lasted less than 15 minutes and was scary in the best way -- falling and flying combined. Tiny Pigeon Forge turned glorious when seen from the front seat of that helicopter with nothing but the dragonfly's thick glass lens obscuring the view. We hovered alongside gold and ruby mountains and skirted over empty stretches of grass dotted with tin-roofed barns.
Excitement radiated from Stephen, obliterating his ever-present cool and giving me my first delicious taste of the bliss that comes from being part of something that makes the person you love deeply happy. It was worth every ounce of squelched panic.
Fast forward a dozen years and we're in Kauai, a place calling me since I first saw images of the spectacular Na Pali cliffs rising like ebony knife blades from the Pacific. For many, Machu Picchu's magnetic pull works on them like a physical need; for me it was Na Pali. And that meant another helicopter ride. Since I'm one of those people guidebooks are written for, I did my research. The "best" tour companies use only ex-military pilots who fly doorless helicopters on flights costing ten times what we paid for our first ride. Time had passed since that Tennessee Sunday, we were older and our lives had become crowded with work. I was in the stage of "in love" that missed seeing Stephen's boyish thrill at new experiences and wanted it back. Naturally, I jumped to book us two seats.
We showed up as scheduled at the tour operator's headquarters on the south side of the island. We signed the necessary waivers regarding death and injury, etc., etc. We sat on a funky vinyl couch and fidgeted through a 15-minute safety video like giddy teenagers. It wasn't until we passed through the chain link gate onto the tarmac and neared the blue helicopter that I began to question the wisdom of flying doors off. I mean, what's so bad about a door? When I got closer my stomach began quivering and my legs almost hit reverse, but I didn't say anything. I was committed. Not just for him, for me, too. I'd dreamed of seeing that famous coastline for more than two decades. This was a suck-it-up moment just like the first time.
Our pilot -- a guy named Frank who'd flown two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan -- introduced himself. A pair of not-so-young newlyweds claimed the front seats, leaving Stephen and me to strap ourselves into the back. We took off to the east before turning north toward Waimea Canyon -- the Grand Canyon of the Pacific.
As Mr. Newlywed clicked shot after shot, Frank narrated in a "been there, done that" voice totally at odds with the beauty of Waimea's stunning inverted carpet of greens and reds. I looked over and saw Stephen nodding in satisfaction. The absence of a door was starting to feel all right. Despite the rush of wind and noise, it was cool. I began to relax and feel my anxiety dissolve into the sheer joy of the moment. Until I felt my shoulder harness go slack and realized that my buckle hadn't ever been secure -- absolutely nothing held me into my seat. Nothing prevented me from splattering on one of those gorgeous slopes, dead before ever reaching my Machu Picchu.
My right hand tightened on the handrail bolted to the empty door frame. I knew I needed to buckle the strap, but my joy had turned to paralyzing terror. It took everything I had to bump Stephen's thigh with mine. After a second, he deduced from my unblinking stare and uncommon muteness what was wrong. I heard him speaking through my headset in that calm pilot voice. "Frank, uh, we've got a situation here."
Frank answered in matching calm pilot-speak. Seconds later the crisis was averted when Stephen rebuckled my harness and told me I was OK. But I didn't feel OK. Adrenaline surged through my body as if I'd dodged an actual bullet. I wanted to land immediately, but I kept quiet and squeezed that handrail like my life depended on it. Frank swung the helicopter west and in moments we were over the southern tip of Na Pali. Even with my logical brain repeating, "You're finally here. Look, you're safe," flying over the Pacific doorless suddenly seemed even dumber than flying over land. Those deep brain centers where fear resides weren't buying the "Yay, look how pretty" talk. So I never let go of that handrail, and our only pictures came from Stephen contorting himself around my arm.
When we landed for lunch in a thick, emerald clearing near a waterfall, Stephen and Frank had a good laugh at my expense. According to them, you can't fall out of a helicopter. Sure, you can jump out, but you can't fall out -- something called prop wash holds you in the cockpit. Now that would've been good information back in the safety briefing.
The October sun shone bright on that exquisite Hawaii day. Blue sky, white clouds, turquoise seas, black and green cliffs unmolested by mankind. Naked beauty and I almost missed it. I almost let the terror of what didn't happen win. But it turns out that beauty's pull was stronger and I couldn't allow myself to miss seeing those cliffs lined up like warriors facing endless ocean.
Stephen says what he remembers most from the tour is me. What I remember most is how he saved it for me. How he calmly buckled me in and made me laugh about it later. How I picked that particular tour for him and how he picks almost everything particularly for me. How we're still so different and yet so right.
What stage of "in love" am I now? The one planning to fly with him forever.