From the air as you make a final turn and approach toward the runway, ahead and off to the south you look down upon an airfield belonging to Howard Hughes. Sometimes, just outside the mammoth hangar doors, we could see the Spruce Goose, that famous airplane made from wood.
But this story really begins three years earlier, in Dallas. My friends Tony and Marilyn, and John C. were all intrigued with psychedelics. On John’s millionaire family estate, in the cabana behind the pool, we strung up bedsheets over the glass windows, and made a light show.
We were having a great time before the police came.
You need a projector, the kind that lecturers use, with a lighted table and a lens above. First, you mix oil and water, with food-coloring added. Next, you need a couple of shallow clear-glass bowls. Place one bowl on the light table, add some of the colored oil and water mixture, and then you lower the upper bowl into this mixture.
By rocking the bowls, you will see globs of flowing colored shapes projected on the screen, in this case the bedsheets we’d hung up over the glass windows. Of course, it’s best to have very loud rock music going, to get the full effect.
Because the music was so loud, we didn’t hear the police and fire department knocking, and only dimly became aware that the bedsheets were also strobing with the red flash of the firetruck lights outside.
John C. did most of the talking. The rest of us were disinclined to chat just at the moment. It seems that neighbors, seeing the flickering red and yellow on the bedsheets had thought the house aflame and called the fire department to save us. The firemen, John reported, were grousing, being called out to extinguish a light show.
On other occasions we all hung out, blasted off, and read Timothy Leary’s version of Tibetan Book of the Dead. Some of this was at my apartment with the little swimming pool, on Gillespie street near Lemmon and Oak Lawn. There I had a tiny card on my mail box. It said ‘Brain Wave Laboratory.’ Brain Wave Laboratory received no mail other than a subscription to the Haight Ashbury Light, an odd newspaper from far away.
The best way to obtain the psychedelics was to send Crazy Becky to San Francisco. She had a knack. Sometimes she could find them without even leaving the San Francisco Airport, and she’d turn around and fly back.
On this particular night of Timothy Leary, along toward morning they’d all gone, and I attempted to take a shower. It was very difficult. Perhaps due to my tired state, the ground and the walls kept oozing and heaving, as if the wall had turned to balloons being inflated and deflated. Kind of odd. I lay in the bottom of the tub with the shower stream coming at me for a few years. You know, just puttering around the house till I got sleepy.
But by the time I left Dallas, I was straight, studying Scientology which actually turned out useful, though I became a jerk for a while. Really not the fault of the Scientologists. It just came out, honest.
From there I moved to St. Louis, then to England, and finally to Los Angeles, all studying the far-out world of Ron Hubbard, an amazing man. I met him on a ship in the harbor of Valencia. “Hi,” he said, “How ya doin?”
But I digress. In Los Angeles I began the flying lessons. Santa Monica airport sits beside the ocean. With the instructor, when you take the Cessna up, you rise above the smog layer, and the flightpath takes you out over the ocean, then practice with the controls, then back along a large rectangle in the sky, lower on each turn, hopefully to float just above the runway, and gently lower down without bouncing all over the place.
The motor is loud, the flight check serious, and I never did learn how to recover from a stall. But the instructor, a crewcut ex-military fellow living at the end of his patience, said I was ready to solo.
I’d done touch-and-go’s pretty well. This is where you land but then immediately take off again. Because, if you think about it. landing properly is the most important thing you learn. Can’t land the plane? Definitely a problem.
So, heart in my throat, I clicked down the clipboard for the flight check, and then had no excuse to delay further. My instructor was in the control tower, and I spoke with them on the radio. Cleared for take off.
Picking up speed now, the Cessna’s nose lifting, and- I’m flying the airplane! I’m flying the airplane! Wow! Wow! I’m flying the airplane!
Ok, calm down now. Gaining altitude now. To gain altitude, you increase the power. You push the throttle knob, this speeds up the engine, and you go higher. You adjust your speed with the wheel, by pulling toward your chest or pushing it away from you. If you push it, the nose drops, and you go faster. Pull it, the nose rises, and you slow down. But don’t pull it too much. Too slow, and the airplane stops flying. It stalls.
That means it suddenly slips to one side or the other, and all quickly the entire windscreen is filled with the ground, which rotates before you, way too fast.
I didn’t want that to happen. It would be … bad.
But this was to be an easy once-around. I’d take off, gain altitude, make two left turns, lose some altitude, make two left turns, and land.
Except that, while landing, I did the wrong thing. I was too excited. I shoved the throttle, and did a touch-and-go. This turned out to be a problem because the control tower already had a small jet in the pattern, and so I came up upon it. At the time I didn’t realize it was small; it looked big. And big jets can mean sudden death to small planes, because the spinning air rushing from the tips of huge wings can completely flip your airplane. And it was dead ahead.
I started furiously wagging my tail. It’s a way to slow a plane by making it tack right and left. You turn the wheel left and press the left pedal, and then reverse. It makes the plane go slow, wagging its tail. The jet, being a jet, moved ahead quickly out of my way.
The control tower patiently routed the other incoming traffic around the imbecile — moi? — and I started making left turns to come in for my final approach. And then, by chance, I looked out my left window at the ground.
Have you ever heard of psychedelic flashback? It means that some remnant of old crap in your system, even years later, can cause you to start tripping again.
Well, the ground — all the way to Burbank — was heaving and bubbling, as far as I could see. I’d never had a flashback, but I recognized it now.
Sternly, I told myself, “Right now … is not the time.”
Slowly, the ground below flattened out again. The runway ahead beckoned.
The Cessna floated gently to the ground.