Not If, but When


When Lester cut the engine and we started to go down, the “What-If” Game turned serious.

The palms of my hands were cold and sweaty the morning I first met Lester at the airport in Chardon, Ohio. Lester was a legend. Crusty and dusty was a good way to describe him. He was a short, stubby old guy who had run Dethloff’s Flying Service at Chardon’s Airport for—well—forever. Now he stood sizing me up, not exactly excited by the 15-year-old boy he saw. Finally, he asked, “Okay, what do you want?”

“I want to learn to fly.”

“So does every other kid in the world. What should I do about it?”

I wasn’t going to back down, so I asked, “Will you teach me?”

He stared at me for some time. I felt like I was being X-rayed. “Nobody can teach anybody to fly,” Lester grumbled. “Only experience can do that! But I can show ya how it’s done. But only if. …”

“If what?”

If you’re willing to work hard enough to learn.”

“I am.”

“We’ll soon see, won’t we?” Lester turned and began walking away. I stayed rooted, not sure what to do.

He finally turned around and said, “Well, aren’t you coming?”

“Coming where?”

He looked at me like he couldn’t quite believe what he saw. “Flying for goodness’ sakes. Flying! Isn’t that why you came here?”

The next 40 minutes were crowded. We rattled and bumped across the grass and then climbed toward the clouds. Straight and level. Shallow turns. Climbing. Gliding. Then climbing and gliding turns. He guided me as we eased back toward the runway and didn’t take control until we were crossing the wires strung on poles beside the road. We climbed out. He nodded his head and said, “I guess you’ll do.”

I pedaled my bicycle home that day fueled by pure elation.

Lester taught me to fly in those next months. And he taught me a whole lot more, too. He demanded excellence. After solo, if you bumped a landing, he’d be waiting. “Be sure you log all three of those landings!” he’d growl.

Lester taught his students to read air. Reading air seemed like a strange idea at first. How do you read what isn’t visible? Yet we learned. He often finished his lessons in aerodynamics with little bits of homily that tied what we learned in the sky with how we lived on earth. Yet he did it so subtly, we didn’t realize it until much, much later.

He always finished those lectures by knocking a knuckle against a picture hanging above his desk. In it, an airplane’s tail stuck upward from a smoking crater. Under the picture were the words, “The law of gravity is strictly enforced!”

Lester was always filled with surprises. One day, I was helping him cut grass around runway lights. We’d finished half of them and were lying on our backs watching clouds appear and disappear. All of a sudden, he said, “Ya know something? I believe in God.”

I looked over at him, not sure I’d heard right.

“Yep,” he added in an uncharacteristically quiet voice. “Yep, there has to be someone up there somewhere to have made such a beautiful place as this. …”

And it was Lester who taught me the “What-If” Game.

“What if one day yer flying along and ya smell smoke?”

“What if one day yer puddling along up there, minding your own business, and all of a sudden. …”

He had hundreds of what-ifs.

One evening as we were flying back and forth across an Ohio summer sky, polishing up a few maneuvers I’d need for my private pilot’s flight test, Lester suddenly reached up without warning and cut the switch on the plane’s engine. My heart stopped along with the propeller. Then he sat back, pulled his cap down over his eyes, folded his arms, and feigned sleep.

I panicked.

I’d stood on the ground and watched Lester come in dead stick a hundred times. So I knew it could be done. But Lester was good—and he’d been flying for 500 years! I was just a kid!

My neck was starting to unscrew from my shoulders as I swiveled my head trying to pick the best cornfield, wheatfield, hayfield, highway, Lake Erie, any place to land! We’d drilled on this a hundred times! But it was always with the engine idling. This was different. The gentle kick of an idling propeller was gone and the altimeter was unwinding—fast!

I finally spotted a good field and started to align the nose with it. It would be a tricky approach. We’d have to cross some woods and then slip quickly into a field I knew would be much too tight. But if I did it perfectly and then kicked it into a groundloop just as we reached the far side fence …

Lester stirred. “Why don’t ya use Bunch’s strip?” he asked, pointing downward. “You didn’t look right under us. We’re right over top of Bunch Woods’s home strip!”

He was right! Straight below us was about 1,200 feet of beautiful Ohio grass with Bunch Woods’s house and plane sitting smack at the end.

When we stopped rolling after landing, Lester sat up, set his cap back on straight and said, “Mebbe ya better play the What-If Game more often.” He turned to look at me and his face was serious. “Because, ya know, it’s not a matter of if you’ll ever have an emergency in flight, it’s a matter of when. And when it happens, you’ll be glad you stretched for excellence instead of just being good.”

For me, that night came years later in Gallup, New Mexico, on the way home from a meeting in Tucson. I’d pushed fuel limits a little too far and suddenly found myself with no reserve to reach an alternative field. A mean little thundersquall was sitting on the airport’s north fence sending wind gusts up to 60 miles an hour across the runway. My wife and kids were with me.

Lester was right.

I’ve played the What-If Game many times since then. It’s easy and kind of fun, too. All you do is find a time when you’re a little bored and ask yourself, What if … ?

“What do I do if some day I’m out with the guys and … ?”

“What do I do if some day I’m driving along, minding my own business, and … ?”

“What do I do if some dark night, my boyfriend … ?”

It’s an easy game to play. It doesn’t take any equipment to speak of. And you always win.

But the best part is that when the real thing comes along, you have a plan ready to pull out and use when you need it. Because when you really need it, there won’t be time to plan.

Somewhere, sometime, some night when you’re all alone with no one to help you, you’ll be faced with a split-second decision. It’ll be a decision you’ll have to make alone. It may involve alcohol. It may involve drugs. It may involve sex. It may be dishonesty. But whatever it is, that time will come. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when and where.

I learned the What-If Game when I was a kid. It’s a game that needs to be played frequently and well. For the laws of life, like the law of gravity, are strictly enforced.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Cary Henrie