And the book festival was fun, too.
A few weeks ago, when they saw that Schuyler had chosen her hero, Amelia Earhart, for her Halloween costume, Austin friends Jim and Pat Howard emailed me with an amazing offer for Schuyler's weekend in town for the Texas Book Festival, assuming we had time. When I read the offer, I knew immediately that we'd make the time.
I'm not sure how long I've known Jim and Pat, although I can remember Jim giving me a hard time about buying my previous car, the admittedly ridiculous Beelzebug, and that was over ten years ago. Jim and I couldn't be further apart in our politics, but we've never let that poison our friendship. As a result, I think that even when we disagree, we do actually hear each other occasionally. We finally met face to face a number of years ago, I believe when I returned to Texas from my Yankee exile, and Julie and I have counted the Howards as constant supporters of Schuyler and this family for as along as I can remember. I was delighted by their offer, but I can't say I was surprised.
So it was that on a beautiful, clear Sunday morning a week and a half ago, Julie and Schuyler and I found ourselves at the airport in Austin, walking out to see what was easily the most beautiful aircraft I have ever seen.
The jet is a Dassault Mystere Falcon 900, built in France and considered to be among the finest, if not the finest, civilian aircraft that a gigantic box of money can buy. (According to the Dassault website, there are only 160 of them in the world.)
The pilot of the Falcon is Kyle Kimmell, and from the first moment we met him, he impressed us with his kindness towards Schuyler, his patience with her and his appreciation of her enthusiasm. I can't even begin to express how generous it was for him and for the plane's owner to have prepped and made available for her to see it like this. The Falcon was sleek and perfect on the outside, and indescribably plush in the cabin, but Schuyler was only interested in the cockpit. Kyle explained what all the controls did, he didn't flinch when she grabbed the headset and put it on, and he even let her start up the engines. (I suspect she burned about a month of my salary's worth of fuel while we were sitting there.) He was more than patient. Kyle seemed genuinely happy to show this amazing aircraft to Schuyler, and he thanked us for bringing her more than once.
And really, getting to go on board the Falcon and sit in the cockpit and fire up the plane's systems, all of that would have been enough to make Schuyler's whole year.
But we were just getting started.
Jim is a member and past president of the Chandelle Flying Club in Austin, the group that owns the 1978 Piper PA-28 Warrior that he took us up in. Like her hero Amelia Earhart, Schuyler got to take to the air.
Owing to a lack of space and Julie's intense and unshakable desire not to leave the ground, the flight consisted of Jim and Schuyler in the front and me sitting behind them. Jim walked Schuyler through the pre-flight check and showed her exactly what he was doing, and then we were off.
Schuyler can be a squirrelly kid when she gets excited, and we were worried that she might get a little flighty, no pun intended. But throughout the whole experience, from the moment we climbed into the plane on, she was suddenly very focused, listening carefully to Jim's instructions and becoming very quiet when he needed to communicate with the control tower. She was a perfect little passenger as the plane took off and as Jim climbed to about 3000 feet.
And then she became a perfect little pilot.
I don't think she believed that she was actually flying the plane until Jim took his hands off the controls altogether. He showed her the basics of flight control and then, for the bulk of the rest of the flight (excluding the landing, of course), Schuyler piloted the plane. Jim would pick landmarks on the ground, such as smoke from a fire or the glint of the sun on a lake, and Schuyler would take us there, circling the target once we arrived. Jim emailed me afterwards to let me know that she had in fact been flying the plane for most of the flight. "I think she pretty much figured out how to control the roll axis," he wrote. "When I helped it was usually with the pitch axis. As is typical for new flyers she started with a death grip on the control yoke, but unlike some adults I've flown with I was able to persuade her to relax and hold the yoke more gently, which makes flying much easier."
It's a funny thing about Schuyler. She's got this disability, and it throws obstacles in her path every day. School is challenging for her and will only become more so. The social life of a preteen girl isn't going to be easy or gentle on her, either, particularly not in a town like Plano. Her future is harder than I let on sometimes, perhaps because I want her story to be nothing but successes, and I suppose sometimes I don't talk much about the bumps that she hits, or the ones still waiting in the future for her.
But Schuyler is tenacious, and while she loved flying and is still talking about it (and answering happily to "Flygirl"), I don't think it occurs to her that she's unusual for getting to go up in an airplane, to actually take control of an aircraft and fly it. For Schuyler, life seems to be a series of experiences, of new people to meet while she signs books with her face on the cover, to attend a book festival and listen as her story is discussed by a panel of published authors, to see herself or her father on television, or to take to the air. I've gotten a lot of things wrong with her over the years; I've blown it many times as her father. But by introducing her to a world with people like Jim and Pat Howard and Kyle Kimmell in it, and by trying my very best to accommodate unique opportunities for her, I like to think that sometimes I get it right, even if that just means getting out of her way. I'm forty-one years old and I've never flown an airplane. I like to think that Schuyler's life experiences will intensely outshine my own. In all the significant ways, they already have.
All of this is to say that I am immensely proud of Schuyler, more than I have words for.
Jim described Schuyler as "a real ball of fire, with the heart of a lioness". I felt bad for him in one moment, when he took the controls to show Schuyler exactly how steeply the plane could turn. I'm not sure what he thought he saw when he glanced over at her, but he seemed to think that perhaps he'd pushed it too far, that the daunting angle of the plane had frightened or bothered Schuyler. But midway through the second turn, I tapped her on the shoulder and asked her if she was having fun.
I think the photo I snapped when she looked back at me says it all:
Thanks to pilots Jim Howard and Kyle Kimmell.