Icarus Redux

DeWitt Clinton —

I still live in Shorewood, Wisconsin, not Sherwood, for there’s nothing foresty or Shakespearian about this tiny little add-on to Metro Milwaukee. We’re a bit too far inland to feel the fury of hurricanes, but often in the summer, parts of Wisconsin will feel like a wind tunnel coming out of Tornado Alley of the Midwest. I haven’t yet been sucked up into a tornado, and if I were, I probably wouldn’t be too self reflective about the flying cows, just a heightened uncertainty with a tremendous amount of body rag motion, and of course, flying that high unsupervised is downright deadly.

Nope, I don’t really want to fly, but maybe in a well supervised balloon, or even more daringly, in a one-seat glider, and I would bring some caution to running off a cliff with only nylon and high tech fibers to keep me aloft as I soar in the updrafts, or downdrafts, if there are any. I have always chosen the window seat, and I’ve been thrilled to be so high above the Grand Canyon to get a spectacular view of something I once walked down to the very bottom, thinking I could walk right back out.

Secretly, I’ve wanted to be abducted, not the kind of chilling news story that brings heartache to all my friends and acquaintances; no, I’m thinking of real live abductions from space travelers who pick up earthlings and take them on free tours of the Universe. That would be cool, but definitely, definitely, no probing. Not allowed. After the glow of watching “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” at least 20 times, I just know I could be selected for starship travel. But I’ve been disappointed before, and I’ll just have to wait my turn. Being patient with all these aspirations has its rewards, for the flight is much more exciting and deeply riveting if I actually never take off from the gravity of this planet which I do admire and enjoy at times. Still, the idea of flying on my own wings is sort of cool.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”

Much trepidation has been made about poor Icarus falling from the sunny blue Mediterranean sky. I rather imagine it was quite thrilling, and certainly qualified as mythic flight, at least in my book. What could be more exciting than planning an escape from the dreadful island of Crete? Actually I remember motor scootering around the island with much delight, especially as my companion was far more mythic than simply an American traveling alone from Detroit. Too often our fathers suggest the Middle Path, as Daedalus advised to his high flying son. Just imagine the view, especially Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” (c. 1558), with all those rustics living a life of sheep herding, as well as the beautiful sailing ship that traveled much further and longer than Icarus or Daedalus might ever have imagined. (In Bruegel’s painting, Icarus’s fall is inconsequential, so all you see are limbs flailing in the water, presumably drowning.) After all, W. H. Auden reminded us all that no one paid any attention to “the disaster,” anyway.

On a recent birthday wish, I had planned to elevate myself with a friend above the lovely rolling landscape outside Milwaukee, but the launch kept being delayed, the skies were too overcast, and I have lamented about not popping a champagne bottle above what the locals call the Kettle Moraine, a geological wonder that can be best appreciated from far above. Actually my dream was to ascend into unknown parts of the stratosphere without our air captain, but I didn’t share that with my good friend, and reading it now, he may not wish to fly with me in such high places again.

Just imagine, each minute rising faster with only feather and wax where we simply climb so high, we run out of air. Painful of course, but sometimes, it just seems worth it to get the view that high above dear Earth. First cold, then snot freezing on the blue lip, then iced as if for packing, then thawing as we slowly ascend into the warmth of the Sun, but by then, our helium might have reacted to the bitter cold. Who knows?

I have no desire to make such a climb on the highest mountains, with pick and axe and oxygen tank when the air becomes too rarefied. No, I like a picnic basket, a good set of binoculars, and just the right clothing where the lapels of a sport jacket begin flapping in the breeze of our rented balloon, or up there, we might address it as “the wind.” I do wonder at that moment if I would like to look down upon a tornado, for if we dropped too suddenly out of curiosity, we just might be foolishly sucked into the cornucopia mouth of a great black hole that might just send us all the way back to Kansas, a place where getting off the ground is even a little harder to do without the proper apparatus.

There’s also something most comforting about leaning over the sides a bit, creating a slight tilt, somewhat like the tilt of a giant Ferris wheel when the operator decides to break just a little too fast when helping a lovely couple out of their love nest. It’s much like leaning over the edge of something, probably no more dangerous than leaning over the railing of a balcony seat at a Polish or Italian opera house where the music is so enthralling that by all means, yes, lean over, join the chorus from far above.

Yet if there ever was terror, it might have been descending Mount Masada in Israel on a sunny June morning when the tram was moving much too quickly and despite the vigorous climb up only a few hours ago, the descent was much too unsettling, so I found it much more safe, reasonable, even practical to simply splay myself in the bottom of the light moving car, holding on to dear life. We did descend without incident, but the memory of looking up, or out, and only seeing sky, lots and lots of sky, was far too much for any mortal to accept as fait accompli.

I straddled a similar tram descending from the heights of Mt. San Jacinto just outside Palm Springs and there, the lines were a little too loose, and so to the delight of many of the tourists, and my untested air balloonist from Wisconsin, we swayed back and forth all the way back to Earth. Yet neither of these horrors comes even close to the death defying experience of walking across the Royal Gorge located somewhere out in the West. If the suspension bridge is still in operation, out of decency, park supervisors should warn little children for nothing should be walked or driven across at such heights with so much space before finding the little creek that runs through the horrifying gulch.

No, sheer death for me is being blown about like a feather far too near the Sun when the tram is far too light weight, the bridge far too unstable, and life shouldn’t present such precarious situations. I do like a wind, a little wind, and ascending is so much more aspiring than the terrible descent back to what we call so informally as ground, as mother Earth, as sweet home, a place for bipeds to place their feet upon. Even Ovid knew the poor wet end of dear Icarus.

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