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Private Lives

Published Oct. 18, 2005

The big white helicopter dropped down for the third time behind the square towers of the 14th century chateau across the newly cut brown fields from our old stone house. "It's probably bringing some politicians to the Aug. 15 celebration in the village," I remarked to my husband. It was a lazy Sunday afternoon, the big Assumption holiday in France. From our chairs on the lawn, we looked out over the dry fields, the massive ruins of the chateau, the dying old village of Floressas and the vineyards beyond.

The noise of the chopper began to intrude on our open-air siesta after lunch. Soon it was up again and this time came circling low over our heads. Faces, young faces it seemed, stared down at us.

"Those aren't politicians," I said. "That pilot is taking people for joy rides."

Suddenly, I was 5,000 miles and more than 50 years away in the small town of Malone in upstate New York. It was another summer of Sunday afternoons. I was 16, working at my first job as a bookkeeper, bringing home my salary to a family impoverished by the Depression.

Instead of a helicopter on Sunday afternoons, there was a single propeller red Taylorcraft taxiing down the grass runway carrying one passenger at a time.

I sat in a little stand at the edge of the field, selling $2 rides. Business was so good that the owner of the airplane opened a hot dog stand, which I also tended with the help of another student. In the carnival atmosphere, most of the passengers were ready to linger over soft drinks and wieners that were almost always cold.

For all that, I was paid in flying lessons in the red Taylorcraft. When I finished work in town, I would pedal my bicycle out to the small flying field for lessons that lasted hardly more than 10 minutes.

They were always too short. I loved the sense of freedom looking down from the air. I don't think I ever thought of flying as a means of getting from one place to another. It would never replace the New York Central trains that stopped in town on their way through to Montreal and New York City.

For me, flying was an adventure. Learning to make the little machine carry me into the sky, barrel roll, do figure eights, go into spins and then land was my first escape from small town life.

I had no fear. Passing over our house, I often wiggled the wings at my anxious parents watching from our yard.

I sat in the co-pilot's seat on one of my last flights and have lived to remember the daring aerobatics performance we put on in front of the grandstand at the county fair. I thought of that Sunday when years later, the same flight instructor crashed and died in the nearby Adirondacks.

I had logged all but the last minutes, less than an hour, needed to solo when I had to abandon the dream of my 16th summer. The leaves were turning. The hot dog stand closed. Schools opened. The Sunday rides ended. I had no money for those last few lessons.

My blue log book lies safely stored away as though it were gold, an unfinished part of my life. I don't think soloing would have changed my course, but I could at least have known what it's like to be alone up there.

All this came rushing back across the years as the white chopper turned overhead and swooped, much too close I thought, between the twin towers of the chateau.

I got into our car and drove down to the village. At the entrance of a grassy field, a homemade sign tacked to a post read "Bapteme de l'Air." Just beyond sat a little elderly lady wearing a hat, one hand on a cash box, the other grasping a block of tickets. The "air baptism" cost 150 francs for five minutes. Five people went up at a time.

For $30, it never occurred to me to go.

When I got back to the house, however, the white machine seemed to have followed me home. I might have imagined it, but I think the pilot was dipping his choppers.

Suddenly I started laughing, and my dozing husband awoke to ask what was the matter. "Oh, nothing," I said.

But here I was, 52 years later, a gray-haired lady, sitting in her rocking chair on a Sunday afternoon in southwest France, remembering a brave, confident girl full of innocent optimism who sold tickets and hot dogs in order to learn how to fly.

She never soloed. Instead, she took her money home, but I wondered why she didn't fight harder to log those last few minutes. I couldn't remember. She simply never became the great aviatrix she dreamed about. Too often, I thought, she stopped just short of success.

But in the years after Malone, she did tackle life with the same daring of that acrobatic afternoon. She danced in the front line at the Lexington, led safaris to Africa, got to Tibet, organized a trade organization in Europe, learned two more languages.

The girl of that summer could never have imagined all this. She could never have conceived that one day she would be a comfortable woman sitting with her husband on a lawn deep in France watching a white helicopter land behind the ruins of a 14th century chateau.

- Beverly Putnam Landrey lives in Paris. Private Lives is edited by Mary Jane Park.