What had first appeared as a small wrinkle in the harsh terrain of northern New Mexico was growing larger and more ominous as the setting sun back lit the peaks of the Sangre de Cristo mountains stretching toward the suddenly tiny twin-engine aircraft in which Ed Browning, paramedic Kyle Nevius and I were flying.
Squinting into the sun, Browning made a minute adjustment on the autopilot and said, "We need a little more rate-of-climb to get over those mountains."
"That's not a problem, is it?" I asked.
"Probably not," Browning said casually, "but if it is, we'll at least be on the evening weather report."
"Weather report?" I gulped.
"Yeah," said Browning, with a broad let's-torment-the-tenderfoot grin "the part where it says, "cumulo granite followed by aluminum showers."
I was watching the sun set through the trees of Dade City on Monday when I heard the news that Ed Browning had died while playing the fourth hole at Citrus Springs Golf & Country Club.
"His heart just stopped beating," his wife, Shirley, said later. "They tried to resuscitate him there on the course and nothing worked. At least he was with friends doing something he loved on a beautiful day."
I had seen Ed only four or five times since that flight over the Continental Divide in 1981 and hadn't talked to him for probably four or five years, but I was amazed at the vivid images that appeared instantly in my mind.
In a 72-hour air ambulance trip from Hidden Lake near New Port Richey to Farmington, N.M., to pick up Lisa Mumma, a 19-year-old Hudson woman comatose in the aftermath of a near-fatal beating, I got the crash course in Ed Browning. I liked what I learned.
He was to cross the continent again a little more than three years later when he decided to prove the effectiveness of his quadruple-bypass surgery by riding a bicycle 3,222 miles from San Diego to New Port Richey. Lack of determination was not one of his failings.
He was a big man, 6 foot 4 and pushing 230 pounds, a fact I noted with approval when, a few hours after landing in New Mexico, we walked into a bar in Farmington and were confronted with a sign reading, "YOU MUST CHECK YOUR FIREARMS AT THE DOOR."
"That's a joke," I asked the bartender, "right?"
She explained in a bored monotone that the bar was situated between reservations of two Indian nations that did not get along _ although some of their members were occasionally able to agree on a mutual distaste for whites. "Check 'em if you got 'em," she said.
"I don't think we're in New Port Richey anymore," Browning said as we sought seats with our backs to the wall.
The next morning, after we walked down a long emergency room hallway full of the gunshot- and stab-wound evidence of the truthfulness of the bartender's social commentary, I saw the soft side of Ed Browning.
While Nevius labored to get an IV started in a vein in one of Lisa's skeletal arms, Browning stood beside the bed with his fists clenched looking at her battered body covered with surgical scars and bite wounds, and tears rolled down a craggy face that looked like it had been carved out of an oak stump with a dull ax.
"Jesus," he said, "who would want to do that to another human being? Jesus!"
Doctors had said she would never walk or speak again, but Browning's thanks for his kindness in slashing the price of the air-ambulance flight came three years later when she was in the crowd waiting at the end of his bike ride. Standing with the use of a cane, she was able to say, quietly, "Welcome home."
"He made an impression on people," his wife, Shirley, said Tuesday. "He wasn't one to draw attention to himself, but he had his own quiet way of doing things."
"He was just a hell of a nice guy," said Pasco County Administrator John Gallagher, whom Browning taught to fly. "You liked being around him."
After being declared disabled as a pilot because of his heart condition and diabetes, Browning played keyboard with two area bands, Generation Gap and The Firehouse Five. He had performed on New Year's Eve at Enzo's at the Phoenix and had played Saturday night at the Blue Dophin. "He said it was his best night in years," his wife said. "Everything was going great and the audience really seemed to enjoy it."
He had quit smoking, still rode his bike 22 miles at a time several times per week and had only recently expressed concern about reports that some people were needing second coronary bypasses after 10 years. "He died exactly 10 years and one week after his surgery."
Fellow musician Tim Ferro credits Browning with changing his life. "Twelve years ago I was going through a divorce. I'm legally blind. I had no self-esteem," said Ferro. "He inspired me to play music. He would get me out on a bicycle and have me follow him close enough that I could see. He encouraged me to go to college and today I am a schoolteacher and a play in a band. I owe most of what I am in my life to Ed Browning."
And Browning didn't forget those he befriended. Lisa Mumma recovered sufficiently to get married. She was widowed when her young husband apparently suffered a stroke.
Browning had a personal distaste for funerals, so he didn't go when Lisa took another one of several blows life has handed her. Instead he sent her a poem he had written offering his support and help.
"I picked you up once," it read, in part, "I can pick you up again."
In keeping with his wishes, there will be no funeral. A few days or a few weeks from now a plane will take off from Hidden Lakes with Ed Browning's ashes on board and they will be spread, quietly, on the winds.
And then, again in accordance with his wishes, said Mrs. Browning, "We're going to have a party."