by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
February 20, 2010
FLYING WITHOUT FEATHERS
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Mankind has always wanted to fly, and not by being X-rayed at an airport and then scrunched into a tiny seat three across with a change of planes in Atlanta. That's the kind of flying that inspired Orson Welles to say, "There are only two emotions in a plane: boredom and terror."
I'm thinking of flying as a metaphor for freedom.
From Icarus' melted wings to the Wright Brothers to Lucky Lindy to the chic single-engine adventuring of the wealthy (think "Out of Africa") to planes as weaponry to elegant travel with Louis Vuitton luggage to private jets to airliners for the hoi polloi that remind me of Greyhound buses - as a race we humans have always been trying to emulate birds in flight.
"I fly because it releases my mind from the tyranny of petty things," said Antoine de Saint-Exupery.
At Harris Hill here in Brattleboro last weekend, we got a taste of Olympic thrill-flying as we watched male and female ski jumpers hurl themselves into the air and fly for what seemed like miles. Of course, it was more like meters, but to me it looked as if they were hovering in the air. Looking up at them from below, their skis looked for all the world like the feet of birds. It was thrilling.
This week, in many ways, athletes are courting flight at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Through the wonders of modern technology, they are taking me with them.
Of course, there's real flying and then there's metaphorical flying. Jumping off a 90-meter ramp on skis is real flying. Ice skating at speeds up to 40 mph is metaphorical flying. You may feel as if you're flying, but your feet (hopefully) don't leave the ice unless you're doing one of those gravity-deying leaps.
Whether real or metaphorical, flying seems to be an integral part of winter sport. In Vancouver, it's taking many forms. There's the feeling of flying that the women in pairs skating must feel when their partners hold them high above their heads and glide them across the rink, the breeze rustling their hair, or when they throw their bodies into triple turns and lutzes.
It's the same with luge, where real flying - into-the-air flying - can lead to disaster, as we saw with the tragic death of Georgian Nodar Kumaritashvili during a practice run before the Games began. His body flew home the wrong way on Monday - in a brown coffin.
Before Kumaritashvili's death, the sliders were flying down that curve of glare ice at 95 miles an hour. Now that the track has been shortened and fixed, the men are still going 90, and some are complaining that it's too slow. And the women are doing about 83. Even in the face of death, they're still in thrall to the thrill of flying down a long, hard, gleaming wall of ice as fast as they can - "A rocket ride to the bottom," as one announcer said.
The snowboarders fly for real, scraping the sky while holding on to their boards. One AT&T commercial has a boarder flying out into space, and it doesn't seem far-fetched, at least in my imagination.
Flying down a mountain on skis - either straight down or bouncing off moguls - looks like breathtaking fun. At speeds close to 70 mph, downhill skiing is combination of perfect balance, steady nerves, superb physical conditioning and a total disregard for the laws of gravity. When American Bode Miller got to the end of his run, he didn't look as if he cared whether he won bronze, silver or gold he won two of those). He looked as if he wanted to turn around and make love to the mountain.
Then there's the crazy snowboard cross, which looks like an airborne, high-speed version of Roller Derby.
As Wilbur Wright, who should know, said about flight, "More than anything else the sensation is one of perfect peace mingled with an excitement that strains every nerve to the utmost, if you can conceive of such a combination."
Vancouver is having a tough time as an Olympic host. Canada's quest to "own the podium" isn't going very well. The weather is not cooperating with the sport - it's already spring in Vancouver city; the apple blossoms are in bloom. There's either too much snow on the mountains or so little that they have to truck it in. It's so warm that sometimes the speed skating ice develops waves. While Washington, D.C. digs out from under all the snow that Canada craves, it's hard not to think of those brain-dead Senators and Congressmen scratching their heads and saying, "There might be something to this global climate change after all."
Isn't it a miracle that I can lie on my couch every night and feel as if I'm flying? I give thanks to the NBC camera crews and to all the athletes who fly without feathers and make me feel that I can, too.
American Reporter Correspondent Joyce Marcel (joycemarcel.com) is a journalist and columnist. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.