Chapter 06 - Defying Gravity.

Defying Gravity (2013).

Past and Present - Long Beach, CA, 1980s

 

She closed her eyes and tightened her grip on the thick stems of the flowers in her hands. Inhale, exhale; methodically, she repeated these simple actions. Her eyes would open, close, and the grip would tighten, followed by the soft, systematic breathing - inhaling and exhaling.

This moment was happening. Behind a set of large oak doors she awaited to make her way down the path to an adventure, one that might be her greatest. They always told her this would be the greatest adventure of her life, but she was never really sure. She was about to find out. A blonde curl had fallen loose and was quickly pushed back from her face as the music began to play. She pulled herself together in a frantic, collecting as much poise as she could find. 

The doors opened and the long pathway stood before her. Her heartbeat quickened as all eyes were focused on her. Something, however, brought her back to find her poise that she was always known for, that poise that was perfectly hers, perfectly Cinde’s. The path before her was the runway, her flowers the lever for the gas. She closed her eyes and saw the set up of the cockpit, the scenery of the airport and tower control, the horizon just ahead of her. 

She took the first step forward - the airplane was heading down the runway. She opened her eyes to find the horizon scenery slowly fading away. Where the image of the horizon once was stood the man that knew the thoughts that were racing through her head, the only man that could guess that she was simulating take-off to get her through this moment. He smiled. She smiled back at him. 

 

She found her horizon. She found her defiance.

- - - - - 

“Shut up, Cinde!” He yelled back at her laughter. She knew he hated it, but every time he forgot the basic procedures before take-off, she took immense pleasure in laughing at him.

 

Scott was the kind of man who liked to know everything. He took pride in thoroughly researching anything before he attempted it—from algebra in college to aviation school with Cinde, he knew everything before he even made the first attempt. That is, he knew everything a book could provide him with. That, there, was Scott’s greatest flaw, even if Cinde didn’t like to admit it. To Cinde, Scott seemed to be perfect. He was a tall man, but not too tall, with olive-colored skin and deep, brown eyes. He was a lean man, smart as a whip, with a good sense of humor. Although his jokes were usually related to bodily functions, Cinde still laughed. The sound of his laughter just made her laugh along with him.

She knew she loved him a couple of days after they met. She knew it was crazy to think such a thing and kept that secret to herself for quite some time. Even with the gross jokes and the ignorance of some of the regulations that a book could not teach him, she knew he was something amazing. She fell head over heels when they first met. She walked up to him, said "Hello," and expected some wisecrack about a woman being in a man’s world.

 

Instead, he said, "Hello, you’re Cinde? Nice to meet you, I’m Scott. Where is my Cessna-152?"  She was a pilot and a woman, but to Scott she was a pilot first. She loved that.

- - - - - 

“All right, Cinde, you are all set to go,” said the instructor. He looked at her nervously. 

She knew that she was about to make an entire airport hold its breath. Something about that thought made her heart race a little, and her adrenaline pump miles a minute. It was the most exciting and nauseating feeling in the world.

Cinde - small, blonde, and beautiful - tied her hair back and headed across the row of planes outside of the hangers. She knew which plane she would take out today. The same plane she took out when she was given the chance to choose. It was small, red, and really nothing special in terms of aviation technology. According to the standards of the 1970s, this little plane, a tiny Cessna-152, was the norm of lower end aviation. However, this plane was the key that unlocked Cinde’s heart, her passion to fly.

Her father had flown a plane exactly like it. It was cherry-red and beautiful. She watched him taxi out, radio to tower control, and navigate down the runway many times; all in that small, little, red plane. And every time her heart would race a little faster and her stomach would fall to the bottom of her feet. It was in those moments that she knew what she was born to do. She would fly.

Cinde stood next to her red Cessna-152 and waited as the instructors checked out each plane of every pilot in front of the hangers before they could taxi out to the runway. Today’s test included five different pilots, four of them being men. Of course, they started at the beginning of the line, where the four men stood next to the best planes in the Long Beach hanger. About ten planes down the line from them, Cinde couldn’t hear their hearts beating or the nervous chatter they were exchanging with one another. She was left alone with her memories and thoughts, and that was the way she liked it.

She leaned up against the side of the plane, feeling the warmth of the plane against her bare shoulders. It was hot, but she loved the feeling of the heat. It was a tradition for Cinde; in her colorful tank tops she would show her bare shoulders around the airport. In a world dominated by men, it gave her the right balance she needed to succeed. She could play with them, and in her opinion, she could kick all of their asses in one blow. But she was also a woman, beautiful and proud of it. A little bit of skin and the drooling expressions in response always reminded her of that. She was playing in a man’s world, and she was the best woman for the job.

She knew it would be a while. The wind whipped away at her face, her hair, and she smiled. She loved the way it made her cheeks sting a little. She knew her face was already bright pink, a result of the sun and the wind. Sadly, no daughter of an Irish man could escape the pink skin syndrome. Daughter of an Irish man; Cinde closed her eyes and sank her shoulder deeper into the side of the plane, wincing with the oncoming wave of heat from the plane’s exterior. This moment had been in the works for so long and it was finally happening. She was going to make an entire airport hold its breath… the adrenaline suddenly left her body. She was going to be sick, surely.

The image of her father’s contemplative face flashed into her thoughts. She knew exactly where this image was coming from; a memory from a couple of years back. It was a memory that she didn’t really like to think about too often, but a memory that shaped her future, nonetheless. Cinde was nineteen-years-old then, "young and impressionable," according to her father. She was a student of medicine at that point, studying to be a veterinarian. Cinde loved the sky, a good book, and animals. Everyone knew that one day she would be saving the lives of animals, especially dogs. Cinde had a soft spot for big, loveable dogs.

It had been a rough day at school; she was a student at California State University, Long Beach. For so long she had known that this, being a vet, was what she wanted to do. For something that seemed so certain, why did it all not make a whole lot of sense? After hours of studying, the pieces were not falling in place as they should be. The passion was there, but where was the magic academic spark? Apparently her Cinderella moment, glass slippers, and a scalpel, just wasn’t falling into place.

With her small house key, she opened up the front door to find her father in his Captain’s uniform, just getting home from another trip. Her father, Captain Glenn Shannon, was just sitting down at the kitchen table, about to indulge his wife (her mother), Dolores, in the adventures of his latest journey. Cinde looked at him looking at her mother with a subtle smile across his face. She was envious of him at that moment; she wanted to find that smile for herself.

Cinde dropped her bag in the doorway and listened to her father tell a tale of a daring landing he made in Anchorage, Alaska. He was telling her mother about the icy runway and the last-minute application of the brakes that saved them all. Her mother gasped at all the right moments and laughed at the end and clapped, congratulating her husband on a job well done. Cinde watched as her father smiled and her mother continued to stir the noodles on the stove. Cinde could smell them, pork and noodles, her father’s favorite meal after a long trip, to be promptly served at 6:00 p.m. 

She wanted that; Cinde wanted to come home from a great adventure. She was so proud of her father and so jealous at the same time. He had the smile across his face, and for a moment she was so angry that she couldn’t have that. It was what seemed like the longest journey (really, only a matter of a few feet from the doorway to the kitchen). Cinde marched up the entryway stairs to the kitchen. She felt empowered, angry, assertive, authoritative, and most of all, scared. She was going to do it.

“Dad, I want to fly,” Cinde said assertively when she reached the doorway to the kitchen.

Her mother stopped stirring the noodles and looked back at her daughter, standing there. Cinde looked at her mom, certain but afraid. Captain Glenn Shannon looked upon his daughter, processing the words that she had just thrown out at him. Cinde knew he would have a hard time processing her demands, coming to terms with her dreams. She would give him a few more moments to try and understand, to try to relate to where she was.

“Are you sure?” he asked her. Cinde was a little surprised that his first words were not, "No way in hell will my daughter fly!" She swallowed her pounding her heart and found her breath to speak. “Yes, yes, dad” she responded.

“Then fly, Cinde” he told her. She was shocked. She knew she should be jumping up and down at this moment. She had finally come to terms with her real dreams and her father was willing to let her do it. Even her mother was shocked, standing with a spoon full of egg noodles slipping back into the boiling pot.

 

“All right, then, I’ll fly,” she responded, short of breath. “Yeah, I’ll fly,” she repeated. She looked at her father, nodded, smiled, and kicked her feet around to walk out of the kitchen. Standing still, in a state of shock, she made her way for the stairs. 

    She was going to fly. 

- - - - - 

“Get in there Shannon,” said the second instructor. Cinde pried herself from her frozen state and slowly climbed into Little Red. The roar of planes starting up for taxi and the wind from the runway pushed her into the cockpit. The second instructor closed the door behind her. The roaring engines and wind ceased. Cinde was left alone with her thoughts.

She climbed up to the Captain’s chair and found her leather jacket awaiting her in the co-captain seat. Her dad had already been here and left it for her. He never let Cinde leave anywhere without a jacket, and when flying, she never left without her leather jacket. It had been her father’s before her when he was learning to fly; it meant the world to her. She slipped it on and zipped it up the front. Even though it was warm in the cockpit she had to wear it. She looked out the window and into the observation deck to find her father standing there, looking down upon her. She waved at him and he smiled at her. Slowly, a subtle smile crept across her face. She had finally found it.

The motion of the instructor outside her window caught her attention and broke her gaze away from her waving father. The instructor was motioning for her to start to taxi to the second runway. Cinde nodded, radioed into tower control for clearance, and was set. Tower control gave her the go; it was now or never. A slight application of the gas and the plane lurched forward. She was nervous but wasn’t afraid anymore. She just needed to get Little Red into the sky.

 

The first straightaway ahead of her… Cinde checked the gages as tower control made final preparations for her clearance for take-off. Everything looked perfect. Was she missing something? Hopefully, not; she said a quick “have mercy on me” as she made her way to the first turn in the runway. A familiar voice cracked through the airwaves, “All right Shannon, let’s do it. Make em’ choke, Earhart,” said her flight instructor. Cinde smiled at looked up to tower control as she made the last turn to face her long stretch of take-off surface.

From a distance away, on the observation deck, Captain Glenn Shannon of Western Airlines watched as his youngest daughter approached her take-off mark on the runway. He watched as his daughter signaled to tower control for clearance. He saw Cinde nod back at tower control, affirming their approval for her take-off. At that moment he held his breath, along with every other person roaming the halls, the hangers, the runway, tower control, of the small Long Beach airport. The engines roared on the cherry red Cessna-152, as it started to push forward down the path to the horizon. He smiled as he watched a small part of himself take-off for the very first time, alone.

Just a few seconds before firing those engines, Cinde killed the radio to be truly alone in those moments of take-off. She smiled as the engines roared, her heart and adrenaline pumping faster and faster as the speed of Little Red increased down the runway. A pulled-back blonde ponytail and a brown leather jacket; in the captain’s seat she found the magic. Glass slippers and a gas pull; she was the Cinderella of the sky. Cinde pulled back on the wheel and let Little Red leave the ground. She laughed with such excitement and passion, something tower control never heard in those few seconds her radio was off (she would later tell tower control the signal had simply cut out for a few seconds). 

An entire airport exhaled as the last wheel of little red left the ground. As she found the horizon everyone down below cheered, something she never heard in those few seconds that her radio was off. She had done it, a solo take-off. Cinderella of the sky; she found her horizon, she found her defiance. 

- - - - - 

“Lohman, Scott,” Cinde called. Standing next to one of the newer Cessna planes in the hanger, a lean, olive-skinned man waited for her final approval.

“Yes, ma’am,” he responded. Three other male pilots chuckled at Scott’s immediate response, either out of complete fear or respect. With her sharp green eyes, Cinde flashed a look of authority at the men, who responded with a split second look of fear, and then faced forward to await their final inspections. She smiled. That was more like it.

“Ready, then?” Cinde asked and she made her final circle of the plane, making sure all was in order.

“Always have been,” Scott responded. She smiled and told him to head into the cockpit. 

As soon as he made his way in Cinde closed the door behind him. She knew these next few seconds would become some of his greatest memories. She watched from below as Scott put his sunglasses on and prepared himself for take-off. She knew that look all too well; he was retracing every line in every book he had ever read about flying solo. She knew that once he took off that he would find that this wasn’t something a book could ever prepare you for. This moment was inside of you, inside of every pilot who set sail in the sky. It was apart of his mojo, his moxie, and that is something no author or teacher can ever prepare you for.

“Cinde! Come on!” an old friend and fellow instructor yelled to her. She snapped out of her moment, watching Scott in the cockpit. She turned to her friend, and together they ran across the runway to tower control before the students were allowed to taxi out.

In the air-conditioned room, she listened as the radio controllers issued commands to the student pilots, about to become just pilots. This was a great moment for any instructor, but an especially great moment for Cinde. One pilot after another, and then it was Scott's turn. In his gray and blue Cessna-152, Scott made the first straightaway and the first turn, checking the gages and checking for clearance with tower control. Everything was set.

Like everyone did on that day when Cinde sat in Scott’s same place, she held her breath as the engines began to roar. Scott was moving forward and fast, about to find his own horizon. Intently focused on that little Cessna, Cinde could vaguely hear something about Scott’s radio cutting out. She smiled; when she first started to teach Scott how to fly, she told him that story of the day she became a pilot, how she cut out radio control to really fly on her own. The last wheel was leaving the runway and tower control began to cheer on Scott and his successful take-off. Cinde exhaled, smiled, and clapped loudly. 

He found his horizon; she was his defiance.

- - - - - 

Unfortunately, there was no way to cut out the audience at this moment, as she had done with tower control years prior. It was okay though; she had the poise that was only hers - her poise as the Cinderella of the sky. The poise of Cinde Shannon, the pilot.

 

She found him where the horizon was in her daydream. He took her hand when she made it to the altar. She felt his pulse beating just as hard as hers. It comforted her.

 

She was his defiance. He came from a conservative family of women that made upholding a feminine poise of the utmost importance. Surely, marrying a woman who flew planes for a living (and taught him how to fly) didn’t fit that conservative mold well. He said, "I do" and defied his squirming mother in the front row. Cinde said "I do" to defy his mother and because she loved it. She liked how the two complimented each other so well. Here began one of her many, great adventures.

Although it would become one of her greatest memories, a silly take-off was nothing to be so excited about it in the world of Cinde Shannon. Marriage was one adventure that would prove to be a constant adrenaline rush, outlasting the few seconds of take-off. She would race Little Red with the few other women who dared to race in a man’s world. She was moving faster than her body.

Moving faster and higher, flying her way into the unwritten history of women. The history of small steps of defiance that paved the way for a woman to become anything and everything; all Cinde Shannon had to do was defy gravity.

Defying Gravity Art.jpg

Defying Gravity - Illustrated by Bianca Ungerman.

© 2020 Bianca Ungerman

Defying Gravity 2 Art.png

“Yes, sir” she responded. She pushed herself off from the side of the plane, standing with full posture behind the left wing of Little Red. She brushed off the dust from her shoulder and waited for the final approval for take-off. Cinde envisioned this moment taking a lot longer than it did. It felt as if two seconds later they were telling her to get into the plane and get ready for her first solo take-off. Funny how the greatest moments of our lives seem to flash past us so fast; twenty minutes condensed into two seconds.

Defying Gravity - Illustrated by Bianca Ungerman.

© 2020 Bianca Ungerman

"Shannon, Cynthia," the second instructor called out as he approached Cinde, standing by her Little Red. Quickly, she opened her eyes and awoke from the daydream.