October 2, 2002

I knew that the darkness would come, but still it took me by surprise. As the summer's heat built and then diminished, the daylight for my evening flight gradually faded from bright sunlight to darkness. At first, it was just a matter of an earlier sunset, and then it was dusky when I arrived at Syracuse. Now it is all dark.

I looked out of the airplane one moonless night last week, and was suddenly struck by the depth of the blackness below. Certainly there was plenty of light from the cities, villages, and country crossroads, but the clear dry air kept it from touching the croplands or the forested hills. The extra water vapor or dust in our usual summertime air causes light to diffuse from its source and scatter into the dark areas, dulling the night. The diffusion is difficult to measure, but we readily notice when it is absent, and we invariably oooh and ahhh at all the distant lights on a "sparkling" winter night.

On this evening in fresh autumn air, all the lights from the ground showed very clearly from many miles away, but wherever there was no light, it was completely black. It was an "outer space" kind of black, where it curls up all around you, extends overhead, and it becomes plausible to believe that the blackness represents nothingness. Somehow this sort of darkness has always struck me as "soft", as though it is a deep black velvet that quietly absorbs any light that comes near it.

I had already turned the instrument lights down to a bare- minimum dim and the soft yellow glow of the panel fit well with the soft blackness outside. This was often the situation on trips back from Newark, in the wee hours of the morning into a winter headwind, and I recalled the pleasant feelings of those flights.

It has been more than a year since my nightly destination was switched from Newark to Syracuse, and gradually I have accepted the change from a challenging run to a gravy run. As time rolls on, it becomes more difficult to sort out the fact from the fiction of my memories. I remember telling the other guys that the trip was as easy as rolling off a log. I remember the long stretches of sheer contentment as I cruised along in my little bubble of warmth and light listening to everything from Hank Williams to Beethoven on my CD player. I remember the feeling of "family" as the voices of the individual controllers became recognizable.

There was a parade of annoyances and fears that I remember shrugging off as "transient distractions", much like a passing cloud blocking the sun on a cheery summer picnic. Often there were delays for city- bound traffic, and I remember one night waiting until after midnight for my turn to depart in a midwinter snowstorm. There were coastal fogs and summer thunderstorms. On any night there was also a chance, however slight, that I would be re- dispatched to Washington, Philly,.. or Timbuktu, after arriving at Newark..

I always had to be prepared to stay awake past the next dawn, hardly a part of what someone would think of as a "fond memory". Maybe things seemed good simply because as a new pilot all alone in a big dark sky, I didn't get chewed up and spit out by the weather or the metropolitan traffic. Maybe my feelings of contented kinship with inanimate objects was nothing more than a little kid sleeping in a strange house, talking to the bedpost so that the goblins will stay away.

In many ways, my Newark years were emotionally similar to pregnancy and childbirth. The fear of the unknown lurks just below your consciousness and tunes you more closely to the pretty things around you. Sunrises are more inspirational, birds sing sweeter, or the winter air smells crisper. Every day, apprehension and doubt must be countered by the rational understanding that there is nothing unique about the situation, and that people do it all the time. Looking back upon the experience, most couples regard their "pregnant years" as their most enchanting.

I could fly to Newark again and enjoy it, but I am older now. Just a little Black Velvet can last me a long time anymore.

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