Friday, January 22, 2010

"Holiday In Hawaii 2009 (And A Little 2010) - The Helicopter Ride"

I hope I didn’t do it for you.

I promised myself I'd quit before I'd do that. What’s “that”? Engaging in unusual activities, so I’d have something to write about. Contriving “adventures” is a common strategy for writers. In fact, it’s pretty much a genre of its own.

“I went to a ‘Nude Ranch.’ Not a ‘Dude Ranch’, a ‘Nude Ranch.’ Everyone there walked around nude. And I did what they did. You get what I’m saying here? I was nude too! And now I’m going to tell you about it!”

I hate that stuff. It’s like, “My life is…you don’t want to hear about it. I don’t even find it interesting. So, instead, I’m wresting alligators.”

A helicopter ride is a precarious undertaking. It is easy to imagine an unfortunate turn of events, whose coverage would inevitably include the words “malfunction”, “plunged” and “fiery inferno”, along with pictures of charred wreckage and bodies that could only be identified from dental records.

Yes, it’s dangerous. Or at least it can be imagined to be. As a result, only three of our party of five chose to participate. Rachel, Anna’s b.f., Colby, and myself.

And I didn’t do it for you. I’m almost certain.

I did it to see the volcanoes.

I have written elsewhere that I’d tried to see the volcanoes on an earlier visit to the Big Island of Hawaii (which houses five volcanoes, four of them active), but our helicopter tour was cut short, due to unfavorable weather conditions, unfavorable, I believe, though it was not specifically spelled out, to our survival. I was not at the time provided a “Rain Check” – “Come back when we can show you the volcanoes without the risk of killing you.” Our subsequent visit required an entirely new payment.

I didn’t care.

I wanted to see the volcanoes.

It does not bode well for a person about to go up in a helicopter to feel queasy during the “Pick-up van” ride to the helipad. The uphill road was extremely windy. If I had had a pre-helicopter-ride breakfast, I’m not sure it would have remained inside. Fortunately, we arrived at our destination without incident, thus sparing me the rest-of-my-life repetition of,

“Earl threw up before the helicopter ride!”

When we got to the helipad, we went through the standard ritual of the weigh-in, the “We’re not responsible for anything” release forms, and the buckling on of some yellow thing that was supposed to keep you afloat in water, if you know how to activate it, which maybe I did, and maybe I didn’t.

After a few minutes – which included a warning not to walk into the rotors – we were escorted to the helicopter, where I was assigned the front row seat beside the pilot. After securing my seat belt and shoulder harness, I leaned over to the pilot and said,

“I don’t want to hear the words, ‘I’m blacking out. Take The Stick.’”

The helicopter pilot responded blankly, either because he’d heard that a thousand times before, or because he hadn’t heard me at all, or because helicopter pilots have no sense of humor, or because what I’d said wasn’t funny. I’d like to think it was one of the first three.

We took off with the Star Wars theme reverberating in our headphones, followed by the words, “Apollo Eleven, we have liftoff.” I momentarily panicked, remembering that “Apollo Eleven” had had a tough time returning safely to earth. Fortunately, the ever-sensible Rachel reminded me that that was “Apollo Thirteen.” Of course, I thought in retrospect. It would be crazy introducing a sky adventure with a reference to a space mission that almost didn’t make it back

Unless the people were really sick.

Our helicopter’s wraparound Plexiglas window provided a panoramic view of the island. And a highly illuminating one as well. Without the sky-ride, I would never have known that the Big Island of Hawaii was more than a never-ending landscape of hardened lava.

There were cattle ranches. There were rainforest areas. There were acres of trees, planted so the wood could be used to repair damaged sailing ships, and for something else, I can’t remember, it could be a windbreak.

There was a city, Hilo, (population, 60,000) and a town, Kona, (population, 50,000), whose combined inhabitants made up a substantial chunk of the island’s 175,000 population. No wonder the place felt uninhabited to us. We never went where the people were.

There were a couple of disappointments on our tour. When we skimmed over the ocean, we didn’t see the whales the pilot suggested we might spot. But I was used to that. I never see whales.

Also, in this valley he pointed out, the pilot said that we might catch sight of a downed Japanese bomber, which had participated in the Pearl Harbor attack, but had crashed on the way home, when it ran out of fuel. We didn’t.

You’d think a pilot who conducted these tours several of times a day would be able to find some airplane wreckage that had been lying in the same spot since 1941 – I mean, it’s not like they move it around. I guess locating airplane wreckage is harder than it looks.

But I was in no mood for complaining, and for me, that takes a lot. What was the “lot”?

I had seen the volcanoes.

We flew pretty close, except for one that the law requires you to stay a mile and a half away from. Seeing volcanoes is different from in the movies. There were no sudden explosions, or molten lava flying in the air. I think that’s when they evacuate, and call CNN. The volcanoes I saw churned up endless clouds of billowing, gray smoke.

At one point, we flew right through it. Colby said he could smell the sulfur.

For those needing drama, some volcanoes presented what the pilot called “skylights”, narrow cracks in the craters, where you can look inside, and see rivers of orange flowing close to the surface.

Near the end of the tour, the pilot flew us right up to the side of a cliff, as if demonstrating how skillful he was, and, by so doing, enhancing his tip. This maneuver was followed by the only stomach-turning moment of the flight. Drawing away from the cliff, the pilot turned in the other direction, causing a valley to materialize suddenly beneath us.

My reaction reminded me of a ride at the Canadian National Exhibition called “The Rotor” (I only heard about this.) “The Rotor” spins around, its riders pressed centrifugally against its sides. The floor beneath them is then suddenly removed.

That’s how it felt on the first sight of the valley. You hear yourself go, “Whoh-ho!”, accompanied by a shocked, reflexive intake of breath.

After two hours, the pilot lowered the “chopper” to the helipad, and we got out. It was good to have gone. It was even better to have returned safely.

I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

My mother departed, bestowing one final generosity. She allowed us our entire Hawaiian vacation, passing away the day we were scheduled to leave. We then added another leg to our journey. A trip to Toronto to attend her funeral.


A. Buck Short said...

Forgive me. I just can’t seem to get that mental image of you nude out of my mind. Oh wait. Nope, still can’t. I was hoping to hear a little more about how your nature boy persona tied in to the helicopter adventure. Flying nude is one so much more conscious of the rotor? Especially when you’re Jewish?

The code I live by is, “Never expose any part of your body more than is absolutely necessary – and then never until it is actually necessary.” And yet, when my wife and I were in the one situation where some of the participants in an event shed all of their wardrobe, and others like us elected not to, WE were the ones who felt self-conscious and weird. Go figure.

I had the same reveal experience you did in a Hawaiian helicopter ride, although it was the Waimea Canyon on Kauai.

I don't know if it's the nudity or the volcano that reminds me, but at one time I did a sketch on a Hawaiian hotel stage entitled, “Myron Kahona – last of the great Jewaiian Storytellers,” in which I came out in a floor length AstroTurf grass skirt. (Do you have any idea how much an AstroTurf grass skirt weighs?) The gag being all I did was take a bunch or old Myron Cohen stories and crudely adapt them to Hawaiian punch lines. Except for one that was a theft of the old Bob and Ray routine where the National Park Service ranger asks tourists not to throw litter into the Grand Canyon – because if everybody threw their litter into the Grand Canyon, sooner or later it wouldn’t be a canyon anymore. I went with volcano/crater.

Max Clarke said...

You flew through the volcano clouds, very cool. The best movie coverage of a volcano I've seen was the James Bond movie, You Only Live Twice, filmed in Japan.

Helicopters do have a tendency to crash.

The head of Disney, Frank Wells, died in a crash when he was on a ski vacation.

A cast member from one of my favorite movies, The Right Stuff, died in a crash. Jane Dornacker played Nurse Murch, but she also did traffic reporting. She died when her helicopter crashed in the Hudson River when she was on the air.

Here in the Bay Area, rock promoter Bill Graham died when his helicopter hit power lines during a storm.

Finally, "Helicopter Ben" Bernanke might not be reconfirmed as the chairman of the Fed. The news reports say he's lost crucial Democratic support in Congress. Too soon to call that a crash, but the media won't be able to resist if Bernanke leaves the Fed.