Saturday, July 5, 2014

Independence Day: Sewanee, Tennessee

 “Ashes, ashes, we all get burned!” sings a little blonde boy, hopping up and down with excitement. He and his family walk towards the parade route on University Avenue in Sewanee, Tennessee. It’s July 4th, Year of Our Lord 2014, and the tiny town (population: 2,311) is jammed with people, both from here and from all the smaller, surrounding towns. They’ve come to see the Sewanee Independence Day parade, an annual attraction in Franklin County and beyond. There are people everywhere, lining the parade route, talking, walking, laughing, eating kettle corn, browsing the crafts fair. This has the feeling of something carefully preserved, a vintage piece of Americana, a tableau vivant from the 1950’s.
Sewanee, Tennessee paraders (Photo: DPSnyder)

The firetrucks, police and EMTs lead the parade route. People wave frenetically from atop the bright red trucks, lobbing handfuls of hard candy at kids. The emergency vehicle lights flash blue and red, the horns and sirens wail playfully. “SEE yuh!” screams the little boy to his parents. He runs after the firetrucks, free as air. They let him.

The carillon at All Saints Cathedral plays God Bless America. The notes tinkle down on the crowd like fairy dust. Families sit on handmade quilts that are pinned to the green lawns of the University of the South with tiny American flags. Women, babies and toddlers wear red, white and blue-themed outfits. A thin black girl, maybe 8-years-old, with tiny Old Glories stuck in her tight braids, swings shiny plastic Mardi Gras jewelry like an exotic dancer, moving her limbs in a complicated, improvised dance to music that only she can hear. Friends greet friends, point camera phones, laugh. The town is packed.

Now the floats come down the Avenue. Leading them are the two Grand Marshalls, looking self-conscious in their black, convertible Camaro. Themed vehicles, trailers and marchers roll slowly behind them: Panther Pride; John Deere; Sewanee Tiger Sharks; a red, white and blue calliope on a big old trailer. Little boys devilishly laugh and caper, bombing parade watchers with thick streams of water from orange and green plastic cannons. It’s hot, and no one minds. Tiny little girls in silver leotards tumble down the Avenue, sometimes becoming dizzy and planting on the cement. The Veterans of Foreign Wars pass in a rusty, butter-yellow El Torino, its motor turning over with the deep roar of a muscle car.  “Please Vote for Helen Stapleton, County Commissioner” implores a banner. A trailer full of muddy off-road vehicles proclaims, “This is how we roll!" It flies four, big Confederate flags. 

How do they roll, I wonder? 

A mile and a half away, at Jackson Myers Airfield, the crowd is sparser, quieter, more intense. We scan the sky, waiting for the tiny plane to appear. We hear it before we see it. The announcer narrates the “trick flying show” through a megaphone. Her tone of voice is broadly humorous to offset the real danger of what’s going on above our heads. “The old saying is, ‘never fly with a pilot who calls himself Ace.’ (beat) But that’s his name, folks!” The crowd laughs on cue. “Ace is gonna show you a hammerhead now, followed by a four point roll.” The plane ascends straight up, then tips and descends straight down as if it were about to crash. But no! Ace steadies the small plane out and then rolls, holding each point for a few seconds, like a military jet. One. Two. Three. Four points. Applause. The spectators ooh and ah as Ace completes the “reverse cube and figure 8”, some more rolls, some spins. The sky is perfectly clear. Just a few stratus clouds like fine white hair blowing in the blue sky. Ace completes a “snap and roll”, another loop, and then a series of fast rolls as a final flourish. “Give him a hand, folks!” cries the announcer. Dry applause rises, then scatters in the breeze.

A few hours later, it’s my turn. I’ve bought a ride to heaven in a little Cessna 172. I’m declaring my independence of the Earth today, at least for a short while. The pilot, Sam (not “Ace”), asks me if I’ve ever been in a small plane before. I say yes. But it’s been a long time.

I hoist myself up to the Cessna’s cab by placing a foot on the landing gear struts, and once inside, I strap on the shoulder harness. It's just an ordinary car safety belt. The interior cab on this prop plane is smaller than my Kia Rio, and is also made mostly of plastic and rubber. Sam hops in on the other side, and we adjust our beige bucket seats forward. I have a steering wheel in front of me, too, and I quickly glance over the fairly simple array of black plastic gauges and knobs. He turns the key, and the propeller coughs to a start, spinning fast. I can feel the cross-currents. Sam tells me the wind never stops blowing up on this plateau. It buffets the plane from the side as we start to move.

Now we’re ready to take flight. We roll down the short runway, picking up speed fast. I know that this is the kind of tiny plane that occasionally rams into a mountainside, a skyscraper, or just senselessly plummets to earth. But in deciding to leave the earth today in a vehicle this small, I declare that I want to feel alive a lot more than I want to stay alive. The little plane noses up. We are airborne.

From a thousand feet up, the dark-green, tree-blanketed Cumberland plateau and the University campus look like neat, scale models. We fly due southwest, into the late afternoon sun. The propeller spins smooth and loud, constant and reassuring. After a few minutes, the plateau shears off sharply below us and we see the neat grid of fields and farms. I see the angry cut of a limestone quarry, the forking of platinum rivers. I am delighted like a child to be free of earth and all its encumbrances. With our big headphones and microphones on, Sam and I can communicate with each other above the din of the propeller, and I become aware that I keep saying how great this is, how amazingly great. This is so great, I say. And it is. There’s nobody and nothing up here, just me and a competent pilot.  My mind is clear. The simplicity and beauty of it fills me with joy. 

When Sam turns the little Cessna back northeast toward the airfield, I feel a pang of regret that I have to return to earth. Better to stay up here, I think. Above the crowds. Simple. Lighter than air.
High above the Cumberland Plateau (Photo: DPSnyder)

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