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Body Language

This piece is a follow-up to a previous submission on the lost art of listening. This is a true story. For 3 years I flew a tour helicopter on the island of Kauai. Flying tours around that magical little island I met interesting, engaging, wonderful people. I also met many people I’ll never forget. Wendy (her real name) was one of those unforgettable people.

Most of my tour passengers on Kauai had never been in a helicopter before. They’d heard stories about how dangerous the aircraft are, and how many accidents they’d had, and yadda, yadda. On Kauai, there’d been a spate of tour helicopter accidents through the years, so their apprehension was well-founded. It was tough to assuage people’s fears with innocuous dismissals. During my pre-flight briefings with my passengers, I’d read their body language, watching their response to what I told them, just to assess their fear level. I always tried to address any hesitation I detected, but often it was a losing battle, so I’d ignore the fear-based messaging and go flying. After each briefing, I’d load people aboard the aircraft, and off we’d go.

On Kauai, I typically flew with six passengers, typically three couples. They came from all over, mostly from the U.S. mainland, and they were commonly newlyweds. One afternoon I greeted a group for a mid-afternoon tour. A woman named Wendy was in the group. Wendy was by herself, which was unusual. Another woman had dropped her off at the flight line and then left. Wendy waved the other woman goodbye, then she bounced over to the briefing tent, and plopped herself down on a folding chair, smiling at me as if to say, let’s get to this, let’s go fly!

Wendy quickly became one of my favorite passengers. She seemed excited, and quirky, and funny, and fearless. She wore a headscarf, and she had several flower leis wrapped around her neck. Just seeing her toothy grin I sensed that she was either eager to go flying, or she was nervous and fearful. But just watching Wendy’s body language told me that the upcoming tour was going to be special. During the briefing, another woman asked me about the weather: “What about this rain?” she said. Wendy jumped in and answered for me: “No rain, no rainbows!” Then she wagged her finger at me. “If I don’t see a rainbow today,” she said. “I want my money back!”

I told Wendy there were no guarantees, but I’d do what I could to find her a rainbow. I finished the briefing, then loaded folks aboard the helicopter, putting Wendy right next to me in the cockpit. Shortly, we were flying around the island.

Wendy more or less took over the tour. She pointed at various things along the way and said, “take me there,” and “over there,” and “I want to see that.” So, like ‘driving miss Wendy,’ I simply did as I was told. The other five passengers didn’t seem to mind. It was a fun tour. Along the Na Pali coast, on Kauai’s rugged northwest side, I noticed that a rainbow was forming in the midday mist, so I increased airspeed to get into position, and to show it to my passengers.

Sure enough, the gorgeous bow formed perfectly, draping its stunning colors across the lush background of the Na Pali coast, its half-halo framing crashing waves on the pristine beach below. It was a postcard-perfect display of Hawaii’s natural beauty.

As I cruised in front of the rainbow, I looked at Wendy. “No refund for you,” I said. Instead of laughing, Wendy tapped my knee, and she said, “Okay, I’m done. I can go now.” Her grin disappeared, and a tear traced her cheek. “But the tour’s only half over,” I said. “It’s all right,” she said. “I can go now.”

At that moment, I knew I’d missed something, either in Wendy’s words, or her body language or both. I didn’t yet know what it was; that would come later. But I sensed there was much more to her demand to see a rainbow.

I finished the tour, landed, and offloaded my passengers. As they walked toward the bus, Wendy turned around. Then she wandered over and gave me a peck on the cheek. “Thank you,” she whispered. Then she was gone.

A month later there was a letter in my in-box at the office. It was from the woman who’d accompanied Wendy to Kauai, the woman who’d dropped her off that day and left. She wrote to thank me for taking Wendy on the tour. Wendy had had a wonderful time, the woman wrote, and she’d managed to get done everything she’d wanted to. The woman went on to tell me that Wendy had died two weeks after she flew with me and saw her rainbow, the last item on her bucket list, according to the letter.

Reading the letter I understood what Wendy meant when she’d said ‘I can go now,’ Her odd statement made sense. It took me back to that perfect rainbow, and the surging waves, and the realization that sometimes our lives are filled with meaning that, sadly, we overlook. And it made me listen, and pay more attention on future flights to what my passengers were really saying, not just with body language but otherwise.

“It’s okay, I can go now.” Such a simple statement. I’ll always remember right where I was when I heard Wendy say that. Now that I understand what she meant, I try to be ready as well.

Byron Edgington
Byron Edgingtonhttps://www.byronedgington.com/
Byron Edgington was a commercial & military helicopter pilot for 50 years. An award-winning writer, he is the author of several books including The Sky Behind Me: a Memoir of Flying and Life, A Vietnam Anthem: What the War Gave Me, Waiting for Willie Pete, a Novel of Vietnam, and soon to be published, PostFlight: An Old Pilot’s Logbook. Edgington served in the U.S. Army as a helicopter pilot, including a yearlong tour in Vietnam. After the war, he became a commercial pilot, and flew all over the world, including 20 years of air medical flying in Iowa, news & traffic flying in several U.S. cities, a stint as a corporate helicopter pilot, and three years flying tours on the island of Kauai. After retiring from aviation in 2005, he returned to college and received his Bachelor's Degree in English and creative writing from The Ohio State University at age 63. In 2012 Edgington won the prestigious Bailey Prize in non-fiction from the Swedenborg Foundation Press for his essay titled ‘Lift Off.’ Byron Edgington is married to his best friend, Mariah. He has three daughters, and five grandchildren. Recently returned to the U.S. after living for three years in Medellin Colombia, he now lives and writes in Iowa City Iowa.

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