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January 26, 2002

Port Sidney Marina, British Columbia, Canada

48° 39.13' N 123° 23.62 W

weather: broken overcast, snow on nearby peaks.

 

On December 15th my friend Carl Wilby died an untimely death. I knew him for 32 years; it seems our friendship was so brief.

Carl Wilby had had polio, and that severely altered the development of his left leg. Without support he could barely walk. Actually, he could only walk efficiently with a steel hinged leg brace. Yet, he was a sailor, a backpacker, a skier and a pilot. A University of California School of Architecture graduate, an achiever who was conservative, honest and hard-working despite the loose schooling of the late 1960's. He could saw to the line, make a roof truss and frame a door because he was no slouch as a carpenter as he rebuilt a house to accommodate his family. Due to the polio infection, his left leg was underdeveloped and short. Doctors had surgically shortened his right leg bone making both legs of equal length. He would have been six feet tall - if the doctors hadn't removed those few inches of bone ­ but as he was he measured in at my height of 5 feet 9 inches. He was more than my equal. We became immediate friends when I met him in 1968 aboard his first sailboat, the Pleiades.

The 40-foot long Pleiades was Carl's old wood boat made of what had become rotted wood. The Pleiades' teak deck leaked badly especially over the bunk spaces where daylight shone through the open deck caulking. In those days, my boat was berthed right next to Carl's. I was a sailboat-racer type. Not being a sailboat racer, Carl and the Pleiades measured-in as a 'romantic, classic wood cruising sailboat' with devoted owner. Just after sun-up on any race day, I'd get my boat race-ready with a fresh water wash-down. After the hull, deck, cabin and cockpit were completely flushed with fresh water, I knew I could easily roust Carl and then girlfriend Maria from the Pleiades' forward berth. I'd just carefully cast the hose's stream of water onto the Pleiades' leaky deck. Straight away, both would be dressed and on deck, - and I'd have someone to talk to. For some unknown reason, Carl criticized my sterile-looking, leak free white plastic boat saying, "Boats should be made of wood. Wood was beautiful and was the natural building material." Secretly, I was jealous of his rotting old wood boat. When I'd join him for coffee on non-race mornings, I enjoyed the Pleiades' peculiar old wood odor that traced the coffee's smell and allowed melodious thoughts of warm trade winds, swaying palm trees and Joshua Slocum. Coffee on my boat was tinged with the smell of uncured polymers, veneered plywood and acetone. Despite his romancing that old wood boat with its oak frames and cedar planks, Carl couldn't maintain the Pleiades forever. Soooo, he bought a white plastic boat that smelled of uncured polymers and acetone. We stayed the best of friends sailing San Francisco Bay, the Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta and off the Coast of California.

When sailing activity slowed in the cold winter months, I took up snow skiing. I left my home afloat heading for the mountains on Friday evenings. At first it seemed unavoidable ­ my handicapped friend had to stay at home. How could Carl ski? One raw winter weekend when there was fantastic snow in the mountains, I stepped across the dock then up to the Pleiades' deck. I grabbed the cabin-top handholds and shouted down the main hatch, "Carl, you're gonna go skiing with me." I had discovered a Sierra ski school that specially taught skiing to amputees brought home from the Vietnam War. With suggestions from the school, I made some outrigger skis for Carl. They were short hand held struts with a hinged short ski on one end and fastenings for his hand and arm at the other. This design was used for balancing a single-leg skier on a single ski, a skier like Carl was going to be. With an old suspender wrapping his bad leg to his good leg and his good leg buckled to one ski, Carl skied the High Sierra big slopes. Truly, he skied the down big slopes through icy ruts, the crud and big moguls. I don't think he ever backed away from a steep run.

Confronting Yosemite's brown bears never lessened Carl's enjoyment of the park's high country as he stumped along the trails. The arc-like forward swinging of his bad leg on every step made his gait look like a wheel rolling grossly out of round. Usually, mama bears with cubs consider their forest non-negotiable and rarely back down before an intruder. When one mama bear saw Carl, she saw a strange creature with an assertive gait, ambling along near Yosemite's Nevada Falls. She crossed his path, stopped back a ways, stood up on her hind legs, stared at Carl's unusual walk ... and left for the trees. If the bears couldn't stop Carl, physical obstacles couldn't either. When something big would appear in the trail, he'd bend over and release his steel leg brace with a click-clank sound. Then his left leg would bend, and he would lift his left leg up over a downed tree or a too-large boulder, then he'd grab a limb or make a handhold somewhere and pull himself over. Straightening his leg, he'd reset the lock on his brace, clank-click, and continue on the trail. Frankly, I don't know exactly how he did it, locking and unlocking that brace. It seemed as natural and unthinking to him as his heart beat, and it occurred thousands of times. For myself? I'd stop, shinny over the rock, take a breather, look around and ooops, he was right there, uncomplaining, ready to move on. Two months ago, at age 59, Carl hiked with Ellen and myself to Yosemite's Taft Point, in his old style of course.

Ten years ago, Carl began tickling the dragon's tail. With his unconquerable confidence and of course working with one leg in his brace he rebuilt and piloted his own airplane, a single place ultralight airplane called a Hawk. We'd join up and fly together to summer airshows. Flying straight and level but looking more like a dry leaf in a summer dust devil Carl's light weight Hawk would rise, then fall, then rise up again -- right off the wingtip of my lumbering Stearman biplane. At full throttle the Hawk was good for 60 mph, barely equaling the Stearman's slowest cruise speed. There we were, fly and gadfly, momentary masters of the earth and its air. An approach to the airport, an acceptable landing (not always) before the airport's onlookers, a dinner at the archetypical airport diner, and we secured ourselves for the night in our tents under the wing. We'd tie the canvas tent peaks between the wing and the tail wheel and swing a backpacker's candle lantern to the overhead. Late in the evening we'd have a ration of my grog, usually Grand Marnier and something from Carl's bag of Oreo Cookies. As seriously as we could, we'd talk and wonder what was going to be next. The candle's shadows on the tent sides were always mesmerizing to me, so I'd fall to sleep early. Ellen and Carl would talk on.

Flying in an ultralight is primitive flying - not much different than flying the first Wright Flyer. Spirited though it may be, it is dangerous and unforgiving. Carl's venture in life ended while flying the Hawk. He just took off, went up a hundred feet, the Hawk failed, he nosed over and hit the earth - too hard.

High Flight

By John Gillespie Magee, Jr., RCAF

September 3, 1941

 

Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth

Of sun-split clouds - and done a hundred things

You have not dreamed of - wheeled and soared and swung

High in the sunlight silence. Hove'ring there,

I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung

My eager craft through footless halls of air.

Up, up the long, delirious burning blue

I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace

Where never lark, or even eagle flew.

And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod

The untrespassed sanctity of space,

Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

 

Gone is a confidant, a friend I so appreciated. So many times I have thought about what has happened to his joy, his suffering, his proud fatherhood, his hard work, his fight for his values, his hopes for his family, his sought after ideals? For sure, I know he fought the good fight here on earth.

Goodbye Carl. We had so many great times together. I only wish there would be more.

 

Regards, Terry and Ellen.


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