fiction, poetry & more


by Byron Edgington

I’d flown helicopter tours around Kauai long enough that I could scan my passengers and predict their fears, attitudes, moods— you name it. Body language, mostly. Fetal position, legs crossed, hugging themselves meant, I’ll die today but my husband wants me to go, so here I am. Legs splayed, laughing much too loud said, I’m terrified to fly but damned if I’ll let my wife know. Holding hands, yawning and kissing screamed honeymooners. I rarely missed.

One passenger, however, mystified me. She appeared to be late fifties, maybe sixty, but was round-ish and childlike. Her short hair and flat chest gave her a no-nonsense look. Five leis hid her neck. She was suffocating in flowers. Her paisley bandanna was an odd touch, but seemed to fit. She was alone—not unusual, but not typical, either. Rarin’ to go, she greeted me with a brassy quip about my arrival and touchdown, which the group had just witnessed.

“Snowflake landing?” she asked.

“Excuse me?”

She cackled and flipped her leis around. “Snowflake landing,” she said again. “No two alike!”

I laughed along with everyone else. This will be a fun tour, I thought. This lady could provide a lot of the entertainment. She adjusted her bandanna, flipped her leis again and smiled like a toothpaste ad. I’d flown nearly ten thousand tourists around the island, but she was a standout. Her outfit, attitude and genuine glee were infectious. She was as pale as chalk, so I figured she’d just arrived on island. The Hawaiian sun quickly renders a tan, and tourists always rent convertibles.

I produced the passenger manifest from my back pocket and began reading off names.

“Jack and Martha?” The couple to my right nodded.

“Sarah and Matt?” A young couple yawned, hands joined. “Honeymoon?” I asked.

They grinned, and blushed in unison.

There was just one more name. “Wendy?”

“Just like in Peter Pan,” she said. “Never gonna grow up neither!”

Another round of polite laughter.

“Wendy, thanks for flying with me today.”

“Ain’t flown nowhere with you yet,” she said.

“Shall we fix that right now?”

“Good idea,” she said. “I ain’t gettin’ any younger, you know?”

After a passing shower, the tropic sun had reemerged, misting rain-wet palm trees in a halo of light. The northeast trade wind gusted, perfuming the morning with plumeria and the scent of the nearby surf. It was an ideal day for a tour.

Martha must have thought otherwise. She huddled close to Jack for protection and hugged herself, legs pretzeled, her face twisted with worry. “What about the rain?” she asked.

Arms free at her sides, her neck festooned with all those leis, Wendy answered for me: “No rain, no rainbows.” Martha sat back, mollified. Then Wendy looked at me. “If I don’t see a rainbow today I want my money back.”

The group chuckled. So did I. Finally, I thought, a passenger who gets it. I often wondered what their real fears were. Sure, they’d never been up in a helicopter, but what scared them about it, the noise? The rattling, thrashing mish-mash of whirling parts? The bad press helicopters get after a banner-headline crackup? There’d been an accident on the island three months before and tourists still mentioned it, so I couldn’t dismiss their fears. But I’d flown so long that to me flying was like riding a bicycle, only safer.

I sometimes joked with my passengers, if I thought they were up to it. “About the noise? Only time I worry is when it gets quiet.” They’d laugh, most of them. It was a fine line; some passengers didn’t appreciate my sometimes sardonic aviation humor. “You’ve already done the dangerous part of your trip today,” I’d say. Eyebrows would arch, followed by stares. “Yep, you drove to the airport. Driving on this island is a lot more dangerous than flying with me.” Heads would nod.

So it was nice to meet a passenger who wasn’t afraid. On occasion I had to restrain myself around people like Martha who had no concept of the experience I brought to the table. I’d flown for thirty-five years. I’d logged more than twelve-thousand hours of flight time in twenty different kinds of helicopters, navigating through winter sleet, summer storms and Viet Cong small arms fire. I knew I wasn’t bulletproof, but I knew the real danger and they did not. But the customer is always right, so I listened to their anxieties and welcomed the rare passenger who understood my level of expertise. Wendy appeared to be one of those.

Soon everyone was aboard and buckled up, with Wendy in the seat beside me in the cockpit. I launched into my standard FAA pre- flight safety spiel about seat belts, smoking, first-aid kit, exits, and what I referred to with some delicacy as the handy, white “Aloha” bags. Then I buckled in.

I snapped the battery master on, and punched the starter button. Soon the engine whined, igniters crackling, lighting a fire in the 700 horsepower turbine engine. The instrument panel came alive, gauges sweeping dials, needles arcing toward green ranges, caution lights winking out. The blades thrashed overhead and the ship rocked with a gentle back and forth, like a hand on a cradle. The radios clicked alive with aviation chatter. I keyed the mic switch to request departure clearance.

“Good afternoon, Lihue tower, Air Kauai three on pad five with information Hotel, off to the harbor.”

Tower answered right away. “Afternoon, Air Kauai three, cleared for harbor departure. Winds one-three-zero at five.”

“Roger. On the go.” I checked the gauges once more. All was well on the instrument panel, so I lifted the collective, brought the ship up to three feet and hovered out for takeoff. I scanned for other aircraft, lined up with the departure pad and started the music, an upbeat Hawaiian, slack-key guitar piece. Once again I keyed the mic: “Off like a herd of turtles.”

Passengers laughed, their necks craning for a better view. Adding power, I took off in a rush. Matt and Sarah held hands, mooned and kissed—and yawned. Jack aimed his camera despite Martha’s death grip on his arm. Wendy sat upright, grinning, hands on her thighs. Her bandanna swept back and forth as she soaked in every passing palm tree and waterfall. “Ain’t nothin’ like St. Paul,” she said.

I had to agree. “Plus, your mosquitoes are bigger,” I said

“State bird of Minnesota!”

That brought another chuckle from Wendy’s public in the rear seats. Shortly, we crossed the first ridge to the interior of the island, which surrounded us in its lush, tropical splendor. I launched into my tour talk. “Who saw the movie Jurassic Park?” Half the passengers had seen the Spielberg dinosaur classic. “Remember when the group landed in the helicopter, right in front of a waterfall?” Crossing a ridge, I pointed to my right. “There’s that waterfall,” I said. Mauna Wai Puna falls brought cameras up, shutters snapping. I crossed in front of the falls to give everyone a chance to see its 250-foot bridal-veil sheen. Wendy had no camera. She smiled, and patted my knee. “Beautiful,” she said. “Just beautiful.”

Pulling up, I angled south and west. On the island’s south shore, Makawele’s sea of sugar cane brought a discussion of Kauai’s bittersweet history wrapped up in sugar and exploitation. Then the rust-colored crags of Waimea Canyon loomed ahead.

Wendy pointed to a chasm to the right. “Take me down there,” she commanded. (Not take us down there, take me down there.)

Descending, I angled toward the spot. “What did you see?” I asked her.

She pointed to a mountain goat gamboling on a knife-edged ridge. I’d seen the animal prancing on his precarious ledge on previous tours, and I’d even created a name for him. I keyed my intercom, addressing Wendy. “His name is Cliff,” I said.

Her grin spread like a kukui blossom. “Wise guy. Cliff. That’s funny!”

As we left the canyon, I aimed for the NaPali coast, renowned for its majestic vistas and crashing surf. I steered the aircraft into the NaPali’s velvet green recesses, Hanapu, Kalalau, Hanakapiai, valley walls drenched with water and foliage of every hue. Just beyond the Hanapu Valley I saw the rainbow. Increasing speed, I raced toward it before it could disappear. On Kauai just blink, and rainbows are gone.

I nudged Wendy and pointed toward the rainbow. “No refund for you.”

She stared at the shimmering arc in front of us. “No rain…” she said.

In the back seat Martha keyed the intercom. “…no rainbows.”

“That’s right,” Wendy said. “And don’t you ever forget it neither.”

Laughter again followed as cameras came up to record the bow. I slowed the aircraft, weaving back and forth in front of the pastel arc, giving everyone a chance to see and photograph it. Then it dissipated, as fast as it had formed.

Wendy looked at me, and she smiled. “Done.”

“Yes it is,” I said. “There might be more of them, though.”

She tapped my knee. “Done,” she insisted, staring. “I can go now.”

I made a face, wondering what she meant. At that moment I thought about Wendy’s odd outfit, her upbeat attitude, her nonchalance. If I was so good at reading people, why had I not solved her mystery? Maybe I wasn’t such an expert at body language after all.

She angled sideways, rose in her seat, and pecked me on the cheek. Her eyes were a mass of tears. “Thank you. I can go now,” she said again.

“But we’re only halfway—”

“It’s okay,” she said, patting my arm.

I flew on, past Namolokama falls, the Hanalei valley, into and out of the Wai-ale- ale volcanic crater. Finishing the tour, I landed and shut off the engine. As the rotor blades wound down, I scribbled in the logbook and watched my passengers disembark, another tour complete. Wendy was the last to go. Her floral arrangement circling her neck, she turned and blew me a kiss. I waved goodbye. Hugging herself, she shuffled off toward the exit. She slipped through the chain link gate and latched it behind her. Then she took one last look at the helicopter, and I imagined she waved at me again, so I lifted my arm and waved back.

I watched her, again thinking about her unconventional behavior and outlandish costume, her carefree attitude and all those flowers. Their scent lingered in my cockpit. Of all the passengers I’d flown Wendy was indeed unique.

Parked by the gate, another woman waited in a rental car, its convertible top down. Wendy climbed in. The other woman reached across to buckle her up, then hugged her for a very long time.

One month later, almost to the day, I noticed a letter in my in-box at the office. Postmarked St. Paul, Minnesota, it was a simple note from a woman I’d never met, Wendy’s traveling companion on her trip to Kauai. The woman, Kathryn was her name, had followed Wendy’s wishes by writing to me. Her letter stated simply that Wendy had done everything she’d set out to do since her diagnosis, and a helicopter tour of Kauai was the last item. She thanked me on Wendy’s behalf for the wonderful tour and wished me continued success. The letter ended by telling me that Wendy had died in her sleep a week after she’d seen her rainbow.


Byron Edgington flew helicopters for a living, then quit flying in 2005 to write. He says flying is easier. He is working on an aviation memoir entitled The Sky Behind Me, and another memoir about returning to school (Ohio State) at 62. He and his wife Mariah live in Columbus Ohio.

May 2011