In recent months the general population of the western world has been on the receiving end of a series of body blows that have left many of us leaning on the ropes, too weakened to stand fully upright under the onslaught. Death has come to the celebrities we love, and it’s shaken us to our core.
That is true. We as a culture are being profoundly affected by the deaths of people most of us have never met. It’s evident to anyone who picks up a newspaper, thumbs through a news magazine, or watches a prime-time news broadcast. But what could a handful of high profile celebrity funerals have to do with aviation?
A lot, as it turns out. So let’s consider what their lives have to do with our lives. We’ll be better for the experience, I assure you.You and I have something profoundly special in common with David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Gary Shandling, Alan Rickman, and Prince – we are all human beings.
That may seem like a thin, somewhat inconsequential connection, but it is in fact a tremendously important affiliation we would do well to recognize.
The human lifespan is short. Advances in food production, medicine, and various technologies have doubled and even tripled the life expectancy of our species. Certainly, that’s encouraging news. Still, even the longest lived humans come and go quickly when measured in geologic terms.
And while we tend to think of ourselves as being at the top of the food chain, we’re not exactly impressing our mammalian cousins with our longevity. The massive but sluggish bowhead whale can live to be 200 years old.
Take that, human.
Unlike the bowhead whale, we can produce a legacy that survives well beyond our own time. By centuries in some cases. This is why you know the names, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, and Charlemagne even though they were gone for more than a thousand years when you were born.
Greatness can’t be given to anyone. You have to earn it. It’s a relative few who do.
What all these individuals and you and I have in common goes beyond mere biology. We also share a zest for living, a willingness to push ourselves past trepidation, nervousness, and even outright fear to pursue a goal that matters to us – even if the reasons for our pursuit of that goal are so nebulous we’re unable to fully articulate them.
I don’t suppose Gary Shandling ever interacted with a high school guidance counselor who suggested he would be well served to focus his attention on being more sarcastic and disrespectful. It’s unlikely a young David Jones (Bowie) was called before his school’s headmaster so they might discuss methods of blurring the traditional post-war lines between male and female so that he might benefit artistically and economically. And I am willing to bet that Prince Rogers Nelson didn’t study under an English teacher who returned a poetry assignment with large red letters encouraging him to be more shockingly hedonistic in his choice of words.
The reason these particular individuals became celebrities is the same reason you and I now find it perfectly normal to strap into an aircraft and point it to the sky. They lived on their own terms, preferring to pursue something of value to them, rather than submit to a life limited by the approval of others.
I learned this lesson young. And thank goodness I did. It was the 1970s. My hair was long, my attitude was less than conventional, and there was nary an adult in town who thought I’d amount to anything at all.
To this day I recall the words of my geometry teacher, Miss Hornyak, when I asked to miss class so I could meet with the visiting Navy recruiter to inquire about the requirements to become a naval aviator. She refused, insisting that I sit in her class instead. “You’ll never be a pilot,” she said in explanation of her decision.
Good call, Miss Hornyak. You really nailed that one.
The sad truth is, this ride ends, and it generally ends badly, often at a particularly inopportune time. We would like to believe we’ll meet our end at an advanced age, peacefully, at home, in bed, surrounded by loved ones. But that’s probably not how you or I will end up.
It’s more likely our demise will come as the result of an accident, or disease, or even by random violence when we just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. We don’t really have much control over the events that will ultimately end our lives. What we do have is an almost unlimited potential to live the life we’ve got on our terms, in our way, for as long as we’re here.
Not many of us do that. Not many at all.
Like the celebrities we’ve been mourning, each of us has the option of using our time to live a life of adventure, or to sit placidly on the sidelines waiting for the inevitable to happen. We can accept the challenges that face us and best them, or we can avoid conflict and live a bland existence free of excitement or reward. It’s our choice.
We are aviation enthusiasts, you and I. We have chosen to travel the more challenging path. The one filled with ruts, and pitfalls, and boulders that at first seem to block our way.
But if we persist, we find our way around those challenges and continue down a trail that offers personal satisfaction, achievement, and camaraderie with others who have experienced similar, but uniquely personal travels.
Life your life. That’s good advice. I place special emphasis on the word “your.” Because we only come this way once. Make your mark.
Leave your legacy. Live well.