In the mid-1980s I was a professional musician. I lived in in the Greenwich Village section of New York City with my best friend and musical collaborator, Michael Mazzarella. Our apartment sat on Bleecker Street, just around the corner from MacDougal.
We walked on sidewalks Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and Paul Simon had walked. We drank beer and played and socialized in bars and clubs where our heros had drunk beer and played and socialized years before.
Mine was a good life.
A career in aviation wasn’t available to me. At least that’s what I’d been led to believe.
It interested me, but I’d never enlisted in the military. I hadn’t been through basic training. The ways of the military pilot were as mysterious to me as the surface of the moon. And professional pilots all came from the ranks of the military. Or at least that was my understanding.
I was wrong.
It was a magazine article that set me straight. It was there, in the pages of an aviation magazine that I found out anyone can be a pilot. General aviation represented a branch of the industry of which I’d been totally unaware. Yet it had existed all along.
Once I found out about this new, wide open opportunity to fly, I was hooked.
Being a student pilot while living in New York City can be a challenge. Remaining motivated, however, was easy and inexpensive. At least it was for me.
I’ll credit Richard Bach with carrying the bulk of that load, in large part through a masterful pilot of his own invention, Donald Shimoda.
Donald came to life in a novel called “Illusions, the Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah.”
It was Donald who introduced me to the spiritual aspects of flight. He established the almost limitless scope of wonder that awaited me in the air, and made it clear that my journey would be uniquely different from that of any other pilot.
I was free to be me, on an adventure of my own making, which I would experience in my own way, and set my own standards for success.This sort of exploit was right up the alley of a long-haired guitar player who had little use for conventional methods of doing pretty much anything.
I read everything I could find with Richard Bach’s name on it. He became my mentor, whether he knew it or not.
And I revisited the wisdom of Donald Shimoda from time to time, finding myself more motivated and enthralled with each reading.
I once met a young woman on the subway who was also reading Illusions. We two strangers struck up a spirited conversation about the book right there on the E train. Which, for those who have been to New York know, is a very non-New York thing to do.
This is where things get a little weird. I got my first flying job in a small southern town I’d only heard of once. It’s known as Winter Haven, Florida, and it is the only place I have ever been that feels like home to me.
Before being hired to instruct primary students here all those years ago, I’d only seen a mention of this town one time, and that was in a book written by Richard Bach. He wrote about flying a BD-5 out of Winter Haven’s Gilbert Field — the same field where I came to land my first flying job.
It’s a small world, that’s for sure. But the story gets weirder, still.
After living here for a while I came to find that Richard really had lived right here, on the edge of Gilbert Field. He was fast friends with Jack Brown, the founder of the seaplane base that still bears his name, and lived in a house next door.
It was there that Richard wrote the book that proved to be my supreme inspiration, Illusions. Yes, Donald Shimoda came into being between Lake Jessie and Runway 11 at Gilbert Field. The place that came to be my home.
Wait, it gets better.
Although I’d visited the seaplane base often, it was years before I actually made the decision to go train for that ticket. But I eventually did, to my eternal good fortune.
I was doing my last instructional flight with my instructor, Eric, before I was scheduled for my check-ride. During the flight I asked Eric how he came to be working at the seaplane base. He was from Oklahoma, after all. Not exactly a hotbed of seaplane activity.
“I read a story in The Southern Aviator about Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base,” he told me. “I fell in love with the idea and so I came out to see if they’d hire me, and they did.”
Eric was quite pleased by the telling of his story. Knowing that I was southern and a pilot, he asked, “Did you ever read that story?” I replied honestly: “I wrote that story.”
Eric was shocked.
When we’d finished our debrief after the flight, I headed for the parking lot, to get my car and drive home. But my eye was captured by a slim gentleman in a baseball cap who was standing on the float of a Husky beached nearby. I watched him for a moment, as he fiddled with this and that in his airplane, until I realized the man was Richard Bach.
I introduced myself. I gifted him with a copy of my first novel, because I’m a bit of an idiot and it seemed like the appropriate thing to do. He was gracious, and kind, and welcoming. It turned out he had been flying out of Williams Air Force Base in Arizona at the same time my dad was, back when I was a baby.
And there we were, more than 40 years later, face-to-face, in the very place I’d read of him describing when I was living in Manhattan, dreaming of becoming a pilot.
It was an almost other-worldly experience.
The next day I took my check-ride. I passed. And Eric brought in a copy of the The Southern Aviator article I’d written years before, so that I might autograph it for him. We’d come full circle.
All of us.
I credit Donald Shimoda with the whole thing, and I think of him often. Sometimes, I wonder if Richard does, too.