After a whirlwind of papers, studies, figures, posters, analyses, meetings, meetings, and meetings, I was almost surprised to see myself in the left seat of my car, hands on the steering wheel, and right eye carefully watching in the mirror the long white trailer behind me. The destination was Chilhowee Airport in Tennessee and the event was the Club Class Nationals. The glider in the long elegant box, an Aero Club Albatross LS-4, with an appropriate call sign of “ACA”.
I thought back to the last time I flew this sailplane in a contest, a whole six years ago in Hobbs, New Mexico. Since then, the glider has been completely overhauled by the club members with a beautiful paint job. In that time, I can also to be said to have been hauled by club members in others ways and mostly for the better. It also occurred to me that this is the first contest I am attending as a bonafide old fart. No more SSA contest rebates for me, despite the fact that I still identify as under 26 years old.
Normally, at this point the story would shift toward the excitement of competing at a high level event, or the beautiful country I am driving through, or some unexpected adventures with trailers and equipment. Another common trope is the routine frustration of arriving at a site greeted by overcast skies, poor soaring conditions, and the prospect of rain in the following several days. But the real story here is the surprise, anxiety, and happiness of emerging out of isolation for the first time in a year.
Coming off the interstate and driving through the towns of Athens and Etowah, you can see how badly hit the local economies were due to the recent economic slumps. On the main drag, a third of the business are shuttered up, boarded up, and closed. Another quarter or so of the restaurants, diners, stores, and theaters evidently recently closed. The places still open are mostly fast food, pawn shops, thrift stores, dollar generals and the like; bare essentials for folks trying to trudge on.
Pulling into the hotel parking lot felt new; I haven’t been in a hotel room since this whole epidemic began. Walking inside and being greeted by a friendly attendant not wearing a mask seemed heretical. In fact, other than some old folks, almost nobody wears mask around here. And wearing a mask when going into public places makes it feel as odd and out of place as it actually is and puts into stark contrast just how much we have habituated to these circumstances over the past year.
Arriving at the gorgeous Chilhowee Airport and seeing a row of white trailers neatly parked along the treeline was surreal. Real gliders! Real people! I saw my good friends and feel like I haven’t seen them for a decade. Several shake my hand, another hugs me. Others stand within six feet of me. No one wears mask. And experiencing this, it feels like I arrived in a nation far away with its own peculiar customs and traditions. That driving 850 miles from Philadelphia, that the world has flipped over once again, just like it did last March.
People say they are excited for things to eventually become “normal” again, but I realized that I don’t even remember what “normal” is supposed to feel like. I reminded myself that I am fully vaccinated and that being outside with people like this is perfectly OK for me. I relieved myself of that anxiety that was drilled into me and took in the opportunity to socialize with my friends. And I cannot overstate how wonderful it is to be here, with these wonderful folks, with the prospect of getting to do some fantastic soaring in the coming days.
Among other COVID consequences includes the surprising looks on the pilots’ faces when they and their gliders were weighed for contest handicapping. It seems like most of the contestants found that their rigs were 10-15 pounds heavier than they expected. Many suspected that the scales were off, but those fears were put aside when David McMaster weighed his ASW27 and pointed out that everything checked out for him.
It sucks to be fat and old.
Thanks to Aero Club Albatross for supporting me at this event and for all the folks helping me to get the ship contest ready!