Well, doggone it, I wanted to start out with the phrase, "one of my good friends." And I will - in just a minute - but first I must digress to talk about that special bond of friendship which is most difficult to express in words, but which those of us who have been fortunate enough to experience will understand immediately regardless of how poorly I try to describe it.
Life, you see, has moments - good and bad - that we all experience. But the stage of our own individual development in which we are residing at the time of that experience shapes us in a way that would be very, very different were we to be in a different stage of development at the time of the experience.
For example, take the death of a loved one. I imagine it's never easy, but I know from my own experience that it's a whole lot easier the older you get. And maybe that's because as we've aged, we've been through it before, and know what to expect.
My daddy died when I was 17. This next August will mark the 40th August since we buried him, although at times it seems as if it was only yesterday. I remember the well-intended comments my friends made after the funeral; as we were all young, many said "I know just how you feel" as they left to return to their homes. The sham in it was that there they found their daddies still coming home from work, reading the paper, taking out the trash, smoking their pipes, and doing all the things daddies do which form unforgettable nuances imbedded in our memories and our hearts and shape us into the people that we become, even after they're long gone.
So today whenever I meet someone who lost his or her dad when they were teenagers, there's a bond that forms immediately between us. We may not see eye-to-eye on anything else at all, and we may or may not become close, but the moment we know that we share the experience of losing our dads as youngsters, a bond forms that can only be described as... ineffable.
Now let me get back to the "one of my good friends" phrase that I wanted to start with, if you please.
There's a guy who lives on the shores of beautiful Lake Arrowhead up in Cherokee County whom I count as one of my closest friends. We're friends because we share a couple of those ineffable bonds which I really don't have space in this column to describe in detail. I don't know his birthday, his anniversary, his church affiliation or which political party he tends to support. Yet he's "one of my closest friends" in that we each know that the other knows the essence of a truth we have shared in some way which may not be describable in mere words.
He's Fred Lambert, a most extraordinary man who was established in the world of retail sales as a grownup, when one day all of a sudden he realized that he'd never be happy unless and until he got his pilot's license and became a commercial airline pilot. Fred had the courage to put everything in his life on hold while he got that license and today is a chief pilot for an Atlanta-based regional carrier. He was also blessed with an extraordinary wife, Chris, who backed him in his decision to go fly airplanes. Chris Lambert, by the way, is a fantastic art teacher who heads the department at Cherokee County High, and who has had the singularly incredible experience of having been able to reach an autistic child through her teaching of art.
Alas, I digress.
So, "one of my good friends," Fred Lambert, has an expression which he puts into play on days such as these which we in Georgia are fortunate to experience mostly in the winters. Fred calls these clear, cold, perfectly gorgeous days "clear and a million."
By that, he means that pilots have a clear sky, and they can see a million miles in any direction they want to look. But more than that, and one day I'll ask him if I'm just making this up, but more than that I believe that when Fred says "clear and a million" it actually embodies a deep-seated philosophical belief, borne from personal experience, that on such a day a person can experience not only as far as the human eye can see, but as far as the human heart can love and the soul can know.
A few years back, Fred made it possible for me to fly in the cockpit jump seat with him on a "clear and a million" day from Atlanta to Charleston, W and back. It was winter, and a dusting of snow covered Brasstown Bald, the highest point in Georgia. I could see the parking lot on the side of that mountain, and the trail upon which my wife and I led our three kids up to the observation deck, from whence you can see five states, years and years ago.
As I looked down I remembered how our family had been virtually alone there on a wintry day, at a time of year when most tourists avoid the outdoors. A couple of Phantom F-4s from some Air National Guard unit had come over Brasstown Bald and gone inverted down into the valley, and the noise was so incredible that I can still hear it now. My kids and my wife had scrambled for cover with hands over their ears, but thankfully I had the sense to stand stock still, and thus I retain the unforgettable sight of those twinjet F-4s screaming inverted down the side of that mountain.
The kids were young back then. The noise had scared them. My wife doesn't work around jet engines, and thus the noise had startled her, as well. But I'd heard the F-4s coming, scant seconds before they appeared, and although the time frame didn't allow me to explain to my family that military jets were approaching and to watch for them, my experience allowed me to take in something that is probably worthless in the real world to most folks, but priceless in my memories.
I guess most folks who have never been around airplanes, or who for reasons known only to themselves don't like airplanes or airports, would be upset that pilots would have flown that close to a mountain in the dead of winter, and upside down to boot. And I can understand their point of view. Funny, though, that they most likely cannot, or choose not to, understand mine.
The mountain top experience our family had that day atop Brasstown Bald was one which is not repeatable today. People seeking to "get away from it all" and developers all to ready to help them do it have shaved the tops off so many north Georgia mountains that today, in 2008, folks who once built houses in order to peer from their decks out upon pristine wilderness now only peer out at other folks peering right back at them.
A few days ago, as is my want to do on crisp, cold, "clear and a million" days here, I ventured out in the Jeep with the doors off, all bundled up in my jacket, gloves and favorite slouch hat which I brought home from Muir Woods many years ago. The lovely proprietor of the Newton Package Shop, Jane Alexander, saw my hat and asked if I'd actually been to Muir Woods, which is a favorite memory of hers.
We talked for a bit about Muir Woods, a place I'd go back to in a skinny minute in Marin County, just beyond the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. And as we talked, the same sort of ineffable thing happened that occurs between folks who have shared a special place, and it reminded me of the essence of what Fred Lambert's "clear and a million" means to me.
Jane Alexander, like the millions of others who have made the effort to visit the Muir Woods National Park, knows the inestimable worth of pristine and undisturbed nature. She has been there, she's seen it for herself, she knows - knows - the ineffable quality of that special place named for John Muir, the outdoorsman who so heavily influenced President Teddy Roosevelt that it led him to declare the Grand Canyon as our nation's first national monument in order to protect it through the ages for all of us to be able to see and experience.
We live in a beautiful place, these United States of America. Those of us fortunate enough to travel have seen much in the way of pristine and unspoiled areas which still exist across our nation, even today. And still other fortunate folk among us live in parts of our own neck of the woods which have not been encroached upon by teeming hordes of developers, yearning to carve out yet another cookie-cutter neighborhood from the wild.
There are lessons here for all who will take the time to heed them. My hope is that on one of Fred Lambert's "clear and a million" days, folks will take the time to look around and decide to preserve what we have left - before it's too late.
Nat Harwell is a Newton County resident whose column appears Sundays in The Covington News.