I was born in West Texas in a little town named Vernon. My earliest recollection of home is of a small frame house surrounded by flat fields that stretched out to the horizon in all directions. I remember standing in the road that ran past our place and turning completely around ; the horizon was perfectly unbroken by tree or rock, hill or mountain. It was the mountains, or the lack of them, that pained me the most. I would look at the pictures of snow-capped peaks in the books and magazines that we had and be filled with longing. Tall brutish mounts like Everest or the elegantly steepled spires of the Matterhorn and Tetons filled my day and night dreams horizons. I would climb the windmill behind our house or the tin roofed barn and gaze at the horizon for hours; there were no mountains, but there were clouds.
The seasonal changes bring broad weather fronts slanting across Texas from the north-west. Sitting atop the barn I would gaze in rapturous wonder at the solid bank of clouds covering the whole western horizon like the Himalayan plateau seen from afar. The full range of mountainous architecture rolling slowly across the flat plains revealed peaks and ridges, high hanging valleys and deep fathomless gorges. The shades of colour, ebbing and flowing from the most faintly tinged pink, through the deepest scarlets; purest white to ominous blacks and every possible shade in between.
My eyes would trace routes up the slope of a floating Mt. McKinley, across a wispy ridge to the South Face of the Matterhorn and down the back of El Capitan. The clouds would roll over themselves and open up vast cavern mouths that seemed to bore through the cloud bank to the deep glacial blue of the cold air behind the front. I could trace ski – slopes and toboggan runs from the tops of towering cumulus peaks, down the sloping backs of thunder heads, onto the grasslands below.
I started at an early age to plan a way to get up to the clouds and explore them ,directly, hands on if you will. Someone gave me a book on my fifth or sixth birthday; ‘The Twenty-One Balloons’ by William Pene du Bois; that fueled my dreams of wandering among the clouds. It was the story of an explorer who constructed a little cabin, perhaps ten by ten feet, made of wicker and bamboo. There was a nicely rendered cross – section drawing on one page. Inside was a wicker chair and table, a couch of the same material and a small rug on the floor. Outside a narrow catwalk ran all the way around the cabin. The whole thing was carried aloft by dozens of balloons inside a net attached to the top. For years I carried that image in my mind; a self-contained little cabin in which to drift at my leisure through the canyons and chasms of the clouds; rising over peaks, drifting slowly down sheer cliffs, and passing right through great walls of clouds to pop out the other side. The opportunity didn’t come untill I was 19 and a crew chief on an OH-6 helicopter in the Republic of S. Viet-Nam.
It was as close to a “milk run” as we had in our AO [ area of operation] A section of the map that had been cleared of enemy activity for some weeks that we flew over daily to ensure that it stayed clear. It was a beautiful summer day with fat cumulus clouds floating lazily thru the sky at about 4’000 feet, 500 ft. above the safe zone[ 3500 ft. was the maximum altitude the enemy could reach].
” You ever been in a cloud?” the pilot asked.
” No, but I always wanted to” I replied, as calmly as I could.
Easing the controls over he punched thru the side of a large Fair Weather Cumulus and we were inside.. We flew with the doors off, so the effect was immediate ; it was HOT. It was steam bath hot, stifling, and hard to breathe. Pulling in more collective pitch, we rose up thru the cloud and popped out on top. The pure white of the clouds top intensified the suns rays and added a roasting sensation to the experience.
Banking the aircraft sharply, the pilot pulled us away and back onto our heading.
” Now you have”, he smiled as he wiped the sweat from his face.
But childhood dreams are much harder to kill than that, and still, when the season brings those long walls of mounded up cotton, covering the whole horizon, I find myself picking out peaks and spires, and charting my way up a wispy cliff and along a ridge to the top of a feathery Col. I think I’ll try it in the winter next time.