But back to the fighting in Afghanistan and what it taught me. I mentioned I was increasingly disappointed with my teaching assignment. I was getting more interested in straight International Development, that is helping poor countries with their basic infrastructure like power and roads. But this was the late seventies and our ‘assistance’ wasn’t all positive. We seemed as likely to support a Latin American dictator’s goon squads as to build a road. So I was having doubts.
Until, that is, the war broke out. As soon as there was a real need for help, questions about ‘donor motives’ disappeared. And there was real need in Afghanistan. They needed emergency medical attention. They needed temporary shelter, food and other necessities. And that brought it all home for me. From that day onward, I decided that if I couldn’t be a writer, I’d make my living as an international emergency response worker. And with that resolved, I left Afghanistan with something like a plan, or more aptly, a Plan B.
The days after the Kabul coup continued to be challenging. Half of the volunteers, when given the option to leave or stay, opted to leave immediately. I was among the half that decided to stay. At one point early on, Afghan agents grabbed one of my fellow volunteers from the classroom next to mine. They dragged him to the basement of the Ministry of Defense where they tortured him. They ended by putting a pistol against his head and pulling the trigger on an empty chamber. He was terribly traumatized by these events. Still, Peace Corps convinced him to relate the details of his ordeal to the rest of us before they sent him home. What cautionary message we were to glean from his harrowing account we never figured out.
His was the most blatant case of what we now know as PTSD. But, after the ordeal of several days of aerial bombardment, most of us had it in one form or another. Mine took the form of recurring dreams of being chased by fighter planes. The planes morphed over time into space ships and other things, and I am not completely rid of them today. It also turned into a compulsion to learn to pilot those planes myself. In fact, so strong was this obsession that I went off to a flight school and told them of my plans. They tried to disabuse me of the belief I would be soon be flying jets. Instead, they proposed a long and arduous path that began with fixed wing planes.
I badgered them until they explained the difficulties involved with flying jets. Then they suggested that the closest experience I could get was flying gliders. They said glider training could easily be arranged. So off I went to learn to fly gliders. If you’ve not been in one, gliders are amazing. The pilot sits surrounded in a glass bubble of a cockpit on the aircraft’s nose. With the bulk of the plane behind you, it feels like you are floating inside a soap bubble.
My first flight was in a two-seater. The real pilot sat behind me, leaving me with an unobstructed view. We rose behind our tow plane. We released to soar above the gorgeous Appalachian foothills. We soared in the utter quite of this elegant engineless craft for fifteen minutes. Then the pilot broke in saying we had a decision to make. “If we keep it like this (meaning the smooth soaring following the ridges north) we have to head back for the field because all we’re doing is slowly coming down. But if you’d like to stay up a while – which I am happy to do – then we need to catch an updraft.” Up, up, and away, I signaled with my thumb.
He nodded and tipped our wings to almost vertical beneath a large black thunderhead. Then we began moving upward in a tight spiral. Within seconds my stomach rose and vomit filled my mouth. With the cockpit glass not four inches in front of me, I was pretty sure I’d get a face full of back splatter if I let it out. I struggled but managed to get it all to go back down. As we walked away from my first and only glider ride, he asked me if I wanted to sign up for more lessons. I thanked him but said I hoped to never see another glider. And I have been faithful to my word.