IN THE END, we didn't fly in Bert's own glider, the one he built himself, with the heartbreakingly lovely dihedral gull wings, but in a Schweizer 233 trainer.
The trainer has two seats, you see.
He is a sculptor, Bert Schmutzhart, and all he thinks about is flying. He built his first glider at 14 in Austria and had his friends snap him off a hilltop with huge rubber bands. He had offered to take me up, and I was about to say, Hey, Bert, I'm 55 years old, but then I remembered he is 53 so I said, Fine, when can we go?
So here we are at Hartwood Field near Garrisonville, Va., pushing a 600-pound glider, a lovely white thing, mostly canvas, with a 50-foot wingspan and a bubble nose.
"Do you weigh more than 145 pounds?" he says.
It is the nicest question I have been asked for weeks.
"Yes," I say.
"Good. If you were less, we'd need a weight in the nose."
"Not to worry."
Everything is very slow and deliberate in the glider business. There's not much margin. The men don't say much. Pretty soon I am talking that way too. Bert plucks at cables and flaps, endlessly checking, and a sky diver named Clarence McCall studies the 250-foot tow rope foot by foot. Finally I climb into the front seat.
The seat belt is serious. I mean, it is six inches wide and has straps coming over the shoulders. Harry Schoelpple, the liberated former OEO executive who runs the airfield, rattles up in his World War II vintage tow plane, and we hook on. Methodically, Bert, sitting behind me, tests the cable release. Twice.
Very quickly the line pulls taut and we are off, bouncing over the stubble. It's like riding a bicycle across a lawn. But too fast. At 45 mph we are up, suddenly smooth, skimming the field. The plane ahead fights for altitude. All I can hear is the whish of wind. The trees that fringe the field rush toward us. We are staying low deliberately, I learn later, to keep Harry's tail down so he can climb.
Then we are over the trees, circling, climbing, circling, climbing to 2,200 feet when Bert pops the cable -- Bang! -- and the tow plane slopes off to our left and we are alone in the sky with the soft steady hiss of air and the elation and the farms spread beneath us all the way to the Blue Ridge.
"Wow!" I shout. I remember how I had scoffed at the comments of the first astronauts, how trite and unpoetic they were. They were right. There is nothing you can say.
All the time, I feel the stick and the pedals moving as Bert trims and adjusts. "It's like sailing a small boat," he says. "You have to keep after it."
We find a thermal and spiral tightly up, 200 feet a minute. It's not a good day for thermals, the updrafts that tend to camp under cumulus clouds.
"Let's go to this little cloud and see what it's doing," Bert says. But it's a dead one. We search for lift in a nearly cloudless sky.
"Now we're going to do a stall." He puts a hand on my shoulder from behind. The nose rises -- and abruptly, sickeningly, drops straight down. I rear back in my seat.
Then I realize the hand is there to reassure me, and I relax.
"In a powered plane a stall is a big problem," he says. "It's very gentle in a glider. It just stops flying for a second but comes right out. We use it to try for lift sometimes."
This trainer drops at a rate of 23 feet horizontally to one foot vertically. Bert's own plane is 32-1. Some gliders sink only one foot in 50. A comforting thought. We are down to 1,000 feet now, and under the field rules we must land, thermals or no. As we curve gracefully around to the downwind end of the field, Bert says casually:
"Of course, you only get one try with a glider. You can't gun it and come around again."
I watch our landing with great interest.
We wander about Hartwood, which specializes in sky diving and powered-plane instruction, though it expects to offer glider training in a few weeks. An hour later we go up again because thermals tend to gather in the afternoon. This time we take the tow to 3,000 feet. For 20 minutes we swoop above the airfield but find no updrafts. Then Bert puts both hands on my shoulders.
"You take it," he says. "I got my hands off the controls."
"Great," I say.
Cautiously pushing the stick sideways and pressing down on a foot pedal, I send us into a slow curve. I am quite surprised to find that when I level off the controls we keep turning. You have to push the controls the other way to get straight again. Interesting.
Now I am curving us this way and that. I try a very quick stall. It is wonderful, floating over the landscape with no sound but the air whistling past, while a hawk schoons by and the trees come up slowly, slowly. We are so light, so sensitive, so fragile . . .
. . . And no engine, a tiny voice says in the back of my mind.
The flight manual says a little anxiety is good for you.
Now Bert has the controls again and we are landing, 55 miles an hour over the grass. I am told the glider makes a soft purring noise in flight. With hardly a bump, we slide to a stop two yards from the mooring ropes.
The moment we stop, the heat hits me and I flip up the plexiglass hood.
"It's great, Bert, it's great. So cool up there!"
"Cool!" He eyes me steadily.
"Yeah, it's terrific on a hot day like this."
"You want cool? You wanna get cool, you should try sky diving."
"Sure! I've made 16 drops. Nothing to it. Hey, you wanna come sky diving with me?"