Touching the Face of God

By age eleven, whenever I fell asleep in front of the tv, forget it—I was out for hours. And not on my back, regal and composed, like a dignified pharaoh in his tomb floating into the next world. No, I slept scrunched up, fetal, wrapped in an afghan, more like the pharaoh’s mummified cat. It’s not that I loved the couch. It’s just that heading for bed at the appropriate time involved a series of Herculean tasks I could barely manage: a serpentine hallway to navigate, teeth to brush, clothes to strip off, followed by the risk of hypothermia once I poured myself into a frigid bed. So whenever I found myself couch-logged and sliding toward oblivion, I let myself slide.

Nor could anyone rouse me without paying a stiff penalty. Touched, whispered to, tapped, tickled, cajoled, shaken lightly by the shoulder, I turned nasty, thrashing about, snarling, sometimes yelling incoherently. Apparently my fits were not restricted exclusively to nighttime either. Once, on a family trip, we stopped for gas in the middle of the day on the Edge of Desolation—that is, outside Rawlins, Wyoming. I came to just in time to hear my mother try to strike up a conversation with the gas attendant. She was jawing on about the weather and our drive from Idaho and her married history in the state of Wyoming, and then she pointed out the window: “Oh, and by the way, sir, could you tell me the name of that mountain?” Before he could answer, I bellowed my way to the poor sap’s rescue: “Leave the guy alone! Can’t you see he’s just trying to do his job?”

Over the years, my mother adopted a coping strategy: “Who cares if Lance sleeps in his bed or on the couch or on the roof or on a bed of nails? Just leave him.” And true to her own advice, she’d rouse my sister from her television slumbers, but leave me behind, cop show or comedy still blaring. I was awake enough to hear my sister sleepwalk away, but not awake enough to get up myself. I’d turn over and nestle deeper, in no time sawing serious logs, like a sleeping princess under a spell, my castle protected by mountains of brambles—protected that is, till I woke hours later to the television station signing off.

Somehow I found gunfire, canned laughter, and goofy commercials conducive to sleep, but not stations going off the air. And stations did go off the air in those days, and expected viewers—doctors, teachers, secretaries, retired auto mechanics, nurses, members of the Elks Club, disturbed children like myself—to do the same. Stations negotiated that transition from something to nothing in a variety of ways. One station offered up an officious voice inviting—no, all but demanding—that viewers tune in again promptly at six a.m. A second station played “The Star Spangled Banner” and showed images of Old Glory being lowered in a brisk breeze, which left me with the impression that the president, or someone really important like Tiny Tim or Gsa Gsa Gabor or John Wayne, had passed away while I dozed. A third station featured footage of two activities dangerous on their own, but potentially lethal when combined: piloting a jet and reciting poetry.

It was this last station’s farewell I liked best. The pilot at ease in his prairie of clouds, the poem on his lips very much like prayer. At 45,000 feet, it was a piece of cake to fling your “eager craft through footless halls of air,” then pass “up, up the long delirious, burning blue.” What a life! Here was a guy who didn’t have to wash the dishes, take out the garbage, or change the cat’s litter box. Nothing to do in that ether but recite poetry and dodge angels.

Back then I didn’t know that the poem was called “High Flight”; that it was penned by a young, idealistic American named Gillespie Maggee; that Gillespie joined up with the Royal Canadian Air Force during wwii and fought on the side of England because America had not yet entered the fray; that he flew a number of bombing missions over Germany in a Supermarine Spitfire; that back in England during a training mission he collided with another plane; or that he was only nineteen when he met his fate and fell in pieces over the rolling countryside of Roxholm.

Back then, groggy with sleep, I believed the poem existed for me alone. The pilot’s job was to stay up there in the ether and recite sleepy, glorious lines. It’s what anyone would do nine miles up, among thin air and sun dogs. With “silent lifting mind” you “trod the high untrespassed sanctity of space.” And then, my friend, you “put out your hand and touched the face of God.”

How I loved that last line.

How I too wanted to touch God’s face.

But when I heard it, I knew I had to hurry to bed. The hope of the poem, the gentle scything of the jet’s wings, the pilot speaking to deity—in a few moments all these would evaporate, replaced by a test pattern that reminded me of a swastika and emitted a low-grade but terrifying hum. I felt alone with myself, as never before. And following the swastika came something worse, a blank screen. Well, almost blank. Closer to a snowstorm that buzzed and rattled and gave off invisible cicadas that got loose inside your head. “The bug races” we called that chaos—funny enough if you were staying up all night at a slumber party, but just short of devastating if you found yourself alone. I’d never heard the word existentialism, but in that moment I felt its chill. That hissing nothing is exactly what you’d see if a volcano took out the television stations, if earth got hit by a meteor, if Russia rained down its nuclear missiles. It’s what you’d see, if you happened to be the last cowering eleven-year-old on the planet. Dread got me off the couch, nothing else. I’d turn off that devastation of fuzz, that dark night of the soul for minors, then lumber down the hall, towards a cold but forgiving bed.