I once fell asleep while flying a plane out of the Daytona Beach International Airport. Half way through my takeoff roll, I knew I was in trouble. 10,500 feet of paved asphalt can have a narcotizing effect on even the most well rested and enthusiastic pilot. Especially when flying a Piper Cadet, whose successful departure generally requires about a fourth of that available runway.
It hadn’t been a restful week. My boarding school pal, Gurt Rash, was on his eighth day of a surprise visit. Gurt’s small liberal arts college in Virginia had let out for the summer and he was in Florida helping me finish my own spring semester at flight school.
Gurt was smart, evil and thoroughly versed in vice. He was enthusiastic, well-read, well-traveled and totally unencumbered by fear, or frugality; Gurt’s father — at 46 and in apparent good health — had been zapped with a massive cerebral hemorrhage four months before, passing on to Gurt and his three younger sisters a savant-level math talent, a geometric chin and an inexhaustible fortune in oil money.
Gurt’s internal GPS navigator was dialed permanently to the “achieve self-joy” setting.
ATMs were not yet commonplace, but they were a daily stop for Gurt, despite a leather wallet snug full of plastic. These things, along with his encyclopedic capacity for random trivia and a beast-like appetite for food – and all things consumable – made Gurt perfect company.
Gurt and I had been breaking rules – and on occasion, things – together for the better part of the decade. I was 19. He was 20. We were best friends.
Gurt and I had settled into an easy routine. I’d race my motorcycle to my apartment after my noon class, rouse Gurt with some music and prepare a round of bong hits while he’d have a quick shower. Next, an epic brunch at a diner on old A1A would leave us stuffed and mellow, driving my door-less Jeep up on Daytona’s famously wide, flat, beach by 2:00 p.m.
Gurt and I would claim some sand, unload the chaise lounges and anchor the cooler full of beer behind the swing-gate of my Jeep. Two or three hours of smoking butts and drinking beer were punctuated by dives in the Atlantic and strategizing for the evening’s carouse.
Back to my apartment for another binger or two, showers and a pre-dinner round of “liquid courage” — usually seven or eight rapid shots a piece of straight-from-the-freezer Stoli. We used dueling shot-glasses, purchased years before from the “Tuck Shop” of our small New England boarding school, etched and inked with a picture of St. George, bedecked in armor and on horseback, slaying that mythical dragon. I would end up traveling with mine for more than 20 years, always packed with my toothbrush and razor in the same silk, candy-striped, leather-tipped drawstring dopp kit that Brooks Brothers used to sell and which my father gave me when I was ten, a year before I shipped off to boarding school.
Gurt and I would head out on steady legs, in blue blazers, inside pockets loaded with at least a spare deck of smokes, ready to sample a new high-end restaurant each night.
Dinner with Gurt was a three-hour affair. Minimum. Stoli-tonics. Mount Gay rum. Bourbon and ginger — a Gurt concoction my father once referred to, aptly, as an “insult to bourbon,” when he found reference to several of them on an itemized bill after I’d treated Gurt to lunch at one of my father’s private Washington eating clubs. Greyhounds. And wine. Copious amounts of red wine, which Gurt seemed to know a lot about for his age. All of these made an appearance at our table as we journeyed through the veritable smorgasbord of dishes that were delivered with satisfying frequency.
Gurt ordered a meal like he was the quartermaster of a British colonial army. Several times I witnessed waitresses turn and start to walk away in mid-order, assuming Gurt had just satisfied the needs of the entire table, perhaps the five closest tables around us. In reality, Gurt had just paused for breath — or a drag off a Parliament — having only made it three-quarters of the way through his appetizer demands.
Sometimes Gurt would order by the menu region. He would point to the menu, slaloming his finger slowly down through the salad and entrée moguls, coming to rest only deep within the desert territory. “I’ll have these, please. ALL of these. From here … to here.”
Our combination of youth, “tolerance” and pounds of poison-soaking food-buffer kept us out of the emergency room — usually — and, mostly mobile. And on those occasions when we weren’t nearly “bi-pedal,” we always had a car to drive.
Post-dinner entertainment would feature a tour of some of the seamier bars in Daytona – a town with more than its fair share. They’d serve until three and infrequent was the night we didn’t see the lights flicker for last call. Mating with the locals was a constant aspiration, very rarely met.
We’d make it home. Gurt never drove, but he always remembered to grab the next day’s paper from the fresh pile on the corner. By pre-arrangement, I’d put out my last cigarette, hop in bed, crash until sunrise, whereupon Gurt would wake me with a cup of fresh coffee and a smoke. Gurt made sure I reached the shower, then he’d hit the sack. While I raced to the flight line — sleep-deprived and still loaded — Gurt was certain I’d retrieve him from sleep upon my return from school and we’d start all over again.
A perfectly sustainable schedule, for seven full days. But even as I took off directly into a rising sun that eight morning, nothing could burn away the fatigue, or rid me of the poison with which I was saturated. Not the knowledge that I was flying someone else’s hugely expensive machine in a highly populated area. Not the fact that I loved — and wanted to live — my life. Not the certainty that my fiery, shameful, wasteful death would crush my parents and brother.
I nodded off before I made it to altitude. The stall-warning klaxon — a truly God-awful persistent horn next to my head – assaulted me into consciousness. I passed out again soon after achieving wings-level flight. Only the insistent harangue — “Piper, Echo-Romeo-two-seven-niner, come in …“Piper, Echo-Romeo-two-seven-niner, come in!” — of the Daytona Beach Departure Control roused me from that slumber.
The next 15 minutes found me “porpoising” up and down the East Coast of Florida, gaining and losing the same 500 feet of altitude as I transitioned from sleep to flight and back to sleep again. I pinched myself. I slapped my face, with ever increasing intensity. I opened the window and then the door. I drew blood digging my fingers into my thigh through my Bermuda shorts. This regimen — and God — kept me barely awake and safely back to the airport, at least 40 minutes ahead of schedule.
I should have been arrested upon landing, or booted from school. My license should have been yanked. For certain. Instead, I taxied to my tie-down and promptly fell asleep.
I had enough sense to thank God. And, I had sense enough to ask Gurt to make his way back to DC, where I’d meet him in little more than a week’s time — and summer debauchery could commence in earnest.
I didn’t have the sense to stop drinking. Or the power. That would take another 15 years of crashed cars, wrecked boats, run-ins, arrests, injuries, lost friends, public and private humiliations.
Buckley Carlson lives a happy and blessed life in Washington, D.C. with his wife, son, three dogs. He is an enthusiastic liver-of-life, a reluctant taxpayer and a 35-year friend of Gurt Rash. In 15 years of sobriety, he has never encountered a friend who said, “Quit drinking? What in the hell did you do THAT for?” He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.