Sometime this summer I was eyeing one of Stanford’s Continuing Education courses titled Short Story Masterpieces to be taught by Michael Krasny. For the course, Krasny was going to be using The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction edited by Ann Charters.
While I knew I couldn’t devote the time required to actually enroll in the course, I hadn’t heard of the book before – so I thought I might enjoy just getting a copy. As it turns out, the book is priced like a textbook – but I still decided to get it. For the last couple of months it’s just sat on a bookshelf in my home office – until today.
This afternoon – looking for a pre-holiday relief from work work – I picked up the book and found a cozy place away from the office to begin exploring. I read the book’s Introduction and its explanation of the book’s structure (Stories, Commentaries on specific stories, Casebooks on specific authors, and an appendix with Charters’ discussions about short stories, the genre, etc.)
One of my favorite writers – ever – is John Steinbeck. There’s one story by Steinbeck in Charters’ book – “The Chrysanthemums“. The story, like much of Steinbeck’s work, is based in California’s Monterey County – and, specifically, in Salinas.
Steinbeck begins the story:
The high grey flannel fog of winter closed off the Salinas Valley from the sky and from all the rest of the world. On every side it sat like a lid on the mountains and made of the great valley a closed pot.
Many years ago I owned a small airplane and, from time to time, I would need to fly in actual instrument conditions to maintain my proficiency for instrument flight. I have vivid memories of one morning taking off and flying purposely to Salinas – which was fogged in at the time and, as a result, would provide me the opportunity to shoot an instrument approach into Salinas Airport in actual instrument conditions. Steinbeck’s story – and his opening sentences – brought those memories flooding back.
That morning was just as Steinbeck described – the fog was a lid on the valley. It was a closed pot. Approaching Salinas, I was in clear blue sky above but I needed to penetrate that fog to get below it and land at Salinas. As I was communicating with the approach controller, he cleared me for an instrument approach and I began descending into the fog – transitioning from clear blue sky to only flying from the instruments in the cockpit of my airplane.
My approach began normally – me feeling good about getting into actual IMC. But then something happened – the directional gyro suddenly began spinning. This was not supposed to happen!
The directional gyro provides the pilot with information on the heading the aircraft is pointed. It’s one of several important instruments which pilots need to continuously scan when they’re flying in the clouds. One of the risks pilots face when flying in instrument conditions is a failure of one of these critical instruments. So – here I was – in the fog, descending into Salinas, but with a spinning directional gyro.
Pilots are taught that maintaining the scan of all of the critical instruments is vital while flying on instruments. If one of the critical instruments fails, a pilot can become fixated on the failed instrument, stop scanning the others, and lose situational awareness. When I was flying, there were circular plastic covers with suction devices on the back that you could use to quickly slap over a malfunctioning instrument to prevent it from becoming your sole focus. I had a couple of those – but when the moment strikes they’re not handy – being tucked away in a flight bag in the back seat!
So I forced myself to just ignore the damn spinning directional gyro – and figure a way out.
The fog layer was perhaps 1,500 feet thick – maybe even less. I knew I had blue sky above me. If I could break off the approach, applying power and keeping the wings level, I could get back up to that clear blue sky air. And that’s what I did. I radioed Salinas Tower that I was breaking off the approach. He responded with “State your intentions” – and I cancelled my instrument approach as I climbed above the fog and headed back home. I never did land at Salinas that morning. I also never trusted that directional gyro again – and had it replaced.
As I read the opening sentences of Steinbeck’s story, the memories of my foggy morning encounter with Salinas came flooding back. In Steinbeck’s story, Elisa has her own challenges with the Salinas fog as a metaphor for her life. She lived there. For me it was just a close encounter. I made it back.
Looking at Krasny’s course syllabus, I think I’ll begin exploring the other writers he’s featured in Charters’ book – as I move beyond this initial Steinbeck story. The book is such a treasure trove of stories – I know I need – and want – to dive deeper. I’m sure more memories await!