Life on the high wire without a net

Many of us in our fantasy moments would like to be bold and adventurous, living on the edge.

But going over the edge while piloting a plane that is about as air worthy as a loaded cement truck would probably not be on our to do list.

But then we are not Dr. Keith Hooker. We’ll get back to that scene. On a previous occasion Keith scattered another plane, over a considerable portion of the real estate just outside Montrose Colorado. Fortunately Keith’s “co-pilot” Wid Tolman, built the plane including seat belts and harnesses. But who could foresee a mini tornado blowing up on them just as they took off. It flipped their plane upside down. An emergency belly landing is tricky enough. A back landing isn’t even covered in the manual. Fortunately Keith and Wid were able to eject. Unfortunately the ejection wasn’t on purpose. They just got flung out.

Miraculously they walked or staggered away. The plane was SMOA, Scrap Metal On Arrival. Their scratches, cuts and bruises, were featured in the local newspapers, but fortunately not on the obituary page.

Years earlier Keith baptized himself, a plane and his two passengers, in an Alaska river. It was a chilly swim and wade to shore for Keith and his wife Phyllis. It was a typical day floating in warm water for their almost newborn baby inside her.

The empty gas tank, and emergency landing, within spitting distance of the Spanish Fork Utah airport are hardly worth mentioning. The bent propeller memorial of that event standing in Keith’s back yard could be just an artistic sculpture. Keith was an excellent pilot. He just had this edge thing.

He came down from other heights in a similar robust fashion, rappelling off cliffs, hiking into slot canyons and occasional caves. And he also went up in like manner. He climbed North America’s highest peak Mt. McKinley, and challenged the world’s tallest Mt. Everest. Bad weather beat his party back down, but they were pushing the last stages to the summit.

Dr. Hooker was a connoisseur of survival “foods” including rodents, bugs, and worms. Some of these delicacies he got his children to enjoy, or at least eat with him. Would that I had such persuasive skills with our children.

Not surprisingly, his medical specialty was emergency treatment. He was head of that department at our regional hospital. I suspect Keith would have been most happy striding through life in a loin cloth with only a knife stuck in his belt.

Except that he was also a conscientious husband and father, church leader, civic contributor, and a good neighbor to me and others.  I was having a well dug. It looked like I would run out of money before we ran into water which would be when we tapped into the Yangtze river in China. Keith said he wanted to invest in the project. Eventually we reached a modest water source. I never would have made it without his help.

He freely gave medical service and supplies that would have made him money but instead made him many friends. He also made a few enemies. You don’t live with such gusto on the edge without bugging a few people. But among them were not the folks in Alaska, and later southern Utah to whom he brought his services by airplane. Nor our city police and fire departments whom he served for many years.

And so it came to pass that one warm summer morning his son announced to the gathered friends of Dr. Keith Hooker, “Today we are witnessing a sight I thought I would never see, my father lying in an open casket. I was always certain we would be sweeping and scooping up the remains of his last adventure, dumping them into a box and battening down the lid for his funeral.”

There was no disrespect in his description. We all smiled knowingly.

I know some well-organized people who have prepared the program for their funeral, but Keith took it one step further. He introduced the final song himself by way of a recording which starred the flying “cement truck” we started this story with. I’m paraphrasing here, but I think I have it pretty close.

Keith’s voice said, “This song is special to me. Once on a visit to a small clinic in southern Utah we flew out right after a pretty good rain. The landing strip was dirt, or in this case mud, at the top of a high mesa. I opened up the engine to full power and headed down the strip. The muddy ground, and the mud the wheels were throwing on the plane slowed us down way below take off speed. We went over the edge of the mesa and dropped like a rock. I went into a power dive to try and get enough airspeed to pull out of our fall before we hit the bottom of the canyon. Above the screaming wind and the roaring engine I heard a strange sound. Like a screeching banshee on steroids. I glanced over. It was my friend singing and hollering out the hymn, “How great thou art.”

The ball of mud with wings slowly began to level out, then climb. We pulled slowly up and above the nearby cliffs hoping we were not in a box canyon. A few minutes later we had enough altitude to start breathing again. For some reason a few minutes later planning my funeral seemed like a good idea, and I thought, ‘That song my friend was murdering would be a nice closer.”

The recording stopped. A young man with a guitar came out and announced, “Keith asked me to sing this song. I’ll be singing it loud because his last instructions to me were, ‘Sing loud because I’ll be in the box.’”

He sang loud.

Volunteers from the police force had kept an honorary sentinel watch over his casket the night before. The fire department crossed the flag-draped long ladders on their trucks to make a tall inverted V for the hearse and procession to pass through on their way to the cemetery.

At the graveside service we were respectfully somber. We would miss our friend, and perhaps we were even sad for him that his life didn’t end with a flourish. Cancer doesn’t lend itself to high action drama.

But our hearts were comforted. We knew Keith was launched on his greatest adventure ever.