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swingingI’m in 6th grade, maybe 7th, and supposedly too old for playing on the swings, but the swings at school aren’t your ordinary backyard swings that might tip over if you swing too hard. These are mighty colossi of tubular steel legs sunk into concrete and towering over my head at least 50 feet. The chains stretch down almost to the ground, terminating in a slab of rubber cut from a truck tire. The ground underneath has been scooped out by generations of small feet digging into the dirt for propulsion and/or braking. There are three swings sitting side by side, not moving much, just occasionally twisting slowly in the cool spring breeze. Wayne, Mark, and I sit down on the rubber seats and just sit there for a moment, gazing up the long chains to the cross bar so impossibly high above us, anticipating the sensations to come.

And then as some unspoken yet perceivable signal, we all take four steps backwards, the last step ending in a small leap in an effort to gather as much momentum as possible to set our swings in motion. That first arc is nothing special as we lean back and extend out legs straight out in front of us. As we hit the meager peak of the swing, we lean forward tucking our legs underneath us, crossing our shins to keep our feet from dragging and costing us speed.

This isn’t really about speed, but speed is an essential part of the game. As we reach the apex of our rear motion, we all snap back into a full extension, legs straight out and arms locked back, pulling against the chains as we sweep further forward and upward. We keep our heads in line with out shoulders to maximize our leverage as we work the swing as hard as we can.

We can feel the chains come alive, vibrating in sympathy with our motion, back and forth. We keep pumping with out arms and legs, and it doesn’t take long until we are at the point where most kids stop. Each forward swoop brings us breathtakingly close to the ground and then shoots us up into the air, while the return trip in a crouch let’s us watch as the ground comes closer and closer, only to be snatched away at the last moment as we reach the bottom of the swing’s travel.

We stay at this level for several cycles, putting in enough effort to maintain our speed and height. At times, I lay me head back and watch the ground flash past underneath me as my body points up into the sky. At other times, I curl my chin into my chest, fighting the pull of gravity and inertia to watch through me feet as I approach the clouds.

In days past, we would jump from the swings at this level, trying to time our jump so we left the swing at the bottom of the cycle, and then trying and often failing to force our feet to keep up with the mad speed the swing gave us. We either ran or tumbled to a dusty stop on the playground, then ran back to the swings to go again.

But today, we were after a far greater thrill, and after a few moments of enjoying ourselves, we wen back to work, pumping harder, with everything we had, once again trying to get as high as we possibly could.

We had learned, the hard way of course, that it was possible to go too high, and that if you did, the chains would go slack and the return ride would not be the smooth rush we anticipated, but a rough, twisty, jerky drop that killed our momentum and sometimes resulted in blood blisters on our hands as the loose free falling links pinched our tightly gripping hands. But knowledge often comes after pain, and sacrifice is the mother of exploration, and we used our painfully earned information wisely.

We were soon able to gauge exactly where the line was between as far as we could go and too far and to press that line just like test pilots in experimental aircraft.

Because that was what we were; test pilots, driving the only aircraft available to us to its utter limits. We weren’t flying on the swing; we were flying the swing. We practiced basic skills at lower levels, like causing the swing to twist when and just how much we wanted it to. We even did some formation swinging, staying in sync with each other and performing half and full twists simultaneously.

But those were kid games compared to our goal for today, because today, we were going to fly for real.

We built our momentum to the edge of the envelope and then prepared to fly.

The dismount was critical. Too soon would cost you altitude; too late would cost you distance and momentum. We wanted maximum height with full control. We were in competition, but so much with each other as with ourselves, or maybe the earth itself. Our goal was to leave the earth, even if only for a brief moment and we worked together to aid each other.

We each had different methods to time our release. I think Wayne used a tree as a landmark; I don’t remember what Mark used. I literally flew by the seat of my pants, by feel. As the forward swing began, I could feel my weight increase until it peaked at the bottom of the cycle. At that point I could feel it begin to taper off, as well as the speed of the wind past my face begin to slow. I waited for the point where my inner ear told me that I was pointing as high as I could and still have enough momentum to control my flight, and then with a pull of my arms and a twitch of my hips, I took flight.

The swing fell behind me like an expended stage of an Apollo rocket as ballistics took me in hand an guided my flight. Clocks tell us that time is linear and each second lasts the same amount of time as every other second, but we all know from experience that simply isn’t true. A stopwatch tracking us would show that we spent the same amount of time going up as we spent coming back down again, but that wasn’t what I experienced.

My body became my aircraft as I left the swing behind. I was looking straight up into the sky as I climbed for maximum altitude. The pull and flip as I left the seat game my body just enough rotation so that as I reached the peak of my flight, I was parallel to the ground, and for an endless microsecond, I floated, weightless and motionless, above the ground. I was either 10 feet or 10 miles above the ground; the difference was negligible. No wind, no sound other than the thump of my heartbeat, just suspension.

I was flying.

Then gravity returned from its brief vacation and reclaimed me as its rebellious subject. My body continues to rotate, and I work to maintain that rotation at the correct rate. Too slow or too fast will result in a painful and embarrassing crash landing. My forward momentum means that I form an inverted parabola in the air and as I approach the ground, I accelerate rapidly. My field of view rotates, and I adjust my position by pulling in my legs to speed my rotation or leaving them out to slow it. The ground rotates into my vision and I see I am in good position so as a responsible pilot I make my preparations for landing, unlocking my legs to allow my muscles to absorb the impact and keeping my chin tucked for the exit roll.

I hit the ground and the shock is staggering. My flight has ended and the ground seeks to pay me back like a jealous lover for abandoning it even for a few seconds. My thighs strain to absorb the shock, but rather than trying to remain upright by taking a forward step, I keep my feet planted and instead allow my remaining momentum to be converted into a forward shoulder roll. The world spins around me crazily as I roll but the next time my feet hit the ground, I can stand up immediately and brush myself off. I look to each side to make sure Mark and Wayne have each landed safely, then we sprint back to the swings to start it all over again.

Since then, I’ve grown up. I’ve flown in Lear jets and 747’s and I’ve cruised at 35,000 feet. But I’ve never flown higher than I did in 6th grade.

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