My wife, who is the mother of four children and has no independent income of her own, at first regarded my amateur piloting with more tolerance than enthusiasm. Oh, Natalie would go along on trips and hold the maps sometimes; she thought clouds were nature's poetry; she agreed that flying was cheaper, smoother and faster than traveling by car. But that was about all. Then one fine summer she took a long trip around the U.S. with me and I wrote a magazine piece about it, starring her. For some reason this caused a woman in Bismarck, N.D., a total stranger, to send Natalie an old book of memoirs by Mrs. Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the wife of one of my fellow aviators.
Mrs. Lindbergh apparently pushes an eloquent pen. A new spirit entered our household. Recently I was encouraged to replace my clanking, independent-minded old Ercoupe with a new Piper Tri-Pacer, "...in the interests of speed, range and gross loading capacity," as Natalie put it.
"You mean seating space for the kids," I said.
"No, I mean how much it can carry," she said. "Ask them at the factory about taking out the back seat and putting in a big gas tank. I'd love for us to fly over the ocean together and look for something weird and worthwhile on the other side."
She knew how I felt about single-engine airplanes over water, and had seen me pick the narrowest crossing over even such a placid duckpond as Long Island Sound. But she also knew I'd go to great lengths to keep up her new-found interest. So we ended with a compromise: while I went to pick up the plane (with back seat intact), she'd study the atlas and find us a reasonably handy destination which involved navigating a body of water somewhat tidier in size than the Atlantic Ocean. She said as long as we would be out of sight of land at some point en route she'd be satisfied. I suggested the Mississippi on a hazy day, but she finally decided on the Isle of Pines, a little place south of Cuba.
"It used to be a pirate hangout and it has solid marble mountains," she told me.
"Um," I said. "About a hundred miles open water from Key West to Havana, 50-odd miles more water from the south coast on..." and I got out the computer and started figuring altitudes and rates of descent.
"The Isle of Pines inspired both Treasure Island and The Gold-Bug."
"I don't want to go higher than 12,000 feet without oxygen," I said, "which ought to give us around 15 miles gliding radius. That leaves 70 of the big stretch..."
Her eyes flashed contemptuously.