I have written more than 6,000 stories (and filed Lord knows how many blog posts) for the AJC over the years. This piece, published Feb. 28, 2002, is my favorite. I have not kept up with Lori Hampton, who was a 17-year-old Roswell High School student when the story ran. If you see her, tell her I hope she is still flying high.
The propeller starts spinning, the engine roars to life and the tiny plane aims for the sky.
You’re in the back seat of what feels like a flying phone booth. A teenager has the controls. You start to hum “Nearer My God to Thee,” for a couple of reasons.
But then you think about that teenager at the helm, how she earned $6,000 for flight school at Randall Simmons Flight Training in Ball Ground by working afternoons and forgoing movies and new CDs. You see her spending her weekends doing practice runs, spending hours with manuals and maps. You remember how careful her pre-flight safety check was.
And you think of her leaving her hometown in the Midwest for a life where opportunity stretches toward the horizon. You see her struggling to fit big hopes into a small town. You see her taking those hopes South, where she could begin the path that started with books and rules and charts and has no end, really, since the sky just keeps going.
You feel lucky to share her journey, even for just a little while. You start to hum “Victory Is Mine,” for a lot of reasons, and when the wheels touch the earth and the engine whines down to sleep and the propeller stops spinning, you’re sorry.
Maybe you grew up in a small town, as Lori Hampton did.
Maybe you fantasized about getting out, moving to a bigger place, where you could unfold your dreams. You wonder how Lori had the courage, at 13, to persuade her mother to let her move to Roswell to live with her aunt, Melissa Hampton Perlman. You wonder if you could let go, as Lori did, as her mother did.
You remember being a teenager, counting down the days until Sweet Sixteen, yearning for the jingle of keys in your hand, speed under your right foot, freedom for 99 cents a gallon. It’s strange to hear that Lori doesn’t drive, doesn’t even have her license, isn’t in a hurry to get it.
You wonder how a 17-year-old junior at Roswell High School isn’t itching for a parking space like her friends. But then she tells you about the rides to nowhere back in her small Missouri hometown, the Saturday nights teenagers there spend on a ribbon of asphalt, looping around and around, ending up where they started, and moving slowly the whole time.
And it makes sense, when you think about it, that Lori doesn’t want a license to merge and stop at red lights and watch out for crazy drivers. Not when she’s got a license to soar.
Maybe you know someone like Lori’s aunt Melissa, or Auntie M, as Lori calls her. You wonder why a woman with no kids of her own, who was happy sharing life with a husband and a cat, would take in a teenager.
Then she tells you of growing up in that same small Missouri town, where boys grew up to be lawyers and girls grew up to be lawyers’ wives. She tells you how she would look at the rows of green on her family’s farm and wish they’d all wither and need no more weeding, only then there would be nothing to eat.
She tells you how she’d run outside when she was sick of baking, so sick of baking, to tell her troubles to the sky, but the sky had no answers, only clouds that started looking like loaves of bread.
And she confesses that yes, maybe she’s realizing opportunities through Lori that she missed out on herself. You see her pacing around Andrews-Murphy Airport in western North Carolina on Feb. 18, the day Lori took off a student pilot and came down a licensed pilot.
You see her trying to read a magazine while Lori proved herself to the examiner, looking up at the clouds the way she did when she was Lori’s age.
This time, though, the sky has answers.
You hope to meet Lori again someday, when she is flying for Delta or working as a test pilot for NASA. You picture her smiling as she steers into the clouds. She’ll seem familiar to you, since she always seemed to possess more maturity than most people her age.
You see gold around her neck, and a flash of blue. You figure that even when she wears a captain’s hat or a NASA badge, she will still wear the necklace Auntie M gave her the day she became a 17-year-old pilot. The gold airplane with a diamond at the nose and two sapphires on the wings.
You figure Lori will remember that Melissa took the gems from earrings she had received as a girl, and had them made into the special necklace.
You figure she’ll remember Melissa saying how she kept those stones for years and years, until she finally knew what to do with them.
And you hope that Melissa’s wish for Lori comes true, that she always has blue skies.