Prose: Richard Souza
Photography: As credited
When I first laid eyes on a typewriter, I didn’t understand why the keys were not in alphabetical order. Once I figured it out, I realized that without the thoughts, words will not appear on paper. These days, there is no need to slap the carriage return lever to start a new line, nor a need to untangle the typebars when two keys are hit simultaneously. One thing that technology didn’t replace is how QWERT becomes a story.
I rub my hands together, interlock my fingers and crack my knuckles. I put one index finger on “F” and the one on “J” and stare. I stare into the screen and wonder how this story is going to come together. The letters on the keys conjure up different words. This is a start. Maybe if enough words appear on the screen, things will begin to make sense. “M”… Mother “P”… Photographer “V”… Vintage “W”… Wingwalk “C”… “C”… CANCER!
CANCER… It’s that one word that, when uttered, needs no translation. Being sentenced to life without parole sounds like a better proposition than hearing “you have Cancer”. So what does Cancer have to do with aviation or photography? Some stories just have to be told. I wouldn’t be part of a chain of goodness if I didn't tell you the story of one person’s climb to the mountain top. How do I share with the world a story that is so positive and uplifting yet has so many layers that it has the ability to strike a chord in anyone who lives and breathes? Just sit back and indulge me for a while.
I have been known a time or two to put my lens down as a P-51D, making a low level, high speed pass in perfect light, just… passes me by. As the cameras around me blurt out a cacophony of shutter salvos, I just look around. I see ordinary people. Many photographers like me. Women, men, young and old, these are people with everyday lives with everyday ups and everyday downs. In my travels on this spaceship we call earth, I have been privileged to know many a people and many a photographer. Every once in a blue moon, when the planets are perfectly aligned, you come across that one person that stands out not only for their photography, but for being different and for doing an extraordinary thing. One such person is Carly Hodges.
I made Carly’s acquaintance, the way thousands have, via the popular photography app “Instagram”. Over the last couple of years, we have become fans of each other’s work. It was through the comments and the exchanges of praise, that I got a taste of the very cheeky, funny and feisty mother of two. When I saw photos of Carly at air shows in her native UK, I knew that this Teacher’s Assistant and Photographer marched to the beat of her own drum. Carly is a vintage fashionista and is regularly seen at air shows shooting in a dress and petticoat. It is what I like to say, Daring to be Different… or is it? Over time I have learned; we are the ones that are different. Carly will simply say “This is me”.
Early this year, Carly announced, through social media, that her mother, Lynne, was diagnosed with Lymphoma. The post was honest and straightforward. Words of support and well wishes from followers flowed like Victoria Falls. Lynne, or Mum, as Carly says, responded to every comment with positivity and determination. Like the final scene of Rocky III, Lynne entered the ring with gloved hand, pulled the invisible sting… “Ding Ding”, Cancer is about to take a beating.
I am told that Lynne is a beautiful, strong woman. As she was grabbing the bull by the horns, Lynne made a preemptive strike. Knowing a side effect of chemotherapy, Lynne sat down at the local barber and asked to have her head shaved. Not fearing what people would think, Lynne addressed the stigma, the wondering and did not want pity. Lynne was and is very forthcoming with anyone who saw her. Along with Carly’s social media posts, they wanted to focus the light; not on them, but on the bully called Cancer.
A wise man once wrote, “When a body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first body”. Lynne and Carly are two of those forces that when combined, are more powerful than Ali’s one-two punch.
Carly freely admits that the diagnosis hit her hard. Lynne is Carly’s Mother, Friend, and Rock. Lynne is the foundation which Carly stands on. The person that picked her up when she fell, tended to her wounds and made everything better with a kiss. Lynne literally got Carly on the horse and in the saddle and was that voice that always told her daughter she was a champion. When Carly brought home the title of Young Rider of the Year in 1996, Mum was not surprised. Lynne knew Carly had it in her.
As we get older, the scraped knees become broken hearts and the falls are harder. While a kiss may not ease the pain, Lynne’s comfort and constant support got Carly through the dark days of depression, separation, uncertainty and self-doubt. When Lynne was diagnosed, Carly hid her fear, sadness and everyday problems from her trusted confidant. How could she go to Mum, when Mum was in a fight with a formidable foe? Carly retreated more and more until hitting bottom.
The good thing about hitting bottom is, you can’t go any further. Bottom is bottom, the only way out… is up. Up is easier said than done. With a loving family and two children of her own, Carly could see clearly enough to look at her Mum, and gain strength and inspiration from the way Lynne carried herself during the cancer treatments. Life continued for Lynne, albeit with this very major inconvenience called Chemo. Being a foster parent, Lynne cared for the children, walked the dogs and with the help of Husband John, the house was still standing. All this, with a smile… and maybe a bad day or two, but who’s counting.
One day, Lynne leaned over to her Daughter and gave her the most precious piece of advice. ”Life is too short. Start saying yes to things, no matter how scared you may feel. Enough people will help you out. Do not live with regrets for opportunities not taken”. Those words would become the new beat of Carly’s drum.
Carly could not sit idle while her Mum stepped into the ring. Carly was going to be ringside shouting words of encouragement with more grit and tenacity than Mickey Goldmill in the Rocky movies. Carly turned to the online site JustGiving to raise funds for Lymphoma Action. The money raised would not be for Lynne, nor for Cancer research. The money is destined for supporting people affected by Lymphoma. Millions of Dollars, Pounds, Euros and every conceivable currency has been given to find a cure for this disease. Carly believed that there was a need to raise money to support those who must endure the treatment of the disease. We often never think of the financial needs of the patients and their families.
All this was happening at a point in Carly’s life that put her at the crossroads. That mythical intersection of roads where the wrong turn can lead to doom. Left was life as she was living… and right, the mountain top. The road to the top is not easy. It was once said that “The road is long, with many a winding turn”. Fear is a force more powerful than gravity. Fear is what keeps people from hopes and dreams. Carly knew that Lynne was fearful of the diagnosis, treatment and outcome yet Mum wasn’t showing it. Seeing Lynne’s poise opened Carly’s big, hypnotizing eyes. With Mum’s words of wisdom, Carly took a right turn at the fork and began her own journey down the road that would be at times “thorned and narrow”.
Carly resolved to set challenges for herself. The challenges began simple like baby steps. And as time passed, the baby steps became a walk and then a run. With the passing of every month was the achievement of having overcome a self-imposed hurdle like going vegan for a month or giving a compliment a day. With no signs of backing down, Carly upped the ante. If they could raise 250 GBP (British Pounds), she would run the Eden Half Marathon. That goal was reached overnight. Going for broke, Carly laid it all on the line with a very ambitious challenge and goal. Carly announced that she would take a flight in a vintage plane. A T-6 Harvard to be more precise. Then Carly dropped the Mother of all Bombshells. If they were able to raise 2,500.00 GBP, she would Wingwalk. That is right… Wingwalk with the Aerosuperbatics Wingwalking Team.
What is remarkable about this challenge is that Carly would have to face one of her greatest fears… Flying. One thing is flying in a Jetliner at 35,000 feet and it’s another being in a T-6 Harvard doing basic aerobatics. Carly was petrified, but a challenge is a challenge. If Lynne isn’t backing off her challenge, there was no way that the younger of the two peas in a pod was going to back down. On Carly’s 37th birthday, off to Duxford she went to fly onboard the T-6 Harvard “Wacky Wabbit”. This flight was generously offered by the Pilot Andrew Goodall. Carly wrote on her website about the Harvard experience and she eloquently describes the moment when her world literally turned upside down as the T-6 performed a loop. There was no sense of fear, nerves or jitters. Thanks to the pilot and crew of the aircraft, Carly remained calm, enjoyed the scenery and smelled the roses.
Carly continually pushed to raise funds for Lymphoma. There wasn’t a day or a week that would go by where this crusader didn’t post about the fundraiser, the cause and the wing walk. As a result of this push, people responded. From the initial amount, the goal would increase continuously as the generous donations kept coming.
As the day approached, reality began to sink in. Is this really going to happen? Will the weather cooperate? Will Carly back out? She knew that backing out was not an option. Days before the flight, Carly confided in me and said the person going up on that plane will not be her. What people will see is the Ultra Carly persona. This greater than life character in a Wonder Woman costume (in honor of Mum) will appear, while the Carly we know steps out of her body and shivers from fear. Who can blame her? The chosen path may be the right one but it is like driving in thick fog on a dark night.
With the Family packed in the car, Carly drove through the beautiful Cotswolds region of England to the lovely RFC Rendcomb. As they approached the gate, her son spots a biplane with a wing walker. “I see it I see it”, says Isaac. Carly tries her hardest to drive and spot the plane. When the Biplane swoops down over the field, the look of “what the hell am I doing?” is stamped on her face. Dad notices the look through the rear view mirror. As Carly looks in the mirror, she notices Father in tears…. of laughter. Timing is everything, and that burst of laughter cracked the shell.
Team Aerosuperbatics greeted Carly and quickly worked to put her at ease. Professional wingwalker Nikita Salomon and former RAF Pilot Brian Cornes explained every aspect of the flight and what to expect. The moment had finally come, it was show time. Carly climbed onto the top wing of the Boeing Stearman and Nikita Salmon strapped this accidental daredevil to the harness. Alone on the top wing, Carly could hear Brian Cornes prime the engine. The prop then moved and stopped. Carly began to think the engine might not start. And suddenly, puffs of smoke and the distinct sound of the radial engine filled the air. Carly blew a kiss and a wave to the family and Brian Cornes taxied the bird and the passenger down the runway. As the plane reached the end of the runway… stop! Hit pause for a second.
What was about to happen is important on so many levels. Carly’s eldest son Josh was streaming the event live on Instagram. 400 people, I being one of them, tuned in. Sitting in my office 3000 miles away, I turned on the live feed. Messages of support were flying across the screen. People from different places and all walks of life took a few moments to just watch this person that, most of us, have never met personally, take a leap of faith. That is the power this girl from Plymouth England has… Now hit play.
Through the distortions and movements of the junior cameraman, I saw the red, white and blue biplane take off and there she was… airborne and Wing Walking. Like Walter Cronkite’s on air reaction to the first moon landing, I let out a sigh, shook my head and just smiled. Suddenly, the live feed went black. I waited and waited for the feed to return. Now I know how mission control felt when the Apollo capsule travelled to the dark side of the moon. Total silence. The live feed returned as the plane landed and stopped before the small crowd of supporters.
I can sit here and describe to you the exhilaration of this flight. But I won’t. First, I think I would not do it justice, and second, it is Carly’s story to tell. It is actually not key to this story. The more I sunk my teeth into this, the more I realized that the flight was a metaphor. It was the means to an end and the vehicle that brought Carly to her destination.
Carly had us all fooled. She had us believe that this larger than life Ultra Carly character was going on this flight. All along, it was the insecure, terrified girl with years of baggage in hand. Carly was forced to leave the baggage on the ground because no carry ons allowed on this Stearman.
This flight was a one-way ticket to personal freedom. The price of airfare was trust. As Carly was strapped into the harness, she was stripped of all control. She willingly gave every ounce of trust to pilot Brian Cornes who sat in the cockpit below. As the plane took off, Carly waved and waved and kept her arms in the air even when the forces of flight tried to keep them down. As she struggled to raise her arms above her head, I could imagine Carly hearing Josh and Isaac singing their favorite song to their Mother “We are bursting through the barricades and reaching for the sun (we are Warriors)”. This is what personal freedom looks like.
Carly was unstrapped and made her way down and to her family. Friend and photographer Nigel Wood captured the tender moment when Mum embraced her courageous daughter. Carly always believed that she lacked the courage her Mum Lynne has. That embrace was not the passing of the torch, nor a thank you. It was Mum saying, you didn’t get courage, nor can it be given… It was always there and you just found it.
Standing quietly to the side of all the emotion and celebration was the man Carly has known her whole life. Dad waited patiently as Lynne, the Grandchildren and friends all got their moment with his little girl. As the crowd dissipated, John walked up to his daughter, put his hand on her shoulder, kissed Carly on the forehead and whispered… “You did good kid”.
What is more important is that, what started out as a simple fundraiser to raise funds for the UK Charity Lymphoma Action, morphed into something much bigger, something much larger than Carly could ever imagine. Besides the funds raised to support those suffering from the fifth most common form of cancer, it also brought awareness of this and other devastating forms of cancer. This was also about closure and being able to turn a new page on life. Like the ending of that magical movie, it touched many people in many different ways. Some looked on with joy and pride as the saw a friend conquer fears and free herself from restraints that held her down for years. Others who suffer quietly, were inspired enough to take the difficult first step in overcoming anxiety. We all gained something on this day.
I do not think we will ever know the full extent of the impact this personal journey will have on people. I can speak for myself. I was touched and inspired to tell the story of a Mother and a Daughter, hope and belief in one’s self. I only hope that I could hit the keys in the right order to form words, sentences and paragraphs that pay tribute to these survivors.
Today, Lynne’s Cancer is in remission, the donations for Lymphoma Action continue to come in and Carly is ready to write the next chapter. What will it read like? Nobody knows. What I do know is that it will start with Carly staring at the letters QWERT and with the tap of each key the words will form… LIVE LIFE.
Full Disc Aviation wishes to Thank Darren Harbar, Nigel Wood and A.Hodges for allowing the use of their photographs.
For More Information:
Carly Hodges - www.carlyhodgesphotography.co.uk
Lymphoma Action - www.lymphoma-action.org.uk
Aerosuperbatics Wingwalking - www.aerosuperbatics.com
Darren Harbar - www.Darrenharbar.co.uk