High Flight
Part VI of an Ongoing Chronicle of the First Fifteen Years of the AIDS Pandemic
by Bruce Ward

The medical term is prodromal: the period after infection when a latent virus has incubated and is now calling its troops in place, preparing to attack the defenseless T cells of the immune system.

Not everyone gets these symptoms, or remembers getting them, and the severity is different from person to person, but it is a typical response to the body’s introduction to the clever and mutating virus we now know as HIV. These are also the symptoms of just about every infection or cold or flu, a fact I found myself reiterating several times a day when I become a hotline counselor the following year, receiving panicked calls from the general public suddenly concerned with every sniffle and rash.

In 1984, no virus had yet been identified as the causal agent. There was no antibody test. And even if there had been a test, the immune system generally needs six to ten weeks to create antibodies against the disease.

Seroconversion from the virus’s latency period to active infection can take weeks, months or, sometimes, years. I must have seroconverted rather quickly; it was still early in the epidemic and I probably received a healthy dose of not-yet mutated virus. A fresh kill.

I called my friend, Jim, in Manhattan. He had been a medical writer for the New York Native, New York’s only gay newspaper, and he was one of the most knowledgeable experts on this burgeoning epidemic. Through his travels to conferences, he had met an infectious disease doctor in Oahu who was seeing patients who were presenting with AIDS-like symptoms.

My father drove me to see him, as the only way I could remain mobile without fainting was if I were lying prone in the back seat of the car.

During our second visit to Dr. McElwain, who was gay and handsome and with whom I would have flirted had I been less vomitous/sweaty/gaseous/swollen, told my father and me, “It may be some tropical virus. It may be some sort of infectious or contagious agent. Or it may be AIDS. All we can do is monitor it for now. We don’t know what causes the disease.”

I must say that my parents were remarkable through all this, even though I know how frightfully worried they were. When I became ill, they gave me their bed, in which I slept twenty hours a day for at least three days, while they were relegated to the sofa bed in the living room, where I had previously been camping out.

I eventually began to eat omelets and soup, traded beds with my parents, and even got in a game of tennis before I left the island of Oahu. I have never returned. I carried the wounds of war, one tiny pea of a swollen gland, behind my neck for at least two years.

*

On the flight from Honolulu to San Francisco, on another humdrummingly perfect 80 degree cloudless, slightly breezy day, the pilot’s voice emerged from the plane’s speaker system.

The DC-10 was nearly empty, and we were passing the most gorgeous vistas of purple pink fuchsia islands and mountainous volcanoes that looked like they might erupt at any moment.

The pilot announced that he wanted to read a poem. I furtively looked around at my fellow passengers. I saw little reaction. The pilot wants to read poetry? Was I having a fever-induced meltdown?

And then the pilot began to recite “High Flight,” which had been written on the back of an envelope in 1941 by nineteen-year-old John Gillespie Magee, Jr.

Magee’s moment of inspiration occurred as he ascended to 30,000 feet during a test flight with the Royal Canadian Air Force. Three months after writing the poem, only three days after the United States entered World War II, he was killed in a mid-air collision.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds—and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.

Up, up, the long, delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, nor even eagle flew—
And while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space…
…put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

And then the pilot dipped his wings in salute, and we continued our flight over hours of endless sea.

The flight attendant brought me a cup of warm pineapple juice and I cried.

I cried because I was in the pilot’s hands and he had shared a bit of beauty with me and I couldn’t go back. I could never go back and hovering in this pocket of air I knew that my life would never be the same.


Bruce Ward is A&U’s Drama Editor, and he has been writing about the AIDS epidemic since its inception. His plays, Lazarus Syndrome and Decade: Life in the ’80s, have been produced throughout the U.S. Bruce was the original Director of the CDC National AIDS Hotline, and he was honored by POZ magazine as one of 2015’s POZ 100. You may follow him at: bdwardbos.wordpress.com.