The Books: “Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah” (Richard Bach)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

illusionsbach.jpegIllusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah – by Richard Bach. This was the first of his books I read. I was in high school – I think I was a junior. I loved it. There are still snippets from “The Messiah’s Handbook” that I reference in my mind, from time to time – some great stuff there. Also: the fact that the book ends with the words “Everything in this book might be wrong” is very enlightened. It’s humble. I love that. (Bach, when he got divorced from Leslie and caused a shitstorm among his most loyal fans, said that one of his major mistakes was NOT adding the words “Everything in this book might be wrong” at the end of Bridge Across Forever. Amazing)

Illusions tells the tale of a man named Richard who is a barnstormer in the midwest.

He sleeps in his bedroll beneath his wing, he lands in isolated fields and takes people up for rides. He’s a mechanic. We don’t know much about his life. And one day he meets a fellow barnstormer – whose name is Donald Shimoda. Shimoda has a mystery about him … his plane is spotless, first of all. How is that possible? But as Richard and Donald keep hanging out – it becomes apparent that this Shimoda is quite an extraordinary individual. He performs miracles. But in a casual off-hand way. He is referred to as “The Reluctant Messiah”. He begins to “train” Richard … first of all, by giving him a ratty little book called “The Messiah’s Handbook”. They also experiment with things like walking thru walls, walking on water, moving clouds, etc. etc.

The ending of this book is, perhaps, predictable – but I remember it packing a huge punch when I was a kid.

Here’s the start of the second chapter of the book. If you remember – the book starts with blotched-looking lined pages – a facsimile of a notebook – and handwriting, telling a fable about a Master who comes to “the holy land of Indiana”. But it is in the second chapter when we meet Richard and Donald.

And you know what I get from this book, reading it now as an adult? Richard’s loneliness. His ache for connection, communication, friendship … even though he must be “free” – he is dying for human communion. He dreams up a friend – someone who comes from out of the blue – and is exactly what he needs, at that moment in time. It’s kind of sad. I say that having done the very same thing myself.

Excerpt from Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah – by Richard Bach.

It was toward the middle of the summer that I met Donald Shimoda. In four years’ flying, I had never found another pilot in the line of work I do: flying with the wind from town to town, selling rides in an old biplane, three dollars for ten minutes in the air.

But one day just north of Ferris, Illinois, I looked down from the cockpit of my Fleet and there was an old Travel Air 4000, gold and white, landed pretty as you please in the lemon-emerald hay.

Mine’s a free life, but it does get lonely, sometimes. I saw the biplane there, thought about it for a few seconds, and decided it would be no harm to drop in. Throttle back to idle, a full-rudder slip, and the Fleet and I fell sideways toward the ground. Wind in the flying wires, that gentle good sound, the slow pok-pok of the old engine loafing its propeller around. Goggles up to better watch the landing. Cornstalks a green-leaf jungle swishing close below, flicker of a fence and then just-cut hay as far as I could see. Stick and rudder out of the slip, a nice little round-out above the land, hay brushing the tires, then the familiar calm crashing rattle of hard ground under-wheel, slowing, slowing and now a quick burst of noise and power to taxi beside the other plane and stop. Throttle back, switch off, the soft clack-clack of the propeller spinning down to stop in the total quiet of July.

The pilot of the Travel Air sat in the hay, his back against the left wheel of his airplane, and he watched me.

For half a minute I watched him, too, looking at the mystery of his calm. I wouldn’t have been so cool just to sit there and watch another plane land in a field with me and park ten yards away. I nodded, liking him without knowing why.

“You looked lonely,” I said across the distance.

“So did you.”

“Don’t mean to bother you. If I’m one too many, I’ll be on my way.”

“No. I’ve been waiting for you.”

I smiled at that. “Sorry I’m late.”

“That’s all right.”

I pulled off my helmet and goggles, climbed out of the cockpit and stepped to the ground. This feels good, when you’ve been a couple hours in the Fleet.

“Hope you don’t mind ham and cheese,” he said. “Ham and cheese and maybe an ant.” No handshake, no introduction of any kind.

He was not a large man. Hair to his shoulders, blacker than the rubber of the tire he leaned against. Eyes dark as hawk’s eyes, the kind I like in a friend, and in anyone else make me uncomfortable indeed. He could have been a karate master on his way to some quietly violent demonstration.

I accepted the sandwich and a thermos cup of water. “Who are you, anyway?” I said. “Years, I’ve been hopping rides, never seen another barnstormer out in the fields.”

“Not much else I’m fit to do,” he said, happily enough. “A little mechanicking, welding, roughneck a bit, skinning Cats; I stay in one place too long, I get problems. So I made the airplane and now I’m in the barnstorming business.”

“What kind of Cat?” I’ve been mad for diesel tractors since I was a kid.

“D-Eights, D-Nines. Just for a little while, in Ohio.”

“D-Nines! Big as a house! Double compound low gear, can they really push a mountain?”

“There are better ways of moving mountains,” he said with a smile that lasted for maybe a tenth of a second.

I leaned for a minute against the lower wing of his plane, watching him. A trick of the light … it was hard to look at the man closely. As if there were a light around his head, fading the background a faint, misty silver.

“Something wrong?” he asked.

“What kind of problems did you have?”

“Oh, nothing much. I just like to keep moving these days, same as you.”

I took my sandwich and walked around his plane. It was a 1928 or 1929 machine, and it was completely unscratched. Factories don’t make airplanes as new as his was, parked there in the hay. Twenty coats of hand-rubbed butyrate dope, at least, paint like a mirror pulled tight over the wooden ribs of the thing. Don, in old-English gold leaf under the rim of his cockpit, and the registration on the map case said, D.W. Shimoda. The instruments were new out of the box, original 1928 flight instruments. Varnished-oak control stick and rudder-bar; throttle, mixture, spark advance at the left. You never see spark advances anymore, even on the best-restored antiques. No scratch anywhere, not a patch on the fabric, not a single streak of engine oil from the cowling. Not a blade of straw on the floor of the cockpit, as though his machine hadn’t flown at all, but instead had materialized on the spot through some time-warp across half a century. I felt an odd creepy cold on my neck.

“How long you been hopping passengers?” I called across the plane to him.

“About a month, now, five weeks.”

He was lying. Five weeks in the fields and I don’t care who you are, you’ve got dirt and oil on the plane and there’s straw on the cockpit floor, no matter what. But this machine … no oil on the windshield, no flying-hay stains on the leading edges of wings and tail, no bugs smashed on the propeller. That is not possible for an airplane flying through an Illinois summer. I studied the Travel Air another five minutes, and then I went back and sat down in the hay under the wing, facing the pilot. I wasn’t afraid, I still liked the guy, but something was wrong.

“Why are you not telling me the truth?”

“I have told you the truth, Richard,” he said. The name is painted on my airplane, too.

“A person does not hop passengers for a month in a Travel Air without getting a little oil on the plane, my friend, a little dust? One patch in the fabric? Hay, for God’s sake, on the floor?”

He smiled calmly at me. “There are some things you do not know.”

In that moment he was a strange other-planet person. I believed what he said, but I had no way of explaining his jewel airplane parked out in the summer hayfield.

“This is true. But some day I’ll know them all. And then you can have my airplane, Donald, because I won’t need it to fly.”

He looked at me with interest, and raised his black eyebrows. “Oh? Tell me.”

I was delighted. Someone wanted to hear my theory!

“People couldn’t fly for a long time, I don’t think, because they didn’t think it was possible, so of course they didn’t learn the first little principle of aerodynamics. I want to believe that there’s another principle somewhere: we don’t need airplanes to fly, or move through walls, or get to planets. We can learn how to do that without machines anywhere. If we want to.”

He half-smiled, seriously, and nodded his head one time. “And you think that you will learn what you wish to learn by hopping three-dollar rides out of hayfields.”

“The only learning that’s mattered is what I got on my own, doing what I want to do. There isn’t, but if there were a soul on earth who could teach me more of what I want to know than my airplane can, and the sky, I’d be off right now to find him. Or her.”

The dark eyes looked at me level. “Don’t you believe you’re guided, if you really want to learn this thing?”

“I’m guided, yes. Isn’t everyone? I’ve always felt something kind of watching over me, sort of.”

“And you think you’ll be led to a teacher who can help you.”

“If the teacher doesn’t happen to be me, yes.”

“Maybe that’s the way it happens,” he said.

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10 Responses to The Books: “Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah” (Richard Bach)

  1. CW says:

    Hmmm – I think I missed the news that Bach and Leslie got a divorce.

    If I remember correctly, Donald Shimoda flew a TravelAir – an original one made by the TravelAir company, not the later Beech version, which was a light twin named after the original.

    The TravelAir Company was the first aviation enterprise of Lloyd Stearman, Walter Beech, and Clyde Cessna, all of whom went on to do a lot more.

    TravelAirs are rare, beautiful, and fine-flying airplanes. I remember being very interested in Bach’s descriptions. I don’t remember what “Richard” flew in the book.

  2. red says:

    CW – yeah, he makes the Travel Air sound absolutely sublime. Are there Travel Air planes in aviation museums? Where could I see one?

    I have the book right here – let me see if I can find out what Bach flew.

  3. red says:

    Bach refers to his plane as “the Fleet” – capital “F”.

    Is that a brand name??

  4. red says:

    Quote from book:

    I owned a Travel Air once, but traded it finally for the Fleet, which can get into tiny fields, fields like the size you’re a lot more likely to find close to town. I could work a 500-foot field with the Fleet, where the Travel Air took 1000, 1300 feet.

  5. John says:

    Is there some sort of play on words with Donald’s last name?” It means “Underfield” in Japanese.

  6. red says:

    John – I don’t know – nothing like that is mentioned in the book. But the fact that the “reluctant messiah” chooses to be a barnstormer in empty midwestern fields might be a connection.

  7. Dave says:

    Richard also flew a Stearman (PT17, I assume). All great planes. But, the book is not about flying. This is one of my favorite books of all time. If you let it, it can change the way you see yourself and how you fit into the universe.

  8. red says:

    Dave –

    It is the arrogance of your tone – the “if you let it it will change your life” bullshit – that so turns me off about Richard Bach fanatics.

    Do you realize what you sound like?

    So if I disagree with some of Bach’s theories – it’s because I haven’t “let it” enlighten me?

    It is very very common with ALL of you to speak in such an obnoxiously superior way – and I say that as a person who used to be a total fan of everything he wrote.

    Lose the condescension, lose the “if you are enlightened, you’ll get it” crap – and maybe other people will be more open to what you have to say.

    Otherwise you just sound like a regular old Bible-thumping moron.

  9. DarbyJ says:

    What a marvelous book. I really enjoyed the way it made me think deeper. I don’t think it was life changing, but it did change my perspective on a few things, and that was nice. Not to mention, it was a fantastic read. the writer did a tremendous job. One of my favorites.

  10. Steve says:

    I was also blown away when I read Illusions as a teenager.

    Lately I checked it out and, while the writing is enjoyable, I’m actually repelled by its messages.

    It’s all entitled boomer bullshit: life is good for me, screw everybody else.

    Only the affluent west could think this kind of crap is spiritual.

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