A Landscape With Humans

Saturday was blustery, filled with persistent showers and a low overcast. I saw our weekend plans running into the storm drains. Late at night I awoke, peeked out the bedroom window, and saw stars — a good sign.

The storms were passing and, with them, the winds. Sunday dawned cloudless, the air almost still. It would be ideal weather for our flight into Big Bear City for lunch.

After pre-flighting the motorglider, I settled into the pilot's seat on the left. My friend got in on the right. We flew north from San Diego, skirting Mt. San Gorgonio, the tallest peak in the coastal range.

To the west spread the Los Angeles basin. Despite the rain, it still wore a blanket of smog. To the east, through the Banning Pass, lay Palm Springs and the desert, where the air was clean and the visibility unrestricted. Beneath us the scrub was green, but in a month the green would be replaced with summer's brown.

We left the lowlands and turned northeast up a deep and rapidly rising valley, where pines above and below us wore the previous day's snow.

I pulled back the stick and pushed forward the throttle. The lower slopes fell away, and we crested an 8,000-foot ridge next to Sugarloaf Mountain. Then the nose was pushed down, and we headed into the valley, maneuvering to enter the approach to the airport. On the far side of the ridge we flew over ski runs, great white swaths with lift towers marching up their flanks. The runs were filled with dots. Or so it looked from our vantage point: black dots zigzagging downhill.

The mind makes curious associations.

One moment I was contemplating dots on the ski slope, the next I was thinking about Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles in one of my favorite movies. In The Third Man Cotton played Holly Martins and Welles played Harry Lime. Martins, a writer of hack Westerns, arrived in post-war Vienna, where he had been promised a job by his friend Lime, only to be told that Lime had died in a traffic accident a few days before.

‘Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?’

Martins started asking questions and discovered that Lime was still alive and that the accident had been faked in an effort to mislead the authorities. They had been searching for Lime because he was engaged in selling watered-down penicillin on the black market. The adulterated drug had caused the death of many patients, including children.

In the last portion of the movie Martins and Lime finally meet on neutral ground, at the base of the giant Prater Wheel. To talk privately, they get into one of the large cars and are taken slowly upward. The motion stops when they are at the top of the ride, far above the people milling below.

After Martins says that he has told the police that Lime's death was faked and that he is aware of his friend's line of work, Lime peers out the window.

“Look down there,” he says. “Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you 20,000 pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money? Or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spend? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax. It's the only way to save money nowadays.”

It's one of the most chilling scenes in film. The chill comes not only from Lime's callous disregard of anonymous people whose lives are worth, by his calculus, a few years’ wages each.

The chill comes also from the realization that each of us, watching the film, begins his own mental calculation — and then catches himself, saying, “What in the world am I doing? How can I even think of something like that?” There is a bit of Harry Lime in each of us.

We left the ski runs behind, turned downwind, made our base leg over the lake and rolled out long on the runway. Although it had snowed the day before, we had shirtsleeve weather.

After lunching at the airport café, we took off to the west, gained altitude over the lake, and headed for the dam and the left-hand turn down the valley. To our right was another mountain. More ski runs, more dots.

Each dot was a marvel to watch as it careened downhill and around trees. Dot followed dot, all headed in the same direction but each on its own path, going at its own speed.

Although much too far away to tell for sure, I had no doubt that each dot sported a wide smile and at least a subconscious gratitude to God for the privilege of living on the slopes that day.

Twenty thousand pounds a dot? That's infinitely too little, Mr. Lime. Infinitely too little.

Karl Keating is founding director of Catholic Answers in El Cajon, California.