Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Meet My Guru

“I don’t know why people are afraid of the unknown. It is the known, with all its limitations and rigid conventions that should frighten us. It is in the known that we tend to get stuck. But the unkown—the unknown is full of infinite possiblities.”
              Edward “Ted” Huntley 1930-1996

Some people travel to India to find their guru. I found mine just off the coast of Seattle on Bainbridge Island. We usually think of a guru as a spiritual teacher. According to Deepak Chopra:
“the root word means ‘dispeller of darkness.’ In other words, anyone who guides you to see what you need to see serves as your guru.”
That’s exactly what Ted Huntley did for me.

Approximately 19 years ago, after a series of remakable incidents, which I will tell you about at another time, I decided to move to Bainbridge Island, a ferry-ride across Puget Sound from Seattle. I was looking for a place to live. Ted and his wife, Nancy, had just bought a home, or more like a compound, overlooking the Sound. In addition to a stable for Nancy’s horse, the propery had what Ted referred to as a mother-in-law house: a two bedroom, one bath cabin with a great stone fireplace, an eagle’s nest in the tree outside the backdoor, and a view of the stable and paddock through the front window. They were looking for a tenant.

Being a free-lance writer, and therefore never knowing when, or even if my next job would come along, I was used to being turned down as a bad risk when I tried to rent a place to live.  So you can
understand why, when Ted asked me what I did for a living, I answered with some trepidation. His reaction surprised me.  “Great!"  he said. And the house was mine. It wasn’t until some months later that I discovered that the night before I showed up to look at the house Nancy and Ted had discussed what kind of tenant they would like to have.

They had two children. Given the reclusive nature of the property they didn't want anyone with children because if the children didn’t get along the situation could become uncomfortable. “You know what would be great,” Nancy said, “a writer. The house is perfect for a writer, and maybe he could take some of your flying stories and turn them into a book.”

While I didn’t fill the gender part of Nancy's vision of the perfect tenant, I was a writer, and Ted and I did begin to turn some of his great flying stories (he had loads of them) into a book. But back to the guru part.

My move to Bainbridge was facilitated  by the fact that I fell in love with the island the minute I saw it, but what motivated me to want to move in the first place was a visceral feeling that I needed to get out of Los Angeles. When I arrived on Bainbridge I was a deeply wounded soul. I had spent years trying to “make it” in the entertainment industry and, as I perceived myself at the time, was a total failure. I had managed to sell a couple television scripts, get a couple screen plays optioned, and qualify for the Writers Guild of America, West. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t build a career in what insiders refered to as “the Industry.” And I was sixty years old. My life was over.

Fortunately for me, Ted didn’t see it that way. Have you ever met anyone who embraced life with such enthusiasm and joy that you find yourself feeling the same way? That was Ted. He viewed my work in Los Angeles as the underpinnings for greater things… not a closed book, but a foundation to build on. I had never looked at it that way.

Ted was a year older than me. He was a retired airline pilot, but there was nothing retired about his life style. He was involved with two ventures that fed three of his passions: his love of wooden boats, his love of flying, and his fascination with new technologies. One venture was a small company that leased wooden boats to marine biologists doing research in the sound. Ted had the vision to understand that metal boats interfered with the readings on the delicate equipment the researchers used, and filled this need for a suitable wooden research ship.The other company married his love of flying and his fascination with technology. This company was developing a markeing strategy for a technology developed in Scandinavia that made it possible to see through trees and undergrowth from the air to find mineral deposits. (I don’t really understand how the system worked, but I do know that Ted's enthusiasm imbued this somewhat risky project with an energy that propelled it towards success against all odds,)

It was when we began to work on a book that would tell some of his great stories that Ted made contact with my soul. His philosophy about life made me reassess my life and attitudes, and once again believe in myself and my gifts. I had been focusing on what I had not accomplished. Ted refocused me on what I had accomplished.

We talked about my years as a writer/field producer and the impact the television specials and films I had done for organizations like St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the American Cancer Society  had on the people whose lives and struggles I documented.  And, as Ted pointed out, judging from the considerable amount of money these television specials and films raised, my work also must have had a sizable impact on the people who watched them.

 We laughed together at some of the bizarre experiences I had on the road, and he drew out of me the things I had learned over the years through my work. For the first time I got a glimpse at the “wisdom” that was growing out of the work I was doing.  Seeing myself through Ted’s eyes, I discovered I really liked who I had become.  More important, I liked who I was becoming because, as Ted pointed out I…we…all of us… regardless of our age, are works in progress. I have never been afraid of the unknown, but Ted taught me how to embrace it.

Sadly, Ted passed away on Easter Sunday in 1996. We had only competed three chapters of our book. I can report that he died as he would have wanted to. He was doing some work for his new research company in Mississippi. A group of his pilot friends had flown in for a visit. They were seated around a table in the hotel dinningroom,swapping stories as they were wont to do when they got together, when he suddenly collapsed and died.

I was devastated. I put our book away and tried to find another project to throw myseslf into-- to ease my pain.

I don’t remember how long it was after Ted died, but Nancy organized a memorial service for him. People came from across the country and even from overseas. A couple hundred people.  Person after person got up to relate their story of how Ted help ease them through a difficult time, or redirect them to a more fulfilling career, or inspired them to take a chance they would not have had the courage to take without his support.

When I got home after the service I had an overwhelming desire to hear Ted’s voice. The week before he died he had made three tapes for me. The publisher we were working with wanted to know more about Ted; he wanted to know about the man who had gathered and was telling the stories in our book. Ted Huntley was not a man who liked to talk about himself. In the stories he told he usually positioned himself as an observer or minor character, casting the spotlight on, or giving the glory to someone else. However, I was able to convince him to tell me how he became a professisonal pilot. 

He had given me the tapes on the Friday before he died, just before he left for Mississippi. I had never listened to them. They turned out to contain the story of a  20 year old college freshman with a passion for flying, and how he managed to talk his way into a spot on a  team of seasoned pilots hired to help map Alaska in the early 1950’s. Alaska was still a territory at the time, and we were in the midst of the Cold War. The Soviet Union was just 90 miles across the Bering Strait from the coast of Alaska with missles pointed in our direction.  Our government wanted to install a radar detection system, and gave the mapping project top priority.

   Ted at age 15, after he received the
 traditional dunking in honor of passing his test
for  his pilot license, which he took  in a sea plane.
Ted  had no bush experience.  He had, however learned to fly mostly in sea planes and had worked at his uncle's sea plane facility since he was fourteen.  As a result, he had more experience landing and taking off on water than most of the more seasoned pilots in the team, which was made up primarily of World War II veterans.

I listened to the tapes on which Ted recounted his experiences during the two summers he flew for the Coast and Geodetic Survey (now part of NOAA) and decided I almost had a book. I combined the material on the three tapes with the material Ted had dictated for our book on his old friend and mentor, Tommy McQuillan. Tommy was a Canadian prospector who gave Ted an opportunity to learn how to land and fly off glaciers.
From these two sources I wrote a book about how Ted learned to be a bush pilot. One pilot who read the book called it a primer for bush flying.

The gift Ted gave me I can never repay. But giving his family and friends this memoire of his young years, and knowing—as I have heard from some young pilots—that I have been able to pass along some of his wisdom about bush flying that might help keep a young bush pilot safer… that, at least, is a start.

If you would like to know more about Ted, or about his experiences as a young bush pilot in Alaska and British Colombia in the 1950's, you might want to check out our book, "Land Here? You Bet!"  By the way, the title comes from Ted's habit of saying "You bet!" anytime he was asked if he would or could do something. Probably a carryover from  his Scandinavian heritage.

Next time:  How a terminally ill eight year old taught me what is truly important  in life.


  1. Loved this, Sunny. It's bittersweet and lovely--a reminder of how angels on earth help us along our journey to self-acceptance.


  2. This is a wonderful and inspiring story. And I love that quote from Ted -- what a terrific philosophy.

  3. Hi Sunny,
    Glad to see you online!

  4. Ted's inspiration carries on through Sunny. She, too, encourages and inspires her friends when they wonder if they should follow their dreams.

  5. Hi Sunny,
    I think I told you that I reviewed your book for our magazine. I really enjoyed what you did with a good story and am proud to know you. -- Dianne