Life

I Went To Florida For A Free Trip And Ended Up Being Inspired By Daredevil Senior Citizens

It’s 5 p.m. on a sweltering November evening and I’m standing inside an airplane hangar, taking pictures of a fighter jet. It’s about to take off for a half hour of loops, barrel rolls, and high-speed banks that I wouldn’t participate in if someone paid me a million bucks. The man climbing into the plane has no such compunctions. He smiles broadly as he’s buckled in and gives the crowd around him a thumbs-up. It’s his first time in a fighter plane. He’s 89 years old.

Channing—or Chan, as he likes to be called by his friends—has dreamed of flying a fighter plane since he was a kid. It’s why he enlisted in the military, though his dreams of taking to the skies never materialized. At nearly 90, he thought he was too old to climb into the cockpit, but now he’s about to do exactly that. And, Chan tells me, shortly before take-off, he’s going upside down “no matter what anyone says.”

Because Chan is a rebel.

So is Kathryn, an 84-year-old who’s about to realize her dream of riding the speedway in Daytona Beach.

These rebels were brought here by two other rebels: Nik Wallenda, the famed daredevil who crossed the Grand Canyon on a tightrope without a net, and is here to inspire the octogenarians in fulfilling dreams they never thought possible; and Canon’s  EOS Rebel SLR, a camera that you might have heard of.

The Rebel is celebrating its 25th anniversary by rolling out the “Rebels With a Cause” initiative — connecting well-known artists, performers, and public figures with everyday people looking for the daredevils and creative geniuses inside themselves. And the experience (including the video above) is all caught on the Rebel SLR, which has more features than there are items on my bucket list.

That’s not just product placement hyperbole, by the way. When I was first handed one of the cameras to document Chan and Kathryn’s escapades, I didn’t think I could handle it. I’m very much an amateur…also, I’m legally blind. Fortunately, the entire thing is so easy to use that even I somehow managed to take some excellent photos. The only “trick” seems to be remembering to take the lens cap off (which I failed to do about 50 percent of the time).

If you’ve never been to Sarasota, Fla., you may have never experienced the intense star power that Nik Wallenda exudes over its citizens. One of the famous Flying Wallendas, Nik holds eight Guinness World Records and is the first and only person to walk across Niagara Falls on a tightrope (because this is a thing he wanted to do and not a punishment inflicted at gunpoint). His name is recognizable by anyone who follows the antics of daredevils, but in Sarasota he’s royalty. And when he walked into the Sarasota Friendship Center to meet one-on-one with the seniors he’d be helping, his appearance was met with gasps and whispers.

“Is that the Nik Wallenda?” a woman asked me. “What’s he doing here?”

What Nik was doing there was meeting with Chan and Kathryn as he prepared to be their guide on a journey of a lifetime. Chan was slated to go up the fighter plane that same day. Kathryn would suit up and get into a racecar the next morning — fulfilling a dream for both herself and her late husband, with whom she’d shared years of racing fandom.

nik

For me, my adventure was just being in Florida. Invited on the trip at a moment’s notice, I hopped a red-eye and was then driven two hours from Tampa to Sarasota. Florida is a state I’ve written about (only in the most glowing terms, of course), but never visited. To be there, driving past the Holy Land Experience and the knock-off Disney World attractions—almost every parking lot has some kind of ride and gift shops proudly proclaim “official Disney Souvenirs, Only at Lisa’s Disney Truck Stop” everywhere you turn—is both hilarious and exhilarating.

I’m not getting into a fighter plane, but I’m happy being crowded in a van full of other reporters, taking pictures of the sights with a camera loaned to me by Canon. It’s something I’ll remember forever, if only because about halfway through the trip we all stop being polite and start being ourselves, discussing our most embarrassing moments and debating exactly how much any of us would need to be paid to spend a night with Jack Nicholson. It’s not something I ever imagined I’d do — I generally try to leave the house as little as possible — so driving along stretches of open highways at night while discussing whether we should all go to a bikini bar when we get to our hotel is a huge thrill.

Hey, I’m living out my dreams, too!

*            *           *

Only minutes before his flight, Chan is standing inside a small office that leads out to the hangar where his plane is being prepared. He’s zipping and unzipping his olive-green flight suit over and over while looking at the bright yellow bird that’s going to take him into the sky. I ask him if he thinks he’ll get to keep the suit, and he tells me that he should, considering that he bought it for the occasion. He’s also wearing aviator sunglasses that he got especially for the flight, and he shows them off, letting everyone in earshot know that he can use them both in flight and on land. While others might be nervous to be thrown around in a tiny plane, thousands of feet in the air, Chan couldn’t be more excited. He wanted to join the military after watching movies of fighter planes as a kid, and while he did that, he never got to fly one. Now, he’ll get a chance at the controls.

Chan’s wife is fussing about nearby. She’s a tiny Asian woman in a flowered top and she’s bearing a giant paper fan she keeps waving at him every time she thinks he might be too hot. She’s also offering him sips of water so he doesn’t dry out mid-flight, and he begrudgingly takes a few. It feels like a dance they’ve done many times before.  Chan’s wife isn’t worried anything will happen to him, but tells me that their friends and neighbors are concerned for his safety.

“One of them asked me if I was worried he might die,” she says with a conspiratorial grin. “I told her that at least he’d die doing what he loved.” She laughs hard and it strikes me that we should be filming her, too. With her “inappropriate” jokes and energetic demeanor, she could be the breakout star here. But she’s got no qualms about letting her husband have the spotlight.

There are many reasons to be inspired by Chan, and his all-or-nothing, can-do attitude is one of them. While the plane is insured to go upside down, the company that arranged the flight isn’t so sure about the 88-year-old doing loop-de-loops in the air. Personally, I’m a little weirded out that Chan is doing this at all, considering how dangerous it looks (even though I’m assured it isn’t). But he goes up twice, for thirty minutes each time. And he goes upside down, too. I don’t get a chance to speak with him after, but the video shows him having a hell of a time, his face erupting into a smile that could power an entire Florida-Disney-Merch factory.

If there’s one thing Chan wants the audience at home to know—and he’s still only getting used to all the attention—it’s that you should never give up.

“What’s one thing you would say to a younger you if you had the chance?” another reporter asks him.

“Dreams come true!” Chan says, right before striding out to the airplane, something he has to do several times in order for the camera to capture him at his most dramatic. It’s a good thing he’s practiced zipping up his flight suit, too. “Zip it up again,” the director calls as Chan stands in front of the plane pulling his zipper up and down and practicing his most enthusiastic thumbs-up. And then he’s gone. The plane takes off down the runway and becomes a brightly-colored speck in the sky.

Chan’s talk of dreams coming true is an excellent soundbite (one that any Hollywood celebrity would be proud of), but coming from him it also feels incredibly authentic. I’m not a particularly emotional person, but watching Chan quietly walk over to the plane and climb in is one of those minor pivotal moments that remind one that good things do happen.

It’s saccharine, sure, and it’s done in the service of a marketing campaign, but there’s something particularly moving about seeing a moment like this outside of an episode of Touched By an Angel. 

*            *           *

That evening, we drive from Sarasota to Daytona Beach, a three-hour trip that’s complicated by an active manhunt on the highway. Other teams have missed the excitement by going to an Outback for dinner, but we’re stalled on the highway experiencing peak Florida in Polk County — the same place that’s famous for giving the world a minor criminal named Crystal Metheney in 2014. When we reach Daytona Beach, we’re greeted with an electronic billboard advertising that a baby has been kidnapped. “I’ve been in Florida for seven hours,” I text my husband. “I don’t know if I’m going to make it back.”

We arrive at our hotel exhausted and no one wants to take me up on a late-night trip to a nearby IHOP (open 24 hours!!!) due to the 7 a.m. call time the next morning. After the heat of the outside, the hotel’s air conditioning is a welcome relief and I am delighted that I do not stick to the sea foam green vinyl furniture placed around the room for my comfort. I turn the AC up for a second and indulge in the bliss it affords me, but the machine quickly begins making strange noises and letting out a scent that’s reminiscent of an entire coven of witches being burned at the stake.

Despite all this, or perhaps because of it, I find myself loving Florida.

*            *           *


Kathryn, the 84-year-old who’s about to reach dizzying speeds on the racetrack in Daytona Beach, is worried that I’ll steal her earrings. During her photo session earlier in the morning—when we all took hundreds of photos with our Rebel SLRs while she posed and made sure we got her good side—she showed them off to everyone, asking if they loved them or what. The “or what” was rhetorical because these earrings are showstoppers: little cameras with a tiny diamond for the lens. I ask to take a closer look and she laughs, suggesting that I’ll snatch them off her ears at any moment to keep for myself. She allows me to come closer and pulls at her ear, but no one’s touching these babies; they’re special.

If Chan was quiet and reserved, Kathryn’s the exact opposite. She’s joking with everyone and keeps saying she’s ready. Boy, is she ready. Her hair’s coiffed in a white halo around her head, her face has been made up as if she’s about to take part in a Vogue shoot, and she shows off her riding suit to anyone who will take a look (and because she’s so charming, none of us can help but want to be near her).

Kathryn’s boyfriend, who’s tagged along to make sure she’s fine (they met online and corresponded for months before they met because she doesn’t just meet anyone, she tells the assembled crowd) sits in a chair beside her, quietly admiring the way that Kathryn takes charge.

Despite her advanced age, Kathryn says she can’t bear to just sit still. Aside from having an active social life, she’s been the receptionist at a local country club for the past ten years, where she takes care of hundreds of members, all of whom she loves like family. Before that, she was a flight attendant and an office manager. And (you’ll believe it once you see her on camera) she’s been a working model for the past sixteen years of her life, even listing a modeling school as one of her primary sources of education on LinkedIn.

There’s nothing Kathryn could want after taking a ride on the racetrack, she says. Her only regret is that her husband isn’t alive to see her take the victory lap. He would have loved it. “But he’s always with me,” she says. “He’s always with me.”

Going on adventures like the one she’s on now isn’t out of character for Kathryn. She’s always up for excitement and even dresses the part. She’s all about zebra prints, wild colors, and high heels. She loves, loves, loves Betsey Johnson — almost as much as she loves racing. It’s a spectator sport she and her husband enjoyed together and getting into the race car is something she’s so ready to do. She doesn’t even need to be told how to get in, and she’s halfway through the window before anyone thinks to tell her how.


There’s a medic on set just to make sure nothing happens, but he won’t be needed. Just like Kathryn won’t be needing any kind of safety lessons. She’s in, her seatbelt’s on and she’s riding the racetrack, letting out peals of laughter and screams of joy. For her, this experience will be analogous to Nik Wallenda’s walk across Niagara Falls—beautiful and dangerous and a reminder that we can (and should) squeeze the excitement out of every minute of life. No need t0 sit around and putter. Well, unless you’re sitting around in a cockpit or the passenger seat of a race car. Then it’s okay.

It’s hard to describe exactly what watching Kathryn ride is like. That’s not just because the sun is blinding and the emotions are riding high (I may be a curmudgeon, but watching dreams deferred turn into dreams realized is Kryptonite even for me), but because the car is going so fast that it’s hard to catch even a glimpse of it as it roars around and around. The smell of exhaust and gasoline fill the air and the car itself is little more than a blur. Kathryn could do this for hours, but she’s in and out in less than twenty minutes. Any hope she had of doing a 500 will have to wait for another day.

“How do you feel?” I ask Kathryn once she’s out of the car and relaxing on a lawn chair with a yellow-flavored Gatorade.

“Amazing,” she says. “Absolutely amazing.”

*            *           *

This trip to Florida, to see senior citizens live out their boldest dreams, wasn’t supposed to touch me. In fact, when people asked what I was doing flying to the Sunshine State in the middle of the night on very little notice, I’d joked that I was going to see the elderly walk on tightropes. Why, people would ask. Just for the hell of it, I guess, was my response. But after watching Chan and Kathryn take to the skies and motor through a speedway in top gear, I realized that it’s much more than just wish fulfillment. It’s a reminder of both how fleeting life is and the fact that it’s never too late to follow your dreams. It doesn’t have to be a ride in a fighter plane—and for many of us it won’t be—but it does have to be about finding the part of you that still yearns to be wild and free and daring, whether at age 23 or 87.

Whether that daring comes in the form of a race car, a career change, or even a last-minute trip to Florida to take pictures of senior citizens engaging in the ultimate form of wish fulfillment, I’m sure Chan, Kathryn, and Nik Wallenda would agree that it’s a part of you that you shouldn’t ignore.

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