This is a story that’s been lurking in the furthest reaches of the Memory Warehouse for a long, long time, so I sat down a couple of nights ago and went to work. Hope you enjoy this one, and do let me know what you think. Oh, I posted another revision of River Man at Lit, should be popping up soon. A few more tweaks here and there…but substantively little changed from what was posted here last week.
So, here it is, the first posting of…
The Secret Life of Wings
I heard a faint cry this morning, predator and prey, and looked up at the morning sky. “A bald eagle?” I remember thinking – no, two of them – harrying a pair of falcons. A circling duel, a fight to the death playing out in the sky above my father’s house, and my hands began to shake as I remembered all the other fights that played out up there. I drove to work, the movie of those four playing in slow motion over and over in my mind, hunter and hunted, winners and losers, death the only certain outcome.
Things never change, I suppose. We see the world through the eyes of our grandparents and our grandchildren, worlds that came before, and what lies beyond tomorrow. Like reflections in glass, the past and the future superimposed over the most important moments of our lives.
There’s a kind of comfort in layers…even if that comfort is so hard to grasp.
There’s a picture of my father hanging on the wall in my study, standing ramrod straight in his khakis as Ray Spruance pinned the Navy Cross on my father’s chest. On either side of the image and in the same frame are two letters, one from Chester Nimitz, the other from Franklin Roosevelt. In remarkably terse language his actions are recounted, his bravery lauded, his sacrifice, they say, forever enshrined in the memory of a grateful nation. You can hardly see the cane he used to stand that day, or the grimacing stoicism of his loss. His right leg is gone from mid-femur down, though you can’t tell in the image, and when I look at him standing there I can see all the tell-tale signs that shone in his eyes. He had a way of looking at the world with grinding moral certainty, but he never judged without first looking deeply into his own eyes. There was always a fierce purity in those eyes, an eagles eyes, yet there is something lost on those who think they’re looking at pride when people comment on the image. No, when I see those eyes I see the word Duty shining brightly in the dark.
Centered below this image are the medal itself, the bronze cross Spruance placed on his chest that day, and the blue and white ribbon he wore every Sunday until the day he passed, and whatever else you may think, remember that I loved that man – and the ideals he stood for – and do so to this day.
I think, perhaps, I should tell you a little about him, before we get to the point of this story, anyway. Before I tell you how I very nearly came to detest the man, detest him in all his flawed, walled-off humanity.
In our family at least, my father’s story passed from legend to full-blown mythology years ago, but that was long after he left us.
The myth begins in a sepia-toned Hollywood moment, in an image of barnstormers flying over quaint neighborhood homes one afternoon as a fifteen year boy walked home from school on a Friday afternoon. Bi-planes, pilot’s scarves trailing in the slipstream, impossibly loud engines a deep rumble as they approached, and I always see him in that moment squinting through sun-dappled leaves, craning his head to see the wings of airplanes passing, then running with anxious abandon when he saw them landing not far from his father’s house.
There were railroad tracks running alongside a small park two blocks from that house, and the park was devoid of trees in the middle. The expanse of spring green grass lay in unfettered glory that day – a few hundred yards of unfettered glory, anyway – a field just long enough for those planes to land on with little danger to those assembling alongside the tracks. There were no laws preventing pilots from doing little things like that, something years later my father used to grouse about under his breath when he talked about taxes – and lawyers.
He got to the park in time to see the last plane land, and to listen as those pilots talked about shooting down Germans and how the future was going to play out in the sky. The pilots then mounted their steeds again – like knights in armor – and took to the sky as the afternoon began to fade away, staging a mock combat above all those upturned faces and then landing again to rapturous applause.
And the point of all this?
For a quarter, a whole twenty-five cents, starting early in the morning these very same pilots would take people up into that sky, and starting tomorrow afternoon they would be offering flying lessons, too.
Now, to that boy twenty five cents was an unheard of, exalted sum of money. He’d never had more than a nickel in his pocket at any one time, and the despair he felt when he heard such an exorbitant sum left him deeply wounded, for suddenly, passionately, he wanted nothing more out of life than to take to the skies, to spend his life wheeling and banking forever among the clouds. Let’s say he walked home from that park in a deep blue funk, all his clouds now dark and menacing, closing in to choke off all his spring days – forever.
My grandmother must have known something was up when she saw his face, when he walked in the kitchen door that evening. She was frying, as she did every Friday afternoon, catfish and chicken, some fresh okra too, the same she always served in cooler months. With summer came collards and sliced tomatoes, summer’s freshest served with freshly made mayonnaise and lemonade, and she would have been working on that dinner for hours, as she did every day. I imagine her in that moment, working her magic over black, cast iron skillets, smudged flour on her face as she turned and looked at him, then wiping her hands on the white apron she always – always! – wore as she looked at her oldest boy.
She was an honest soul, and as a result honesty came as easily to her three boys as breathing. She knew what was behind those dark clouds within minutes, and she walked with my father to that park the next morning and talked to one of those pilots about flying lessons, then looked on as her son stepped up on canvas wings – giving her a first, brief glance at the shape of their futures.
The boy became a man that day too, and while many never glimpsed that fact, she did. Because her son kept flying, always flying. Flying every weekend, some Friday afternoons, too, so much and so often that by the time he graduated high school he had earned his commercial pilot’s license. When he went off to university he continued to fly, and even thought about flying commercially, but science first, then the study of medicine took flying’s place. When he graduated in May, in the Kodachrome year of 1940, he did so knowing that come August he would be starting his first year as a student at the medical school in Galveston, Texas.
Until one Friday evening, catfish and okra frying away in the kitchen, a Navy captain knocked on the front door. His mother invited the man in, invited him to stay for supper, and the man must’ve taken in the house and the smells pouring out of that kitchen and thought he’d found heaven, because he stayed that evening and talked about flying in the Navy. He talked about Japan, and Germany, and the importance pilots would play in the war that would start one day soon enough.
In then end, all that Naval Aviator need have said was one word – Duty – and all my father’s hopes and dreams of becoming a physician came undone. The next morning, his bags packed, he boarded a train for Pensacola, Florida and by early December, 1941, he was flying dive bombers from the deck of the USS Enterprise. He dropped bombs on a Japanese submarine a few days after Pearl Harbor, and on three aircraft carriers at Midway. In August, 1942 he was bringing in his crippled aircraft when on final approach a bomb hit the carrier’s flight deck; he waved off and circled the ship until repairs were affected and he landed successfully. His legs badly burned, he took off to fly a combat air patrol above the ship two hours later. Yes, when I think of him even now, the word Duty rings true in my ears.
At the end of his two years he made clear his intent to re-up, to fight until the war was over, but only if he could remain flying, and only in combat. I think the Navy was only too happy to help that come to pass, and they sent him stateside for a month while Enterprise was laid up at Pearl for maintenance and repairs. He flew home to visit family, and at a party given by business associates of his father’s he met a woman, she who became my mother, an English woman visiting Texas with her father. Out of the blue, two weeks after he met my mother they were engaged. She was a meticulous, highly educated woman, taking care of her father’s day-to-day life as he toured the country, an aircraft designer/engineer visiting aircraft factories in America. No one really quite knows what my father said to her to win her hand, but it must have been a doozy. She was without a doubt the most gorgeous woman he’d ever known, and that must’ve had something to do with the speed of his approach – and successful attack. All I can add about them can be summed up thus: he was as devoted to her as she was to him, and when my father wasn’t off fighting the Japanese, or later, at work, they were always side by side, hand in hand, always looking at one another with happy-go-lucky puppy eyes. They were, everyone knew, because of or despite the circumstances under which they met, meant to be.
In March, 1945 my father was flying CAP over the Enterprise while her bombers were off hitting the Japanese home islands when a furious submarine and kamikaze assault was launched against the ship. A destroyer had just made a depth-charge run against a suspected submarine when my father saw the sub, trailing an vast oil-slick and surfacing less than a mile from the carrier. Undaunted, the submariners charged the Enterprise, aiming her single deck gun and firing torpedoes as she closed on the ships beam – and just moments before the first wave of kamikaze appeared overhead. He was diving, firing ‘HVAR’ rockets at the sub’s conning tower – killing everyone there and eventually sinking the sub in the process – when lookouts spotted the first wave of kamikaze and alerted the CAP. Climbing to meet the threat, he made it through their escort and took out three of the Japanese suicide bombers before cannon fire ripped through his Corsair, gravely wounding him when shards of searing metal tore into his right leg. His aircraft trailing smoke, his leg bleeding badly, he made out a second wave of kamikaze and turned to engage them, shooting two more down before running out of ammunition. He radioed his situation then turned for the carrier and made a perfect landing. Too far from a proper hospital, the surgeons did what they could to save his leg but to no avail.
He returned home after being dropped off at Pearl Harbor later that summer, and spent a year getting his life back together before reporting to the medical school in Galveston, for his first year of study. My mother followed him at the same school a year later and, as I had been on the scene for almost a year, my grandmother, then just recently widowed, moved in and helped with all the parenting chores my parents were utterly clueless about.
What do I remember most about my parents? White clinic coats, stethoscopes dangling from a side pocket. A succession of Cadillacs, my father’s always white, with of course a navy blue interior. Mother had a maroon Jaguar, almost always in the garage, driven but a few times a year – usually when the Queen had something significant to say. We spent Christmases, and I mean every one of them until I was ten, at her father’s in Cambridge, while just my father and I spent Thanksgivings, each and every one of them, at a friend’s ranch in south Texas, about halfway between Uvalde and Eagle Pass, Texas.
There was a big two-story Victorian on the property, several out-buildings full of whatever might be needed to take care of the thousands of cattle that grazed on the ranch’s many pastures, and not a helluva lot more. We hunted deer there, and ‘Bob White’ quail too, at least when not dodging rattlesnakes, yet what I remember most was driving around those thousands of acres in a slate blue Toyota FJ40 – with a Winchester model 94 30-30 resting on my lap, the business end resting on my arm, the barrel pointing out the window.
My father almost always sat in the back of that cramped beast, the driving duties handled either by myself (later on) or a kid a few years older than me, and most of the events I remember most happened right about the time I started high school. The kid, his name was Sumner Tennyson, by the way, grew up on this ranch with his mother and her parents, and he was a tall, big-hearted fella, never around my father without the easy-talking smile I knew him by written all over his face.
One event stands out even now.
I remember driving, on more than one Thanksgiving, from the ranch down to Piedras Negras, just across the river from Eagle Pass, to a place called the El Moderno, and they served vicious tequila sours and succulent cabrito in a neon blue atmosphere that would have, I’m quite sure, felt quite at home to John Wayne and Dean Martin after a long day on the set. When I was fifteen or sixteen, the three of us finished our Thanksgiving feast at the ranch then drove down to the Moderno, got toasted on tequila before we drove out of town north along the Rio Grande – to a place quietly referred to – by those in the know – as Boy’s Town.
I say quietly, but better to think in terms of loose whispers and sidelong glances, wary eyes on the lookout for listening wives – or the more virtuous sorts who infrequently came to the ranch and rode along to Mexico to pick up some cheap bourbon. In those days, just about every border town in Mexico worth it’s salt-rimmed glasses had a Boy’s Town, and there was, and I suppose there still might be, nothing at all virtuous about these walled compounds. Back then, in 1963, Boy’s Towns were all about getting plastered, then laid – and not necessarily in that order.
Thanksgiving, 1963, came just six days after Lee Harvey Oswald put three bullets in John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s head, and my father was on duty at Parkland Memorial Hospital that afternoon. A board certified thoracic and cardiovascular surgeon by that point, he had been on standby, waiting outside the little green-tiled trauma room in case he was needed, and when he got in from work that evening there was something different about him. Something listless and dangerous, something ripped asunder. He’d liked Kennedy, voted for the man at a time when monied people in Dallas just didn’t do things like vote for democrats, and his proximity to those events that day had chewed him up – and spit him out.
I’m sure as Sumner drove down that worn caleche road to the Moderno that afternoon, getting laid was the last thing in the world on my father’s mind. Sumner had just received his appointment to Annapolis, and yet even that good news did little to stir my dad from his funk. Several shots of tequila and a plate full of goat later, he opined that the three of us should head out to Boy’s Town – and Sumner gave up a mouth full of agave to a violent spray that, in fact, finally made dad laugh his ass off. The sun still up – just – we drove north on a sandy track through mesquite and cottonwood until we came to a white stucco-walled enclosure, the top of the wall rimmed with broken bottles and barbed-wire, yet the first thing I noticed was a burly guard standing by the gate – the business end of his sawed-off shotgun pointing at our windshield.
Sumner pulled-up and Dad handed this gentle soul a wad of Pesos and smiling now, waved us in, and though it was still early, by the jaded standards of this sort of place, anyway, we found the sandy parking area already more than packed. Red Cadillacs and brown pickup trucks littered the grounds, most, I saw, from Texas, and I saw one kid about my age hanging onto a knotty cedar column on the front porch of one of these establishments puking his guts out. And I mention the plural only in passing, because there were a half dozen or so saloons inside those walls, some pricier than others, some girls at one better than all the others (or so my dad said, leaving me speechless), and he directed us to park – in front of that one.
I should remind you that dad was about 90% of the way to roaring drunk by then, and he leaned on me as he stumped in on his ‘gold-plated peg-leg’ until we were inside. I don’t know what I expected – something out of Dante’s Inferno perhaps, or a Woody Allen movie – but it looked like a regular restaurant once we were inside, like any other gringo-style Mexican restaurant in south Texas. A couple of girls strolled by – parading their wares, I guess you could say – until a waitress came by with menus. They had, she said, any kind of beer you wanted – as long as it was Carte Blanca – and, of course, Coca-Cola. Dad asked for three Cokes and pulled a bottle of Bacardi 151 from an inside jacket pocket, then, just for good measure – a couple of limes. The Cokes arrived in dirty glasses – sans ice – and dad cut the limes and tossed them in, then poured way too much of the rum in each glass, and I felt it just then…
Hands on my neck, rubbing the stress away in gentle caresses – and I leaned back and looked up at what had to be the most revolting woman I’d ever seen in my life.
“The more you drink,” my father slurred as he looked at the expression on my face, “the better looking they get.”
Truer words, I reckon, have never been spoken – anytime, or anyplace.
Sumner had been, mind you, an Eagle Scout. He was an honor student and despite endless protests from my father, he had been known to go to church once in a while – though this was reportedly an infrequent transgression and so, in my father’s eyes, anyway, a pardonable sin. I remember Sumner looking at my dad, his grin lost somewhere between curiosity and disbelief, as my dad laid out a wad of pesos on the table. Girls came out of the woodwork then, and cockroaches have never moved faster, then he picked-out two – and pointed at Sumner.
“Those two are yours, Slick. Don’t come back until they’re begging for mercy.”
Like I said, somewhere curiosity and disbelief.
“So, I take it you’ve done this before?” I asked my father.
“Only when medically necessary, son. Which two do you want?”
“Bullshit. I brought plenty of penicillin, so pick two and have at ‘em.”
After the pesos appeared, there must have been ten decent looking girls surrounding our table, and three or four that looked seriously copacetic – to my worldly eyes, anyway.
“I approve,” my father said as he watched my eyes light on two of the best, and he pointed at the girls, and then at me. They were on me like vultures, lifting my remains and carrying me back to a room I will never, ever forget. I lay on that bed and within minutes I felt an invasion crawling all over my body. Not the women, I should add, but rather I feel sure an armada of bed-bugs and fleas.
And I also felt sure my father took me to that august establishment because he assumed I was a virgin (true, I was) and that I needed to get laid before a surplus of testosterone completely warped my view of life (come to think of it, I think he was on to something). In the end, I think he assumed I’d enjoy the experience (yes, I have to admit this is true, though just barely) and that doing it with two women instead of one was the best way possible to lose one’s cherry (sorry, but I’m in complete agreement with him on that one). When I came out of that flea-bitten he was still sitting at the table, telling lies with a rancher from Kerrville, still pouring lethal rum and Cokes for all he was worth.
Sumner came out almost two hours later, a scowl like a Baptist preacher’s etched on his face.
He shook his head, said something erudite, like “Let’s get the fuck out of this shit-hole…” and my father sighed as I helped him up. He left his bottle of Bacardi with the rancher – along with another wad of pesos – as we stumped out through the night to the Toyota.
“Sum,” he said. “Start the motor and turn on the lights, and bring my bag up here.” In the amber light of a flashing torn signal, he drew two syringes of penicillin and jabbed us in our butts, then gave us some kind of vile smelling powder and told us to pour that in our underwear, and only then did we all pile in the FJ and wind our way through the night back to the ranch. Sumner’s dick was burning like hell by the time we got back, but it was better the next morning. That didn’t keep my dad from stabbing us with another dose of antibiotics, however, and it took weeks to get rid of the crabs and fleas in our nether regions.
That was an awkward moment in our life together – again, the word Duty comes blaring to mind – but he and I never spoke – directly – of the experience after that night. Not once.
I never considered Annapolis, didn’t ever consider a stint in the Navy, but when I graduated college I was broke and wanted to go to med school. Father was resolute, too: he wasn’t going to pay for four more years of school so I was going to need assistance. The Navy, he mentioned, had a good program for that, and I think I saw him smiling when he said that, too, yet when I talked to the folks at the appropriate office I mentioned flying, mentioned my father had been a pilot and all sorts of full color brochures appeared detailing OCS and flight training options. I asked if I could fly, then consider med school. Sure, they said, if I didn’t mind giving the Navy about fifteen years of my life.
I signed on the dotted line then went home to pack my bags. I think the symmetry of the situation wasn’t lost on my dad; regardless, he didn’t find the situation amusing, not in the least, but neither he nor my mother ever tried to talk me out of the decision. I made it through Officer’s Candidate School with little trouble and went on to primary flight before tackling jets at Pensacola. A year later I was stationed in Guam, flying the EA-3B ECM platform, but a year later, with that aircraft’s decommissioning, I began a long transition to the EA-6 series – by first finding myself in an A6-E Intruder squadron. Off the coast of North Vietnam, I might add, and at the height of the air war there.
Sumner, the kid from the ranch in Uvalde, was by then onboard the same ship and I saw him a few times, and we commiserated over red Kool Aid about that night in Boy’s Town more than once. He asked about dad, seemed happy to hear he was teaching now, in addition to doing surgery. He was flying Phantoms, and true to his calling advancing in rank at a blistering pace. He was an ace and I’d heard his name mentioned as a likely CAG when one night we heard his aircraft had been lost north of Haiphong, trying to pick MIGs off an Intruder’s tail. They never found his aircraft, or his body, and I wrote a letter to dad telling him about my time with him on the ship, and the action he’d been in when he went down. I thought, at the very least, he’d want to know.
A few days later I was called in to speak with my squadron CO, and he expressed sympathy for Sumner’s loss, and I have to admit in that dangling moment I was at a loss, too. Then he wanted to know why I’d never let anyone know Sumner was my brother.
Like tumblers in a safe, I stood there in silence until all the pieces of the puzzle finished falling into place.
Sumner got married a few weeks after his graduation from Annapolis, before he had to report for a summer training program, and standing there in my CO’s cabin the varied minutes of that afternoon came roaring back into focus. My dad, our father, had sprung for the wedding as well as the reception, and I recalled hearing something about the girl’s family not having a pot to piss in, or something along those lines, anyway. I remembered her, however. A striking girl, very tall, very fit, she was a junior at Georgetown and wanted to study the law, maybe work at the State Department someday. I remember how totally at-ease Sumner was during the ceremony, and how totally ill-at-ease Tracy Tomlinson had been. At one point she danced with my dad and he seemed taken with the girl, almost smitten, but of course I had no reason to see any ulterior motives in his easy, possessive grasp.
I danced with her that afternoon, as well. A quick number, but I’d been impressed by her eyes, the clarity of purpose and her keen sense of understanding, if only because, I think, she sized me up in about five seconds flat.
“Sumner tells me you’re going to med school,” she said, and I recall thinking Dad must have told him – because I sure hadn’t. “Why aren’t you going to follow in your father’s footsteps, join the Navy, do that whole thing?”
“I don’t know. Never entered my mind, I reckon.”
“Oh?” she smiled. “When did you decide on medicine?”
“When I was three.”
She laughed. “Pretty big footsteps to fill, aren’t they?”
The number ended and we walked away, and I’m not sure I spoke with them again that day. I do remember thinking she was a home run, that she was gorgeous and smart and that you couldn’t do better than that. Hell, I was happy for Sumner, though with Vietnam looming I wasn’t exactly glowing with envy, and the odd thing is that may have been the last time I thought of Sumner and his new wife until I saw him on the ship. Now all that was over, and I was on my way to Pearl.
They had a house in the hills beyond Hickam Field, and dad was there when I drove up in a taxi. Waiting, I guessed, for the showdown.
If that’s what I had on my mind, however, he wasn’t having any of it. He was, anyone could plainly see, devastated. His eyes were bloodshot and his hands were trembling when he took my own and pulled me into a tight embrace.
“I guess we’ve got a lot to talk about,” he said, though we never really did get around to having that conversation, yet I think that one sentence summed up all we never talked about. He took my suitcase and helped me in, let me get settled before we dressed for a memorial service that evening. Sumner’s mother was there from Texas, which was when I noted the absence of my own mother. Tracy was there too, now several months pregnant and utterly destroyed by Sumner’s death, and as we sat behind them during the service I became completely focused on the woman sitting in front of my father. Who the hell was she, I wondered? And why had she and my father…?
We stood together after, shaking hands with Sumner’s classmates and shipmates, those who’d been in port and wanted to come. Of course he didn’t have any brother’s or sisters, just his mother and grandparents from Uvalde – and his father. Oh yes, that would be my father, too. Who was as distraught as I’d ever seen him.
I felt Tracy by my side just then, as we stood in evening light outside that chapel, as we stood facing gentle breezes and the setting sun.
“You didn’t know, did you?” she said, and I turned to face her, and standing there looking at her I realized she was the only person there who’d seen into my own personal hell, and the contours of my dilemma.
“No, of course not,” I whispered cheerfully. “He’s only my father. Why the hell should I know?”
And she took my hand just then, and I don’t know why but I brought her hand to my face and kissed it, looking at the ring on her finger as I did. The ring my brother – my brother! – had slipped on her finger, really, not so very long ago. The child in her womb would never be a stranger to me, for I would be his uncle – and my father would be his – grandfather. And all of this was so bloody impossible – yet so silly – because the life I never knew suddenly felt overwhelming in it’s absence.
And where the hell was MY mother? The other touchstone in my life – she, who was never not by my father’s side?
I looked Tracy in the eye, her hand still firmly in mine, and I’m certain I had succeeded in holding back the tears I felt welling before I told her:
“As long as I live and breathe, I will be there for you when you need me.”
Yes, there’s something about the word Duty that runs through my family, through our veins perhaps, with a passion I’ll never fully understand, but as she looked me in the eye the weight of my oath fell over her. She began to cry as she nodded her head in sharp little jerks, then she fell into arms. I held her so tightly, one arm around her shoulders, my other hand cradling her head, I thought I might suffocate her, and when I looked up almost everyone there was staring at me. Not ‘us’ – me. As if they had witnessed a most startling, and perhaps inappropriate oath.
But not my father. There was a warmth in his eyes I had never seen before as he came to us. He joined in my support, put his arms around the two of us, and then all the other people in uniform came to us, and this dozen or so men and women put their collective strength around us, bound us all together, my words, our strength, and as quickly as we had come together, like the petals of a flower, we broke apart and drifted away on the wind.
We went to dinner after the service, my father and I, Tracy and her parents – and Sumner’s mother – and when we arrived my mother was at the table, waiting. Father went to her and held her for the longest time, then he kissed her, gently, before we sat. I held the chair for Sumner’s mother, then Tracy, and I sat next to her, suddenly her self-anointed protector.
It became clear my mother was ‘in on it’ – that she had known all along her husband was the father of another woman’s child – and truly, it seemed to me that of all the people around the table that night, I was only one who had been perpetually ‘in the dark.’
‘Ha, so the joke’s on me,’ I think I said as we sat, if only to myself.
And all through that evening my mother looked at me only once. Her’s was a bleak expression – not for herself, but, I felt, more for the isolation she saw in my eyes. And though she must have understood, she never said a word to me…there was only that one barren glance. Moths and flames came to mind, but maybe that was just me.
I returned to the carier a few days later, returned to my squadron and resumed my life as a pilot – usually going after SAM sites just north of the DMZ – but a month later I was detached and sent back to the states, to Washington state, to resume training on the EA-6 series then about to come online. Six months later I flew one of the first EA-6B Prowlers across the Pacific and joined the USS Enterprise’s air wing, itself another homecoming, of sorts. Operation Linebacker I was at an end though the ship was still at Yankee Station, and her Phantoms, Corsairs and Intruders were still working on targets “off the reservation” – in Laos and Cambodia – when a series of typhoons roared through the Tonkin Gulf and caused us to sail south. My first real ‘action’ came a few months later when the ship was sent to the Bay of Bengal, to prevent the Indian Navy’s blockade of East Pakistan, and as a Soviet submarine had been spotted in the area my Prowler’s job was to jam Indian and Russian surface radars. India’s fighters had been robust – in the early 50s, perhaps – but the situation soon appeared capable of pulling us into open conflict with the Soviet Union and tensions soared. In any event, the Enterprise was pulled back to Yankee Station, and as my five year service was at an end I was summoned to Pearl Harbor.
Where I was asked my intentions. Re-up for two more years, until three more EA-6B squadrons could be manned and operational, would be most appreciated. Yes, there’s that dirty word again – Duty – and without another word said I signed on the dotted line and was told to report to NAS Whidbey Island in two weeks. Three more aircraft were ready, and I would be, nominally, the CO of this group while we transited the Pacific, bound for Enterprise and my first foray into Cold War mischief-making.
And it turned out Tracy was still on the island, and she answered the phone, sounding tired and depressed, when I called later that evening.
“Ben? Is that you? Where are you?”
“Pearl. BUPERs. How are you doing?”
“You’re here? On the island?”
“Let’s see,” I said, feigning a sweep of the horizon. “That’s Diamond Head off to my right, so yeah, looks like it…”
“Do you have time,” she laughed, “to come by while you’re here?”
“I can,” I said. “Is this a good time?”
“Oh, God! Yes!”
I had no idea what the hell that meant, but she sounded happy enough so with grip in hand I hailed a taxi and rode out to their house in silence. When I got there I found her waiting in the doorway, a huge smile all over her face, and as I got out of the taxi she came out to meet me.
Again, those eyes. Again, I remembered how I’d almost envied Sumner on his wedding day, and I felt a sudden sense of guilt just being there, but she took my hand and led me inside. I found what looked like an atom bomb blast in there – boxes everywhere, dishes stacked on a table – waiting to be wrapped in paper and placed in boxes…
“Yup. Back to Maryland. My parents just left, took Sumner back with them. I’m going to go back and study for the Bar…”
“Didn’t you get my letters?”
I shook my head and she looked at me – with unanswered questions looming in the mist. “What?” she said. “How…?” She went and sat on a little coral colored sofa in the lanai, and I followed her into the sunny room and sat on a chair across from the sofa. She pointed at the sofa then, and asked me to come sit by her.
And I did, too. Color me nervous.
“Letters?” I asked…reminding her.
“Oh, the first one was foolish, a little girl’s impulsive ramblings. I asked that you come here as soon as you could, that we needed to talk.”
She looked at me again, suddenly quite unsure of herself, and I thought as I looked at her that this was a girl rarely unsure of herself. “About that moment, after the service when we all came together. I wanted to ask you what you felt then, why you said what you said.”
“Felt?” Now I felt unsure of myself. Of how to proceed, really.
“Yes. You. What you said, and how, took my breath away.”
“I was looking into your eyes, you know, and all of a sudden I felt this overwhelming love of live, and for Sumner. Odd, of course, as we were never that close,” I said, looking down, “not as close as we might have been, but I wanted in that moment to protect you…for him. That it’s my duty now to protect you, and his child.”
She looked away, nodded her head a little as a vast disappointment settled over her, then after a moment she looked at me again. “Your…duty?” she asked softly. “Is that…”
“Tracy, I’m afraid I don’t know you well enough to say what I want to say.”
“Do you want to know me? Well enough, that is?”
“You know, I have to leave in four days. Whidbey Island, then another deployment…”
“I did. About an hour ago.”
“Oh dear. Your father is going to be…upset.”
“Am I supposed to care?” I shot back, uneasily.
“You’re still upset about that, aren’t you? Your father, I mean, and Sumner?”
I looked away quickly, then stood and walked out into the back yard, and though I heard her following I felt like I needed space. Time, and space, to come to terms with my feelings. The house was, I saw then, rooted deeply into the side of this hill, and the corner where I stopped had a small but very unobstructed view of the Pacific.
“This is one helluva view,” I said as she came up behind me – and then I felt her hands on my shoulders.
“You’re not very good at the whole changing subjects thing, are you?” And she was turning me around as she said that, in every sense of the word. “I asked you about that, by the way, because when I heard those words, looked into your eyes, I suddenly understood everything was going to be alright. I fell in love with you, Ben. As horrible and as petulant as that sounds, it’s true. And I don’t want to lose you.”
She had her hands on my shoulders still, though I was facing her now, and at a loss for words. “Love…me?” I said slowly, but suddenly she was on her toes, and she kissed me gently.
“Yes. You, but please, don’t ever ask me to explain myself, or where this feeling came from, because I’d only come off as a complete idiot.”
“Now, tell me. You’re not engaged or something, are you? Three girlfriends waiting for you back in Dallas?”
I shook my head and she grinned.
“Not gay? Don’t have a secret boyfriend?”
“Dear God in heaven no – what makes you say that?”
“Well, I can’t believe you don’t have someone…”
“Well, I do, as a matter of fact. I’m flying her several times a week, if you must know…”
She shook her head, grinned. “That’s something I’d have expected your father to say, or…”
“Yes,” she said, still smiling, “Sumner. God, your father must’ve really pulled a number on you two. It’s like wings are in your DNA, or something.”
I smiled. “Sumner? He was that way, too?”
“Oh, he had a terminal case if ever there was one. He called the moment the secret life…”
“The secret life of wings,” I repeated, smiling, remembering the first time my dad…our father…told us about this life.
“He tried to explain it to me once,” she said. “About a time down at the ranch, one night sitting around a campfire, listening to coyotes…”
“Did he tell you about the rattlesnake?”
“The what…? No!”
“We were sitting around this campfire, mesquite wood, too, and it smelled grand. Geesh, I think I was ten or eleven; Sum must’ve been –”
“Fourteen, right. And this rattlesnake, I mean the granddaddy of all rattlesnakes, about six, seven feet long and as big around as a cantaloupe, comes sliding in and coils up a few feet away from the fire. Dad’s foot was about a yard away from the thing, and both Sumner and I were, well, I was terrified, but dad just looked at the thing for a moment and started talking again, and he said he had something important to tell us. The Secret Life of Wings, he said, and I was trying to listen but finding it almost impossible to listen.
“Anyway, dad’s talking – then he stops and I look at him. ‘What’s wrong,’ he asks, and I just point – slowly – at that huge thing coiled up by the fire and he nods his head as he looks from me to the snake – and back again. ‘You don’t bother him, he won’t bother you,’ he said and, hell, I don’t know, I figured if he wasn’t scared I wasn’t going to be scared either.
“So, he starts to tell us about the first time he went flying. Some circus flyers, maybe barnstormers, I don’t know, landed on a field near his house when he was a kid. His mom gave him money to go up that afternoon and all he could remember was the engine turning up, then the little bi-plane running down the field and he said that right at that moment, when the airplane first left the ground, he heard the airplane talking to him. The wings, really, not the whole airplane, and that as they climbed into the sky he heard them laughing, almost crying out with joy from being free of the earth.
“And here’s the weird part. When they got back on the ground, after the pilot stopped and helped my dad out of that tiny little cockpit, the guy looked at him kind of funny like and said something my father never forgot. ‘Did you hear it?’ and my dad kind of looked at the pilot and nodded his head. ‘When we took off, I heard laughing.’ The pilot nodded his head, too. ‘Only happens these days,’ the pilot said, ‘when someone sits up front, and that someone has to have something special inside to be able to hear that laughter.’
“Something special?” my dad asked.
“The old pilot nodded his head again. ‘Yup. When you grow up, you’re going to be one of the best pilots that ever lived. Somehow, these old wings know that, and they want you to know they know.”
“Sumner never told me all that. And not about that snake! What did it do, anyway?”
“The snake? Hell, I guess after a few minutes it got hot. It just slid away, went back into the night.”
“And your dad? He just sat there?”
I laughed. “Ever hear how my dad lost his leg?”
She shook her head. “No, I was always afraid to ask.”
“He was flying off the old Enterprise, near the end of the war – off the coast of Japan. He saw a submarine surfacing and attacked it, sunk the damn thing, too, before turning to engage two waves of kamikaze. He shot five of ‘em down, got hit sometime during that part of the fight. His leg was torn apart, and was damn near bleeding to death but he landed his a/c on the first try. I guess he got to sick bay with help, but there was no way to save his leg…”
“Jesus, I had no idea…”
“No one does, because he never talks about it – hasn’t ever, as far as I know. I found the citation in his desk drawer one day after school, when I was in junior high. Stuck in a folder, and I think I figured out he’s capable of keeping secrets…for a long time.”
“Did he finally tell you about Sumner,” she said, “and how that whole thing…?”
She stopped, I suppose, when she saw the expression on my face, but who knows what she read into it. I felt hot inside, for the betrayal I’d been nursing had apparently just been lanced – and erupted into a full-blown infection.
“No,” and I think I whispered, “he never did.”
The sun was setting and she took my hand and pulled me back to the lanai, and I’m not sure how easy that was. “You want something to drink?” she asked when she finally got me inside.
I recall shrugging my shoulders, looking out into the leafy back yard as I sat in the gloom, and a moment later she came back with some deadly rum concoction popular with the locals. She curled her legs up on the sofa as she sat, then kind of stared at me for a while. I think she was on the edge of a decision, perhaps, wondering if I was worth the expenditure of so much effort, then she laid it out for me.
“I think it was sometime in 1943 or 44, but he came home from the war for a month. He met your mom during that time, according to Sumner, but a friend of his had been wounded, I think at Midway, and your father went down to Uvalde to see him, to meet his family. The guy had been burned badly and wasn’t doing well, but he had married a girl from Austin before the war. At least I think he met her at UT Austin. Anyway, the guy knew he was dying and he wanted his wife to have a child – but not just any child. He wanted someone from his squadron to be the father. Sumner told me your father said it was his…”
“Duty,” I whispered, because by this point I was trying to hold back tears. “Yes, that would be just like him,” I added, looking at Tracy.
“And something else. There was something else Sumner said, about that ‘secret life of wings.’ Your father took him flying one day, and Sumner heard the laughter. The first time your dad let him take off on his own.”
I was nodding my head, crying openly now as I remembered my first time, too.
He came back from the war sure the most vital part of his life was over. Dead and gone – forever – and going back to med school only drove the point home deeper. He, of course, never talked about flying when I was very young, but every now and then we would drive by Love Field while a Braniff DC-7 or a Trans Texas DC-3 rumbled down the runway, and dad would pull over into a parking lot and watch as the plane climbed up into the sky, and after a minute or so he would wipe an eye and slip back into traffic. I was too little to understand what the hell was going on, but I knew enough to understand my father was very sad.
One night we were watching TV, all of us together in the living room, and I remember dad was reading a book. At one point he put the book down and walked from the room, and my mother went after him. He was crying, and while that didn’t happen often it always upset the hell out of me. He came back a few minutes later, as was his way with a fresh scotch and water in hand, and he handed the book to mother and resumed watching TV. I watched as she put the book away, remembering exactly where she put it, and after everyone had gone to bed I snuck down and found the book, slipped into my dad’s study and started reading.
The book I started that night, Reach for the Sky, wasn’t in a general sense about flying, yet it changed my life forever. It changed my father’s life, too, and Sumner Tennyson’s as well. It’s the story of one Douglas Bader, an RAF pilot who long before WWII was in a crash, an aircraft crash, and he lost both legs as a result. When things were heating up in the late 30s, when it became apparent Hitler was going to violate all the key military provisions of the Versailles treaty, Bader began pestering old flying buddies, still in the RAF by the by, to let him try and return to flight status. Of course they resisted, of course they told him to go home and enjoy his pension – but Bader kept at it.
By the end of the Battle of Britain he was an ace, and one of the best fighter pilots in the RAF. He continued to wrack up kills until at last he was shot down – over France – and captured. Captured, because his prosthetic limbs were caught up while he tried to bail out. It’s a brilliant testimony to the man, and to the deep sense of honor held by the men who captured him, that the one time in all the war that an allied flight was given safe passage to fly to an airfield in France, permission was so granted to fly Bader’s spare legs to the hospital where he was recovering from his burns.
Of course the German regretted the decision: Bader made a number of escapes from POW camps and harried his captors as much as they eventually tormented him.
Anyway, I read the book over two nights, then started hitting the library and checking out everything I could read about the Battle of Britain. Then I started reading anything I could lay my hands on about flying in WWII. Finally, I ran across a book detailing the invasion of Japan – that was postponed, then canceled, after atomic weapons were used over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One account I read concerned kamikaze attacks on the carrier Enterprise, and near the end of this account I saw my father’s name – and read a description of his actions that day.
Mind you, I’d never heard any story like that ever before, and of course he never spoke of it. Curiously enough, neither had my mother, and I can guarantee you I never asked what happened to his leg – but there it was, in black and white so to speak, complete with a picture of my father before the event, standing there with a dozen other pilots on the flight deck of the Enterprise. And there he was again, in another picture on the next page, with my father standing ramrod straight as an admiral pinned the Navy Cross on his breast.
I was watching a football game on TV one afternoon and I heard dad in his study. He was, as always, smoking a pipe while sitting behind his huge mahogany desk, and he was finishing Bader’s story. I didn’t put it together then, but he was absent the next several weekends, then one Saturday morning we hopped in his Cadillac and drove north out Preston road until we came to a barren part of the city, then we wound our way along narrow roads between plowed fields until we came to a little airport…Addison was it’s name.
There was a hanger there, a big sign proclaiming Cooper Airmotive above the yawning hanger door, and there were all sorts of little single-engined Cessnas sitting on the ramp, just waiting for someone to come along and take them for a little exercise.
He parked the car and we walked out to one and he opened the door on his side, then came around and opened my door. He walked around the airplane checking odds and ends for a few minutes, then got in and showed me how to buckle up.
More switches and knobs turned, the whole thing looking like a ritualized series of ancient incantations to me, then he opened this tiny little window by his left hand and yelled –
“Clear!” as he looked around for anyone or anything near the propellor.
A little mechanical wheeze then the engine caught and rumbled to life. More rituals followed, more buttons pushed and levers flipped, then my father was talking on the radio and I saw him in his flight-suit on the deck of the Enterprise, waiting to take off. A minute later he was turning for the one runway at the little airport, asking for permission to take off and for the very first time in my life – but not the last – I was truly proud of my father. I finally understood what he had been struggling with since the end of his war, and like Bader – he beat the odds.
And moments later an entirely new world came into being – this time just for us.
The Cessna rolled down the concrete runway and lifted gently – into the air – and I heard laughter. Was that me, I wondered? I hadn’t realized I was laughing, but there it was – and yet amidst the laughter I had never known such pure ecstasy in my life. We turned and climbed north, flying towards the Red River and Oklahoma, and I was taken not just by all the puffy white clouds we flew above, but the shadows we flew through, too.
The Enterprise had departed Yankee Station in early January, bound for Puget Sound, and she steamed north northeast – passing west of Taiwan and east of Japan. Now, with almost four thousand sea miles behind us, the weather had turned cold and nasty; blowing snow and ice coated the catwalks around the flight deck, turning them into a slippery no man’s land, and knowing it was 0200 hours, it was a given that we were alone out there. Falling overboard was not advised…
Of course we knew Soviet subs and ‘trawlers’ were following us, or trying to, anyway, but we rarely conducted flight ops at night when they were around – or when it was snowing this hard – unless we really wanted to fuck with Ivan’s head. We hadn’t in several nights, anyway, and the thinking was Ivan might not be watching just then.
We were three hundred miles off the Kamchatka peninsula, essentially the eastern tip of Siberia, and in the dead of winter. There were four EA-6B Prowlers on deck when all the deck lights came on: two waiting for their turn on the catapult, and two with their nose gears already hooked up. My Prowler was the first off, and even with tons of anti-icing fluid on the wings when we cleared the end of the cat I felt sure I’d never be able to get this wallowing pig up into the sky. Still, that wasn’t the objective that night.
A few hours earlier, an RC-135 had departed Shemya, near the westernmost end of the Aleutian chain. This ‘Cobra Ball’ flight was flying well to the west of the usual commercial track used by airliners flying from the US to Japan, and was doing so in order to further mask it’s activities. The -135 was also flying cold, flying with all of it’s sensors turned off, hoping to disappear in all the commercial clutter.
When the three other Prowlers in my squad joined-up with me, I was in the lead at 300 knots – and flying 150 feet above the sea – when we turned due west…towards the Soviet Union. The snow was surreal, so heavy and wet at this low altitude it began to stick to the windscreen and canopy, and we were pouring as much engine bleed air on the ‘glass’ as we could, the leading edges of our wings, as well. As we closed the coast the snow let up some, and when we were 20 miles from the beach we sent a single coded message, a micro-burst of encrypted data, telling the -135 we were at the IP and beginning our run.
At that point the Cobra Ball turned all it’s sensors on – and waited.
Our Prowlers spread out then – each exactly a mile from the one beside it – and as we left the sea we increased out altitude to – about – 200 feet AGL, and increased speed to 500 knots. At exactly ten miles in we turned on all our jamming equipment, pulled back on the stick and shot up into a ballistic climb – firing off several puffs of radar confounding chaff, and at that point every radar facility in the eastern Soviet Union went off like rabid priests running through a whorehouse.
The RC-135 over the Pacific watched all these radars come on – and search for the source of the jamming – as we rolled and dove back for the hard deck on a reciprocal heading. The intent of the exercise was to see what kind of radar Ivan was playing with these days, because word was he had a new type, a so-called ‘frequency agile’ array that was – theoretically – impossible to jam.
Of course, our guys at Raytheon had already developed a workaround, and this flight was all about seeing if it worked. If the number of threat warnings my ECMO was shouting about was any indication, something seriously interesting was taking shape out there in the howling snow and ice. He was picking up both ground and airborne radar sets, and my EWO was mumbling something about MIG-25s closing fast, and two SAMs coming off the rails – now heading our way.
Then some guy fresh from a school somewhere back east flipped on his new gear, and bingo – every radar in eastern Siberia lost it’s lock-on. Soon, with the beach now twenty miles behind I throttled back and dropped back down to 150 AGL and waited for the three other Prowlers to join up on me. And that’s when my EWO chimed in: there were, he said, two MIG-25s overhead now, flying along our heading with their ‘look-down shoot-down’ radar at full power, burning through our jamming.
“They got us, skipper,” he said.
I got on the secure net to my wingmen: “Okay, lets go dark and get the wings dirty, drop our speed to 1-6-7 and spread out in a wide echelon. In five minutes, on my hack, let’s go full active ECM, blow some chaff and let’s beat feet and zig-zag for Point Alpha. I’ll let MoonDog know the situation.”
So there we were, two hundred miles from home and going low and slow, spreading out as far apart as we could while still providing a big enough protective lobe for our ECM gear. Why’s that, you ask? Well, the MIG-25 was an all-weather interceptor, designed to fly at high altitudes and at very high speed. It’s radar was powerful but not really very smart, and with the sea providing lots of clutter on their screens the thinking was that as we slowed the MIGs would overshoot – then have to turn back for us. When they started turning, we’d spread out even more, and thereby provide more dispersed targets easier to loose in the sea-clutter, and I was banking on their radar losing down-angle efficacy in a tight radius turn.
We were spread well apart, almost five miles by the time we went active with our jamming gear, and they lost us, then reacquired signal and lost it again, but by then eight F4-Phantoms filled the screen ahead and Ivan turned and, probably bingo fuel by that time, made a mad dash for home.
I bring this up this whole thing for one reason, and one reason only.
After my trap that night, after I’d landed and folded the wings and taxied for the elevator, as I went through my shut-down checklists while still sitting in my nice cozy little cockpit – on that pitching deck and in that howling snowstorm – I decided right then and there that I wanted to fly airliners, not electronic warfare aircraft ever again, and that Tracy was right.
We belonged together.
It turned out she hated practicing law in Maryland. With a passion she’d never known she had. Same thing in Texas. I think that’s because she’d hated law school, and it became apparent after a few months working in Henry Wade’s office that she hated, I mean truly hated lawyers. Scum sucking bottom dwellers…that’s what she called ‘em, and ‘I don’t want to be one of them thar thangs, neither.’
Father was, of course, a little perplexed by that line of thinking. In his world, you spend three years in professional school, you take your boards and then get to work. In other words, you start making money, maybe start paying your parents back for twenty five years of their blood, sweat and tears. You buy a house, have kids, two if you want to make your parents real happy, and maybe you even buy a dog.
The thing is, Tracy wasn’t having any of that. She wasn’t planning on living her life by anyone else’s rules or on anyone else’s terms, and she certainly wasn’t going to use my dad’s worn out playbook.
A year after I left the Navy, four months after we got married, we went to my grandmother’s house for Christmas. My grandmother, the woman who pulled quarters out of her savings passbook to pay for my dad’s flying lessons, was still alive and kicking and, for the record, she was cooking fried chicken, some sort of stuffing (and don’t ask, really; the woman used oysters in her stuffing) and a cranberry relish that had enough whiskey in it to kill large farm animals and small children. Dad was showing Tracy his old room, her parents were in the kitchen trying to come to terms with oysters in stuffing and toxic vapors coming from a huge pyrex bowl full of cranberry relish. Sumner’s mother was in the living room with my mother (I know…don’t ask) when Tracy screamed and ran into the living room.
And where was I, you might ask? In the right seat of an American 727, on it’s way from Dallas to San Francisco. After we landed someone from our dispatch office met me at the gate and told me my father had had a heart attack; they handed me a voucher and sent me back to Big D, and Tracy picked me up at the airport and drove me back into town. He was at Parkland (of course) and he was stable, but they were going to operate on him at five the next morning. He of course wanted to see me before all that, so she took me straight to his room.
I walked in and, because I’m real good at picking out little things like this, said something sweet, like “Gee, Dad, you look like hell warmed over…”
My father being my father, he shot me the bird, then he looked at me with anxious eyes. “Get me out of this madhouse,” he said, “and let’s go get laid.”
“Oh, you have anyone in mind, or do you just want to pick up someone to eat out on Harry Hines?”
“Fuck, no. Let’s run down to Piedras Negras and pick up some really nasty shit. You know, some real honest god incurable clap.”
“No thanks, Dad, I’m trying to quit. Really, I am.”
“Well then, you’d better take a seat, let me go over a few things…”
A few things…like where his papers were. Estate stuff, “Just in case,” or so he said, then he wanted to talk. About Sumner, as it turned out.
“You know, after I started to fly again,” he began, “I flew down to Uvalde all the time. Lot of times when I didn’t have anything scheduled in the afternoon, I’d take off and fly down there. That’s why I finally bought that Baron, by the way. So I could get down there in time for supper, spend a few hours with the boy then turn around and fly back.”
“Oh? Where’d you land?”
“Oh, out there on the highway, then I’d taxi right up to the house. I started teaching him to fly that year. He’d just turned fifteen, and you were still too young to start lessons. I paid for his ground school, then I’d fly down there in one of Ted Cooper’s old 172s on the weekends and put him through the ringer…”
“I remember,” I said. As luck would have it, dad was the world’s toughest flight instructor.
“Yeah, I’ll bet you do. Funny thing, too. You were always the better pilot, you know. Came to it naturally. I had to really work with that boy, ride him hard on scanning his instruments, and the first few times we worked through engine-out stalls I thought the boy was going to shit his britches. Not you. You always seemed to get it.”
“Get it? What do you mean?”
“You never panicked, not like he did, anyway. It’s like that old rattlesnake. You remember, that big mother by the campfire?”
I shook at the memory.
“I was looking at you when that thing slid up to the fire, and at Sumner too. That boy was wide-eyed, thought he was going to take off right then and there and fly to Texarkana, but not you. You were as cool as a cucumber…”
“Is that the way you remember it? Really?”
“I was scared as hell, dad. And I thought you were halfway out of your mind to just sit there…”
He chuckled when he heard that. “I had that old Smith & Wesson sitting in my right hand, was kind of hoping that snake’d do something stupid so I could shoot it’s silly ass.”
I shook my head. “But you said…”
“I know what I said, and I meant it, too. I was saying that for Sumner’s benefit, but it’s something to keep in mind. I guess you did, too, over there. You gotta follow your training when things start to go bad, but that’ll only take you so far. Instinct counts most when things are really circling the drain, and that’s what always impressed me about you. You got a lot of that from me, but more from your mother.”
“Yes! Mom! That’s the best woman that ever lived out there, and don’t you ever forget that. Turned her back on her country to come live with me, on everything she knew. She built a home full of warmth and love, for me, and, well, all of us. Sumner would have never had the time with me he had if it hadn’t been for your mother. She insisted…”
“That’s right, Ben. She – insisted. She found out somehow – I never asked – but she was the one who told me I’d had a boy with Mrs Tennyson, and that it was my duty to help raise my son. She told me I had to do everything in my power to help that boy make his way in the world. And I tried, Ben. I really did. But I should have never encouraged him to fly. He just didn’t have it in him to be a pilot…”
“But…what about ‘the secret life of wings?’ The laughter?”
“Oh, I don’t know, but you see…I told him about that once, about how it happened to me, and I did that before I ever took him up. I think, maybe, he read something into that, that he’d fail me in some way if he didn’t hear all that stuff. Maybe when I told him that I laid the foundation for what happened over there…”
“That’s not my take on things, dad. He’d made exec of his squadron by the time I was there, and everyone thought he’d make CAG in a few years. He was…”
“A mediocre pilot, son. Smart as hell, a good organizer, straight A student from the day he was born, but he was never half the pilot you were. You were always…”
“Dad, what’s all this got to do with tomorrow? I mean, why talk about all this right now?”
“I figured, well, we haven’t talked much…you and I. It always seemed to come hard for us…”
I looked down – because I knew exactly what he meant. Even that hilarious night down in Mexico: I’d wanted to ask him about how he knew about that place; how many times he’d been there; how many times had he cheated on mom? Yet the thing was, I simply couldn’t. We didn’t have that kind of relationship, and I thought about that as I looked at him – laying in that creepy hospital bed. By the time I knew him well enough to ask about these kind of things, I’d assumed a sort of supplicant’s role to him. He was the Naval Aviator and I was in so many ways his student, and while I could ask him questions – all those queries had to be focused on the matter at hand. Academic things, mostly, then flying as we grew into one another. I admired him not as a son admires his father, but rather as a pupil regards his professor. Respectfully, I suppose, and never once did I, or even could I have questioned such received wisdom. Maybe all this sounds odd, but consider he was in effect my flight instructor – even before he really was – and that what he taught me, the instincts he passed on to me were vital, indeed life saving skills. Reflecting on this as he lay there, I wondered what he was trying to teach me now.
He lay there sleeping in the CICU, rows of monitors whirring and chirping to an unseen cadence, and all of us watched as one of his colleagues pulled the sheet down and showed us the taped wound that ran down my father’s sternum. Mother and Mrs Tennyson left the room when they saw that, but Tracy leaned over and looked, all the while asking questions and looking very professionally engaged. I, on the other hand, saw something very disturbing, and after a few minutes had to leave the room.
I saw, you see, mortal frailty for the for time, as I looked at a respirator doing the work of breathing for my father, and at the dry, loose skin on his hands. Those hands that had pushed a smoking Corsair through the skies off Japan, the immense skill required to sink submarines and shoot down an insurmountable number of aircraft, then land on a carrier – all right there for the world to see. There was an IV taped to the top of his left hand now, clear tape holding it in place, his blood caught between his skin and the tape, and when I saw that blood my world reeled out of control. My father, I could see clearly now, would die someday, and the world had no idea what it would lose. The skill he brought to flying, and to war, then the skills he had harnessed to turn and engage a new enemy: human mortality. He was a fine surgeon, and had brought about a world of good through his efforts, yet one day all his flesh and blood would simply cease to be.
Why? Death was simply absurd, and I hated death as I looked at him.
I went out and sat between my mother – and my brother’s mother, and they looked at me, intuitively knowing what I had just seen. Women, I suddenly realized, were the heart and soul of humanity; civilizations for good or ill had flourished – or perished – by the voice given to the needs of a woman’s heart. I sat between them, took their hands in mine and closed my eyes. I felt someone daubing tears from my cheeks a few minutes later, and opened my eyes to see Tracy standing there looking very concerned.
“He wants to talk to you,” she said, and I went in.
“Looks like Mexico is going to have to wait a while, son.”
“Well, I ain’t goin’ without you, so you’d best get on getting’ better.”
He laughed. “Ought to be good to go in a few weeks. How’re the women?”
He nodded his head. “That’s the beauty of this life, son. We carry on so, do all the heavy lifting and think we’re the bedrock of civilization, but it’s the women who carry the real load.” He chuckled again, took a breath and winced, then looked out to the waiting area where Tracy and my mother sat. “Mrs Tennyson? She doing okay?”
“She is, but it’s hard, dad. Looking at her, knowing she loves you as much as mom.”
He sighed. “You know, we were never together after that once. I never wanted to, and I don’t think she wanted to, either, but that’s the funny thing. We had a child together, and I love her for that. I always will, too, but not like I love your mother…”
He talked about the little things he wanted me to help his mother get done before he came home; a way to move about the house in a wheelchair for a few weeks, a hospital bed rented and put in his study…that kind of thing, and I watched him issuing orders like he might to any cadet – or unwary ensign – and I had to laugh.
“What’s that about?” he asked.
“You, Captain. Still giving orders, aren’t you?”
And he laughed too. “Guess I always will, son. At least until you do.”
I nodded my head. What else could I say?
“So, when are you two going to get around to finding Sumner a little brother?”
“Oh, we’re working on that, dad. As much as we can, as a matter of fact.”
He lay there, looking out the door at Tracy, and he sighed again. “Funny how things work out, isn’t it.”
I turned and looked at my wife – at ‘the brother I never knew I had’s’ wife, and I could only agree.
Dad went home a few weeks later and life returned to something like normal – for a while, anyway – but to me it felt like an uneasy truce had been hastily arranged. Between my father and death, you might say. The burden of living seemed to shift to my mother during that time; dad was uncharacteristically depressed those first few months at home, but she told me that it was fairly routine for post-cardiac patients to hit the skids when they came home from hospital. She said it had something to do with coming to terms with their past, and the changes needed to carry on. New routines: a new diet, no more cigars, no smoking his beloved Meerschaum pipes in the backyard.
And he said it best: “It’s all ‘no this’ and ‘no that’ and who the fuck wants to live like that!”
My usual reply went along the lines of: “Well, I’d kind of like to see you hang around a while longer…”
He’d grumble on hearing something like that, then start talking about flying down to the Tennyson ranch and driving the old FJ down to Boy’s Town, but the uneasy truce held. I’d go back to work and he’d sneak out into the backyard and sit under his favorite pecan tree, listening to limbs swaying on a summer breeze – while he looked over his shoulder and pulled out his favorite pipe.
Two Christmases later we came to their house with Sumner’s new little brother in tow, yet their’s was still a full house. Mrs Tennyson, as always, came up for the festivities, and now my dad’s mother was living with them. He was working again too, but not as before; he was instead teaching full time at UT Southwestern, yet even so spent most of his time perfecting new heart-lung bypass machine technology in there labs. ‘Little’ Sumner was five that year, and Tracy was in the middle of her first year of med school, so my mom was doing daycare at their house, taking care of two kids and an almost ancient in-law. She was making a highly unorthodox Christmas dinner too, at least by our family’s standards: turkey and dressing (no oysters), green bean casserole and some sort of canned cranberry goop (no whiskey added) and while Sumner finished ripping through his presents dad asked my to join him in his study. When he closed the door behind us my heart sank – over the years only the worst news was delivered behind closed doors, and I assumed nothing had happened to change all that.
“Can you get a few days off next week?” he asked as he sat behind his mahogany desk.
“Well, I’m off through Tuesday, then gone Wednesday and Thursday, back on Friday, off again Saturday. What’s up?”
“Some kind of lesion under my tongue, in the gums too, I think. My guess is it’s squamous cell, and I’ve got an oral surgeon lined up Monday to do the biopsies.”
“Is that bad stuff?”
“It ain’t good.”
“Nope, and let’s keep it that way – for the time being.”
“Pick me up Monday morning, would you? Say around 0300. We should be home be eight.” Both hands patted the arms of his chair and he looked satisfied, still in control of his world. “So, how’re they treating you at work…?”
And so began dad’s last, most furious battle.
I was with him again that next Friday, Tracy and mom too, and he read the pathology report to us in his study. At certain key passages I heard my mother’s sharp intake of breath, and by the time he was about to read the conclusion my mother got up and left the room.
They’d best remove the tongue as soon as the procedure could be scheduled, and lymph nodes in the neck biopsied at that time. A further surgery, to remove half his lower jaw, should be considered at this time, as well. This second procedure would, the report advised, necessitate a bone graft from the hip, to replace the excised jaw and provide structural rigidity for further tissue grafts…
When he finished he looked up, rubbed the bridge of his nose as he coughed a little, then he looked at me. “Of course, I’m not going to do any of that shit.”
“What?” His daughter-in-law (times two) cried. “What are you going to…?”
“Nothing. Not a goddamn thing.”
She didn’t understand, not at all – but I did. He’d been doing thoracic surgery for thirty years, and that had included more than his fair share of oncological cases. The bottom line? He knew the score and had absolutely no intention of being hacked away piecemeal…a jaw here, a tongue there…until the cancer spread into his spine and lungs. He told us that he’d probably have two to three months of a relatively pain free existence…then?
“And then what, dad?”
“Oh hell, maybe I’ll take up skydiving, or underwater balloon racing…”
Neither Tracy nor I laughed at this gallows humor, but his eyes were clear and his smile bright, and it was New Year’s Eve after all, and there was a baby-sitter on board to handle the domestic chores while we slipped out and brought in the New Year together. A friend of his, the president of a bank downtown, had invited us up to The Petroleum Club, a somewhat exclusive (ahem) two story affair on the 50th floor of his building. We were invited to have dinner and dance away the evening with the city spread out below – like amber-hued diamonds on a vast carpet of black velvet, and while I listened to dad talk about the night ahead it was all to easy to think that this was just another Friday night.
But of course it wasn’t.
True to form, my mother carried the load that night – as she would for the next few months – and I’ll always remember their dance. A jazz trio of some repute – piano, upright bass and drums – set the mood, and after dinner he took her out for a spin on the floor. We watched for a while, then I stood and took Tracy out there too, and after a few numbers together we changed partners.
Mother’s eyes were alive – yet worn and full of concern – and I could feel an almost frantic energy in her hands and arms as she clung to me, yet she never said a word about what was dancing in the air all around us. She never gave voice to her fear – or her husband’s choice, but at the end of our dance together she kissed me on the cheek and whispered “Thank God you’re here…” before she stepped back into my father’s arms.
I held Tracy close as we walked over and looked out the curtain of glass. A heavy snow was falling, wind-driven ice pellets slamming into the glass and I don’t know why but I thought of that night over Kamchatka…of ice on the wings and the canopy, and really, just how close to death my own little world came that night.
I saw Tracy’s reflection in the glass, saw tears streaming down her face, and for a moment I thought I saw Sumner there in the glass, asking me to take care of his wife.
“Why don’t you take the left seat,” he said – and I didn’t know what to say. This was a first, for in all our years flying together I’d never once flown left seat. That was the pilot-in-command’s seat, the captain’s domain, and this left seat was, and had always been – his, and his alone.
“No, that’s alright dad. I’m used to flying right side these days. Go ahead, you go up first.”
I followed him up onto the wing and into the old Baron, helped him get his seat belt fastened, then I called out the checklist while he got ready for take-off.
“One-niner golf, ready to taxi,” he said – and how many times, I wondered, had I heard him say those exact words over the years. There was a symphony of memory in his voice, countless hours flying all over the country embedded in those words, and yet I knew this was going to be our last trip together. The last time I’d hear him speak those words.
“You take it, son,” he said, and I taxied out to the active, did the engine run-ups and told the tower we were ready to go.
“You want to take it, dad?” I asked as I looked at him, but he was looking out at the left wing and I saw him shake his head. Pulling out on the runway I advanced the throttles and watched our instruments as we gathered speed, and as we climbed into a crystal clear March morning I could hear his laughter…
“Do you hear them?” my father asked me, but I had to turn away from him just then, because it’s so damn hard to smile when you’re crying.
Once upon a time, seven years after my father passed, I took my sons and daughter up for the first time in that old Beechcraft. Sumner was up front of course, by my side now, while Scout and Jim sat behind me looking excitedly out their windows at the wings that would carry us up into the sky. I buckled them in and pulled out the checklist, the same checklist I’d used for decades, the fading laminate now yellowed and peeling in places, and I started down the list checking off items one by one. When the engines were running and we were ready, I got on the radio…
“One-niner golf, ready to taxi,” I said, and Sumner was looking at me intently as I spoke those hallowed words. I smiled at him as I advanced the throttles and taxied for the active, then focused on the way ahead.
“One-niner golf, you’re clear for an immediate take off,” the tower advised, and I turned onto the runway and ran the engines up for a quick check before I eased off the brakes. The old Baron ran down the runway and I pulled back gently on the yoke, then with a gentle lift she climbed back into the sky once again.
I heard my children laughing while the gears retracted, then Sumner turned away from looking at the wing out his window, and he looked right at me.
“Did you hear that?” he asked me, the huge smile I saw in his eyes now so familiar face. It was so easy to see in this light; his face was my father’s, his seeking eyes were as easy and clear.
“Oh? What did you hear, son?”
“I’m not sure, but for a moment it sounded like Grampa Goose.”
I nodded my head, because I’d heard him too, just as I looked over the wing out my window. The sun was bright that morning, and for a moment I saw my reflection in the glass, but then I saw another face in the glass, my dad’s laughing eyes up to face an endless sky one more time.
(C)2016 Adrian Leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com
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