He swung open the closet door next to his bed and stared with soft eyes at a wooden box enshrined in emptiness on a shelf all by itself. The grain was coarse and golden and felt like it would splinter when he ran his fingertips along its surface. So, he ran them gently, as if petting an exotic animal that was best left still. A warming glow seeped into his fingertips, like the sweet warmth of a freshly baked cookie. He drew in a slow breath through his nose and held it, savoring the aloof scent of pine smoke that perpetually hovered around the box. The soft scratching sound of his fingertips brushing its side took him back to the forest and needles crunching beneath his boots as he scurried into the night while his father roasted venison over a campfire.
It was there, in the darkness, that he had found the box when he was young enough to still believe in Santa Claus and that quarters really did emerge magically from behind his ear when his grandfather stroked the nape of his neck with tired leathery hands. He had been young enough to clap and giggle as his grandfather beamed at him with a smile that was almost as young as his own – one of those blessings captured and set adrift by the smile of a young boy who believes. He had been young enough to hold the box in his hands, the sizzling glee of its warmth radiating through his body as he stared mesmerized at its adornments. He had been young enough to believe he had found a mysterious thing, in a magical place where pixies and elves still danced in his young mind.
Even though he was older than those things now, he still kept the box neatly perched in the middle of its own shelf and listened to the stories that buzzed through his mind as he watched it. Because everything about the box – the texture of its rough-hewn sides, the smokey scent floating up from it and the warmth that still flowed from its surface into his fingertips – lay beyond the grasp of knowing. Where every other myth of childhood had been unveiled and skewered on the pike of knowing better, the box lay beyond the realm of knowing, perpetually humming with the promise of the infinite possibilities it inspired in the last part of him that was still a boy willing to believe. Where a young boy had seen a magical box, a young man now saw that he had something even greater. He had, in his closet, one of those mysteries of the universe that people would not believe and could never explain.
The universe was not a vast cavern awash in the light of man’s mental prowess. It was a vast ocean of things unexplained and unknowable, dotted with islands of that which was understood and proudly modeled by science as it groped through the dark like an infant. He knew this. He knew that his box had a place in that universe. But he also knew that he could never speak of it. Because the stories it told came from the pictures on its side and they were something that no eyes could behold without either running into the night screaming or crashing through the door to steal it away and break it open to get at the truth behind its revelations.
For, the pictures – they moved. Where they may have been an enigma that frightened most and then demanded the wresting of some explanation they were unwilling to provide, he understood them to be something meant only for the eyes of the one who found the box. They told stories of sorts. The top panel washed over in a black sky and a swarm of pin-prick stars that glimmered in constellations that he could see but not recognize. There, on the side, a young woman stood on a stage with the halo of a yellow spotlight around her as she sang silent words he could not hear but knew had filled the darkness of both the room and the souls of the audience to whom she sang. On the end panel a young boy stared lovingly at a single piece of cake with thick peaks of frosting while a fawning mother with closed eyes kissed his forehead.
He understood these were more than stories. Without being able to say exactly why and certainly without being able to explain it to anybody else, he knew the pictures were promises adrift in a sea of time, either kept or pending and dreamt of by souls who, like him, refused to know better.
He pulled his hand away and the pictures stopped moving. The woman stopped, mid-note, her mouth wide open and sweat beading along a furrowed brow as a passionate note of song hung in front of her, sung yet still unheard. The boy’s mouth was circled tight, just ready to blow out a single candle embedded in the cake, its flame frozen in a bulbous lick of light.
He stepped back from the box, as quietly and gently as he would step back from a child who had just found the solace of sleep, and clicked the door closed. He thumbed the combination reels of a small cash box, removed a key and twisted the bolt lock to his closet door with a satisfying clunk. He pulled at the door to make sure it stayed closed and locked the key away before leaving his room and walking back into the rest of the world.
The box was one more thing he was going to have to tidy up. Most of his life he knew how he would leave behind. Mostly, he would do so unceremoniously, almost callously he was sure some would think, but he would have to, if he was going to pursue the only dream he had ever found that still burned in his soul. The box, though, was something he couldn’t just leave behind. He wouldn’t be able to take it with him, either, because where he was going was not the kind of place that would be kind to a strange young man and his box with magic pictures.
He didn’t much care for early mornings, especially when they were cold and biting. But there were exceptions.
Wearing his favorite black leather jacket, he hunched his shoulders against the cold as he walked briskly, chasing the cold steam of his own breath across the hard patch of dirt between the parking lot and a trailer parked on the edge of the airport ramp. He let out a grunt of satisfaction as the soles of his shoes thumped onto the black asphalt of the ramp. He was among airplanes now – cold aluminum chariots with wings already spread and straining against the steel chains that held them in place. The cold air biting the inside of his nose as he breathed in was laced with the pungent scent of 110 octane low lead gasoline, which was somehow different than just ordinary gasoline. Already, other pilots were draining thin streams of fuel from the wings of Cessnas, Pipers, Comanches, Bonanzas and the lone Luscombe tail-dragger that all sat perched on the ramp, all waiting to take their human caregivers into the sky. They did this to drain the water that had condensed and settled into the bottoms of the tanks overnight – one of the many perils that could bring those caregivers hurtling back to earth in a dismal cry of desolation just before thumping into the ground.
Even better was the thick kerosene smell of jet fuel that would waft across the asphalt when the 737s and Canadairs brought tourists in to head for the sprawl of ski resorts in the mountains just an hour away. His favorite days were when it was just warm enough to congeal the scents of tar from the asphalt, the jet fuel and the backwash of warm tires into the thick smell of flying. Combined with the whine of turbines spooling from underneath the wings of the passenger jets and the hiss of their APUs pumping electricity and air through their elongated bodies, the smell and sounds of the airport draped over him like a blanket that made the rest of the world fade away and let him know that he was there, the only place he really wanted to be. For this, he would get up early in the morning. For this, he would give up everything else.
He shuffled up the aluminum steps to the trailer door and swung it open to step into the stifling warmth of its camped interior. He surveyed the weather table covered with the latest meteorological reports, couches wedged against the walls, an obligatory coffee maker on a small folding table and the rickety counter that he stood in front of while he waited for Marge to finish talking into a standing microphone. Holding the large black transmit button at its base, she said, “Papa two victor, altimeter three one one seven, winds calm, runway two one in use, traffic downwind.”
Next to her elbow, a speaker crackled and hissed with the voice that all airmen used when they were flying – a crisp official sort of talk that was always calm and to the point. “Durango radio, roger.”
“Morning, Marge,” he said, laying his hand on the counter. He stifled his habit of drumming his fingers when he was in a hurry because he knew she didn’t like it and Marge was the gatekeeper. She scheduled the rentals, arranged the fuel trucks and talked into the radio to give advisories over unicom so everyone would know who was taking off, landing and what order they should take. Most importantly, she was the one who would hand over the keys so he could go fly.
Her mouth flattened into a thin line and her eyes narrowed so he could see the powdery blue of eyeliner which she always applied too thickly to her eyelids. “Morning Kyle,” she said. “Here for the Tomahawk this morning?”
“Yes ma’am. My first solo cross-country today.”
She tilted her head and looked at him as a mother would look at an errant child. Something was wrong. His breath hitched and he fought to keep the cool impassive look a pilot was supposed to show at all times as he realized that she wasn’t pulling the keys off the hook in the board behind her. She was just looking at him.
“Bob wants to talk to you,” she said.
“Okay.” Kyle tried to sound nonchalant, as if it was just a simple thing like pouring a cup of coffee while you figured the weight and balance numbers. But it wasn’t a simple thing.
Robert Holt was the owner of Holt Aviation, the only fixed base operator on the field and the only place that offered flying lessons and rented airplanes for young men like Kyle to learn how to fly them. And now, Kyle heard the slow cadence of his footsteps padding down the carpeted hallway that led to his back office. Somewhere in his sixties with leathery skin, a proudly balding head and eyes that squinted at everything, Bob Holt stopped just in front of Kyle and stared. Kyle stared back at the heavy black binoculars hanging around Bob Holt’s neck. They weren’t particularly interesting, but he had never seen them before and couldn’t help wondering why the man had them now, just as he was about to have a talk with him.
Bob Holt grunted and smiled with an expression that was universal in its ambiguity. It could mean that he was impressed with a particular piece of flying or was about to share a story of his days as a Naval Aviator – a story that always started with him bolting from the pitching deck of a carrier in the middle of a storm at night. Or, it could mean he had you cornered and was about to take away the only thing you ever truly loved. There was no way to tell. Bob Holt never got angry, but he always got his way.
He clapped Kyle on the shoulder and said, “Let’s have a talk youngster.” Kyle blinked helplessly and felt the air stiffen as the older man pulled him away from the counter and through the door back onto the cold aluminum platform at the top of the steps. Kyle’s shoulders shuddered uncontrollably against the cold, which he would normally fend off with movement, but something told him now he should stand very still, as if he might somehow become invisible.
Bob Holt lifted his binoculars and peered at the space of air just southeast of the airport where most students flew to practice their maneuvers. Kyle cringed as he thought of what he had done the last time he was out there – not because of what he had done but because he now realized the Bob Holt had seen it.
“I’m sorry,” Kyle said. “I know I’m not -“
Bob Holt cut him off with a voice that was cool and laced with the gravel of hard-won years of knowing things. It was the same voice he would use to order a beer or tell a sea story. It was commanding without need of demand or urgency. It simply spoke in a way that didn’t allow people to not listen.
“No. Shut up.” He casually scanned the airspace with his binoculars, looking at nothing but empty air. Nobody was up and flying yet and Kyle knew there wasn’t anybody actually flying in the maneuver space.
“You’re a decent stick and you have the moxy to fly fighters,” Bob Holt said, still scanning the empty air. Kyle started to let out a sigh of relief and stopped short when Bob Holt said, “But you’re kind of stupid.”
Kyle had learned to stop feeling hurt by such remarks long before he had met Bob Holt. He knew it was the truth. He had to work twice as hard as the other students just to keep a passing average. While everyone else enjoyed the rites of college life by going to parties, drinking beer and indulging their personal sexual educations, he stayed up late struggling with passages of text he had to read three and four times just to glimpse their meaning. He worked through simple math problems three and four times with varying results until he got the same answer twice. He chewed up more than his fair share of office hours with instructors to bombard them with questions that did little more than reveal the stupidity Bob Holt was talking about. But people did indulge him, because he was diligent, stubborn and never gave up. The people in his life who were important enough to matter respected that. And so, through the long nights of beating back the demons of frustration and rallying forth the insistent waters of determination and perseverance, he hammered out B’s and C’s so he could maintain a passing average on his tortuous journey to graduation. Yes, he was kind of stupid. But he would get there.
But he was smart enough to stay quiet now, do his best to keep his shoulders from rattling out of their sockets and watch his breath huff out in cold wisps of withering white steam.
“What’s the maximum allowed bank in my Tomahawk?” Bob Holt asked.
“Sixty degrees, sir.” Like many things, Kyle wasn’t sure about the ‘sir’ part. He didn’t know if it would come off as obsequious or respectful, but it felt right and sometimes how things felt was all he had.
Bob Holt grunted. “And pitch?”
“Forty five degrees, sir.”
Bob Holt nodded as he continued to scan the air. “That’s right. Everything you need to learn for your private ticket lies firmly in those boundaries. And there you were, pulling wingovers past vertical.”
Kyle closed his eyes and bit his lip. He had been caught. Bob Holt had made a point of telling him to stay inside the boundaries, not to bend his airplane. Bob Holt knew what Kyle was about. He was about pushing the envelope and treading on the edge of disaster because it was something he understood just enough to be dangerous. But he felt, clear down to his bones, that he could handle it. Where most things were a struggle, near-inverted wingovers were an act as natural to him as drinking water.
“It’s not about bending the airplane,” Bob Holt said. He lowered the binoculars and laid his hand on Kyle’s shoulder. With the same squinting glint in his eye and knowing smile that he perpetually wore, he said, “Breaking the rules is the easiest way for them to get rid of you. In OCS, they will have a quota to get rid of at least half of you. In flight school, that quota goes even higher. You don’t want to give them any excuse to make you one of the guys they send packing home. So don’t give them any.”
“Oh,” Kyle said, relieved that the man wasn’t dressing him down about cranking his frail Tomahawk through the sky. “I get that. Thanks.” He waited for the old man to do something, but his hand stayed on Kyle’s shoulder and his eyes burned through him with the patience of knowing there was more that he couldn’t explain. Watching his breath puff out into the air, Kyle could tell there was more and that the old man didn’t know if he would understand. If he could understand. Because they both knew he was kind of stupid. But he never would give up. Even Bob Holt had to understand that.
“There’s somebody I want you to talk to.” The old man took his hand off Kyle’s shoulder. “Wait here.” He stepped back into the trailer and closed the door behind him, leaving Kyle to stand in the cold and watch his breath as his shoulders rattled and the cold air bit at his face.
Across the ramp, he heard a muffled voice call out, “Clear prop!” Then he heard the grinding whir of a starter and the first valiant chops of the engine straining to pull the propellor around and lift its voice into a throaty roar. Puffs of black and gray smoke scampered away from the airplane and Kyle sucked their scent in with a long breath. The unbidden elation of being there washed over him as the propellor minced the air, tugging at the aircraft, eager to pull it into the sky and boar holes through its blue expanse.
More airplanes churned to life and filled the air with the cacophony of men and their machines preparing to fly. Among them, alone and chained to the ground, stood the Tomahawk. Kyle studied its T-tail, low stubby wings and oddly bulbous cockpit. The airplane sat quietly, held down to the earth like a prisoner whose keeper had abandoned it to a fate worse than death. Together, they had wrested free of those chains and scurried off to frolic like boys indulging the mischief of just being while the rest of the world wasn’t watching. They flew, hard and fast, pushing each other to the boundaries of what they could do, of who they were, free of the scowling eyes of masters who would tell them they should know better. And now, because those scowling eyes had found them, he stood in the cold and his Tomahawk sat chained to frigid asphalt. They were in trouble. And it was his fault. Sorry buddy. I kind of screwed up here. I’ll get us back up there. Somehow. Hang in there. A cold wash of black smoke from one of the other airplanes splashed across the Tomahawk’s canopy, like children laughing and spitting in its face while it sat in the corner, punished for sins not its own.
Kyle felt a bitter wave of resentment wash through him. The airplane deserved to fly. Sure, somebody else would rent it out later that day and take it through the droll routine of mundane flying, like taking a dog for a walk along a city street when what it really needed was a good long run in an open meadow. It just wasn’t the same.
He had been standing in the cold long enough for his teeth to start chattering when the door finally opened and Bob Holt stepped back out to hand him a folded piece of paper.
“Go talk to this guy.” Bob Holt handed him the paper and closed the door, crushing the last glimmer of hope that there would be any flying that day.
Kyle walked slowly as a frail old woman escorted him through the fourier. The room was adorned with pictures of young people dressed in clothes from an age gone by. The furnishings were intricate studies in styles long-worn that still proclaimed proudly that they were to be seen, not sat upon, touched or otherwise actually used. It was a room where time had stopped and waited for about 20 years. The beaming smile and gentle touch of the woman’s arm, her soft glistening eyes – all told Kyle that it was a room that spent too many hours in emptiness.
She stopped in front of a heavy door made from polished dark wood that Kyle didn’t recognize. She turned the brass doorknob and the latch clicking open echoed through the fourier. She gently swung the door open and gestured for him to walk through. “He’s in there,” she said. Her voice was gossamer on wind, a sunken whisper that proclaimed a forgotten pride in the simple act of introducing him to her husband. “May I bring you something to drink?” she asked.
Kyle looked into her eyes, wide in a look of deliberate charm that hid the pleading behind them. It wasn’t about a drink – it was about her being a hostess in a room the world had long forgotten. “Oh, please,” he said. “If you have any coffee, that would be very nice ma’am.”
She stroked his arm and blushed. “Oh, you are such a polite young man,” she said. Another forgotten treasure from a world that had stopped long ago, Kyle felt the demand for it seeping from the walls, the pleading for it gleaming in her eyes. To make an old woman smile as a hostess and honored citizen who had paid more than her fair share of dues to a world that had left her behind – this was something Kyle understood. It was something an officer would do. It was something a gentleman would do. So he did it. She let go of his arm to traipse down a hallway and he stepped into the room.
The room was a deep cavern of paneled walls, a polished floor and rugs whose patterns were half shadow. Pictures of every variety of fighter aircraft from the Great War ringed the wall just beneath the ceiling. Some of the biplanes with their pilots leaning proudly against them in grassy fields strung across the grime of war-torn Europe, Kyle recognized. Others, more obscure and older looking, he did not. He felt a vague sense of familiarity and longing well up in him as he studied the wooden propellers, fabric-covered wings and struts and wires that held them together. A giddiness swept through him at the sight of machine guns mounted just in front of the cockpits. Fighting machines and their men, doing what he had always dreamed of doing himself one day.
Behind a desk with no chair hung a portrait of a fighter pilot leaning against the gray metal airframe of a more modern version of those machines – the sleek menacing form of an F-16. The pilot’s smile stretched in the wide grin that unmistakably said: Why yes, I’m a fighter pilot.
On the other side of the room, across from the doorway, a man sat in a chair with wheels. His back was turned to Kyle as he looked through a grand parade of windows that stretched across the entire wall to reveal cliffs and forests as if they were painted on a sprawling canvas.
“You must by Kyle,” a voice said. Kyle walked cautiously across the room, as if he were in a cathedral and didn’t want to disturb patrons kneeling in front of an altar in prayer.
“Yes sir,” he said, his voice bouncing across the room with a vague echo. “You have a beautiful home.”
The whir of an electric motor trickled out from the chair as it turned around, its gray rubber wheels squealing against the floor. A tired shell of a man with the knob at the end of a spindly control arm clutched in his teeth looked at him with vacant eyes. The man nudged the control and the chair twisted again so that they were looking directly at each other. The man unclenched the control and laid his head on a thick pad crowning the back of his chair. Kyle stopped, unsure of what he was supposed to do next.
“Come over here and help me,” the man said.
Kyle started walking again, afraid to do anything else because he didn’t know how he was supposed to act in front a quadriplegic. He had never met anybody like this before. He stopped in front of the man and tried to keep a blank look on his face as he strained against the urge to study the crumpled deformity draped over the chair like a rag doll. “Yes sir?” he said.
The man cast his gaze towards a thin wooden plank taped to the armrest of his chair. At the very end of it stood a small plastic cup, poised like some small thing preparing to leap off the end of the stick and into the unknown.
“Pick it up,” the man said.
Kyle stretched his hand out towards the cup, wary of the thing as if something inside might leap out and bite him. Things like that happened inside caverns after all. He let out a low growl and furrowed his brow when he felt a tremor ripple along one finger.
“What’s in it?” he asked. It seemed a reasonable question and might help cage the part of his mind that made his finger tremble.
“Pills,” the man said. “I can take them myself, but it’s easier when somebody helps me.”
Kyle’s finger steadied and he gently snatched the cup into his hand and shook it, listening to the pills rattle against the plastic. He looked in and saw more than he could count at a glance. The sterile chemical smell of pharmaceuticals seeped up from the cup and he was suddenly aware of a man trapped in a world where he could not help himself, perpetually at the mercy of strangers he would never meet who stirred potions in secret and dribbled them into a plastic cup to prolong a life that probably never left this room.
“How do I do this?” Kyle asked.
The man said, “Just dump right into my mouth.” He leaned back, opened his mouth and waited.
Kyle pressed the cup against the man’s lips and shivered at the grotesque intimacy of feeding pills to a crippled man who couldn’t even lift a finger for his own benefit. He wasn’t used to anybody depending on him for anything and now this man put some twisted trust in somebody he had never met to give him pills – to do something he didn’t really know how to do, and all Kyle could imagine was doing it wrong and watching the man’s eyes bug as he choked on Kyle’s mistake.
“Just dump them in, kid. It’s not as hard as it looks.”
“Alright,” Kyle said, and gently poured the pills out of the cup and listened to them tumble over the man’s teeth like rocks.
The man twisted his head to the side and sucked water through a long plastic tube that snaked down the side of his chair and disappeared in a large plastic bottle. He grimaced as he swallowed, drank more water, and swallowed again.
The man let out a long breath and said, “Thanks. Doing it myself is less than a graceful ordeal. And it takes a while.” Kyle tried to imagine what could possibly be more awkward, but shook the thought loose and focused on the man’s eyes. Stay on mission.
The man squinted at him with the same look Bob Holt always had. The eyes shimmered as they looked into the distance, scanning the space around them for bandits. Once found, they would lock on a speck whisking through the sky, guiding hands and feet to enter into a dance to gain the edge – a little more speed, a little tighter bank, maybe an out-of-plane move to get the angle where he could take the first shot, line up the missile cone or just get a good tone. And blow the bandit out of the sky. Kyle knew all of that was behind those eyes, even though they probably hadn’t seen anything in the sky but clear air for decades.
Gray-black stubble peppered a sagging face that was reaching into its fifties by now – whatever glory to be had now long gone. But the eyes remained. They were fighter pilot’s eyes.
The man grinned and then clutched the control with his teeth. The room filled with the click and whir of the electric motor and the rubber on the wheels again squealed against the polished floor as he turned the chair back towards the window.
“Come over here and take a look at this,” the man said. He let go of the control and sat quietly in front of the window, gazing at the forest blanketing the stanchion of cliffs not more than a mile away. Kyle sidled up next to him and waited. There must have been something about those cliffs he was supposed to understand, but his mind drew a blank.
In a distant, sad voice, the man said, “I haven’t been in this room in a very long time.” He took a breath, let it out, as if letting go of something. But he didn’t say anything more and let the silence hang between them.
Not knowing if he was supposed to or not, Kyle finally asked, “Why not?”
The man turned his head to look at Kyle and grunted. “Bob Holt says you could be a good fighter pilot.”
Could be. Kyle knew immediately the correct translation of those words. They were a warning, an act of mercy reserved for those who were trying real hard but didn’t really get it. It was a phrase he had heard his entire life. They meant a variety of things. You’re just not smart enough was the most common interpretation, but he knew there was a difference this time. This time, they meant: You’re not there yet. But he could still get there.
Gazing back at the cliffs, the man said, “I was a Falcon driver. Desert Storm.” Kyle wanted to tell him he knew what that meant, but something told him this wasn’t the time to show off. It was a time to listen. Because he wasn’t there yet.
Nodding towards the picture behind the desk, the old man asked, “Do you know what that is, son?”
Kyle nodded and smiled. “Yes sir. F-16. Jet from the 1970’s and the Air Force still has more of them in inventory than any other fighter. The F-22 came and went, but the Falcon is still here.” He glanced at the old man, who just kept staring through the picture window. “And she still can’t be beat in a knife fight.”
A low moan of satisfaction, of some memory that shook off the dust collected over the years, escaped the man’s lips. “That’s right,” he said. “And they make good plinkers, too. That’s what I did. I fought my war with the MFD. Roll in, designate and pickle a copperhead. Watch the jagged outline of a tank through the FLIR fuzz out and move on to the next. Never heard a single explosion. Never heard a single scream. Never saw the blood. Didn’t even see the smoke. Because we did it all at night. They never saw us coming.” He took a deep breath and let out a long sigh. “Until the Zeus twenty threes lit up. Sometimes you could hear the shrapnel rattle against the airframe. Then it was time to grab stage one and extend to the egress point. Land. Take a magic white pill. Wait for the ground crew to hang more ordnance on the rails and the do it all over again.” The old man closed his eyes and shook his head. “God, those poor bastards never stood a chance.”
Watching the old man stare out the window with a dull look of futility on his face, Kyle wondered if that was why he had been summoned here. Was he supposed to listen to the old man tell him that flying in combat was dangerous? He already knew there was risk in rolling in hot on a mountain cave, lining up the pipper on the hud and pickling off 2000 pounds of high explosive to root out whoever was inside. He already knew that when he pulled up, the first thing he would have to remember is to kick off the flare sequence as decoys against the shoulder-fired heat seeking missiles screaming up for vengeance, clawing out at him with a red-hot fury aching to blow him from the sky. To kill him. Maybe he didn’t understand it. You couldn’t really understand such things until you arrived on station and rolled in weapons hot. But he thought he understood as well as a young man eager to try possibly could.
Kyle did want to ask him, though. He wanted to ask him if that’s what put him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. If that’s what the old man wanted to tell him – that he risked being what he was now. A crippled man who could only torture himself with memories of what it was once like to be a warrior. Was he willing to spend his life cooped up in a room while the mundane, the inadequate, the mediocre all strolled through life taking everything the old man had fought to defend for granted? He understood all that, too. People walked through a door, sat down and got back up again. Drove a car. They did these things that he would never do again and never once thought about what it meant for men like a crippled Falcon driver to do more than just die for his country. He had given up his life in every sense of the word. Kyle grit his teeth as he felt a pang of resentment rising up in his chest. He understood all that, too. But he knew better than to ask. Instead, he waited for the old man to tell him what he already thought he knew.
Staring at the cliffs, the old man spoke in a low, faraway voice. “You have to respect the air.”
This, Kyle wasn’t expecting. The resentment ebbed and faded as he felt the familiar daze of reaching for something just beyond his grasp. The old man was talking about something he didn’t understand. Kyle was used to this. So many things were beyond him. Much of it went right by him, unseen. Some would forever orbit in the periphery of his awareness. The rest he would grapple with, extracting the knowledge and wisdom he could and do his best to use it to move on from one place to the next in his life. This was a lifelong struggle which he knew all too well. He strained to hear the man’s words, to get at the meaning behind the veil of their sounds.
“She is a cold and cruel mistress,” the man said. “There are rules. Some are known. Some are not. And it doesn’t matter. Violate any one of them and she will hurl you from the sky and crush you into the ground.”
Kyle pondered the man’s words as he continued to stare at the cliffs. They seemed obvious at first. He understood how an airplane worked. He knew, too, that he was lucky in a way. He had good reflexes when it came to an airplane. He knew just how much to slip and fidget with the yoke to keep the nose lined up on the runway during a blustery cross-wind. He knew – felt really – how to coax her through a steep wingover and keep the balance between ripping the wings off from excess speed and ripping them off from excess Gs when pulling out from a dive. Fighter pilots, he thought, would know these things. And he knew them well.
“Do you know the first thing they teach you in military flight training?” the old man asked. Kyle guessed it was probably the same thing he had been taught. But he hadn’t been to military flight training. Maybe it was different. Either way, he knew he was supposed to say he didn’t know and then listen. Even if it was just out of respect for an old fighter pilot who had done things that Kyle could still only dream about.
“No sir,” he said.
“Don’t fly into the ground.”
Kyle arched a brow. It seemed strange to try and teach the obvious. Flying into the ground was something you simply avoided naturally, wasn’t it? And flying into the ground in an F-16 wasn’t something you would probably survive. Something wasn’t adding up and Kyle saw the blur of danger rustling just beyond the edge of his comprehension. But it was there. So he stopped and listened carefully, hoping the old man would explain more.
“Look up at the top there,” the old man said. “Up there in that saddle where the trees stop for just a few feet. See it?”
Kyle followed the old man’s gaze to the top of the cliffs. “Yes sir. I see it.”
“It was right after I retired and just wanted some time alone with the ridge. I hadn’t flown a hang glider in years, but it’s not something you forget how to do. But I had been to war and back and survived Zeus twenty threes and the maelstrom of death war flings up at you as you race through the sky. And I forgot the rule.”
“It was getting towards dark and there wasn’t much wind to work with so I started scratching close to the ridge. I got in closer than I ever had before, too close to make an inside turn. I knew there was a rule about that, but I was still shrouded in the sense of invulnerability that comes with surviving combat sorties in the dark with death reaching up for you. I was beyond the rules. I might as well have been flying drunk. I was scratching right along that saddle when a thermal cut loose, just enough of a splash of air to bump my outside wing. I was low and slow and it just sort of twisted me around so I was flying straight for the cliff. I cranked it as hard as I could, but I didn’t have enough speed to give me the control I needed to recover that outside wing. It only took a few seconds from the time I got bumped to the time I heard the ring of aluminum tubing clang against the rocks and the Dacron ripping as I fell through the trees.”
He clicked his tongue. Kyle realized the man would have snapped his fingers if he could have. But all he could do was click his tongue.
“Just like that,” the man said. “They had to bring in a helicopter to haul me out of there. I would never walk again. I would never hold my wife again. I would never drive or hold a door open or pick up a tool and build something. I would never rake leaves or shovel snow.”
He bit the stubby handle of the control handle and turned the chair to face Kyle. “And I would never again fly a Falcon into battle. All because I forgot the first rule of flying.”
Kyle watched the man’s eyes. All he saw looking back at him was the piercing insistence of a mind that still hadn’t given up, still waiting for a fight, just like Bob Holt. There was a certain core essence both of these men shared and Kyle wondered if he had it, or if it was something he would learn as he pushed his way through his journey towards doing the same thing they had. Or maybe it was something you had to earn in the deadly space of aerial combat. But for something like that to survive even in a man who would spend the rest of his life unable to lift a finger…
“Do you wish -” Kyle started to ask.
The man scoffed and then a grin spread across his face. “Do you really want to know what I wish, kid?”
Kyle considered the menacing flicker in the man’s eyes. Looking back at him was a man who had nothing to hide and no reason to care what anybody thought anymore. He could dare tell secrets.
“I wish I could be one of them,” he said, shifting his glance to the pictures hanging in a neat line just below the ceiling. “Real honest-to-God fighter pilots.” He clutched the handle with his teeth and nudged his chair closer. “Do you know why?”
Kyle studied the eyes, trying to see what was behind them. He imagined the man in the picture behind the desk with his face hidden behind a flight mask and crowned with the industrial gleam of his helmet and visor. He tried to imagine that same man sitting in a cold cockpit with a scarf wrapped around his neck as he droned through skies over Verdun. It was there, just beyond him, but he still couldn’t see it. Kyle just shook his head.
“Purity,” the man said. “It is one thing to kill a man, helpless in the night who never sees you coming. Never hears you. Never knows steel is raining down on him because I can see the green outline of his tank and I just pickled a bomb that he will never hear.” The man closed his eyes. “It’s another to climb up into the sun and stalk another man who is just as capable, has the same weapons, the same skills and the same determination to come out on top. If a man has to fight, to kill, let him at least prove something by it. That he’s the victor and deserves to live to fight another day. Let him live on the edge of that and never be the same again.”
The man opened his eyes and the glimmer as gone. A vague sheen of wetness covered his eyes now and his face pulled down into a trembling frown. “A man can face death like that and be at peace with it. But how can he face endless days of not being a man? The warrior’s fate is to die in battle. Not… not…” The man sucked in a shuddering gasp and a flash of anger raced across his face. He pulled his shoulder back and Kyle knew that he would have pounded the arm of his wheelchair with his fist. If only he could.
The man took a long breath, let it out in a slow whisper as his face receded to the cold deliberate mask of a killer. “Sorry, kid. I just don’t get to talk to very many people who at least try to see what I mean. And Bob – well, he’s heard it all too many times.”
He clutched the control with his teeth and wheeled himself back around to face the window. Staring back at the cliffs, his voice was distant now. “Just remember, respect the air. Caution serves the warrior, too. Richthofen racked up 80 kills that way. Carefully, always with respect for the air, his machine and the other man he was intent on killing. Remember that.”
Kyle stood there, looking at the back of the man’s chair, not knowing if he was supposed to say something or if it was time for him to leave. He did know, however, that he understood what the man was talking about. The ultimate contest – pass or fail. No grades. No guessing. You didn’t have to explain anything to anybody. The merit of his skills would speak for themselves. Another man would die. He would return to land and drink a toast to the fallen. And if you could do that, you didn’t have to prove anything to anybody. Kyle understood, clear down in his bones, the cold brutality of honor that was only possible in war. Or, at least, the kind of war the old man spoke of. The man-to-man fight.
Kyle’s mouth fell open as he realized the old man had never known any of that, either. Kyle still had a chance. Maybe, somewhere in a future he was still fighting to see, he would be alone with a predator like himself, boring holes through the sky as they jousted for position to get a tone, squeeze a trigger and send the other trailing to the ground in a flurry of smoke and fire. But the Falcon driver now staring out the window had never seen that. And now he never would. Even now, all he had ever done was kill targets that couldn’t really fight back. Even now, he still wasn’t really a fighter pilot. At least, not in the order of things that he and Kyle understood and now shared in silence.
Kyle’s voice was a solemn whisper that echoed through the room like an ancient wind. “I wish you could have been there.” And he meant it, too. He felt it surge out from his heart and into the universe – a welling up of compassion for a wounded man who never got his chance to have his fight in the only way that really mattered. “You in a Nieuport and Richthofen in his Albatross. Because you both have to be careful that way. You dive too hard and you’ll pull the fabric off your top wing. He dives too fast and he’ll crack the spar of his bottom wing.” Kyle watched the man’s chin ease down to his chest as he spoke. “And you do come out of the sun, just about 1,000 feet above him and you have your gun sights lined up on his head. He’s yours. But you don’t want that, not today. You fire a burst through his tail instead. He turns. You pull up and flip inverted, pulling into a split S as he circles around, trying to get the angle. And the fight is on. The rest is up to you now.”
A faint moan floated out from the man, as if he were slipping into a dream. Kyle imagined the man wearing a leather cap on his head, the thick fur puffing out from the collar of his teddy bear suit. He imagined the gnarled hands curled up on the wheelchair’s armrest grasping a stick and throttle. The feet limp and curled on the metal footrests now pushing against rudder pedals, swerving the tail of his Nieuport as he lined up behind his opponent for their duel. It all looked right. Death calling out from every moment just in front of his face if he made a mistake. That was where this man belonged.
And Kyle really did wish the man could have been there.
Kyle got two pieces of news the next day that would change his life. First, sitting across from his doctor’s desk, his ears rang as he listened to the man drone on about something called an arrhythmia. Kyle didn’t understand most of it except for the part where it was a heart condition that would keep him out of any military flight training. His shoulders had gone numb because it was something in a medical record that would never go away, even if he could treat the condition and subdue its effects in future exams. His doctor had said he could or that there might be an operation or… None of it mattered. It all meant one thing: his career as a fighter pilot was over before it could even begin. Like the old man from the night before, there was nothing in front of him now except the certainty of being incomplete because he couldn’t rise to a calling that had burned inside him since he had seen his first glimpse of an airplane as a young boy at an airshow.
Still reeling from the news, he walked into Bob Holt’s trailer at the airport and stopped short when he saw a gloomy despair in Bob’s eyes. The glint of the fighter pilot was gone, now subdued in the aloneness that came from losing one of the few people in the world who actually knew you and understood who you were. The old man just shook his head and Kyle knew. The man he had talked to just the day before was gone. He had stayed in his chair, sitting in front of the picture window late into the night when his wife had finally come in to check on him because her worry had grown past the point of caring about his need for privacy while he stared at the endless days of his life before him. Now, they were over.
Kyle couldn’t take any more. He let his head slump and closed his eyes as he thought of the old man in his Nieuport. It was a lesson in losing a comrade, but a lesson now empty since he would never have to face that agony in any way that was remotely meaningful. Now, he was just a man who could have been a friend. And he was gone.
He opened his eyes and stared at Bob Holt. They shared a look that acknowledged the meaningless of the emptiness left behind for them both. It was an emptiness that was the same and different all at once. For Kyle, it was the loss of somebody who had confided in him the shared the bond of a common thirst for something that nobody else really understood. For Bob, it was the loss of an old friend who had shared the bond of knowing the true horrors of war and what it did to men, even if they never admitted it. Between them stood the silence of knowing what could have been and knowing what it all really meant.
Bob Holt pulled the key to the Tomahawk from the board and handed it to Kyle without a word. Kyle nodded once, thankful that the man understood he needed to get away from the gnawing emptiness that hung in the air. He needed to breathe, and the only way he could do that was to get off the ground and into the sky.
There wasn’t any traffic and he didn’t even call on the radio to let the world know he was pulling onto runway two one for take off. He lined up with the end of the runway, jammed the throttle forward and pushed down the right rudder pedal to compensate for the engine’s eager but none-too-impressive torque. But she was eager to fly. And that was enough.
He didn’t even have to look at the airspeed indicator to know they had reached 65 knots as he pulled back the yoke to ease her off the pavement and into the air. he could tell by how fast the world blurred by the Plexiglass windows of the cockpit, the sound of the wheels rumbling against the pavement and the sound of the engine and the throbbing of the propellor as it drilled through the air.
He climbed peacefully at 500 feet per minute and tuned the NAV radio to listen to the steady beep of the VOR morse code – a habit that kept him from feeling too alone when he was in the air by himself. Now, it sounded like a message from a distant field south of Rheims in a war from long ago. He smiled and grunted to himself as he imagined the old man sending him a message before traipsing out onto the field and hoisting himself into his Nieuport.
A sullen sense of departing fell over Kyle just then and he realized that he was saying goodbye. He knew, at that moment, that he would never fly again. He loved the sound of the engine and the insistent whisper of the wings knifing through the air as his trusty Tomahawk clawed its way higher into the sky. He loved all of it, more than he would ever love anything else. But it would always remind him that he could go no further. To be so close to something you wanted with all your heart and knowing that you could never have it – this was something Kyle wasn’t willing to torture himself with. Sometimes, the only way to move on was to move away until you found another island of existence that made living worthwhile. Flying – now, it was just something that would always hurt.
He reached out and placed his hand on the dashboard. “Alright buddy, this is it. Ready for some fun?”
He checked the altimeter and then swiveled his head side to side, checking the airspace around him to make sure there was no other traffic. He cranked the yoke to the left and held it there, watching the horizon tilt as the airplane banked sharply. When they had reached the maximum allowed bank of sixty degrees, he cranked it even harder and let the plane roll over onto its back.
He knew that flying a Tomahawk upside down wasn’t allowed, but what did it matter now? He tugged the column back to keep a positive G force on the airframe, knowing that she really wasn’t built for negative Gs. He did know when to be careful, how to coax the little plane through maneuvers without hurting her. It was just a matter of understanding.
As the nose started to drop through the horizon, he smiled and said, “Well, just this once. Just a little bit.” He knew that she could take a little bit of negative G, as long as was careful. He nudged the yoke forward, pushing the nose back up towards the horizon as he felt his weight bleed away until he felt himself floating in the air, momentarily free of the bonds of gravity. The little plane droned on, all too happy to play in the sky.
What Kyle had forgotten about was the fuel system. It was a simple gravity feed system and while the airframe wasn’t enduring any particular stress beyond its abilities as he flew upside down, fuel was no longer flowing from the tanks and into the carburetor where it could be fired by magnetos to keep the pistons turning the propellor. The sound of the engine thinned and then choked to a stop. The propellor slowed and then Kyle felt his heart hammering in his chest when it stopped turning completely and stood up straight just in front of the cowling.
He was flying dead stick upside down. Instinctively, he eased back on the yoke to pull the nose through the horizon so that he was now flying upside down in a shallow dive to keep his speed up. Then he carefully cranked the yoke to the left, rolling the plane until he was once again flying right side up. Except that he wasn’t flying. He was simply gliding. He put his hand on the trim wheel next to his leg and spun it back until the airplane was trimmed for 70 knots as it floated down from the sky at just over 500 feet per minute.
The prop was still stationary, something that puzzled him because it really should have kept windmilling even after the engine stopped. Checking his surroundings, all he saw were hills and trees crawling up towards him. Over his shoulder, he could see the airport, but there was no way he could make it that far without the engine. He looked around again, more frantically this time, then held his breath as he realized there wasn’t a single piece of flat ground he could reach. The farm fields were too far away and might as well have been islands in the middle of the ocean. he could see the flat tops of a few mesas, but by the time he reached them, he would be well below them. All he would be able to do is fly into the side of them, just as the old man had flown into the side of the cliff with his hang glider.
“Okay, we’re in a pickle here,” he said out loud. By the numbers something inside him whispered. It was in the nature of any good pilot to keep trying things, in order and then according to the rapid evaluation of an equally rapidly deteriorating situation, until the plane actually hit the ground. You never gave up. There was always one more thing to try. He grabbed the key in the ignition and turned it to the START position. The starter grinded with an electric whine as it cranked the propellor over. Then the propellor stopped, again standing dead still in the air.
Looking outside again, Kyle saw he had two choices: rocks or trees. Trees were better. Careful to keep his airspeed locked at 70 knots, he gently banked the airplane until he was heading straight for a tall swath of trees jutting up from the slopes of a mesa. That was the best he could for landing. He cranked the engine again and his heart sank as the propellor flipped over and over, but the engine still didn’t catch.
Just as the tops of the trees loomed in the windshield, Kyle repeated the same words that aviators from around the world, regardless of language, said just before they violated the first rule of flying.
The left wing slammed into a thick trunk, crumpling the leading edge half way back into the wing. The airframe spun hard and the nose slammed into another thick trunk. Kyle lurched forward and the last thing he remembered seeing was the edge of the dashboard heading for his nose.
The first thing Kyle saw was the blurred image of a woman’s face, as if she were looking at him from beneath the surface of a pool of water. The image shimmered and warped until he saw the soft smile of his mother’s mouth and then the crease of wrinkles across her forehead as she looked down at him with the worry that only a mother knows how to feel.
Kyle opened his mouth and said something. He thought he said, What happened? But what he heard was a garbled hissing and gurgling.
“Shhhh.” Stroking his cheek, his mother said, “Don’t try to talk sweetheart.” Her face still hummed and buzzed in front of his face like an image flickering on a television set going bad.
His arms lay next to him like stumps that didn’t belong to him. He shifted his gaze to stare at one of his hands, a numb claw lightly curled next to his leg. He flexed his fingers. He felt the sensation in his mind – of his fingers curling over into a fist. But he didn’t see the fingers actually move. He clenched again. And again, he felt his hand forming into a fist but the fingers still lay idle, not even twitching.
His chest ached and a sweat broke out on his forehead as he started to pant and panic shot through him like a lightning bolt. He looked up at his mother, who could only look back with worried eyes that had no answers beyond the comfort of a mother for her child.
A figure dressed in white drifted into the room like a ghost floating in from the darkness. A voice rumbled from that darkness, official but just as helpless as his mother’s.
“You’re awake. Good. How are you feeling?”
I can’t – The gurgle spilled out of his throat and tumbled across the blanket pulled up over his body. Kyle cleared his throat and tried again. A hoarse whisper formed words that he could finally understand. “I can’t move my hands.”
The doctor glanced at his mother, pursed his lips and nodded. He fished something out of his pocket – a thin stick with a small metal spiked wheel. He ran the wheel along Kyle’s hand. Kyle stared on blankly at the empty numbness of the thing attached to end of his arm.
“Can you feel that?” the doctor asked. Kyle just shook his head. The doctor took a short breath, eyeing Kyle’s mother again as he pulled the blanket and sheet down from Kyle’s chest.
Kyle sucked in a gasp as he stared at the limp and twisted things attached to his body that used to be his legs. His eyes welled up when the doctor pulled the coverings back the rest of the way to reveal gnarled appendages that used to be his feet. The doctor ran the wheel along the base of one of them and looked back at Kyle. “Do you feel that?”
Kyle closed his eyes and shook his head. He let out a strained groan as a tear splashed onto his cheek. The doctor stepped back and said, “We’ll check again later.” He placed his hand on his mother’s shoulder and then looked at Kyle with eyes that betrayed what Kyle already knew. Doctors were obliged to let the tincture of time run its course just to make sure there was nothing else they could do. But, looking into the man’s eyes, Kyle knew they were both waiting for a miracle. And all that was left was the torture of waiting for it because they both knew it would never come.
The doctor floated away and his mother eased closer and looked down at him as she brushed his hair back with her hand.
Then, she leaned forward and kissed him on the forehead. Just as her lips touched him, the unstoppable soothing of a mother’s kiss washed through him just before the memories came rushing back.
He was falling through a blur of green and he could smell the sharp scent of pine pitch oozing out from the bark as it scraped his skin. Then he felt the hot wash of air pushing down on him as the dull whop-whop of rotors overhead pushed through the dark. Slowly, the image of the helicopter chopping the air above him coalesced as a man on a wire floated down to him and hopped onto the ground. The world lurched as the man cradled his limp body and set it in a steel basket. Then he was up, floating through the air and the sound of the rotors whopping through the air made his ears hurt.
The scent of the pine came back to him and Kyle felt a vague sense of elation welling up inside him. The pungent oily smell wafted through his mind and the gravelly croak of a laugh filled his throat. Of course!
Because the universe was full of unexplained things that were real because they had to be, even if the minds of men couldn’t wrestle them to the ground and force them to fit into the models of reality they had constructed to grope through the darkness. Some things just were. And now, hope was one of them.
His mother pulled back, a frightened smile on her face. “What’s so funny?” she asked.
“Nothing,” Kyle said, his voice still a haggard croak. He was still weak and he knew he didn’t have enough strength to say it all, but he needed her now. He needed her to bring it to him. He needed the miracle he knew it held inside.
“Cash box,” he said. “On my desk. Combination one five zero.” He had to stop and take several wet breaths that rasped through his throat. “Key for closet. Box inside. Bring it to me.”
His mother knit her brow, and he could see she thought he was delirious. “Bring it,” he said. “Bring it to me. Go. Now. Bring it to me. Bring it to me. Bring it.”
“Okay,” his mother said, stroking his cheek. “I’ll go look.”
Kyle nodded and let the tears drip down from his eyes, smiling after his mother as she turned and floated into the darkness to fetch the wondrous wooden box that would save him.
Kyle woke up when he felt the box enter his room. It called out to him in its way and roused him from the deepest sleep he had ever known, filled with dreams of orange flames and crackling radios and the tonnage of weight pressing him down as he pulled his jet into a tight turn to slide in behind his foe. It was just as he was starting to hear the tone of a lock-on that the box stirred him into consciousness.
He heard the sharp clip of his mother’s shoes on the floor as she carried it to him. He kept his eyes closed, savoring the anticipation of the miracle that awaited.
His mother laid the box gently next to him and said, “Here it is sweetie. Is this what you wanted?” She sounded like somebody who had brought an old teddy bear or a beloved blanket from his youth. What he didn’t hear in her voice was the wonder at what the box could do – it’s curious warmth, the scent of the woods from which it came or the hypnotic whirl of its moving pictures.
He still couldn’t move his hands, so he wouldn’t be able to reach out and touch it. His eyes still closed, he said, “Hold it up to my face so I can feel it.”
“Alright.” Her voice was indulgent, patient with things that she wouldn’t do except that he lay crippled in a hospital bed.
He felt the rough texture of the wood touch his face. But he did not feel the curious warmth that had always ebbed through his fingertips. He turned his nose towards the box and inhaled. It smelled like wood, but the scent of burning pine was gone.
His eyes were still closed and spikes of panic started to bristle inside his chest. “Let me see it,” he said and she held it in front of him as he opened his eyes.
On the top was a picture of a cobalt blue sky with boiling clouds and ragged black puffs of smoke hanging in the air. The picture was perfectly still, a single frame of time caught and painted across its surface in a single pristine moment. He stared at the picture, blinked and closed his eyes. But when he opened them, it was still there, exactly the same. Nothing moved.
“The side,” he croaked. She turned the box. There, a Nieuport hung upside down, ragged bolts of orange lashing out from its guns and streaking towards the tail of an Albatross as it banked sharply away from their path.
Kyle’s lip quivered as he stared at the pilot in the Nieuport, unable to make out the face. It was just the dark silhouette of a warrior intent on killing his foe, before the same was done to him.
“The end,” he said, a weeping shudder lacing his voice.
She turned the box again.
There, his leather helmet perched on his head and the fur puffing out from the collar of his teddy bear suit, the man from the wheelchair sat in the cockpit of his Nieuport. His eyes shimmered with the knowing stare of a warrior searching the skies for bandits, straining to find his foe and pursue him in the deadly joust of the man-to-man fight that would end in fire and blood and another day’s survival earned by grasping it from the clutches of death hanging just in front of his face. And just beneath them, a broad grin stretched wide and reached out into the world as if to say, Why yes, I’m a fighter pilot.
copyright 2017 Michael J Lawrence