Wilt walked through the glass door at some coffee shop on the outskirts of nowhere in the middle of the night. The sleepy farmers slumped in the booths and truck drivers perched along the old white Formica counter didn’t even notice. It was one of the few places in the world where his lumbering frame didn’t fill up the room. I think he was surprised that nobody paid any attention to the grand entrance of Lieutenant Commander Wilt Mason, Naval Aviator. I had to chuckle a little bit at that. The imposition of modesty seemed to make him sulk just a little bit – the sort of thing that only a brother would notice.
“Carl!” he boomed. He said it just loud enough for the tired waitress in a ridiculous pink skirt to hear. She tried to look like she didn’t notice, but the eyes gave her away. Wilt stuck out his hand like a lance as he marched up to the booth. I stood up, knocked his hand aside and force him to submit to a hug.
“Six years, dude,” I said. He grunted in protest but managed to clap me hard enough on the back to knock the wind out of me. I coughed and then we sat down across from each other. Pink Skirt rushed over with a greasy plastic menu and a coffee pot. Wilt whipped the cup in front of her and started to ask her about the cream when she reached into the front pocket of her apron and spilled a dozen of those little creamer vials on the table. Wilt winked. There were still a few things we shared; lots of cream for our coffee was one of them.
“Give me a minute, darlin’,” Wilt said. I had to shake my head. She didn’t stand a chance. Not that she was expecting to resist much. With me, it had been a bored smile and a conscious effort not to roll her eyes. With Wilt, well, it was different. He was just that way.
We both peeled back the paper on creamer vials and dumped them into our coffee cups. As we both stirred, I asked, “You’ve heard?”
Wilt didn’t seem to notice at first. He finished stirring his coffee and placed the spoon neatly on a paper napkin, dead center. “Yeah, I heard,” he said. We both sat in silence for a bit and then he asked, “How’s Mom?”
“You know how she is,” I said. “Tough Mama bear to the crowds.”
“Yeah, can’t knock Mama down,” Wilt said, beaming.
“But I think she cries at night,” I added. “You’ll need to keep an eye on her.”
“I know.” Wilt always knew how to do that. I never understood Mama all that well. Wilt and her, they were like peas in a pod. Both of them were gruff and tough and carried Mensa cards. The world had best just step aside when they came by. The only big difference was Wilt had actual blood on his hands. He’d tell you about if you bought him enough beer. You didn’t want to hear it more than once, though. Trust me. You’ll see.
It was different with Dad. He was my buddy from day one, even during those years where everybody thought we’d somehow forgotten all about that. Some things can’t be taken away, even if you try.
“I’ll stop by tomorrow,” Wilt said. “Just to make sure she’s OK.”
“And what about Dad?” I asked.
Wilt leaned back and narrowed his eyes, trying to stare me down. It usually worked, but not this time. I just waited and drank some more coffee.
“She’ll want me to go.”
“You gonna’ say anything?” I asked.
That might have been the end of it, but I had come for a fight. For once, I was going to swing first.
The first thing was a cookie. The Cookie, really. Somewhere, they make oatmeal cookies and there should be a shrine or something. Cookies can be powerful. Cookies can be magical, especially in a place called Blanca Peak. That’s a real mountain, not that nonsense they talk about in the Midwest where the elevation rises just enough to make you have to step on the gas to keep up your speed. It’s a real mountain, 14,351 thousand feet high. Not very many people make it all the way to the top. I did. I was 5 years old.
Up ahead, about 100 feet, he slogs his way up slope. We’re above timberline now. You can tell, because it’s just rocks and dirt and maybe some scrub. He stops for a minute and puts his hand on one of the rocks and then moves on. It’s just far enough away to be a hard walk. But it’s close enough that I can see the cookie. My legs have been hurting for a while, but they still work. It’s harder to breathe, too, but there’s still air. And it’s enough to get to the only oatmeal cookie within 100 miles. My foot slips and I grunt, not so much because it hurts, but because something is getting between me and that cookie. One foot in front of the other. Again. Don’t stop.
What’s amazing about it all is that once I get to the cookie, it really wasn’t that far after all. I munch it down until there are only crumbs left. Up ahead, his hand goes down again. It’s just far enough away to be a hard walk. But now there is a new cookie, the only one within 100 miles. It’s simple, really. If you have enough cookies, you can get a 5 year old boy to the top of a mountain without saying a word. He can do it all by himself and then he knows, for the rest of his life, that he can climb mountains. It’s easy enough, really. They’re all the same after that: you just put one foot in front of the other and wonder why everybody thinks it’s so hard to do hard things. All you need are oatmeal cookies.
Wilt had a smirk on his face, like he knew what I was thinking. As I caught myself staring at the wall behind him, he started to roll his eyes. It didn’t matter. The thought had already escaped.
“What is it this time?” he asked. He took a slow sip from his cup to hide the smirk on his face.
“Blanca,” I said.
He scoffed and said, “Five, right?”
“Was that before or after that night out with his buddies?” Wilt leaned forward because he was going to remind me of Something Important. He was going to remind me to be realistic about what I remember.
“When I was five,” he said, “I sat in the back seat of a car at night while he and his buddy were in the front laughing their ass off. We stopped at somebody’s house and they got out. I asked where they were going and he said, ‘to drink alcohol.’ I had no idea what that meant.” Wilt cocked his head to the side and studied me for a moment, to make sure I was actually listening. “Are you getting this?” he asked. “Five!” He set his cup down a little too hard and Pink Skirt looked over at us. I waved her off and he started up again. “I don’t know how long it was after that, but they came back out, got in and started the car. We lurched forward half a block and then we just sat at this stop sign while they laughed their asses off some more. It took me a long time to figure out what was so funny about a stop sign. Then we weave through the intersection.” Wilt narrowed his eyes. He was looking somewhere else now, and I didn’t know if he was still trying to explain something or if he was still just mad. Guy never did know how to let things go. “If that happened today -“
“Yeah, I know,” I said, interrupting him. “He’d be in prison for child endangerment. Seriously, whatever.”
“It was reckless,” Walt hissed.
“Oh, I’m sorry, but aren’t you in the Navy or something?” Like I said, I was determined to swing back this time.
“That’s different,” Wilt said, leaning back against the booth. He tried to stare me down like I was some enlisted in his squadron who had pushed his jet over the side or something. I stared right back at him.
“It’s different when you’re about to deploy to the Rock and drop heavy iron on the bad guys.”
“Yeah, kind of like being the front line in the Cuban Missile Crisis.”
“God dammit, that’s different,” Wilt yelled. He slammed his cup down hard enough that some of the coffee splashed out on the table. “You’re always making excuses.” I glanced over at Pink Skirt. She was whispering something to a cop sitting at the counter. The guy looked at me and raised his eyebrows.
“No problem, here,” I said.
“Keep it that way,” the cop said.
The second thing was the paper airplanes. My father did what most of you sitting here today would love to do, and quit his job on principle. Then he started driving a truck for a living. I wasn’t old enough to know what it meant for Dad to be gone for days and weeks at a time. He tried to explain it to me one night, but I didn’t get it. Somehow, I thought he was just telling a story. When I woke up the next morning, he was gone. Something in the back of my mind started to come through, something that understood. I fought it back for a minute because I didn’t want to see that monster. He would be back later. That’s all.
Then I opened the bathroom door. Paper airplanes whirled into the air as I pushed the door open. I don’t remember how many there were, but it seemed like a hundred. And then I understood. My little heart broke and the tears came. If a man says goodbye and leaves his 6 year old son behind, it’s a sad thing. But when he takes the time to make 100 paper airplanes the night before, he’s making a promise. I sensed that somehow, that these airplanes were more than just something to remind me of him. They were a part of him he left behind to keep me company while he was gone. That’s what broke my heart. Just that he would think of me that way, and leave part of him to watch over me and keep me company while he was gone.
You can’t spend a million dollars or dedicate a lifetime to the pursuit of anything that approaches that kind of nobility. It’s not what he did. It’s what he understood. It was one of those moments that comes once and there’s only one way to do it right before it’s swept away by the anonymity of time. You can’t even see the moment unless it’s done right. Otherwise, it’s just a spasm of emptiness that lodges itself somewhere in the past to become a tired memory of something not quite right.
Or it becomes a cherished memory of a Dad who got it right. If you know how to make paper airplanes.
It took a while for Wilt to settle down. I never did understand why he held on to the little things that didn’t matter. Maybe he was just the kind of guy who was always looking for a fight. But he wasn’t done with me yet. I was already getting tired. I wasn’t good at holding my own against him and I certainly wasn’t used to fighting back. The killer of men sat across from me and fumed.
“I’m just trying to help you, kid,” he said. “Sooner or later, you’ll be disappointed, too. The illusion hurts like hell when you finally see it.”
“What if I don’t want to see it?” I asked. “I mean, did you ever let him even try? It didn’t seem too hard for him.”
Wilt let out a deep sigh and shook his head. “Like when he beat my ass for getting passing grades?”
“You never were the academic.”
“Yeah, but I’m not stupid. Quit trying to say I am.”
“Not,” I said. “Just agreeing with you.”
“OK, so what possible good is there behind a man who will beat his kid’s bare ass with a leather belt for getting passing grades?”
“Not one damn bit,” I said.
“And you don’t think I should hold him to that?”
“Can if you want.” I thought carefully about what I wanted to say next. It was brutal. It cut deep. I knew it would cause an actual wound, something he wasn’t used to, and I didn’t know where that would take us. He started breathing faster and then it started to happen. There was just the hint of that halo that creeps in between the real world and what we try so hard to hold on to. I lunged out with my hand and clutched at his wrist. “Not yet,” I said. “Hold on.”
And here’s the third thing. I have to admit, I didn’t always enjoy the tedious toiling that Dad got himself wrapped up in. But he took me along with him, so I learned to try my best. Honestly, I’m not sure I did a very good job. He made paper airplanes. I complained about the heat. Or the cold. Or the boredom.
But, one day, after cans full of screws that we never did figure out what to do with, crawling down the cables to attach a wire to the beacon and watching the paint crinkle up, we were done with it. Or at least enough to fly.
Again, he had taught me things that boys my age weren’t supposed to know. In this case, it was how to take off and fly a Luscombe 8A. Not only is that an airplane, but it’s a taildragger. There are plenty of guys sitting in the front of a 738 twisting the speed knob on the MCP and punching the LNAV button that have never flown a taildragger.
It was a soft summer afternoon and the sun was running away from us, but there was enough left to take her up for a test flight. I sat in the right seat and held down the brake pedals with my heels while he swung the prop through. He did it just like you see in the movies, too, swinging his leg as he pulled the blade around. All that was missing was the scarf. It chuffed once or twice and then kicked in with the fluttering purr of a whopping 85 horse power. He hopped in and away we went.
As we were taxiing out to the runway, the stick locked up. We could budge it just an inch or two, but it was not nearly enough to control the airplane. Funny thing is, he had always been an excruciatingly careful pilot. To this day, I have never met somebody who was as in tune with the perils of the air – and had a standing relationship with the powers of the universe that govern it – like he did. Nobody got it quite the way he did. And yet, that day, we jiggled and yanked on the stick until it loosened up and started working again. We shrugged and continued out to the runway.
We rolled down the runway, right into the setting sun, pulled her off the ground and shot the pattern. Everything worked like a charm. The new beacon flashed. The cockpit light lit. The crinkle paint crinkled. And the stick worked.
Then, we landed. Right after we touched down, the stick locked up again. We looked at each other and both our hearts stopped cold. We didn’t say a word as we taxied in. After we shut her down, Dad pulled the floor panel and right there, in the cable, was a dogbone wrench that had gotten tangled up and locked the stick. I fetched out the wrench and then he quietly replaced the panel and we just kind of smiled. We had shared something most of us don’t really get a chance to.
We had just cheated death together.
“You little prick!” Wilt screamed. He stood up and reached across the table. I tried to squirm away, but there was nowhere to go and he grabbed my shirt with both hands and then hit me upside the head so hard I heard my ears rang. “That’s what he did to me!” Wilt’s eyes flared with rage now. There was nothing I could do to stop him. I could feel the tears welling up and I focused everything I had on making sure he would never see them. “You and your goddamn feelings. You wear them on your shirtsleeve like a girl’s bracelet.”
Something ebbed away at that moment. All I could do was smile because I knew he would never understand. “That’s a good thing for a writer,” I said. Then, I saw something I never thought was possible. Wilt started to cry.
“I had a goddamn headache. That’s it! Just a headache. And he got so pissed off about it, he knocked me to the ground with one hand.” Wilt shoved me back and then collapsed back into his side of the booth.
“Alright,” the cop said. He started to get up, but then Pink Skirt whisked over to our table. She leaned in close and asked, “Are you OK, sweetie?”
I looked at her for just a second and said, “Yeah, Wilt here just -” She raised her eyebrows. I looked back at Wilt. But all I saw was the cracked red upholstery of the booth staring back at me. I closed my eyes and felt the tears come at last. I couldn’t hold them back again. It was the same conversation that we had never had. But this was the last time.
You see, Wilt was a Naval Aviator and a Lieutenant Commander. His last assignment was with some F-18 squadron on some boat that doesn’t really matter anymore. And he really was sent to the Rock. Day in and day out, he and the boys brought hell down on a bunch of Taliban ragheads trying to kill the guys at Restrepo. There was something vaguely noble about all that, but there wasn’t anything noble about the day he rolled in hot over the Korengal Valley and forgot the first rule of being a fighter pilot: don’t fly into the ground. I remember the day they handed Mama the flag. She was proud and I didn’t have the heart to tell her that he died of his own carelessness. Sometimes the truth is too cruel to be meaningful. She cried that night and let it go somehow, like a good Mama does.
I looked back down at the table. My cup was half empty and coffee was spilled over the speckled cheap Formica. Some of the drops had splashed onto the package of oatmeal cookies I had brought with me. The paper airplane was unscathed, though. The dogbone wrench sat motionless next to the cup.
The cop was standing behind her and I could tell it was time to go. “Sorry,” I whispered.
“It’s OK, sweetie,” she said. “Can I call somebody this time?” The cop cleared his throat. Pink Skirt looked over her shoulder and said, “Get back to your dinner, Floyd. It’s OK.” I peeked around her and watched him turn away with a grunt. He sat back down, looked back at me one more time and then picked up his fork and shook his head. “Sweetie?” she asked me again.
“Who?” I croaked. There wasn’t anybody to call, so I gathered up my cookies and airplane and wrench and hustled out the glass door and into the night.
The diner was a lonely place and the only artificial light for as far as the eye could see. A cold desert wind kicked up and swept across my face. It’s one of those soothing things that you can’t really understand unless you’ve been there. I pulled up my collar and walked down the road far enough for the diner to fade into a blurring shimmer of yellow light. It seemed like as good a place as any.
I crossed to the other side of the highway where I saw a break in the endless barbed wire fence that ran along the road. I took a few steps across the sandy ground, leaving footsteps as if I were on the moon, knelt down and then started digging. Deep enough that everything would stay covered, but not so deep that they wouldn’t someday be swept away by the same wind whipping at my face. I think he would have liked it that way. I placed the cookies and the airplane and the wrench in the ground and smoothed the dirt over them. I looked around for a moment to mark the spot in my mind. Just a few steps in from the broken wire, a couple of bushes over from some weeds. That was enough when you grew up in the desert.
Then I stood up and pulled the pages from my jacket. What I wanted to tell them was that these things, a mountain, paper airplanes and the adventure of a dogbone wrench were just some of the ways that a man raises his son to face the world without fear or apology. He was, as he would say, from before the non-smoking era. He was the same kind of man that stormed the beach in Normandy and froze at Valley Forge way back when. These are the men that understand what it means to be strong, to live out from under the shadows and with your face turned to the wind.
I wanted to tell them all these things I had written down, but I didn’t know who they were. Who had known him? Who had last talked to him? Who had last seen him? I didn’t know any of that. I didn’t even know where he was now. I just knew that he was gone.
He had once told me that he knew he would live forever as stardust. I liked that, because that’s all I really had now. And so I threw the pages into the sky as high as I could and watched them flutter away under the starlight like wild birds.
And the last thing was this. It was one of the darkest places in the world – a place where stars with names that most had forgotten could still be seen. Stars like Thuban and Mirfak, Dubhe and Eltanin. Places he could point to with his eyes closed.
I looked into the deep past of them all and realized he had been there the whole time. Maybe he would see me one day and wink at me from some place forgotten and never known; some place new and bold; some place ancient and forever standing; somewhere past the frontier of the impossible.
Some place where they still made men like my Dad.
copyright 2016 Michael J Lawrence