He could hear their voices before he could see their faces. “Sir, if you can hear me, blink your eyes twice!” He wanted to blink, but he couldn’t tell if eyes were open or closed. “SIR, CAN YOU HEAR ME!” Slowly, they came into focus. Dark blue uniforms with latex gloves passing a penlight in front of his eyes. They were leaning over him, wearing headsets with thin boom microphones plastered up against their lips, just like the kind he would wear. A high-pitched whistling sound, like a kettle on the boil. The rhythmic thwack-thwack-thwack that was just outside their little room. Helicopter?
“Please Dad, wake up!”
He cracked open an eyelid to see his daughter looking down at him, her eyes wide and pleading. He shut his eyes again. He hated that look. It broke his heart.
“Dad, c’mon! Please! I can’t be late again.” She pushed and pulled on his shoulder. “You don’t want them to call Mom, do you?” That registered with him. “Are you OK?” He blinked his eyes open several times, and he realized that he had been breathing hard. As the dreamscape evaporated, he relaxed his grip on the blanket that was clutched to his chest and raked a groggy hand across his face.
“It’s OK, honey. I’m awake.” He looked at the clock-radio, rolled to the edge of the bed and swung his legs to the floor, feeling a small pool of sweat that had collected in the hollow of his chest roll down his belly.
“Well, I’m ready to go, so I’ll be out in the car. Please Dad, hurry up. I can’t be late. Not today.”
“OK, right behind you.”
A few days ago, his wife came home mid-day from a house-showing and found him asleep on the couch with the TV blaring and a half-dozen Pop-Tart wrappers scattered about him. The sudden silence of the TV being turned off woke him.
“Jim . . . “, she slowly shook her head, “. . . Jim . . . this isn’t you. This cannot be you! You hear me?” She stood in front of him with one hand on her hip, the other holding the greasy remote. “I want to help, but I don’t know what to do. Why won’t you . . .”, she looked up, searching for the right word, “. . . re-engage? Isn’t that the word you would use?” Yep, that’s the one. He saw his lumpy reflection in the darkened TV screen. So different from the smart business suit that towered over him. He smelled her perfume. Professional, right down to the proper scent.
His response was well-practiced. For a man who didn’t drink, he sounded like an alcoholic waking up after a three-day bender.
“Yeah, I know honey. You’re right, you’re right. I gotta do something.” Do anything, you schmuck! It was getting old for both of them . . .
The drive to school with his daughter, Samantha, was quiet, their breath cloudy in the chilly morning air. Her head was bowed into her phone as she texted like a court stenographer. Christmas music leaked out around her earbuds. He noticed that under her coat she was wearing a cranberry-colored velvet dress with white faux-fur around the wrists and neck. His face reddened as he realized that today was the big Christmas concert. He had forgotten something important. Again.
He tapped her knee to get her attention and pointed to her ear. She pulled out one of her earbuds.
“Are you nervous at all?” He seemed to recall that she had a solo verse in one of the songs. The First Noel, wasn’t it?
“No, not really.” She looked back to her phone.
“Do you want to practice with me to, you know, get the pipes loosened up?”
“No Dad, I’m good.” He could hear the tik-tik-tik of the letters or the emojis or whatever and wondered what she was texting, but knew better than to ask.
“Well, I know you’re gonna be great today, honey. You look absolutely beautiful, by the way.”
A brief smile. “Thanks, Dad.” Tik-tik-tik-tik.
They drove on in silence.
He used to be the cool Dad. A man of stature and respect. He liked what he saw in the mirror when he put his uniform on in the morning. The Captain. Crisp. In charge. But not now. Not since the accident. Not since the life he had worked so hard for had been so cruelly taken from him. Now he was just a guy on disability who lounged all day in crumb-encrusted sweatpants and whose only family responsibility was to drive his daughter to school in the morning, and he couldn’t even get that right.
“You know, honey, if 'The First Noel' is one of the later songs, I could go home and change and still make it back in time for your solo”. He was unshaven and had been wearing the same clothes for three days. Food-stained sweatpants, a flannel shirt not buttoned correctly, a fraying ballcap that had ‘Lockheed Viking’ stitched across the front of it.
“No, don’t worry about it, Dad. It’s no big deal. By the way, my solo is in 'O Holy Night'.” He caught a quick eye roll. Tik-tik-tik-tik.
His hands felt heavy on the steering wheel. All he could do was concentrate on the road ahead while shame roared in his ears. When they got to school, she bolted from the car like she was escaping a kidnapping. “Good luck, my sweet girl!” he called out, but all he got in response was an indifferent “bye” over her shoulder as she sprinted away. He started to call out “I love you” but stopped when he felt the futility of the gesture. She was gone.
But as much as it frustrated his wife and confused his daughter, he just couldn’t “get going”. Truth was, he didn’t want to “get going.” The wallowing was just too easy, like a warm blanket he couldn’t toss off on a chilly December morning. The insurance settlement was huge. He still had his Navy and airline retirement. Financially, their future was secure. His wife continued to work as a real-estate agent because she enjoyed it (“Of course I’ll keep working!”), which gave him all the home-alone time he needed to splash around in his pool of misery. His despair was starting to morph into anger when he was alone. I don’t care if he fell asleep because he was working two jobs. When he rear-ended me at that light, he totaled his F-150 but walked away from it. I didn’t. So sorry if I can’t just “get going”. Screw all of you. You don’t know what I’ve lost . . .
After a swing through Starbucks, he drove up to the local airpark and sat at a picnic table in the little viewing lot that overlooked the runway, watching small airplanes takeoff and land. Nothing like the finely-tuned pirouette of airliners and baggage carts and provisioning trucks that he was used to. This little community airpark was just a single runway where sprouts of grass and dandelions would poke up through cracks in the edge of the asphalt, with a few rows of corrugated metal hangars long overdue for repainting. It was very much like a small back-water marina. But it was where he could sit and reconnect to that which he loved. He watched them with his practiced eye and a small pair of binoculars he kept in the glove-box. He could feel what they were feeling as they corrected for wind and turbulence. His shoulders leaned left and right to mimic the control yoke inputs. In his mind he could hear the radio calls, knowing exactly what the tower controller and pilot would be saying to each other. He felt the smooth black knob of the throttle in the pilot’s hand, gently moving in and out, keeping the airspeed steady as the airplane hushed down on final approach. A slight smile started to crease his face. Then it flattened, and he pulled down his binoculars.
Christ, why do I even come here?
“Look at that windsock!”
The voice behind jolted him out his thoughts, and he turned to the source. They were a couple of young college students, but they used the term “windsock” like they knew what a windsock actually was, and that told him they were probably student pilots.
“I’ll bet Travis has at least a 10-knot crosswind component already! Dude! Check out his crab angle!” Student pilots all the way.
He joined their gaze and watched the Cessna that had just turned final, about a half mile out from the end of the runway. Instead of looking at the airplane head-on, it was coming at them with a sideways cock to it, “crabbing” into the crosswind that was blowing across the runway. As the plane floated over the end of the runway, it caught a hard gust just as it settled into its flare to land. The right wing lifted up, pushing the airplane off to the left and towards the three spectators. The engine roared as it went to full power and the plane climbed drunkenly away from the runway, crossing directly over the picnic table. The three instinctively ducked.
“Holy shit!” The two young pilots said simultaneously to each other and cackled hysterically as the Cessna continued its climb. There would be no second attempt. Their friend would find another airfield to practice his landings, someplace where the wind was more down the runway instead of across it. You know what they say about flying, he thought to himself, takeoffs are optional, but landings are mandatory.
“Holeeeee shit” the one said again.
“I know I know! I thought he was gonna plow right into us!” said the other.
“His crosswind technique might need some practice,” the Captain said as he brought the binoculars back up to his face, “but he’s a damn fine pilot as far as I’m concerned. Wanna know why?”
“Uhhhhh, excuse me?” The lead flight critic looked at the stranger.
“That your friend up there?” They nodded. “Smart pilot. Wanna know why?” The field glasses continued to track the receding Cessna.
They exchanged glances and shrugged. “Yeah . . . sure, I guess so.”
The binoculars came down. “Sometimes the hardest decision in flying is deciding not to land at your intended destination, but to go someplace else where the winds and the weather are better for a safe landing.” He was desperate to pass on this most important lesson. “His aborted landing was the right decision. Your friend has the makings of a good pilot.”
The one student turned towards him. “Are you a pilot too?”
“Yes, I am.” The glasses went back up to his face, even though the Cessna was now too distant to be found. Or I used to be.
He stood up and grimaced as he turned his neck to face the two. The fused vertebrae were still tender six months after the accident. “I’m Captain Jim Stanley, United Sates Navy retired, and Trans Global Airlines retired. Nice to meet you two.” He held out a stained flannel hand.
The shop talk was polite, but brief. The students didn’t have enough experience to connect with him, and they could not relate to his balked “remember when” stories. They pulled out without so much as a glance his way. Not even a parting wave shared between those supposedly of the same cloth.
He stood alone, lips pursed, the sting of muted humiliation echoing in the silence of the now-deserted airport. Only the breeze and the occasional flap of the windsock. His body sagged as he walked back to his car with heavy shuffling steps. He climbed in and looked out at the little airport. His last refuge was gone. His face in the rearview mirror seemed to talk back in agreement. It was puffy and grizzled with several days of whiskers. His eyes were red and swollen, his chin and jawline receding with the flesh that was filling in around them. Grey, stringy hair covered the tops of his ears, a length he would never allow when he was a professional. He no longer recognized himself. He no longer was himself. His body was just a vessel to carry around these memories of what was; just the physical pieces that somehow continued breathing, that took up space, that seemingly had no purpose except to disappoint his family.
Before, he had tried hard at everything. To him, it was the trying that was important. He strove for perfection in everything he did, and his efforts had always been rewarded. A fantastic career, a beautiful wife and child, a house in the country, great friends. The picture was perfect. What do you do when all your dreams have come true? He remembered thinking that a few weeks before the accident. God, I wish I had never thought that . . .
The passenger door flung open, and his wife tilted her head down into the opening.
“Nice day to watch airplanes, isn’t it? Mind if I join ya?” Before he could answer, she plopped into the bucket seat next to him and slammed the door shut. She had a brown paper Starbucks bag in her lap. “I’ve got a late breakfast or an early lunch. Whad’ya want?”
“Breakfast, I guess.”
“Good. Here’s a breakfast sandwich and a smoothie. Sure is a pretty day.” She looked out through the windshield.
He bit into the still-warm sandwich and chewed slowly while he watched his wife draw on her smoothie. Her thoughts remained hidden behind her oversized sunglasses.
“How’d you know I was here?”
“Oh, I stopped off to get a salad for lunch, and my friend Jeannie was working behind the counter. She said you had come through earlier. I figured you might be up here.”
His eyes felt heavy, like they might fall out of their sockets if he looked down. “I missed Samantha’s concert today.”
“I know. I texted her to wish her good luck and she told me.”
“I’m sorry, Kate.”
The I’m sorry hung there, like a child’s soap bubble, pushed delicately on the breeze by the sigh and the exhale of I know.
Kate pushed her sunglasses up on top of her head. “You know, I remember when we used to do this. We’d bring a blanket and bucket of chicken and a bottle of some cheap wine with a really cool label and watch airplanes takeoff and land at the Visalia airport. ‘Member that?”
He stopped chewing. It was a million years ago. Before the Navy and the war and the airlines and the career ladder and deployments and Samantha and mortgages. One car. A mountain of student debt. A bucket of chicken that they would stretch into a week’s worth of meals. The cheap bottle of wine gave them permission to feel sophisticated and relaxed. They had so little.
She puffed out her cheeks in a long exhale. “Boy, what I wouldn’t do to go back then.”
He rolled his eyes and shot her a dubious look.
“I’m not kidding,” she continued, “you know what we had back then? A future. We had dreams. We were two people looking out at the world in the same direction. We were together.”
“And what do we have now?”
“We have so much, Jimmy. We do. But I don’t know what it’s built upon. If you can’t see it, then I don’t know if it’s real. You have a past that you are still grieving over. I know that.” She shifted in her seat to face him. “Look at me.”
He raised his eyes to hers, ready to implode.
“I know that. I really do.” She took his hands in hers. He blinked away a tear and frowned deeply to hide the quivering of his chin.
“For the first time in your life, you have no goal, no dream, no vision that lights you up. I know you. You are led by your vision, and it’s what I’ve always loved about you. You see it – and you achieve it. But now, the only thing that you can see is your past, and it’s a direction that you cannot go.”
Intellectually, he knew she was right. He was stuck. Mired. Unable to see any future and unable to let go of an identity that he loved long before he had a wife and child.
“Your daughter is scared. She thought she had lost you once before. You know what she asked me the other day?
A sullen nod no.
“‘Mom, why is Dad so unhappy? My friend Elle lost her older brother in a car accident. Dad’s alive. He should be happy. He didn’t die in his accident.’”
“Why does she think she’s going to lose me again?” His brow wrinkled with the question.
“Because she thinks you love being a pilot more than anything. More than you love her.”
He sat there for a long time after his wife left.
The crosswinds grew stronger as the afternoon wore on. The airplanes came and went. Some landed. Some chose to go elsewhere.
Takeoffs are optional. Landings are mandatory.
He wondered how he would land, and where. Would it be a field of his own choosing, or would this continuing freefall end with the ground suddenly rushing up to meet him just before it all turned black and still?
Landings are mandatory.
His phone buzzed. It was a text from Sam.
“Dad, I know you feel bad about missing my concert today, so I thought this would cheer you up. One of my friends videoed O Holy Night with my solo in it. I hope you like it. I thought it was OK, maybe even pretty good. When I’m singing, I feel like I’m flying, and the song is my wings. There’s lots of ways to fly, Dad. I hope you can learn to fly again real soon. Love you.”
He pressed the play button for the attached video. Tears closed his eyes, and he felt the music wash over him, then lift him up. As the singing continued, the number of the voices fell away until it was just one young voice. One young girl. His girl. Her solo.
A thrill of hope the weary soul rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.