This little story popped into my head immediately for some reason, but because I’m kind of an idiot, I didn’t bother writing or posting it until the very last minute. It’s kind of a thing I do that I hate. Anyhoodle, my challenge this week fell to Miranda, whose excellent response can be found here.
As far back as he could remember, flying had been his obsession, the kind of thing that made him wonder later in life whether a previous life had been spent as a bird. As a teenager, he’d taken the time and substantial effort to obtain his pilot’s license at the little airport in his town, being taught the ins and outs of flight by old men who’d spent most of their lives crop dusting and flying low enough to give cattle angina. He loved how cocky the pilots were. He loved the freedom. At night, he would recite the poem ‘High Flight’ like a psalm and dream about barrel rolls.
His singular goal was to fly the most powerful aircraft available, which meant that joining the military was inevitable. He became the academic and athletic dynamo that one has to be in order to gain acceptance into the Air Force Academy, and once there, immersed himself further into all things aeronautical. In his senior year, he obtained a coveted slot in pilot training and in a moment of quiet reflection looked back on a life spent in blind devotion to this one purpose. For a split second he considered how many other life experiences he’d foregone in this pursuit, but quickly brushed the thought aside. Now was not the time to reflect on lost opportunities, especially when the only one that had ever counted was staring him in the face.
He finished at the top of his pilot training class and with his choice of airframes, made the obvious decision to go the fighter route and fly as fast as he possibly could. As the years rolled by and the assignments and deployments stacked up, flying remained important, but often approached tedium. The adrenaline that used to monopolize his bloodstream had been tempered by time and experience. Eventually he married and with the arrival of a daughter, priorities began to change rather quickly. Deployments became less an adventure and more gut-wrenching, especially with the loss of a squadron mate due to ‘pilot error’ ftill fresh in his mind. ‘The man had a family,’ was now his inner monologue’s common refrain. The locket that he carried in his flight suit everyday with his girls’ pictures reminded him what now made his life matter.
And so it was that he decided to leave his first love and settle into civilian life doing whatever it was that non-pilots did in places where parachutes are unnecessary and death is a less likely potential companion. It was the right decision, the responsible thing to do. His wife thanked him and his daughter beamed with the knowledge that daddy would no longer be leaving for months at a time. Life found its pattern and he began to jog in large circles, literally in the morning and figuratively at work.
He learned about the air show from his daughter, who begged him to take her. The ambivalence that he felt toward going surprised him. There was something uncomfortable about the thought of being that close to something he’d loved so much for so long. Despite this, fathers have no hope of fending off their daughters’ charm and on a clear Saturday morning, they made their way to the air base that had been opened to the public specifically for the show. He drove past the guard and for the first time since leaving the military, did not receive a salute. It was an insignificant thing and not unexpected, but still jarring in a way. They parked and walked among the static displays, his daughter peppering him with questions and he growing more and comfortable in not only his ability to answer them, but in the joy he took in his daughter’s interest in something that had meant so much to him.
The part of the schedule that he’d silently dreaded approached, as he could hear the familiar spooling of the engines in the distance. He lifted her upon his shoulders and moved to a point where they could see the far end of the runway. A single aircraft was taxiing to and when it took its place at the ready position, his breath caught in his chest as the engines began to whine louder and louder, the power steadily increasing while the brakes kept the airframe stationary. In that moment, all that he’d given up and the thing that he’d buried the day that he’d stopped flying crawled to the surface. As the pilot released the brakes, the power of the engines propelled man and steel down the runway, wheels lifting off, flying parallel to the Earth for the length of two football fields, then suddenly vertical. And as the pilot climbed into the clear blue sky, he heard his daughter excitedly yell, ‘WOW!’, over the wall of sound and with tears in his eyes, he couldn’t have agreed more.
Sir @ June 16, 2011