Excerpt from Cool Nation

This is the fifth section from the fourth chapter. All other excerpts are on the sidebar, lower right.

Lives Forming

He had always dreamt of flying, my father, since his earliest days as a miner�s son, climbing the tailing piles that sprouted like small mountains around the mine shafts of Picher. He would climb the great piles and watch as the occasional mail plane, a Curtiss, would pass by on its run from Joplin to Tulsa, unsteady and wavering in the sky. Like many people, he believed it was a better life up there. In his case he was right.
When the war came he tried to enlist in the Army Air Force but they wouldn�t take him; he�d had polio in his left leg as a child, and the muscle was deteriorated and the bone weak. So he worked in a war plant in Kansas City, building B-25s. It was on that Fairfax strip that he learned to fly.
By the time I was four he had his third plane, a Beechcraft Twin Bonanza. It seated seven and was white and red and cruised at 225 and topped out at nearly 300. When he taxied it onto the runway he would come to full stop and push the throttles forward and the engines would throb and the noise would deafen and he�d release the brakes and we�d be screaming down the runway, pressed back in our seats, then like a dream leap free of the world, over the Missouri, over the skyscrapers, and off to wherever we were going. Sometimes it was on business to St. Louis, sometimes just a cruise down to Picher, where he�d buzz the closed mines, and once a year a vacation, to Colorado or Arkansas or maybe even California.
I felt royal with him at the controls, his aviator glasses on, he forever chewing Wrigley’s, and going over maps and gauges and checking and rechecking everything that could be checked. When he flew you never doubted his competence, or his certainty.
In �66 he took us to Padre Island, or at least tried to but we got weathered in at Dallas. So we spent four days in the rain there, driving around looking at the mansions, driving past Daly Plaza to see where the bullets had struck, sampling Texas barbecue to see if it compared to ours.
Every morning Allen and I went with Dad to the airport, where he would get the weather reports and talk with the mechanics and with the men in the tower. Then he�d go into a sheet metal building where they put him in a flight simulator to take refresher courses on instrument flying. These he took to make sure he’d get us home alive, since by the fourth day of unceasing rain we knew we weren�t going to Padre.
When we took off for home that last day the overcast hadn�t changed, and with the rain hitting the windshield he powered us up through the storm and then into the blue as we rose above the clouds.
Three hours later we got to Kansas City, circling the airport not once but many times. As we circled he stayed on the radio with the tower, nodding into the headset and talking that rapid-fire jargon that only pilots use. My mother stared at him the whole time he talked, since only she could hear what was being said. I can still remember the way she looked at him, and the whiteness of her lips, and the tension on her face. Then his hand went down to the floor and grasped a small handle and began cranking it, around and around and around.
That was when Mom got out of her seat, and in her harlequin sunglasses and polka dot dress she came down the aisle, touching each of us, trying to smile, checking our seatbelts. She went back to her seat and belted herself in as if girding for some coming battle, and rigidly waited.
Finally Dad nodded one last time into the headset, banked the plane, and went sweeping down toward the runway. Like tension incarnate my mother waited for us to touch down. At last we did, and roared toward runway�s end, gingerly slowed, then Dad taxied off for the hanger. As he did I noticed Mom was shaking, her hand tight and slender in one of his, he holding it and squeezing it and whispering to her.
Not until I was a man did she tell me about the landing gear.
Somehow in flight the gear electronics had failed, the gear wouldn�t descend, and Dad had had to lower the wheels manually. But without the electronics he had no way of knowing whether the gear had locked, and whether or not they would collapse. Being children we had never noticed the fire engine standing near the end of the runway, or the second one standing to one side. My mother did though, and the sight of these, and the fear of losing us, after having already lost one child and in a sense two others, was nearly more than she could bear. It�s not that she cared a damn about dying, she just didn�t want us to die with her.
No one died though, there was no crash, the fire engines were sent away, and we pulled up before the hanger and watched as the props swung to a stop. My father, you see, was flying. He had always taken us wherever we needed to go, and always brought us back. We never doubted, as children never do, that he always would.

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