Every weekday morning my dad is gone by 6 a.m. to meet his breakfast club. I wonder where he goes, who else is there, what do they talk about? I often ask can I come with, but my dad always says no, it’s private, for men only, not for little girls.
But one Saturday, he asks, “Do you want to go flying with me today? It’ll be a special treat, just you and me.”
Usually my dad spends time with my older sister Lynn, showing her the chemistry set, or making the calculator spell upside-down words like BIBLE and BOOBIES and OH HELL. I stand at my easel, trying hard to be quiet, while my dad and Lynn are laughing. I dip my paintbrush in the purple, make sure there’s gobs of paint on the bristles and fling it at the black construction paper. The paint scatters like raindrops mid air and makes a pretty design like a firework when it thwacks on the page. I repeat this technique with orange, white, yellow and red. When I’m done, I stand back and admire it. It looks a galaxy of stars twinkling in the night sky. My dad tells me I paint like Jackson Pollock. I have no idea who that is, but I’m grateful for any attention he pays to me. He comes to take a closer look. ‘What is that?” he asks.
“It’s the universe,” I tell him, proud of my creation.
“Very nice,” he nods, and then goes back to teaching my sister how to use the calculator.
So when my dad asks me on a private flying date with him, I am thrilled. It’s even better than breakfast club because it’s just us.
My sister is not invited.
* * * *
I’m pretty sure my dad loves his airplanes more than me, maybe more than Lynn, and definitely more than he loves my mom. He spends more time with his planes than any of us, and he carries their pictures in his wallet. He calls them she and Foxtrot and Tango. He doesn’t have any cute ballroom dance nicknames for me or Lynn or my mom, so that pretty much confirms in my mind that the airplanes are getting more love than we are.
I put on my blue-and-white-striped sailor dress with the red anchors on the sleeves, wiggle into my white tights and my black patent leather shoes with buckles. I make faces at my reflection in my shoes. I like that. “Today is Deborah’s special day,” My dad announces. I like that, too.
At the airport, the guard tips his hat to my dad and waves us through the security gate. We park right next to the plane. My dad walks around and touches every part of her, like a mama ape checking her baby for lice. He runs his fingers along her wings, under the tip of her nose. He inspects all her bolts and islets, caresses her belly down to the tail. His big black flight bag that says Jeppesen on the side goes in the back seat. That heavy bag is full of maps in case we get lost.
I climb into the plane, being careful to only step on the black decals that looks like sandpaper on the wing. It is windy. I hold my dress down with one hand and thank god I decided to wear tights today. I plop into the co-pilot seat. This is the first time I have ever gotten to sit in front. My dad hands me a pair of headphones so I can listen in to the control tower.
My dad is busy checking all the gages – fifteen round dials with needles pointing in different directions, a compass, a horizon indicator, an RPM gage, six radios with red LEDs, three pairs of throttles that come in three colors, red, light blue and black. My dad moves the levers up and down, jiggles knobs, resets dials.
“I’m checking that everything works before we take off,” he explains. The steering wheels are square, not round. We each get one! I have a set of pedals too, but my feet don’t reach them yet. I notice the pedals have fancy Bs on them. B is for Beechcraft. The airplane smells like smoke, like my dad. There is a lot of static in the headphones and a squelch. My dad adjusts the volume.
“Crystal Ground, Crystal Ground,” the man in the control tower crackles.
“Crystal ground 2738Y base of tower requesting taxi for takeoff,” echoes my dad.
“2738Y taxi runway 30 right, wind 280 at 10 knots,” says the man in the tower.
“Roger, 38Y,” replies my dad.
He zeroes out the horizon line, rechecks the throttles are down. He pulls the microphone closer to his lips. “Crystal tower 38Y ready for takeoff 30 right.” His moustache moves up and down when he talks. My dad wears Ray Ban sunglasses with thick silver brushed metal frames. He is so handsome. I watch his every move. I think, he looks like Mark Spitz, the Olympic swimmer. I think, I am so proud of my dad because he knows how to fly an airplane. I think, I am happy because today I have my dad all to myself. What a rare treat, just me and him in the sky for a day. I click my patent leather shoes together and I see my reflection smirking back at me.
We hear static. “38Y cleared for takeoff 30 right.”
We pick up speed, the nose of the plane tilts up, and I’m thrown back against my seat. I try to look out over the control panel, but the plane is angled so high, all I can see is clouds and sky and my dad pulling the steering handlebars towards his chest with a big grin on his face.
He banks the plane left. The horizon line tilts. He banks right. The horizon follows. He moves the throttles up and down. The wing flaps go up and down. The traffic below looks like matchbox cars, the houses like they are lifted straight off a Monopoly game.
My dad looks out his window. He seems quite content when we are up there flying, away from work, away from home. Up there, in his plane, his world, he seems relaxed and in his element. Maybe he does love me after all, he just doesn’t show it so much at home. It occurs to me that maybe it isn’t me he is avoiding, but my mother. I am just caught in the middle, like a blister always rubbing the wrong way between the sock and the shoe.
“Do you want to fly the plane?” he asks. My eyes get wide. “It’s easy. Just put your hands on the handlebars like you’re riding a bike.” I sit up tall, my legs stick out straight in front of me, and grip the wheel like I’m Snoopy, the World War One Flying Ace in the cockpit of his Sopwith Camel. I pretend I’m wearing goggles and a long, red scarf around my neck that whips behind me in the wind.
“Curse you, Red Baron!” I cry. I turn the handlebars left and right like I’ve seen Snoopy do. My stomach somersaults into my throat as the plane yaws. I fall into my father’s lap.
“Don’t turn it so hard,” he says, putting us back on course. “Gently. A little effort goes a long way.”
I slalom the plane through the clouds like Jean-Claude Killy carving perfect turns around the gates. The crowd goes wild. The cheers are deafening. I giggle. I feel free up here, like a balloon, once deflated on the ground, but now soaring higher and higher into the blue sky. I am the world famous, the invincible Snoopy! Vroom, vroom! Take that, Red Baron! Rat-a-Tat Tat! The plane swoops through the sky like a kite. I look out my window and see houses below bobbing like lures on a smooth lake. There is the wing, swooping swanlike against the clear blue sky.
This magical moment shatters when the door of the plane whips open. I can see the black patch on the wing, and I remember that that’s where I’m supposed to step, not on the wing itself. We are ten thousand feet above the ground. The gnarly claw of the wind grabs my neck in its death grip and starts to pull me out of the plane. I scream.
“Dad!” I scream. “Dad!”
The door slams open and shut as the wind threatens to rip it from its hinges.
My dad throws himself on top of me, pins me down, somehow gets the door latched but not locked, then radios the control tower for an emergency landing at the big international airport nearby.
He lands the plane with the same steady perfection that he has always shown, and afterwards, takes me out for chocolate ice cream to celebrate our narrow escape.
“We cheated death once again,” he jokes when we are safely back in our driveway. “Don’t tell your mother.”