Fifteen years old. In South Carolina at that time fifteen meant that I could drive a car. I could get a job, too. I could make my own money to go anywhere and do anything that I wanted. But I couldn’t talk to my father.
Recently there was a horrific accident at the Reno Air Races. The seventy-four year old pilot of a modified P-51 Mustang rammed into the VIP seats at 400-500 MPH, depending on the account, leaving a crater three feet deep and eight feet wide. As of the time that I am writing this eleven have died and dozens are recovering from their injuries. All that human pain and suffering is absolutely horrible, but If I’m going to be completely honest with you I have to admit that I’m equally bothered by the destruction of that old fighter plane.
Airplanes were my father’s and my common ground almost from birth. Throughout my childhood I heard him proudly tell how he had me up for the first time at one week of age. I bore his name – not just last but first — and I carried on my narrow shoulders his dream of being a fighter pilot.
We spent many Saturdays in his World War II vintage Stinson, puttering from airport to airport for no other reason than to putter and now and then share a pack of Lance Toast-Chees. Occasionally we would hit an airshow or a fly-in; regardless, wherever we landed I’d jump out with a rag and wipe the streaks of engine oil from the plane’s canvas belly. It seemed very glamorous to me — like I was an important member of the ground crew.
I would attend the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs someday, he said, and I agreed. I loved airplanes, and I loved him. But just like that P-51 in Reno, eventually that dream crashed into the innocents at 500 miles per, and all that remained was a smoking crater.
I’ve burned too many calories over the last thirty years trying to figure out where things went so horribly wrong. I will never have a complete answer — there are too many factors in a plane crash: weather, mechanical issues, pilot error, health, who knows. Relationships are no different, really. I’m not even entirely sure when my father and I went into a dive, but I have a hunch.
At age twelve I was separated academically from the smart kids. This was unsettling for me, but I never considered how difficult it must have been for him. Twelve years of scheming and dreaming and taking pride in one’s genetic legacy only to learn that he was just another average dead-ender. I didn’t help matters by embracing my new lot in life.
That is the definitive moment in the communication breakdown between my father and me, at least from my side. If my Pops didn’t have my back on this “bad news, you are going into junior high gen pop” issue then I didn’t want anything to do with his airplanes. Not to say that I didn’t still seek his approval — I just looked for it in the context of the new, average, non-airplaney me.
“Hey Dad, I benched 150 pounds today.”
Eyes turn from the television. Pause. “If you worked as hard on your mind as you do on your body you could make something of yourself.”
“I finished the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy.”
Eyes turn from the television. Pause. “If you spent as much time on school as you do on that Dungeons and Dragons crap you could make something of yourself.”
Nowhere was the chasm broader than music. My father’s only cassettes were Beethoven and The Ink Spots (note: Just to be clear that’s two separate cassettes, though that collaboration would be interesting). In his opinion, any music released after The Beatles played Sullivan was garbage. He walked into the living room one Saturday just as The Police’s new video was playing on America’s Top 40.
“What the hell is this? They call this music? He’s just making a bunch of sounds — do do do da da da. He sounds like an idiot.”
Eyes turn from the television. Pause. “That’s the point. It’s about not being able to find the right words when you need them.”
I didn’t want it to be this way, really. He probably didn’t either. I have kids and I can’t imagine how painful it would be to be estranged from them. Maybe there was just too much hurt, too much damage, too much unwillingness to let things go.
We sat on separate couches, eyes on the television. He was watching one of the World War II documentaries that he enjoyed so much. P-51s and the like were soaring through the skies, their silver bellies gleaming while the narrator droned on about their murderous capabilities. I genuinely missed my father at that moment. I wanted to eat Toast-Chees and wipe the oil from the old Stinson’s belly. The Stinson was gone now, and although he was just six feet away my father was, too.
“Have you ever thought about how strange it is that something so beautiful was built for no other reason than to kill people?”
He looked away from the fighter planes flashing across the screen, looked not so much at me as toward me. “No,” he said. “I guess I’m just not as deep as you.”
I have casually invited my father out for the Reno Air Races many times over the years. He always brushes it aside with a “yeah, I’ve always wanted to go” or politely declines for truly legitimate reasons. Thank goodness this wasn’t the year he decided to make it out. I don’t think either of us could have faced the giant crater that once was a beautiful fighter.