My time in the military was brief, but at the risk of sounding vainglorious, during that period I was perhaps the most important individual in our great nation’s security mechanism.
From 1974 through ’78 I served as the supreme commander of a balsa wood air force that knew no rival. Depending on factors such as proximity to Christmas or my birthday or whether baseball card season was draining my military budget, my fleet of 25 cent balsa gliders swelled to as many as five: a show of force unlike any that the Japs or Krauts had ever encountered.
My tour of duty may have followed Vietnam, but due to an inexplicable rift in the time-space continuum my planes were still fighting World War II. Actually, it wasn’t at all difficult to explain: I didn’t care for jets. World War II era fighters were beautiful, murderous machines with elegant lines and growling engines. Jets were boring, fast and efficient. They lacked character. P-51 Mustangs and P-38 Lightnings were muscle cars driven by tough guys in leather jackets. F-4 Phantoms were Italian sports cars driven by rich men with perfect hair and straight white teeth.
The time rift wasn’t the only reality shift with which my air force had to contend. A vicious dogfight might suddenly turn into an airshow if one of my pilots felt aerobatic. He looped the loop, folks! We’ve never seen such a perfectly executed loop here at Oshkosh. Should he go for the double? Let him hear you up there, folks. Look at that, he wiggled his wings! He’s going to go for it! Unbelievable!
Not many survived the double loop: One and a half times around and nose first into the ground, and then we were back to battling Göring’s Messerschmitts. Headquarters was always busting our chops, refusing to ship us new planes but expecting us to keep up with the Luftwaffe’s never ending onslaught. All we could do was salvage parts from the planes that had barreled into the ground and cobble those together into flying Frankenstein monsters held together with nothing more than guts and bubblegum. War was hell, and my men took the brunt of it. Every single one bore a jagged scar.
My air battles/air shows always took place in the front yard for one very practical reason: Nobody could see me in the backyard. What if the president of the World Balsa Glider Flying Championships happened to drive past just as I completed the fabled double loop in the backyard? I’d miss out on the millions of dollars that I was destined to earn on the World Balsa Glider circuit. Wasn’t it enough that I was overlooked for a gold medal in Garbage Bag Parachute Batman Throwing? And then there were the friends that I was bound to make when they saw my awesome glider skills.
One Saturday morning I took a single glider out of the hangar beneath my bed. It was late spring. A gentle wind blew. I straightened the plane’s control surfaces, faced the wind, and gave her a shove. The pilot yanked back on the stick and climbed rapidly–too rapidly. The fighter stalled. Her nose dropped and she headed toward the ground, but the quick-thinking pilot dipped a wing and stood the plane on her side. She banked widely, and with the wind at her tail now she took off across the yard.
The little glider was headed straight toward the house. I ran after it, terrified that I’d break a window. My father would beat me, ground me, then make me pay for the damage: a daunting proposition for a kid making 25 cents per week. There was no outrunning the thing, though. The tailwind was just too strong.
All that wind had to go somewhere when it hit the house, and it took the plane with it. The glider rose, rose, rose, until it was higher than any balsa glider had ever flown. Where was the president of the World Balsa Glider Flying Championships when I needed him?
I took off down the driveway that led past our house to the detached garage in our backyard. The plane had already cleared the roof of the house and was over the neighbor’s yard, but it was losing altitude quickly. I tore through my mother’s vegetable garden and ran across the Kelly’s backyard. The glider threatened to stall but caught another updraft and took off over our backyard neighbor’s house.
I chased it across the street and through another yard, and then another. I was farther from home then I was supposed to go alone, but the little glider was still in the air. Surely this was some kind of world record. I crashed through more yards and crossed more streets without looking both ways.
The plane crossed into neighborhood park territory. The kids with friends pushed each other on the swings or seesawed, a fresh bed of shredded tires protecting them from harm. Over in the field Bob Kelly and Jimmy, two of the big kids, tried to start the glowplug engine on Jimmy’s model helicopter. Nobody paid me or the glider any attention. The fools. Didn’t they realize that they were witnessing history?
The glider trembled and quivered in the invisible current. It rose and dipped, but onward it went, the tailwind pushing it beyond the limits of my world. My legs burned and my lungs felt like they were going to pop, but I couldn’t stop smiling. If Jesus appeared at that moment and multiplied Jimmy’s helicopter by one thousand, I wouldn’t have considered that as beautiful of a miracle as my little plane’s epic flight.
The creek appeared in the distance, the absolute boundary of my universe. On its opposite bank began the farmer’s cornfield. None of us had ever seen the farmer, much less spoken to him or even knew his name, but every kid in the neighborhood knew that he was a mean old man with a shotgun who wouldn’t hesitate to open fire on any child who dared to cross the creek.
“Stop! Stop!” I screamed, but the glider didn’t care. She was having too much fun drifting in the wind, her play for once not dictated by the Supreme Commander of the Balsa Wood Air Force. I ran even faster, but there was no hope. I stood panting on the creek’s bank and watched the glider drift above the young cornfield until it vanished. In the distance I heard the kids screaming and laughing on the playground, and then the sound of Jimmy’s helicopter coming to life.
I turned and began the long walk home alone, careful to stay on the sidewalks and cross only at the corners; to stay out of other people’s yards. The entire way home I pictured that little glider disappearing over the forbidden cornfield, and I wondered whether someday a gentle wind would pick me up and carry me beyond the boundaries of my world. That’s an awfully big dream to purchase for a quarter.