LOIS GREENE STONE - BIRDS
Lois Greene Stone, writer and poet, has been syndicated worldwide. Poetry and personal essays have been included in hard & softcover book anthologies. Collections of her personal items/ photos/ memorabilia are in major museums including twelve different divisions of The Smithsonian. The Smithsonian selected her photo to represent all teens from a specific decade.
"What a great July 4th day." I squeezed my father's hand hardly aware of the moisture coming from his skin. "Soon I will be teenage! And no more ration books because of a stupid war: 1946 is swell."
"Glad, honey." My dad looked uneasy.
"Why are you nervous, Daddy?" I questioned.
Propellor blades rotated quickly and the airplane climbed higher. I wasn't aware that this was the first airplane for commercial use since World War II ended, and that the cabin was not pressurized.
My father clutched the armrest and forced a smile.
"Look, Daddy!" I poked him. "We're going on top of the clouds." I pushed my face against the tiny window and tried to see La Guardia Airport and familiar Flushing Bay below. "This is a dream. Cotton balls. Clouds look like cotton balls."
"More like whipped cream," My father commented as clouds peaked and seemed suspended. Blue was above, but next to and below was only white to gray fluff.
"My ears still hurt."
"Chew the chicklets, Lois."
"They still hurt. But I love this," I said with wonder. "But you don't seem to like it."
"I like it, but it's a little scary. Clouds seem thick, dense, like bumping into any will be like hitting a hard object. I didn't grow up with airplanes, honey, but am happy that you are." He looked in the seat pocket to be sure the motion-sickness bag was available in case he got sick to his stomach. The pressure in his head couldn't be relieved by chewing. He definitely liked trains better.
"Remember how long it took us by train, Daddy?"
"Four hours to Washington, DC. And we ate in the dining car and looked at beautiful fields pass before the big windows. The coffee came in silvery pitchers, and all the tables had starched white linen cloths. But this is the future, and you should feel comfortable with it."
I had the feeling that my father really wished he was going from New York to Washington by Pullman and spending four hours hearing metal wheels pass over metal tracks.
"But we'll save hours this way and..." I looked back in the tiny aisle and saw a hostess serving lunch. I stood up and the seat cushion's scratchy fabric brushed coarsely against my legs. "It's half a sandwich and fruit. Isn't that swell?"
"Uh, huh." My father glanced backwards. I didn't know then that the clouds under the plane as far out and down as he could see made him queasy, or that it felt, to him, unnatural. I didn't realize that he was frightened, or heavier than air machines were unheard of when he was a boy. I didn't understand that he'd only had a car since 1938 and he thought that was amazing. And he got Mom a machine that washed clothes automatically in 1939. I never knew what it was before cars or washers.
"Look what Mom's missing!" The stewardess handed me the small lunch. "Why'd she take the train?"
Popping relieved pressure for an instant, then my dad's ears clogged again. "No, thanks," he refused the food being offered.
I didn't know then that he was protecting me from the concept that life is fragile, precious, filled with accident and also pain. As a pre-teen, I thought I was immortal and guaranteed to be free from harm. He camouflaged emotions that might have exposed that he was frightened about crashing, or upset about traveling in an upside-down situation where overhead sky was below, or in pain from almost unbearable pressure in his ears. He and Mom had silently decided a father must present a strong and fearless image as a role-model.
Dad answered, "She'd had a cold, remember?"
"Uh, huh," I bit into the soft bread with a slice of turkey between it. The action of my jaw caused an intense pop in my ears.
"Well, the doctor told her she couldn't fly after a head cold." My father tried to sound convincing.
"But she had a mustard plaster so I thought it was her chest not head." I brushed a bread crumb from my lap to the floor.
"She didn't want you to miss this." My dad leaned toward me. "We'll see her later with your sisters at the hotel."
"Oh isn't life something." I strained and looked at the plane's wing. "Oh. There's a patch of ground. Look. Look. I'm going to do this forever. Trains are boring and take too long. This is..." I grabbed my father's arm. "See the ground? There."
My dad showed pleasure with my enthusiasm.
I didn't know that having clouds under him was like his childhood image of heaven, and heaven had to do with death. He covered his fear as much as he could; he never said that one day I'd probably feel as he did about something and he hoped I'd give my own children freedom to believe in an eternal safe future.
"Nothing will ever be as swell. Wish Mom didn't have to miss this. Daddy. We're going down. Back to earth. We're like birds." The stewardess removed the lunch tray. She brought another packet of two teeth-shaped, white-coated pieces of chewing gum.
I thought he was whistling very, very quietly. I didn't hear his prayer to let us get down safely, and take care of his loved ones. And it never crossed my mind that the family intentionally split up for travel; in case of an accident, the whole family wouldn't be wiped out.
Aloud he said, "Chew. It'll help your ears. Flying is your future. Life is incredible. We people can be birds."
"And," I quipped, "some people have bird-brains." I began to hum, then pressed my nose into the window watching earth come up.
There was never an opportunity to thank my parents for the gift of innocence and adventure; my father died before I was fully grown. I live 400 miles from Flushing Bay, yet I can never fly into La Guardia without thinking about that first flight, and, with amazement, that it happened so many decades ago.
My youngest decided he'd try skydiving. How could I shake my uneasiness about his attempting to become a bird? Suppose his harness fails, his arms tire, he heads into a mountain? Suppose ... a bird...why can't he take a plane!
I suddenly remembered my special air trip in an unpressurized cabin sitting beside my father. I imitated my dad, pretended not to worry, silently prayed, and aloud expressed "Life is incredible."
Published 1999 Rochester Shorts
reprinted: 2003 Heroes from Hackland
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