My license having been revoked pending my sentencing hearing, I sat in the bar car of the train lazily roaming westwards from New York City. It would stop at every speck on the map between there and my home town, so I had ordered a double in bleary anticipation of the long monotonous hours ahead. I churned the ice cubes I hadn’t asked for with an obnoxious pink flamingo swizzle stick I especially hadn’t asked for. They popped and collapsed and hemorrhaged greasy slicks of water, polluting the honey-brown liquor, and reflected distorted fragments of my sullen face back at me. I sighed, put the glass to my lips, and drained it in a series of slow swallows that ended with my face uptilted towards the ceiling where someone had somehow managed to sharpie the inspired words “You suck”.
“Another Jack,” I croaked at the bartender, all fumes and watering eyes. “And no rocks this time, please.” He scowled, his face an array of protruding bones draped in slack old man skin, and flung a bar towel over his shoulder as if this was the most exasperating request he’d ever encountered in his bartending career.
I shrugged and pushed the glass of defeated ice towards him. I ground the plastic head of the flamingo between my molars and the sharp end of the swizzle stick busily sketched abstractions in the air in front of my mouth. I felt eyes on me and turned to look down the bar. A curvy woman, with feathery strawberry hair and carefully applied makeup that successfully camouflaged her age, had installed herself at the end. She was peering at me, bemused, over the frames of dark purple sunglasses parked halfway down her nose. She re-crossed her legs under a short denim skirt and angled herself more in my direction. “Cheers,” she mouthed through a brightly lipsticked half-smile, raising her glass.
“Cheers,” I mouthed back, holding up an imaginary glass. She struck me as the kind of woman who likes to be spanked. Not all that long ago, a different version of me would have gone over to her, said “you look like the kind of woman who likes to be spanked” and let the chips fall where they may. Instead, I pretended my phone was urgently communicating with me and started patting myself down until I found it. I opened SMS, reread the last message (a nuclear bit of vitriol from my ex-wife) and then began earnestly tapping at the screen. Here is what I wrote:
Phxhv dhbxbbhd sjchdjrh chhehdh
dhcggdjcg dhdgdjcn dhhdjchhf
ffhdncf fjduhdj jdfhcbdjf fhfhfcjfndn
I paused when, from the corner of my eye, I saw the woman push her glasses back over her eyes and cross her legs away from me again, chin lifted as if something slightly rank had infected the air. Tapping out a little more gibberish for authenticity’s sake, I momentarily contemplated sending it, thought the better of it and put the phone away.
“Okay now, buddy,” snarled the bartender, bowing his head as he delivered my fresh drink cupped in both hands.
“Great,” I said. “I’d love another one of these though,” I added, extricating the swizzle stick from my mouth and placing it on the bar before him, the flamingoes’ head unrecognizable and foamy, like a spat-out wad of bubble gum. A blue vein inflated from where the bartender once had a hairline. I watched it pulsate through its lightning strike structure and said, “I’ll be sitting just over there.”
It was late fall and the dreary, sodden landscape appeared slightly melted through the rain spatters streaking across the train’s grimy window. In the near distance, the corroded carcass of a steel mill loomed over a town blighted by its shuttering, the liquefied colors of winking traffic lights regulating empty streets. A man in overalls and tattered red ballcap was wandering through a junkyard strewn with cannibalized vehicles, a scrawny German Shepherd at his side.
“At least he’s free,” I accidentally said out loud. Biting my lip, I looked around. No one had heard me and the woman at the bar had vanished. It crossed my mind that perhaps she’d never actually been there at all. I sighed. A month from now, just before Christmas, I would almost certainly be locked up. Perhaps for as long as 15 years my lawyer had forewarned me ashen-faced.
Here’s the only truth that now existed for me: I would rather die than go to jail.
My father had been the pilot of a sky-blackening pterodactyl, also known as a B-52 Stratofortress bomber, in Vietnam. During a mission in late 1972, a surface-to-air missile appeared out of nowhere and blew the belly out of his pterodactyl at 35,000 feet. As the burning wreck lurched into a nosedive, he and another crew member who hadn’t been incinerated bailed out from the flames into air so frigid they lost consciousness until waking up as POWs in the Hanoi Hilton. At least, that’s how he told it.
He said he wasn’t tortured, or even beaten much, after his capture. The war was getting long in the tooth and the guards seemed too weary to bother. Instead they threw him in a cell, about the size of a Parisian birdcage elevator, with a black infantryman drafted out of Compton and assumed the next morning one or both of them would be dead. Irritated to instead discover the two of them sharing cigarettes, they were separated after a swift rifle butt each to the face.
Over the next few weeks, before his release, my father was forced to look at photographs and watch films of North Vietnamese civilians who had been scorched into distorted, peeling shapes by American bombs.
“You do that! You do that!” they shouted in his ears and he would have rathered they shove sharpened bamboo shoots under his fingernails than show him more pictures.
When he came home from the war, he retired from the air force, buried his medals at the bottom of a footlocker, and never flew again. But he loved building model airplanes with me in the basement of our house, which smelled gorgeously of glue and turpentine, dreamily listing all their specifications and capabilities.
“I want to be a pilot too,” I declared one wintery afternoon as the old furnace clanged and groaned in the corner. I was only about 9 years-old but I think to this day that’s probably the most honest, heartfelt thing I’ve ever said in my life.
“It’s not all it’s cracked up to be, son,” he said, stroking a salt-and-pepper beard with long fingers, his eyes warm pools of kindness. “And do yourself a favor: stick to the civilian service.”
If a standard aluminum pop can was scaled proportionally to a cylinder of diameter and length equal to the fuselage of a Boeing 737, the aircraft’s skin would be about half to a quarter of the thickness of the pop can wall thickness; less than 1 millimeter. Nevertheless, the high electrical conductivity of aluminum will dissipate a direct lightning strike through an aircraft’s fuselage without causing any damage. The average thickness of human skin is .1 millimeters, but human skin is not made of aluminum and humans make for lousy lightning conductors.
I got my pilot’s license at the age of 19 and embarked on what my attorney had described to a deadpan jury as “a long and distinguished career during which he logged more than 22,000 hours of flight time”. A less hackneyed and more accurate appraisal would have been “a lonesome and mostly uneventful job almost all of which was performed by advanced computer systems”.
I read once that the number one enemy of a soldier consigned to the Western Front in World War I was sheer boredom only rarely punctuated by the sheer terror of battle when the sky rained blood and mud. Even though the chances of being blown to pieces, either in whole or in part, were approximately 1 in 3 during these brief interludes, the soldier, turbo-charged with pure adrenaline, never felt more primally alive.
I could relate to this somehow. It’s how I felt when my boredom flying was interrupted by storms and heavy turbulence that required me to take manual control. On one occasion a few ago, when I took off from JFK captaining a fully loaded Airbus A330, an unnoticed bird strike caused a fuel leak and, when both engines flamed out in quick succession halfway across the Atlantic, I found myself in charge of the most massive glider in the history of aviation.
“I think my balls just retracted,” muttered my copilot turning to me with a constipated face. “I mean, like, totally inside me”. At age 34, he had prematurely lost all his hair (perhaps due to his fear of flying) but for a ginger flecked monk fringe and, in the sudden blackness of the cockpit, his skull loomed like a translucent skin bulb under the bursting white stars action painted across the cockpit’s narrow wraparound windows.
“Better re-lower that gear, Gary. I’m going to need you,” I said popping a minibar bottle I had swiped from my hotel. Gary pursed his lips and pushed on his groin.
Although primary hydraulic power had been lost, normally the kiss of death for a plane and a pilot’s worst nightmare, the wing slats were still operational and the Azores Islands were only 150 nautical miles away. Turbo-charged with pure adrenaline and immune to the ghost wailing of passengers emanating up from the cabin, for the next 20 minutes I fought the dark silent machine’s instincts to plunge, barked instructions at sweating ball-less Gary, and thumped it down at Lajes Air Base just as the orange fire of dawn erupted from the horizon and burned down the cold North Atlantic night.
When the plane finally came to a juddering halt just before slipping off the end of the runway, I looked down and realized I had a tremendous erection. Gary slumped over his console, farted loudly, and cried.
It had been a spectacular sideways landing and, even though it was international news for a day or two and a clear cell phone video of it went viral on YouTube, I wasn’t quite hero enough for a movie to be named after me starring Tom Hanks and directed by Clint Eastwood. I was nonetheless rewarded with quite an extra dollop of adoration from my family. When I called my wife from Lajes she shrieked “I love you, I love you, I love you!” so loudly I had to hold the phone away from my ear. When I got home, my daughter followed me around the house gazing at me in wonder, chin in her hands, even when I sat on the edge of the bathtub digging wax out of my ears with a Q-tip.
A large flock of birds burst from the dense woods of the Blue Ridge foothills, as if fleeing the sudden appearance of something monstrous, and raced scattershot across the damp slate sky. It occurred to me, as I watched them disappear into the mist through the train window, that my attorney hadn’t once worked the Lajes landing angle at my trial. My heart sank as the train rocked and clackety-clacked. Is it possible I actually forgot to tell him about that?
To be continued…*
* To regular readers who hate when I break up the blog like this, I’m afraid you’ll have to be patient with me. This is the first installment of a larger writing project that will go on for some time. Sorry. Over the coming months, I will also be simultaneously posting a lighthearted blog stream about impending fatherhood. Stay tuned…
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