Clear Night, New Moon
Sam looked around the room, noticed a few weak smiles from the seniors, but mostly felt a collective resistance at being trapped a few minutes longer. He thought of all the eager faces over the years that loved it when he launched into some flying story, seemingly off the cuff, grabbing the listeners’ attention, speaking with authority. Sometimes it was young pilots eager to ride along with Sam, or a good friend. Often it was a woman dazzled by Sam’s travels.
“It was a dark and stormy night,” Sam announced and the remaining chatter died quickly. A few seniors leaned forward. “Well, actually,” he paused, enjoying the silence, the attention. “Actually, it was a clear night with a new moon. I was out of Burke Lakefront airport headed back to Skyline Field. Lots of stars. But without the moon it was coal black except for city lights and the cars moving along the freeway.
“I was in Cessna’s little trainer, a two-seater, a fine airplane that taught a lot of pilots to fly over the years. And it was summer. Had it been winter with snow on the ground it would’ve been a better deal. You’ll see in a moment.”
A voice broke in.
“Snow would reflect the light and you’d see a lot better if you had to make an emergency landing,” a man stated confidently from the second row. Sam had forgotten the fella’s name but knew him as someone prompt and smart about his recycling.
“Damn,” Sam replied, “I thought this was my story.”
The man just smiled, pleased with himself.
“Try not to kill my punch line,” Sam added.
“Punch lines are for jokes,” Marge Holloway said loudly, and a few in the room snickered.
“Well, if I can get this old crowd laughing that’d be something,” Sam said. “I might be able to call the night a success.” When no one made a smart-ass reply he continued.
“I was fifteen minutes from landing when the rpm rolled back smoothly and my quiet night flight just got a lot quieter. The oil pressure and temp gauges looked good, and the carburetor heat was in. Usually you get roughness with carb ice, a warning to get the carb heat on. But I had no warning. Everything else looked fine. I played with the mixture control and tried restarting but no luck. I couldn’t watch my airspeed drop off forever, so I lowered the nose and nailed my best glide speed. Now I know I had to stay away from the lights of houses and busy roads. I looked for the darkest area, the least inhabited area, but that didn’t give me a very warm fuzzy either.”
Sam had everyone’s attention. Even Marge Holloway seemed interested for the moment.
“Now I had started at three thousand feet, but actually I was only about two thousand feet above the ground. You see, the altimeter reads from sea level and our terrain around here averages about a thousand feet above the sea. Later on I figured out that I could have glided roughly fifteen miles in any direction. But I already had picked out the best area for my landing, not a light from a home or a business. I made my decision. I gave one call to Cleveland approach, giving my distance from the Akron VOR and kept coming down, lowering the flaps, keeping my speed stable. If I could bring it in as slow as possible—that’s how flaps help—there’d be less damage to me and the plane.”
Marge Holloway remained quiet and turned her nose up, patient but arrogant. Her husband shook his head as though trying to rattle disparate bits of information into working order. Sam plowed ahead.
“When the altimeter read fifteen hundred feet, I was approximately five hundred feet from making contact with whatever was beneath my wings. I lowered the flaps to full and made a few corrections on the trim wheel. Now, don’t think I hadn’t tried everything from all my experience, all my years of flying. I even prayed and shouted a few times to see if I could frighten the engine back to life—but nothing, just a windmilling prop and the air rushing by. So at one hundred feet above the ground I turned on the landing light.”
Here Sam stopped and eyed the audience for skeptics.
The seconds passed.
“Oh, come on,” Marge complained. “What the hell happened?”
Sam enjoyed making someone laugh. He also liked pausing before a punch line. But he didn’t expect much enjoyment from the crowd and took a deep breath, zeroed in on Marge and finished.
“I didn’t like what I saw so I turned the light off.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Marge said angrily. “We’ve been sitting here listening to a joke.” Another moan issued from the seniors and few lashed out in anger, telling him to “get lost.”
“What did he see?” Ray Holloway asked, looking to his wife for an explanation. “Did he crash?”
“I’m not telling you anything,” Marge replied. “You’re too stupid.”
Her comments inspired others to grumble loudly. Some started to stand and leer at the desserts. The same man from the second row, who had enlightened everyone, cut through the noise.
“Where’s the P-47 Thunderbolt?” The man grinned, pointing at the pictures. “You’ve got all these planes on the board, but no Thunderbolt.”
“That’s because there was no P-47,” Sam said, enjoying the commotion over his ‘story.’
“Sure there was. You flew it in the war. I can’t believe you’d leave it out. Then you bought and sold one after the war. What was it like to fly?”
Sam’s enthusiasm vanished.
“You’re a real know-it-all.”
The man smiled even bigger. “A million years ago your brother Nick told me about the P-47. He promised me a ride. He said you’d take me up.”
“What, you were gonna sit on my lap?” Sam shot back and a few seniors laughed. “The thing only had one seat.”
“He told me you were an ace—five kills—Silver Star—”
“It was war,” Sam said loudly, and everyone grew quiet waiting to hear more. “A lot of men beat that score.”
After a short pause his voice weakened as his heart pounded.
“A lot of good men didn’t come home.” Sam looked about the room for an understanding smile or nod. Finding only looks of impatience or confusion, he finally rested his eyes on a young woman at the back of the hall wiping the neck of her guitar.
“Those are hard stories to tell,” he finished with, facing the picture board, no longer trying to project his voice or worried about the back row hearing him.
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