Late afternoon, weak sunlight unable to dissolve the shadows, Sam switched on a floor lamp and studied the two dozen aircraft pinned to a peg board leaning against the back of the couch. He checked his watch—two hours before his presentation and plenty of time to practice, get dressed, and load the car.
Several times he cleared his throat and began, not really satisfied with any opening. Arms wide, he announced to the quiet living room—“I know where it all ends, but how to begin?” He studied the red and white Taylorcraft, near the center of the board, the beating heart of flying, the plane his wife had liked best.
Sam may have forgotten their first ride together if it wasn’t for Gracie retelling it to their children and friends over the years. “We were right above the tree tops–so beautiful. And you know how your father can talk. Well, he talked the whole time we flew, pointing out lakes, people’s houses, roads, even our church where we were married.”
His heart sank thinking of his wife. “Gracie, you know I just need a good opening. God, I could talk forever after that.” She would have sat quietly listening to him. She adored him.
He walked to the center of the room and eyed each plane, now a ghost, and to Sam ghosts were mooches, always wanting something else, never satisfied, and surely never grateful. A man that could live several hundred years would be rid of his ghosts by his hundredth birthday, Sam thought. Mistakes made, lessons learned, and the ghosts of one’s past would evaporate, like morning fog before the rising sun.
Since he couldn’t triple his lifespan, he’d at least have something new. Survivor of a recent heart attack and bypass surgery, he wanted a New Year’s resolution that delivered results, like car sales and making enough money to have a ball and send a bunch of cash to his grandkids for school and their first house. He heard of folks making huge bonfires and burning up the old stuff at the end of the year bringing the New Year in fresh. Tonight he planned to wrap things up and send his old life up into smoke.
Five decades of flying covered the peg board and at seventy-eight years old he was getting it out of his system for the last time. When he returned from Florida in mid-January, he’d conduct his own private bonfire. But he wouldn’t burn the picture of the P-47 Thunderbolt, the most hardheaded ghost in his life. That photo would always hang on the wall across from his bed, even if he was blessed to live to the wise old age of 300. Got to keep one old mooch around. Keep me honest.
“I wanted to fly since I was a boy.” He addressed the chair his wife often sat in. “From my backyard I’d chase a low flying plane until it disappeared behind the trees. I felt like Columbus. I wanted to explore … sail across the skies; discover places.” He paced, looking at the carpet, hands in his pockets.
“A plane moves from point A to point B. It has a mission. In the war I learned all about missions.” He stopped. How to talk about the adventure of flying, especially in World War Two, when a plane he had flown and loved would be responsible for his brother’s death one day? Shame burned his face. He looked at the black and white photo pinned to the board. Maybe skip the war? Few would complain.
He pointed to the peg board. “After the war, aviation held a ton of opportunity for anyone interested. I ran with it–fifty years in aviation, good years, profitable years—exciting to handle a variety of aircraft—” Sam looked down, saying quietly, “And I told my brother the same thing.”
Sam had bought and sold aircraft forever and, now, in recent months, one particular sale had returned to haunt him. A plane might be only a machine, but the Thunderbolt was tied to youthful ambition and the summer night of his brother’s death.
Some forty years ago Sam had needed money to purchase the fighter and warily let his brother get the money through a loan shark. He comforted himself knowing he had a solid buyer until the customer walked and they were unable to pay on time.
A meeting was arranged with the lender and Nick. On a warm July afternoon, Nick had come to Skyline to see the P-47 Thunderbolt. The plane was a force of nature; imprinted with the genes of a tank, and even beautiful at the end of the day, something carved from solid rock. Nick stuck around through sunset and watched Sam trouble-shoot a small trainer. Both men gabbed about their parents, girls, and making money, while Nick, continued to glance at the P-47 parked in the grass, just beyond the hangar’s lights, continuing to ask his brother to teach him to fly so he could one day pilot the fighter.
Caesar, a buddy of Nick’s, had set up the late-night meeting and had given him directions to a house in Cleveland. A few hours later, a fatally-wounded Nick Messina turned down a street on Cleveland’s West side and coasted to a stop outside Ruth’s home. Sam still blamed himself and hated Caesar.
* * *
Sam took the black and white photo of the P-47 off the board and set it on the dining room table. “Well folks, there are some airplanes I definitely don’t want to talk about. Some stories stay private, close to an old man’s heart.”
From here it would be easy. The sixties and seventies were filled with flights to hundreds of airports big and small and getting to know, if only briefly, many people, even a few famous ones like Jimmy Stewart in Kansas City and John Wayne in Los Angeles. Sam spent the years crisscrossing the country, buying, selling, and delivering an assortment of single and multi-engine ships, all piston-powered. Sam never got into the corporate jet market.
The silent TV made him think of his grandkids. These days it usually lit up when the kids were over, otherwise it was off. They loved TV, but flying was another matter. Sam addressed the room.
“Young people don’t care for flying like they used to. It’s ordinary, boring, and mostly a pain in the ass, especially when they have to travel with their parents. Look at all the new things—computers, plasma TV’s, internet, cell phones. In the meantime, small airports are closing all over the country and the ones remaining have tall fences for security. Today, small airports look like factories or worse, prisons with fences, barbed wire, no trespassing signs, armed security. People are more scared nowadays at what the other guy might do. At one time a kid could walk right up close to the runway, watch the planes come and go. Now they got movies and videos games they walk right up to. They climb into other ‘worlds’ instead of the cockpit of an airplane. Where is the next generation of pilots going to come from? The military doesn’t produce many pilots either, anymore.”
To Sam, general aviation for the average person was dying off and never would be the same. He sat down in his armchair and thought to pick up the phone and cancel his talk. Gabe, who worried Sam would scare the seniors with war stories, would be pleased, especially after the morning’s pissing contest.
Sam laughed at his situation, opening his arms to the imaginary crowd. “You know what we can leave today’s young people? Recycling. Why it’s the best thing we could be doing for future generations. Now I wanted to do my little part, but I got fired today. Can you believe that? Hey, raise your hands if you think Sam Messina should continue as Recycling Czar. That’s it, get ‘em up—who’s on my side?”
Sam glanced outside and saw the neighbor’s lighted evergreen shaking in the wind, no longer a Christmas tree, but a spastic, gleeful thing lurching wildly in the dusk. It reminded him of Ray Holloway dancing around his living room, dancing on his boss’ grave. But Sam had nothing to dance about. His enemy was still breathing air, walking upright, a thorn in everyone’s side, especially Ruth’s. Caesar from the old neighborhood was still a part of their lives.
A few minutes later Sam rose from his chair and went to work packing for Florida. He’d run the checklist soon, closing down the house, loading the Lincoln, perhaps never to return.
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