In the Churchill Tank
A layover is a lay without sleep or sex. Like a silent sled, the red tram zips from domestic to international gates, transport without a sense of direction, follow the arrow.
What I like about travel is the odd combination of anonymity and intimacy. Trapped in a flying petri dish, we absorb one another’s breath and bad gases.
Avoiding my seatmate’s gaze, I watch Les Miz. Even on a small screen it is excessively dolled up in lurid hues: Anne Hathaway sing-sobbing, her voice swelling to several false endings before expiring on one last quivering exhalation. My seatmate has been repeatedly jabbing at his touch screen with no result. But I keep my eyes on the road, not stopping to help jumpstart his engine, even though it is a long and lonely way into a vanishing point at 35,000 feet.
Somewhere over the Atlantic, I reach over and stab his touch screen into service. For the first time, I see that his hair is snowy, his brows wild, protecting pale eyes, their outer corners red and raw from a constant leaking of tears. He says there is no movie he cares to watch. I ask him obligatory questions of travel.
He’s returning to England after an adult lifetime in Canada, Australia, and the U.S. Before WWII, he left school at age 14. When arms production ramped up, he worked as a layout inspector for the Churchill tank, designed to intimidate the Germans at close range with guns and a flamethrower that could fry anybody inside a cement pillbox. Just a kid, the factory floor relied on his keen ability to read exploded view drawings of many parts, precisely machined and assembled with no margin of error. At the factory, he worked every day except for two days of school on-site, earning his Bachelor’s while working there for two years, entering at 16 and exiting at age 18. After the war, he met his wife who was training as a nurse. She was watching TV (a novelty in the early 1950s) and reading a book at the same time. He said to her that she should choose between TV and the book; she said she liked reading while watching. He then asked her out for a drink; his pickup line was, “How’d you like to have a drink in a nearby village, one over from this one—nice old pub, around for 300 years.”
Days later, in a cramped room with a clear view of chimneys and windows beyond count, it occurs to me there is one thing that flushes an old man out of his suburban cave back to his old village, its pub and church still standing, rain and mist dripping emerald green. A death in the family. He had mentioned a quick turnaround trip, expecting to see many familiar faces. I had asked if, after all these years, he ever felt homesick. Considering the question, he shook his head. Neither a yes nor a no, a head wag as if to say, Ah m’dear, I take your question. The faintest gesture of another wag, his face as smooth as stone.
Sandra Park grew up in Hawaii and now lives in California. Her novella, If You Live in a Small House (Mutual, 2010), takes place in 1950s Hawaii. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in The Iowa Review, St. Petersburg Review, New American Writing, and is anthologized in Honolulu Stories.