“Pay attention, boy! Get on the other side so we can push her out.” I skittered under the belly of the darkened airplane and grabbed her strut. My father and I had just enough strength to get the huge beast rolling, but soon it was on the tarmac in front of the hangar. “Go get some chocks,” my father said. I ran for some blocks of wood and shoved them on either side of the plane’s tires.
“Go get the gas truck.” There was no need for the old man to issue this order. The truck was already on its way across the field. Pappy, the airfield’s owner, stepped from the pumper truck.
“Taking her out for a spin?”
“Thought I’d take my boy here out for a little puddle jumping.” He reached over and tousled my hair. I smiled.
“Well it’s going to be a good day for flying, I’ll tell you what. Look at all them stars, that tells you the story.” Pappy filled the wing tanks while he told my father war stories. I handed the men quart after quart of oil for the big radial engine. My father sent me back to the hangar for a rag.
Pappy waved to me as he pulled away. I ran back to the plane and handed my father his rag. “You know what that old son of a gun did?” he said. “He tried to overcharge me. Go sit down.”
I scurried up the small, chrome ladder and opened the Stinson’s door. The latch echoed through the plane’s canvas skin. The cockpit smelled of age and mildew. My father pulled the heavy propeller around. Thick oil squeezed into the cold pistons. He kicked the chocks from behind the wheels and climbed into the pilot’s seat.
“Clear,” he yelled. “Contact.” The magneto whined and the propeller slowly turned over. One of the big cylinders caught, then another, and so on until the old plane was belching black smoke and rattling noisily. We began the slow taxi to the runway.
He pushed in the throttle of the old airplane and we chugged down the runway. Her tail eventually lifted off the ground and I could see over the engine’s cowling. My father eased the wheel back and the old Stinson pulled itself into the starry, violet sky.
I watched the airport lights fall away beneath us. Soon we were high enough that Boiling Springs looked like a tangle of broken Christmas lights. So this is where we live, this little space carved from red clay and kudzu.
“Look over there. You see that big bunch of lights at three o’clock? That’s where your old man works. They fired Bob last week just because he turned fifty. Damned shame, but you know Bob.”
“Yes sir,” I said, but I didn’t know Bob.
“That’s where they get you, see. They hire you when you’re green and you’ll work for nothing, then when you’ve put in your time they give you the axe and bring in another kid. No loyalty. Look at that.” I peeked through the churning propeller. A thin slice of sun peeked over the horizon, a glowing sliver of orange that threatened to wipe the starlight from the sky. “Ain’t that a sight?”
The whole horizon glowed, pushing its gradient light higher and higher until the only stars that remained flickered at the upper edge of the Stinson’s triangular windows. The gentle curvature of the horizon made real what my school books asserted but my earthbound body never really believed.
“Take the controls,” my father said. He grabbed my stiff little hands and placed them on the co-pilot’s wheel. “Put your feet on the rudder pedals. There. Now, you pull back on the wheel and her nose goes up like this.” He gave his wheel a smooth tug and the plane started a slow climb. “You push down, she goes down,” he said as we fell rapidly and my lap pressed against the canvas seat belt.
“Push the left pedal and turn the wheel and she’ll bank to the left. Not so hard, son. That’s it, nice and easy. Can you feel the way that she leans into the turn real gently? Pay attention, you’re trying to fight her. She’ll do the work if you just tell her what you want. That a boy. You’re gaining altitude. What do you think you should do?”
“Push its nose down?”
“That’s right. Not too far now. I got some work to do, but you just yell if you need help. You’re doing a good job.” He pulled a map and a thick pencil from beside his seat. Eventually the coarse, jerky movements were a thing of my novice past. The Stinson moved in response to the tiny, almost undetectable motions of my hands and feet. Perspiration collected in the furrows on my forehead.
“Why you wasting your time staring at the instrument panel, son? It’s a beautiful day out there. Flying isn’t about instruments, it’s about instincts. Look at the horizon. See how we’re parallel to it? That a boy, now you’re getting it.”
We were flying directly into the sun, its brilliant light glistening on the whirling propeller. I wondered how long we would have to fly to reach it; whether I could break off a piece for show and tell. Wisps of clouds at three o’clock, nine o’clock, all day long. One of them must be Heaven.
I turned to check my wingtip, and I saw my father’s face. He gazed toward infinity; his lips curled in a gentle smile. The map on his lap didn’t bear a single pencil mark. “I’ve always liked it up here,” he said quietly. “Nobody can get you when you’re up here, Jim.”
Before us loomed the expansive blue of the Atlantic Ocean. My father put on his headset and pushed the nose of the old plane gently downward. “Turn her around, son," he said. "Let’s take her home.”
James Stafford is a Northern California writer and creator of the popular music/memoir blog "Why It Matters."