Years and years ago, I wanted to be a pilot. I still do.
Didn’t care about the professional aspect. I still don’t.
Because the way I figure, the kind of kid who drags his adult supervision to the airshow to watch P-40s tangle with mocked-up Zeros and feel the world shake when the pyro goes…he ain’t thinking about the joys of layovers, missing baggage, and the in-flight meal.
Not unless he’s some kind of weirdo, anyway.
Nah. That kid, standing in the middle of a million square feet of baking concrete, listening to radials sputtering and sucking air that tastes like burning avgas while he eats an overpriced corndog, is living the dream. He’s on an adventure. If you can sell a Saturday afternoon in central Texas for a Sunday morning at Pearl Harbor half a century before he was born you’ll find in him a willing buyer – but you don’t have to. He was sold on the spectacle before you got here.
The Twin Beech warming up over in parking isn’t going up for a couple of turns in the pattern – it’s sitting on a stretch of washboard African runway in the mountains with clock ticking and the weather closing fast. The pilot, an old hand, is hustling too much cargo and too many passengers into the back, running the numbers knowing it don’t add up. Behind him are a thousand miles of burned bridges and an advancing army; ahead is a too-short stretch of washboard runway hacked out of a cane brake and a sky the color of old bruises.
That kid sitting on the jetty, watching the freighters through a set of foggy secondhand binoculars? He don’t care about the finer points of marine architecture; he sees a couple of thousand tons going someplace, and it’s the wondering that carries him off – maybe to a volcanic island down in the South Pacific with the girls in grass skirts; maybe pitching in the teeth of a North Atlantic gale; maybe California, which is just as remote, just as fabled and mysterious.
Or the same kid, years later, picking an old Mauser rifle off the pawnshop rack. He doesn’t recognize the markings on the receiver or the words scratched into a stock dark with age and years. The sling doesn’t match. The muzzle is worn and the bore looks like a sewer pipe with a spider carcass stuck halfway down. But he knows this one has been places. It has scars and stories, most of which he’ll never know. All the same it draws him. Some part of his mind – the part he didn’t get to use much in school and uses less at work – begins to whisper.
Same kid who stops to watch the coal trains, picturing snow in the High Sierras, the same stretch that got the Donners. Who wonders at the rusted machinery in the pasture, imagining the man who followed the plow until one day in ’34 the wind came and carried off his farm. At the silent stamping mill and scattered minecars of a Colorado ghost town. At the plain, worn tombstones jutting through the grass of a Midwestern prairie.
He doesn’t much fit the modern world. Doesn’t know what to do with it half the time. Doesn’t need it. Doesn’t want it.
But he don’t have much choice in the matter. He’s here. He can deal with it or not, same as his forebears.
The ones who crossed the foggy, forested line undrawn to remove themselves from the reach of the Crown. Who sailed the tall ships around the Horn in the winter of ’50, carrying hopefuls to the western goldfields. Who stood the musket and cannon fire on the killing fields of Shiloh. Who afterwards went west, overland this time. Who weathered two World Wars with a Depression and a Dust Bowl in between. Who one day in 1963 saw an American president killed on television and made it through Tet, mostly, to watch man’s first steps on the moon.
He knows, sometimes in the abstract, that hard times are nothing new.
So he adapts. But he doesn’t forget.
Not that kid who thrilled the howl of a P-51’s Merlin engine kicking over. The one who sorts his pocket change for the old stuff. Who keeps that grainy picture of the 1927 family reunion on top of his bookshelf, right next to the folded American flag and the open-frame typewriter that almost works. Who can pick out the spine of an old book at twelve paces. Agriculture, engineering, Hemingway, memoir, Kipling, L’Amour – doesn’t matter.
The world has lost something. He doesn’t know what. He can’t put a date to it.
But gut-deep he knows nobody dreams of the cubicle.