My father approached the runway in his Piper Cherokee Cruiser. Moments
after the wheels touched down, he took off again…. He banked to the left and
circled around until he was in landing position. Again, he swooped down and took
off…. He shot landings five, six, seven times before I stopped counting. Each time
he came down to land, I thought he was going to crash. Each time, I thought, I
didn’t come home all the way from Malaysia just to watch my father die.
Since it was Thanksgiving, it’d be a double tragedy if my father did die.
Instead of spending time together, I would be mourning his death. His death would
forever be associated with Thanksgiving, thus putting a damper on whole
holiday…. Thanks to the holiday, we had the local airport to ourselves. In other
words, if my father did crash, there would be no one around to help.
Each time my father landed, he looked over at me and I would take his
picture. Each time he took off my heart took off with him. If he did crash, one
thing was certain, I would crash along with him…. In case my father did crash, I
worked out in my mind what I would need to do. Instead of running to the crash
site, I would jump in my car and race there to save time. If my father was still
alive, I would help him out of the wreckage and drag him away, lest the plane
erupted into flames. Then I would rush him to the hospital—the same hospital
where I was born thirty-one years ago. I thought of my stepmother Marie and how
she would react when I broke the news. In no time she would be in her car racing
helter-skelter to the hospital, ignoring all traffic lights and stop signs. I would insist
that a neighbor or Roy, her son from a previous marriage, drive the car. I
didn’t want another death on my hands. Maybe I wouldn’t call Marie after all
because I knew she wouldn’t wait for someone to drive her. Instead I would call
Roy and ask him to pick her up.
There was a hitch in my plans. I didn’t have Roy’s phone number. Perhaps I
could ask the operator for assistance or have the police notify her…. I was hoping
as I planned all this, I didn’t have to call anyone. I was praying really hard in the
back of my mind that my father wouldn’t crash. Not today. Not when we still had
so much to discuss…about my future in Malaysia, about my mother’s past, about
their divorce, and about Grandfather Thomas.
My father came in for another landing, but this time he didn’t take off…. I
breathed a sigh of relief. Today he was not going to die…. At the end of the
runway, he turned the plane around and headed back in my direction. I was about
to get into the car to meet him at the hangar, when my father stopped the plane in
front of me and waved me over.
My heart sank.
I didn’t want to do this.
I didn’t want to climb into that plane.
As a boy I would avoid flying with him…afraid if we would crash it would be
my fault. If he hadn’t taken me up for a ride, he would still be alive. Even in
death, I didn’t want that hanging over me…. In a labored dead man’s walk, I
approached the plane with distinct sense of dread, its wing aimed at me like a
drawn dagger. Not paying attention, I circled around to the right side of the wing. I
could just as easily circle around to the left side; the distance was exactly the
same. In the Cessna, my father’s previous plane, there was no question as to how
to board the plane. The door and step-up were clearly evident below the wing. To
get into the Cherokee Cruiser you had to climb onto the wing, and if the plane was
at rest you could actually climb onto the wing from either side, as I did earlier that
morning when my father introduced me to his new airplane.
Busy writing something down on his clipboard, my father looked up. He
jerked to attention and called out, “Whoa!” His tone was firm, without a hint of
panic, yet I immediately knew something was wrong, so I halted in my tracks. He
waved me back around to the other side of the wing and said, “Never go to the front
of a plane when it’s running.”
Had I kept going, I would’ve walked into the propeller. It was slicing through
the air so fast I couldn’t see the blades.
My father just saved my life. All it took was a firm, “Whoa!” and a wave of his
Had it been my mother, she would’ve screamed in hysterics. In not comprehending,
I would’ve run toward her to see what was the matter, and the propeller
would’ve sliced the life out of me.
That was the difference between my father and my mother.
But was it really her fault?
(c) Robert Raymer