Aeronaut

Fiction Friday

Since the days when he learned to walk and talk, Henry wanted to fly. Fuselages and wings were magnetic to his young eyes. Desire grew out of the fluid shapes of planes and their weightless elegance. His friends, teenaged, quarreled over cars, raced and repaired them after school. Henry drove the cheapest thing that would run and saved his money. Aviation magazines and manuals crowded the bookcase in his shrinking room. His parents expected a call from the recruiter any day when he turned seventeen. A boy like that can’t wait another year, they figured. He ran early morning laps around the neighborhood like a dog after a rabbit.

An Air Force veteran who worked at the library told Henry stories. He pointed Henry to the card pinned to a cork board that advertized flying lessons. The airfield was an hour down the highway. It was a cloudless Saturday when Henry parked his car on the patch of asphalt beside the majesty of the runway. The place was all sky, every part of it. No trees or hills, and the hangars were aluminum cans on their sides. The biplane taxiing its way toward him like a toy, then a 1/4 scale model, and then in life-size it left his jaw dangling. It was like confronting a horse: something you see forever in miniature, encyclopedia-captioned or at the distance of television, but baffling up close, too big, too real. The step up into the front seat was terrifying. The goggled old man at the controls in the second seat watched him turn pale. Chin up, kid. You’ll get used to it.

Henry shut out the sky with his eyelids. The engine made his teeth feel like gravel and the weightlessness, the sick feeling of dropping too fast in an elevator, turned his fingers to iron where he clutched the seat. The plane went up and up until the air was too thin to take a breath. When the old man evened it out, Henry thought he would throw up or explode from the roar of the wind and hellish propeller. He screamed to be let down, to please land the plane, please go back to the ground. Panic overwhelmed his ferocious grip and he turned in his seat, hot tears in his eyes, and screamed at the man to stop the plane. His cry whipped away into the empty sky and left his mouth empty and trembling.

In his junky little car he cried until his throat was snarled and it hurt to breathe. The plane taxiied back to its aluminum can, went from a big thing back to a toy. Henry sat for a long time and waited for his hands to stop shaking, but they would not. They trembled on the steering wheel down the highway, taut and endless.

It took him all afternoon to muster the conviction to lie to his parents at the dinner table. They took in his story of the smooth, effortless flight as the course of certainty, but there was a change in Henry. His friends convinced him to purchase a nicer car, one that easier to drive and looked heavy as machined lead. By his nineteenth birthday, he had never visited an Air Force recruiter, had no plans to. When he moved to Boston for factory work, the room he left behind was still swollen with his aviation magazines and posters.