Originally appeared at More.com.
A visit to an air show helped her connect with the planes that fascinate her and with the pilot father she lost.
It started before I was born. My “plane thing,” as I call it. My dad worked for a large oil company as an aviation fuels marketing manager, and the job gave him liberal use of a 1959 Beech Twin Engine Bonanza for business and personal trips. He was based in Boston in the early ‘60s, and transferred to Illinois when I was 2.
Planes had entered his life long before I had. When he joined the Navy in 1942, he first flew a Stearman he dubbed “the Yellow Peril.” It was his first Navy trainer as he learned to become a flight instructor. Then he flew an SNJ trainer, and finally, an SBD Dauntless. He left the Navy in 1945 when he got married and later told me he wished he had stayed in.
So the Twin Bonanza wasn’t a leap when it “arrived.” He knew planes. While my mother was carrying me in 1962 and into the summer of 1963, I was in that Bonanza going to Wisconsin to visit relatives. This didn’t abate when I arrived. I have a photo of my family in front of it. My dad stands tall and thin, aviator glasses over his blue eyes and his hands on his hips, looking very much like a pilot (all seriousness). The family stood to his left: my auburn haired mother, a kerchief on her head; my sister, tall and blond also in a kerchief; my oldest brother John, in the same glasses and displaying the same pose as my dad; my 5-year-old, dark haired second brother, in overalls; and then a tiny blond girl in overalls that (horrors!) matched her brother’s (2-year-old me).
My fascination for planes — their noise, their lines, the very concept of being that high in the sky — continued unabated into adulthood. But I kept my distance in a way. I wasn’t remotely interested in learning to fly. I have an overdeveloped sense of balance, and my ears and stomach would not allow it. I settled into finding out which ones flew when, the difference between a turbo prop and a jet, how a jet worked. I recognized their sounds when they flew overhead, wanting to be able to identify them in the sky.
When my dad passed away in 2005, I knew I was missing some pieces of his history. I didn’t have regrets, really, just one more day with him, knowing in advance that it was the last one. That is when I would’ve have picked his brain more, and written things down. Instead, I’ve settled for learning more about his aircraft experiences through my older siblings and my mother. (And these conversations generally include large amounts of Wild Turkey and laughter).
So when the opportunity arose to see one of the only, still flying, SBD Dauntlesses at the Planes of Fame Chino Air Show in California, I knew I had to go. My then fiancé, an aerospace engineer by training, a World War II buff by hobby, found my plane (and car, but I digress) fascination unusual. The fact that I had completely lost track of time in the Seattle Air Museum when he and I had gone there, and honestly, was not ready to leave when he was, bordered on the downright weird.
If asked to explain why airplanes were such a big deal to me, I could never do it. Perhaps, like my green eyes, it’s genetic. All I know is it has always been there. Always will be. A plane going overhead will stop me in my tracks, as my eyes seek it, wanting the catalog in my head to determine its type: 737, 747, 767, Beech, Airbus, Learjet, Citation, King Air, Cessna. I recognize engine types when I hear them. I even liked the names: the simplicity of the numerical varieties made some sort of weird Soduku sense to my otherwise mathematically-challenged brain.
We got to the airshow and parked in the middle of a dark brown farm field scattered with nearly white pieces of hay. The earth had been mashed down and slightly watered to contain the dust as SUVs, cars, and trucks bounced over the uneven terrain to park. The hot sun was tempered a bit by a fairly stiff breeze. An introvert to a fault, I am overwhelmed by crowds at times. (When I go to the mall, I go directly to the store I need and leave, I never wander). But on that day, I simply didn’t notice all the other people. my fiance’s son and a good friend of his were with us.
Initially, we wandered around and looked at the planes parked so that we could get close to them. Then my fiance looked down at me, and asked me where I wanted to go. “I want to find it,” I said simply. He took my hand and led me down the wide aisles, winding through the accumulating crowd. I kept my head down, focused on pavement, suddenly wondering if this had been a bad idea. I seemed to be overcome with emotions I had forgotten. I missed my dad in a new way: I wanted him there to tell me about that plane. About places, times. I wanted to hear his sarcasm, his laugh, his repetitive stories. Just once more.
“There she is,” he said, coming to a halt. I took a deep breath, held it, and looked up. Sitting there, 20 feet behind a metal gate, among Helldivers and Spitfires, its nose to me, was the dark-blue, propellered, dive-bomber with the Navy insignia that I knew from photos on my parents’ walls. I let the air out of my lungs. “You’re awfully quiet,” he said, watching me, as I observed the show volunteers remove the chock blocks from behind the plane’s gear. I could only nod from behind my dark glasses. The pilot jumped up onto the wing and climbed inside the front cockpit as I watched. The engine started up noisily, blue smoke coming out from it in protest. The prop rotated slowly once, then twice, until the motor caught. The gear started to move, and as the plane turned to head for the runway, I let out a gasp when the side of it presented itself to me revealing the number 39.
I slid my sunglasses up off my eyes to turn back and look up at him. “The number,” I said quietly, feeling disbelief, total belief, sadness, and delight. “That’s how old my dad was when I was born.”
He smiled. “He’s here again, isn’t he?” he said. I nodded and slid the glasses back down to watch the small, blue dive-bomber lumber down the runway and take off. Its gear went up, and I had to blink several times to fight the tears that welled at the edges of my eyes.
I didn’t want to breathe. Oh he was there.
As I watched the plane turn and climb toward the sun, the poem he loved, “High Flight” by John Magee, went through my head:
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue,
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untresspassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
People wonder whether those who have died can see what is going on “down here.” I can only speak from my experience when I say: Not only do I know this is true, but I also know my dad has had his hands, wishes, and thoughts guiding my life since he passed on in ways he never did when he was alive. And the gap created by his death, while in no way overshadowed, is lessened at times, when he lets me know, in his own way, he’s still got my back.