Thursday, January 4, 2007

"The Fuselage" ©

The following short story, "The Fuselage," © by Paul Berge, was written in 1987 and updated in 2007. It comes from a collection of Berge's aviation stories titled: "Aeromancy"©. All rights reserved by the author and Ahquabi House Publishing, LLC. For reprint permission or for details on how to submit your aviation short story (you won't get paid so don't quit the day job) please contact Ahquabi House Publishing, LLC at or call 515-961-0654

"The Fuselage" © by Paul Berge

He drove a '59 Rambler. It first appeared at the airport when Terry bought the old Waco fuselage, hauled it to the airport on a flatbed trailer and set it at the north end of the hangars in the weeds.
“What is it?” I asked.
“A Waco, Taperwing Waco,” Terry answered. “Bought it at a farm auction in Nebraska.”
“Where’s the rest of it?” There was only the uncovered airframe and vertical fin. The gear legs were attached but bent and without wheels.
“That’s all I got.”
“No wings? No engine?” I barely hid my amusement.
“No,” he said defensively. “Don’t need more. I can rebuild it with what’s there...and some plans...and a little scrounging.”

And that’s how it stayed throughout the year. The only one ever going near it was the old man who drove the Rambler. He’d turn up at twilight and always parked his car near a spot in the fence where the posts leaned over, drooping the barbed wire to the ground making it easy for him to step over and walk slowly to the old biplane’s fuselage. He had to be well over 90, I guessed, although he seemed in good health. At first, I thought he was just another stranger out to watch airplanes fly and simply chose that spot near the Waco to remain unobtrusive. Soon, however, I noticed he never watched us fly, preferring, instead, to stare at the derelict fuselage.

He did more than stare at it, his eyes moving as though taking inventory of what was left in the rusted structure, and I thought I saw him talking to the fuselage or talking with someone that I couldn’t see. Throughout the winter he’d appear before sunset, park the Rambler beside the fence, then pick his way through the dead weeds and snow around the fuselage--always studying it. He never looked anywhere else and never at me. His hands would occasionally reach out to touch the rusty airframe, and then as if he stood beside a complete biplane with engine and wings attached, he would nod his head in some sort of approval of something else I couldn’t see.

I moved closer to him one snowy afternoon and stood within hearing distance at the edge of a hangar. The air was cold and still as the inside of a closet. Snow collected on his thin shoulders and wide-brimmed hat. It coated the airframe’s tubing in fuzzy rails. His breath rose in weak puffs, indicating he was speaking. I strained to hear, but his voice was too thin. It sounded as though he issued instructions to someone unseen. Then he patted the fuselage with an approving smile and shuffled toward the Rambler, taking, I assumed, his unseen companion with him.

“Hey, Terry,” I asked one afternoon inside the shop. “Have you ever seen that old guy who comes out here poking around the Waco?”
“What old guy?” Terry answered from beneath a customer’s airplane.
“Some guy hangs around...You haven’t seen him?”
“No, I don’t get down that end of the field, too busy.” He dropped a wrench and it rang sharp against the concrete floor, punctuating his suspicion: “Why?”
“Oh, just wondering,” I said. “He seems, I don’t know, peculiar, that’s all.”
“You see any weirdoes around here, you chase them off. Airports always seem to attract weirdoes, somehow. Don’t know what it is about them.”

Spring came, snow left, yellow flowers grew thick around the derelict fuselage, and the Rambler continued to show up at sunset. I was busy flight instructing for Terry, hoping to save enough money to pay for my Airline Transport Pilot’s license. A rumor had spread that the airlines were hiring—the one’s that weren’t bankrupt--and the fever had me. I had to build hours, so day after day I slogged around the pattern, repeating the same speeches about airspeed and coordination to my faceless students. In spite of me, they learned to fly, and I accumulated hours toward my airline goal.

The days lengthened, the air turned warm, and the Rambler parked alongside the fence almost daily. I watched the old man for a few seconds at a time with each pass we’d make on a touch-and-go. For several days he confined himself to the airplane’s nose, pointing at the firewall and its empty motor mounts. Just as he had directed his imaginary companion around the nonexistent wings throughout the winter, he now assisted in overhauling an engine that wasn’t there. He even dragged an old wooden crate beside the fuselage and stood on it to reach where the tops cylinders would be, if there had been any, which there weren’t.

“Hey, Terry, that old guy’s back. You ought to see him. He thinks he’s putting an engine on the Waco.”
“Uh-huh,” Terry muttered without looking up from a stack of fuel receipts. “I thought I told you to keep the weirdoes out.”
“I don’t think he’s causing any trouble, it’s just...”
“Uh-huh. Don’t you have a student waiting outside?”

Around and around I droned in the traffic pattern through bad landing after bad landing. “Watch your airspeed; hold more rudder next time; correct for the wind, keep that wing down, use that adverse aileron yaw to your advantage. Okay, let’s go around and try it again.” The words fell from my mouth like so much nonsense from a parrot. Then, down the narrow airstrip, back into the sky, and each evening before sunset the Rambler would appear on the gravel road, stop beside the fence and the old man would walk slowly through the wildflowers to work on his biplane. I had to consider it his; no one else went near it.
“Hey, Susan,” I interrupted a student one afternoon, tapping her shoulder as we lifted off. “Do you see that old guy over there?”
“Where?” she responded in near panic. “Sorry! I didn’t see him; did I hit him?”
“No, he’s by the hangar.”
“No. Alive…I think. See?”
“No, back behind us...Oh, it’s too late, you can’t see him now. Watch your airspeed, let’s climb on up to 3000 feet.” I made a note never to interrupt Susan with my stray observations while she was concentrating on landing.

Spring folded into summer, and the yellow flowers around the fuselage gave way to fat grass and thistle full of bees and mice. I managed to get my airline license and then picked up the occasional charter flight hauling chickens mostly. Flying from dawn until after dark, the hours piled up in my logbook, and by mid-summer all I could think about was getting on with the airlines. My application was in, so I waited and continued to drag around the pattern in worn-out Cessnas looking for the old man to arrive each afternoon to put in his time with the Waco.

“Are you sure you’ve never seen him?” I asked Terry one morning before the first student arrived. “He’s down there every evening.”
“What’s his name?” Terry asked pouring a saucer full of evaporated milk for the airport cat.
“I don’t know, I’ve never met him, I’m always busy when he comes out, but you must have seen him.”
“No,” Terry snapped. “I’ve more important things to do than sit around chatting with airport groupies who’ve got more time than they know what to do with, so they sit out here drinking my coffee, watching me work and my airplanes fly without ever buying anything.”
“But he doesn’t watch them fly,” I said. “He just stays with the he was rebuilding it or something.”
“Has he been dinking around with my fuselage?”
“No, he really doesn’t do anything, that’s my point. He thinks he’s doing something.”
“All right,” Terry said standing. “Let’s go down right now and meet this nut case.”
“He’s not there now, he only shows at sunset.”
Terry shook his head and disappeared into the shop. I heard something drop and his muffled voice complaining. My first student drove up and the sun rose over the trees.

That evening as a thunderstorm rumbled to the east, and the ground steamed from the shower that had just passed over, I stood outside the office inhaling that beautiful moment that doesn’t exist anywhere else but on a small airport when the sky is soft and sounds like old dreams. My back ached from sitting all day in cramped cockpits. A Cessna 150 crawled overhead approaching to land, its engine a murmur against the distant thunder.

I looked along the hangar row and saw the Rambler’s grill poking through the weeds. The old man, silhouetted by the orange sun, was inside the Waco’s rear cockpit, seated on an overturned bucket, moving his head from side to side. He’d stare at the blank instrument panel, then lean out, calling to someone near the propeller--only, of course, there was no one near the propeller, and there was no propeller on this wingless, motorless, skeleton biplane.

I looked around and except for the Cessna turning final I was alone. Terry had run into town, and my next flight, a charter, was not due for fifteen minutes, so I went to finally meet the old man in the Waco. I made it as far as the second hangar when Terry’s truck drove into the parking lot beside a gray Cadillac. He hurried toward me, calling: “Your charter’s here.” My passengers walked toward the Piper Seneca while talking on cellphones with that I’m-very-important look that indicates that they have nothing to say and only talk on cellphones in hopes someone will acknowledge their being.
“What are you waiting for?” Terry asked. “Get their bags...and smile.”
I glanced toward the Waco before turning back. The old man motioned toward his phantom assistant while shaking his head. Apparently the Waco’s imaginary engine had refused to start.
“Did you see him?” I called back to Terry, but he was already inside the office.

With autumn a week away, Terry was mowing the weeds around the Waco. The flail mower cut even circles around the old airframe, chewing up thistle and grass into dying summer’s pulp. I hadn’t seen the Rambler for a week and missed the old man’s presence at twilight. The sun dropped below the horizon, and the air cooled as Terry parked the tractor in its shed, and I went home.

Mixed in with the usual mail that evening was a thick envelope from the airlines. I tore into it dropping a handful of forms onto the kitchen table. I read the cover letter, hoping to spot the key phrase somewhere in the standard organizational format. There it was: “Please notify this office no later than 15 October to schedule an interview...” I was in—well, almost. No more students or charters, I was going to work for the airlines. One day it might even pay more than flight-instructing.

That night I barely slept and was out to the airport before dawn. The air was cool, and the wind calm across a rosy sky. The runway lights flickered pale yellow, and I walked through the dew-covered grass in what I thought was a random route but actually lead toward the Waco. Fate giggled at my notions of self-control when I heard a deep clacking rumble slap at the morning air. An engine started, a large engine, definitely not one of the Cessnas or even the Seneca, which I knew was still inside the hangar. Someone advanced the throttle, and what sounded like a radial engine growled from around the last hangar. I hurried as the sun broke above the treetops turning autumn into a firestorm of yellows and lavender. The radial’s call, a vicious drum line, was now intense as I turned the corner of the last hangar, and a sparrow shot past my face from beneath an eave. I swatted, then stood with arms limp at my side staring at a full, all-black biplane with furnace-red trim, its radial engine swinging a long silver propeller that caught the sun’s early rays in a flashing pinwheel of dream light.

It was, of course, the Waco Taperwing that had no wings. Only, now it did, and a tail, and tires, plus a radial engine, and a woman who looked like dawn itself as she smiled from the front cockpit. The sunlight was sucked into the ebony fabric and exploded back in deep glory, accented by the red trim that looked too hot to touch. Atop this flaming vision a tall figure in leather swung into the rear cockpit. But before he settled into his seat he turned toward me. The sun lit his face in that same red that fired the sky, but even in shadow, I would’ve known who it was--the old man from the Rambler.

It was his face but sixty years younger; the hair full, curly, and dark. His shoulders were broad, arms and legs quick. He waved, smiled, and pulled a leather helmet over his ears but left the straps dangling. Squinting against the sight, I barely returned his wave when he opened the throttle, and the Waco taxied past me in a symphony of wind and power. Then ignoring the paved runway, it bounced across the grass and lifted into the dawn sky. With a wave from both occupants, it banked and vanished in a tapering finale of unearthly light and sound.

The runway lights clicked off as Terry’s pickup turned onto the gravel road toward the office. For several minutes I stared at the now empty sky then turned back to where the Waco had been. The weeds were evenly cropped where Terry had mowed but stood in a ragged V forming the shape of the now missing fuselage. The sun rose higher. The dawn colors faded into daylight, and I looked beyond the weeds and the fence to the Rambler parked alone and empty. Terry appeared by my side.
“Where the blazes is my Waco?” he bellowed.
“I...I don’t think it was ever yours,” I said and walked toward the car. And there on the dashboard was the key, the car’s title signed by the owner, and a note to me: Hey Kid. Pump the accelerator twice on a cold day and she starts fine. It’s a boring car, but looks as though you’re heading into a boring life unless you remember what you saw here.
And I tossed the key back on the dash and walked away realizing that I had a long way to go before I learned how to fly.
The End

© 1987, renewed 2007, Paul Berge
All rights reserved.

No comments: