Monday, April 23, 2007

"First Flight Deserved Last Rites" ©

“First Flight Deserved Last Rites” A C.A.P. cadet's intro to flight.
© 2004, Paul Berge

Dreamers by definition live on the edge of reality and learn that to deviate from the sublime can lead to unintended enlightenment. In the summer of 1967, my aviation fantasies reformed when I took my first airplane ride.

A Civil Air Patrol recruiter promised flight that I, a 13-year old dreamer, expanded into visions of being at the controls of a T-38 jet trainer, taxiing to the runway with the canopy up and an oxygen mask dangling from my helmet. I envisioned smooth climbs past marshmallow clouds where I’d impress the instructor with loops and rolls and perhaps a maneuver that the Air Force hadn’t yet imagined. So, it was with profound anticipation that I stood in formation at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey with several thousand other sweating C.A.P. cadets, our acned faces scarlet from the heat. A colonel resembling Ernest Borgnine wiped his forehead and gave the vital preflight mission briefing: “The first flight commences after lunch, so don’t eat too much.” That was it; not a lot of info for a first-time flyer, but being a teenager, I ignored what I didn’t understand and packed away macaroni salad, tater tots, and lime Jell-O, washed down with a half-gallon of chocolate milk.

Later, outside the mess hall we loaded onto blue school buses and rode to the flight line where instead of rows of sleek T-38s we found a lone—rather worn--C-130 Hercules, four-engine transport shimmering in the dull heat, its back end open like a panting eel awaiting prey. A crewman, barely older than us, stood on the ramp smirking with amused distain. Being a teenager I was used to that look from adults but didn’t expect it on my first flight.

“Find a seat and buckle in,” he called as we herded into the Herc’s belly. Intense heat sucked the air from my lungs and I dropped onto a canvas seat along the bulkhead beneath a window that was too high above me to use. “Let’s git a move on, gentlemen,” our host grumbled. Then, as the ramp door shut he gave his welcome-aboard speech: “Don’t touch nuthin’, don’t get out a’ yer seats ‘til I says so, and don’t puke on my airplane.” I vaguely wondered what he meant by that because I felt fine. “If’n you do feel dis-com-fort,” he continued, “then use the bags located above your seats.” Then he disappeared before I could ask him to repeat since I didn’t see any bags. Still, I wasn’t ill, so I handled the information the way I did all adult advice and ignored it.

As yet my first flight didn’t match my soaring imagination. Where I’d expected fighter-style cockpits, I now sat strapped on a bench inside a solar oven with no view of the sky. An engine whined to life and managed to route its kerosene exhaust into the airplane. Eventually, all four turbines churned against the heat, and we taxied for what seemed like miles, although without a window I could only mark progress as the wheels clicked across the expansion joints in the pavement. The heat intensified and soon burnt jet fuel was all we breathed, but being from New Jersey my lungs could handle it.

Finally, this aluminum warehouse with its wilted cargo rumbled down the runway until with an upward pitch of the deck followed moments later by the groan of gear retracting, I knew we were flying. Since entering the airplane however, I hadn’t seen a speck of sky but despite this, I knew I’d crossed over from being a dreamer of flight to flyer.

“You can stand up and look outside now,” the airman called. As one we unbuckled our seatbelts, stood, and lunged to peer through the few available windows. But as I stood and turned I felt all the squishy parts inside my head continue to spin even though my skull had stopped. Instantly, as though I’d been injected with a fast-acting emetic, my skin chilled, knees unhooked, and I slid like wet laundry onto the seat and stared at the floor, where there appeared two well-shined black shoes beneath an airman’s voice: “You ain’t gonna puke now are you?”

I tried to answer, but instead of words macaroni salad and tater tots in a slurry of warm chocolate milk and lime Jell-O shot from my mouth and onto those shiny shoes.

There was much yelling after that, but I didn’t care because I was dying. In all my earthbound fantasies of flight, I’d never once dreamt of airsickness, didn’t know it existed, and I’d guess that any of the dozen or so other cadets on that flight who soon followed my lead to coat an Air Force transport’s floor with barely-chewed mess hall chow, were equally surprised at this phenomenon.

After 20 minutes of shaking C.A.P. cadets into jellied wretches above the New Jersey pinelands in the summer heat, the C-130 returned to base. The landing gear moaned down and locked before its tires smacked the runway with the grace of a cement truck dropped from a Zeppelin. And as we taxied back I expected to see a row of ambulances waiting to haul us to emergency Red Cross tents. But, instead, the Hercules stopped, dropped its back ramp, and with military efficiency we were herded off—green-faced and broken—while the next batch of cadets marched up the other side of the ramp no-doubt wondering what fate awaited them aloft. I can still see their faces as the cargo door sealed them inside the fetid C-130’s belly before it taxied away.

Some firsts aren’t so hot. On that, my first flight, I didn’t even get to look out the window. There was no joyous swooping and soaring. I didn’t slip surly bonds or touch the face of anyone’s god but, instead, merely heaved on an unsung airman’s shoes. Still, whatever dream had led me to flight survived despite this gut-shot of reality, and although it took several more flights—none in a C-130—before anyone would invite me back a second time, my dream of wings never died. And today when a new student climbs into the cockpit with me I never mention the possibility of aerial dis-com-fort because I don’t want to plant a bad seed inside a dreamer’s imagination where fantasies of flight should grow. Enlightened as I now am, however, I won’t hesitate to cinch a garbage bag over their heads at the first hint of a dream reaching the edge.

The End


First Flight Deserved Last Rites © was written by Paul Berge, all rights reserved. And the CAP and USAF reserved the right to never invite him back for a second ride.

Monday, April 16, 2007

"Last Ride Forever" Part 3 of 3 © 1987, 2007, Paul Berge

The Last Ride Forever ©, 1987, 2004, 2007 by Paul Berge, originally appeared in the audio book the Logbook (ISBN 0-9728150-2-3) © 2004. Join a WASP on her final flight.

(continued from Part 2. See Archive at left for Part 1)

...The snake reached for the upper tube and, tongue probing the air, wound slowly toward the chipmunk.

Eva turned and ran. The bristled weeds clutched at her gown and legs. She reached the hangar completely out of breath and pressed her face against the wooden door. It gave. She stepped back and glanced over her shoulder at the fuselage where the chipmunk was about to be swallowed whole by the snake. She pressed on the door and followed it inside.

And, now, Part 3, the conclusion to Last Ride Forever, by Paul Berge:

Late afternoon sunlight filtered through the many cracks in the ceiling, probing the still room with dusty yellow fingers. Eva’s feet dragged through the grit and debris on the warped linoleum floor. A mouse scurried along a baseboard and disappeared through a crack.

A row of windows faced the abandoned runway. Most of the glass had been smashed out and plywood boards covered the holes. Eva’s bare feet pressed into the glass shards without cutting.
“This was the pilot’s lounge,” she said. “That’s where the model airplanes hung.”
She swiped at the ceiling as though trying to set the imaginary models in motion.
“There was a couch across here, below the windows. Somebody was always trying to sleep there. And a table in the center of the room covered with magazines and charts and coffee cups.

“Whenever anyone soloed we would cut their shirt tail off and pin it to the walls around the room.”
She twirled in a sweeping turn, her two arms taking in the whole room. Her face wore a bright distant smile.
“The instructor would print the date of the solo on the shirt tail and sign it. I complained when they cut mine, because it was my favorite blouse, but I really didn’t mind, you know.” She pointed. “It hung there. April 16th, 1940. And Ed’s signature across the bottom.
“When he was cutting it out he made like he would accidentally snip through my bra strap. Well, of course, this made everyone laugh and applaud. My face turned the brightest red.” She stared at the empty wall, where the paint was now peeling and water stains ran to the floor.
Something stirred outside--an engine barked. Eva turned.

“Wake up, Mrs. Gwyer,” the nurse’s voice cut through the deep fog in Eva’s brain. “Wake up, I need to change your bedding.” It was a different nurse, one she had never seen. The woman was tall and strong, yet gentle. She felt herself being lifted while fresh sheets were tucked under her weak and useless body.
“Why don’t you let me alone?” she implored, her voice merely a croak.

The room was dark, except for the harsh direct light from above the bed. The nurse worked swiftly, effortlessly. Eva was jostled from side to side, allowing the nurse to make the bed one half at a time. The smell of starched white linen was strong in her nostrils.
“I was at the airport,” she said. “I remember. I was there, just now.” Eva gazed straight at the nurse who nodded and smiled while tucking in the corners, pulling the sheets drum tight.
“What airport was that, Mrs. Gwyer?”

Eva’s face grew blank, confused by the question, as though the nurse had asked something completely absurd. “What airport was what?” Eva asked.
“You said you were at an airport,” the nurse persisted. Somewhere beyond the doorway a phone rang, and a muffled voice answered it. Outside, the night sky flashed with diffused lightning. Eva turned toward the glass.

“It looks like rain tonight,” the nurse said and pulled the sheets to Eva’s chin. “Do you need anything?”
Eva stared into the friendly eyes, considering the question. Filled with sincerity, it fell woefully short of anything she could comprehend. ‘Do I need anything? Yes, I need everything. I need life, and health...and I want, no I long to look at the clouds.’

The lightning flashed again. Eva turned back to the window and saw her reflection in the black glass, a hollow shadow, alone and tired. Suddenly, the night exploded in stark white, and she saw the trees lean against the initial blast of the storm. The window rattled from the boom of distant thunder drawing near.
“I want to fly,” she said. “I want to fly again.” She turned back to the nurse. “I used to fly. Ed taught me. Did you know him?”

She turned back to the dark window. Lightning tracked spider webs across the sky.
“Ed always wore an old leather jacket and smoked Chesterfields. He drove a motorcycle; it made such a racket. He’d run it right down the runway, racing the airplanes. Drove the airport manager--can’t think of his name, ah, Bill something--drove him nuts.” She turned to the nurse, who listened patiently, her face deeply creviced by the overhead light.

“Bill Cleverdon. That was his name, and Ed’s motorcycle was an Indian. The first time he asked me out on a date I was terrified he’d show up on that bike, but somehow he borrowed Bill’s Essex, and that was almost as bad. Seats were worn through, and you could look right between the rotten floorboards at the road whizzing past.”

The nurse said nothing, only listened. She had done it many times before. It was all that was left to do.
Eva looked into the night. “Ed had thick wavy brown hair.”

The sky rumbled, and fat raindrops, like tears, splattered against the glass, smearing her reflection.

“The Army shaved it all off when he went in, of course, but by the time he went overseas in ‘44 it had grown back--pretty much.”

She was quiet. A telephone rang down the hallway again. Someone swept into the room, whispered to the nurse and left.

“Mrs. Gwyer, I have to go. You call if you need...” But Eva was staring at the rain and muttering to herself. The nurse left.

Water cascaded in sheets along the glass. Eva thought for a moment she was looking into a fast moving river.

“Ed?” she called, raising herself on an elbow. “Do you remember the Waco? Do you remember how we flew it down the beach that summer?” She dropped heavily onto the pillow. Suddenly, the room was lighted with a bright white flash, and then plunged into shadows again. “We should do that again.”

Eva tugged at her hospital gown caught on the barbed wire fence. It gave with a sharp rip, and she fell giggling to the weeds. Flat on her back, she gazed at the deep blue sky and watched chubby white clouds move slowly toward the horizon.

The air was heavy with pine; from somewhere in the distance the sweet chirp of a clarinet played Artie Shaw. She recognized the tune, or at least knew that she should remember it. She rose.

“What a beautiful day!” she exclaimed, and brushed stems and seeds from her gown. “Will you look at the way I’m dressed.” She laughed aloud. One hand ran fingers through her suddenly long hair. The sound of a small airplane motor starting made her turn.

“Where are you?” she called. She started to run, her legs strong, eager to move. The sun pressed down, spreading vague warmth that also blinded her. She had trouble seeing where she was headed, or what was around her.

She found the runway, still crumbled and full of weeds, and at the limits of her hazy vision she could see the hangar past the chain link fence.

She glanced down at her gown, at her feet. They were melting out of focus. The clarinet played on. The airplane motor ticked in time with the music. She ran.

Overhead, an airliner descended, its jet engines whining. She turned, saw the aluminum skin glint in the sun, then, instantly, it vanished.

Eva no longer felt her body move; only the sensation of motion carried her along the runway toward the hangar and the source of the music.
The chain link fence was in sharp focus, blocking her path, and she reached out to grab it.
“Mrs. Gwyer,” the voice called. She ran. “Mrs. Gwyer, do you hear me?”
“No!” Eva shouted, and the airport faded until the hospital room appeared in her vision. Two figures huddled together over her bed, and a third entered.

“How is she?” the third asked.
‘Hello, Barbara,’ Eva tried to say.
“Can she talk? Can she hear me?” her daughter asked, her questions sharp and to the point, the way she always spoke.

‘Barbara, you’re just going to have to loosen up a little, you’re too damn serious.’

Someone poked her arm with a needle. The pain eluded her.
‘Oh, don’t waste your time, for crying out loud...’
The light faded, and she was at the airport.

“Mrs. Gwyer...” the voice persisted.

‘Good-bye,’ Eva thought and reached for the chain link fence. It gave under her pressure, evaporating into air. She moved along the runway toward the hangar where the office door stood open.

“Close the door, Eva. You’ll let all the flies out.” The man’s voice came from behind a counter near the source of the music. She pushed the door shut behind her, and a swarm of tiny airplanes suspended from the ceiling danced on the wind.
“Hello, Bill,” she called. “What’s that music?”
The man barely took form, beyond the little airplanes, but his voice came back, “Begin the Beguine?”
She nodded slowly and approached the window. Outside, the world was bright, and hazy figures appeared around a grass field dotted with airplanes.
“Is he out there?” she asked.
“See for yourself,” Bill’s voice answered.

Eva moved closer to the window, looking for the man in the leather jacket and wavy hair. Someone taxied a Cub past, and someone waved.

“Have I come to stay?” she asked Bill. He shrugged, his entire form still misty near the music. Eva turned back to the window, lifting herself onto the arm of a couch. She leaned against the cool glass, and from the corner of her vision saw the rusted fuselage alone in a patch of weeds.

She flinched. The chipmunk was there, atop the highest tube. The snake had curled its way unnoticed to a position directly behind it. Eva stared. She waited, as the snake, its tongue probing the air, sized up its prey. Like the chipmunk, she was unable to move.

Before she knew what happened, it struck.

She gasped. The music stopped. The chipmunk was gone. The snake eased down the tubing and disappeared, swallowing the image of the rusted fuselage with it. The music returned. The door behind her opened, and the little suspended airplanes bounced overhead. She stepped outside.

There, beyond the Cubs, past the Rearwin, the Taylorcraft, and the Fairchild, stood the Waco. Its massive wings reached out for her, its silver propeller spun in a huge disk, reflecting the sun’s glare.

And around the tail, stepped a man, dressed in a leather jacket and running his fingers through his wavy brown hair.

The End

The Last Ride Forever© was written by Paul Berge and was produced for radio by Rejection Slip Theater. Morgan Halgren of Iowa Public TV, played Eva. Rejection Slip Theater can be heard, free, worldwide at:
To order the CD audio book, the Logbook©, for $19.95 plus tax and shipping, send an e-mail request to: DO NOT INCLUDE CREDIT CARD INFO!

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

"Last Ride Forever" Part 2 of 3 © 1987, 2007, Paul Berge

The Last Ride Forever ©, 1987, 2004, 2007 by Paul Berge, originally appeared in the audio book the Logbook (ISBN 0-9728150-2-3) © 2004. Join a WASP on her final flight.
(continued from Part 1--see Archive) The pine trees moaned with the wind. Eva drew closer to the hangar. Its boards weathered gray, its windows either missing entirely or cracked. She stepped past a rusted twist of steel tubing with a small tree growing through it. It was a fuselage, but from what she could only guess. A chipmunk sat on the highest point, its front paws held as though in prayer, its eyes fixed and staring. Below him, the grass moved where a snake gradually wound its way along a tube, coiling up towards the chipmunk...


And, now, Part 2 of The Last Ride Forever, by Paul Berge:

Eva stared. The chipmunk remained immobile, the snake inching ever closer. The wind blew the aroma of the warm pines toward them, and she saw the snake’s tongue shoot out, probing. She wanted to shout, to warn the little animal, but her voice failed her. Gradually, the snake worked his way through the remains of the old airplane, reaching for the chipmunk.

Eva turned to the hangar. She could see where the flying school’s sign had once hung. The COCA COLA sign was still there, but it was shot full of rusty holes, so only the tip of the green bottle was still recognizable.
She looked back at the chipmunk. It never moved.
‘Run!’ she wanted to shout, but the sound never left her voice. The snake, its tongue shooting forth in quick stabs, moved closer.

“Ed was a flight instructor here,” she said, purposefully turning away from the snake. “That’s where I met him.” She pointed at the hangar, to a small door beside the riddled COCA COLA sign. “That was the office. It was full of model airplanes suspended from the ceiling by strings, so whenever anyone opened the door all the little airplanes would dance around like they were caught in a storm.”
She smiled.
She glanced at the chipmunk, still motionless on the fuselage, its paws still in prayer. The snake was now only inches below him.

“There was a map on the wall, too,” she said too loudly. “A map of the whole country, with a tack marking this airport, and a string off that so you could measure distances to any place else in the country.”

The snake was now within striking distance of the chipmunk, but still it refused to move, or admit to the danger.
‘Why don’t you do something?’ she screamed, but again, the voice only echoed in her head, never reaching the animal.
Slowly, the snake’s head rose.
“Do something!”

“We’re doing something,” the young man’s voice came softly through the fog. “You just relax.”
Eva’s vision broke through a heavy cloud. She was no longer at the airport, no longer staring at the hangar and the snake.
“What?” she asked, confused, and saw the doctor leaning over her bed, one hand on her shoulder the other holding a chart in a gray metal folder.

“Can you hear me, Mrs. Gwyer?” He shouted the question, as though calling to her down a long tunnel. She heard his voice, but wanted to ignore him. She turned her head on the pillow and looked down at her feet. The blankets were pulled back, and a nurse rubbed lotion onto her frail twig legs. The hospital gown was bunched to one side.

“I’ll give you something to help you sleep,” the young doctor shouted again and wrote furiously in the metal folder before snapping it shut. She only caught his eyes once, deep set and dark--tired and impersonal eyes.
“I want...” Eva said and forgot what she wanted.
“What, Dear,” the nurse’s friendly voice asked. “What do you want?”
Eva strained to remember what she wanted. She knew she had been dreaming, but the dream was vanishing until all she could remember was the snake.

“A snake,” she announced. ‘No, that can’t be right,’ she thought and laughed inside her head.
“You want a snake?” the nurse asked with an amused lilt in her voice. “I don’t think you want that. Now, just let me turn you over and I’ll get your back.”

Eva felt herself being gently rolled over. She felt as though her body was a light bag of fragile bones ready to crack. Her face pressed into the pillow, her nose filled with the sanitized odor of hospital linen. Across the room she recognized a face, her daughter.

The woman, in her mid-40s, stood alone and sad in the shadows, staring at her dying mother being rubbed and charted by the staff. Eva smiled and saw her daughter force a smile in return. ‘Why is she so gloomy?’ she asked herself, feeling her senses sharpen. “Barbara?” she called.

“Yes, Mom,” her daughter answered and moved toward the bed.
“What am I doing here?” she asked. Her daughter started to answer and looked to the doctor, who shrugged, not an I-don’t-know shrug but more I-can’t-help. Eva tapped her almost hairless skull weakly. “I feel something going on in here, Barbara. There’s something taking me away...”
She closed her eyes.

The doctor took Barbara aside. “She’s in little pain,” he said. He spoke mechanically, having been on duty for over 23 hours already. “She’ll talk about strange things; brain tumors do that. One minute lucid; the next she could babble like an infant.”
“How much longer?”
“Anytime,” he said. “All we can do is keep her comfortable.”
“What, no more miracle cures like the chemotherapy, until the rest of her hair falls out? Or maybe teeth or eyes?”
“I’m sorry. We had to try, but we can’t always...”
She cut him off with a wave, and he left the room. The nurse finished the rubdown, rolled Eva onto her back and tucked the blankets securely around her. She then placed the oxygen tubes back into her nostrils and started to leave.
“Thank-you,” Barbara said, her voice hollow.
“Your mother has been talking about airplanes a great deal. Did she work for the airlines?”
Barbara thought for a minute. “No,” she said. And then, “But she was a pilot…”
“A long time ago, before the war, before I was born. And during the war she flew with the WASP….”
“Oh, I’ve heard of them,” the nurse said and tried to recall the acronym: “Women’s Air Something Planes?”
“Women Airforce Service Pilots…yes. She flew bombers on, ah, ferry flights, during the war.”
“Really?” The nurse seemed honestly impressed.
Barbara laughed. “I haven’t thought about that in years; she rarely ever mentioned it. She has some old photographs of herself in the pilot’s seat of these big old airplanes, her and some other women in uniform. She said they flew all kinds of warplanes across the country. She saw more military duty than many men in the service, but for years they never received any recognition from the government as veterans. I don’t know if they’d even let her into a veteran’s hospital. She’d never let me ask.”

“Did she fly after the war?” the nurse asked.
“No, she became pregnant with me in 1945, and my father was killed over Germany. He was a fighter pilot. She never flew again. Rarely spoke of him.”
“Did she remarry?”
“Yes, and he became my father. He died several years ago. I loved him, but I don’t think they really ever got along too well together.”

Suddenly, Barbara looked at the nurse. “I don’t know why I told you that...I shouldn’t have. Excuse me.”
She stared at her mother, thin and still beneath the heavy covers. Only the occasional rise and fall of her chest indicating any life. “Please call me if anything...” She left the room in a hurry.

Eva unhooked the hem of her hospital gown from the rusty barb on the wire fence. Her bare feet pressed lightly into the dried weeds. Overhead, an airliner descended toward a runway three miles away, and Eva walked toward the old hangar on the deserted airstrip.

The scent of pine was heavy in the warm air, and she breathed in deeply. Passing a dusty pit full of beer cans and a shopping cart, she remembered a day in 1940 when a friend ground looped a Taylorcraft into it.

“Oh, they got into such an argument,” she said aloud. “They eventually got married, you know,” she said to no one. “George and Doris that is. He went off and flew bombers in the Pacific--B-24’s. She was the one who told me all about the WASP, talked me into joining. Last I heard they lived in New York, upstate somewhere. He’s retired from TWA, I believe. She writes to me--a Christmas card every year...” Her voice trailed off as she stepped onto the deteriorated runway and stared at the wooden hangar.

Eva reached the chain link fence. Her legs grew heavy, her breath tight and short. She leaned against the fence.

“There was a grass strip that ran across the paved runway,” she said. “We actually preferred the grass to the pavement. Every landing was a good one on grass. The flight examiners would make us land on the pavement, and, oh, how the tires would chirp and squeal. Showed us what sloppy landings we were really making. Did I mention I soloed here? In a Waco?”

She pushed away from the fence, stepped over a broken bottle and walked toward the hangar. Her pace quickened with each step.
“We had a Fairchild.” She pointed toward a cluster of low trees. “There was another hangar there.” The concrete base of the long vanished hangar could be seen through the foliage.
“I took my instrument training in the Fairchild. Ed instructed in that, too.” She looked away. A flight of robins lifted from the pine trees, circled over the runway, and in an undulating wave, returned to the woods. Eva continued toward the hangar.

She saw the rusted fuselage beneath the bullet riddled COCA COLA sign. The chipmunk sat unmoving, unaware of the snake beginning to coil along the welded tubing toward him.

‘That’s not the place to be,’ she tried to say, but the words stuck in her throat. The snake reached for the upper tube and, tongue probing the air, wound slowly toward the chipmunk.

Eva turned and ran. The bristled weeds clutched at her gown and legs. She reached the hangar completely out of breath and pressed her face against the wooden door. It gave. She stepped back and glanced over her shoulder at the fuselage where the chipmunk was about to be swallowed whole by the snake. She pressed on the door and followed it inside. (to be continued…)

*** End Part 2 of 3 ***
To order the CD audio book, the Logbook©, for $19.95 plus tax and shipping, send an e-mail request to: DO NOT INCLUDE CREDIT CARD INFO!

Thursday, April 5, 2007

"Last Ride Forever" Part 1 of 3, © 1987, 2007, Paul Berge

The Last Ride Forever ©, 1987, 2004, 2007 by Paul Berge, originally appeared in the audio book the Logbook (ISBN 0-9728150-2-3) © 2004. Join a WASP on her final flight.

She stepped carefully over the top strand of the wire fence. A rusty barb tore at her dressing gown, refusing to let her proceed. With one hand on the old dry post, Eva clutched the gown and pulled. The cotton skirt ripped in a long ragged strip from her knee to across her hip. She wanted to cry. The wind, although light, was warm and carried forgotten smells from the pinewoods across the abandoned runway.
Everything was exactly as it had once been, but everything had changed.

Weeds obscured the ramp where once a dozen small airplanes had parked. The pole where the SHELL fuel sign had been was still visible. Even the ring where the enamel yellow sign hung still remained, only now it looked to Eva like a basketball hoop set the wrong way. A sparrow perched in the center, its head twitching in the breeze, ignoring her. She clutched the tattered gown as best she could around her thin legs and set out across the field.

Overhead, the whine of an airliner slowly crossed the sky. She watched the jet lower its wheels on final approach to the international airport only three miles away. The sun glinted off the jet’s fuselage, and it rocked briefly in the wind. When she turned her eyes back to the old airstrip, the sparrow was gone.

She wanted to stop. Her breath came hard, her heart pounding in her temples and ears, her vision suddenly cloudy. The climb over the barbed wire fence had somehow exhausted her. Eva desperately wanted to get across the runway to the parking ramp, to the old building just visible against the pine trees.
“Should have worn my shoes,” she mumbled looking at her bare feet in the dry weeds. The torn hospital gown did little to block the wind, but she could not remember why she was wearing it.

Another jet descended across the trees, its landing gear popping out at the same spot where the last one had extended its.
“Like robots,” Eva said with a smile. “Can’t think for themselves.”
The runway was almost completely overgrown with stubby vegetation. The black hardtop had decomposed into gray pebbles laced with cracks where the weeds had taken root. Slowly the old pavement was returning to earth. When the weeds had broken the pavement into small enough pieces, the pine trees would take root, and eventually there would be no trace of the airfield ever having been there. Eva took all this in without sadness. She was resigned to the strip’s fate, almost happy.

The gravel crunched under her bare feet in soft contrast to the stream of jets overhead. A flight of robins, headed north, popped from the trees and swooped low over her head. Friendly chirps blended perfectly with her footsteps.

“Doris and George ran the Taylorcraft off the runway right over there,” she said and pointed toward a dusty pit beneath a line of scrub oak. She laughed. “Doris said George was flying, and George swore he told her to make the landing…” She stopped and put a thin white hand to her chin, the delicate fingertips touching her dry lips. She tilted her head, seeing what was long gone. “I think Doris was paying more attention to George, than the airplane, and I know George had his eyes on other things than the runway.” She stared at the empty pit beside the runway, the only thing there, now, a dozen empty beer cans and a shopping cart turned on its side.

Eva walked down the abandoned runway and stared at the chain link fence that cut across it two thirds of the way down. The city had years before converted the land into a parking area for its road equipment, and erected a fence across the runway around a collection of snow plows. She looked beyond the fence.

What drew her along was the hangar, or what was left of it, at the far end of the field. It was the only structure remaining.

“I soloed here,” she announced to no one. “In April, April the 16th, 1940.” She stepped on a stone and recoiled, almost falling. Her strength was failing rapidly, her vision was fading, she longed to sleep, to lie on the broken pavement amid the tall weeds and sleep.

“I soloed here,” she repeated. “In a Waco. That’s a biplane, an awfully big biplane.” She listened to more robins flying out from the trees; there voices as sweet as the spring air itself, their energy as young and vital, as she felt old and wasted. She looked down at the white hospital gown, and a shudder of fear raced through her. She gathered the skirt tight around her and headed toward the hangar.
“Yes,” she cried, “I soloed here.” Her feet scraped on the old pavement, her steps quickening. “I made three landings--good landings. Although, maybe, I bounced the first one just a little.” Tears rose to her eyes, further clouding her vision. She hurried toward the hangar so far away. “I remember that big radial engine swinging a massive silver propeller. I was so scared of that when I first flew, but after eight or ten hours I came to love it.”
She left the runway for the taller weeds along the chain link fence. Her fingers clutched at the metal weave, and she pulled herself along, hand over hand, her breath coming in short tight spasms as she tried to reach the hangar.

“There were so many of us!” she cried aloud. “So many, and everyone so young and beautiful and” She leaned her face against the chain mail, her voice coming in sobs. “Jack took the Cub up one afternoon and did twenty loops in a row. Beth, took that as a challenge, and as soon as he landed, hopped in and did twenty-five.” She pushed away from the fence and ran her fingers through the few strands of gray hair left on her head. “Then Allison showed them all up by doing thirty loops and a five-turn spin back into the pattern.”

The pine trees moaned with the wind. Eva drew closer to the hangar. Its boards weathered gray, its windows either missing entirely or cracked. She stepped past a rusted twist of steel tubing with a small tree growing through it. It was a fuselage, but from what she could only guess. A chipmunk sat on the highest point, its front paws held as though in prayer, its eyes fixed and staring. Below him, the grass moved where a snake gradually wound its way along a tube, coiling up towards the chipmunk....(to be continued)

*** End Part 1 ***

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