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 so...so...” 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)
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