by Tamuira Reid
“Planes have always been a theme in my life,” my father says and asks me how the essay is going. I tell him fine. It has some problems, but fine. Still trying to work out the structure. I hear him smile to fill the distance between us.
The last decade was bad for airplanes.
Hudson. Turkey. Buffalo. Tokyo.
And Air France. Twice.
MAN was killed instantly when a Boeing (INSERT MODEL HERE) Jet lost control and crashed into his house. He was asleep at the time, a hand positioned under his pillow, unfinished Sunday crossword on the nightstand. WIFE AND DAUGHTER managed to escape seconds before the plane hit. They would have to start their lives over now, start from scratch.
SEASONED PILOT, male, lands Boeing (INSERT MODEL HERE) Jet safely into the Hudson River after a BIRD STRIKE on BOTH ENGINES. All CREW and PASSENGERS were evacuated from the plane safely. No major INJURIES were reported.
In 1950 a CESSNA two-seater nose-dived in to the Pacific Ocean, just outside of San Francisco. The plane held TWO MEN; one of them was MY GRANDFATHER.
Is it possible to miss someone I've never met?
Would you call my father a liar if he told you the perfect story? If he told you that at exactly 1 p.m. he fell into a fence, blinded by a white light so strong and pure it knocked his feet from under him, a math book open in the gutter, seedless grapes hanging in clusters from a vine above his head?
At exactly 1 p.m. my grandfather's plane crashed into the ocean. The velocity with which he hit the water was enough to tear the clothes from his body. Shoes too.
You always remember the grapes. They looked like tiny Christmas bulbs.
After the funeral, you paced around the back yard, the one that would become a basketball court but wasn't yet. You stepped on weeds, pressed their bodies to the ground. Tossed pebbles into the grass to watch them sink.
What words did you choose when you told your little brother about the accident? Your mind was someplace else by then. Left the body to fend for itself.
2012: Discovery Channel filmmakers purposefully crash a 727 Jet into the Mexican desert in the name of passenger safety research. It was concluded that following the guidelines on the seat-back safety cards might actually increase your chances of survival.
It was also noted that real people were replaced by crash test dummies.
The Coast Guard found my grandfather's wallet at the scene of the accident. Two pictures were still tucked neatly inside; one of his children standing in front of a lopsided Christmas tree and the other of his wife in a bikini.
My father fell into the cracks of his own life but clawed back out, “tooth and nail” his mother would say. “Tooth and nail, that Johnny.” I imagine him scaling trees with his bare hands.
You were fifteen and didn't want to lose your father but you did. That's the way it worked. He was there and then he wasn't. Just like that.
The jazz piano, the horns, the violin, the drums. It was what “made him tick”.
He understood the world by the sound of it — his wedding band always keeping a beat against the steering wheel, finding the rhythm of it all — in the traffic, in the birds, in the long night stretched out in front of him.
Before his death, he dreamt of buying his own car dealership. He was good at what he did in the way that someone born with extreme amounts of charisma usually is. Even when you knew it was a rip off, that the numbers didn't add up, that it couldn't possibly run that smooth, that fast, for that long, you wanted to believe him because he believed in you. “Gave me a crap deal on that Buick” someone would say at the funeral, nothing but a smile on their face.
2009: Pilot “Sully” Sullenberger lands his plane carrying 155 passengers safely onto the Hudson River, telling reporters, “It felt as if the bottom had fallen out of our world.”
I balanced a tallboy of Budweiser between my knees and smeared eyeliner along my lash lines, studying my work in the rearview mirror. My head hurt. My face hurt. My body hurt. I was too young to be hurting in all the places I was hurting. “You can't drink now – they will smell it on you, for Christ's sake!” “Mom, it's rehab. It's the one place I can go where they expect me to smell like alcohol.”
My friend Miguel threw his crack pipe out the window and into the redwood trees only seconds before he pulled up to the front door. Later, over a shared cigarette, we wondered if the deer had found it, what they did with it. We worried that maybe they would develop a bad habit or have crack babies, little Bambies running around with darting eyes and missing limbs.
Miguel wore Oakland A's sweatshirts and big brass belt buckles and we ate soft-serve ice cream together under an oak tree by the entrance and guessed how long each new client would last. He admitted to only giving me a week, “two at best, but you surprised me.”
I want to say: I am not strong yet. I am floating along the periphery like a balloon someone has accidentally let go.
My father tried to take flying lessons as an adult but asked the teacher if it was a good idea. What if the son of a man who had crashed and died, what if that son was up in the sky, a routine flight even, and something happened. Something bad happened. Then what. What if the son of the man who crashed froze. Became trapped in a moment. Could not react. Could not respond. Could not do anything to save anyone. The teacher told him never fly. The teacher told him he was glad he said something before it was too late.
Humans flying like mock birds in plastic skin.
2007: Popular Mechanics runs a study of every commercial plane crash in the U.S. and where survivors were sitting at impact. The writer surmised that in the event of a crash landing, back of the plane is where you want to be.
My grandfather's accident is both a fact and a non-fact. It's something we know and don't know. Something that will always just be, floating above our heads like smoke and clouds and rain.
You paint pictures of the landscape around that area and precisely at that area. Do you know what you are doing? You paint to be closer to him. I get that now. I get that every time I light a cigarette and look out at a dark sky. I get that when I walk along the Hudson on a sunny day and the faces suddenly turn soft. When I look at your paintings I see him. In a tree. Behind a barn. Sitting on a telephone wire. When I look at your paintings I feel what you feel. Is that what you want?
“I never really thought about it,” you answer. I hadn't either until now. Some things are better left unopened. You change the subject and a light flickers in the window across from mine before it stays off for good.
Rehab makes me feel ugly. Inside and out. All the ugly, ugly things I did. How much my world has come undone. A ribbon unfurling into an empty space.
I want to be a better person but don't know how. Sometimes it's easier to just be an asshole and then nobody expects anything from you.
According to a story on WebMD, dressing for air travel is as important as reading your safety card. Avoid skirts and high heels and shorts. Stick with jeans and long pants, even in the summer when it is hot. Tie-on shoes will stay on your feet better than slip-ons or flip flops so choose wisely.
I was twelve when I took my first sip. Wine from a box.
They'd been in a terrible fight that morning. What was it about? Coming home too late? A dirty room? Nudey magazines stuffed under a mattress? I hate you, my father thought. I wish your damn plane would crash. He didn't mean it. He would never mean it.
The porcelain ashtray was full but your mother couldn't bring herself to empty it. “They have his breath on them,” she whispered. “His breath.” She sat by the window, hands twisted in her lap as the house closed in on her. A shirt still hung from the ironing board, white like a ghost.
In the dark of the living room you lifted up his violin and held it like something precious in your hands, held it as if it were made of glass not wood because it is all you have left of him. You held the strings under your nose, felt them with the tips of your fingers.
“No insurance,” she was told. “We are sorry, mam, but the policy specifically excludes coverage in the event of death due to a small plane crash.”
My grandmother immediately went to work, taking anything she could get, mostly involving filing and typing and long, thoughtless days at an office somewhere. My father would start buying his own clothes, take better care of his shoes.
A delicate cross swung from a cord around her neck, dangling over the pit of her throat. Christian Science would help her through the death of her husband and eventually through her own premature death. Faith would warm the place in her bed that had unexpectedly gone cold.
Beer tastes better out of the can. There's something comforting about that metallic taste, the sound of the tab popping over, the small explosion of foam. Reminds me of summer, of warm places and good, solid people. Hard-working people. Reminds me of soccer down at the park. I held my father's hand in mine.
Sometimes I stash the empty cans under my bed. The trashcan is getting full. Sometimes I think of building something with all of those cans. Like a model house or a miniature Eiffel Tower.
It was a flight they took often, from the dirt roads of Oakdale, California to the sparkling Pacific Ocean town of Half Moon Bay. The Miramar Seafood Restaurant was equipped with a roof-top landing pad and took a mere thirty minutes from “door to door” my grandfather would assure his worried wife, who preferred him to stay on land, to just go for a long drive in the car if you need to go somewhere. If it wasn't for Jimmy Roddin, then it would have been an automatic “No way, not going to happen John” and that would be that and no-discussion-about-it-please. But it was Jimmy, her husband's best friend and a fighter pilot in the war, a man so at home in a plane that even the most fearful of flyers felt at ease.
This is what I know: It was a Cessna. Two-seater.
*Jimmy had a heart attack, slumped over the controls.
The pull of gravity.
My grandfather could not do anything to save anyone.
*This has never been denied nor confirmed. It's possible that Jimmy had a pre-existing heart condition but to disclose this information would have meant his pilot's license being revoked. And anyone who knew Jimmy understood that would have killed him.
The last thing my grandfather most likely saw were the faces of the lunch crowd, as they looked in horror at the tiny plane spiraling into the bay right in front of them.
My grandfather pulled all of his whiskey bottles out of hiding and replaced them with 7-Up cans instead. His kids would find one of these cans where the Wild Turkey once slept in his toolbox. He worked to be sober. He fought against the drink with everything he had. Those days you were nuts if you were a drunk. A psychopath. Electric shock therapy might do the trick. So should a decade of drying out in a hospital somewhere. But he had a family to tend to. He had a life he loved despite its flaws. The Pennyback Newspaper said Ford spark plugs would be on sale that weekend.
I write stories. Some I never finish. They live under my skin and under my bed with the cans.
The day it happened the basketball coach told the team not to say anything, not to make a sound on that bus. The final score was Oakdale High, 108. Ceres, 72. A blowout, the announcer would say after turning off his mic.
His teammates already knew what my father was only blocks away from finding out.
They rounded the corner to his house, now littered with squad cars and fire trucks, and there was his mother in her yellow dress, late sun making it look electric, standing in the middle of the driveway, surrounded by policemen and neighbors who didn't know what to say and so said nothing. And she saw her son turn the corner, walk down the street towards her. The spitting image of his father with that wiry frame and loose black hair. The artist's hands fidgeting with the straps of his bag.
He would stay inside where it was warm. Stay in the kitchen with the stove and the tea and the ladies making their casseroles, his father's poker buddies huddled politely in a corner. My aunt Judy would kick him under the table. And he'd kick back. She was telling him that he was alive. They were both still alive.
What if he never left? The morning paper still spread out over his teacup, knee bouncing to some jazz on the radio.
Would you call my father a liar if he told you the perfect story? That his father's death doesn't come until he is an old man, laying peacefully in his bed, surrounded by his family, his wife holding his hand.
Maybe he tells a really good joke, a priest and a rabbi walk into a bar, his head lifting from the pillow as he delivers it, making everyone laugh and forget where they are. Maybe he gets up from the bed, moves to his violin. Plays one last song. His music flying out the window and over the house on its silver thread.
I haven't had a drink in seven years.
A lot can happen in seven years. Cities are built and destroyed. World records are broken. Lives begin and end. Millions of babies are born, thrust into living, their faces twisted and scrunched, arms and legs reaching out for something, for anything.