Table of Contents - Vol. V, No. 4
drive my dad to the National Air and Space Museum and stop at the curb under a wheel chair symbol. My dad’s new walker is folded in my trunk. It rolls on wheels and he can “brake” it with his handlebars and sit on its red plastic bench. At six feet tall, he is now roughly one hundred and forty pounds. His khaki pants hang on him. The belt he uses has an extra hole he has punched into it himself.
He has grown frail since we jitterbugged to Glenn Miller’s In the Mood at his eightieth birthday party. A stroke and the years in an independent living facility have weakened him.
My earliest memory goes back more than half a century. I am sitting on a blanket on the beach at the end of our street in Marblehead, Massachusetts. I am not fond of sand, the gritty grains scratched. I wouldn’t sit on the blanket until it had been brushed clean and then I wouldn’t crawl off of it.
“Hello-o-o-o, Tweetie!” my dad strolls toward the blanket and a feeling of elation comes over me. The image in my memory is short; a second or two. I lift my arms up for him, whining in that familiar baby grunt, “uh, uh, uh!” But my memory ends after that. He is strolling up to me, smiling and I am reaching up to him.
Now he has wandered off before I can park the car and catch up to him. He has entered the wrong door to the Air and Space Museum, but the guards only stop me--- gently--- directing me to the security folks who need to look through my purse.
When I retrieve my purse, I turn to look for my dad. I feel as though I have a child with me and I am reminded of the exhaustion of trying to keep track of my daughter when she was small.
My dad has stopped to look for me. He is bent over his handlebars, squinting behind his glasses. “What took you so long?” he asks.
The moment is bitter. I look into his aqua marine eyes and I want to remind him that I’ve driven two hours to see him. But I don’t. I try to think of what it must feel like to be facing the last years of your life, to have lost the control you once had over everything, including the airplane that is suspended behind him.
The shock of my father’s decline is never softened. Every time I see him, I am reminded of how different he is now. He has become indignant as he’s grown old.
I remember I was furious at him for canceling a carefully planned trip to Chincoteague Island the morning we were to go. He spoke in short, angry sentences as he explained that he’d fallen on his way to the bathroom in the middle of the night. He couldn’t spend a week on a “remote” island. He was given a clean bill of health later that day, but the trip was off, and he was as irate with me because the trip had to be canceled as he was with himself for calling it off.
Dad would ride bicycles with me. We’d ski and ice skate together and he taught me how to jitterbug. He was fond of big band music and never missed the annual father-daughter dance at my college.
Dad had a light touch and he would bite his tongue as he concentrated on our dance steps. He’d twirl me out from our embrace and fold me back into it, walking beside me a few steps. Then, he’d pat me on the back lightly and twirl me out again, singing a few words with the music: “... years have gone by…my, my how she grew...”
Once, he’d told me about a big band singer he knew. He’d met her on leave in California during World War II. I’m fairly certain my mother never knew about her.
Dad sits on his walker’s bench, in front of the plane he flew in World War II and I snap a photo of him. The grayish blue Corsair F4U hangs from the ceiling and dips toward him.
I remember taking another picture of him in the cockpit of a Corsair at an air show more than a dozen years ago. My daughter was small and impatient, she told me she didn’t want to “look at a bunch of old planes.” But my father was a celebrity that day.
He was not only allowed access to the cockpit, he was also invited into the pilots’ tent to talk about his experiences. I took my daughter to look for ice cream and left him with the veterans from wars decades after World War II, to discuss the smell of raw gas in the cockpit, the sticky sweat of a flight suit and ill fitting flight masks.
(I knew the story of my dad plucking the wrong mask in a rush to get in the sky. He lost the feeling in his upper lip. All my life, my mother or I would tell him to wipe off the food he sometimes left on his mouth.)
Dad was eighteen years old when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States needed pilots. He went through an accelerated training program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His aviator classmates were all about the same age and it was the first time that M.I.T. accepted men from the armed services.
He would tell me about the M.I.T. dean of advanced aeronautical engineering who wrote what looked like mathematical formulas on the blackboard as he and about forty-five others took their seats. Three walls of the room were covered in blackboards, and the professor wrote on all three, filling them up. When he finished and turned around to look at the class, he dropped the chalk and picked up a ruler. The professor asked for a show of hands for everyone who had a degree in aeronautical engineering. My dad and the others looked at one another. No hands went up. The professor asked for a show of hands for anyone with a college degree. One hand was raised. Finally, the professor asked how many had graduated from high school. Instantly, every hand shot up in the air.
My dad would imitate the way the professor looked around the room, tapping the ruler against his chin. Then, he went to the blackboards and erased everything he’d written on them.
Today, a couple watches us as I take my dad’s picture and asks him if he flew the airplane. My dad tells them that he provided close air support for the troops on the ground in a Corsair just like that one.
The man smiles, nods and shakes my dad’s hand, “Thank you for your service.”
My dad beams, turns to me and says, “Let’s go see it from the ground floor.”
We start down the ramp of the large hangar; it is located near Dulles Airport. When this extension to the National Air and Space Museum opened, my dad walked through it on his own steam. We talk of the museum’s donor, Steven F. Udvar-Hazy. Neither of us knows who he is, but my dad is delighted that he helped make these additional displays possible. Dad wants to see the Enola Gay, which is parked on the ground floor around the corner from where his Corsair hangs. The World War II bomber dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.
My dad was grinning when he sang, “...on my back at thirty thou if my engine conks out now...”
We were flying over Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire in my uncle’s sea plane. My father was at the controls, and the plane was loud. Houses with screen porches peeked out from the green bursts of foliage. Long wood planked piers jutted into the lake and the sun sparkled like shiny coins on the gray/blue water. I focused on the ripple of waves as we got closer and closer, splashing down and taxiing to my aunt and uncle’s house. The hangar for their plane was next to it, like a huge garage that opened to the water. It had green aluminum sides.
That was the only time I ever flew with my dad at the controls and I felt his excitement. Joy emanated from him.
Halfway down the ramp at the air museum, we stop to rest. People pass us. A man in a Red Sox baseball cap with two women - one in a sari, the other in a long sleeved tunic - following him. The women wear elaborate sandals, forcing them to take small, careful steps. Two men, probably father and son, walk with their eyes focused on something just beyond my dad. I follow their gaze; a small plane, suspended from the ceiling, that looks like a toy. The older man, with curly silver hair, says, “Look at that! A scientific sample collector!”
“Ok, let’s go,” Dad says, rising from his bench where he has parked halfway down the ramp. We turn to descent the rest of the way to the bottom floor, walking parallel to the first part of the ramp that connects to the top floor.
A crowd of about twenty has gathered beneath the Corsair and my dad pushes his walker as close to the guide as he can, scowling while he listens.
I don’t pay attention to the guide’s words, though I do hear “World War II” as I watch my dad.
Touching the guide’s arm when he stops talking, I say, “Sir, here is one of the pilots of that plane.”
“What?” the man looks at me. His name tag reads, “Lee.” He is in a summer tweed sports jacket; beige. Aviator eyeglasses. Handsome, and younger than my dad by maybe a decade. A big grin breaks out on his face and his perfect teeth, slightly yellow, appear between his parted lips. “Is that right? You flew that plane?”
My dad nods his head, pushes his walker up to Lee. “Yes, that’s right. I did.” He speaks clearly, better than I’ve heard him talk in a long while.
“Where were you stationed?” Lee asks.
“Malabang, Philippine Islands,” my dad says.
“Nineteen forty-five. We were preparing to invade Japan.”
No one else speaks.
I stand next to my dad. The tourists, in polo shirts and light colored windbreakers, move in closer around us. Several hold digital cameras above their heads to take my father’s picture. A man with a video recorder moves silently around Lee, who stands in front of us. He keeps his video recorder pointed on my dad.
“Were you a Navy pilot?” Lee asks.
“No, Marines,” my dad’s voice is still strong, clear.
“Marines!” Lee exclaims. His eyes open wide behind the lenses of his aviator glasses. He salutes my dad, “Semper Fi. So was I! What was your squadron?”
“VMSB244,” my dad rattles each letter and number in a staccato. “We called ourselves the Bombing Banshees.”
“Were you ever shot down?”
“Nope,” Dad laughs. “But I did crash land, once.”
“I never knew that,” I whisper to my dad.
He nods at me, “You do now.”
When I was eight months pregnant with my daughter, I wasn’t allowed to fly.
“I’ll take care of this,” my dad said, clipping each word in that same staccato voice. He boarded a commuter jet for me and flew to North Carolina.
In a Charlotte medical clinic, he stood watch over the blood sample that was taken from the father of my child.
My daughter’s father had disappeared when I refused to end the pregnancy. My father hired a lawyer, located him and flew to Charlotte to retrieve the blood sample that would prove paternity.
When I saw the twin vials of his red blood in the Styrofoam container my dad brought back, I cried. I remember looking up from the two long glass tubes at my dad, the Marine who never showed emotion. He was blinking his own wet eyes.
Dad waited outside the delivery room to hear if he had a granddaughter or a grandson. He brought her home from the hospital with me. Her grandfather took her on her first stroll in a baby carriage. He was there for her First Holy Communion and her graduation from high school. All events her father skipped.
“Did you know Pappy Boyington, the leader of the Black Sheep Squadron?” Lee asks my dad.
“Yes!” nods Dad with a smile. “I met him twice. He was my hero.”
“Mine too! Here, folks, is the real deal. A World War II dive bomber pilot!”
“Ah,” the crowd’s voice echoes in the vast hangar. My dad releases his hold on the walker and stands tall, nodding as applause grows. I join in the clapping and he raises his hand for us to stop. He is beaming.
© Caryn Coyle