by Susie Lloyd
The tiny plane dropped from a leaden sky as the young flight student struggled to keep it steady against the erratic wind. He sailed over the telephone wires which he could see, and doing so, he narrowly missed a fence which he couldn’t see stretched across the field, buried in the hay.
That blessed hayfield! It hadn’t looked that high from the air, but now as the piper cub rolled to a stop, the pilot could see that it was a good four or five feet high. In a moment he’d jump down into it — that is, when his heart stopped pounding. As the adrenaline rush subsided, farmhands ran toward him, shouting, “Are you all right?” They had watched the whole thing — the darkening sky, the rising wind, the sudden bolt of lightning.
Would you believe I never heard that story while I was growing up? My father was long done with flying by then. He used to take Mom up when they were going together and when they were first married. My older brothers got rides when they were little. But then Mom grew frightened of storms and emergency landings in the hay. She reportedly grounded him after their fourth child was born. Being the eighth, I missed all the action and the stories.
When I was around 10, I discovered Pop’s pilot’s license on a shelf in a cupboard. “You’re a pilot?” I asked.
“I was,” he said.
Who was this dashing young man smiling up at me from the license? What connection did he have to the quiet middle-aged man who made you look for his glasses so he could do the crossword?
Pop is now of an age when people remember the events of 70 years ago more clearly than the events of yesterday. He tells me he is writing them down in a memoir called All the Things I Forgot. Then he stops, looks at me, and grins at his own joke. Always. Through these stories, I am now getting to know my father when he was a young man.
I must confess that until lately, “hayfield” is about the only visual I had the first five times he told the story. It’s not just because of the
repetition. It is because Pop has been here the 30 years that Mom has not. It has always felt like we have plenty of time. But he is getting thinner now, both physically and mentally. I can no longer afford to be a lazy listener.
Not long ago I called him and asked, “Didn’t you land in a hayfield once?”
That was when he was in his early 20s, unmarried, and not yet the father of anybody. He was a farm kid studying engineering at the University of Maine and a founding member of the flying club. The club’s PA-15 Vagabond (CDmag.net/3bvPWbn) came with lessons and borrowing privileges. Pop was on his way home from a job interview with a power company near the Canadian border. He planned to land at the next airport and visit a friend in a neighboring town when the storm hit.
As he tells me the story I jot down the details and then email them to my brothers and sisters. I use his same plain matter-of-fact voice:
The farmhands said, ‘Why didn’t you land in the pasture?’ Pastures have shrubs and rocks. You can see the shrubs from the sky, but you can’t see the rocks. Pastures are uncultivated fields where you put your cattle to graze. The ground is rough. I could have landed in the wheat field, but I didn’t want to ruin the grain. Hay is for animals. They could salvage that. But wheat is precious.
He also tells me that he didn’t land near a single house but a clump of houses, to improve his chances of getting a meal and a bed for the night, which was another reason not to ruin somebody’s wheat. I can picture him up there in the middle of an emergency landing taking a moment to consider his options. Yes, that is the father I grew up with.
That is just the way he took care of us. He carefully planned and provided and gave the impression that it was no big deal. I remember when he handed me a stack of savings bonds right before I got married. They were left over after he finished paying for my college education.
“Here, these are yours,” he said, as if he had found a pair of my socks in his dresser. I accepted them the same matter-of-fact way that took my soon-to-be husband aback. “Thank your father!” Similarly, Mom used to remind me to thank Pop whenever she bought me something. I didn’t see the connection between the gift and the giver. Looking back, I think I took Pop’s providence for granted because he took it for granted.
I had no idea what he did for a living for the longest time because he simply didn’t mention it. “Mom, is Pop a doctor?” I once asked. “No, he’s an engineer.” I had no such reference. “Can I just say he’s a doctor?” People seemed to respect doctors. “Of course not! Say he’s an engineer.” She made me repeat it. “En-gin-eer.” But it still meant nothing to me.
My husband found out some years ago that one of Pop’s projects was a satellite called the Corona Project (CDmag.net/39k8IRs) which was used to take pictures of the Soviet Union. It is now in the Smithsonian just down the hall from a gigantic Russian nuke, which is either ironic or appropriate — I can’t decide. But anyway, I called Pop.
“Pop, you worked on that?” I said, reacting like my 10-year-old self.
“I was on a team that did,” he said.
These days Pop says, “I used to be an engineer.” He says this not pitifully but because he really considers himself de-commissioned. He cannot remember his work vocabulary anymore, those words that used to whop us in Scrabble. What does get him down at times is the struggle to remember everyday words. He stops and shakes his head, and I hope he isn’t tracking his own decline, which would be just like him.
Then again, if you know you’re senile, you can’t be that senile. He would laugh at that. That is just like him, too.
More and more I find myself wanting to tell everybody about him. Maybe it’s because of the years I took him for granted, when I myself didn’t really know him.
These days when we go to his favorite diners and the servers say hello and go get his usual, I can tell that they don’t really know him beyond a half order of chicken and biscuits. I want to tell them that they would have looked twice at him back in the day and to point out how handsome he still is and don’t we all just wish we looked that good when it’s our turn if we live that long. Look at him. He still has a spring in his step!
But as we walk to the car, I notice that he walks a little on the sides of his feet. My siblings and I talk about it as we talk about all his new developments. As he once planned and provided for eight children, now we are the ones who must carefully plan and provide for him. Even in that, Mom and Pop set us up. They gave us each other.
And they gave us faith, their brand of faith, which was not an effusive sentiment but something they took for granted. Simply put, God is good. You take that for granted if your father is good. He provides for you before you even know you need it.
The day after the storm, Pop took off for the airport where he had planned to land the day before. As he flew over his friend’s town, he saw that the buildings lay in splinters and the streets were washed out. “My guardian angel turned me around so I didn’t go there during the storm,” he says.
I know that God will again guide Pop to a safe landing. God is good. I know that because my father is good.