“Excuse me,” Tom Waters pleaded. “My son’s coming through.”
Tom waded through the throng of passengers, his hand gripping eight year-old Benjamin’s shoulders. They were wrinkled hands, veins gnarly and knuckles protruding like broken bones. In another life, they would have been perfect models for a young Picasso.
Tom was old. He knew that. He awoke one cold morning and saw an unfamiliar man in the mirror and he knew he was old then. He told his wife, Elizabeth, that he was getting old, and she laughed, but they both knew the house was too big for the two of them.
They had friends who had already sent their kids to college. They were invited to graduation ceremonies they could only watch from the periphery. At neighborhood baby showers, conversations shifted when they joined but it was clear what had been the topic of discussion. Not that it mattered to them anyway; pregnancy and childbirth frightened Tom and Elizabeth. Miscarriage tended to have that effect on people.
Heaven had come crashing down from the sky on January 25th, 1963 for Elizabeth, who had been poised to bring a baby into the world just a few weeks ago. Sitting on the steps of the porch that frozen morning, his heart hollow, his body drained, Tom looked up at the sun, letting its searing rays burn his eyes and hoping that the pain would outweigh the emptiness within him.
He sat on that porch for hours before entering the darkened room, the upstairs chamber they had converted into a “pregnancy space” after the first doctor’s appointment. She lay lightly on the sheets, her arms and legs splayed out over the bed. She reminded him of shattered china.
Elizabeth was a terse woman. She always mulled over her words, turning them over in her mind carefully like stones from a stream. Tom approached her and held her hand in his, squeezing it with warmth. She looked at him and her eyes blinked slowly.
“I cradled life in my womb,” she said quietly. “But death was the only thing that left my body.”
Tom nodded. “Yes.” It was hard to speak. When they finally decided to try again for a baby, they feared the worst. But against all the seemingly heavy odds, Benjamin Asher Waters was born, healthy, forty years younger than both his loving parents.
“So, what do you think, Benji?” Tom asked, as he fastened the seat belt around Benjamin’s waist.
“I’m bored, dad.”
“Bored?” Tom looked around. “Do you want some crayons do draw with? Or—oh, or the lights!” He craned forward and reached for the switch. “Did you know you can turn these on and off?”
Benjamin half-heartedly flipped the switch back and forth. “Can I have my car back?”
Tom sighed and reached for the toy from his breast pocket. It felt cold and heavy, a load he was carrying from his heart. Benjamin played with his toy happily, making whirring sounds and dragging the car over the plastic tray.
Tom pulled on Benjamin’s seatbelt until he felt that it was safe enough.
“Dad, you’re doing it too tight,” Benjamin complained as he squirmed in his seat.
“I know, Benji, but we need you to be safe, so let me just do your seatbelt, okay?”
“Aren’t you supposed to be our pilot?”
Tom looked behind him. It was a woman bouncing a toddler on her lap.
“Yes, yes,” Tom said, jumping to his feet and straightening his wrinkled suit. “Captain Tom Waters. I will be your pilot today,” he announced awkwardly to the bewildered crowd. He began to hastily explain. “It’s just that my son, Benji, is riding with us today and I wanted to make sure he has a good flight.”
The “good” was an understatement. Tom was hoping that Benjamin’s first experience in air would inspire him to become a pilot himself; or, at the very least, play with the toy plane Tom had gotten him for Christmas. So far, Tom’s efforts had not worked. Little Benji preferred to play with his cars and trains.
Perhaps if I could remember what had gotten me into flying, Tom thought, I could do the same with Benji.
The first time Tom knew he wanted to become a pilot, he was at a local air show watching his father fly, who had been a fighter plane pilot during World War 1. Tom had been absolutely enthralled watching the buzzing plane draw lazy circles in the sky. If only I could inspire Benjamin just like that with a commercial Delta flight. Tom squeezed Benjamin’s hand and sighed. Benjamin didn’t move, fixated by his race car. Tom turned and walked into the c***pit and shut the door, a heavy thud closing off the cabin from himself.
Inside the c***pit, Tom had complete control over this metal beast. He could tell it to tilt. He could tell it to accelerate, to fall back. He could tell it to fold its wheels, begin landing procedure. He could tell it how to become a good father. Damn. He shook his head and trained his eyes ahead of him into the infinite expanse of blue sky that stretched before him.
“Excuse me,” an unfamiliar voice said behind him.
Tom looked to see a flight attendant in the c***pit. “Where’s Jim?”
“Your copilot, sir? He’s taking his bathroom break, sir, and I will be here until he returns,” the attendant said in a thick accent. He spoke hesitantly, stumbling over simple words. The name tag on his clean white shirt read “Oskar Schmidt.” He had kind eyes and a face wrinkled from years of smiling, the kind of face you looked at and knew you could trust immediately. He was short and skinny, like he had never undergone puberty, but Tom admired how he held himself: confident but polite.
“Where are you from, Oskar?” Tom asked.
“Germany,” he said. “Sir,” he added. “My fiancé and I moved here last year.”
“We want to become actors, but to do that we needed money. So I became a flight attendant and she works as a librarian.”
“It’s difficult to make it as an actor here.”
“Schwarzenegger did,” he stated. He proclaimed it with zeal, like it was his firmest conviction. When talking about acting, Oskar’s eyes grew wild and Tom noticed the noticeable change in his demeanor.
“He made it as a European actor in America. My father told me that if he could do it, I can, and I believe it too.”
“Was he an actor?”
“Yes. In Germany. He was locally famous. He actually inspired me to become an actor myself.”
Tom sighed. “Yeah, I bet he did.” He let go of the steering wheel and turned back to face Oskar.
Oskar frowned. “Is something wrong, sir?”
“Nothing,” Tom began out of habit, then stopped. “Actually, yeah, there’s something wrong, and I may as well tell you about it. It’s only the two of us in the c***pit.”
“In 1963,” Tom began. It was a long story. He told Oskar about the miscarriage, the long haunting nights of regret and hollowness. All throughout, Oskar’s sympathetic face nodded rhythmically. “I want to be his father, you know?” Tom finally said. “Someone he can be proud of, before I shrink into a wrinkled old raisin he’s ashamed of.”
“Mhm,” Oskar nodded. By that time, he had lost track of most of what Tom was saying. All he knew was that his captain loved his son and wanted him to love planes just like his dad. It wasn’t difficult to understand; Oskar had also began wondering about the future and knew what he would want as a father. With a short curtesy, he parted the curtain and disappeared.
He returned soon with Benjamin in tow. The boy was confused with being dragged into the pilot’s c***pit by a strange man, but once he saw the view his eyes grew to twice their size in amazement. Oskar smiled and looked at Benjamin. “Hey,—” Oskar flicked his eyes toward Tom. “Benjamin,” Tom interjected. Oskar nodded. “Hey, Benjamin, have you ever flown a plane before?”
Benjamin was stilling gazing at the expanding sky lying before him. “No,” he whispered.
Oskar beamed. “Well, that’s what your dad does. And I’d bet he could show you some things if you want to, no?” Benjamin nodded. Oskar shepherded him over to Tom, who was sitting still in his pilot’s seat. “Hey Benji,” Tom said as he hoisted him on his lap. He began showing him the myriad of buttons, the controls, and lights that controlled the plane. Tom watched Benjamin point at clouds dotting the horizon and gaze at the sun in wonder, hoping that perhaps, the childlike wonder with which Benjamin viewed the sky would make him fall in love with flying.
“Dad, it’s so pretty,” Benjamin finally said. Tom smiled. The wrinkles in his face relaxed temporarily and he leaned back on his chair. “I know, Benji, I know.”
Benjamin scrambled off of Tom’s lap and pointed at Oskar. “What do you do?” A pointed question only a child could ask.
“I’m a flight attendant,” Oskar said slowly. “I work for your father and bring you drinks.”
“Do you like flying?”
“Yes, I do. I like all kinds of flying. Sometimes I skydive—that’s flying without an airplane.”
Benjamin’s eyes widened. “Without a plane? How do you do that?”
“With trust,” Oskar replied. “And a parachute.”
“Isn’t it scary?”
“It is, at first. But I love the feeling of falling, jumping into uncertainty. I’m not sure if my parachute will even open, but before I pull on the cord I feel like I’m floating. I can see the Earth from the same place God does. It’s really pretty. I love feeling like I can fly like a bird. Birds are the freest animals, don’t you think?”
“Okay,” Benjamin said. Oskar trailed on.
“One day, I’d like to skydive without a parachute onto a huge slab of jello—
Before Oskar could finish his sentence, Jim the co-pilot rushed into the room. “Tom,” he yelled. “Did you see that f***ing bird?”
Tom shook his head, bewildered.
“A f***ing bird just flew into the engine,” Jim screamed. “I was walking down the aisle and I saw it. It’s bad, Tom, it’s bad, it’s bad.” He shook his head. And on cue, the plane lurched to the side. Smoke billowed from the right wing.
Tom rushed to the controls but he knew from the beginning that the plane was lost. He cursed. He had only been watching Benji talk to Oskar and not at what he was supposed to—he caught himself cursing again—do. He picked up the phone and called mission control, his hands shaking uncontrollably. “This is flight 9815L.” His voice wavered. “I’m in trouble, mayday, mayday, help me, we’re in trouble, mayday!”
“This is mission control. State your location—
“I don’t know,” Tom yelled. “We’re crashing, we’re falling, oh god we’re falling hard, we’re not even above the ocean and we’re way up high, no one’s going to survive, oh god!” Jim ripped the phone out of his hands. “Give us something,” he cried. “We need something, we’re going to die.”
By the time the plane had begun spiraling into its inevitably fiery death, the seatbelt sign had lost any power it had over the passengers. A baby shrieked. An elderly woman to his side whispered a prayer. A man in front of her was screaming his. Oskar heard all this from his position near the cabin door. He knew the plane was lost; he had watched enough American disaster movies to gauge that much. He also knew that he would die. Everyone on the plane would. I love feeling like I can fly like a bird, he thought, and he jumped to his feet.
Tom sat shaking, the telephone pressed to his ear. He turned around to grab Benji then saw him—Oskar—leaping forward and grabbing the emergency exit. No one saw him do this but Tom. He watched Oskar pulling at the handle with his tiny muscles straining and vessels popping over his delicately placed head, and Tom felt himself launching forward, screaming at the boy, get away from the door, the force of the cabin becoming depressurized at such an altitude and the power of air pulled out of such a small hole on the side of the plane would toss the Oskar like the ninety-pound meatball he was, but he couldn’t say all this, he didn’t have time, and when he reached the Arnold Schwarzenegger-aspirant from Germany the last lock had been pulled apart and Tom could only watch as the mechanisms came undone and the door swung open.
Then he was in the air. Within a second the acceleration caused by the earth’s gravitational force would pull Tom down further and faster, increasing his velocity by 9.8 meters per second every second until he reached terminal—lethal—velocity, and the rush of the air filling his ears and blow-drying his naked eyes would render him incapable of coherent thought until he decorated the Earth’s surface like a Jackson Pollack painting.
But in that lull before the drop, before the Earth noticed a new man-sized bird in the sky it needed to drop, Tom felt as though he were in a room with no discernible walls, ceiling, or floor, a hollow space that he felt he could fill. He couldn’t turn his head to see the Earth below him but the upward trajectory of his escape propelled him closer to the Sun like Icarus. He felt the weight of the universe pressing down on him yet he was floating, rising like a bubble toward the clouds, one them in the dinosaur shape Benji had pointed at in the c***pit just two minutes earlier. He felt his toes pointing downward, then his ankles then his shins and his knees snapping, his gut plummeting and elbows becoming weights, and he fell, he couldn’t stop himself falling, and as he fell he spied Benji peering out at him, his nose pressed to the glass.