He was as good as dead, I thought. He would never come back.
I rarely saw him in the years after the crash, but when I did he appeared ever more gaunt, emaciated and frail. The brief visits I had with him—which usually were happenstance encounters in our small city—only fetched a few civil comments. “How are you doing?” “Fine. You?” “Gotta go.”
Skip (not his real name) wasn’t fine. I figured his death was near.
He had seen it happen from his plane. Another plane carrying his fiancé’s son smashed into the ground fast and hard. He saw the fireball and the tumbling debris. He made his last landing, jumped out and rushed to her. She had not seen it go down, although it happened right next to the airport. He told her. She ran toward the burning heap. He and others restrained her. No good could possibly come from what she might see.
The investigation team came and went. The wreckage was hauled off. The funerals were held. He followed through on his vow and they were married. The ex-fighter pilot who lived in his hangar disappeared. His plane sat dormant. It was as if he went down that day, himself.
Bitter months passed. Lawsuits were filed. Some of the pilots occasionally saw Skip working in his wife's restaurant. He would always nod, attempt a smile and say all was well. We would always ask when he is coming back to rejoin us. He would look over his shoulder to see if she was around, then shrug and say, “Someday, maybe. We’ll see.” It was always a weak, evasive answer. Back at the airfield we told each other, he wasn’t coming back, ever.
One story came to me from a friend who had visited Skip in the back parking lot of the restaurant. They talked about the crash and about Skip coming back. The hardened combat veteran wept like a child. He was a broken man. He wasn’t coming back.
Then one day, Chuck (not his real name), got permission to fix up Skip’s plane and fly it. Skip came out only to check Chuck out—and to do it on a weekday when no one else was around. Then he disappeared back into his dark world. It was a brief glimmer of hope, but it faded quickly. We would not see him again.
At the hangar bull sessions and the Christmas parties, we spoke of him as if remembering a fallen comrade, constantly using the past tense. Tidbits of information flowed in from people and a picture emerged. He had become her slave, some said. She was a business woman and a restaurateur. He poured his own money into her enterprises, they said. He loaded and unloaded trucks for her, waited tables, and bar-tended. The Fighter Weapons School graduate and ex-NASA International Space Station technician had become a gofer in a mundane job he wasn’t cut out for. But he stayed because he figured it was his fault she lost her son.
It was he who introduced the boy to flying, and the boy had become so absorbed into the airport culture he couldn’t get enough of it. The boy especially loved flying in the old warbirds. He idolized Skip. Yes, he figured he was responsible for the boy’s death. His recompense would be his permanent services to his wife and a turning of his back to the world he was born to live in. No. he wasn’t coming back. Ever.
With the swiftness of a tornado—it seemed to me—things changed. Chuck called me, excited. Skip wanted to fly; He was coming to the airfield. In disbelief I drove out to watch, but stayed out of sight. It happened. He climbed in the rear cockpit and they took off. Later, Chuck described the flight.
Although his medical had long expired and he had not touched an airplane in nearly three years, Skip wanted to take the controls. His wish was granted. He flew directly toward their house. He rolled in on it like a gun-run in his Phantom days, pulling out only a couple hundred feet above the house. Chuck sat uncomfortably in the front cockpit but allowed Skip to continue. Again and again they roared over the house’s rooftop shaking it with the thunder of the big radial engine. Chuck knew this was no ordinary show-off flight; this was an angry act of retribution. Finally Skip gave up the controls and asked to be flown back to the airport.
We were all stunned to learn of this mission of intimidation. It portended severe dissension in Skip’s house. Something was happening. He was rebelling. Then more rumors flowed my way. Divorce was in the air. Skip had moved back into the hangar. But would he fly again? We huddled in our hangars and speculated. Then came last Saturday.
The weather was splendid for a mid-winter flight to a nearby airport for breakfast. Chuck’s call rocked me. Skip wanted to go.
Many planes showed up at the destination where breakfast was being served by the Experimental Aircraft Association local chapter. The ramp was packed with colorful aircraft. Groups of pilots wandered, toothpicks from the breakfast hangar wobbling in their mouths, holding coffee cups as they paused to examine planes and meet old friends. Cackles rolled across the apron as friends re-united and spewed delightful plane prattle.
I was careful not to welcome Skip back too enthusiastically, lest he become self-conscious of his notoriety. Almost everyone there knew of him and his sad circumstances. Noticing that he looked much healthier, I pretended that he had never been away.
I quickly saw there would be no transition period for Skip’s re-emergence. He joined-in immediately with war stories, laughs and bantering. “Wow, look at that!” I heard him yell at a stunning experimental. “I love that sound!” he shouted when a Cessna's near supersonic prop popped with a machine-gun staccato. I watched him as he roved the apron, shaking hands and slapping backs.
No, Skip didn’t need a break-in period to get back into the streaming destiny his life began with.
It doesn’t happen that way when you’re reborn.
The boom mic hides an enormous grin. That's me hanging out there off his wing, grinning.