by Gary Inbinder
Eight-year old Tommy sat at a basement workbench, watching his big brother Ed building a model airplane. Sunshine streamed through a transom, lighting the work area. Tommy glanced up and smiled at shimmering dust motes. In his mind's eye, he grabbed hold of the radiance and let it carry him off to some far-away magical place.
An ivory Bakelite portable radio resting near the edge of the workbench played Nat King Cole crooning, “Mona Lisa.” The tune faded and an announcer broke in with a war bulletin about the Inchon landing. Ed switched off the radio, pointed to a corner shelf next to the stairs and told Tommy to fetch a bottle of dope. Tommy, distracted by the shimmering dust specks, did not respond until Ed shoved him.
“Wake up, kid, and bring me that bottle of dope.”
Tommy brought Ed the bottle, and then asked, “What is dope?”
Ed muttered, “A stupid person.”
Ed's answer did not satisfy Tommy's curiosity. “They don't put stupid people in bottles, Ed. What's dope?”
Ed grimaced, as though he were brushing away a pesky fly. “Listen, kid, if you want to learn how to build airplanes shut up and watch what I do. If you want to ask dumb questions, go ask them somewhere else.” Tommy wanted to stay, so he kept his mouth shut, but he still wondered what dope was.
Airplane dope is a varnish applied to the model plane's paper covering to strengthen the structure and seal it airtight. The stuff has a sharp, acrid odor and when Ed built balsa wood models, the basement reeked of it. Tommy thought the dope smelled forbidden and dangerous, like the rotten egg stench of burning matches and cooking gas. He knew such things were dangerous and forbidden because his mom spanked him for playing with them. The glue also had a harsh and peculiar smell, and Tommy liked to roll booger-like globs of it between his fingers.
Balsa wood is perfect for flying models because it is so light, it floats. Tommy had once proved the lightness of balsa by filling the basement sink and placing a chunk of it on the water. He pushed it down and giggled when it bobbed back to the surface. He also tested the texture by chomping on the wood and examining his little teeth marks. Balsa did not taste bad, just dull, like popcorn without butter and salt.
For several days, Tommy had watched Ed carving parts with a razor blade. He carefully trimmed, sanded and then laid out each piece according to an intricate plan. The ribbed fuselage, tail assembly, wings and engine cowling slowly materialized, shaped by Ed's skilful hands.
Once he had assembled the structure, he papered it and then brushed on several coats of clear dope, each application followed by more sanding and finishing. He gave the model a final coat of bright scarlet, and allowed Tommy to name the plane, “The Red Flyer.”
Tommy's much older brother — he was home from the Navy on furlough — seemed to enjoy the long process of airplane construction; Tommy just wanted to fly. He did not realize that his brother was reliving his own childhood when he and his best friend Bob spent hours building models while imagining themselves in the cockpits of Lightnings, Thunderbolts, Mustangs and Hellcats that fought in the skies of World War Two.
Finally, the day came to fly the airplane. They got up early on a weekend morning, and took the model to a nearby high school campus. It seemed like a perfect day for flying, a clear blue sky and a warm mild breeze blowing across the green, well-mowed lawn. A couple of kids launched a kite and a girl with streaming braids and ruffling pleated skirt rode her bicycle up and down the paved paths between the parking lots and the red and yellow brick high school buildings.
Ed checked the wind direction, and let Tommy turn the propeller to wind up the rubber band motor. Then, with the band wound taut, he held the prop with a finger while Ed guided his hands and told him when to let go. The little red monoplane shot into the bright sky — it soared, looped and dived like a young hawk.
For a moment, Tommy was in the cockpit, hands on the stick and throttle, feet on the pedals, chasing the clouds and climbing into the sun. Like Icarus of legend, he slipped free from the natural bonds of earth, until an angry gust grabbed the plane and smacked it against the side of a large tree. The broken-winged flyer fell like a dead sparrow.
He ran to the plane, picked it up out of the mud, and pleaded with his brother, “Can you fix it?”
“Nope, it's finished. Let's go home.” That was all he said after working for days on a project only to see it crack-up in little more than a minute. Tommy felt like crying, but he held back his tears because he did not want his brother to call him a sissy.
Tommy had heard a story about his brother and his model-making friend, Bob. When their flyers crashed, as they invariably did, the boys waited until sunset, took the broken planes to the top of a hill and gave them a Viking funeral. They lit the wrecks with matches and launched them into the twilight, watching as they swirled down to the ground like blazing fireflies.
Ed and Tommy returned home from the campus; Ed threw the broken airplane in the trash. When he saw his brother drop the Red Flyer in the garbage can and shut the lid, Tommy sniffled and wiped his wet cheeks on his sleeve.
Ed did not call him a sissy. Instead, he put his hand on Tommy's shoulder, and grunted, “It's okay, kid. I can build another.”
That night, in his bed, Tommy resolved to do something forbidden and dangerous; he would give the Red Flyer a Viking funeral. He pretended to sleep, but stayed awake until early morning. Ed slept soundly nearby, his silence broken by an occasional snort and a snore. Tommy slipped out of bed cautiously and crept to a chair where he had left his clothes. He put on his pants over his pajama bottoms, pulled up his socks, held on to his shoes so that he would make as little noise as possible, snuck out of the bedroom and tiptoed through the darkness into the living room.
He stopped at the dining room entrance. The hard part would be getting past his mom, who slept alone in the dining room Murphy bed. Her husband had gone down in his Dauntless at the Battle of the Coral Sea, leaving her with twelve year old Ed and pregnant with Tommy. The young widow could no longer sleep in the bedroom that she had shared with her husband.
Tommy hunkered down and crawled past his sleeping mother. He felt a rush of excitement as he did when he and his friends played war games, but he almost froze with fear when his mother groaned and turned over in her sleep. He waited a moment until he heard her soft, regular breathing — then crept on.
Soon, he was off the scratchy carpet and onto the slick, freshly waxed linoleum kitchen floor. A pale glimmer of moonlight peeped through the window curtains. Tommy gazed up at the forbidden box of matches mounted on the wall next to the stove. He crawled to the oven, climbed onto a chair and reached up for the matches. He hesitated — then grabbed a handful and stuffed them in his pockets.
He opened the door slowly, and crept gingerly onto the porch. He put on his shoes, and then lifted the garbage can lid. The weather was still warm and the garbage stank and buzzed with flies. The Red Flyer lay amid eggshells, orange peels and coffee grounds, like a dead bird in the mud. Tommy plucked the little airplane from the rubbish and ran.
He raced through the back yard and across the alley to the black iron fire escape of a six-story building. A forbidden place — neighborhood kids were constantly getting in trouble for playing on the fire escape and Tommy could hear his mother shouting, “Don't you go up there, or you know what you'll get.” He faltered for just a moment. Then, he clutched the Red Flyer and ran up the stairs, round and round, landing after landing.
When he reached the sixth-floor, he panted and his dizzy head throbbed. He took a moment to catch his breath, and then gazed into the purple pre-dawn sky. Far below a few lights twinkled in the shadowy alley. A mild wind fanned his flushed face as he scanned the rooftops of three-story brick buildings and one and two-story frame houses.
Streetlights glimmered on the quiet avenues. He listened to the distant rumble of trucks on pot-holed roads, the bump and clatter of freight cars in a switching yard. The lonely whine of a factory whistle seemed to call him to duty in a far-off place — high on a steel tower, a red beacon flashed a signal warning him not to go.
Tommy said good-bye to the Red Flyer. He took a match from his pocket and struck it on the iron railing. The first match fizzled, but the second blazed a sulfurous yellow-orange. He lit the plane's tail rudder — it burst into flame and burned his hand. Tommy chucked the Red Flyer over the railing and watched as it spiraled slowly to the alley below. Just like a firefly, he thought. The plane crashed, sputtered and disintegrated into a smoldering heap.
Tommy rubbed and licked his scorched fingers, and then walked down the fire escape stairs. When he reached the alley, he searched for the Red Flyer's remains and found a little clump of cinders. He smeared the ashes on his burned hand and tasted them on his tongue. The ashen remnant had a bitter flavor; however, unlike the dope and glue that held the balsa wood structure together, the charred residue had no dangerous or forbidden odor.
He recalled something a neighbor woman had said about her son who had fallen in battle at Osan: “Dust to dust, ashes to ashes.” He supposed that that was true — wood, paper, glue and varnish, bone, skin, blood and sinew; all things change. Then, he recalled the brief moment when he and the Red Flyer seemed as one: swirling, diving, chasing clouds and climbing toward the sun. Maybe something of that soaring spirit remained, an afterglow glimmering in memory like a firefly on a warm summer night.
The rising sun blazed crimson as bright as the finish on the little plane's fuselage. Tommy got up and headed for home. When he neared the back porch, he froze for an instant, his eyes widening at the dull yellow electric glow in the kitchen and his mother's dark silhouette hovering behind the translucent curtains.
Tommy could not explain why he gave the plane a Viking funeral; it was something he did not yet understand. The shadow moved toward the door and he walked slowly up the back steps to meet it. He took his licking without whining and held back his tears as he did when the plane smacked into the tall tree. The following week Ed left to join his carrier squadron.
Copyright © 2009 by Gary Inbinder