We must always be in dialogue with those who went before;
we have unfinished business with our forebears.
– Michael Adams, from The ‘Good War’ Myth and the Cult of Nostalgia
A letterbox style photo sits on my nightstand. I’m in my twenties, wearing jeans, sneakers, a white t-shirt and sunglasses under a ball cap. I’m smiling and tiny, leaning back against the huge fuselage of a WWII fighter called a Corsair. It’s a bruiser of a plane: just behind the propeller, the engine cowling is thick and round like the nose of a bulldog. Its wings have a distinctive dip that resembles a body builder flexing his biceps. It’s this dip that cradles me, almost as if I’m about to be hugged. The tips of my fingers trace the edge of the wing. What you don’t see are the throngs of people, the other planes, the fuel trucks, the souvenir and burger stands. Who you don’t see is my dad; he’s the one taking the photo. In fact it’s really a picture of him, or at least his influence.
The first time he took me to see old warbirds was on one of those perfect mid-summer afternoons, the sky the color of a robin’s egg with the moon floating in it, full and white. Warm in the sun, cool in the shade, lunch in a cooler in the trunk. My Dad (who still knew everything), was captain of our adventure. We’d driven maybe thirty minutes, but to two little girls, ages nine and five, it felt like all day. My younger sister had grilled him mercilessly about where we were going, but he’d only say, “You’ll see when we get there.”
We knew we were close when we saw them in the air: Three enormous dragonflies, brightly buzzing around each other. They were flying loops and spins for the fun of it and their joy was contagious. I’d never seen a plane that didn’t fly in a straight line, never thought that instead of flying off to vacation, flying could be a vacation. And who wouldn’t dream of it? I’d watched the sparrows. I knew they had something I didn’t.
We parked at the edge of a lot on the campus of the SUNY College at Geneseo. It afforded a perfect view of the grass airstrip in the little valley below and was in line with the end of the runway. This put us behind the curtain, stage left for the entire show. Dad said we didn’t want to be mired in all the traffic on the single dirt road that led down to the field. And just then, as if he’d planned it for maximum effect, the planes flying above us began coming in to land. Each made a fast, low pass along the runway to thrill the crowd, hurtling over our position at such close range I could make out the rivets in their fuselage. We could feel the hot rush of air as each one passed, the roar of their engines vibrating in our chests. Instinctively we hunkered down on the hood of the car, as if we were squirrels in the shadow of a hawk. The near miss, the proximity to something so wild and powerful, was exhilarating. I stared, mouth hanging open as each plane pulled up out of the valley, circled gracefully around and came over again, this time slowly and with gear down for the final approach.
The prettiest of the bunch was a plane called the Supermarine Spitfire, from England. Its wings were long thin ovals at right angles to a lean, androgynous body. At the time I thought, That is what I would look like if I could fly. As it roared over us the second time I reached up with both hands, trying to touch the glinting metal of its sides. I expected they’d be warm and powerful, like a horse. The announcer below was droning out a list of races that plane had won and it was easy to see how. It had that thoroughbred quality. And then it touched down in the grass, earthbound and sputtering like the rest of us but retaining the aura of the air, of joy and freedom. I informed my dad that I wanted to fly that plane, that I thought the traffic on the road would be worth the trouble. He told me he didn’t think I was tall enough yet to reach the pedals, but that I’d grow.
I did grow, and once I could reach the pedals I realized what Dad had left unsaid, that to fly an antique warbird you need to be very lucky or very rich, preferably both. We hadn’t gone down to the field that first day in Geneseo because the family budget was tight; he’d been out of work. Chances remain good that neither of us will ever collect more than airshow memories and diecast models. The day the picture on my nightstand was taken, my childhood dream of flight was farther away than it had ever been, and yet I cherished it. In the process of growing up, I’d developed a nostalgia for “simpler” times. I’d also inherited, through my dad, our national nostalgia for the same thing. Currently it’s embodied in our fascination with WWII, but I suspect it’s actually a much older heirloom – that each generation coming of age is told an edited version of what went on before they were born. Then each must come to grips with their discovery of hidden details, why they were hidden, by whom,and to what effect.
The picture on my nightstand was taken at a show called “The Wings of Eagles.” It showcased over a hundred planes covering the entire history of powered flight, and tens of thousands turned out at the Elmira, NY, airport to see it. As we got close to the show, we drove by small groups of people holding signs with slogans like “These planes kill babies.” It was true: Most of the aircraft on display that day were combat veterans of one era or another. That included the Spitfire (that I thought looked like a child with its arms outstretched), which had shot down so many German flyers and their Messerschmitt 109s. It included a biplane, hardly different from the Wright Brothers’ design that had been used to drop canisters of mustard gas during WWI. The consequences were so heinous that the international community enjoyed a brief moment of unity to forge a ban on chemical weapons. Wilfred Owen’s poem, “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” sprang to mind unbidden; its images of suffering and death by gas are gut-wrenching, as is its imperative to be truthful with the young about what it really means to make war.
Even my dad, who quotes Spenser in casual conversation, seemed affected. One of his favorite planes is the P-38 Lightening: a single-seat fighter with two engines and a unique configuration that earned it the nickname “forked-tailed devil” from the Nazis. As we admired a parked P-38, he told me that a man who’d briefly married into our extended family had flown them. In warm tones he retold the man’s story of dropping so suddenly out of low clouds over a convoy of German supply trucks that “the poor bastards never stood a chance.” By then I’d read Heller’s Catch-22 and Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, so I had an idea of the hell that ensued for the men in that convoy.
Where in all of this was the joy of flight?
One of the final events of the day was a “heritage pass:” Two fighters, one WWII era, the other a modern jet, flying together in close formation. The WWII fighter was a P-51D Mustang, a war hero, sleek, sexy and lethal. The jet was an F-14 Tomcat of Top Gun fame to which all the same adjectives apply. Heritage was visible everywhere, but like the picture of me with the Corsair, it was the unseen detail that was most important: my dad. He’d known the history of these machines when, years before, he’d brought his daughters to see them. He’d known this point would come, when I’d wonder aloud at the darkness in human nature that would allow something as magical as flight to be perverted into a murder weapon. How could we, as humans, do this to ourselves?
At the time, I didn’t understand why he’d respond by telling me how becoming a parent had made him more fearful than he ever thought possible, how having children had awakened in him a fierce protectionist impulse. It sounded like an excuse, or worse, a projection. Perhaps it was a hand-me-down explanation from his own parents, who’d been part of the “greatest” generation. In the end, sensing he wasn’t getting anywhere, he advised I not throw out the baby with the bathwater.
It was a baby – my nephew – born years later who helped me understand this fear. Along with all the joy and love I felt for this child, his arrival awakened a new darkness in my heart. No longer could I clearly define what I would not do. If his safety were somehow threatened, I might find myself capable of much more violence than I previously believed. And by extension I could no longer believe that if I were President, America would never go to war. Instead it’s possible I’d use every means at my disposal, including the Air Force, to ensure our safety. I might even be convinced that the best defense of our nation is preemptive military action. This darkness, once present, doesn’t leave and it scares me, just like it did my dad. This is the challenge of surviving childhood, that we remain open to joy and wonder as the world shrinks and darkens.
We still go back to see the old planes, to feel our hearts race as a Mustang curls through its maneuvers. The darkness of their purpose remains and it always reawakens the corresponding darkness in me. But right alongside that ache sits the spirit of inquiry that opened the air to us, that made flight possible. It’s why I can’t categorically reject the old warbirds. Just as these planes can make a seductive case for war, they also inspire me to something like what the Wright brothers must have felt at Kitty Hawk. That spirit is what I will show my nephew.
J.R. Tappenden is the founding editor of Architrave Press. She earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Missouri – St. Louis where she also served as the university’s first Poet Laureate. Her poems have appeared in The Baltimore Review; Flyway; Euphony, and elsewhere. Her chapbook Independent City is forthcoming from Wells College Press in 2016.