She was interested in knowing if the 44-year-old boy she taught to walk then drive could, indeed, fly an airplane. She was willing to risk her life to find out, which is the way with the truly curious. And then he had not asked her to hire the airplane, which may have surprised her. She looked at him with those remarkable hazel eyes that seemed to see backwards in time.
There had been incidents: a Buick glided off a gravel turn at 70; a yacht absconded on some dreamy expedition to Brazil that ended on the sandbanks of Cape Hatteras; a riverside meadow in her home town had been sold with nothing to show for it a year later.
When they turned into the airport, a two-seater biplane, a red Pitt Special, was taking off. The pilot in goggles and helmet, alone in the rear cockpit, accelerated the little ship fast and pulled it up, flew into a cloud and reappeared pointed straight down. They were not going to fly like that.
The airport manager pulled his card out of a file. There was question of ceiling. He'd have to stay in the vicinity of the airport.He could have the Tomahawk out front.
The ship was a two-seater, side-by-side, a trainer new that year. She admired it, the high tail assembly, the bubble canopy. It was white with blue trim. She admired him, too, as he looked the ship over, took charge of it. He checked the fuel tanks, lifted the cowling and checked the oil, inspected for cracked castings, leaking gaskets, broken control cables. There were no dinks in the wings. The ailerons and flaps and elevators and rudder were fastened with pins and nuts with new white paint on them. The front wheel strut was at full extension and the tires and brake pads and rotors looked good enough to take off and land and stop. The leading edge of the propeller was smooth enough and the blade unbent.
She climbed in on his arm and he buckled into the seatbelt beside her. He switched on the master, checked fuel gauges, fuses, switches. He called out "Clear?" He waited a five count, cranked the engine and it started.
They had decided to go to a plantation south of town. He had not been there since before he got his license to drive on the public highways of Virginia. Everything the place had was denied to him. They had Packard cars that could not be driven around the yard on peagravel. They had a library of books the same size and color, but a tense woman would watch in the door, wait a couple of breaths before she said, "You'd better come out now . . . " "Something or other.
So he had no longing to go back. But to fly over it, to get an overview? It would be kind of a visual memory replay seeing the whole estate with its mansion and lawns too neat and its drive usless to him and the garage useless and the pond useless because of "the insurance and the risk."
He was going to have a look, now that the owners were dead, and see what it all amounted to.
He stopped the ship at an angle to the runway, set the brake and waited for the engine to warm up.
"I've always had perfect confidence in you, dear," she said. "You are a magnificent driver and sailor and now we have a pilot in the family."
He ran the engine up to 1800 revolutions. In the roar he checked the magnetoes and the oil pressure and the carburetor heat. He quieted the engine, turned on the radio and set the gyro. He checked ailerons, flaps, rudder and looked behind and above them and down the concrete strip. There was a red clay bare spot on the edge of the concrete. It looked no more threatening to him than a bare spot on a run and he did not avoid it.
He taxied over that "bare spot in the rug" and the front wheel sunk in wet red clay. The propeller cut a score into the concrete with a rap that sounded, so help him, like an iron rim striking a granite tomb. He found himself upright, commented that it was only a bump and applied full power.
The ship accelerated without vibration. He rotated at 50 knots and climbed to 800 feet and turned south.
At that moment he was crazy enough to think he could fly no matter what the condition of the airplane.
She had told him the plantation was five miles south of town along the railroad. He did not believe her. At 10 miles he turned in a steep bank and lost 100 feet without noticing it. The clouds floated 700 feet over the ground, not leaving much clear air over the trees and radio towers and smokestacks.But then, as she seemed to expect, they sighted the place and she was flush and vertical with anticipation.
It was just like she predicted. There was a manor house and garage the size of a chicken coop and a pond. He dared not to gawk too long for fear of flying right into it unawares. But there was something else.
A mausoleum stood 200 feet inside a gate. By that gate was a sign, red and garish, stuck on a post. It said something blurred in his preoccupation and then "FOR SALE."
"Ah, yes," she said as if to confirm she had know 20 years ago this fate was inevitable. That a thing to be of value must have continuity granted by caring for it and then caring for the people who would care for it later. Not to do so was to hand it over to the realtors whose livelihood depended on creating an illusion for which people would pay.
"All right, dear," she said. "Let's go home now."
In the lowering ceiling he turned downwind 500 feet over the runway, pulled full flaps, turned two 90 degree turns, trimmed the ship for 65 knots. He lined it up on the centerline and set it down. He stopped 100 feet upwind of the ready room and turned. The manager guided him with hand signals directly in front of the door. Four men were staring at him and then at the prepellor. He did not know why. Perhaps he was the kind of man who sometimes carried the whole world in his head and so when the passion was aroused and flooded his mind, reality was utterly drowned. He did not see it.
The propeller was bent back like a scimitar. Ten inches were torn and twisted into a curl, jagged and about to disentegrate.
They looked at him impassive, stolid.
"Was your radio on? You could have . . . Crank shaft out of alignment . . . Motor quit . . . why didn't you . . . ?"
He clamped his mouth shut before he could say something like "It's no big deal, you can't fly airplanes without incidents . . . "
The manager was still talking to him. "How many hours have you got" Anybody takes off after dinging a prop . . . $500 . . . Bet you try to get out of it . . ."
She drove back. He sat on the edge of the seat like an applicant for a job. He managed not to kill the old lady on the first flight. It's a wonder to him yet. For a pilot to damage a ship and take it off is the unpardonable sin. No one may know of it. He wakes up at night and thinks of it and goes hot and cold all over.