The seven prop-driven faux fighter planes roared overhead in perfect, heart-stopping formation. A single red plane flew alone at the rear — channeling the Red Baron.
They roared over the neck-craning crowd at the Payson Airport Aero Fair, trailing smoke.
I watched them, mouth gaped open. They flew level above the runway, then lifted and turned. The seven pilots rose into the sky, against the backdrop of monsoon clouds, which broke in a thunderous chaos of white vapor along the battlements of the Mogollon Rim.
My heart caught in my throat. Tears sprang, unbidden to my eyes.
I found myself sitting again alongside my father on his last fight, with the sunlight fantasy world of clouds billowing outside the window of the jetliner, carrying us from New Orleans.
The cancer had already laid claim to him. We traveled in its long shadow. He did not complain. Made light of his symptoms. Brushed it aside, as he had always done with trouble and pain. My mother — his wife of 50 years — had died of the same cancer a year earlier. He accepted that loss with stoic understatement — although once as we talked about life’s strange turns, he reproached himself for not having traveled with her once he retired. He thought he had time. He preferred tennis and bird-watching and football games. He didn’t like leaving home — and resisted her yearning, until it was too late for her to leave home. He was diagnosed with colon cancer himself while tending to her at home in Hospice. He called on me to come nurse her when he went into the hospital for surgery. But the surgery came too late — and the cancer came back.
So when he proposed a trip to New Orleans, I did not hesitate, although it did not fit into my schedule and New Orleans was in the sweltering season. We saw the sights — tromped across the battlegrounds where Andrew Jackson won his great victory against the British — not knowing the peace treaty had been signed months before. We ate good food and listened to blues and pretended that he was not dying. He had always been strong, but now he napped. He had always been fearless, now he walked with painful care. He had always been indestructible, now sometimes it seemed to me that the light shone through him so that I thought my heart would break and fall into the jambalaya.
Now flying home through the glory of these sunlit clouds, he began to talk softly of the three years he spent as a test pilot for twin-engine bombers — B-17s and B-29s. America produced these bombers in world-altering quantities and shipped them to England to rain death down on Nazi Germany.
He spent the war in Georgia, ensuring that each fresh-from-the-factory plane would fly before we shipped it overseas for the combat crews. He had never talked much about his pilot years. He wanted to be a fighter pilot, but they assigned him to bombers. I think he felt bad that he had loved it so but had never faced the German fighters. He survived hurricanes, bailed out of a dead plane, landed on one engine, flew thousands of hours — but I think he felt guilty that he never saw combat.
The loss rate among B-17 crews over Germany approached 37 percent, especially in the years before they realized sending out the bombers without fighter cover was suicidal. In the early years, the bombers would suffer a 25 percent loss rate in a single mission. The legendary Mustang coupled with the destruction of the German Air Force made the 250-mile-an-hour B-17 with its 10,000-foot ceiling and huge bomb load decisive.
But on this trip, those great piles of monsoon-like clouds unleashed long-cherished memories, as he took his last flight as his son sat rapt and unnerved in the copilot seat. Mostly he talked about the joy of flying — the freedom of the rush through the canyons of vapor. He loved flying, with a passion that spilled out as he peered out through the windows at the world he had set aside, to be a city manager, to raise his kids, to pay the mortgage.
He declined quickly after that as the cancer spread, unchecked by the experimental chemotherapy I took him to weekly — flying out from Phoenix to San Diego through the clouds for my weekends with him. In the end, it was all he could do to shuffle down a short path to the edge of the lagoon he’d helped save to sit with me on a folding chair and watch the egrets and the herons fishing in the shallows.
After he died, I inherited the plaque engraved with the poem “High Flight.” He could recite that poem all his life, recalling the joy of the sunlight passage through the great billows of clouds. The author, Canadian Spitfire pilot John Gillespie Magee, died not long after he wrote it. Flying in a three-flight of Spitfires, McGee crashed into a hapless training plane flying along at the base of a great bank of clouds.
I lost Dad more than a decade ago, but watching that flight of planes bank against the backdrop of clouds I felt afresh the broken-glass edge of his absence. I yearned to turn to him to see the expression on his upturned face. I longed once more to see the ‘tumbling mirth’ in his eyes.
Instead I said nothing as he would have said nothing and watched the planes dwindle to dots against the “sun-split” clouds.
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air....
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
John Gillespie Magee, Jr.