My Father's Things
by Barry Munden
The attic smelled of sawdust and mildew and forgotten dreams. I crept past the boxes of dusty books and dishes and greeting cards, my knees creaking as loudly as the rafters. In the corner, two points of light shone dimly from the stifling shadows. At first I thought a raccoon had taken up residence among my father's sentimental treasures, but upon closer inspection it turned out be the mounted head of a deer staring glassily at me from the musty gloom. Cataracts of dust dimmed its stony gaze, and cobwebs drooped from its horns. It was undoubtably a hunting trophy of dad's that my mom had found too painful to throw away after his passing. My father had loved hunting almost as much as he had loved flying. Now that my mother was gone, too, I wondered if I would have the strength to do what she could not.
Beside the timeworn buck was another box. It bore no label, and was so thick with dust that I sneezed when I opened it. The aging cardboard nearly came apart in my hands. Inside were more papers, a small jewelry box, and a battered, leather-bound book. The papers were too dirty to read in the dark, and I had no desire to kick up another dust storm, so I postponed rummaging through them in favor of investigating the jewelry box. It opened reluctantly. Within it, somewhat tarnished by time, were my father's wings. I had always known he had worn them, but I had never seen them before, save in old photos of him in uniform. Like many veterans, he rarely spoke about the war, except perhaps to swap war stories with his buddies at the VA reunions.
I gingerly replaced the box and picked up the small book beside it. It contained page after yellowed page of handwritten dates and locations and times...my father's logbook! A history of all the places he had been and the battles he had fought and the adventures he had survived before I was born, all reduced to a concise recollection of hours flown and airfields visited. I was fascinated, but my excitment waned quickly with the realization that all I would ever know of the warrior who was my father was a collection of numbers and names. My father's history was the dusty image in an attic mirror.
It was then that I resolved to follow my father's footsteps as closely as I could, to better know the man in death than I ever did when he was alive. And that path led me, a year later, to a local airport and my first flight in any sort of airplane with propellers. This particular plane had four of them. It was enormous, and it was hard to picture the sprightly form of my father commanding such an impressive machine into the air. But he had. My father had flown the B-17 over Germany over a dozen times.
For the price of an ipod I had won passage into a piece of father's past, and what a piece of history it was! The aircraft hunkered on the apron like some giant prehistoric bird, its heavy jaws lined with .50 caliber teeth. Its gleaming aluminum hide bristled with thirteen of them in all, and it must have been terrifying to approach a formation of these brutes spitting fiery tracers in all directions. What must it have been like to fly in such a machine? I would soon know. Men in flying uniforms chased the crowd of gawkers back behind the airport fence, and we lucky few ticket holders were ushered inside. It was time to go flying!
The interior of the plane was almost as cramped as my father's attic, but that was where the resemblance ended. While the attic smelled of dust and decaying wood, the B-17 had the air of leather and oil and metal, like a classic car in a garage workshop. It was the smell of a living machine, and it came alive with a roar as one by one the engines belched smoke and growled at the surrounding crowd of onlookers. I was strapped into one of the gunner's seats, and I peered wide-eyed out the side window at the enormous Pratt and Whitney's as they began to sing in unison. The chocks were pulled, and the plane edged forward with a snarl. We turned onto the taxiway, and slowly gained momentum as we lumbered past the hangars. We passed rows of small Cessna's and Pipers parked alongside the taxiway like a bunch of young kids lining the airport fence to see a barnstormer. The plane slowed, and we tacked into the wind for our run-up.
After an endless pause while the pilot spoke his magic incantations into his microphone, the B-17 turned onto the runway. The hair rose on the back of my neck as the plane began to vibrate with the throbbing power of four thundering radials throttled to full power. The gear moaned as the brakes reluctantly relinquished their grip, and the old warhorse lunged forward, gaining speed rapidly without the burden of thousands of pounds of bombs. The runway blurred by, and the wheels began to skip along it with weightless delight, freed from their earthly labor by the flying machine's mighty wings.
We were aloft, and the world I knew fell away. In its place I found a world of clouds and sky and the reassuring drone of 4800 horses pulling me ever closer to my father. Sixty years ago, this was what my dad must have felt. It was wonderful, and I scampered about the aircraft like a schoolchild, peering out every window and sitting in every chair and smiling giddily at the other passengers, who wore similar smiles on their own faces. The plane rocked gently in the air, and I marvelled at the bravery of my father who had flown it far higher and far longer a few feet away from hundreds of other planes like this one, all headed for a rendevouz with flak and cannon fire and a five mile fall should something go wrong. An extraordinary man, my father, and one I had never really known until that moment. I might never know the fear and anxiety he surely felt on his missions...and his silence about the war suggested he never wanted me to...but I had learned what it was like to fly in his beloved B-17, and I would never look at the sky the same way again.
It was a memory that would stay with me a lifetime.
A few years later, I found myself following in my father's footsteps once more, this time deep in the woods with hunting rifle in hand. I thought I would try my luck at deer hunting, another passion of my father's. The dawn air was damp and cold, and my legs were screaming at me after hours crouching near the waterhole. I had just come to the conclusion that my dad had been a far more patient and limber man than me when, out of the rising mist, a large buck crept quietly towards the edge of the pond. I was momentarily frozen in awe at the animal, so much more formidable in the wild than the patchy stuffed head moldering in my father's attic. Its flanks rippled with graceful power, and patches of golden fire glowed where the morning sun met its fur. I raised the rifle's scope to my eye, and I could see every flick of the creature's ears and swirl of its breath. My finger tightened on the trigger as I looked into its eyes, so clear and alive and full of stories I could never know...and I lowered my gun again.
Some things were not meant to be in a museum.
This story is a work of fiction, but it is my hope that, like most good stories, it contains a greater truth.