I was a six year-old meat missile.
My parents drove their car across a parking lot into a mattress store and were killed instantly. I landed in soft, goose-down feather bed.
I was adopted by my father’s brother, Uncle Luke, a self-taught, self-employed carpenter outside Chicago. When I was eight Uncle Luke had an interview for a decent job in New York City. I was on Christmas vacation from school, and he brought me with him on the train. The job didn’t pan out, but so the trip wouldn’t be a complete bust, Uncle Luke decided we would visit the Empire State Building. We stood in line for two hours with holiday crowds and took a packed elevator up to the open-air observatory on the 86th floor. The ride lasted a long time and my ears popped. Outside in the winter chill my uncle stared out into space, lost in a dream until I cried from the cold.
“Last time I take you anywhere,” Uncle Luke said. His promise lasted four years.
Uncle Luke received a notice on a piece of embossed stationery from a law firm declaring him sole heir to possessions belonging to his deceased father: a parcel of land near Denver, Colorado; a house; its contents; and a “homemade mechanical aircraft under construction, as shown in the enclosed photograph.” Plus an “expense fund.” The terms required my uncle to continue his father’s work on the flying machine in order to receive the bequest.
Uncle Luke signed the agreement, and they gave him a check. He told me all this the day he informed me we were moving.
I asked to see the photo of the aircraft. “Later,” he said. “Just pack the truck with things you need.”
“Not until you show me the picture.”
He thrust the snapshot at me. I took it from his hand and studied it. He snatched it back and said, “Get a move on.”
“I don’t want to go.”
“Pack up your stuff,” he said with a cold edge, “Or stay here until the landlord throws you out.”
I emptied the clothes from my bureau drawer and threw them in a bag.
The scenery on the road to my grandfather’s place was endless stretches of trees with the occasional gas station, where we stopped to refuel and grab a bite to eat. Radio reception was poor, with hellfire preachers and scratchy country music. The truck had a cassette tape player in it. I dug out a tape by Jimi Hendrix from the bottom of the glove box and popped it in the player. Fuzz guitar licks blasted out.
My uncle hit the eject button. “I don’t need reminders of Viet Nam, thank you.”
We took turns driving and sleeping. My uncle had taught me to drive when I was eleven. I was an old hand with a year of driving under my belt.
After long stints behind the wheel, my uncle passed out beside me, I turned the radio down and slipped in the Hendrix cassette. That revived me enough to eject the tape before my uncle woke up and return to the radio until the next shift change.
We arrived on the third day of non-stop driving at sunset. Uncle Luke covered the last hundred miles. I was wide-awake in anticipation.
We got our first glimpse of the “flying machine” from a long way off, lit by the ruby rays of the setting sun. The thing stole the breath from both of us.
It looked way too large to ever get up in the air, yet it resembled a gigantic bird, nested beside a shack in a clearing on the edge of a dense oak forest. Close up it was a sea of white waves, a thing created by a gifted sculptor or a mad carpenter.
The little rustic house beside it was the only structure for miles, part of the property listed in my grandfather’s will. Now the building belonged to Uncle Luke, like its winged guardian.
“I don’t feel right about entering that house just yet,” my Uncle Luke said. “We’ll wait a day.” We set up a lean-to against a shack around the corner from the flying machine.
I woke next morning, alone and confused, to the sound of hammering. I pulled back the door flap of the tent and saw my uncle pounding away at the bird-thing with a mallet. It was hard to tell whether he was building it or destroying it. His gray T-shirt was black with sweat and grime. The vast white mound dwarfed him in the light of day, like the scene in the old photo that came in the mail and changed everything.
Uncle Luke spent his time in the Viet Nam war as a mechanic servicing Huey helicopters. Working on a giant flying machine seemed a reminder of those days that didn’t bother him.
When my uncle was a young man, his father, an engineer, sent him a round-trip plane ticket to London, paid for with the proceeds of a profitable project. He took Luke to see the site of a famous landmark on the outskirts of the city. They boarded a bus with a destination placard that read, “Crystal Palace.” They rode to the last stop on the line, in the middle of a residential housing district. Luke’s father asked the bus driver how to reach Crystal Palace. The driver told them this was as close as they could get on the bus. They’d need to finish the journey on foot.
After a long walk under threatening skies, Uncle Luke and his father came to an overgrown field sprouting electric towers. High-tension wires overhead buzzed and hummed with electricity.
His father told him that on this site, among the towers, stood the ruins of Crystal Palace, a world-famous exhibition that had burned to the ground nearly a hundred years before.
Together they waded into overgrown fields as a light drizzle began. My grandfather showed Uncle Luke the remnants of fantastic animals, once on display at the great palace. Ruined remains of great stone dinosaurs grazed in the tall weeds and saplings. Uncle Luke gazed through the falling rain in sad reverence at the broken stub of a Brontosaurus’s tail, the crumbled claws of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and the rows of rocky spines dotting a headless Stegosaurus’s arching back.
His father insisted they try to find his favorite animal in spite of the increasing downpour. By the time they did they were thoroughly drenched. They stood together in torrential rain and marveled at a stone statue of an Archaeopteryx, the prehistoric bird of prey believed by some to be the missing link between dinosaurs and birds.
“I still remember those beasts from a bygone era,” Uncle Luke told me. “Watching them go extinct all over again. For years afterward I dreamed of going back there, hooking them up to those electrical towers and jolting them back to life.”
I discovered my grandfather’s home was much more than a shack when I ventured into it later that day. The house boasted a kitchen, two miniature bedrooms, a bathroom, and a workshop. The place was set up to support a single purpose: the building of the flying machine.
The shop contained hundreds of tools hung from hooks, in cabinets, and on shelves. It was equipped with a working lathe and various grinding machines to form parts and shapes needed to make that impossible aircraft. There was an old wooden desk with rolled-up handwritten blueprints and plans in large cardboard boxes alongside it.
We moved our few possessions into the shack and set up housekeeping. Uncle Luke tacked up the old photograph on the doorpost. Then he went out the door and got back into the pickup, slammed the door, and kicked over the engine. I rushed out after him, convinced he was going to leave me there.
“Wait!” I hollered.
He rolled down the window and grinned at me. “Stay with our stuff,” he said. “I’m just going to fetch a few things at a store we passed on the way here.” I sat on the bare ground outside the door, keeping a wary eye on the sleeping machine.
Uncle Luke returned an hour later with shopping bags full of food and supplies. We carried them into the shack. He opened one of the bags, pulled out a box, and handed it to me. I gaped at a plastic model kit of a Brontosaurus. He never gave me gifts, not even on my birthday or Christmas. Life with my uncle was strictly no-frills.
Later I realized the kit was intended to keep me busy and out of his hair while he worked.
It also turned out to be a parting gift.
Uncle Luke enrolled me in a school miles away. I was still a minor, and it was the law that I get an education. He drove me there in the morning, and came to fetch me at the end of the day.
It was a very different place from the school I used to attend. The kids were dressed in nice clothes and plenty of them had cell phones. I guessed their families were doing pretty well. Students and teachers kept their distance from me and I kept to myself.
I might have otherwise dreaded going to that school, if I hadn’t liked its library so well. The cavernous room was packed with shelves full of dusty books. The place was usually empty, except for me. I never saw any librarian, and no one was on duty to check out anything. I took whatever books I wanted and brought them back when I was through.
The Art History section had a good collection of books on different artists. One cloth-bound volume, Bird in Flight, by Hans Delooft, had a shredded cover, weighed at least five pounds and became my new best friend.
The volume featured Constantin Brancusi, whose sculptures embraced the nature of flight with few of the physical aspects of birds. His sinewy Bird in Space reached up and soared through the heavens without ever leaving the ground. There was a chapter on Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex on the Flight of Birds and a collection of illustrated plates of his drawings of flying machines that were said to have failed.
One rainy day after the lunchtime recess bell, a gang of boys closed ranks on me at an inside corner of the school building. They barked nasty laughs and blocked me in. The leader, Stevie, a huge brute with a crew cut, broke from the group, stepped forward, and leaned into me with clenched fists.
He opened his hands, and shoved me hard. I staggered back, clutching my beloved library book, worried about dropping it in the mud.
Stevie came at me again with a furious, scrunched-up face. I swung the book as hard as I could and caught him full on the nose. A hard splat reverberated between the school’s brick walls. Blood sprayed from his face like I’d knocked the cap off a hydrant. He clapped his hands to his face and ran off wailing. My book was saved from the mud, but covered in blood. The other kids backed away.
From then on they let me alone.
I never brought the book back to the library.
Uncle Luke stroked his mustache, deep in thought, driving me to and from school. As soon as we arrived home, he busied himself with the Byrd or working in the shop. We rarely spoke.
I prepared suppers for us. He collected his plate and picked at it while he worked. I ate alone at the table, then spent the evening doing my homework, reading my books, or working on my own constructions from slats of light wood and scraps salvaged from my uncle’s trash bucket.
Late in the evenings, Uncle Luke settled back and relaxed in an overstuffed chair. He kept his pipe going with Ohio Blue Tip matches as he pored over my grandfather’s papers. When I felt sleepy I said goodnight, mainly to myself, and went to bed.
On the last day I came awake to the steady drone of engines. I got up and checked Uncle Luke’s room. He wasn’t there and his bed hadn’t been slept in. I sniffed at a vague stench of scorched hair—or feathers.
I opened the door to an overcast morning, and I was hit with the full force of the burning stink. I noticed the ground that had been beneath the Byrd was now a vast area of pale earth. Far above it in the sky hung a low, feathery cloud, if a cloud could have hung that low and been solid enough to block out the sun.
The cloud shimmered and pulsed with the thrumming motor.
An intense flash blinded me—
The screeching blast flung me through the doorway. Lying on the floor, I somehow found the sense to kick the door shut on debris pelting the shack.
When all was silent, I crawled over and cracked open the door to fuming heaps of wood and metal on the ground in front of the shack.
No one came to check out the explosion. Maybe we were too far out in the sticks for anyone to have heard it. Or people may have realized what it was and stayed away.
I left everything where it was in the shack, except for my grandfather’s plans. I loaded those into the cartons and pushed them into the center of the living room. I placed the plastic model Brontosaurus on top of the pile, and fetched the Ohio Blue Tip matches from the kitchen.
The flaps of the cardboard boxes curled and fumed. The blueprints caught fire. Flames licked the feet of the dinosaur. The plastic lizard bowed his head on its long, green neck in heat and shame.
On my way out the door, I pulled out the thumbtack and grabbed the old photo off the wall and stuck it in my wallet.
The sun was almost set. I started the Ford and drove away. I didn’t check the rear view mirror for a long time. When I finally did, the shack was a firefly sparking in the night.
I drove until the truck ran out of gas. I walked a couple miles, sticking my thumb out at cars. They whizzed by. A kid hitchhiking at night was a tough sell in those parts, but in less than an hour a beat-up Range Rover with a loud exhaust skidded to a halt.
An old guy rolled down the window. He leaned out and blinked at me. He was either very tired or very drunk. “Can ya drive me into town?”
“Sure thing,” I said. He slid over on the bench seat and I opened the door, and hopped behind the wheel. He snored beside me the whole ride but I could hardly hear him. I think the muffler had a hole in it.
I left him sleeping, parked on a side street with no meters. I spent the rest of the night sitting in the train station. I took a train to New York City and I slept most of the ride. I might have snored a bit myself.
I woke from a dream where I was flying.
I hid myself away in a corner of the Empire State Building open-air observation deck on the 86th floor. I’d managed to get in just before closing.
The curved metal fence that’s supposed to keep people from jumping would be easy to get over with a little boost.
I set my heavy backpack down and removed the parts of the flying apparatus. I assembled the base and cross pieces and unfolded the folded wing panels. Then I strapped the harness tight.
I took the picture from my wallet and studied it.
My grandfather silhouetted against a dream.
An updraft tugged the photo from my hand. It fluttered up and away with the breeze. The wind was just right.
I closed my eyes and tilted my face up to the hazy daylight.
Hendrix chords droned in my head, thrumming like the music of the motors of the flying machine that soared through my dreams the night before.
I spread the wings open and caught the wind.
Like Hendrix, I was ready to kiss the sky—
The aircraft coasted along on the brisk current. The weight provided just enough ballast to keep it gliding straight and true.
Whoever found the flying machine was probably baffled by the big book of birds-in-flight with its stained, shredded cover, strapped into a harness designed by da Vinci, with adjustments courtesy of my grandfather.
Henry Dane is an Emmy Award-winning staff writer, producer, and editor at a Boston TV station. His independent films show at US and international festivals. His short stories have appeared in The Infinite Spectacle: Short Stories of Displaced Reality, Lighthouse Digest, Route One Magazine, and Thread.
In Flight was first published in Issue 15 of Apeiron Review.