It was August, and I was sixteen. The blue sky beckoned and an adventure was brewing. Parked beneath the windows of the airport café was my father’s antique biplane. It gleamed, a yellow jewel on emerald grass. Breakfast goers paused to admire its open cockpit elegance, gracefully swept wings, and the nose pointed skyward. Basking in the homage being paid to its beauty, the airplane sat in regal, staid composure. In sharp contrast, my father and I were in a nervous frenzy. We were trying to stuff assorted pieces of luggage and camping gear into the biplane’s small baggage space. Inquiries from curious onlookers wanting to know the make of the airplane, the year of its manufacture, and where it was built, all served to irritate my already flustered father. His responses to the questions were terse as he struggled to cram sleeping bags onto a baggage shelf in the front cockpit. The brunt of dad’s growing frustration fell squarely on my teenaged shoulders, and he barked orders at me to hand him this duffel bag, or that tent. I became more and more sullen. The idyllic scene the biplane set was doing nothing to lighten my darkening mood.
My father and I were preparing to go barnstorming for a few days. As we had done in the past, we would fly south, following the Pacific coast. Swooping in and landing at small town airports with nothing but the sound of the biplane’s radial engine to herald our arrival, we would follow a well practiced routine. What would happen next was nearly always predictable. Placing it where it could be seen by passing traffic, we would hang a white canvas banner with, “Biplane rides, Fly!” spelled out in red letters. As my father and I nonchalantly wiped grease and oil from the engine cowling, cars would slow and people would gawk. Kids would point and wave excitedly, smearing the windows as they pressed against the glass for a better look. Inevitably, a car would pull in and park. After some quiet consideration, someone would agree to take to the sky with my father for twenty dollars.
As the ground crew, it was my job to ready the passenger. Guiding them to the front cockpit, I showed them how to step up and over the cockpit rim, stand on the seat cushions, and slide down to sit. When the passenger had settled into the cockpit, I would place a leather flying helmet on their head, advise them to remain clear of the throttle quadrant and rudder pedeals, and tell them to enjoy the flight. In response, I’d get a tentative smile and a look that seemed to say, “What have I gotten myself into?”
As I stood back, my father would advance the throttle and taxi briskly off, zigzagging left and right toward the runway. Watching the airplane see saw back and forth with their loved one onboard made onlookers anxious. I would explain that contrary to appearances, the pilot was not drunk, he was simply unable to see past the nose of the biplane unless he swung it left or right.
While the first ride was overhead with the Kinner engine advertising loudly, more cars would pull in. Some people remained in their vehicles while others would get out, craning their heads skyward for a better view of the old yellow two winger doing lazy dips and turns. Try as I might to encourage them, none of the onlookers would be willing to commit to a ride. All eyes would be on the biplane as dad landed and taxied to park in front of the crowd. The passenger would alight, glowingly transformed and spouting enthusiastically about their experience aloft.
Suddenly, everyone would want to take to the sky and I would become very busy. While dad taxied in at fifteen minute intervals, I would collect money, help passengers in and out of the biplane, and lug five gallon cans of fuel from the gas station across the street. The mood at the airport would transform from one of quiet reservation to jubilant community. People lingered, reluctant to leave. Kids raced about in excitement, and strangers compared flying stories. They would relate that they had seen whales in the surf, marvel at how small their town had looked from the sky, and how fresh the air was. It wasn’t unusual for passengers to return to earth with eyes moist from emotion.
When the sun had set over the Pacific and the last of our exuberant passengers had driven happily away, dad and I would unroll our beds and place them under the wings of the biplane. Framed by flying wires, we would gaze at the night sky from our sleeping bags and count shooting stars.
It was wonderful when my father and I became small town heroes blown in with the wind. I had been happy and excited as we prepared for another barnstorming adventure in front of the airport cafe. Happy and excited that is, until my father began to spoil it.
I had forgotten, like all good optimists, that there was a price to be paid before winging off into the wild blue with dear old dad. And that price tag was affixed squarely to my father and his foul, preflight moods. It wasn’t that my father was mean or cruel. On the contrary, he was a very kind man. But the stress of breaking away from his roofing business and carving enough time for our trips always left him short tempered and snappy. As a teenage girl, solid in my belief that the universe revolved perfectly around me, I took my father’s crankiness personally. Needless to say, it was under less than ideal circumstances that we were attempting to preflight and pack the airplane. The combination of an overwrought, impatient man and his hormonal teenage daughter was a potential powder keg.
My father’s snappy orders were annoying and embarrassing me. Dad would bark at me, and I, in perfect teenage form, would roll my eyes with an exaggerated sigh. Seeing my response, my irritated dad added volume to subsequent orders, which in turn inspired me to mutter disparaging comments under my breath. It was a self perpetuating storm of nerves and bad attitudes. The process of mutual exasperation continued and escalated until we had miraculously managed, in spite of bad attitudes and limited space, to stow all of our gear in the biplane. This accomplishment did nothing to quell my fully developed, self righteous indignation. I climbed into the front cockpit, fastened my seat belt, crossed my arms, and vowed to completely ignore my father for the rest of my life. As we taxied out, I refused to look anywhere but straight ahead as I reveled in my anger. Conversely, my father had completely transformed the instant he had settled into the rear cockpit. I could hear him behind me over the engine noise as we taxied; laughing and chirping away, happy as a clam. Unbelievable! My teenage angst was full blown and his joyous mood further soured my own. He was lucky I was even in the airplane with him! He was lucky I didn’t run away! I stared angrily at the instrument panel in front of me and clutched the shoebox on my lap. The shoebox contained brownies my father’s girlfriend had baked for our trip. Every square inch of storage space in the biplane had been filled to capacity with our sleeping bags and luggage. With nowhere to stow them, it was determined that the only available space for the brownies was on my lap. Having to hold them irked me.
Climbing into the blue sky, I could sense my father’s mood escalating. He whistled and chuckled, completely elated. He waggled the wings, he sang songs. The happier he became, the more I fumed. How dare he be so happy after he had ruined my day! I yearned to do something, say something, anything to spoil his chipper mood. I turned around, looked through the windscreen at his helmeted face, and tossed the shoebox full of brownies overboard. My father froze for a moment, stunned. He then looked down, watching the pink shoebox plummet toward the earth trailing brownies. I too froze, knowing that I had crossed a line. Dad gazed back at me, expressionless, and then broke into hysterical laughter. I joined my father, laughing until tears flowed.