I couldn’t match Carlo’s Fathers Day article, filled with subtle messages. Tail end of a four-country business trip. Too many meetings, hotels, overhead bins, airport check-ins, swine flu scans. Too many things to say.
So I’m using the power outlet in this A380 seat (almost a small hotel room) to purloin Lane Wallace’s article from FLYING magazine.
I apologize to Lane, FLYING and the intellectual property laws. I might add that I’m a long-time subscriber. My excuse is that anyone can read this on Lane’s website.
Read every magical word, fathers, sons, pilots, even moms and daughters out there. Lane was nothing short of heaven-blessed when she wrote this.
Like Father Like Son
By Lane Wallace
Several years ago I was standing inside a vintage B-24 “Liberator” bomber that was on display for a day at a North Carolina airport. A middle-aged man walked slowly through the plane and then approached the pilot and asked if he might sit in the cockpit. The pilot explained that the cockpit was off-limits for tours, but something in the man’s eyes made the pilot hesitate. He asked the visitor if there was any special reason he wanted to sit there. There was a long moment of silence. Then the man answered quietly, “My father was a B-24 pilot. My mom was pregnant with me when he left, and my dad was killed in a raid over Europe somewhere. I never knew him. But I thought maybe if I could sit where he would have sat when he flew … where he would have been when he died …”
The man stopped, unable to continue. But no more words were necessary. The pilot silently gestured the man into the left seat of the cockpit. I stood back and watched as the man gently ran his hands over the instruments, caressing the control yoke and the throttles, reaching out through the airplane and the years to touch the father he’d never known.
For several long minutes I just watched his hands, sensing the father in the son, as if the airplane had melted the years and men into a single moment and person. Then I glanced up and saw the tears streaming silently down the man’s cheeks. Fifty years later he was touching his father, perhaps for the very first time.
Our link to our parents is a complex relationship that perhaps we only really begin to understand when we’re faced with its loss. Who we are is intertwined with the joy and pain of our interactions with them; their expectations of us and our needs — met and unmet — that we looked to them to fill. Our parents are the foundation on which we build ourselves. And no matter how mature and self-sufficient we become, and no matter how imperfect our parents are, they’re still that last line of defense that stands between us and the oblivion of the universe.
So to lose a parent is more than just another tragedy. It is to have our universe explode, stop, and collapse in on us again. Regardless of how old we are, we’re suddenly six years old again and Daddy or Mommy is going away, and there’s nothing we can do to stop them.
In an ideal world, we only have to face this loss after we’re grown, having had the benefit of a solid, stable childhood and having had the time to develop the strength and support of an adult network of family and friends. But life isn’t always ideal, in this all-too-imperfect world.
We may not even feel the loss on a daily level. But the loss is there, somewhere inside. And we yearn for completion. A friend recently traveled back to the forests of France where his father was killed in the Battle of the Bulge. What was he hoping to find there? I’m not sure he even knew. But somewhere, among the trees and the ghosts, he was likely hoping to find something that would help complete the ground underneath him; give him a sense of connection with a piece of his universe that had always been missing.
The man in the B-24 was undoubtedly searching for the same thing — perhaps had been searching for it, on some level, for years. So what was it about the B-24 cockpit that allowed him to find his father there? Was it simply the age of the airplane? That it was a place his father had been?
Airplanes touch the hearts of those who fly them and bring to life a part of their soul that’s difficult to put into words. If you want to know the secrets of pilots’ hearts, fly with them. Look in their eyes when they bank the plane around to catch the sun on its wings. Sit in the cockpit where they flew, and you will be closer to touching their heart and soul than after a lifetime of watching television side by side.
A friend of mine recalls the only time he ever saw his dad cry. It was after his father suffered a heart attack, bringing more than 30 years of flying to an end. As Jim walked into the hospital room, his father looked up. Tears began falling from his eyes as he said to his son in a choking voice, “I guess my flying days are over.”
Like many fathers and sons, these two didn’t talk much together about matters closest to their hearts. But several years later, Jim bought an airplane and brought it to an airstrip near his dad’s farm. The day was beautiful, and he offered to take his dad up for a ride. As they got to the end of the runway, Jim turned to his father, gestured towards the controls and said, “Here dad, take it. She’s all yours.”
A simple gesture, but one that said “I love you” as clearly as any words. “I’m proud of you, I ache for your pain and I want you to be happy” … all in a single, simple gesture. Jim and his father weren’t good with words. But through a piece of machinery that had touched both of their hearts, they were still able to communicate. It’s a valuable gift in a culture where fathers and sons too often seem painfully separated by canyons of silence.
Somewhere in the raising of our children, girls seem to learn more about communicating with words. The reasons are undoubtedly complex. Perhaps make-believe games provide practice in verbal skills that baseball and football competitions do not. But a woman’s best friend is still likely to be the person with whom she shares her innermost secrets, while a man’s best friend is more likely to be the person with whom he shares his most important or favorite activities.
Yet without direct heart-to-heart talks, communication between fathers and sons relies more heavily on symbolic action, shared activities and unspoken understanding.
Unfortunately, the unspoken messages don’t always make it through the translation. Beneath the surface talk of sports or business are often sons who still desperately need to know their fathers are proud of them but don’t know how to ask, and fathers who love their sons very much but don’t know how to answer. Frustrated, they circle each other from across a divide, searching painfully and too often unsuccessfully for some way to bridge the distance.
Many times over I’ve seen an airplane bridge that gap. Part of the reason may be that airplanes allow fathers and sons to share adventures and life experiences that help create common ground and strong bonds of shared understanding and affection. But other pieces of machinery could do that, as well.
What makes airplanes such powerful bridge-builders is that they do more than create adventures. They can touch the hearts and souls of those who fly them, opening a door not only to a father’s mind, but to the emotional core of who he is and what he loves.
I doubt anyone ever explained this to my friend Jim or the son of the B-24 pilot. But our hearts don’t always need words to understand. Like airplanes, they speak a gentle, silent language of their own that’s deeper and more complex than any language made of words. And with that silent understanding, these men reached out through an airplane and touched the heart of the man who gave them life.
Published in FLYING magazine, June, 1999.
Posted from SQ 218, Melbourne to Singapore, ten years later.