My father was there, the photograph says to me directly. But he was also not there. Not only not visible in the photograph—which, taken from the wing, shows no hunched shoulder or flying cap to indicate the person pressing the firing button—but not there at all. Concentrating, yes; in fear for his life, yes. Supremely there, of course, while the shipboard German gunners sprayed flak at him and he dropped his powerful twin-engine airplane into a dive. But also absent, in a reverie.
As I write this essay, I am listening to Bird’s records. I love the inventiveness, the breakneck pace, and the flights of fancy of his melodies. I admire his daring and ingenuity, just as I do the Wright brothers’ daring and ingenuity: over a century after they occurred, it is thrilling to read accounts of their first successful powered flights.
This was what my relatives went through, this is what Ukrainians experienced every day: fear of the skies, of anonymous violence delivered imperiously from above, whether from planes, missiles, or drones, this overwhelming sense of powerlessness in the face of the unknown hand determined to smite you down.
Tomorrow I will drive thirty miles to pull out of a pole-barn hangar with peeling sheet metal siding a seventy-year-old, tube-and-fabric realization of my deeply embedded, retro dream, because for me and for the folks I most enjoy drinking a beer with, the soul is still to be found in flight and the machines that do it.
There is a delicate mixture of ego and humility that one looks for in an aspiring pilot. If the person sitting next to you does not think he can handle the airplane in just about any situation, if she does not look forward to increasing challenges, then you begin to wonder if the person is cut out to be sitting in the left seat of the airplane.
Flight, with its intoxicating blend of graceful beauty and adrenalizing daredevilry, was custom-made for cinema, which exults in movement—they are called motion pictures—and delights in vicariously transporting audiences to seemingly unreachable places.
By 1929, though, Archie League had crossed over to safety’s side and taken a job with St. Louis’s nine-year-old airport. Every day, he walked to the end of the Lambert Field runway with a wheelbarrow that held a deck chair, a beach umbrella for summer heat, a notepad, his lunch and, most important, two flags.