Note from the author: The following essay was my second column published in Flying magazine, in June 1999. It was also the writing sample that got me that column, and, arguably, the piece of writing that put me on the map, in readers’ minds. Sixteen years later, it remains the single most popular and most requested of all of my “Flying Lessons” columns. The magazine was inundated with letters after the column was published… literally hundreds of them. The letters filled an entire banker’s box, which I kept for many years. And even now, I occasionally get mail on that column.
What made this particular column so very popular? Clearly, it touched a nerve and gave words and voice to a pain and longing that many pilots (most of them male) felt about either their sons, or their fathers, or both. Our relationship with our parents (and children) is complicated, and many men are more comfortable building emotional ties through the language of shared activity than through the language of words. Perhaps that also explains the appeal of flying – for airplanes, too, speak in a language without words. Many men wrote me to say they’d shared the column with their fathers, or their sons, or had called their dads after years of silence. Several wrote to say it had even eased the pain of their father’s passing. I had no idea the column had that kind of power in it, when I wrote it, but I’m glad it did.
Their fathers’ sons
My old Cessna 120 was riveted together by craftsmen in Kansas many years before I was born. On quiet evening flights I would sometimes think about that, imagining the men who had built her and the pilots who had flown her before my mom even knew my dad’s name. Sometimes I almost thought that if I listened hard enough, I might hear some of her other pilots talking or feel their hands on the controls. We might have lived in different times and known different worlds. But we were linked by a plane that had touched all of us as it passed through our hands and lives.
Airplanes may not have hearts beating under their aluminum or composite cowlings (although I know some people who would argue this point). But they have a powerful way of connecting the hearts of those who know or fly them – sometimes when we least expect it.
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 generally 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 inexorably 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 a single, ripping moment, the solid ground drops out from under one of our feet, leaving us unbalanced, scrambling for footing, and suddenly aware of the abyss that lies just beyond our fragile, protected world.
“Losing a parent is like joining a secret club,” a friend once told me. “You don’t understand what it means until it happens to you. Then you’re never the same. You’re an insider – a member of a club that shares a kind of pain and loss that the outsiders just don’t get yet.”
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 developed the strength and support of an adult network of family and friends. But life isn’t always ideal. In this all-too-imperfect world, the foundation under the child of the B-24 pilot was never solid or complete. Half of his footing was ripped away before he was even born, leaving him with a sense of vague unbalance and loss his whole life. Something was missing – half of the ground on which he was supposed to build himself. It’s a unique kind of pain that any child who loses a parent while they are still young must feel. Even as an adult, the loss of a parent somehow changes our universe forever. But to lose a parent when you’re young is to never know what an intact, complete universe feels like.
We adapt, as Charles Darwin said. We may not even feel the loss on a daily level. The remaining parent is the family we know. 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, I think he was 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? Partly. Airplanes certainly can link people from generations apart. Many times when I landed the Cessna at an airport, someone would approach, joy in their eyes, and say “I learned to fly in a plane like this. Could I just look at it for a minute?” We might have been 30 or 40 years apart in age, but we had an instant bond created by an airplane that had been a part of both of our lives.
But there’s more to it than simply a plane’s age. Airplanes touch the hearts of those who fly them and bring to life a part of their souls 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 hearts and souls 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 to 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 love you, 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 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.
I don’t think either approach is right or wrong. They’re simply different. But mothers and daughters may have an advantage in maintaining or healing their relationships, because they tend to have an easier time talking out problems, emotions, needs and differences. Fathers and sons have the same emotions and needs. But conveying those feelings is more tricky and open to misunderstanding when it has to be done without actually putting the emotions into words.
Without direct heart-to-heart talks, communication between fathers and sons relies more heavily on symbolic action, shared activities and unspoken understanding. A simple game of catch, offered or refused, can become loaded with messages about how a father and son feel about each other. A seemingly surface discussion of investment options or lawn equipment may really be an effort by a son and his father to reassure each other that common ground between them still exists and the bond of love is still strong.
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.