To Fly

My father has always loved planes.

As a teenager during WWII, he lived in Long Beach, CA, eerily close to Pearl Harbor. So he ended up serving as a civilian air spotter in the early 1940s. A spotter’s job was to watch for and listen for bombers as part of the Aircraft Warning Service. During that time, radar was not sophisticated enough to be able to see planes coming, so they formed a corps of volunteers along the U.S. coasts to make flash reports to the Army Filter Center on any plane they saw, its type, altitude and speed, and what direction the plane was heading. They used flash cards and a manual to memorize the many different kinds of light and heavy bombers. The multiple reports they received gave the military a good triangulated sense of where planes might be.

They ended the Aircraft Warning Service in 1944 as the war was drawing to a close. My dad was 15.

So a few years later, he joined the Air Force. He wanted to be a pilot more than anything. The standards were pretty tough, though, and he didn’t pass one of the many grueling tests.

He said to me once, “That was my first failure.”

I always saw my dad as very successful, so that surprised me. But it didn’t surprise me that he wanted to be around planes. He always did. He was very mechanically inclined—he became an airplane mechanic and repaired planes in the Air Force during the Korean War. He later became a manufacturing engineer. Into his 70s, he used to fly model airplanes—until he crashed one, badly, into the woods, and decided he was no longer strong enough to keep a mini plane in the air against strong winds.

So these days, Dad is not flying so much anymore. He’s 83, in a nursing home, and has been for about four years. He had an accident and fell on ice in his driveway and hit his head. It was within a year of when my mother died, and I’ve always thought he was knocked off his feet by her death. She was 10 years younger, and they both always thought that he would go first.

So now he sits in a wheelchair in a double room at a Veteran’s Home, with hours upon hours to sit and think and sleep.

Every year, my sister buys him the new Ghosts calendar, which has a picture of a WWII bomber on every page. Dad has several months’ worth of these pages tacked up to the bulletin board in his room, so he can admire their silhouettes.

Whenever I flip to a new month, I say, “So what kind of plane is that, Dad?” and he will say something like, “Oh, that’s a B17 Flying Fortress!” He can sometimes even tell me specs, like whether it has one or two engines. I pull the calendar close to read the caption of the photo, and he is always dead right on the type of plane. It’s odd, because most days he can’t tell me what day of the week it is or even what he had for lunch an hour earlier.

We were sitting in the common area of the nursing home the other day, and I suddenly realized it was October. I said, “I’ll be right back,” and I headed off to his room. When I came back to the common area, a nurse asked me, “Is everything okay?”

I said, “Yes, I just needed to change his calendar. I had to put up the new month.”

I wanted him to have another picture on his wall when he came back to his room. I wonder sometimes when he looks at them if he remembers seeing that particular bomber one day, and hopping on his bike in that warm California sun to speed off to a nearby observation post to make a report. How important he must have felt, at 15, making a report that could save the world.

A few nights ago, I was practicing Bikram Yoga in a studio nearby. We were still working through the floor series, and I was lying on my stomach. When we were about to repeat a posture for the second time, the instructor said, “Do this second one for someone else.”

I immediately thought of my dad. I thought of all he has done and not done, all he has lived and all he has lost. He is sleeping much more these days, and awake less frequently. And so I also thought of how I don’t want him to struggle, to fight like my mother did—I want him to go peacefully into that good night.

As I raised my arms and legs into the air, I was shaking from the sheer pull of the gravity on my body. And I suddenly realized that the posture we were doing was Poorna Salabhasana, Full Locust. 

It’s what practitioners call Airplane.