He reaches up and unbuckles the harness that had kept him rooted in his Tiger Moth during the first of the early morning training runs. The wind was beginning to gust now in erratic patterns that cut across the frozen, snow covered tarmac, and he must have wondered how many more flights could be squeezed in today. The weather front coming in from the north and west was building, a wide arc above the prairie that drew a clean line between the blue strip of sky above Regina and gray of the approaching storm.
In his mind, he knows that he’s been well trained in most of the basics he’ll need to survive in the coming months. But nothing will ever prepare him for the realities of combat in the air. Chances are, once they’ve been shipped over to England, and from there take up their flights into Germany, most won’t be coming back again. Still, only nine of his group of thirty-five had washed out in early training, and two more had plowed themselves and their planes into the surrounding, snow-covered wheat fields.
He reaches his long arms up over the edges of the cockpit well and hauls himself out of the plane. He’s still too cold to think of removing the leather headgear that makes his ears look like large, protruding cups. The snug harnesses holding his parachute pull at his groin and shoulders as he starts to walk towards the hanger where hot coffee and debriefings are the next order of business. He can’t wait to climb out of the black, insulated fly suit and bulky, shin-high boots.
His head is down. The snow is crunching beneath his feet. And he is thinking of his new wife, and how he’d promised her once again, as he did every day, not to take crazy chances in the air.
Then, someone is calling out his name. He looks up from his thoughts, and sees the camera. Caught in mid-stride, even before he raises his voice in greeting, his picture is taken.
This is a photograph of a man walking away from a plane, lucky once again to be safely back on earth. He has only just begun to smile in recognition of the one who has surprised him in this way. If you look close enough, he seems almost to be floating just above the snow, defying gravity. This is where his history begins, the faint shape of things taking shape.
1941. This is my father. This is how I will always remember him.
We look upon our parents with a confusing mixture of awe and envy, fear and pity. They progress from all-powerful beings who seem to magically solve everything, who have control of all we do, to people who themselves come to need a child’s version of parental care and supervision. In-between, we grow to love and respect them, some of us to hate or run from them, and we watch in fascination as they exchange part of their roles with us, giving over to us year by year the always-uncomfortable reins of knowing and experience, guidance and control. We become a part of them, out of whom they were and who we are. For better or worse, part of our substance is filled with their being.
Even as we grow into adulthood, we never forget that we are the children. Sometimes, they never let us forget it either. Try as we might, we never quite feel like the parent, can never quite shake the child’s-eye view of being a parent that we continue to carry within us. When the time comes that one of them is taken from us, there is still the other to carry on the illusion, to hold together the sense that being linked like this, as parent and child, has a meaning that has been held back, that will soon be revealed. But when the time comes when the last of them is gone or going, we begin to realize we will never completely become what we thought was there. The child we are born. The child we will always feel ourselves to be.
Our experience of another’s life is fragmented at best, always an observation from the other side of the room, straining to hear what is said. In the end, we can understand very little, and so fill in most of the story with our own needs and desires. We both witness and participate in the story as it progresses, but we are also conspirators and confessors in its curious mix of truth and invention, clarity and confusion.
In our relationships, we bring together something of a fiction that is an invention of love and need, fear and isolation. We capture and feed back an illusion of continuity. This is, in itself, a reflection of how we, as fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, transform the many forms and contents of our relationships, reshape them in our own imagined or edited conversations and experiences, and present them back anew as a shared history commonly held to be true.
My father was appointed an officer in the R.C.A.F., and spent much of the war teaching others to fly the large Lancaster bombers. For his efforts he received a formal “greeting” from George the Sixth, by way of the Governor General, in the form of a large, square, framed certificate attesting to his new rank, as well as to his trust and confidence, loyalty, courage and good conduct.
Decades later, as I visited him for the last time before the spreading cancer ended his life, he pulled the certificate from a drawer and carefully polished the glass with his sleeve. He had kept this carefully preserved document for decades. Inside the drawer I could see, neatly stacked in rows and small piles, all of his air records, RCAF insignias, photographs of planes, and flight certificates. Everything in the drawer had its place. I couldn’t remember seeing any of it before. But what struck me immediately was how much of it still looked and felt like new, especially his flight book, almost as if it were ready to use once again at a moment’s notice. The leather binding retained its subtle surface and shine; the paper wasn’t yellow or smelling of mustiness or decay.
“Here, take a look at this,” he said opening the flight book. The fine vertical columns and horizontal lines on the pages made it seem like something an accountant would use. His handwriting had the clear uniformity and precision of someone for whom every entry mattered. This was a record of everything he’d done in the air, the sum and accumulation of the hours spent training, all the information in its neat and measured rows.
He went on to present each item from the drawer without a word of explanation or elaboration, almost as if the things in themselves said it all, as if their presence here gave the full plot and character to each of their stories. Then, having finished this unusual tour, he again picked up the certificate.
I can still see and hear him, holding it up to the fading light of the day, and reading aloud its full text, printed and hand-written in an ornate and elegant script. He tilts his head back, looking through the bottom of his reading glasses, squinting to get the words right. The lettering has a kind of airy flourish appropriate to flight and a kingly decree, but definitely at odds with something dealing with flying bombers as big as houses.
Finishing, he turns back towards me, looking for all the world as if I’d just surprised him. “The secret of flying is believing it can be done,” he says. “It’s a balance between knowledge and knowing, of patiently remembering the rituals and mechanics of how to do it, then forgetting the contradiction of flying tons of metal through the air.” He smiles, and suddenly begins to look both weightless and more frail than before.
I walk him into the spare bedroom so he can take a nap. His crinkled gray hair pushes out in unmanageable tufts from behind his ears as he lays his head against the pillow. It takes him a minute to comfortably arrange the Hudson’s Bay blanket, then looks over to me.
As I walk over to the foot of the bed, our eyes meet. We don’t look away, as we might have done in the past, but rather watch each other with a mutual patience and curiosity, as if re-discovering something about the other. Whatever it is we see, it is there with a familiarity that feels like it has always been with us. We watch each other, father and son, made over in each other’s image. The longer I stare, the more it seems the room, the night table, the bed – everything around us – is gradually disappearing from sight. The light recedes, but to something that is neither light nor dark. The sounds of the house also slow to a silence caught between beats of sound. Soon, even my father is invisible, but I have entered fully into his eyes, and now I am suspended in a space where nothing is seen or heard or felt. He is here, and he is not. His solitude is more than merely a distance from those who might see him. It is a place so well hidden, and hiding, that even the world itself cannot entice him to be seen.