|Dad with one of his masterpieces, 2010|
When you're a kid, you tend to get involved with whatever interests and hobbies your parents have. If your dad is an expert fisherman, chances are excellent that you're going to spend some time with him sitting in a leaky metal boat yanking gafftop catfish out of Lake Pontchartrain. If your mom's into cooking, she'll probably teach you a few of her favorite recipes so you can make a platter of pot-stickers or maybe a nice pan of walnut brownies to take to school and share with your classmates and get beaten up at lunch time because Anthony Pantuccio doesn't appreciate the culinary arts and thinks that "cookin' is for girls and candy-ass little wimps."
My father's favorite hobby was building and flying control-line model airplanes, so on most weekends I would sit with him in our basement, looking on as he assembled another Flight Streak or Ringmaster. Dad would spend hour after hour sanding balsa wood and cutting MonoKote (a plastic covering for the wings) while I offered helpful comments like "paint a shark mouth on that one," "make a plane that looks like the Red Baron's," and "wow, this glue smells kinda weird."
|"Combat" plane in flight|
Everyone's favorite event, though, was Combat, which pitted the flyers against each other one-on-one. Two planes went up at the same time, and the object was to cut a crepe-paper streamer that was tied to the tail of your opponent's plane (while he tried to cut yours). We'd watch as the planes dipped, dove and swooped all over the place, streamers flapping behind them. It's amazing that the two guys flying didn't get all tangled up in the control lines. There was this one guy Pete who, while being really good at Combat, was sort of an obnoxious braggart. Whenever he won, he'd hold his plane in the air and bellow, "Gotta put another notch in the ol' fuselage (we were little, so we didn't giggle at the possible double-entendre). On a less significant, but infinitely more disturbing level, whenever Pete flew his planes, his ill-fitting pants would sag, subjecting on-lookers to an unwanted glimpse of his ample butt crack. For those reasons, among others, during Pete's Combat matches most people rooted for the other guy. No matter who was competing, though, all the kids watching had one secret wish: To see the two planes smash into each other and bust apart in mid-air. But that hardly ever happened. And of course, whenever a battle ended, we'd run out into the circle and gather the cut-up streamers as souvenirs.
I was five years old when Dad built me a plane of my own, a red and yellow Ringmaster Junior. He taught me to fly one step at a time. First, Dad had me practice spinning around in circles so I'd be able to fly the plane without getting dizzy. This was important because, whether you're maneuvering a Ringmaster through a series of loops or piloting a Boeing 747 across the Pacific, the last thing you want to do when flying a plane is puke all over yourself. Once I was able to spin for a few minutes without falling over, we went out to the field for my first "hands on" lesson. To begin with, Dad would start the plane, get it off the ground and then turn the handle over to me so I could fly it for a while. When the engine started to sputter, I'd hand the controls back so he could land the plane safely. After a couple weeks of that, when I was comfortable keeping the plane airborne, he let me take over the landings. The trick here was to ease the plane down little by little so the wheels just kissed the pavement. My first couple tries were a bit rough; one time I brought the Ringmaster down in the grass, another time I bounced the thing about six times before it came to a stop. But, somehow, I managed to avoid disaster.
Until it came time for me to learn take-offs.
"Okay, Chris, remember. You just give the handle a little bit of "up", and when it gets high enough just straighten it back out. Once you're level, just fly it like usual and you already know how to land it. Ready?"
"Yep! All set!" I ran out to the center circle and picked up the handle while Dad primed and started the engine. When it fired up, he looked out at me, waiting for the signal to release the plane. With a buzz in my stomach, I waved my hand.
I knew there was a next step, but I couldn't remember what it was. The plane just kept going up . . . and up . . . and then it was directly over my head. And then "up" became "down", and my beautiful Ringmaster Junior slammed into the asphalt bursting into a mushroom cloud of yellow silk and red-painted balsa wood. I looked at my Dad, who undoubtedly realized he had about a five-second window before I burst into tears. He put his hands in his back pockets and trotted out to me, like a baseball manager heading to the mound to yank a pitcher who'd given up a 500-foot grand slam. He clapped his hands, with a big smile on his face.
"All right! You're an official pilot!"
"No I'm not," I said, sniffling. "I just killed my plane."
"Ah, that happens to everybody. I've destroyed about twenty of 'em."
Dad crouched down to my level, and looked me in the eye. "Sure, that's how you learn. Know what you did wrong?"
"Not really. I gave it 'up' just like you said."
"And then what?"
"And then the plane crashed."
"Did you give it a little 'down' to straighten it out again?"
A ha! That was the problem. "Um, no, I forgot that part."
"Well, there you go. Remember next time."
"Okay, I will." He mussed my hair as we walked over to inspect the carnage. It wasn't pretty.
"Aw, Dad, look. It's all smashed into little pieces," I said. "You can fix it, right?"
|Not my plane, but isn't that a vicious-looking mouth?|
As we gathered up the splintered balsa wood, the crumpled wings, and the busted propeller, I remembered something my Dad had always said after he'd crashed one of his own aircraft: You can always build another plane. I pictured the two of us sitting together in our basement, assembling a brand new Flight Streak to replace my shattered Ringmaster Junior. I wasn't sure what I wanted the new one to look like, but I did have one request.
"Can you paint a shark mouth on it?"