The sun was shining, the skies were clear. It was a perfect day to fly.
Mr. Harry Freeman was an older individual. In fact, he was probably one of the oldest people we’ve ever had come to our flight school for a single day lesson. He could easily be in his 70’s. It wasn’t surprising to have older people here at our facility, but I would think Mr. Freeman was easily the oldest we’ve had. Perhaps this was due to his maturity, or maybe his age, but unlike others before him, he wasn’t taken back when we toured the grounds. He was excited, yes, but in a constrained manner. It was unlike the younger customers, whose excitement could not only be sensed, but easily heard.
We talked quickly of the theory of flight. That didn’t seem to interest him much; nevertheless, he remained quite attentive. When we brought him out to see the planes, Mr. Freeman didn’t show much enthusiasm. But his head was tilted upwards and his gaze focused at the clear blue sky.
Eventually, we made our way into the cockpit of a small dual control plane. I further explained the mechanics, but it seemed as though none of this were new to him. He seemed to hold some distracted gaze out the window. At the same time, I had noticed something in his hand throughout the entire tutorial phases. “Sir, is everything okay?” What followed suit was something that I least expected, not sure how to react.
“Have you ever been in love son?”
I fell in love. Twice.
My second love, I met her during the summer that I turned 18. Her name was Mary. Mary Parson. She was a girl from my small town, living just a few blocks away from me, and we met at a small social down by the river. I was with a couple friends and she was a stranger in the crowd. Except that she did fade into the background, but stood apart from the rest when I first saw her. Of course, being young, and “invincible” (and oh so stupid), I thought that I had to do something to impress this girl. So I grabbed a few of my friends, and headed up a hill as I talked them into diving from one of the bigger rocks into the water. It was a dumb idea, of course, but as a kid, you think up of the stupidest things to impress a girl. And all I could think of at that time was, “Surely, all I’d have to do is pull off a couple flips and she’d take notice of me.” That was until Carl McLean decided he’d do the same backflip I wanted to do. I didn’t have anything else planned, again taking note of my 18-year-old self. Everyone cheered as Carl resurfaced. I even saw Mary smile and giggle with her friends. A part of me wanted to punch Carl for stealing away my attention. Instead, I panicked as all eyes focused on me now. Then I saw it, my chance. There, at the edge of the water, was a willow tree. I figured, if I jumped from where the rocks descended, and grabbed onto one of those long stems that dangled from the branches, I’d be able to swing around just enough to make it to the water, and throw in a spin or a flip just for good measure. That would show Carl McLean.
Except that’s not how things worked out. I was really, really, really dumb. All I remember was running out, and as I neared the edge of the embankment, I felt my feet slip out from beneath me. I hesitated, but with a desperate decision, I lunged forward, still hoping to finish my stunt. To my surprise, as well as everyone else’s, from what seemed to be a collective gasp, I had made it onto the hanging vines. However, my relief did not last very long, as I found myself much lower on the branches than I had anticipated. Much worse, I had overestimated the strength of the vines, as they broke well before I was over the water.
I woke up minutes later, I guess after having fallen short of my target and then blacked out for a bit. “No flying today superman!” I had recognized that name. The kids had been talking about this man, from these stories, with extraordinary powers, mainly known for his ability to fly. Her voice, Mary’s voice, hovered above me, asserting my recklessness, as she caressed my head which lay on her lap. I had a throbbing head ache, but I was happy here. There was no need to leave. I had decided this was where I’d rather be, much more than some hospital.
“No flying today superman?” Those familiar words repeated from her mouth as I lay my head in her lap again. Nostalgia ran through the quiver of her lips. She loved that I remembered years later how we met. Through a combination of my immaturity and her caring touch. Of course I’d remember, it’s something I couldn’t forget. The past was a nice memory to reminisce over, but we’d have grown a bit and two years after, we sat a bit older and wiser. No concussion-like symptoms either, just bliss. We sat in a field, talking about our futures, the things that we loved. I grabbed her hand, and pointed it upward as a plane flew by.
My first love was the sky. I knew as a child that all I wanted to be was a pilot. I wanted to touch the clouds and see the sun and world in a way very few people would. Mary was hoping to become a doctor or nurse, which I thought was very fitting since she was so good with people and she had such a kind heart. I was still chasing my cloud dreams, and would be going through pilot’s school after enlisting. I’d have to go through some basic training first, maybe fly some tiger moths or other trainers first, but was still waiting to get into a fighter.
“Not today.” We watched as the spitfire faded from sight.
A year later, I got my wish. It wasn’t the best of circumstances, because war had been declared. There had been rumors of such an impending decision, but up until now there was nothing that would have prepared us for how quickly things would progress. I had been thrown into my first fighter, a hurricane, not more than a few months ago, and just had to get learn through experience. We were to depart soon, but I had been given a leave for a few days, and I returned home to see Mary.
She wasn’t happy when I told her I was flying out to war soon. A part of her had to know this had been coming soon, but I guess something in her didn’t expect it to happen in so quickly.
The next day, I had to leave Mary. She looked sick to her stomach, and I could hear a weakness in her voice. I wasn’t sure if she’d been sick before I arrived, but I just attributed it to the fact that it was probably due to the news I had broken to her. Her body was reacting, even though she tried her best to compose herself and hide it, hide her fear and worry, and stay supportive. It was just her personality and I knew it. I could tell all this as she trembled when I gave her one last embrace, one last kiss, and one last memory. It was quiet as I walked away, creating more distance between the two of us. The silence was deafening.
The roars from the engines were deafening, but the sounds of explosions in the distance, and bullets echoing by, were even louder. It was chaos, one that you wouldn’t associate with the early morning dawn. But the golden sun rise was greeted with crimson death. The noise of the background paled in comparison with the furious screams and panic I heard in my comrades’ voices. “Bogey on my six. BOGEY on my SIX!!!!” “Stay calm Jenkins, I see you and on my way!” I spotted the chase from above, positioned myself, made a quick cut, and dove down to bring a hail of lead from above, tearing through the enemy plane. I watched as the bullets cut through the engine, quickly igniting the plane and finish off in a blaze of glory. I could not revel in my third victory though. Because just as I was about to ensure the safety of my friend, his screaming filled my headset. I quickly scanned the sky, spotting his plane engulfed in flames. Before I could say his name, a chorus of shells ripped through his aircraft, causing a terrifying explosion. My mic went silent.
That was what most of us remembered. Not the victories, not the triumphs, but the losses. These weren’t felt in lost battles, or in retreats, but in the eyes that we’d never see again. It was the names that would soon be replaced with the rotation of new pilots. It was our fallen brothers that we remembered. The fog still lingered in the dusk. It was cold and wet. My urge for a cigarette was creeping in, with my fellow pilots mutely offering. I declined, remembering how Mary had always been against it. The stress was getting to me. I took a deep breath, letting the cold air pierce my lungs, and clash with the warmth inside. It was those small moments that helped me feel at least some sense of humanity remained in myself.
Throughout my stint in Europe, Mary and I wrote letters. It was important for her to know that I was still alive, obviously. But it was even more important for me to hear from her, to know that I was still alive.
That morning, as parcels came in, I remained out in the cold as I was handed a pair of letters. Both were addressed to me, both return addresses the same, but the names varied only slightly. One, I was used to seeing, from Mary Parsons. The other, addressed by Charles Parsons, was from her father I assumed. This peaked my curiosity immediately, so I opened his letter first without waiting to even get back inside, safe from the damp weather. It read just as if I had been at Mary’s house, being forced to listen to one of her father’s bland and monotone ramblings. I skipped through the meaningless banter, looking for something, anything of importance. Then I saw it. I saw the words, as if they jumped off that page, through the air, into my lungs and choked out the life in me as I saw my frosty breath escaped me, as if a tormented soul seeking freedom.
“Mary’s become very ill. We’ve taken her to the hospital and she’s been here for several weeks now. She’s not doing well. And she would never tell you, because she feels if you return, it would be for the wrong reasons. She doesn’t know that I’ve written you, but you need to know this. It’s neither mine nor her decision on what you choose to do, but this is something you need to know. Best of luck son, stay strong.”
The weather was colder than ever, I felt like death was upon me. All of a sudden, the sirens began to wail, signalling all the pilots to their planes. I instinctively ran to my plane, battle worn and bullet filled. But the scars that graced my Pegasus no longer gave me pride in my perils. Instead, as I sat in the cockpit as crew members prepped the squadron, I felt like I sat in a metal coffin. I still held the letters in hand. One still unopened. I could hear the rumble of the engines surround me. I looked down. Written in cursive, above the return address: Miss Mary Parsons. I opened it, tuning out the thunderous sounds that resonated through the field.
I read quickly, knowing that I would have to depart soon. The last line struck me. “Kiss the sky for me. Fly high superman.” I knew this was where I was supposed to be. She knew this, Mary did, and she could only support me like she always knew how to.
The ground crew signalled I was clear to take off. And taking one final look at the letter, a glance at my squad, and finally a look up at the sky, I smiled confidently. This was where I was supposed to be.
The room was quiet, except for the noise from the clock, as the second hand tick away at 7:32 am. It was still dark but the light was gently sneaking up. Mary gradually opened her eyes. It was a new day but the surroundings had been all too familiar from the last several weeks, and not the good, comfortable, kind of familiar. She looked down, seeing the needle inserted in crevasse of her arm. She’d follow the tubing that connected to an IV drip that was suspended nearby, over her bed. She didn’t have to look far, as her vision continued its journey around the room, to see her mother and father asleep by the window. No doubt, they had remained by her side through the night, as they had always been. Some days, it was just one or the other, but today, they both sat close by, hands intertwined providing that hope and strength they all desperately needed now. Her father awoke, noticing Mary. “Good morning. How are you feeling?” She nodded, “I’m feeling much better.” She wasn’t sure she’d actually felt different, but it was comforting for her parents to hear, and comforting for her to tell herself that. She looked back out the window, as the sun now made its way into the sky, its light dancing on the clouds.
“She was just awake.” Charles walked over. “She’s doing well. Her spirits are pretty high. We’ll go grab some breakfast and coffee, would you like anything?” “No sir.” Mr. and Mrs. Parsons wearily left the room, passing me by still standing by the doorway. I looked to the bed, my heart heavy and my eyes, blurred and watery, in disbelief. I set aside my bag and the papers I held in my hand, inched slowly over to the bed, making my way to the chair next to her, and sat down. I said nothing, didn’t know what exactly to say. Besides, I wasn’t sure she’d be able to hear me. I held her hand in the palm of mine, and lay my head down by her side, hoping she was okay.
Everything across the sea seemed a distant memory now, even though it had only been a few days. Even in the midst of chaos, it was simple. I knew who I fought for, and who I wanted to come home to. I knew where I was supposed to be, where my obligations were for me to be. But here, at this very place and moment in time, was where I wanted to be. And that’s the difference. I didn’t have to be here, but this was where I wanted to be, where I needed to be.
I felt a tightening in my hands. My fingers were now interlocked with hers. My head was still down as I felt her other hand run through my hair with old familiarity. Her voice was weak, but she still managed to convey her strength in her concern. “No flying today superman?” I paused, and looked back at my stuff. The discharge papers there would ensure I would not be doing so any time soon. But just on top of that, where her letters sat, was the reason I wouldn’t miss doing so.
Harry struggled with his next few words.
“She passed away three months later. I never went back up.”
He went quiet, and I chose to say nothing else. We finished with the pre-flight routine check, and took off. He did nothing else as we climbed in altitude. He gripped his letter tightly, but when we reached a good height, I looked over at him to finally see some emotion I had not seen all day, him tearing up while gripping his letter in both hands. “Alright Mr. Freeman, if you’d like to just take over? I think it’s about time you dusted off that red cape of yours.”
Sgt. Harry Freeman took to the sky that day, for the first time in over 60 years. Above the clouds, he touched the sky, and was reunited with his wife.