I’ve decided to post a page from my journal. This is a few days old, written on my way to the City last week. You don’t actually smell alcohol fuel. It flies past the nostrils and hits mid-sinus, hitting nose hairs like broken beer bottles on dry stubble grass of the Bootlegger Trail. I’m three rows back in coach, Delta Flight 30, en route to JFK. There’s a high pitched whine, the seepage of an old scent. The memory it triggers is pungent, almost oily.
The anticipation of my trip to New York mingles with the agony pouring out the ass end of Uncle Gary’s airplane as it nose dived behind our ’67 Olds. It was 1969. Despite the scale and the cause, these metal winged things, they smell of alcohol, they promise, they whine. Some touch down with grace, others land with the grace of God. Uncle Gary thumbed the controllers of the radio-controlled aircraft like a hooker’s knobs. I remember hearing him yell, “Pull up!”
Me, my grandmother, mom and little brother, we had the luxury of looking away. Gary had to watch. He had to see where it landed. The crunch of balsa wood hitting the hard pan of the Bootlegger Trail. It had been a bi-plane. Five pieces, one for each of us to carry back to the car. Uncle Gary loved radio-controlled planes. I have a picture of him in my father’s Army Air Corps coat, holding a model outside a hobby shop in New York just before my grandmother forced him out to Montana. He looks about fifteen, a dark curl over his forehead, a used-car-salesman grin, the huge plane banking hard in both hands.
Uncle Gary and me, we craved things, sliced out the stuff of dreams. And instead of working hard to accomplish them, we built homages, models, dreams, pyres. Small successes compensate for never having failed at something big. Gary wanted to be a pilot. He never said it out loud. I just understood. He had those model planes; a string of motorcycles, each one larger than the last; an entourage of adoring women who looked like Las Vegas had spit them out in the spin cycle, still damp and dizzy. They circled him, glitter dreams of their own scaled back to Great Falls’ handsome small-town playboy.
Gary wanted to fly, I want to write. I pick up scraps of prose, mostly the words are brittle as balsa wood on the Bootlegger. Prose doesn’t fly unless it’s glued right the first time. My hands feel clumsy, and the glue smell makes me whirl. Here’s to the smell of airplane fuel, the bumpy ride up a dirt road, turbulence at thirty thousand feet–or thirty feet–and pulling up just in time, hoping words will fly.