The Ex-Pilot

“I DON’T LIKE my dreams,” he told his mother, not long before his fifth birthday.

“Why not, sweetheart?”  She was ready for tigers chasing, she knew what to say, how to turn dream-lions into friends.

“I get shot down, and I don’t like that.”

“Shot down, honey?”

“I was flying a big bomber, and I get shot down.”

“And yet,” she told me, “he’s crazy about airplanes!  He runs outside to look when they fly over, he shushes us when they come on TV, he draws pictures day after day.  War pictures, mostly.  Bombers dropping bombs…”

When Dougie showed up that day, his first time in the hangar to see my airplane, I thought it might be important not to say anything but Hi Dougie, come on in!

We walked over to the airplane.

“Do you want to sit in the pilot’s seat?”

He nodded, climbed up unaided to the pillows I had put there to give him the pilot’s view.  He reached for the control yoke.

No instruction, no explanation.  A question.

“If you were flying now, Dougie,” I asked, “if you were in the air, what would you do with the controls to make the airplane go up?”

The kid is five years old.  He pulled the yoke back a few inches.

“How would you make it go down?”

He pushed it forward.  Not a lot.  Just enough forward so that if the airplane had been flying, it would have changed smoothly from a climb to a descent.

“What if you wanted to make it climb and turn to the left?”

Left went the wheel, and a little bit back.  His feet couldn’t reach the rudder pedals by a long shot, but a pilot doesn’t require pedals to make a turn.  He does need to move the wheel to the left, however, and to pull it back, just as the boy had done.

After a while I moved the pillows to the copilot’s seat, and we flew the airplane together.  The flight was in formation with another aircraft, Dougie’s dad in the other plane with a video camera, taking pictures of his son’s first flight.

Climbing through 700 feet, the world tilting below, the other airplane floating huge on our right wing, drifting gently up and down in the roar of engines and slipstreams, the boy looked at me from under his headset and spoke to the interphone.

“I’m scared!” he said.

I looked at him.  That would be normal.  Some people are terrified, another airplane just a few feet away.  What would happen, they can’t help but think, if suddenly the airplanes crashed together…

“I’m scared!” he said again, then a big smile.  “Just kidding!”

4 thoughts on “The Ex-Pilot

  1. I love this story! To do what you love, only to get shot down in the midst of it can leave the best of us reeling and full of doubt. But to have someone bigger and stronger shouldering our fears, even temporarily, helps take us out of our linear perspective. It seems that post was a foreshadow for me. Thank you for being there and helping me resume my rightful place back in the cockpit.

  2. When I was under 5 I had a problem with people who looked like they were Spanish. My mom remembers asking me why and I said very intensely “they sank my ship!” I always played with boats and planes and already knew how to sail when I got my first sailboat as a kid and flying from hang gliding to flying my Q2 has come easy. When I first heard about Past Lives I felt “oh that explains it” and I still feel it.

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