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Airport Beacon

Stephen Poleskie

a short story

WHEN I WAS A YOUNG BOY I grew up on the side of a hill that overlooked the local airport. From my bedroom window, in the back of the small white house where I lived with my father, mother, and uncle, I could clearly see the airfield in the valley below. As it was only a grass strip, the comings and goings of the aircraft had worn a huge brown cross in the middle of the green sod. When I was not in school I liked to sit, sometimes all day long, at my window watching the airplanes take off and land.

‘Weirdo! Weirdo! Johnny is a weirdo!’ I can still hear my schoolmates shouting up at me, taunting me from the alley behind our house. They all thought me odd because I would rather stay inside, at my window observing the airplanes, than be outside playing games with them.

From studying the takeoffs and landings, I had learned that the airport’s flight pattern was normally from my left to my right. Arriving airplanes came in from the east, between the river and colliery, and landed toward the town. Sometimes the wind shifted and the pilots had to bring their frail Piper Cubs in from the west, bobbing and crabbing down final approach in the uneven currents that rose off the buildings of the town.

I liked it best when the wind was from the north, and the crosswind runway was used. Then the airplanes took off in the direction of our house. At first the sound of the engine was just a faint murmur as the airplane hugged the ground gathering speed, increasing as it neared our hill. Suddenly, and with a great roar, the aircraft would climb rapidly, seeming to just miss our roof as it passed overhead.

At sunset the airport’s rotating beacon was turned on, and kept lit all through the night. As I lay in my bed in the dark, light beams from the beacon would shine in my window, chasing themselves across the ceiling: first a white one, followed by a green, and then a white again, each in its own ordered interval.

My Uncle Edward, who was learning to fly, told me that the beacon was kept on so pilots who were lost could find their way home. This nightly parade of luminescence never ceased to fascinate me as I lay there in silence, listening for the sounds of aircraft returning, until gradually sleep overcame me.

My father did not approve of Uncle Edward’s interest in airplanes. When their father had died he left each of his sons a small sum of money. My father used his inheritance as a down payment on the house we all lived in. Edward, however, had been secretly spending his legacy on flying lessons. When my father learned of this, he and Edward had quarreled. ‘You’re wasting your money,’ my father shouted, ‘if you don’t give up this foolish activity, I am going to throw you out of this house.’

My mother and I overheard the brutal argument from the next room. ‘I hate it when they fight, but there’s nothing I can do,’ mother said, with tears in her eyes.

Later, when I asked my uncle about the disagreement, I was told that my father was old-fashioned and just didn’t understand. ‘Airplanes are my future,’ Uncle Edward predicted.

One day Edward burst into the house filled with excitement, ‘I’ve soloed!’ he exclaimed to me, pointing to the instructor’s endorsement in his log book. ‘And I am going to take you up as my first passenger when I finally get my license.’

‘I don’t believe you,’ I said.

‘You’ll see, John. I need a few more lessons, but I promise I’ll take you up as soon as I can. I’m going to fly solo over the house tomorrow at three o’clock, so be sure to be watching out your window.’

The next day dawned gray and overcast. I was anxious as it didn’t look like a good day for flying. Nevertheless, by afternoon the sun had broken through, the way it usually does in the summertime. As I took my seat at the window, I heard the church clocks in the valley striking three.

Accompanied by a great roar, a biplane, with a red fuselage and yellow wings, appeared overhead, diving at the house and waggling its wings. When it passed by very low, I could clearly see the pilot, and that he was alone, but could not tell if it was my uncle because the person was wearing a helmet and goggles. ‘Edward! Edward!’ I shouted as I waved madly, hoping it was really him.

The aircraft climbed up in a steep bank, completed a circle, and then dove back down. This time the pilot pulled the airplane up even steeper, going past vertical. There was a moment of silence as the biplane’s engine quit when it went upside down. It floated there briefly, before the nose fell through the horizon, and the engine returned. The pilot rounded out the dive, completing a rather egg-shaped loop. I was beside myself with excitement. Whether this was my uncle or not, it was the most wonderful thing I had ever seen. At the top of the loop the airplane had briefly gone out of my sight behind the window frame. In my eagerness to follow it, I had leaned forward and nearly fallen out of the open window.

On its third pass the biplane’s huge wings came up and around as it groaned through a wobbly barrel roll, dishing out slightly at the bottom. Flying by one more time, the pilot waggled his wings again. His repertoire of stunts apparently exhausted, the biplane disappeared into the haze, in the direction of the airport. I could not see the biplane’s landing, nor had I seen the takeoff.

Startled by the roar of the radial engine the neighbors had all rushed out to see what was happening. Some had enjoyed the performance, and I heard a few applaud as the pilot flew away. Others, however, found the flying dangerous and were soon on the telephone to the airport manager to complain.

An inquiry was held and it was determined that Uncle Edward had violated the Civil Air Regulations by doing his stunts too low and too close to people and occupied buildings. As a punishment his newly won solo certificate was taken away from him for six months. The duration was not the issue though. At the hearing, the airport manager, who also owned the flying school, had testified that my uncle was ‘a menace to himself and everyone around him, and had no business being in an airplane.’ He forbade Edward from taking any more lessons at his school.

As this man’s flying school was the only one at the airport, and the other nearest one was thirty miles away, with no public transportation, and my uncle had no car, the airport manager’s caveat effectively ended Edward’s flying career.

That night my father and Uncle Edward quarreled again. Listening from the top of the stairs, I heard my father shout: ‘Eddie, you are lazy, crazy, and a dreamer! It’s time you start thinking about getting a regular job. I am sick and tired of supporting you. You’re just wasting whatever money you have left from your inheritance. All you want to do is ride around on your bicycle all day, and fly airplanes!’

Flushed with anger at these accusations, Edward responded, ‘I don’t want to be a coal miner, and die of black lung disease like our father did, or to end up running a dumb butcher shop like you. In fact I don’t want to stay in the valley at all. I want to see the rest of the world. I will get my pilot’s license . . . no matter what I must do.’

The next evening Edward came to my bedroom, the room we had shared when he was younger, to say goodbye. I was sitting at my window watching the airport beacon which had been turned on. I was waiting for the mail plane to take off.

I am going away,’ Edward said. ‘I have joined the Army Air Corps. I promise I’ll write you, and send photographs and postcards from wherever I am. And when I return I will be a pilot, and take you for an airplane ride.’

My father tried to convince Edward not to go. He told him that he was sorry about the quarrel they had. He reminded him there was a war coming and that pilots often got killed. ‘Besides,’ my father said, ‘when the war does come it will not be our war, the English, French, and Germans still have a score to settle from the last war, let them muster their own young men to fight and die.’ But in the end all my father’s pleading made no difference. Edward had already signed the enlistment papers, so he had to go.

Despite his promise, Uncle Edward did not write me many letters. When he did he said that the training was difficult, but he thought he was going to make it through. Then he sent a short letter, including a photograph of himself with a large group of other men. I could hardly make him out, but he was smiling, and there were tiny little wings pinned to his chest. The letter told that he had finished his pilot’s course and was now going on to do more training, to multi-engine school, to learn to fly bombers.

A war had begun. Although the fighting was happening across the ocean and far from our valley, the airport no longer lit its beacon at night. My father told me this was so the enemy planes could not see it and use it to navigate by. My young mind wondered just how far away one could see the light from the beacon. I figured it must be a long way, probably to the ends of the earth.

The valley prepared for war with mock air raids. Sirens blared. Everyone turned off their lights and sat around in the dim glow of a radio dial, listening for news of an attack. My father was made an air-raid warden. He wore a steel helmet and walked around the neighborhood with a club, pounding on the doors of people from whose windows light showed. Father had not been required to go and fight in the war because, finding it difficult to get meat, he had closed his small butcher shop and was serving the war effort by working in the coal mines. The meat was being rationed to supply the army. Coal was needed for the furnaces in the steel mills and ammunition factories.

The seasons passed quickly. With each turn of the calendar page, I was growing up. Correspondence from my uncle became even more infrequent. Then one day a letter came that had a picture of Edward and some other men standing in front of a B-17 heavy bomber. The airplane’s name, The Sow’s Ear, along with a smiling pig, was painted on the fuselage just below the pilot’s window. My father, who in difficult times had often fed our family with soup made from pig’s ears he had saved from his butcher shop, speculated on the origin of the airplane’s strange name. Edward’s letter was very short; all it said was:

This is my airplane and my crew. We are somewhere in East Anglia; however, I can’t say where because of the censors. I like the flying part, but I wish I had gotten a fighter. I don’t like having to drop bombs on innocent civilians who have nothing to do with the war. We take off almost every night to go on raids, so I’m tired most of the time. I hope I will come through this all right. They are always shooting at us, and every night two or three crews never make it back. Janus, when the war is over, I will keep my promise to take you for an airplane ride; although I am afraid you will not be my first passenger as I have been flying the boys in my crew around for several months now. You may be my last passenger though, for if I live through this war I don’t think I will ever want to fly an airplane again.

Shortly after that letter came, I had a dream, a very vivid dream. Perhaps it was so real because I had been reading everything I could find about the B-17, which was not too much because in those days, although the Air Corps was very proud of it, the bomber was still somewhat of a secret weapon.

It was dark, and I was in the cockpit of a B-17 with my Uncle Edward. I remember clearly the pale red cockpit lights, which were supposed to aid your night vision when you looked outside. Everything had a red glow. Edward wiped his forehead with his gloved hand and I saw that he had a cut over his eye. Then a violent shudder ran through the airplane.

‘What’s happening Uncle Eddie?’ I cried. He seemed to know I was there, yet talked to me, or someone, like there was no one with him.

‘Hear that noise? That means the aircraft is dying, and there is nothing I can do about it,’ Edward said, his voice choked, yet calm. Then he began to explain things to me, but in a strange manner, like he was giving a lecture or something, but to an empty classroom.

'My left leg is numb from holding left rudder to offset the list caused by the dead right outboard engine, and a right inboard engine only developing half power. My multi-engine instructor used to pound my leg yelling, ‘Dead foot, dead engine . . . raise the dead, mister, it may save your life some day.’

‘Do it, Uncle Eddie! Do it!’ I shouted in the dream. ‘Raise the dead!’

‘But I am compensating for the dead engine,’ he said, ‘and another one is sputtering, dying fast. I am holding opposite rudder, struggling to keep this listing aircraft on course. But a B-17 does not fly well in this crossed-control configuration. I have been giving it my best efforts, but it’s not enough, for the past half hour The Sow’s Ear and I have been gradually slipping out of the sky.’

I watched Uncle Edward wipe the blood from his eyes once more. He focused out the window. A full moon reflected on the solid overcast. I could see his airplane was just skimming the tops of the clouds.

‘I have no way of knowing how thick those clouds are, or what’s underneath them,’ he told me, seeming to apologize.

I heard the right inboard engine make a horrible noise, and then stop. Edward quickly pulled the propeller control to the feathered position and turned his attention back inside the cockpit. The blood from his forehead filled his eyes; it seemed to cover the entire cockpit. He brushed at the cut with the back of his hand as he scanned the instrument panel.

'The only gauges that still matter are the compass and the altimeter,’ Edward told me, but I had no idea what he meant.

Sensing we were alone in the airplane, I asked, ‘Captain Klossowski where are the men from your crew?’

Edward appeared startled. I didn’t know why I had addressed him as Captain Klossowski. He looked at his watch and said, ‘I figure we’re crossing the English Channel about now. I ordered my crew to bail out when we were still over land . . . land occupied by the Germans, but land nonetheless.’ Then his attention went back outside. The windshield was white. His quivering bomber was descending into the clouds, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.

Several weeks after my dream, a telegram from the War Department was delivered to our house. My father read the message, which regretted to inform us that my uncle, Captain Edward Klossowski, had been lost returning from a raid over Germany. When I heard this I could not believe it.

‘Lost!’ I screamed. ‘Uncle Eddie would never get lost! I’ve spent days with him hiking in the woods behind our house. Eddie never, ever, got lost. He could tell direction by the position of the sun. If it was overcast, he would look at the moss on the trees, or sniff the wind and know the way home. When it got dark he used the stars to guide us. And when there were no stars, he watched for the airport’s rotating beacon reflecting off the clouds. There must be some mistake, uncle would never get lost.’ I ran up to my room and shut the door.

With tears clouding my eyes, I watched the airplanes coming and going on the airport below, hoping I would see The Sow’s Ear, its four engines humming as it approached down final.

Another year passed, and the war ended. In the valley all the church bells were rung simultaneously for a full hour. The collieries blew their whistles. I asked my father what had been accomplished by the war. At that time I did not quite understand his answer that a lot of people had been killed, but nothing much had changed for the better.

The airport beacon was turned back on again, and resumed its nightly parade of white and green across my ceiling. Every evening at sundown, I retired to my room and took up my watch of the rotating light. I stared at this awkward apparatus as it sent out its signals into the night. These fickle rays, once freed of the beacon, seemed to achieve a life of their own. It was as if the beacon had become merely the point of convergence of certain impulses of light that used man’s invention for its secret purpose. Was it mere chance that willed and worked, I wondered? Was my life worth no more than the seed pods that sailed on the breeze past my window, blown here or there according to fate’s will?

My eyes followed the wandering electrical currents as they repeated in tedious precision. ‘Soon,’ I whispered to no one but myself, as only I could believe my words, ‘it’s only a matter of time. My uncle will see the beacon now that it has been turned on, and The Sow’s Ear will find its way home.’


A Pitts Special and a Piper Apache