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The Aviator's Wife(11)
Melanie Benjamin

He looked so relaxed now, not the stiff, uncomfortable figure in evening clothes from the night before. I hadn’t realized how tense he had been then. Now his limbs looked loose, lanky; he patted the plane in the same manner as a cowboy caressing his favorite horse. I almost felt as if I was intruding on an intimate scene.

“May I touch it?” I asked, surprised by my boldness.

“Of course!” Charles leaped to his feet. “Go on—you can’t hurt it!” He grinned again, this time so wide that his entire face relaxed, his eyes crinkling up boyishly.

“Why, it’s fabric!” I couldn’t believe it; this machine that had carried him all the way across the ocean was made of nothing but cloth and wire!

“Yes. Fabric covered in dope—that’s a kind of strengthening liquid. That’s what makes it strong enough but also light enough to fly.”

“Is the plane we’re going up in made of fabric, as well?”

“Yes. But don’t worry, Miss—Anne. I assure you, it’s perfectly safe.”

“Oh, I’m sure it is.” I wanted to explain to him that I wasn’t afraid; how could I be? There was no one I trusted more than Charles Lindbergh, even though I had just met him. Who else could I trust to launch me into the sky?

The next minutes were full of activity; after Charles inspected it, the guard hooked up the nose of a different plane—a biplane, I recognized from Charles’s discourse the night before—to a tractor. This one was painted blue with a vivid orange trim, not the monochromatic silver and gray of the Spirit of St. Louis. With a startling roar that scattered the swallows gathered near the entrance, the tractor fired up and towed the plane out of the building. Charles found a helmet and goggles for me, and I followed him—again, running to keep up—out of the barn and to the plane, which was now at the end of a narrow, closely cropped strip of grass in the middle of the field. In the faint morning light, I could barely make out a flag at the end of this runway, waving in the gentle breeze.

The air was warm and smelled sweet, like rock candy. There were a few white, puffy clouds high above, and I couldn’t believe that in a few moments I would be among them.

Buckling my helmet beneath my chin, I eyed the plane; the two seats were in tandem, the one in back slightly higher than the one in front. They were both open to the sky.

“How do we get in?”

“We climb up on the wing,” Charles answered. Then he leaned toward me and tightened the helmet strap. “There.” He studied me solemnly, nodding, as if assuring himself that I was as snug as possible. I felt the careful weight of his attention yet knew, at the same time, that I was merely part of his preflight checklist, represented by a piece of paper he had tucked in a pocket; he had already measured the fuel, tested the throttle, wiped the smudges off his goggles. Then he busied himself with pulling on his leather gloves.

“It’s very loud and very windy up there,” he told me, his voice suddenly all business, brisk and gruff. “We won’t be able to communicate. There are controls in your seat, but don’t worry, they’re not operable. I’ll be in back, you’ll be in front. Make sure you buckle your harness strap when you get in. I’d keep my hands inside if I were you. Oh—and chew this.” Reaching into the pocket of his jacket, he pulled out a stick of gum.

“Why?”

“It’ll pop your ears. You’ll see.”

“All right.” Obediently, I removed the wrapper and popped the gum in my mouth. “Anything else?” I mumbled, chewing away until my jaws ached.

“No. Just relax. And have fun.”

Then I was being helped up onto the wing, made of that same fabric as the Spirit of St. Louis, but it felt sturdy, stable, beneath my feet. Climbing into the small seat in front, I found a harness that reached across my chest, and secured it. The top wing of the plane formed a kind of canopy above me. There was a stick and a round instrument panel in front of me: the controls Charles had told me about. There was also a pedal at my feet. I was cramped in this cockpit and couldn’t have stretched my legs. I wondered how he had stayed in such a place for forty hours, even in the larger cockpit of the Spirit of St. Louis; his legs were so long.

I felt, before I heard or saw, the propeller turn in front of me; the plane shuddered, and a slap of wind hit my face. The engine sputtered, then roared to life, and I chewed my gum vigorously to drown out the surprisingly loud whine. Then we were rambling down the field, picking up speed; I could feel every rut and bump in the ground as we tumbled over it, still clumsy, so clumsy—how could we ever take wing? The ground came toward me faster and faster, bumpier and bumpier, until suddenly, it was smooth; no more clumsiness, no more friction. It was as if I were suspended in time, suspended in air—and then, as my stomach decided to test its own boundaries, I realized that I was.

I was airborne. My heart was rising in my throat, my stomach first leaping, then tumbling, as we went up, up, up … the tips of trees, green, leafy, so close I was sure I could touch them. Then they were below me.

The plane banked toward the right, and suddenly I was looking back down at the airfield, the buildings, the horse getting smaller and smaller until it turned into a toy. The air slapped and then tore at my face; my eyes stung, even behind the goggles. My ears felt as if they were full of water. This pressure in them built until I remembered the gum. Chewing furiously, I felt first my left, then my right ear pop, and I could hear again the reassuring groan of the engine, the wind whistling past my face.

The plane leveled out. Now I couldn’t stop looking, craning my head this way and that; below, on my right, were hills. Tops of hills! And houses that looked like dollhouses. Fields were laid out neatly in geometric shapes, squares and rectangles.

The clouds remained above us; it appeared we wouldn’t be touching them, after all. But it didn’t matter; there was too much to see, anyway. Too much for me to absorb—I didn’t feel weightless; there was no danger of me floating out of the plane, as I admit I had feared. Although I did feel curiously light, above. Above all the troubles of the world, above all my fears and doubts. Just as Charles had said.

Charles! My heart thrilled at my casual memory of his name, as if, for a brief moment, I was one of the golden people, too. And he was behind me! Again, I had almost forgotten about him even as I trusted him completely. Without a single doubt, I had placed my very being in his hands, certain he would take care of it, of me. And in that moment, that first moment of flight, of my breaking of the rules of gravity—I broke the rules of my heart, as well. For I had strictly governed it until this moment; this moment when I gave it, literally and figuratively, to the man seated behind me. The man steering me through the air, making sure I didn’t fall. No longer did I need to be responsible for my own destiny, to worry about what to do today, tomorrow, next year. I needed only to give in and be, like the simplest of creatures. Like the birds flying miraculously below me.

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