On a rare day when I was six years old, my father walked with me down the hill from our tenement apartment in San Francisco to the neighborhood market and bought me a fifteen-cent balsa wood airplane. A glider, really, it had a paper-thin wing and stabilizers and rudder you fitted through slots and into grooves that had been cut for them into the flat fuselage, and a shiny u-shaped piece of steel clamped to the nose to give it some forward weight. The fuselage bore official “stars-and-stripes” insignia, along with the red silhouette of a jet pilot—complete with helmet and oxygen mask—sitting erect inside a cockpit outlined in blue. I could barely contain my excitement as we walked with this treasure back up the hill, past our apartment building to the huge vacant lot behind it, an area overgrown with weeds and bright orange California poppies. I watched, fidgeting impatiently, while Daddy put the plane together for me, and then squealed with delight when he finally stood and threw the toy into the air. It did an easy loop, and then arced smoothly around us, floating just inches above the rocky ground. Daddy slid the wing forward in its slot, and the plane flew tight loops and steep turns. Then he slid the wing all the way back, and it flew faster, and farther. Each time either Daddy or I threw the airplane into the air, I imagined it was me in the cockpit, skillfully performing gut-wrenching loop-the-loops and barrel rolls. Then Daddy took out his pocketknife and cut the wing real short, so that only a couple of inches or so stuck out from either side of the fuselage. “Watch this!” he said. He reared back and threw the plane high into the air. After losing sight of it for a couple of seconds, I finally saw it sailing over the roof of our cinder-block apartment building. I shrieked and giggled and ran to fetch it. But my delight quickly turned to despair. When I got to the other side of the building, I glimpsed another older kid disappearing around the far corner of the next building, my cherished airplane clutched in his hand. I didn’t see the kid’s face; he could have been any one of hundreds who lived in the area. I ran as fast as I could across the scraggly yard, hoping to catch him, but by the time I got to the corner of the building he was nowhere in sight. My plane was gone. I felt like the boy had punched me in the stomach.
By the time Daddy came around to see what was the matter, I was already sobbing, and nothing Daddy said would console me. He listened to me wail for about a minute, and hugged me. Then he stood up. “Okay, that’s enough,” he said finally. “You’re a big boy. Almost a man. Time to stop crying.” His face grew dark. I did my best to stifle my sobs, knowing what was in store for me if I didn’t. But the burning pain in my stomach lingered.
I quieted myself, and as I did I gradually became aware of a low rumbling sound hanging faintly in the air. Daddy heard it too. He looked up, his eyes scanning the cloudy skies. The sound grew steadily louder. The apartment windows around us vibrated. Suddenly the air shook with what sounded like an explosion. Daddy flinched from the deafening noise as if dodging an invisible someone who had thrown a punch at him. I looked up—just in time to see a glittering silver jet pass directly over our heads. The roar from its engine was louder than anything I had heard before; it made my stomach shake. I screamed and clapped my hands over my ears, thinking the thing might actually be falling on us. A moment later there came another explosion, and I shrieked again as a second plane appeared and screamed overhead. Daddy grinned wide and looked at me and pointed upward. He cupped his hands and yelled something at me through them.
“What?!” I said, dropping my hands from my ears.
“Fighters!” he said, louder. “Navy. F-9’s, maybe.”
I had no idea what an F-9 was, or why anyone in the Navy should be flying an airplane. Wasn’t that the job of the Air Force? I pondered this while yet another deafening roar rose up and a third jet flew overhead. The windows of the buildings around us continued shaking. Some people had come out of their apartments to look and point, the way Daddy and I did. Daddy was still gawking at the planes, looking wistful and admiring. Above us, the plane rolled suddenly into a steep bank and began turning hard to the south. Then I saw the pilot’s helmet, a little white ball visible against the dark interior of the cockpit, a live version of the silhouette on the plane I’d just lost. My heart leapt. Could he see us standing there looking up at him? Could he see the wonder in our faces? The awe? I raised my arm into the air and waved frantically at the pilot, filled suddenly with an overwhelming desire to be where he was, to have others look at me the way these people—and my father—looked at him.
The plane disappeared behind a rise of apartments to the east. The low roar of jet engines hung for a time in the still air (or was it merely an echo in my brain?), and then fell to silence. Finally, Mama stuck her head out the front door and called for us to come in for dinner, and we walked the short distance to our apartment and went inside. I was still hurting from the loss of my airplane. But all that evening—poking through my loathsome dinner of black-eyed peas and cornbread; watching reruns of Walt Disney and Maverick on our tiny round-screened TV; then listlessly flicking my fingers at my broken plastic boats while I took my hated Sunday night bath—my mind kept returning to the glittering jet I’d seen earlier. And when I fell asleep that night, it was to dreams of gazing down from the cockpit of that jet, down at a wide-eyed boy pumping his arms furiously in the air hoping so desperately to catch my eye. I waggled the wings of my powerful jet to tell him, yes, I’d seen him. Then I shoved the throttle forward to the stops and roared away, leaving the boy and the slums in which he was growing up far behind. Above the boy’s head lingered a black trail of jet exhaust, curling like an animated smoky finger in a Popeye cartoon, beckoning him to follow me if he could.