Why I Prefer the Train – Richard Gess

Richard Gess

I have attained to the imposing age of one hundred and three and I have never flown in an airplane, and I suppose that can be blamed on Rodney Dorrance. If I ever went up in an airplane, all I would be able to think about would be Rodney. I couldn’t bear it; I would be frightened that I was going to die, every second I was in the air. One summer evening when I was nine, Father announced at table that young Rodney Dorrance—of the downriver Dorrances, who kept lead mines out West—had asked his father to buy him an aeroplane, and Old Dorrance had duly bought him one. “Dear Lord,” my mother said, “he’s hazard enough on solid ground.” In the spring, down at Schorling’s garage, where my gang of pretend Motor Boys and I stopped every day after school, I’d seen the wreckage of Rodney Dorrance’s racing car, covered in mud and weeds. According to the Schorlings, Rodney had gotten it up to 75 on the West Leiden Pike, at midnight, and then swerved it into the ditch to avoid a deer—or perhaps a cow—or was it a duck? The Schorlings thought Rodney was hilarious in and of himself, and they made him sound stupider every time they told the story. When he entered the ditch he proceeded onward, left wheels in the water, right wheels up on the embankment, and he went two hundred yards in that fashion until he was interrupted by a culvert. Even this wreckage was exciting—there was nothing of our parents’ stodgy touring cars about it, no fenders, no running boards, no roof; its wheels were double the diameter of Father’s Buick’s, and its steering wheel looked a yard wide, and the exhaust pipes running along its flanks were burned black—it must have belched flames. It said FIAT on its radiator grille, an inscription exotic as hieroglyphics to us overawed children. Who among us small fry was going to turn eighteen and receive an Italian racing car? Benny was the Chief of Surgery’s son, Louis’s father ran the waterworks, I was Lawyer Vander’s tomboy Natalie; we were well-off children, in town, but shoeless urchins compared to the princelings in the castles downriver. “Rodney Dorrance,” my father said, “is spoiled, and I can’t imagine what Old Dorrance is thinking. Signing checks for racing cars and airplanes.” And Mother said, “Perhaps Old Dorrance is trying to distract Young Dorrance from the young ladies. He causes scandals when he doesn’t have a hobby.” “If he was my child,” said Father, “I might hope for enough of a mishap to turn him towards seminary school.” And both of them tittered away at their own cleverness, and I couldn’t understand why. What was wrong with being daring and modern if you could afford it? Why were we all obliged to proceed through the world at such a slow glum pace? The more my parents clucked about him, his recklessness with autos and his carelessness with girls, the more interesting he became. So when it turned out that Rodney Dorrance’s airplane was in truth an aeroboat, and that he would be trying it out on the river, I was the one who pestered Mother and Father to make sure we were at Woodwinds on the day, in case we could get a glimpse of his performance. Everyone doubted we’d see any trace of Rodney, and with good reason. But when we all stepped onto the front porch, Father and Mother and Aunt Frances and I, and one of Aunt Frances’s pretty young employees from the Telephone Exchange, and we looked down and saw the beautiful airplane, floating on the river right before our eyes, Father said, “Well, brava for Natalie,” and everybody clapped. I was all for taking front row seats at the end of the dock, but Father forbade us to go any closer than the lawn in front of the house. Aunt Frances’s young friend and I pleaded, but Father stood firm, and Mother took his side. “We can’t predict which direction he might fly,” said Mother. “Up,” said Aunt Frances’s friend, “and then away from us, wouldn’t you think?” “We are thinking,” Father said, “of other likelihoods.” So Father and Mother and Aunt Frances and I and Aunt Frances’s pretty friend, all ridiculous in our summer whites, sat down at the edge of the hill where the lawn began sloping to the river, passing Father’s German binoculars back and forth. The plane looked mysterious, bobbing on the river with fancy little boats swimming around it, the breeze catching its various white wings—there were two where you would expect them, and three more that made a tail—and tilting the whole assembly from side to side. It looked terribly light and delicate. Through Father’s heavy field glasses I could see the brass brightwork on the Dorrances’ steam launch, and a slender youth standing at its rail, with his cap on backwards exactly like the aeronauts in the magazines. “I met Rodney at the Boat Club last month,” said Aunt Frances’s friend. “You certainly did not,” said Aunt Frances. When the small craft began to disperse, I could plainly see Rodney, the boy with his cap on backwards, stepping off a dinghy onto his overgrown dragonfly, tipping it like a canoe. Some boys standing in other dinghies steadied its wingtips until Rodney took his seat in what I imagine you would call its hull. “Is it French?” Aunt Frances’s friend asked. “It is a Wright Flyer,” answered Aunt Frances, “from Ohio,” and Mother said, “May I have a turn with the binoculars, please?” And Rodney started the engine, making an indescribable din, and then the dinghy boys pulled away from the plane and it started going forward, twitching its tail. He gave it the gun and it got even louder—everyone covered their ears and closed their eyes—and when I looked again he was gone, disappeared. “We missed it!” I cried. “We would have seen it from the dock,” said Aunt Frances’s friend. And huzzahs rose from upriver, and Mother said, “look up, and to your right,” and there in the sky was the speck of the aeroboat, lifting towards New Leiden, steady as a gull. “He can see his little cottage from up there,” said Mother. “Fieldstone and Ludowici tile,” Father noted, “big as an Alpine hotel.” We watched the plane until it was too small to see, and then we took turns finding it again with the field glasses, and watched it until it was finally too far away, and we could hear its motor for some while after that. “I wonder how far he intends to go,” said Mother. “I doubt he will return here,” said Aunt Frances. “Can we wait on the dock to see if he does?” asked Aunt Frances’s friend. “Then you will miss the picnic,” said Aunt Frances, which was true; Cook had set the hampers on the porch. “Can’t we please go down to the dock?” I begged. “If he comes back we’ll run for it!” “I can keep watch over Natalie,” said Aunt Frances’s friend, shading her eyes with her hand and peering at the spot in the sky where Rodney had vanished. “You’ll be waiting for nothing,” said Aunt Frances, “and we won’t wait for you.” “Frances,” said Mother, “let your friend do as she likes. Natalie, you may go with Aunt Frances’s friend.” And Aunt Frances’s friend and I ran down the hill and out to the end of the dock and sat down in the glider to wait for Rodney and his flying boat to come flying back our way. We craned our necks to the north and stared. “Despite whatever your aunt thinks,” said Aunt Frances’s friend, “I did meet Rodney Dorrance, at the Boat Club June Nosegay, and why she feels compelled to contradict me is a mystery.” “What is he like?” I asked, and Aunt Frances’s friend laughed. “He had the loudest motor car I have ever heard,” she said. “He stood out on the lawn with two other girls and I, and we all smoked, even though he said he hated to smoke. Then he passed around his little silver flask, and then we all went back inside, and then he taught me how to do the Fox Trot, which is a very entertaining Negro dance.” “But what does he look like?” I persisted, and a dreamy look crossed Aunt Frances’s friend’s face, and she said, “Rodney looks like someone drew him, in the sixteenth century.” “I don’t understand what Mother and Father have against him,” I said. “Perhaps,” said Aunt Frances’s friend, “it is because he can do exactly what he pleases, unlike almost everybody else. Your aunt dislikes him because she knows I’m interested, not that that is any of her business. Do you hear it?” she said. And yes, I did, I could hear the airplane coming back in our direction, buzzing like a horsefly. Just as we’d dreamed, Rodney had flown in a wide circle, and now it looked like he was heading in towards the exact place he’d taken off, right in front of us. I knew why Aunt Frances’s friend wanted to personally welcome him back to solid ground. I felt the same attraction, but in my case I was nine years old, and to me it was unnerving, like the first symptoms of a sickness. But Aunt Frances’s friend and I both jumped for joy, we both whooped and waved, two starstruck female admirers. “There he is,” said Aunt Frances’s friend, “and if you glance behind you, you’ll see they haven’t noticed a thing yet.” And there up the hill were Mother and Father chatting, parked in two of those painful wooden deck chairs Viola had rolled out on the lawn. Aunt Frances perched upright on hers, looking down at us through the binoculars, which I found baffling; the show was out on the river, where Rodney was about to land. But instead of lighting on the water, Rodney went into a stunt, pulling up at a very radical angle. Aunt Frances’s friend stopped jumping about, and said “Oh!” and put her hand to her mouth, and Rodney kept climbing, steeper and steeper, sun flashing in his white canvas wings. When he was perpendicular for a second or two, the sound of his motor changed; it grumbled and hacked and hesitated, but it kept pushing him farther, straight up, until all at once it cut off, and Rodney and his plane tipped silently upside down. “Oh!” Aunt Frances’s friend said again, and for the slightest moment he hung bottom up, exactly parallel to the river. Then there was the loudest crack!—like a heavy limb snapping off a tree—and his wings flipped up in a V, and the plane seemed like it was about to go still higher instead of falling, like it would flap down and lift away, like a gull would. Then it came apart into five pieces, counting Rodney, descending in five different directions. I didn’t see Rodney break every one of his bones, hitting the water; I saw him falling upside down, still trying to fly his plane, hands and feet still in position, while his hat whirled away towards West Leiden. His motor and the rest of the hull went directly down, the wings tumbled upriver, and the tail veered sideways, banked and swerved low, caught the breeze, and veered up again, heading directly for my and Aunt Frances’s friend’s heads. We should have probably flattened ourselves on the dock, or escaped into the river, but Aunt Frances’s friend and I stood stock-still instead and watched the broken-off tail fly straight at us, fast enough to knock our idiot heads off. “Girls!” Father yelled, but we couldn’t move. At the very last second Aunt Frances’s friend bent her knees to make herself shorter, and I immediately did the same, and the tail cast its shadow over us—I could hear canvas flapping, I heard shrieking from behind us, Mother and Aunt Frances—and then flew on to crash into the hillside. Now who would try to loop the loop in that plane? Anyone could see it would fall apart if you turned it upside down. And regardless of what Mother and Father and Aunt Frances would have tried to tell you, I did see him fall, and I can see him fall again, this minute, if I close my eyes and envision him. The only other person I ever knew who was more afraid of flying was Penny Mallard. “The more firmer, the less terror,” she used to say, a line I’m sure she misappropriated from some cornpone jester of the airwaves. Poor Penny had it much worse than I did, and who knows why? The kid couldn’t even see the glint from a plane overhead without fretting. When she was still small, when I first knew her, and she heard an airplane approaching, she would chew on the tip of her index finger, and look around from side to side, or down at the ground, anywhere but up. If anyone else I’m going on and on about here was still alive, Father or Mother or Penny Mallard or poor Aunt Frances, they would all say the only thing I was irrational about was flying. I am sure this foible annoyed everyone—Penny’s father blamed me to the end of his days for making him fifteen hours late to her deathbed, because I would not take the airplane from New York to Charlotte—but then again, unlike almost everybody els

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