Last words & epigraphs
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This work first appeared in Gargoyle, issue #51. Please respect the fact that this material is copyrighted. It is made available here without charge for personal use only. It may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose without the express consent of the author or artist.
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The first of the blue-carded boys took off down the dirt runway on the east side of the Park. One of the boys had built an enormous kite, box-shaped with light woods and sheets of cloth dyed in psychedelic colors. The boy slipped inside a pouch sewn into the center of the kite and had himself launched by an enormous fan. The wind generated lift, carried the boy high for a time, though eventually the wind beneath disappeared, the kite lost horizontal flow, was deprived of thrust, and tumbled downward through unresistant pressure. Al tried not to stare at the boy’s face as he fell to earth with the shocked look of an osprey struck by lightning.
Earlier, six boys scheduled to take their Right of Passage exam stood with Al near the holding pen. The Park was large and surrounded by trees. The boys had just turned twelve. Overhead red-carded fliers dipped and soared in aerostatic spasms. The first crash occurred in the center of the Park. Boys still airborne looked down while men in long yellow coats came with gurneys, trash bags, and electric golf carts to remove the fallen. Picnickers raised then lowered their umbrellas. The debris scattered and the smoke cleared. The clean-up crew carried burlap bags filled with quicklime which they poured into the Elimination Pit; the Department of Human Accountability ordering all failed boys disposed of as soon as possible.
Jed L. dyed his blonde hair black, the bangs kept from his eyes by a red terry cloth sweatband, identical to the ones Chinese dissidents wore in Tiananmen Square. To Tubby, he said “You don’t know. Everyone has to eventually.”
“Not true. My dad told me.”
“So what?” The elastic string around Jed’s neck had a blue card attached. He spit into the grass as he saw older men do. “’Course, you couldn’t do it anyway. That’s why you’re exempt.”
Tubby’s face wobbled when he shook his head. A black card hung over his belly. Tubby’s dad had made a fortune selling decontaminated meats to the market, his success affording the family certain favors. “We’re a broad-minded institution,” the Director of Procurement for the Dept. of H.A. announced, “and not opposed to private contributions.” Young Tubby ate ice cream, assumed his entitlement with presumption. “You just wish you didn’t have to either.”
Jed laughed and poked Tubby in the chest. “Even if I had a black card, I wouldn’t use it.”
“So you say. But if your dad.”
“I mean if you were me.”
“I’d shave my ass and walk backwards.”
Al Boyd had tiny hands the size of sparrow quills. The scar on his chin was pink and thick. He stood with the others, glancing furtively every now and then at Tubby’s black card. Eight months before his own exam, Al built a pair of wings, eager to assess his potential, only to plunge face first from his bedroom window. Dad, in a panic, drove Al to the hospital. “Lift and drag,” they reviewed afterward the principles of flight, how “Sticks and leaves won’t do the trick. An apparatus may appear like wings, but the model you made was barely a prototype, more costume than actual construct.”
Al sat in the kitchen, his chin freshly stitched, his shoulders slender and hunched inward while Dad leaned against the counter and reminded him, “There are better ways than landing face first on the pavement. Your fall was miscalculation not misfortune.” He smiled and asked Al to “Tell me.”
“To fly, the air passing over the top of a surface must be faster than the air below,” he spoke from memory, the words a reflex. “Air speed creates a decrease in static pressure. When the pressure above is less than beneath, an object will rise.”
“And the wings you made?”
“Were for Bernoulli Lift.”
“Then why did you build a device designed for one form of flight and apply it to something completely different?”
The pain in Al’s chin was raw, the pills and novocaine making him groggy. His entire face felt heavy and numb at the same time. “I made a mistake,” he conceded.
Dad sighed and had Al recite Newton’s Conservation of Energy Theory and Bernoulli’s Equation adopted for fluids, then said, “We aren’t birds. We can’t just leap and soar. People don’t have that capacity. We need to make adjustments and be resourceful.”
Al stared down at the flatness of his hands, his arms smooth and slender, ineffective for any real lift. Dad tried to ignore the bandage wrapped white and lightly padded around Al’s chin. “Tell me then,” he encouraged. “What’s the difference between a bird and a plane?”
“An airplane relies on Reaction Lift, on the artificial thrust from an engine,” Al answered without having to think. “The brute force of the engine pushes the air pressure down while a counterthrust flows up under the wings creating lift.”
“And this is completely different from?”
“Which relies on?”
“The shape of the wing, the velocity, and density of the air.”
“If you knew this,” Dad remained puzzled by Al’s error, the wings he built absent the necessary curve, the bulge at the top and flatness below allowing the proper distribution of airflow. “What did you expect?”
“I hoped,” Al said.
“Hope is good,” Dad made every effort to sound assuring. “I, myself, am not without hope,” he gave a wink, cleared his throat. “But hope’s not enough. You can’t stand on a ledge and hope to fly. You have to know your abilities as well as your limitations. The wings you made weren’t shaped to transfer the speed of the air which, by the way, you failed to generate. And the downward force,” Dad said.
“Like a hand on my head.”
“Which is why?”
Al touched his chin.
“The way you went about things,” Dad cautioned, and softening his tone, offered to go back over Newton and Bernoulli.
Tubby stood beside the booth selling Right of Passage programs, plastic binoculars, pennants, and scorecards with several boys’ names already crossed out. “Do you need money?” Tubby’s dad offered as they arrived at the Park. “In case you get hungry.” The vendors set up in squat white trailers, sold a low grade foot long, strawberry ice cream, chocolate eclairs shaped as airplanes, flavored snow cones, and elephant ears fried deep and sprinkled with brown sugar. “I’m sorry I have to leave you. I’ve engagements, however, people to see, meat to sell, old animals to be bought and slaughtered. All you have to do is sign in at the hourly checkpoints. I don’t know why, Ted. I don’t,” Tubby’s dad answered almost patiently. “There are rules even we must follow. We’ve gotten this far and shouldn’t complain. It won’t be hard. No, I promise. Not to worry. Yes, of course, I’ll buy you a present tonight. This is your day after all. Such a big event should not go unrewarded.”
The guards at the front of the Park blew a horn signaling the start of the blue round. Al went to the orange section where he left his equipment. (He had a rebuilt Brison R/C, modified from Dad’s old 5.8ci/95cc single cylinder, the weight reduced to under ninety ounces, with electronic proportional timing and mechanical throttle, the thrust now exceeding sixty pounds.) Blue cards were assigned boys whose dads had failed their own R of P exam years before, yet somehow managed to survive the crash. Orange cards went to boys whose dads made it through their exam but otherwise didn’t get as far in life as expected, while red was for the sons of movers and shakers, and yellow marked boys whose dads hovered somewhere in between.
Blue dads sat in wheelchairs and leaned on crutches, calling out, “Come on, son! You can do it!”
“Do you want to review?” Dad was waiting for Al by the wings. As owner of Boyd’s Body Repair, the smallness of the operation earned Dad an orange card from the Dept. of H.A. each year. He raised his right hand and checked the wind, his palm held flat against the laminar flow.
“It’s OK,” Al was afraid to think, worried if he let anything out now he’d be unable to retrieve it later.
“Watch the friction,” Dad reminded him. “For takeoff the angle of attack must be extreme. A certain amount of resistance is only natural at first, but too much,” he stopped there and smiled uneasily.
Al looked at the boys still circling overhead. He held his own hand up, moved his arm quickly, experiencing stagnation pressure, the air’s kinetic motion transformed into pressure energy creating lift. A boy in a purple vest, gray leather pants, and white bicycle helmet flew by and crashed face first into the paddleball wall on the north end of the Park. Wings and body snapped as the boy went limp before sliding down the wall like a liquid stain. Al saw the men in yellow coats come quickly and pick up the pieces. One red dad wept while picnickers and people in the grandstands stomped their feet and clicked their tongues.
The band hired for the day played a tune by James Taylor — “...sweet dreams and flying machines...” — drowning out some of the noise. Dad stepped closer and kissed Al’s cheek. Al could smell the familiar soap on Dad’s skin, listened as he whispered, “Remember, once you reach your cruising speed, you can’t rely on momentum. More pressure has to be maintained when you level off. Reducing speed will throw you into a stall. If anything happens, drop the engine and glide.” Dust rose from the Elimination Pit, a light water sprayed on the quicklime sealing in the new top layer. Dad gave Al a second kiss, then went to join the other orange dads in the stands.
“This is it,” Jed came over and touched his blue card against Al’s orange. His hair was tied back with a second string, his knees padded, his otherwise baggy shorts taped to his thighs. He wore a gray T-shirt with a picture of Octave Chanute in the center, his short sleeves covering half his elbow armor. “Look at him,” Jed pointed at Tubby standing beside the vendor selling flavored ice, the black card dangling around his neck appearing from a distance like a dark hole cut into the center of his chest. “Sucks, and just ’cause his dad has like a zillion dollars.”
“Just, yeah,” Al glanced at the red-carded boys in their State-of-the-Art machines who successfully completed their Right of Passage exam and landed at the far end of the Park. Relieved dads greeted their sons with cheers as officers from the Department of Human Accountability handed out suckers, bubble gum, and vouchers for the city’s first-rate middle schools. Jed had an old Brison Revolution 52cc engine with scuffed fiberglass wings. He turned his back to Tubby, began winding the chain of extra weight around his waist, the handicap all blue-carded boys were required to carry. “Fatty gets his blubber buying candy and here I am weighted down by a gimp.”
“Your dad,” Al said.
“No, I mean your dad.” Halfway across the Park, Orville L. with blonde hair and narrow birdlike features, shuffled on his bad leg back from the Port-a-Potty where he relieved his faulty bladder. Jed locked the chain, his dyed hair rubbing against his neck. He stared for a moment, nearly waved, then said, “Later,” and was gone.
Al watched Orville trying to catch up. His limp was extreme. He finally stopped, rubbed his hip, then headed toward the pen with the other blue-carded dads. Back before his accident—what the Dept. of H.A. classified as “capability suspension”—Orville L. was a bright boy with unlimited ambition. By nine he’d learned about Newton and Bernoulli from library tapes, ran through the schoolyard in gray cotton shorts and green canvas sneakers, memorized how Bernoulli applied Newtonian theories for turning energy into flight. (“Any increase in the speed of a fluid must be matched by a parallel decrease in pressure: E = mgh + ½mv2 + Ju + pv, thus defining the basic rules for motion; for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction.”) Each night Orville asked his own dad questions, oblivious at first and then ignoring the fact Curtiss L. was something of a drinker. Careless in his tutoring, Curtiss L. failed to explain the risk of altering the angle of attack when already engaged in flight, how the lift disappeared as the angle increased, creating turbulence and separation.
For his exam, Orville shifted his trajectory in order to pass over the stands. Varying the tip of his wings, he lost control, his leg caught in telephone wire, his hip, thigh, shin, and ankle shattered, his bladder carved up like a plastic sack dragged across a field of broken glass. Six months in the hospital, and another six months at home left Orville skeptical about his future. Curtiss L. took away his son’s science books, introduced him to Mickey Spillane and Agatha Christie, taught him to play Trump and Spit in the Ocean. The following fall, the Department of Human Accountability assigned Orville to a special school for boys whose potential was considered suspect. Trained to insert toggle switches into electric appliances, his damaged leg and bladder hauled about like some dead cousin, Orville left school at seventeen, went to work in a government factory, and married the first woman who took serious pity on him. When Jed was born the following spring, a plump and happy baby, Orville dropped down on his one good knee and promised all who would listen, “This time things will be different!”
Tubby finished a foot-long hotdog as the band played “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” The boy in the kite fell, splintering in a mélange of cartilage, plastic, and cloth and tissue. Blue dads covered their eyes while picnickers continued nibbling on wafers and jelly sandwiches, oohing and ahhing with each new crash. Al watched Jed slip on his shoulder harness, his legs set in the lower straps, the wings aligned with the engine attached to three aluminum poles beneath. The boy in front had a new Nikasil-designed cylinder/piston engine assembled by Dolmar, the wing load and reconfigured bolt prop hub producing seventy pounds of thrust. (Jed’s engine, in contrast, provided half that power, relied more on the tilt of the wing and the skill of the pilot.) Jed checked the throttle, shifted his shoulders, and began racing toward the center of the Park.
The runway was a fifty-yard strip of dirt beaten smooth through the grass. Jed’s engine deflected the air downward, the pressure beneath pushed under the tilted surface of the wings, catching the current and creating lift. He rose at an eighty-degree angle, jerking slightly like a fish on a line. Bending his legs in order to reduce drag, he worked the thin wire pulleys connected to controls in his hands, adjusted the small flaps cut in the trailing edge of the wing, the winglets, slats, and outside ailerons.
Tubby felt in his pocket for the fifty-dollar bill his dad gave him. He bought two cherry ices, then walked behind the orange ropes with the change jingling in his pocket. Beads of flavored juice ran from his fingers onto his shirt as he offered Al a cone.
Al shook his head, kept his eyes on Jed rising and circling the Park. Tubby squinted. Red dye stained his mouth, the syrup of his first cone sucked off. The last of the blue-carded boys became airborne, one boy in an old leather aviator’s helmet and black swimming goggles crashed immediately into the trees, while a second boy soared straight up then down with such velocity the top half of his body became planted in the ground, his boots capsized and legs drooping like the petals of a thirsty plant.
“I can do that,” Tubby told Al. “I mean fly. Seriously, I could.”
Al went to where the other orange-carded boys were waiting and knelt beside his equipment. Tubby followed. Officials from the Department of Human Accountability fired brass rings from a crossbow at blue-carded boys, those able to catch a ring receiving immediate exemptions. (Rarely, if ever, did this happen.) Tubby began sucking on the second cone. Jed passed over the trees while Al inspected his pull wires, made a final check of his engine before putting on his pads. “You don’t think I can do it, do you?” Tubby fingered the black card dangling around his neck. “I could you know. It’s just that.”
“You don’t have to.”
“Right, I don’t.”
Al slipped on his harness. Instead of weighted chains, orange boys were assigned blinders. A brass ring shot through the air and disappeared in the woods. Al held his hand up to check the wind. A whistle blew, putting the orange boys on the clock. The pads protecting Al’s elbows and knees fit snugly. He looked at Tubby’s arms and calves the size of overripe rutabagas, imagined how tight the armor would fit, calculated how much thrust and brute force an engine would need to lift him off the ground. The blue boys were put through their final paces. Al watched, thought about what Jed said earlier, how everyone eventually had to make the leap and Tubby just didn’t know. He remembered, too, what Dad said when reciting Newton’s Third Law, how the rise of two conjoined surfaces depended on the pressure differential adjusted and applied fifty/fifty. (“Everything in partnership,” Dad told him.) He moved slightly away from his wings, touched the scar on his chin, tugged off the pad on his left forearm and held it out. “If you want,” he said.
Tubby laughed, then burped. His stomach growled. He stared at Al, at the engine and wings. A man hawking Right of Passage banners strolled by, stopping among a group of blue boys just landed and celebrating their achievement. The clean-up crew circumnavigated the revelers on their way to the Elimination Pit. Tubby watched the last of the blue boys land, then turned, his face gone pale.
Al removed a second pad. Tubby stared, took a step forward, stopped, bent over, and vomited cherry dye. His hands were still on his knees as a chain fell from overhead and landed not three feet away. Jed pointed down and laughed, did a series of dips and whirls as officials on the ground ran through the Park, calling with bullhorns, waving blue cards, warning Jed of violations while shouting, “Your time is up!”
A man in a black suit carrying a clipboard took note of the chain, saw Tubby, and approached from the Dept. of H.A.’s registration area. Tubby was only then lifting his head, wiping his mouth with the side of his hand as the man used the end of his pen to turn Tubby’s black card over. “You missed your eleven o’clock check-in. Didn’t you hear the horn?”
Al pulled his pads back on, got in line with his wings, and started his rebuilt Brison R/C 5.8ci/95cc engine. The man in the black suit had a hand on Tubby’s shoulder, was warning him of the consequence that came from missing an hourly check-in. “Rules are rules,” the man said and began removing the black card from around Tubby’s neck.
The air above Al’s wings flowed faster and exerted less resistance than below, creating lift as he raced down the runway. The takeoff was smoother than expected, the tilt of the wing and thrust of the engine moving him skyward. He squeezed the controls, the wires opening the slots on the top of his wings. At four hundred feet he stared down, saw Tubby running wildly through the Park and into the woods, shouting “Daddy!” Al adjusted the angle of attack, the orange card beating against his chest. He looked for Dad, wanted to wave, then did. He remembered nights at the Body Shop, as Dad carried his Brison Revolution 95cc engine inside and set it on the work bench, explaining each piece and how “This for you is going to be even better.” He thought of the hours they reviewed together Newton’s Conservation of Energy Theory and Newtonian Aerodynamics Fundamentals, and more recently, Al standing at his bedroom window with wings of sticks and glued leaves stretched, how Dad found him afterward and held him in his arms.
Al soared higher, located the sun through his blinders, took another turn around the Park while officials launched brass rings at orange boys fooled by the offer. When the final horn sounded, boys beneath searched for the safest place to land. Al looked over the treetops, saw Jed one last time sailing away. Orville came from the group of blue dads, limping on his crippled leg, inspiring calcified bone to bend. Moving faster than he had in years, he tackled one of the officials from the Dept. of H.A. while yelling at Jed to “Go son, go!”
The band played on, until the last of the boys departed.