NU Professor Fred Shafer: Allow narrator to have something like omniscience – except when she feels stumped about a motive or reaction.
Notes: Ron the father is a lapidarist. Examination of precious stones. Honing of facets.
The boys find the magic under the prosaic. They don’t care about delays; it just gives them more time to play on the bars. Put the Winnetka monkey bars in Acapulco.
Mexico/“A Loverly Terminal”
In early January of 1968, one month before their ninth anniversary, my father flew my mother to their honeymoon destination a second time. This year Ron and Bernadette brought their boys to Acapulco in the Piper Cub. Christopher, curly-haired like his mother, had turned five that year. Tall and thin Ronnie, Jr. was eight years old. Young as they were, the boys had the patience and endurance needed for a weeklong flight in a four-seater, single engine prop plane. My toddler sister Nancy and I stayed at home with relatives. Two weeks after their return, the family would celebrate my third birthday. I have no recollection of this separation.
My mother kept a diary of the trip. I find her notations so tantalizingly brief, I allow myself to imagine this Mexico trip, even as I know what I picture is an invented experience of my own, not theirs.
Thursday, January 4, 1968. The first day out of Mitchell’s Air Field in Lombard, the plane bumped at low altitude under a heavy cloud cover. The air was cold. The boys wore heavy plaid wool jackets. They laughed with the roller coaster bumps and drops of the buffeted craft. Bernadette felt the familiar stomach churn of airsickness. The bare farmland of downstate Illinois outside her window offered little variety.
INTEGRATE THIS INTO HER THOUGHTS WITHIN THE STORY.
I doubt my mother was easily fazed by a few hours of altitude nausea on this first day of flight. Everything I have learned about this woman, from her friends, her sister, points to a patient and happy woman, grounded with confidence in her husband’s abilities, in her own. With deep resources to see the bigger picture, to laugh off my father’s late night solo flights, his spur of the moment changes of plan.
The boys had no queasiness, no boredom. The buzzing of the motor only seemed to keep them wound like chattering toys. The ground below was endlessly interesting. They were happy and bright, as if the sense of forward movement, the tummy flip of gaining altitude that everyone feels on takeoff, never dissipated nor turned unpleasant.
Ron gave each of the boys a thrilling turn to operate the plane, took back the controls to descend into St. Louis for lunch and gas.
The cloud cover lifted during their afternoon flight and the sky turned clear and full of gold light. “Beautiful afternoon flight to Hot Springs,” writes Bernadette. The terrain below began to grow ripples and texture as they moved over southern Missouri, crossed over Bull Shoals Lake, a spiny and twisting blue dragon that guarded the border of Arkansas. They passed over the Ouachita Mountains as the sun began to set, approached the city of Hot Springs, set low in a shadowy bowl of the hills.
They would stay in Holiday Inn rooms with two double beds topped with stiff brocaded bedspreads that matched the drapes. The boys charged down the carpeted hallways, laughed at the paper bands around the toilet seats, the plastic cups wrapped in more plastic.
They had a slow start the next morning and set out around 9:15. Ron had only flown ninety miles or so, almost reached Texarkana, Texas, when the wings started to ice up. The wind chill was fierce. My father decided to turn back to Hot Springs. They landed at noon, rented a Mustang to tool around town, exploring, making the best of the delay.
On Bathhouse Row, the imposing Fordyce Bathhouse had been closed for the past six years, but my father found an unlocked door. The halls were empty of people and furnishings. Their shoes echoed off the tiled floor, echoed again off the white marble walls veined in gray. The dim light inside made the boys feel even colder than they had outside in the wind. At the end of the lobby they found a tiny alcove, home to a white marble cherub boy on a pedestal. The size of an infant, he dipped a lonely toe in the stone waters of a stone seashell. The boys peered at the engraved words over his head.
“What does this say?” asked Christopher.
“May health and happiness accompany you all the days of your life,” read Bernadette.
That night’s dinner was Pizza Hut, the entertainment a drive up the hairpin curves of West Mountain to see the lights of the night city below.
Back in the hotel room that night, Ronnie Jr. and Chris pleaded, “Dad! Can we go back and soak in the hot baths?”
“Here, we’ll make one in the bathtub,” said Ron, turning up the Hot knob to full steam. The boys laugh at the clouds.
Saturday morning brought more bad weather. Ron and Bernie slept in while the boys read their comics and watched television.
Uncle Jon, my father’s younger brother, tells me, “In aviation safety, they talk about get-there-itis. You put three other people in there and they’re relying on you to get them there. You have hotel reservations. ‘What do you mean we’re going to spend two days in Columbus, Ohio? We’re going to the Bahamas!’ So there’s that psychological pressure. It’s a classic action that many, many people have fallen prey to. Your dad was very experienced, had quite a few flight hours and understood the equipment. But got bit by the weather.”
Saturday afternoon, Ron drove the boys to Murfreesboro, Arkansas, to find diamonds. he Crater of Diamonds State Park. A surging vein of crystal, pouring in epoch slow motion toward the surface of the earth, open to amateur gem seekers. Thousands of diamonds have been found here, as many as two a day, says the plaque at the visitor’s center.
It’s January 6. Bernie writes, “Ron and boys looked for diamonds in the mud.” I picture Ron pausing for a moment, rising up out of the muck to stand over and watch the boys. Little Ronnie Jr. and Chris had caught his initial excitement on the fifty-mile drive down from Hot Springs while he told them stories of the famous yellow and gray and amber colored gems discovered here. Now the boys play and dig with glee while Ron, chilled, hating the feel of grit under his nails, loses heart. They have found nothing, of course. You would think the boys would be the first to quit. You would think they had imagined sparkling bits of white just resting, scattered on the ground and now would be let down by this dull field of clay. But they continue to dig and chatter, intent on the task.
Ron stands and watches them in the gray light, the sky threatening to spit. “What is this childishness?” he thinks. “What did you expect to find!” His low disappointment carries his thoughts away from this interminable pause in Arkansas -- It feels like they have barely gotten started and they’re still days away from Acapulco. His thoughts fly away, back to the jewelry store with his father’s name over the door, the business his father built to hand over to Ron, back to the latest news items from South Africa, unrest in the mines, rumors of horrible conditions in the Indonesian pearl pools and the old worry that never goes away – that the family business is the last stop in a traffic of bright stones originating in the brutal unpaid work of his African and Asian brothers and sisters.
“I’m peddling the fruits of slavery,” he thinks, perhaps dramatically, but the hard realization fits this wintry scene and finding no break in the hard surface of that regret, his mind turns away and back, back, mercifully away from the mines but still back to the beginning of what feel like a long series of compromises long before he took over the store. Back to the failed Air Force pilot’s rating that kept him in the navigator’s seat; truthfully he found satisfaction in the maps and radar reading, but the seat behind the pilot was not where his early dreams had seen him. Back, back his memory flies to the flying trophies of his boyhood, awards for model design and flight distance, to the proud face of his sponsor, Mr. Nealy from the Ford dealership, saying, “You’ll be flying overseas soon, Son,” a heavy hand on the teenager Ron's shoulder.
Ron the father feels a band of a headache begin to tighten under his hat. He looks upward. When will this weather break? When can they fly again?
At his father’s feet, Christopher pushes his trowel into the earth and feels a hard scrape under the blade. He turns over a clump of dirt. Among the damp rocks is a tiny piece of glazed sugar, a chunk of icing like those left at the bottom of the donut box this morning. Chris jumps a glance up but his father is wearing that distracted look, staring off to the line where the horizon meets the low clouds. Chris looks back down at the crusty stone. He fingers its hardness, rubs off a smear of mud with his thumb and drops it in his coat pocket. Ronnie Jr., hard at work, has his back to his younger brother. Chris will tell his brother later, maybe whisper it from the hotel bed as their parents sleep: “Ronnie! I found something!”
My father’s thoughts wander home, back toward today. He can’t stay in this mine dimness too long – something won’t let him. Bernie won’t let him. Bernie never lets him keep looking at a door slammed shut; she pulls his gaze back to the warm room they’re in. He can almost hear her scolding him for being self-indulgent, reminding him of the political change making its way to the south of Africa, grounding his flight of gloom with reminders of the grocery bill and the mortgage payment and Cindy’s urgent need for a new winter coat. Nancy can wear her big sister’s old red one for the rest of the winter. Bernie will be the one who suggests another drive up the West Mountain tonight to show the boys the lights.
Ron looks down at the boys. As if sensing the change in his thoughts, they both look up at him. Ronnie says, “Look, Dad. Is this a bone?” It’s surely not, more likely a twig stripped of bark, but he kneels and gives Ronnie’s grubby hand his whole attention.
Yet I know he took great pride in his store. I’ve seen the full page ads in the little local paper, The Doings, with photos of Ron and a recently engaged couple, smiles all around. I bet he got a kick out of gently teasing the young grooms who came in for their rings, complimenting the girls’ pretty hands, guiding the boys into a responsible purchase.
Yet I’ve heard he could also change quickly out of his salesman’s role, show a reticent side that mystified and sometimes frustrated his siblings. Jon remembers an afternoon fruitlessly trying to engage his older brother in conversation. My father remained engrossed in an airplane magazine.
January 7. Sunday morning dawned cold, but clear. The family woke at 7:40 and hustled to make eight o’clock Mass. The boys’ necks looked bare under their new haircuts.
At the airport, the plane looked so cold and silent. Bound down by the wheel blocks, it shuddered at a stiff blast of the buffeting wind. But Ron’s spirits had lifted, turned hopeful with the peek of blue sky, the invigorating homily – it was the feast of the Epiphany – and some hot coffee. While Bernie and the boys watched from the window of the tiny airfield office, Ron backed up the Mustang until its rear bumper nearly touched the propeller, turned off the engine. He took a vacuum cleaner hose borrowed from the office and stuck one end into the hot and dripping tailpipe of the Mustang. Working quickly and lightly so as not to touch the pipe and burn his fingers, he wrapped rags around the tailpipe, tied the ends tightly to make a seal, then stuck the other end of the ribbed hose into the cowling of the plane’s engine compartment. More rags fit into the cracks around the hatch to seal in the heat.
Ron looked back to wave at the boys as he strode to the Mustang’s front seat. Now only Ronnie Jr.’s face was still pressed against the window, watching. Ron started up the engine again. The Mustang engine growled as its hot exhaust pumped into the Piper’s engine chamber. He had seen this kind of preheat, improvised and jerry-rigged, warm a near-frozen engine in as little as twenty minutes.
But my father was not so lucky this winter morning. The engine didn’t turn over until 11:30. Relieved to be back in the air again, Ron pushed it -- five hundred miles to Austin for lunch.
HERE IS A GOOD PLACE TO GO INSIDE BERNIE’S HEAD – WE HAVE A FEW HOURS OF DOWNTIME IN A TINY AIRPORT OFFICE. HER PATIENCE, HER FAITH – TWO KINDS – OR MORE – FAITH IN GOD AND HUSBAND AND THE FAMILY UNIT
What was my mother thinking during this wait?
WHAT IS AT STAKE FOR RON AND HIS FAMILY ON THIS TRIP??
-POSSIBLE ANSWERS – TO CONTINUE WITH A PREVIOUS THEME – BERNIE SAVES HIM FROM HIMSELF. THE BOYS FIND MAGIC WHILE THE FATHER AND MOTHER SEARCH FOR NOVELTY.
Austin’s Mueller Municipal Airport, like Chicago’s Midway, lies in the center of a growing metropolis. Trucks on I-35 buzzed and blared airhorns under the plane as they descended to land from the northwest.
The Austin airport control tower rose up, a flat-sided flower vase covered in a mosaic of dark and light glass, topped with the squat green blossom of the observation room windows. The tower emerged above a low terminal building, its walls of windows shaded with concrete awnings in a pattern of elongated bow tie shapes.
“How loverly,” breathed Bernadette.
“It’s warm!” cheered Christopher.
FRED SHAFFER COMMENT: BY NOW, WE SHOULD BE POSSIBLE TO READ HIS THOUGHTS AS THE NARRATOR IMAGINES THEM, BETWEEN THE LINES OF DIALOGUE (WITHOUT THE NEED FOR STATING THEM.)
After lunch, another two hundred miles to Laredo. Finally, the border. After dinner in town they walked to the Mexican side of the border, Nuevo Laredo, crossing the international footbridge. Ronnie Jr. and Chris skipped ahead of their parents, crossing from side to side, dropping pebbles over the railing, then running to the other side, trying to beat the splash, catching only the remnants of their ripples. Ron and Bernie held hands, walking slowly. The air felt chilled again, even this far south.
“I wonder how the girls are doing,” mused Bernie.
“I’m sure they’re fine. Amelia loves spending time with them.”
“The boys are doing so well. I’m so proud of them. Did you see Christopher’s face when you banked that turn before we landed?”
“No,” Ron barked a laugh. “I was busy.”
“He’s having the time of his life.”
“Ronnie too. But next year,” he squeezed her hand, “just grown-ups.”
“Okay. Someplace warm!”
“Let’s ask Chuck and Cele. We owe them, after all your midnight visits, Chuck making you cocktails at all hours of the night.”
“Chuck said he would never set foot in a small plane.”
“Well, let’s try them. Or maybe Toni and Don.”
“Love you too.”
“Oh, it’s so cold! Do Texans own coats?”
Sometime in the night, the temperature descended once again and the comforting hush of rain turned into the crackling chatter of falling ice. There would be no flying today. Eager to cross the nearby border, they rented another car, this one not as flashy as the sweet Mustang in Hot Springs. The Nuevo Laredo market square sat deserted in the sleet, but in tiny dim shops Bernadette found straw hats and plaques for the girls. The boys had to have an enormous black wrought-iron birdcage.
“How will we get that home?” laughed Bernie.
Under a palapa awning, waiting for a break in the sleet so they could run to the car, Bernie noticed Christopher’s teeth were chattering.
“Ron, this is ridiculous! Let’s get out of here!”
“You know, let’s run up to San Antonio. It’s not far. We’ll go see Lackland. I’ll show you where I was stationed for basic training.”
On the road, the sleet turned to solid ice as soon as it hit the ground. The almond and cottonwood trees on the side of the road swayed and bucked under the weight of the glassy coat on their limbs. One hundred fifty miles to San Antonio.
Bernadette writes, “We drove around Breckenridge park, ate at Epps, saw Ron’s old apartment, stayed in very small motel room. Tuesday, Jan 9. Checked out of motel, saw Alamo, had birdcage sent, left S.A. at 11:20 a.m. arrived Laredo 2:30 p.m. Took off – smooth flight over cloud deck.” BERNIE’S THOUGHTS?
Months after first reading my mother’s diary, I suddenly realize with a shock that I know this birdcage. It hung next to Aunt Ruth and Uncle Phil’s front door for decades, usually filled with plastic greenery. Ruth adorned the cage with poinsettias for Christmas, plastic eggs for Easter. You will find it in the background of countless family pictures – my cousin Jan throwing her wedding bouquet from the front step to reaching children and straight-faced teenagers, Ruth and I embracing in a photo taken the day my future in-laws first met the aunt and uncle who raised me.
Traversing the border again, this time invisible. Bernie and Chris dozed as they crossed the map line.
Ronnie opened his heavy eyes. From the back seat he watched his father at the controls, vigilant, awake. He watched Dad glance over at Mother leaning against the curved stiff skin of the plane’s window, a wadded coat under her head. Then, grinning, Dad released one hand from the throttle to reach forward toward the windscreen so he was the first to enter the space over Mexico. A private joke to break the monotony. Mother slapped affectionately at his hand. Ronnie watched, then closed his eyes again.
Toni Dobbs had lent my mother a Spanish textbook from her Lyons Township classroom. Bernie had picked up a few words, but now struggled with the faded blue notations on the wrinkled map. She spied a tiny aeropista symbol. “Oh, here’s a little airport. No, wait, it says ‘Abandonada.’ That’s abandoned, right?”
They have flown 600 miles today. Ron was tense.
Bernadette's diary: . . . landed Tampico as sun went down. Walked around town had dinner at large Mex restaurant. Chris had excellent fish soup, Ron had steak and I had baby lamb. Stayed at Imperial Hotel in heart of town. Very cold. BERNIE’S THOUGHTS?
Finally, the ocean. They can hear the percussion of the waves a block before they catch sight of the water. The expansive blocks of pale gold sand and dark blue are a minimalist tonic. They take deep breaths of the clean air. The boys throw rocks, chase seagulls and pelicans, dodge the fast carpet of foam running towards their feet at water’s edge.
WHOSE POV IS THIS? The sky felt more open here, the light broader, even with the pervasive chill. There was something lurking in this cool temperature under bright sun. Something deceptive. Little warning of the sun’s power.
Their hotel room was painted a lurid red, with a yellow sun as wide as Dad’s outspread arms painted on the wall opposite the beds. In the center courtyard of the hotel grew climbing vines, trumpeting flowers. Mounds of explosive bougainvillea bloomed in papery fuchsia blossoms. The boys were thrilled at the resident monkey in his cage, at the novelty of an outdoor sink on the balcony connecting the rooms.
Bernadette: Wednesday, Jan 10. After breakfast, Ron went to plane to gas it up – I had hair done -- $1.50 to set (but no wash) Ron called and checked out and took off at 2:30. Flew down coast -- 80 degrees! Ceiling very low with fog – haze. BERNIE’S THOUGHTS?
Jon Fey: It would have been humid and uncomfortable, bumpy, in the plane that day. You can't open the window. Not horrible, but unpleasant.
The whine of the engine pounded in their ears. Below was a solid block of blue, amazing in its vast flatness, thin white worm-lines of waves near the shore. Beyond the line of the shore they could see green below, actual green, a relief for the eyes after crossing over state upon state of unrelenting bare browns and grays.
Approaching the oil town of Poza Rica, they crossed low rocky mountains, smoking Pemex oil refineries. Approaching the airfield, they could see a dark shape on the ground, a moving mass flowing onto the borders of the airstrip where fliers never see movement. It looked like a crowd. It was a crowd. Hundreds of people, a giant flag. Ron circled, waiting for the strip to clear. It became obvious that they were not seeing the end of some festival, but a waiting crowd. Waiting for them.
Ron landed to cheers and waving of the enormous flag. Ron and Bernie waved back, laughing. The boys stared, their open hands and noses pressed to the windows. The crowd rushed towards the plane before it taxied to a stop.
“What are they doing?” asked Christopher
“What a welcome!” laughed Bernie. “Do they think we are someone else? Do they give all the Americans this kind of hello?”
The faces surrounding the plane were smiling, the hands lifted. Ron opened the tiny window, called out, “Que pasa!” A chorus called back.
Bernadette: “Landed at Poza Rica oil town of Pemex as 1,000 workers were waiting for Pemex’s big boss. Practically mobbed our plane, very friendly though – met a Pemex co-pilot ARMANDO who was very helpful.” BERNIE’S THOUGHTS?
Bernie defers to this new masculine friendship. She asks Ron to speak for her, although her Spanish is better.
“Tell him we apologize for bringing some of our cold Chicago weather with us! Ask him if he has ever felt this cold.”
“He says that last year there was a strange storm, a snowstorm, in Mexico City that killed thirty people.”
“Is that right? Oh that can’t be right. Did he understand you?”
Bernie: Stayed at Hotel Poza Rica and ate at a magnificent Casino. Children played on playground equip. MAKE THIS NARRATIVE.
Bernie and the boys walked through the open market on Thursday, while Ron went to the airport to get directions to Mexico City. A dead shark in a tin wash pail frightened Christopher. My mother loved the piles of fruit, crabs, shrimp. Shortly before noon Armando gallantly returned to their hotel and gave them a ride to the airport.
Bernadette: Climbed out of cloud deck. On way into airport MOTOR QUIT and Ron radioed MAYDAY!! and they cleared us for landing – as wheels hit ground motor caught again and we were O.K.
This story is famous in family lore. “He was careless,” my Aunt Joan remembers. “They looked down, saw all these emergency vehicles coming out, close to the runway, hoping that he could land. He’s radioing down to the ground, “No gasolino! No gasolino!” He doesn’t know Spanish! They’re in Mexico City!”
I don’t imagine my mother’s fear when I hear this story. I can only feel the rush of relief, a flood perhaps colored with an amount of justified anger and salted with great gulps of laughter only this side of hysterical. Perhaps he seemed more bold than reckless. Perhaps it was part of his appeal. What a great story to bring home from their trip. Did it make their flights seem more adventurous? Or did this mishap only help them grow more confident in the plane’s capabilities, in Dad’s abilities to eke them out of danger?
The intense excitement, resolved so quickly, may have faded in my mother’s memory with the difficult hours that followed.
After some pump trouble on the gas tank, they took off at 4:30 for Acapulco. Crossing the mountains took a climb to 12,500 feet. With sun heating in their faces and no oxygen, headsets or hearing protection, they landed at Acapulco at 6:30 with headaches and bad tempers.
COMMENT: WOULD IT BE POSSIBLE TO BLEND B’S THOUGHTS OR RON’S INTO THESE ACTIONS AND DETAILS?
Customs, taxis and hotel reservations gave them trouble. They visited four hotels until finding the suitable Alba Apartments and finally settled in at 9:30 p.m. Dinner at the Majestic Hotel offered their first Pacific sunset of the trip, unimaginable tints of red and pink in the water, green in the sky.
They walked to dinner past transplanted palms and rusty rebar. “It’s so changed!” said Bernadette. “Look at all the construction!” The waterfront crawled with workers. New hotels rose from raw earth.
In a honeymoon picture taken nine years before, Ron and Bernie smile on a sailboat in the slanting light of a morning or dusk. Behind them stretch waves to a distant forested shoreline broken by only the occasional low structure. Furrowed mountains rise behind.
“Remember the boat of gold?” Ron asked.
“Recuerdo la barca d’oro,” replied Bernie, turning from the sunset to smile at her husband.
MOVE? DELETE? My parents as adults had had sufficient time to be able to look backwards, to develop a parent’s enhanced perspective. They had time enough to create and even lose memories, to see their children grow and change, to remember their own youth with the patina of nostalgia.
Bernie: Friday, January 11. Breakfast at Caleta Hotel. Dad and Boys on glass-bottomed boat. I went shopping for groceries. Swam after lunch and then took safari trip – into native villages, looked at vegetation and growth. Ronnie found turtle shell, took many pics of coconut plantations, snakes. Met Senor and Senora Marcell (Italians) and had dinner at Armand’s with them.
My mother's last diary entry for the journey was dated Saturday, January 12, 1968.
Ron and boys left at 7:00 a.m. for fishing trip. Ronnie caught a dolphin fish! 40 lbs and 4’7.”
I have seen this fish. The family took souvenir photos of the triumphant fishermen back at port. Little Christopher, ears akimbo, poses next to a blunt-nosed ugly monster that hangs as long as he is tall. He squints so deeply, so painfully, in the pouring-down light, that his little boy face is deeply lined. Ron, skinny and knobby kneed, poses next to his brother. He wears a jaunty sailor cap, seems less bothered by the sun than Chris. Mom and Dad rise tall behind them.
My brother Ron remembers catching this fish. He tells me how they took it back to town and had it cooked for their dinner. Ron remembers visiting Corpus Christi on the way back home, a stop my mother omits from her account.
When I think of this trip, I feel first the crisis over Mexico City, the few moments of engine silence and shock that my mother describes in a single sentence between their arrival time, 2:30 p.m., and note of a “lunch with Pat and Wallie Whitlie.” I take comfort in the brevity of the notation, for what, after all, I am seeking except comfort by poring over her diary? (Answers. A vision. Regeneration. Resurrection through imagination.)
And when I think of my father struggling at the controls over Mexico City, I see my brother Ron.
Not the wide-eyed little Ronnie Jr. in the plane’s back seat, but my brother as he is today, a grown man, nearing the end of his forties. In my father’s actions, I hear echoes and see shadows of his oldest son’s persistent resourcefulness. A resourcefulness and confidence that on first glance, seems to portray a capable man in control. A confidence that paradoxically and in its extremity, reveals an oblivious denial of reality. In my father’s story, I see his son Ron, who constantly finds himself into the direst of situations, down at the end of desperation, cash reserves down to spare change, stomach insistently empty, flat-tired in a bone-chilling sleet, the day’s last light leaving, with outstanding warrants in this state, the computer voice on the line saying “Please deposit twenty-five cents for the next three minutes” and then somehow pulling the nose up. He digs down deep, pulls up, up, up, refuses to admit defeat. Refuses to give in to all signs that point to any cause for his agony but as he calls it, “a reversal of fortune.” Pulls up and makes it through. Over and over and over again.