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Fall 2004, Volume 22.1

Fiction

 

Gordon T. AllredPhoto of Gordon T. Allred.

Taking Flight

Gordon T. Allred is a professor of English at Weber State University where he has taught for 41 years. He holds a doctorate in creative writing and modern literature and has published 18 books, both fiction and nonfiction, along with numerous articles and stories.

His biographical work Kamikaze, a onetime best seller on the life of a Japanese suicide pilot, was translated into several languages. He has received several awards for his writing and teaching, including the Utah Fine Arts Creative Writing Award for his novel Starfire, Utah Author of the Year, Weber State's Presidential Distinguished Professor Award, Master Teacher Award, and Creative Achievement Award. He is a fifth-degree black belt in the Kenpo karate system.

 

Castle Rock was the largest and most imposing boulder on the mountainside, one of thousands that had slabbed and thundered away from the quartzite cliffs aeons past to form the talus slopes below. High as a two-story house and half as wide, it was patched in places, like many of its smaller relatives, with lichens of gray green and crumbly dying black the color of coal. The other three quarters of its surface varied from pale tan to rust-colored portions that gleamed like shellac in the expanse of morning light.

From the top, there on that summer morning the first day of June, 1933, Zenji Yamato and his two pals could see the entire town to the west, welling with green, its trees now in full leaf. Beyond the town was a large brick building containing the word "Swift" in giant white letters against a solid red background. Farther still, two spans of immense silos, one for grain the other for sugar, both chalk white and separated from each other by less than half a mile, loomed before the horizon. After that lay the farm country, then distant marshlands evolving into the Great Salt Lake, a shallow expanse of water sixty miles long and twenty miles wide at its maximum, saltier than the Dead Sea. Occasionally a train called from afar, nostalgic and forlorn, filled with the intimation of distant places.

Waiting excitedly below the great rock, tails wagging, eyes beseeching, were Doyo, Zenji's ever faithful yellow lab, and Danny's black and white springer spaniel Molly. At times they whined, passionate for attention, tongues flapping and foam flecked from rapid-fire panting. Two hundred yards down, the mountain's steep slopes benched narrowly before completing their brief descent to the flatland below. Along the upper level was a thin dirt road that served as a firebreak and also marked the beginnings of the Wasatch National Forest land above. Along the same bench, just west of the road and spaced at intervals of approximately a city block were steel towers sixty feet high. Installed two decades earlier by the Utah Power and Light Company, the towers with their four great legs and supporting girders sustained three high-tension lines on cross pieces at the top. Initially, the environmentally minded had regarded them with vexation though gradually as mere incongruities. Oddly enough by now, in fact, most people scarcely noticed them, tuning out their existence in a sense, psychologically speaking, if not quite visually.

On the flat lands below, across a sandy sage-infested rifle range, were three large concrete reservoirs, twenty-four feet deep and sapphire blue on bright, cloudless days. Surrounded by a high chain-link fence with strands of barbed wire along the top, they contained the city's drinking water, along with a few white seagulls and, occasionally, ducks that found their way eastward from the marshes far below. For some time now the three boys and various other friends had talked idly of scaling the fence some night in the dark of the moon and taking a swim, but they had yet to consider the matter very seriously. Maybe "one of these times," but for now there was plenty of other activity, including that of the present moment.

Castle Rock was balanced precariously on the edge of a narrow valley known as Taylor's Canyon. On the other side, a short distance to the south was Malan's Mountain, its rocky face and spiny hogback gray with slate and shale. Half a mile up the canyon at its east end lay the beginnings of Mount Ogden, its tent-like peak and rusted flag pole tracing the sky at ten thousand feet.

The time was eight a. m. Castle Rock and the talus slopes northward beneath their towering cliffs were still absorbed in fast-diminishing shadow as the sun rose behind them. Nearby, a ground squirrel announced the day's acceleration with a piercing series of chirps that gradually became softer, widely spaced and measured, their metronomic exactitude alternating with the return of their own echoes. The only other sound was the faint and haunting call of a mourning dove.

Held lightly in Zenji's left hand was a model airplane, one he had painstakingly and lovingly constructed from slender strips and cross pieces of balsa wood bonded together with glue and covered tautly with yellow tissue paper. At its front end was a rounded nose block, also made of balsa wood as was the eight-inch propeller adjoining it. The propeller contained a piano-wire hook which held the strands of elastic that extended throughout its body to the tail section. The elastic had been anointed and massaged with rubber lubricant for added resilience, the hook lightly wrapped with adhesive tape to prevent it from cutting.

For the past two minutes Zenji had been winding the propeller with his right forefinger, the elastic inside steadily tightening front toward rear in a spiraling series of tiny knots that generated tension and a special kind of vibrancy. The wings, spanning two and a half feet, were beginning to tremble, it almost seemed, with a life of their own. Zenji's friends watched intently with growing anticipation. The stiff piano wire landing gear with its small wooden wheels even seemed to be thrumming faintly now.

The plane was a Mountain Voyager, and this was to be its maiden launching, a unique one fraught with danger. The various models Zenji and company had created previously had always made their flights in open areas such as fields, playgrounds, and parks. The present craft, however, would be taking a perilous journey into Taylor's Canyon and downward on the descending breeze into a broad open expanse covered with June grass two-hundred yards below. That, at least, was the plan, one built upon wishful thinking, in fact, more than sound reasoning.

Though vaguely sensed by the participants, the launching itself symbolized something—the freedom of youth, perhaps, the imminent approach of their teens, of their growing eagerness to undertake the risky and daring for the sheer elation it afforded. It reflected, as well, the summer ahead, adventure, and the tantalizing enigma of life itself. For Zenji Yamato, even more: momentous things to come he could not explain that merely simmered with increasing insistency the older he became.

"Hey, man," Danny said. "You wind this sucker any tighter, gonna tear itself apart. Know what I mean? Time for the big launch." Narrow faced, with knowing, close-set eyes and a perpetual mischievous grin, Danny was built like a praying mantis and almost as agile.

"Yeah," Floyd said. The Mountain Voyager's entire frame was alive, incredibly fragile yet resonant with the strength of its promise. "Time to let 'er rip."

Zenji barely nodded, deeply absorbed in his work yet filled with a sense of ambivalence. The elastics strained, the prop eager and determined, its edge a biting indentation against the skin of his forefinger, the thirty-inch yellow wings like banners of the sunlight. And then suddenly it was free, almost of its own volition, soaring rejoicingly into the canyon breeze, alternately rising and hovering in its angled ascension, like the prancing of a dragon fly, then drifting in a wide gyre to enter daylight as it graced the currents westward.

"Man, that's some aeroplane!" Danny gasped. "Looks just like a real one only better."

"Yeah!" Floyd agreed. "Sort of, well…magical."

But the Voyager was gradually bearing northwest now, forsaking the canyon mouth and veering strongly from its expected course off and away to the right along the mountain bench a hundred feet or more above its firebreak road. "Look at that sucker!" Danny murmured. "Got a mind all of its own." Seconds later it startled the squirrel atop its sentinel rock into hiding, then vanished over an oakbrush-covered rise in a long and tranquil glide, leaving in its wake a tiny swirl of white and yellow cabbage moths.

Then, the three boys were clambering like monkeys down the backside of the rock, far too fast for safety. Moments after that they were bounding downward along the sandy slopes below, accompanied by their dogs and moving in giant zigzags thereby controlling their momentum just enough to avoid rolling like tumble weeds. Then, they were jogging along the road toward the spot where the airplane had vanished. "Might have made it all the way on down to the rifle range," Danny said.

"Naw, not that far," Zenji replied. "Dropping too fast."

"Well, it ain't hard to spot—`at's fer danged sure!" Floyd was falling a bit behind, beginning to pant. "Not with that bright of a yellow." They were fanning out a little now, casting about intently. Moments later, just ahead, they spotted it, motionless now, but still high above the surrounding landscape.

"Hey, hey, hey!" Danny chortled, gesturing wildly toward the steel tower. "Would ya take a look at that! Sittin' right there a top that crazy tower …way up there like a bird on a nest, purty as ya please!"

"Man, oh man!" Floyd's face was contorted in wondrous idiocy, his buck teeth protruding outward as though falling from his mouth.

"I'll be damned," Zenji said. He rarely swore, but this time it was little more than a whisper, almost reverent. They were all simply standing there now, gawking in disbelief. "Looks like it barely missed the wires."

"So what now, kid?" Danny inquired at last. "Wait and see if the wind blows it down?"

Zenji shook his head. "Looks like the landing gear's caught or something. Besides, the wind will rip it apart for sure if it comes up hard in the night."

"So? Want I should shinny up there and get it?" The grin was wry, quizzical, even challenging, but the question was genuine. Danny would definitely do it, given the option.

Again Zenji shook his head, feeling the answer rising, expanding, tingling in his chest muscles and arms, the back of his neck. "Naw, it's my plane; I'll do it."

"Jeeze, maybe you better not," Floyd mumbled. "That's real high voltage. Get up there close to them wires, might jump right out at ya like lightning or somethin'. My dad used to know some guy got fried that way."

"Aw, its not that close," Zenji said. Already he had laid hold upon one of the tower's four immense metal supports, its rusting angle iron still cold in the mountain's waning shadow, unforgiving in its hardness and sharp angularity. The four supports slanted gradually inward forming long, slender triangles converging at the vertex above and secured throughout their ascent with girders at six-foot intervals. The girders, in turn, were strengthened with "X" shaped struts near enough toward the top for the errant flying model to have settled. There, less than three feet or so beneath the lethal wires, the Voyager had found its unlikely and precarious resting place, completely unscathed and with miraculous precision.

A strange piece of handiwork, the tower, like something from a long-dead planet in outer space, unabashed, even strangely appealing, in its stolid ugliness. It was also admirably durable and practical, held together reliably with numerous and massive nuts and bolts. Nothing in nature, it appeared, could take it down except an earthquake or the massive boulders above that might be dislodged in the process. That indeed was a possibility, however distant, since the towers themselves bestrode a part of the Wasatch Fault long regarded as an earthquake waiting to happen. "I can go up this thing easy as pie," Zenji asserted, having never tried to make a pie himself. For a moment his gaze ascended slowly, as if through a movie camera, section upon section of pale blue morning, … up and up and up to where the Voyager waited, placid yet restless, alluring in its grace and yellowness. There was nothing else that color throughout the entire landscape.

"Hey, man, you can always make another plane," Floyd persisted. "You've already made a couple dozen." Danny's silence, on the other hand, seemed little short of endorsement. Danny would do it himself. No question.

"Yeah, I know, but none like this one," Zenji said. The words emerged unexpectedly of their own accord. True, he had spent more time on the Voyager than on any of the others, given it his most devoted, even loving, effort, yet there was more to it than that, even though he failed to understand what it might be. He only knew that the Voyager was waiting, beckoning, almost tauntingly. And with that, he began to climb, laying hold firmly upon the girder above, hoisting himself in a near chin-up, and crouching his way upward along one of the two diagonal cross sections. His worn and grimy tennis shoes adhered encouragingly to the metal, almost sticking in places and lending confidence.

"Nothing to it," Zenji grunted, voice a bit strained from the exertion, but not really tense. Upon reaching the second girder, he was already getting the hang of it, tuned in to the correct system. It was simply a matter of zigzagging his way upward, alternating diagonals, placing his hands and feet with care, and never releasing his grip with more than one hand at a time. Above all, using his head.

Halfway up, at thirty feet, he paused, glancing down to take stock of the situation. His pals were watching intently, along with both of the dogs. Doyo whined once, issued a half-hearted yelp, and Molly began to bark. "Shut up, lame brains," Floyd told her. "Can it!"

"Okay?" Danny asked.

"Yeah, sure—no sweat." The latter a term some of the guys had picked up from Coach Marsden, figuring it was pretty keen. Glancing back toward the sky, he saw the faintest fleecing of white clouds, literally materializing before his eyes, the remote circling of a hawk…then two hawks, and it gladdened him. Minutes later he was nearing the top, almost in reach of the Voyager. It was close range now, still seemingly unscathed. Only two and a half feet above stretched the cable-like "high-tension wires," as they were commonly known. Forty-six thousand volts, someone had said. Well, he wasn't sure about that, but regardless they held enough to "fry," as Floyd had put it. No question on that score. Momentarily he continued to regard them as though hypnotized.

That previous winter Zenji and another friend, Ron Mortenson, had discovered a dead eagle at the base of a tower half a mile north near the mouth of Ogden Canyon. The body was stiff and frozen, strangely flattened, the once-lethal beak pallid and innocuous, the fearsome talons curled listlessly. Despite the cold, its feathers emanated a scorched odor like burned hair mingled with decay half dormant. No doubt it had landed on one wire, accidentally touching another with a wing, formed an electrical conduit, life snuffed out in a single second of lethal, blue crackling.

Better not to think about it, Zenji told himself. Or better, on second thought, that he should. The wires were attached to heavy glass insulators brimming faintly with blue and green and filled with the light of day. Creeping higher, a mere twelve inches, he reached upward cautiously, stretched, feeling his shoulder and upper-arm muscles attenuate, stressing a little, barely brushed the Voyager's belly with his fingertips, and felt its expectation. "'Bout got er!" Danny called.

"Yeah," Zenji grunted, mostly to himself, and Doyo offered another faint yip of nervous curiosity. Without even glancing down, he could see the uncanny yellow eyes, knew his good old pooch was watching intently, alternately sitting on his haunches and prancing about a little, pink tongue flickering in unison with his loud panting. Occasionally the plane itself quivered as though in special rapport with the dog, as the air stirred, as a sudden breeze, the faintest freshet slipping down the hillside, flirted with its wing tips. And then his hand was there, gently under its belly next to the landing gear, removing it with the greatest of care. "Don't tilt it, Zen babe," Danny warned. "Wing tip's about touching the wire." Zenji didn't know whether mere tissue paper and balsa wood could conduct electricity. He didn't think so, but at the moment he was far less certain than before.

"So what ya waitin' for?" Floyd called.

"Glide 'er over that way," Danny added, gesturing toward the distant reservoirs. "Over to the rim of the bowl here so's she won't land in all that oakbrush."

"Right," Zenji murmured. The wires hummed, and the tower itself now seemed to vibrate, rotating subtly with the earth like an immense cosmic antenna, as the clouds expanded fleece-like, steadily welling and contracting, shredding and separating. The two hawks had now become three." He squinted. "Four, in fact…five!" Maybe more, who knew? Intermittently appearing and vanishing, appearing and vanishing, alternately rising and dipping but slowly drifting higher, as though gravity itself were working in reverse. Their circling left him dizzy. "What ya waiting for?" Floyd implored. "Send that baby down, and get the heck offa there."

"Okay, here she comes!" He launched it gently with infinite precaution, something akin to superstition, and the airplane left his hand lilting willfully for an instant then gliding smoothly across the depression. Docile and obedient, steady and true, exactly as directed, barely clearing a clump of rabbit brush to land in an open spot, still unscathed. Once Zenji paused as the others bounded after it and glanced up one more time as though impelled by a power beyond his own. The wires hummed seductively, even thrummed at times from the gathering breeze, and for an instant—insanely, he knew, yet unable to resist, mesmerized—he raised his hand toward the nearest, finger tips tracing the air like a wand, feeling his temples throb, hearing Floyd's words. That stuff can jump out at ya. And for an instant it seemed as if the tower were slowly rearing backward, the very earth itself teetering a little.

"Hey, Zen babe, whatcha doin'?" Danny called.

"Yeah, what's goin' on?" Floyd added. "You nuts or somethin'?"

"Yeah, I guess." Zenji barely mumbled in reply. Then, methodically, very cautiously…almost shaking, he climbed back down.

His friends had retrieved the Voyager with much satisfaction, and the three of them examined it critically. "Just a couple little tears along this one side here by the tail," Danny announced.

"Yep," Zenji said. "Weird—hardly a scratch." His heart was throbbing.

For a moment they simply admired it. "Well?" Danny inquired at last. "That's about all for today? Wanna quit while we're ahead?"

Zenji tilted his head, squinching one eye half shut as he scanned the cliff faces. "That's one great plane, better not press your luck, kid," Floyd warned.

"Yeah, but then what? Just keep it sitting there safe in the basement forever? I mean, that's not what planes are made for. Let's give it another whirl. One more try from The Castle up there."

Floyd groaned. "What I was afraid you'd say. I'm still pooped from that last climb."

"Well," Danny cackled and clapped him on the shoulder, "now's your chance to poop a lot more!" Then they were off and away again, leaving the depression and hustling along, walking fast, sometimes trotting, through broad, gently swirling manes of June grass, skirting ant hills already swarming and clumps of prickly pear flowering in pale yellow and faint blushings of blended orange and pink, passing sweetly pungent spans of purple lupine still damp with morning dew.

As they struggled up the steep and sandy incline, a pheasant called—a strident rawk-tok and thrumming of wings, not in flight but rather by way of advertisement, territorial warning. Almost simultaneously there came a muted duplicate challenge in the distance."Hey, guys, let's get back up here `fore long with our .22's," Danny said, "Have us some fried pheasant, maybe three four quail to go along with it."

"Yeah, right!" Sweat was dripping from Floyd's forehead, soaking his armpits. "Last time you fired at a pheasant, the shot ricochetted and prit near killed Molly." Since Molly had survived uninjured, the thought generated cackles of hilarity all around. Chubby with plenty of baby fat, Floyd stopped laughing first, panting as they reached the second level and crossed the firebreak road. He was wheezing hard, maybe from asthma, as they commenced the longer, even tougher, ascent through sand to Castle Rock. His face and neck were flushing pink to red, and by the time Zenji and Danny had reached their destination he was straggling considerably. Ten minutes later, by dint of much agonized, at times almost hopeless, effort, frequent shouts of encouragement and occasional badgering from his companions, he finally joined them atop the launching site. "Man…" he gasped. His entire body was shaking. "Think I'm gunna croak from a heart attack."

"Yeah, you look like it," Danny assured him, happily. "Too much blubber."

Zenji paid them no attention, for the Voyager was already commencing its windup, gradually beginning to vibrate from the awakening within. Steadily, steadily, the knots were again forming along the line of brown elastics, perpetuating themselves neatly and evenly with ever gathering strength, the propeller acquiring increased resistance, close to maximum stress a minute or so later. "Hey, come on now, don't break `er," Danny warned, even more earnestly than he had before. "Much more and it'll tear itself apart."

"Right." But Zenji scarcely heard him, again becoming one with his creation, sensing the frame's remaining tensile strength through his fingers. They were both good for a few more turns… one, two… slowing… three… immense resistance now. Four…definitely now on the brink of destruction. It was a calculated risk, no question, akin to what he had felt in secret a short while earlier atop the metal tower. The fragile propeller itself was ready to snap in half now. It had happened before with other models, and yet, he had to take it another ninety degrees…another hundred and twenty.
"Hey, guy, you're crazy!" Danny chortled.

"Yeah," Zenji mused, scarcely hearing himself, transfixed in the final, penultimate moment of concentration "a hundred and…eighty! "Eighty…five!" he announced jubilantly. The Voyager was straining at its max, determined now either to implode—or invade, even devour, the air embracing it.

"Launch that baby more to the east if you want it to land in the open this time," Danny advised. "Down there in all that grass."

"We've still got breeze, so she'll turn back plenty fast enough, same as before," Floyd said.

"Yeah," Zenji said, lips parted, showing his teeth, eyes squinting and oriental against the rising sun. "Maybe." Suddenly the Voyager vaulted shuddering from his hand, rolling impetuously to the east as though for an instant it might turn upside down. The dogs, gazing up from below, were issuing yelps of ecstasy, darting off in futile pursuit as the plane corrected itself, rising and arching sumptuously like yellow laughter against the pine-dark slopes and slate drab hogback of Malan's beyond.

"Hey, hey, hey!" Danny exclaimed. "There he goes, circling on around for the mouth like a good boy!" They watched as it swept in a wide lofting gyre among a sprinkling of sparrows. "Man, oh man…still circling…." Shading his eyes with one hand. "Ya beat that? Back this way again and really climbin' the old sky."

"Yeah, yeah—but look-ut look-ut!" Floyd's voice was shrill and giddy as a girl's He raised his own hand as though beholding a vision too dazzling for mortal eyes. "The propeller's stopped, but it's still climbing!" Exclamations all around. Somehow the impossible had become the possible. "What's with that sucker?"

"Wow, that can't be for real." Danny shook his head, dazed. Whinnies of nervous laughter full of incredulity as the Voyager continued its circling upward.

"Must be from all that `lectricity, all that juice," Floyd said. "Ya think?"

"Maybe," Zenji admitted, not knowing whether to believe such a thing or not. "But it's on an updraft, one of those thermals or whatever they call them." Thus they continued to watch, faces pooling with wonder, as the flying model celebrated its upward journey. "It's already higher than Malan's Peak. Maybe it'll go on over into the Basin." But higher still it went, above the long rock and pine-studded ridge that escalated eastward, its cycles gradually becoming smaller as they ascended. Increasingly now it simply seemed to levitate, buoyed steadily higher upon the palm of some great and invisible hand.

"Jeepers!" Floyd marveled. "That doggone plane's never coming down. Just keeps on and on and on like…." He groped for words and failed. "You sure know how to make them flyin' models, man."

"Not me, buddy," Zenji said. "That thing's all on its own. Know what I mean?" Gradually the Mountain Voyager grew tinier, losing its color, hovering at last above Mt. Ogden's peak with its ancient flag pole. Ten thousand feet and still climbing. Now it was only the size of a humming bird…now a wasp…now a mosquito…against a few faint cirrus clouds. Then a gnat…and at last merely a minuscule, strangely dancing particle absorbed within the immeasurable ocean of the sky.

For a time no one spoke. "Never seen the likes," Dan said at last. The mountains and entire landscape seemed in suspension. "Hey, Zenner," he added at last, "maybe it's headed for Japan."

Zenji gave a wry little laugh. "Yeah, maybe, but it better circle back around and go the other direction. Japan's that way." He gestured toward the Great Salt Lake, portions of it dazzling like a billion holiday sparklers in the sun. "Off to California and then about six thousand miles more across the Pacific."

"Well, maybe it'll head that direction yet," Danny mused. "Way up there out of sight." He paused. "Who knows? Baby's sure got a mind of its own." Zenji barely nodded.

"By the way," Floyd asked, "You ever goin' back? Back to Japan?"

For a moment Zenji offered no reply, but again he directed his gaze to the lake, and past into the infinite beyond. "Yeah, I'm sure I will one of these days. Back to Hiroshima. And who knows what then?" The Voyager had vanished, leaving in its wake a sense of destiny, a tingling like ginger ale bubbles throughout his bloodstream and skin, beyond anything like it before.

The feeling persisted, gradually subsiding, as they climbed back down and headed for home, leaving the great rock, there on the canyon's rim where it had presided for millions of years.


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