Flying Lessons

Flight Lesson – 6

The four corners of the meadow stretched for 50 acres connecting four houses, like four pillars on “the road.”  The four fathers of those four houses were the Titans of my meadow.  Larger-than-life men, as seen through my child’s eyes, with single-sided personalities. The funny one, the generous one, the strong one, and the mean one.  My four fathers were in constant competition. They’d taunt, jest, and best each other at cocktail parties, and over the phones on their desks, relentlessly.  But on summer Sundays, dressed in white, the Titans came together as a foursome to play doubles in the meadow.

My parents didn’t much believe in traditional Sunday activities like going to church, or the country club – we didn’t belong to either.  In fact we didn’t belong to anything organized.  My mother was raised Catholic, and went to Catholic schools, but after my first communion I don’t remember ever going to church again. I asked Mom why we never went back, and she pointed to my heart and said, “God is right there, in you always. You don’t need to go to church to have a conversation.”  My parents believed in a trinity of family, freedom, and tennis.  So at our house, Sunday service was served up on the tennis court.

I would hear the four fathers in the meadow laughing over the popping of tennis cans, and the slapping of rackets on the asphalt.  A call to my brother and I to come running with our labrador retriever, Rover, to be spectators at their spectacle.  They were funny and cruel and quick on the court.  Each one an athlete and a good tennis player, but my Dad was the best – the “strong one.”  Born a shy second son of a factory worker and milliner, he earned his way through college driving a beer truck. Then started his business in a garage, making thermocouples with me in a basket by his feet.  He wore button-down shirts from JC Penney and leather shoes that had been resoled for ten years.  But on his tennis court, the poor boy became a King.

My father could hit a tennis ball farther than anyone.  When a ball was flat, he’d toss it up and send it flying into the meadow and Rover would dive into the grass to retrieve it.  She’d always come back with one of the hundreds of tennis balls hidden in the meadow in her mouth, wiggling with pride.  Everything was retrieved by our retrievers from the meadow. Baby bunnies, baby chipmunks, and baby birds were brought to the house unhurt, and laid gently on the cement step in front of the screen door as presents for my parents. Rover was just doing what retrievers do, run and retrieve. We’d build nests for the wild babies in shoeboxes, trying to feed them back to health with eyedropper’s of food.  When we didn’t succeed we’d hold funerals, and bury each one in the pet cemetery behind the tennis court. The same dogs that ran freely back-and-forth underneath the fences between the four houses, breed freely back-and-forth.  Each spring there would be a new litter of puppies to play with.  When the puppies were old enough to follow their parents into the meadow on morning visits, they’d get lost in the tall grass.  My mother would hear them crying and go rescue them.  Then she would bring them warm and wet to my bedroom, and put them in bed with me before breakfast. Everything good came from the meadow, and everything good went back to it.

I remember my father whispering to my mother one Sunday night, with a shovel in his hand, and then disappearing out the screen door in the dark.  He came back though the same door smelling like dirt and sweat. It was the first time I saw my father cry. The “strong one” cried as he told my brother and I that he had just buried our dog, Rover, behind the tennis court.  The “mean one,” said the retrievers were running his sheep and he fired a warning shot over their head, but Rover jumped into the shot.  Even as a child I knew nothing in nature jumps into a loud noise exploding overhead, they duck down. The dog who had never left my side though chickenpox and pneumonia, who had licked every skinned knee and tear from my face as long as I could remember, had been killed by a rich man for running with his decorative sheep.

I went to visit my parents on a different road party after college, and the “mean one” was there.  Even in my twenties, I was afraid to talk to him. He saw me and came straight over and gave me a giant hug.  He had a new wife, and was much softer than the lean athlete I remembered. He was funny, and generous with his words, and when I saw him through adult’s eyes I saw him differently.  He wasn’t the “mean one” who shot our dog anymore.  He was just a man, who wasn’t a very good shot.  In his honest Sunday night confession that he had shot Rover by mistake, instead of hiding his mistake in the meadow, the “mean one” had been kind.  Then I no longer saw the four fathers of the meadow as one-sided, but as men with both sides of light and dark.  Funny and serious, generous and selfish, strong and weak, mean and kind.  It was the first time I saw my meadow through wider eyes.

After the last of the books from my office were moved into the hangar in Lakeland, I sat on Buddy’s wing and petted him.  I told him I had a present for him, “We’re going to spend the season on grass Buddy, I found us a meadow in Poplar Grove.  It’s beautiful, you’ll be safe there.”  The IT band in my leg was a mess from moving things down my steps, and I had to have friends help me finish the move because I couldn’t bend my right knee.  I wasn’t fit to fly.  I kissed Buddy’s cowling and promised to retrieve him and take him to the meadow soon.  Everything good comes from the meadow, and everything good goes back to it.