Can you imagine somewhere you’ve been? I mean, in person, actually been. That all depends — on what you call imagination, and how you want it to work for you. I was in Southern California once, for 13 days, the month after Democrats chose Jack Kennedy in Los Angeles. I’d flown nonstop from Boston with my dad. (He’d seen his California sister for the first time since V-J Day.) Do I remember California? Yes and no. Can I imagine it? You bet.
Place and time mean a lot to a kid just out of high school, on his way to college — for me New Bedford (MA) High and Boston College — because he feels so “in between.” Eighteen. What an age. I’ve still got the graduation pictures my mother snapped in front of the Olympia theater — where Milton Berle, as a kid, once performed in vaudeville. I look pretty tough in those pictures, in a silly ’50s way. But the cowlick’s all wrong, and a broken front tooth still shows through my twisted, sideways grin.
I remember the decision that we go to California being made at our kitchen table. Me, my mother, my father — considering. Except it really had all been considered long before I was involved. My mother had a boyfriend, my father’s accountant, Jim Fox, a crewcut guy, early gray, only 12 years older than I. The trip would provide a graceful way into separation. I did not realize this, then, sitting there sipping hot sugared tea. My mother’s excuse for not coming with us was her operation for ulcers the past winter. Six months was not enough time to heal, she said, to recover her strength. After all, she’d had two-thirds of her stomach removed.
I’d never really flown before, never been off the ground except as a kid on the playground swing I’d jump up above the bar, to make believe I was flying. “It’ll be a jet,” my father had said, “a 707.” That we’d fly American Airlines felt good. Patriotic, and solid and safe.
The memory of the afternoon my father and I took off from Logan Airport in Boston is mixed up now with flights my father took in the late ’40s, early ’50s, from New Bedford to New York on a 24-seat ex-U.S. Army Air Force cargo plane, the “gooney bird” DC-3. My Uncle Louie had always gone along too, and his presence lent an air of mystery. Louie — Clark Gable with glasses — a private investigator, specialized in divorce cases and carried in a shoulder holster a Smith & Wesson .45. Many’s the time I saw my father off, both of us waving, him half concealed by the window curtain, me behind a chainlink “Atomic” fence.
But the planes at Logan were no gooney birds. I knew pilots called all aircraft “birds” because I’d read it years before in my Korean War comic books. The DC-3, perched on one-tire landing gear, pitched back on its tail, did look like a bird or two I’d seen. But the planes at Logan were machines. Of course, all had four engines, with props the length of a man. From the glassed-in terminal deck, I watched a guy in dark blue coveralls out there on the tarmac, gesturing at the traffic like an animal trainer. But there was nothing animal-like about those planes. They were insects, if anything applies. Enormous silver vehicles that seemed to function without thought, or consideration. I knew, of course, that pilots had control, that beyond those black-eye windows there were men. But still I felt afraid for the guy in coveralls.
Among those planes at Logan, one stood out — not an insect, but a fish, a shark to be precise, made more for movement through water than air. From that bullet nose, over the slender fuselage, over the swept-back wings to that wonderful tail, swept-back too, everything, everything about this plane said speed. On that tail I saw “Boeing 707.” It read “California” to me.
Most of the boardering ritual that day seems off-speed now, like film from the old wind-up Kodak “Eight” we took with us that always shot too fast or too slow. My father offered, and I accepted, the window seat, just back of the starboard wing. Taxiing to the takeoff runway, the 707 lumbered over the concrete slabs. I watched that wing recoil two, three, four times to the thud of the wheels. My father and I entwined our wrists on the armrest between us and held hands.
The first minutes of the flight were filled with business: Stewardesses up and down the aisles, taking orders, then, with reassuring smiles, calming the few initiates. Behind me, after a request for a Beefeater martini, I heard, “Sorry, sir, not till cruising altitude.” And cruising altitude was well worth waiting for. I remember the impressive numbers. The pilot, on the intercom, after introducing himself — an Irish name, Hogan or Hennedy; the wing commanders in the old comic book stories were always Irish, it seemed — said we were at 35,000 feet. God, I thought, higher than Mt. Everest — “conquered,” I remembered, by an Englishman with a woman’s name a few years before. And we were traveling at 600 knots!
Halfway across the continent, the landscape changed color. Before the snaky river that I knew was the Mississippi — seeing it coming from way out over the front of the wing I was afraid even to tell my father for fear of spoiling a wonder if I was wrong — the land was all a green-shaded quilt, with clouds casting moving shadows west to east. Then came that river below us, the Mississippi the pilot announced, and soon a change from green to tan and brown. I knew from geography class that there were wheat fields down there, and corn, and cattle. Land as full of life as in the East. But different life, lived in cities clumped along river bends, to towns isolated in one corner of a checkerboard square. It must be such a different life, I thought, to look so different from far away. I remember turning back toward the Mississippi, turning my head, straining to look between the seat back and the fuselage, out the two-pane window behind me.