Valuable time ticked by as Dad fiddled with the plane’s flight instruments. When he’d finished tapping and adjusting every device in the cockpit, he contacted the tower on the squawky radio and we were told to proceed to the runway. With my heart beating like a hummingbird’s, I looked over at Dad. He appeared fully in control as man and machine became one. I still think of him this way, Helios the sun god. And I was to accompany him in his flaming chariot on a journey across the sky. The moment burned into my memory.
Dad cracked a window and shouted, “All clear!”
I didn’t know who he was shouting at; there were only the two of us around.
“All clear!” The checklist must have said to shout it twice.
I was about to escape the confines of the earth.
Dad revved the engine and advanced the throttle. I had seen war movies like Twelve O‘Clock High and was fantasizing that we were about to make a strafing run over Germany when I noticed the plane seemed to pause, as if confused. Then it lurched forward and began to cut a path in the gravel, a path in the shape of a perfect circle. After all Dad’s careful planning, after all that attention to detail, he had forgotten to do something so obvious it wasn’t even listed on the checklist. He had forgotten to untie the rope securing the right wheel to the tarmac.
We didn’t break the confines of the earth. Instead, we remained on the ground and raced madly around in perfect circles as Dad slowly down-throttled. When the engine finally died, he was worried we’d damaged the plane. We never got off the ground, and after that day we never spoke of this incident, although we did fly together in the future.
As we climbed into the old Packard for the drive home, Dad seemed embarrassed and vulnerable. I knew what I needed to do. I looked my father in the eyes and said, “Dad?”
“I want to ask you something.”
“Can I have a German Shepherd?”
With a tired sigh, he shook his head.
Dad has been gone now four years and I miss him more than I could have imagined. Dad always thought of himself as an ordinary guy, but that didn’t prevent me from thinking he was special, and he did have an amazing gift that set him apart from everyone else I’ve ever known, a magical ability he shared with his beloved Amelia Earhart. Like Amelia, Dad had the ability to vanish. Like a great magician, he executed his trick so skillfully that you didn’t notice how he accomplished it.
Back in grade school I’d learned that nature gives every creature the ability to survive: the snow bunny turns white in winter to blend with the snow, and the rock fish is camouflaged to match the ocean floor so predators can’t see it. Dad had similar protection…from my mother.
She wore the pants in the family, and he was constantly subjected to her diatribes—she had an opinion on everything. She spent hours answering questions nobody asked. Why the country was going to ruin was a particular favorite. She alone knew how to set things right, and she described at length historical parallels to support her political and sociological positions.
During many of these long, unwanted conversations Dad used what I came to think of as The Gift. Mother would be lecturing on how the country was, “…going to hell in a hand basket,” and at some point she would say, “Leroy, speak up. What are your views on this subject? Are you or are you not a person of your own mind?”
This was another of my mother’s favorite statements. To my knowledge, only Frankenstein was not a person of his own mind. And Dad made it clear on numerous occasions that he preferred to be addressed as Lee—he detested being called Leroy. But it didn’t matter much because by the time my mother reluctantly asked his opinion, both Lee and Leroy had vanished like poked soap bubbles.
In spite of this phenomenon, my mother would drone on uninterrupted. We would all be sitting around the table, David with his nose buried in a sports magazine and Dad appearing to be interested in all she was saying. Right at the moment when Dad would be required to say something—poof. He’d be gone.
Sometimes I’d ask David, “When did Dad leave?”
He’d look up. “Don’t know.”
“His chair is still warm. Did you see him leave?”
He’d simply vanished.
My mother didn’t go out of her way to make life unpleasant for Dad, but she often treated him like a marshmallow in a blender. I always wished he’d stand up to her. Sometimes he’d ask her to accompany him on a ride or to the movies. More often than not she’d say no. If Dad pressed her she’d stand in the middle of the room with her arms crossed and declare, “Am I or am I not the mistress of my own home?” (This exclamation always made me wonder if there was any point in being the “master” of one’s own home.) My mother would then proceed with a lengthy description of her rights of sovereignty, and at some point Dad would disappear like a fart in the wind.
I’ve yet to figure out how he did it, and I’ve always wondered where he went when he disappeared. Since he often seemed sad, I hoped it was a place that made him happy, perhaps a place he shared with his beloved Amelia.