I remember growing up there was a book that laid for years in the drawer of one of the endtables in our living room. There weren’t many books in that drawer, so I guess that’s why this one stood out. It was a book with very detailed paintings of airplanes; from bi-planes to WW1 and WW2 fighters to military jets to commercial jets all painted in realistic, vivid colors. The war planes were seen in battle, and one of the most striking was a night battle between German and French planes, one of them(I can’t remember which) was emblazoned with flames as it was most undoubtedly going down for the count. The feeling it gave me was a visceral one, one of both nauseous doom and breathless exhilaration.
The book was one I’d go to often, usually when I was bored or if I needed a reference photo for something I was drawing. I never really knew where it came from, and years later I’d asked my dad about it and he couldn’t remember the book at all. So where it came from is a mystery to this day. I half wonder if it came from my Uncle Chuck, who was in the Air Force for 30 years. He wasn’t a pilot, just a microwave/radar nerd. What he did, actually, is a bit of a mystery itself. He worked for Litton in Saudi Arabia, via the USAF. He lived on a military base in the desert. It’s all a bit sketchy and vague, kind of like my uncle himself.
So anyways, for years that book sat in that drawer. In middle school a copy of Clive Barker’s In The Flesh also sat in that drawer. It was my best friend’s book and he’d let me borrow it. I don’t think I ever read it, but my dad did. Many, many years later I’d look in that drawer to see if that Barker book was still there. It wasn’t. And neither was the aviation book.
That book put a fascination with planes in me. Not enough that I wanted to fly one, but just the science and mechanics involved in making something fly was pretty fascinating to me. And the look of them, too. Maybe that’s why I liked GI Joe as a kid. I loved the detail put into those toys, and especially the planes. The WWII fighter planes and bombers were the era of military aviation that fascinated me the most. Those planes were more like flying battle suits and were treated more like body armor instead of a vehicle. Those pilots maneuvered and displayed a kind of graceful aggression that is hard to describe. Aviation was still fairly new, too. Those guys had to have some serious nerve to do what they did. Maybe even had to be a touch crazy. While I’d never want to do that, I have a hell of a lot of respect for it.
Earlier this year on a Saturday morning my dad and I were having our coffee like we usually do on Saturday morning. Planes and aviation came up and he said he’d like to visit the USAF museum in Dayton, OH. I knew that wasn’t a trip he was going to make, just him and my mom since they don’t really like driving long distance anymore, so I told him how about him and I and my older brother take that trip together. He said that sounded like a lot of fun. I got a hold of my older brother back in March about it and he said he was in. We decided on Labor Day weekend and the plan was set.
I picked them both up at 8 am Saturday morning, September 3rd. It was a three hour drive which usually feels long, but with the conversations and laughing it felt pretty short. We stopped about an hour from the museum and got breakfast. I don’t eat out much at all, but early morning road trips just don’t feel the same unless we stop for breakfast, and Cracker Barrel is pretty good food for that. I can do without the general store vibe and the country music, but the food is good.
We fueled up for what was going to be a long day of walking and gawking and more walking. They say you can’t get through the USAF museum in one day, and as we approached the massive compound I could see why. It was essentially 5 or 6 massive hangars all interconnected, each showcasing a different part of aviation history. It felt like a mile walk from the parking spot to the actual museum, and I was kind of worried about how well my dad was going to do this. He’s 76 years old and has a bad back. Besides rickety joints, he’s good. But walking all day on a bad back and so-so knees got me a little worried. I wasn’t going to dare offer up a chair rental, as I think that would have gotten me a knock on the head(or at the very least a death stare.)
The first hangar you enter is the beginning of it all, with the Wright Brothers. I think these were the most jaw-dropping, given that these massive flying machines seemed to be made of bed sheets and popsicle sticks and looked to be a story tall. The fact these got off the ground at all is amazing, but that this was the beginning of aviation is nothing short of a miracle. Planes dangled from the ceiling, giving the impression we were being dive-bombed by German fighters, and with the ceilings being painted all black there was an eeriness to it all.
As we made our way through the museum my dad seemed in awe. Talking on the way to Dayton he told my brother and I about how he always had a fascination with planes, making models as a kid. As he told us this it started to make more sense, as I remember him taking me to air shows at the airport in town when I was little. And we visited Grissom Air Force Base near Kokomo, IN when I was even smaller. At that time it was an active base, with nuclear silos with on line war heads ready to take out half of mankind for nothing. I believe it’s a reserve base now. My dad’s fascination with planes started to come into focus, and in turn I think mine did as well. We were all pretty much geeking out the entire time.
I started thinking about the last time that my dad, brother and I did something together just the three of us, and it occurred to me it had been a long time. Like, the last time I remember just the three of us doing something that wasn’t drinking beer at a cookout was dad taking my brother and I to see Krull. Yeah, the cheesy sci-fi/fantasy flick that had Liam Neeson in a very early role and really, nobody else you’d remember. I remember liking it, but I was also only 9 years old. It came out in 1983, so if you’re doing the math the last time my dad, brother, and I did anything together was almost 40 years ago. I think this trip was long overdue.
The times we did actually do something as father and sons were pretty few and far between. Being six years apart in age with my brother put us at pretty different phases in life. When he was little and playing with toys I was just a lump wrapped in a receiving blanket. When I was preschool age he was getting ready to hit middle school. When I hit middle school my brother was graduating high school. It really wasn’t until I started playing guitar and getting into music that we found common ground. We bonded over albums, horror movies, and playing guitar, and none of that started till I was heading into high school. My dad and brother bonded over sports for the longest time, while my dad and I, well, I’m not sure what we ever really bonded over. I guess we had the kind of relationship that was of the “well, we don’t really like a lot of the same stuff but I still really like you so we’re good” sort. I never felt like my dad didn’t love me less because I wasn’t athletic. And I think once I started playing guitar that he was happy I’d found something I could excel at. It wasn’t football, but it was rock and roll. He did like rock and roll, and his record buying when I was little was one of the main reasons I got into music.
Okay, so I guess there was something we both liked.
Now we were bonding over these flying war machines, and all collectively in awe of these engineering feats and planes made of sticks that flew over cornfields in Ohio at the turn of the century. There was something kind of rock and roll about that.
We’d made the rounds at the Dayton Air Force Museum. We saw everything from wooden bi-planes to massive war ships that fought in Afghanistan and everything in-between. My dad was running out of steam and his hunched walk showed it. We sat on a bench and gathered some steam and then made our way into the rainy Ohio afternoon where we piled into the car and headed west back to Indiana. We talked for a bit, but things quieted down the last hour home. I started playing an 80s speed metal playlist I’d made a couple years ago and my brother and I started in on the Clash of the Titans concert we saw in ’91. Then we got in on when he bought Slayer’s South of Heaven and the time he saw Megadeth in the summer of ’88 in Chicago. It felt like we’d gotten in some time machine chatting up classic metal. My dad sat quietly listening to us gab. Finally we’d made it home. I dropped off my dad, then my brother, and I headed back home.
It was a great day, despite the lousy weather. I was able to give my dad something unique, and I got to share that experience with my brother. The airplanes and history were amazing, but not nearly as much as the conversations had before, during, and afterwards. Laughing with my dad and brother like I was 9-years old. The kind of laugh that feels like a punch in the gut afterwards. It leaves you wheezing a little. I hadn’t felt like that in a long time, and it felt pretty great. It’s one of those days I’ll remember years from now. One I’ll go to when I’m needing a pick me up, or when I can no longer call my dad to reminisce about it. I’ll have that day. I think that day even beats Krull. Just barely.