The dust behind the mail carrier’s old Buick still curled into the late summer sky as the rattling six-cylinder disappeared down the lane from the Schwaang’s farm to the village of Othello, Washington. The sound of the postman’s rig was only a murmur, and fading fast as Hank Schwaang stepped from the shade of the front porch into the silence of the bright, rolling landscape. Its emptiness collapsed upon him like a wave.
The road from the Schwaangs stretched across fifteen miles and three hilltop horizons on its course back to town. When not churned by the vibration of pistons and the crunch of worn tires on gravel, the sonic signature along this lane was that of wind hissing through the hairy heads of mature wheat in summer, crying amongst lifeless stubble in autumn, and howling over the icy, broken fields in winter.
On the day the letter arrived, the hissing was just turning to tears.
The anxious nineteen year-old stepping into the hot September sun had always aspired to rise above this land–to fly. It was not just an expression. Not just a dream. It was a passion he had nurtured since boyhood–picturing himself content in no other endeavor. Finally, on July 5th, 1942, with the smell of gunpowder still fresh on the cardboard husks of last night’s fireworks, and with the molasses days of August threatening, he had resolved to put the wheels in motion by applying for ‘agricultural flight training’ at Duster Enterprises.
Two months and ten days had crawled by since that resolution. Today, as Hank looked out to the road, he could see that in the wake of the postman, the red tin flag on the mailbox had been lowered. The chances for mail were promising. Finches trilled from a roadside thistle at the scuffling of his boots along the stone path to the box, a path he had followed many times before while his imagination churned with ever-rising expectations at the arrival of the ‘Preflight Kit’ from Duster’s Sacramento office.
Hank had read and re-read their advertisement in Popular Mechanics: ‘Learn To Fly Them.’ The message leapt from magazine pages stacked like dry leaves out in the Schwaang privy. The ad’s crude lithograph depicted a Waco bi-plane suspended forever above the last row of some forgotten crop. Two plumes of white dust fell away like a rope cast from a ship, as the powerful aircraft swooped up to clear a cottonwood hedgerow by inches.
‘Three Weeks To A Career In Aeronautics,’ read the copy, and Hank dreamt it to be so. He knew he could not follow his father to the endless fields forever. His destiny would not allow it. The wind sweeping across his old man’s broken soil blew with gusts of fortune–bringing welcome wet weather from the west or arctic misery from the north. It could scour away the very soil on which families’ lives were founded. Its turbulence could even wear a young man’s dreams away. And with the sharp edges of his imagination blunted, a fellow might stop picturing any vision beyond what he already knows–beyond what he can lay his hand, his eyes, or a spade upon.
The whirlwinds dancing for no one across fields of freshly turned sod spoke of loneliness, but Hank was determined to step beyond the empty routines of the wheat lands; its open space was suffocating. The pre-destiny of his friends’ lives, like the cattle he and his father tended, seemed pointless. They never questioned their fates, but he would certainly question his. He knew that the farms over in Yakima Valley would soon demand crop dusters like those out in Texas and down in California. Soon as the war got over, he guessed, a whole crop of flyboys would be coming home and grabbing up those jobs. He was going to get in on the action while the getting was good.
It wasn’t only clever career strategy that inspired the young man walking out to the mailbox that afternoon. More than any other reason, passion fueled his desire to fly. A hundred times he had kicked his father’s tractor into neutral just to watch a hawk rising high on thermals swirling up from the baked fields. Over the soft chugging of the diesel, he imagined the sound of air moving through stiff feathers. And once, while deer hunting alone in the lee of a high ridge, he had nearly touched a Golden Eagle. The huge bird had ridden a wave along the ridge’s crest, and at the sight of prey, had dropped, passing only a few feet above Hank’s head. For a moment he heard the very sound of air supporting the great bird: the hiss through polished barb and the unexpected slapping of ragged, trailing feathers. The spellbound young hunter even thought he heard the tips of talons tearing at the sky itself.
At dusk on late summer days, with dew already settling on grateful growing things, swallows would patrol the air space immediately above his mother’s lush back yard. Hank would walk the lawn just to watch the little birds fly at impossibly slow speeds, only inches above the grass, to intercept invisible insects his feet had scared into the air. The swallows’ magical flight–so low and so close–and the hopeful advertisement still tucked in his wallet, had served to bring Hank’s dream within reach.
With his Duster Enterprises application sent, so began Hank’s sentry at the mailbox. Like a kid enduring the torturous ‘seven to ten weeks’ for a box-top prize to arrive from a cereal company, Hank’s wait stood at day 71 when fate finally rolled up to the box. With the mail carrier’s dust just settling back to earth, Hank felt his future might begin at any second.
The rusted steel latch on the gate squealed in protest as Hank stepped from the front yard out to the galvanized box teetering on its post. A tangle of Morning Glory clung to the box, and one curling tendril tried to block Hank’s access to the lid, but to no avail– the mail always got through.
Hank threw open the box and, sure enough, a single letter addressed to Mr. Henry Schwaang Jr. lay there like a thin white wafer in a hot oven. He had expected the ‘Preflight Kit’ to be much more substantial. Hank snatched the envelope from the box. Its white paper was almost blinding in the summer sun, so he held it in the shade. His young eyes quickly adjusted as he read the return address:
United States Government
Department of Defense
And so it was that the draft board got to Hank Schwaang before Duster Enterprises. Standing beside that empty road with a torn envelope dangling uselessly from one hand, and Uncle Sam’s greetings held up to questioning eyes with the other, Hank remained frozen at a juncture of possibilities. One hopeful route would have led him to buzzing the tops of tall hedgerows and scraping the bottom of drifting summer clouds; the other route to a less lofty place–one, that with a war raging in Europe, was far less certain in its destination.
After reading and re-reading his orders to report for induction in Yakima, Hank had guessed it was a safe bet he could kiss his flying dreams good-bye, but that would have been a bet lost. The arrival of his draft notice that distant morning had interrupted Hank’s soaring plans, but it had not robbed him of his opportunity to fly. In fact, eight months after being swept into the service, Corporal H. Schwaang had earned his wings, and fly he had, not swooping over looming summer hedgerows, but gliding helplessly over Normandy in the dead of a treacherous night–the pilot of thirteen doomed participants in the silent airborne invasion of Europe. Their wars ended in a few terrible moments. Their pilot never considered himself so lucky.