"The Hangar," Part II © 1987, Paul Berge

(continued from Part I)
(up music...Hey, it's a mind movie, use your imagination.)



...I guessed him to be in his late fifties, maybe six feet tall, dark and stocky with a thick neck and closely trimmed gray hair. He wore stiff white overalls with LEARN TO FLY stenciled across the back. With one arm he reached far behind the engine while the other arm arched over a cylinder head. The two hands tried to meet somewhere in a tight corner near the firewall. “Come on, you piece of...there. Gotchya!” The dark figure swiveled his head like a mud turtle and looked at a toolbox just out of reach to his left. I stood quietly behind to his right.



And, now, Paul Berge's "The Hangar," Part 2 ©:



“Hand me that pair of wire cutters, will ya,” he called and waved toward the toolbox without looking at me. “Those, next to the safety wire. I don’t want to let go of this thing; took me forever to reach it...gotta get me a pair of wire twisters some day.”

The dog sat beside the toolbox and gave me a look of, “Well, are you going to get the wire cutters or what?”

“These the ones?” I asked picking out a large pair.

“No, the smaller ones...yeah, those, thanks.” He took them from me, and with much face making and grunting completed whatever it was he was after.

“Why the hell is everything you want to work on always where you can’t reach it?” he asked without waiting for my answer.

His accent was out of place for the Midwest, more like East Coast, New York or Philadelphia. He tended to run words together and squash his r’s, so “wire cutters” became, “wiyah cuttahs.” But he spoke inconsistently, the accent appearing briefly throughout the more commonplace flat Midwest tone.

I expected him to ask what I was doing there or tell me his name while offering his hand. Instead, he pulled an oily rag from his back pocket and disappeared around to the other side of the Ryan while wiping his hands.

“What’s that dog doing in here?” he asked. The dog was lying on the cool slab of concrete near the tail wheel. “He’s supposed to stay outside,” he snapped again while reaching down to scratch the dog’s head. “Keeps messin’ the place up.” He stood and took a small bowl from the workbench, upsetting a coffee can full of nuts and screws in the process. They scattered across the bench and onto the floor, bouncing and skipping under tables and into dark corners.

“Stupid dog. I told you he messes the place up.”

He filled the dish with water and placed it on the floor near the dog who ignored it, and then gathered most of the hardware and put it on the bench.

“Name’s Nervino; Emilio Nervino. Some call me Ed.” He flashed a wide grin showing a perfect row of white teeth. “What do some call you?”

“I just flew in,” I said.

“That tells me what you did, not who you are.”

“Oh, I saw your hangar from above and it looked like a pretty good place to.…”

“Now I’m finding out why you’re here; still don’t know who you are. You got a name?”

“Yes….”

“Good. Hand me that grease gun near the phone.” He pointed to a table behind me in an exceptionally dark section of the hangar. The grease gun sat wrapped in a rag below a plate on the wall where a phone had once hung. Beside the plate was an old calendar with a picture of Santa Claus in flying goggles and leather helmet sitting astride an Archer Aero oil can rocketing across a starry night sky. A fiery plume trailed behind, and Santa waved merrily at the viewer. The date on the calendar: December 1960.

Its proximity to the missing phone had once made the calendar an ideal message pad with names and phone numbers scrawled across the page and onto the wall. I read:

DECEMBER 1—PICK UP DALE AT CSQ
DECEMBER 3—JIM, 9 AM; DON, 11 AM; KATE, 3 PM
DECEMBER 6—OFF
And on it went.

Greasy fingerprints smeared the notes. I wondered if any of the people attached to those names were still in the area or even alive, for that matter. I wanted to call them later on the off chance that one might be at the old number. But then, what would I say if they did answer? “Ah, hello. You don’t know me, but I got your name off a hangar wall, and I was just wondering if you were still alive, still flying?”

Ed interrupted. “You found that grease gun yet?”

“Got it now.” I grabbed the gun and left the rag behind, instantly getting grease all over my hands.

“Let’s have it here.” He took the gun and moved around the airplane lubricating things I never knew needed grease. Finished, he tossed the gun onto the bench and hit the coffee can with the screws. Again, hardware bounced on the floor. Several pieces dropped into the dog’s water. Ed ignored it this time and unlatched the hangar’s double doors. “Get the other door, will ya,” he called. “There’re two pins in the floor; you need to pull them up, then unhook the door near the handle. The whole thing slides open after that.”

He slid his half of the old doors open while I pulled the pins, unfastened the hook and tried to push mine. It was heavy and barely moved. Ed’s half slammed against the stops, and he turned to charge mine. It groaned and slid onto the outriggers. The wind, calmer now, gently rocked the open doors. Sparrows flew out the door startled by the sudden wave of sunlight that poured over the Ryan. Its white wings and tail feathers shone in the glare. The green fuselage had none of the chalky white stains that soiled everything else in the hangar.

“Whose Champ is that?” Ed called.

“I’ll move it.” I answered and ran toward my airplane.

“Still doesn’t tell me whose it is,” he mumbled. “No need to move it, fine where it is.” He rummaged through the small baggage compartment in the Ryan’s fuselage, removed two leather helmets with goggles and dropped them on a wing.

In full daylight the Ryan was an absolute beauty. There were no traces of the oil and exhaust stains normally present on aircraft its age. The monoplane was spotless as though wiped clean after each flight. “Does this thing ever fly?” I asked thinking he might have recently rebuilt it.

“Fly it all the time,” he answered, offended. “Grab a wing.”

I took the handhold on the left wing, and we moved the Ryan out of the hangar tail first. We rotated it until it pointed toward the runway. “Ever prop one of these?” he called from the wing root as he loosened parachute straps on the front seat.

“Yes,” I lied.

“It’s not like that Champ of yours, you know.” He knew I lied. “Go ahead, pull it through a couple of times; I’ll tell you when to stop.” He swung himself into the rear cockpit.

I hesitated staring at the long wooden prop.

“Switch is OFF.”

One prop tip pointed toward seven o’clock, so I didn’t have far to reach. After I had pulled it through about six times he called, “There, that should be a good spot. Switch is ON. Brakes are probably on, too.”

I took hold of the propeller blade again and gave a reasonable heave while walking it through to my right. It left my hand before I had time to realize. The Kinner barked dully, coughed and barked again, before setting up its distinct, pok-pok (pause) apok-apok rhythm. Ed grinned from the rear cockpit while waving me into the front.

The prop blast slapped my pants legs as I stood on the wing pushing aside the parachute straps on the seat. Right foot over the rim, then left, then I banged my shins before I lowered myself in. Buckles and straps slipped and clanked against the metal fuselage. Finally strapped in, I donned the helmet he’d set on the joystick for me. Immediately, his voice came hollow through the Gosport tube attached to the earflaps. “You in okay?”

“Yeah,” I yelled into a plastic funnel hanging near my knee. I assumed this was the speaking portion of the primitive intercom. It was either that or I had just yelled into a relief tube.

“Good,” he came back assuaging my concerns. The joystick swung a wide circle and banged against my knees, Ed’s way of showing how much room he’d need. The throttle inched forward, and the Kinner’s cylinders in front of me shuddered. The fuel gauge bounced in its glass tube over the nose tank. The engine gave a clacking belch and the propeller blew dust and weeds into my Champ tied behind.

Ed wasted no time on a run-up. He taxied onto the runway, pointed the nose into the wind and pushed the throttle and stick forward. Barely had we started to roll when the tail lifted and the pok-pokking mass of 1940s Ryan climbed into the midwestern sky.

The left wing dropped, the throttle came slightly back, and we skimmed the corn without climbing. I pictured the knuckled landing gear hanging like a wasp’s legs as we flew across fields, rising casually over hedge trees, abandoned corncribs and rusty Aeromotor windmills.

Over a bean field, he lifted the nose and opened the throttle. The engine shook as Ed made a slow spiral climb banking first to the left and then to the right. Somewhere about 1500 feet above the ground he leveled. I glanced over my shoulder and saw his eyes smile through the goggles. Put a pair of machine-guns in front of him and he could have been straight out of Dawn Patrol.

He inscribed a circle with his left hand in the air. I gathered we would soon be out of straight and level. I nodded. I reached to tighten my straps when the stick shot forward, throttle back, and the nose dropped. I grasped the cockpit’s rim. Airspeed rose; wind rushed through the wires and cylinder cooling fins. The stick came back, nose up, throttle forward, engine banging, and the horizon dropped. Blue sky, blue sky, more sky, speed bleeding off; over the top, and I looked straight up into cornfields. The nose came over dropping down from the top of the loop. The throttle well back producing that gentle pok, pok of the Kinner, and the corn slid beneath us in a blur.

Before I could digest this, the nose came up again with the throttle less than full. The stick shot back abruptly, and a heavy dose of rudder sent us plowing into a snap roll to the left. We rolled level, the nose dipped slightly for speed, then again the stick came back as Ed stomped the right rudder snapping us the opposite way. The Kinner radial engine that normally took two adults to lift onto its mounts, twisted effortlessly through the afternoon sky. Its black cylinders never complained.

We turned wide to the left, back toward the airport.

He leveled the wings and let the nose drop to gain speed. Then up it came, throttle wide open, and the stick, this time, moved forward as we approached vertical. Ed reduced power and kicked the tail out from under us with a heavy foot on the rudder. The old Ryan arched over onto its wing, almost hovering in the sky for a moment and then gravity sucked us straight down toward the fields below. From the corner of my vision I could see the flying wires flex and bow under the strain.

We leveled. Ed rocked the wings from side to side. The hot August sun hammered on my leather helmet. Despite the open cockpit I was sweating heavily, wrung out. I poked my face into the slipstream and watched the ground slide beneath. The wind grabbed my cheeks trying to pull my skin off.

“You’ll get bugs in your teeth doin’ that,” came the voice through the Gosport. I wanted to tell him I’d had enough but was embarrassed to admit it. I wondered how much more I could take before I really embarrassed myself by adding an unwanted stripe down one side of the fuselage. Somehow, he sensed my thoughts, and a thick calm settled over the entire airplane. My uneasiness faded, and we flew across Iowa in no particular direction.

I knew so little about this person, Emilio “Ed” Nervino. I had walked into his hangar an uninvited stranger and now found myself soaking up his unique brand of hospitality.

The left wing dipped, its round tip pointed toward a herd of cattle eating their way across a pasture. The wing rose again and stopped on a distant puff of cloud, the only relief in the sky.

I watched the summer scene, flat and hot, skim past us. We were two creatures from the Earth, completely without feathers, heads peeping out of a machine from an era long faded. We were headed nowhere and would arrive only when it was right. Ed flew with the ease of someone having spent a lifetime in the sky. There was no faking this talent. This was not by-the-book aviation. This was flight, pure and honest. He said nothing at this point. The great wealth of his experience, the years of oil-spitting engines and countless miles of sky could not be confined to the rear cockpit. It overflowed onto the fuselage, along the wings and enveloped me.

The warm sun must have lulled me into forgetting time when Ed’s voice came through the tube: “I have to be getting you back now.” I shuddered. A cold blast of wind slipped over my damp back. The day was still warm, and evening a long way off.

We dragged low across the cornfield, over the wire fence, before the Ryan squatted onto the grass runway. The windsock atop the hangar flicked listlessly while Ed taxied back, s-turning to see where he was headed. I removed my helmet and felt the soft air flow across my scalp. The world spun past when the tail dragger pivoted on one wheel until it was pointed back into the hangar. He switched the magnetos off, and the Kinner rattled to a stop. The propeller took a few easy swings before it was still. I sat for a long moment feeling too relaxed to climb out.

I fly. I know that world up there—a world open exclusively to those who want it. Those not interested should remain on the ground, no hard feelings and your loss. Ed had shown me that same world from his viewpoint, from his machine, in his way. With perfect understanding of his corner of that world, he shared the vision with a stranger. It took little effort, but the impact left me seated in the Ryan’s front cockpit wanting to know more about him.

He’d climbed down and stood by the left wing. He smiled. I felt as though he saw straight into my thoughts, an unfair advantage since I couldn’t see back. There was a strong urge to speak, to question and build defenses against this intrusion. The feeling dissipated when he slapped the wing’s fabric and said, “Climb down and grab a wing. Let’s get this rag bucket inside.”

The Ryan rolled smoothly into the hangar and came to rest against the chocks where it had been parked before. The hangar door halves, however, were less cooperative and stuck just short of closing.

“Push from the outside,” he said.

I stepped through the crack between the two doors and grabbed a handle. We both pushed, and it closed with a deep-throated, BONG, echoing throughout the building.

“I’ll go around through the other door,” I called but heard no reply only the scraping of the latch being bolted from inside.

The wind had increased again, and scraps of dried weeds swirled around my feet as I made my way to the far side of the hangar. A cloud of dust blew against the door below the LEARN TO FLY sign. I reached for the handle and pulled. The door lurched but did not open. I jiggled the handle and still nothing—locked.

“Mmmm,” I murmured and looked through the glass. The Swift and the Cessna were both visible, but nothing inside moved. There was no sign of Ed. Confused, I glanced to either side looking for a second door I might have overlooked. But this was the only door on this side, and it was unmistakably locked.

I knocked while peering through the glass. Only the occasional sparrow moved inside. The wind shook the building, and the LEARN TO FLY sign banged against the wall over my head.

“There’s no one there.”

I turned quickly and saw a woman astride a horse near the corner of the hangar.

“What...?”

“There’s no one there,” she repeated. “You’re wasting your time.” She spoke with cool self-assurance and pulled the horse’s head sharply with the reins to keep it from sampling the weeds.

Amid the rotted Navions and tired hangar she was out of place dressed in hacking coat and boots atop the bay mare. Her glossy blonde hair streaked with silver was tucked snug into a bun welded to the back of her head. The horse stepped restlessly to the side and was corrected with a jerk of the reins without her looking at the animal.

“I know someone’s here,” I said. “I just landed.”

“Yes.” She interrupted. “I saw you come in. We keep the runway open all year round, but there really is nothing here.”

“Who’s we?” I became annoyed with this woman on her horse.

“We, the Nervinos. We own all this.” She gestured with her crop. “I am Kate Nervino. My Uncle Ed once ran a flying business out here.”

“Once?”

“He was fairly wealthy, although certainly not from flying. Owned several businesses in New York at one time but left all that to move out here. Anyhow, this was his. He gave flying lessons, fixed old airplanes...”

“Your uncle—Ed…Emilio Nervino?”

“Yes. Emilio.” She laughed. “No one called him that.”

“What? Did he go broke or something?” I was confused.

“Oh, no.” She paused and then, “He died. Apparently he had high blood pressure, or something, and the government said he was grounded. I was just a girl at the time.” Her voice softened. “He used to take me flying. He was a beautiful man, a very good pilot; lived for flying. He was forever taking strangers up for rides or fixing their airplanes without charging. No way to run a business.

“Anyway,” she continued, “when the FAA told him he couldn’t fly anymore, he just closed up shop one day, went home, and gradually rotted away until he died several months later.” Her voice was distant and cold. “He lost interest.”

“When did this happen?” My voice was hollow, as if the words had come from someone else’s mouth.

“Well, he lost his medical in December of Nineteen, ah...Sixty. I remember I was out here for Christmas. And he died in early spring, just when the air was turning warm.”

A gust of wind shook the hangar violently and rattled the LEARN TO FLY sign. The sign, its fresh paint gone, was old and faded by weather and years, and the wind threatened to carry it away.

“In his will, he stipulated the runway be kept open to anyone wanting to use it. The hangar was to be left untouched.” She gazed at the decaying structure. “Nobody’s been in there since he died.”

The wind blew cold.

“You’re welcome to use the airport,” she called and turned the horse’s head. “But there’s really nothing here.” She trotted off along a dirt road toward a grove of cottonwoods.

I ran around the hangar looking for an entrance, but none existed except a small window at eye level on the side wall. Through it I could see the Ryan exactly where we’d put it moments before. The light was enough to make out details but not strong enough to explain them away. The Ryan’s tires were flat and cracked. The wings, previously white and glistening, were now covered in grime. The airplane had aged decades in the time it had taken me to leave Ed and get to this window. The fabric was pockmarked with small holes from mice or fallen debris. The fuselage, once polished green, was now dull and covered with white bird crap. An abandoned nest was wedged between two engine cylinders. On the workbench below the windowsill were Ed’s overalls covered in the greasy dust of time. Mice had eaten a large hole through the lettering on the back, through the LEARN TO FLY.

The wind was stiff when I taxied away from the hangar in the Champ. Before taking off, I saw the greasy dog walk slowly toward the Navions. He stopped under the wing where I had found him earlier, pawed the ground without interest and settled down. His gaze caught mine briefly before his head dropped, eyes closed in sleep, and I left. My gypsy summer could now change into autumn and I could begin to learn to fly.

The End © Paul Berge 1987, 2007



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