You could hear the impact of the plane against the asphalt for miles, and that sound always made us cringe. You couldn't brace yourself for it, either, because the timing was always different--as if he intentionally psyched you into thinking that he might actually miss the ground, then just as you took your hands from your ears... WHAM! The plane would smack the runway with an awful, hollow crunch and you could swear you heard the poor little trainer cry out in agony: Owwwww! Make it stop! Noooooo!
Ken and I sat on the hood of Joe's car and watched the Cessna struggle around the pattern: Joe's turn at flying lessons. Ken was taking instrument training now, and he'd finished for the day. Me and Joe were taking lessons with the same instructor--Ken's old instructor--one at a time, though we did the preflight briefing and the ground study together. It was my turn next. We usually rode to the airport in Joe's car because he'd gotten his driver's license first. I guess because he looked the oldest of all three of us and was obsessed with cars. He hadn't gotten the G-2 yet, so he had a shiny black muscle car that he tinkered with all the time. He would've gone ballistic if he'd seen us sitting on it. We did it every week.
Joe was doing touch-and-goes, or as Ken liked to call them, "slam and bounces." To put it tactfully, Joe didn't have landings figured out yet. He either drove straight into the ground and pulled up too late, making the plane bounce hard, or he pulled up too early, yanked the power, then pancaked the plane down on the concrete. That's if he made the runway at all. We'd hear the engine speed up, then slow down, then speed up and slow down as he chased the airspeed needle on final approach.
"Oh man," Ken said. "If only we could overhear the conversation going on in that cockpit!"
I grinned. "Joe's probably swearing a blue streak, and I bet Bookman's at the end of his chain."
Ken grinned back. "That's what I mean."
"You think Joe makes him nervous? I mean, Bookman got shot down over Vietkoku in the war, once."
"I bet Joe's giving it his best try," Ken said. I burst out laughing.
Instead of taking back off, the plane rolled to the end of the runway and turned back on the taxiway. I glanced at my watch. "Well, looks like I'm up now." We slid off the hood and Ken followed me into the airport building.
Joe arrived first, his flight bag slung over one shoulder, a deep scowl on his face. Bookman followed, not looking happy. His bald head was beaded with sweat. "How'd it go?" I said.
"Gettin' better," Bookman said tightly. Joe just glared. I tried not to react, and I knew Ken was behind me trying to look innocent.
"That means Bookman only had to grab the yoke twice this time," Ken said in my ear, and I nearly strangled trying to keep the snickers down. Joe turned his back on the both of us and stalked off to return his key and log his time.
Bookman gave us a dirty look as Joe disappeared. In a low voice, he said, "Lighten up, guys. We all have our skills in different areas." Then in his normal, booming voice, he said, "Mister Nakanishi, you got Four Niner Delta. Go get the keys and preflight." I passed Joe on my way in to get the keys, but when I saw him that time, his scowl had lightened to its normal intensity.
On the ride home, Joe drove so smoothly, you couldn't tell when he shifted, and he didn't slam us back in the seats. The only thing that told us we were moving were the sounds of the engine and the fact that the other cars in the other lanes were sliding behind us. I couldn't see the speedometer. Ken sat in the front seat, staring straight ahead through the windshield, not talking. I sat in the back seat, staring at the backs of their heads. I'd tried to cheer things up when I first got into the car and noticed the silence, but Ken had turned to me and shaken his head.
Something must have happened while I was up doing my lesson, but they obviously weren't gonna tell me what. Bookman hadn 't given me a clue--he was all business during the lesson, and when I asked him again how Joe's had gone, he just shrugged and said, "Fine." Maybe me and Ken had crossed the line? Joe made it no secret that he hated flying lessons and he considered them a waste of his time.
As we waited at a stoplight, I leaned forward. "Could you turn on the radio?"
Joe reached over and switched the radio on. Rock music filled the car, but it helped only a little.
After a few minutes, I tried again. "Um, y'know, my radio work really sucks."
"You'll figure it out," Joe said. He didn't sound angry, but Ken stiffened in his seat. Bad sign: shut up, Ryu. I slumped back in my seat and nobody spoke for the rest of the trip.
When we got home, Joe dropped us off at the front of the house before he pulled around to the garage. I waited, but he didn't come out, and after a moment, I heard the hood of his car creak open and the rattle of tools in his toolbox.
"What the hell happened?" I asked Ken. "He's never been like this. Did we piss him off?"
Ken didn't answer.
"He found out we were sitting on his car."
Ken shook his head. "He'd have made us take the bus home."
"We were just having fun."
"Yeah, I know...."
"He doesn't look pissed."
"He won't," Ken said, then turned and went up the steps.
Hakase had dinner with us, which was unusual for him since he always worked late. Ken talked enthusiastically about his instrument stuff, practicing ILS approaches at another airport fifty miles away. It sounded hard. I talked about learning to land. Joe just said he was doing the same thing as I was, and that was all. I think the sum total of his conversation after that was, "Pass the salt." If anyone else noticed, they didn't mention it.
It was too weird. I mean, I usually knew when Joe was upset, because he didn't hesitate to tear my head off for whatever reason. After dinner, Nambu went back to work in his home office. Ken got stuck with dish duty with the housekeeper, and me and Joe headed to the rec room for some TV before homework and lights out. We didn't say anything to each other.
The next day, the weather turned ugly with a line of spring thunderstorms, and we had to cancel the flying lessons til the systems cleared out of the area. The reprieve lasted three days. On Friday morning, we all piled into Joe's car, and as we drove there--carefully and precisely and dead on the speed limit--the tension was almost suffocating.
This time, we didn't get to watch. Ken's instructor was sick, so Bookman introduced a new instructor, a gorgeous redhead named Sherryl, to Ken, and then he disappeared with Joe. I didn't see where they went. Sherryl wore tight jeans. Some people have all the luck.
I waited in the terminal building with my books, flipping through my notes and listening to the chatter off the airport's frequency until three o' clock rolled around. The first familiar voice I heard was Ken's. I watched him land, then turn and taxi back toward the terminal. As he got closer, the plane suddenly shuddered, and I saw him haul back on the elevator and hit the brakes--he was going too fast. Airplanes are a lot like birds, awkward and out of place on the ground.
I was lurking for him when he came into the building and Sherryl went into the instructor's lounge. "Having trouble keeping your mind on flying?" I said, elbowing him.
"Oh, please. Who wants to look at gauges with that kind of scenery on board?"
"Yeah, well, she had most of those gauges covered and me flying on magnetic compass." Ken acted like he didn't know what I was talking about, but I could see the gleam in his eyes. "She's scary."
I smirked. "Did she have you taxiing by compass too?"
Ken put me in a headlock and we roughhoused around the terminal waiting area until the door opened again. Joe and Bookman walked in. If anything, Joe's scowl was deeper than yesterday's. We stared as he stalked on ahead to return his keys. "Meet me in the back classroom," Bookman called after him.
"Yeah, okay," I heard him growl. "Whatever."
"Ryu, looks like Sherryl will be filling in for me, too. You've got Four Six Fox." He grinned at me. "I hear her husband's a jealous man, so no smooth pickup lines, okay?" When I laughed, he gave me an earful about what a Casanova I was before he disappeared into the back. I forgot about Joe at that point. Sherryl kept me busy doing stalls and spins.
When I got out of that lesson, I found Ken waiting alone for me at the terminal, and I nearly freaked. Then I saw Joe's car was still in the lot, and a second later I saw Joe standing on the ramp with one of the mechanics, both involved in what was going on under the cowl of a Mooney--a much faster plane than the Cessnas we trained on now. He turned on the radio first this time, but the trip home was a grim repeat of the last. As we got out of the car and Joe drove to the garage, I snagged Ken's arm. "What happened today, do you know?"
"Bookman wants to step up his lessons," Ken said quietly. "I don't think it's a bad idea, but Joe won't do it."
"He doesn't think it'll do any good," Ken said. "But he's gotta have the background in order to stay on the team."
Shit. We went throught he front door and climbed the stairs to our rooms. "I call first shower," Ken said.
"What's his problem, anyway? I thought he was just screwing around."
"I don't know."
"Why don't you ask him? You're the hotshot pilot, and you know him better than I do."
Ken snorted. "Yeah, right." He ducked into his room, grabbed his clothes and made good his claim on the shower.
Later that evening, we were relegated to our separate rooms to study, and I'd gone down to the kitchen for a glass of milk. When I came back up, I heard voices coming from Joe's room, and I stopped outside to listen.
After I moved in, Dr. Nambu decided that Ken and Joe didn't have to share rooms if I didn't, so Joe moved to his own room between Ken's and mine. That started a new phenomenon that I called "dueling stereos," and the whole house rattled on its foundations until the Professor performed two temporary stereo removals, and later bought both of them headsets. Ken and Joe still acted like roomies sometimes, and I wish I'd had that chance. Joe'd accepted me into the team, but only grudgingly. I never felt like I could just go into his room, sit on his bed and tell him whatever was on my mind.
"You oughta at least talk to Hakase," I heard Ken saying. "Tell him what's going on."
"Tell him what?" Joe said. "That I look like an idiot out there? He's not gonna buy it. He saw our test scores. It's just the landing part--that last seven hundred feet."
I edged closer to the door.
"What are you doing in the pattern? Start with the downwind leg."
Joe heaved a sigh. "On the downwind leg. Altitude one thousand feet. Twenty two hundred RPM, GUMP check."
"Gas, Undercarriage, Mixture and Prop. Abeam the numbers: seventeen hundred RPM, carb heat on, airspeed in white arc, flaps down ten degrees, pitch down 500 feet per minute. On the forty five of the numbers, turn base. Airspeed seventy, flaps twenty degrees. Turn final. Aim for the numbers and an airspeed of 60 knots."
"Then it all goes to hell."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, I don't fucking know, okay? If I knew, I would fix it!" I heard a loud bang as Joe snarled. "Bookman doesn't know either."
"Maybe you need time off," Ken said.
"Like real life will give us that chance," Joe said. "You're not helping."
"All right, all right." I heard footsteps coming toward the door. It opened, and I made myself scarce.
Saturday morning we had time off from our classes, so we were able to kick back, catch up on chores or practice. I was meeting with friends later on in the afternoon, but the morning was open. I got bored with the TV, so I went down into that underground labyrinth that made up our training area. Someone had already beat me into the gym. I heard the clank of weights, and a familiar voice: Joe. Best not go in there. Swimming didn't appeal at the moment, so I headed to the shooting range.
Once I'd been cleared into the team, I met a whole new range of instructors for a whole new set of lessons: martial arts, weapons, gymnastics (for crying out loud!) and target shooting. I signed out a gun and box of ammunition, put on the goggles and ear protection, and hit the button that set up the targets. We didn't have a rangemaster to watch over us, but a security camera was activated every time we entered the gun range, and the rest was automated. We used the black human-shaped paper targets, same as the police use in Hollywood movies.
The target came up and I started shooting; emptied the gun, then pressed the button that brought the target in close enough to see the results. Three shots hadn't even hit paper. Three shots hit the outer ring on the left side. Crap. I set up another target and tried again. Two shots hit the target, this time on the right. Crap again.
I almost jumped out of my skin when I caught the movement out of the corner of my eye. Joe had left the gym and showered, and his wet hair was combed back from his face. He had on the goggles and ear protection, and he casually loaded his own weapon, ignoring me.
Oh-kay. I went back to shooting. This time, only two bullets hit. Damn. Another set, and again, only two bullets hit. Maybe he was distracting me. I didn't see how many he'd scored, but doubtless three times better than me--all shots in the inner rings. This was his specialty, and he knew it. He was probably laughing at my pathetic attempts. That wasn't fair! I'd just started this, while he'd had years to practice!
I fired another set, angry this time. I'd been here first--why should he crowd me out? But then, it was my own fault for being self-conscious about it and letting him screw up my aim. This sucked.
My target scooted in close. Two shots again. Dammit, enough already. My arms already hurt and my hands shook as I brought down the gun. I made sure the gun was empty and the safety on, then grabbed the ammo.
A hand caught my shoulder, and I turned to find Joe standing there. I pulled my ear covers off. "What?"
"C'mere," he said.
Before I could react, he'd taken me by the shoulder and led me back to the platform, set up another target and handed me his gun. "Aim it, don't fire."
"But I don't--"
"Just do it."
I don't know why, but I did. I held up the gun and sighted along it to the target. "Why?"
"Your stance is off. That's why you're not sighting it right." I looked for the smirk on his face and saw only the businesslike glare he used when he was shooting. This whole thing caught me off guard so much that I just stood there and let him guide me into what he thought was the right stance, repositioning my hands, pushing my feet into the right position, then standing behind me to sight along the gun and check his work. "Now fire. Just like that." He put the hearing protection back on me and flicked the safety.
Well, what the hell.
I fired and fired again, emptying the gun. The target came up: five neat holes in the paper, much closer to where I'd been aiming.
"Remember how it felt just now. Remember how it looked. This configuration's better," Joe said. "You just have to know how to look at it." With a slap on my shoulder, he took his gun back and retreated to his side.
I loaded my gun and went back to firing, trying to remember what I'd just done. Joe was right. though, and this time, shooting didn't hurt my arms as much. I found myself slowing down after that set, though, and then I stopped.
I looked at Joe, who kept firing, focused on his target and not on me. Ken and I had spent two afternoons sitting on his car and rating his landings. Ken had laughed when I started giving minuses: minus five, minus seven. If it looked good, it was a minus ten cause he couldn't have done it himself.
He glanced at me as his target traveled forward. "What."
"And about the flying stuff, I didn't mean anything by it--"
His eyes narrowed, and he opened his mouth, then suddenly clenched his jaw and looked away. "Whatever," he snarled, loading his gun, then ignoring me to fire.
I made sure the gun was empty and safe, took my targets and box of ammunition and left the shooting range. Joe didn't follow.
I almost missed it because I was looking down at the door handle, but then I saw Ken's face looking through the glass at the top. He stared past me at Joe, and his eyes were huge.
I pushed the door open and he backed away, then turned and raced down the hall. "Hey, Ken," I called after him. "What's up?"
"Tell you later!" Then he was gone.
Sunday we got a surprise visitor. I answered the door, expecting my next door neighbor, and found Bookman standing there. "Hey there, Ryu," he said, grinning. "How you doin'?"
"Okay..." Did he know about our group? "You here for the professor?" Dr. Nambu wasn't here.
"Actually, I'm here to pick up Joe."
"You got a lesson today?"
"Nope. Just a social call."
"Really?" Now that's weird. I turned to call for him, heard feet pounding down the stairs, and then Joe brushed past me. "Well excuse me!"
"Sorry," he trailed in his wake. He and Bookman headed down the steps toward Bookman's car, which was parked in front. My jaw dropped when Bookman handed Joe the keys to the shiny red Corvette and got into the passenger side. That car was one of three antiques that Bookman had carefully restored--his babies. Did he have any clue what he was doing? I watched as the car started then rumbled down the road and out of sight.
Around ten that night, I was in the TV room when I heard the front door open and footsteps head up the stairs. I caught Joe halfway. "Man, you're late," I said, and he stopped. "Where'd you go?"
"Twelve Flags Park," he said, glancing back at me.
"How come?" But he just shrugged and pounded up the stairs, and then I heard the bathroom door slam. "I don't get it," I said, shaking my head. "I do my best not to screw up and he's the one getting taken to amusement parks."
"He pays for it tomorrow," Ken said, coming up behind me.
"What do you mean?"
But Ken only smiled. "You'll see. And by the way, tomorrow we take the bus."
When we got to the airfield the next day, Bookman met us at the door to the terminal and escorted us in. I found Joe stretched out on the leather couch in the instructors' lounge, fast asleep. "Hey! What's--"
"Let him sleep," Bookman said. "He's been here since before sunup, and he's not done yet."
I looked over at Ken. "An intensive? What changed his mind?" Ken just shrugged.
This went on for three more days. We'd get to the terminal to find Joe already there, either between sessions or on his way out or back. He'd just shrug when I asked about it, though he laughed when I mentioned how much I hated the bus.
On Friday, Bookman announced we were going to a distant airport for more takeoff and landing practice. That went pretty well. I got in about fifteen landings, and Bookman didn't touch the controls once. When we finally shut down back on the ramp, he announced, "I think you're ready to solo tomorrow."
I bounced as I tied down the plane and gathered my stuff. He said I'm ready! I get to do it all myself! This'll be so cool! Next we do cross-countries and night flight, and then I get my ticket, and me and Ken can go anywhere we want and have landing contests and it's going to be great!
I went back inside. Joe was sitting in the classroom, drinking a paper cup full of coffee and flipping through some papers. He glanced at me as I came in, and he didn't look entirely awake yet. "Hey," was all he said.
"How come you keep coming here to sleep?" I said. "I didn't think Ken snored that bad." He rolled his eyes.
Suddenly I felt horrible. I was going to solo tomorrow, and Joe was putting in intensives because he couldn't land. It would really suck for him--we'd leave him behind. And there was no way I could help him.
Bookman handed me a sheet of paper. "That's for tomorrow. Write out the answers on some notebook paper, put your autograph on it, and leave it on my desk before you go home."
I took the paper and scanned it: twenty five test questions for the solo. "Is it open book?"
"For you, no." He slapped a hand on my shoulder. "I know you've got it all memorized anyway." He looked at Joe. "Go ahead and head out. Just do a walkaround and check the fuel--you don't need to do a full preflight." Joe left.
I sat down at the table with the test, tapping my pencil against the surface. List the V-speeds for your aircraft. List the documents required of a student for solo flight. List the documents required in the aircraft for legal flight. Describe the powerplant. What is the capacity of usable fuel in your aircraft?
Yeah, I'd be here for a while.
Ken and I took the bus home. Hakase had us working on some other lessons after we got back--chemistry. Joe was back in time for dinner, but nobody said much. Dishes, TV, homework and bed followed, but I found sleep very hard.
Joe drove us to the airport the next day. The radio blared. Ken sat in the front seat, drumming nervously on the side of the door with his fingers until Joe growled at him to knock it off. I squirmed in my seat too, and as we waited at a stoplight, Joe turned back to me and scowled. "What is everybody's problem?"
The words left me before I realized I'd spat them out. "I get to solo today."
"I know." Joe faced forward. "Hakase said he'd meet us at the airport in half an hour."
It has to eat at him. I'm sorry, man, I thought.
The weather at the airport was sunny and clear, with only a slight breeze stirring the wind sock--perfect. Ken didn't leave for his lessons this time. He waited in the lounge as Joe and I headed for the classroom. Bookman met us there, and handed me my test back. Then, as I stared, he handed one to Joe as well. "Not bad, guys," he said. "I have to go through the questions you missed, and then you're set."
"You're going too?" I said to Joe.
"He's going first," Bookman said.
In the following silence, Joe glanced back at both of us and grinned, slow and evil.
Hakase showed up as we were finishing up the paperwork. "Good luck," he said. "I know you'll do well."
Yeah, sure, I thought. He's going to get mashed out there. What the hell was Bookman thinking? Was it because I was going today? Was this going to be my fault?
Joe went out to his plane. Ken and I opted to watch from the parking lot as we always did, since it provided the best view. Only this time, Joe fixed us with one good glare before he left. "Stay off my car," he said.
Ken raised his hands, blinking, wide-eyed. "What?"
"You heard me."
So we sat on Hakase's. We had to give him that much. A dying man's last request.
We watched the student and instructor get into the plane, watched it taxi to the runup area and go through engine check. Ken had a handheld radio with him this time, as did Hakase, so we were able to hear all the calls.
The plane took off. We watched it climb, wobbling a little--he's gotta be nervous. It turned, went around the pattern, wobbled on final, and rolled the main wheels on the tarmac. "That's gotta be Bookman's," I said. Then I heard the engine go to full throttle: touch and go. Up the plane went again, not as wobbly this time. Then down, again rolling the gear.
This time, it stopped. As we watched, the plane taxied to the ramp and stopped, and while the engine kept running, Bookman got out.
"Looks like he's gonna do it," Ken said.
"No way." I shook my head. "No way!"
It didn't seem real. Three--all he had to do were three takeoffs and landings, yet it felt like a hundred. Bookman stood on the ramp, radio in hand, shifting from foot to foot. If I were him, I'd be pacing. I couldn't see Dr. Nambu inside the terminal, but I knew he had to be standing at the window, holding his hands clenched. Ken started drumming again, tapping his fingers hard against the windshield of the car.
Detached, I watched the plane taxi back toward the runway, heard Joe's voice, a little strained, announcing he was taking the active runway. Saw the plane lift off, turn crosswind, go around the pattern, and come in on final--
One main wheel touched lightly, pulled away as if burnt, then touched again, and the plane settled onto the ground. It rolled, slowed and turned onto the taxiway. Ken pumped a fist in the air and whooped. "Yeah!"
I felt dizzy. The air sparkled.
I exhaled and took a few deep breaths. "I don't believe it."
Ken glanced back at me, a big smile on his face. "We found something that worked for him. It really worked!"
"What worked?" But Joe was taking off again, and we stopped to watch.
The second landing was okay. The plane flared a little late, then danced from back wheel to back wheel and skidded a little when he braked, but it didn't have the bone-crunching impact of his classic landings. By this time, I was whooping too, and when he greased the third landing, I was bouncing so hard the car was hopping on its shocks and Ken had bailed off the hood for steadier ground.
We were all waiting by the time he taxied back to the ramp and shut down. Bookman pulled the door open and shook his hand, laughing. Joe was grinning widely, but his face was white. I slapped him on the back. "Who replaced you with a real pilot?" I said.
"Ask me after you prove yourself, monkey-boy," he shot back.
"That second landing kinda sucked," Ken said, smirking.
"And you can bite me, Ace," Joe said. "All the wheels are still on, so it's good." We laughed.
I used the same plane, doing a quick walkaround instead of a full preflight. Bookman climbed in and said, "Pretend I'm not here."
As I checked the heading indicator with the compass, I noticed something odd: two pieces of clear tape on the windshield. "What's this?" I asked.
"Oh, something from another lesson," Bookman said. "I'll explain later."
That was the last thing he said to me until we'd made two landings and were heading back to the ramp. "You're more than good to go," he said. "Go up there, remember what I told you, and have fun."
Then on the ramp, he got out and slammed the door, slapping it with his hand after I reached across to lock it. I stopped, took a deep breath, then edged the throttle in to taxi back to the runway. The cockpit felt huge and very empty.
Though I spent days afterward going through every second of the experience, I may have had one conscious thought during the solo: Damn, we're climbing fast! The plane went roaring off the ground and hit pattern altitude too soon. But after that, I was so tightly focused that I don't remember anything else. It was all a rush of sights and sounds: the drone of the engine, blue sky, the altimeter, the tach, the airspeed indicator, the runway. They told me later that I greased all three landings, coming back to earth in one smooth meeting of tires and tarmac, not on the center line, but I could work on that later. Bookman looked like he was about to keel over as he pulled me from the plane and shook my hand.
Ken and Joe helped me put the plane away. Inside the terminal, the backs of our shirts were cut off, decorated with clumsy drawings of planes and runways, and pegged to the wall of the classroom. Mine said, "Ah, the squeak of a perfect landing!" Joe's said, "Hey, the wheels are still on!" Ken brought us spare shirts from the car. Then we went to celebrate together at a little sports bar afterward, and Bookman drank a beer for both of us. "I'm not teaching any more today," he said. "You boys have worn me out."
"You?" said Ken. "Come on."
"Oh yeah." He leaned back in his seat. "I'm gettin' old, you know. If I had any hair, it'd be white."
"So how did you get so good all of the sudden?" I asked Joe.
He shrugged. "You just have to know how to look at it. Bookman helped me figure out what to look for."
"That was mostly Ken's doing," Bookman said. "He reminded me of something I'd seen in a training article once. I did a test run with him to get the positioning right, then I tried it with Joe and it worked."
Dr. Nambu leaned forward. "What did you do?" he asked.
"You saw those pieces of tape on the windshield," Bookman said to me.
"Yeah. What was that?"
Joe answered for him. "A gunsight."
Joe shrugged. "Yeah. Showed me what to aim for and where to pull back on the airplane. I don't need it anymore, though." He looked at me and said again, "You just have to know how to look at it."
Yeah, it takes two repeats to sink through my thick skull. I never realized you had to be taught to see. And some of us see some things easier than others. Like how to hold a gun and sight a target. Or where to flare an airplane over a runway. Or when you've crossed the line between just busting chops and being a complete asshole.
Joe was watching for it, though. He saw the look on my face and said, "Shut up already."
Suddenly I felt a sharp pain. I grabbed my shoulder where Joe had slugged me, and as I opened my mouth, he grinned. "Now we're even," he said. "It's over with." Both Hakase and Bookman just stared. Ken ignored us.
"Okay then." A bruised shoulder for a bruised ego. I guess it's an even trade.