My whole life, I’ve been in love with planes. My earliest memory is listening to the old Superman broadcasts on the radio. They’d say, Up in the sky! Look! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! But before they could say It’s Superman, I was already running around my parents’ bungalow screaming, It’s a plane! It’s a plane! It’s a plane!
I would take the newspapers my father had read and fold them into paper airplanes. I’d stuff a bag full of them and walk from my house to a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. One at a time, I sent the planes over the edge and watched them disappear into the water far below.
My dad and I would make model airplanes. They came in little kits, and in those days were made of real metal. We’d spend hours gluing together P-40 Warhawks, A-20 Havocs, and the goliath Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. I wanted to play with them, but I was forbidden. We hung them with fishing wire from my ceiling. They were made to look in-flight, engaged in a dogfight or bombing the hamper.
As a kid I never rode in a plane, let alone flew one myself, because my family didn’t have any money. But in high school I joined the JROTC and prepared myself to enlist in the Wisconsin Air National Guard as soon as I was eligible. There, I learned to fly. Everything I dreamt about flying turned out to be true. I was in heaven. Literally.
When we went to war with Vietnam I volunteered for the US Air Force. To me it was a matter of fact. I didn’t think of it as something to be afraid of or to protest. I completed hundreds of missions and was awarded many medals, honors, and promotions. My specialty was napalm. Really, the napalm did most of the work. But I had a knack for knowing exactly where to put the stuff. Some guys would just follow the coordinates, or try to think logically about where the Vietcong would be positioned. But you can’t do that, not with the Vietcong. Me, I had a gift for looking at a jungle, observing the wind pass over the trees, and just knowing where a fire needed to start in order to destroy everything.
After the war I got a position at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. There I taught cadets the essentials of flight. But I didn’t get to fly much. And since America was still slinking away from Vietnam with its tail between its legs, I didn’t see any chance to fly on the horizon. No pun intended. I decided to quit the Air Force and was honorably discharged. I tried being a commercial airline pilot, but it didn’t suit me- I felt like a glorified taxi driver. When I flew those bombers during the war, I felt powerful, like Superman. I had to find something that made me feel that, again.
In the interim, I got a job working as a spotter for a commercial fishing company. I didn’t expect to stay long. How it works is you’ve got these boats called seiners that move in a circle, dragging a huge net around a school of fish. Once the school is completely encircled, you pull the net tight and it closes from the bottom, meaning the fish have nowhere to go. It’s easy. The hard part is spotting the fish. That’s where I come in.
I’d fly a plane over the water searching for the fish schools and assessing their size and direction of movement. The reason I was good at this job is the same reason I was a hero in Vietnam: intuition. I hate the word and don’t really believe in it, but that’s what it is. Some guys will rely solely on their eyes to identify where the schools of fish are headed. I can just tell, by watching the water, where the fish ought to be. Once certain, I radio the seiners and they run a perimeter around the coordinates. Then, sure enough, we’ve got up to 400 tons of mackerel, tuna, or what have you.
I was a spotter for decades. Across the industry, my ability is legendary. But I grew dissatisfied. I think if I fought the Vietnamese for over a quarter of a century, I’d grow tired of that, too. Also, I’ve come to respect the fish. The way they school is a mystery. They move in unison, perfectly. For millions of years it protected them from predators. Now, with our planes and boats and GPS, they’ve got no natural defense. It’s not like I feel bad for them, or think the commercial fishing industry should sing Kumbaya with Green Peace. It’s just that I don’t get a rush, anymore.
By now I’m entering the winter of my life. I’ve always been sort of a loner, keeping people close while pushing them away. I’ve saved enough money to purchase acreage in the Upper Peninsula. I’ve got a few dogs, a cabin, and acquaintances in the nearby community. I’ve also got my own landing strip, two planes, and a private hangar. For seven years now I’ve flown nightly, not missing a single sunset.
But now when I’m up in the sky, I find myself just wandering. I’ve got no mission, no plane to chase down and no plane chasing me. When I’m up there, it doesn’t matter which direction I go. I find myself just zoning out and leaning on the wheel, letting the sky take me. For a while I thought it was because I needed to adjust to retirement, or because I need a wife. But the truth is, I don’t love planes anymore.