If They Could
by Stephan Wilkinson
Artwork by Richard Thompson
This article appeared in the April 1995 issue of Air & Space.
One glorious morning in 1945, when I was nine, our teachers at Yorktown Central School in suburban Westchester, New York, trooped all 300 of us out onto the grubby playground behind our single red-brick buiding. There we stood among the vicious iron jungle gyms and tooth-cracking swings-bewildered kindergartners, acne-plagued high schoolers, nose-picking fourth graders-with faces upturned like tiny white flowers while a navy blue Grumman F6F cavorted above in the bright April sky.
I have no idea who the pilot was. An alumnus, I suppose, though it could have been a student's father or even a young ex-teacher gone to war. For all I know it was part of a recruiting drive, though what the Navy would want with hormonally challenged high schoolers I can't imagine. But I remember the Hellcat chuttering back and forth, almost certainly doing nothing more dramatic than a couple of enormous egg-shaped loops and a few rolls, its R-2800 engine barking out the surprisingly truck-like sound of a big, slow-turning Pratt & Whitney radial.
This was no Bob Hoover demo, with the belly nearly brushing the ground and polished wings flicking through precise eight-point rolls. This was just a new ensign with 2,000 horsepower in his left hand and the reins of a worn-out, slab-winged old steed in his right. I'm sure he was breaking every aerobatics-over-a-crowd rule the Federal Aviation Administration-which didn't yet exist-would someday come up with, but at least he was in a navy that let its pilots take their fighters home for the weekend if the trip could be logged as a training flight. Boy, did I want to be that ensign.
I never was. Decades later, all my flying involved civil airplanes, though some of them were fast and powerful enough to give me an entirely unjustified sense of pride. I remember one clear morning coasting down the approach toward West-chester County Airport in a Westwind business jet and looking out the cockpit window at that same Yorktown Heights playground, which from that altitude was a tiny rectangle with the old cinder track still circling it.
I couldn't help but think that down there somewhere were all the one-time football players who used to make fun of me. "Collie-face" was one of the appellations that mocked my bookish phiz. Another athlete whacked me on that playground in front of my very temporary girlfriend, Marilyn Mincher, who had briefly adopted me as a toy because we'd appeared together in the high school play. Tony Lombardi resented that mightily, for Marilyn was captain of the cheerleaders and he the obese center of our farmboy football team. (I even got thumped big-time by Myra Tompkins, a tough girl on the schoolbus. You can bet word of that got around fast.)
I hoped they were all beer-bellied 7-11 clerks and washed-out supermarket cashiers reduced to watching "Geraldo" reruns as their window on the world, and I wished they could see me whistling over their heads in the left seat of a shiny executive toy that had more digits in its price tag than a phone call to France. (Of course, I didn't own it.) But they'd never know, and the fantasy remained just that.
Until a few months ago. Don't tell the FAA, but I buzzed the 40th reunion of my prep school graduating class. My airplane rattled the windows of Trinity-Pawling School, forced a time-out in the big homecoming-weekend football game, and figured prominently in the weekend's dinner-table conversation. This time, I made sure that Harris Lydon, the Class of '54's slickest dude, best drummer, and most accomplished ladies' man, knew that I was coming.
So when the little red and gray mock P-51 came out of the sun-don't they always come out of the sun?-and swept the length of the gridiron, leaving behind it the Merlin-like whistle characteristic of a Falco F.8L flat-out at 220 mph, Hare-Babe was able to yell, "Do you know who that is up there? That's Wilkie! Steve Wilkinson!"
"I'll be damned," muttered my old Latin teacher, his spine curved from age. ("He can hardly look at anything but the ground anyway," Lydon later told me, "but he looked up that time.")
Why isn't he here at the reunion if he can fly over it? some of my classmates might have asked. But I'm not much of a reunion guy. As Iris Dements sings, "Let the mystery be." If all they know of me now is that brief shining moment when the fighter-like airplane I'd built with my own hands stood on a wingtip in the sun, with me looking down at all the faces upturned like tiny flowers, that's enough. It may not be every pilot's lifelong fantasy, but it certainly was mine.