I’ve heard tell that there’s this guy who lives in an airport someplace – Paris, France, maybe; I don’t really remember. Story is he was just travelling through when his country ceased to exist – one of those places I’m not supposed to tell you about – and he was stuck. No-one wants him and no-one knows what to do with him, so he just sits there.
Now, I can relate to that. When you consider that I’m a pilot myself, you might understand that I spend a lot of time in airports. Although it’s not what you think – I don’t fly these big beasts out there and I don’t fly these people commuting from one town to another. I fly the fast jets.
Now, all jets is fast, you might be thinking, and you’d be right. But there’s fast, and then there’s real fast. If you was taking this flight here- the one we’re stuck here waiting for, you’ll be in New York in what – six hours or so. In mine, with a little help from my buddies in the tanker crew, I could be there and back here before you were sipping down your second free cocktail of the afternoon. It’s kind of cool, I guess.
No, I can’t really tell you what I do or where I fly. The uniform’s a little bit of a giveaway, I suppose. Tells you more than I’m allowed to say for myself, I reckon. If you look carefully you can find out my name, my rank (if you know how to read it), my unit and so on, even maybe where I’m based, although I’m not really based anywhere right at this exact moment, and I’ll be moving on again in only a few days.
But I’m not allowed to tell you about that.
Suarez is a Spanish name, yes. Funny how I expect, when I’m here in Italy, to be able to understand folks, on account of my daddy spoke Spanish to me, and my granddaddy too. My daddy was a flyer, too and I was born on a base somewhere in Arizona – can’t really tell you where. So I been an Air Force kid, and now I‘m an Air Force pilot. Makes sense to me.
Daddy was a good flyer, but he’d faint dead away before he got into one of my jets. He flew Beavers up in Canada doing some top secret thing or other; I guess we can talk about the radar stations up there now, seeing as how they’re mostly closed down and all. He flew big transports mostly. It’s a lot like flying these jumbos out here – all slow and careful like.
No, ma’am, a Beaver is a type of aircraft. My daddy knew them better than anyone else in those days, he used to say. Didn’t stop him landing one in some trees one time, mind. He don’t mind me telling people that. All pilots say the same thing – if you can walk away, it was a good landing. I reckon he ate out on that incident for years – he’d have to tell you the whole story, but there was a bear involved, too. No don’t ask me; I can’t tell it like he does.
My daddy made me a flyer, but I made me a fast jet flyer, and the U.S. Air Force made me a secret fast jet flyer. I wouldn’t have it any other way. But mostly I spend time in airports waiting to fly real slow, just like a civilian. I know why, but it still gets me all frustrated sometimes.
I can’t really tell you why, but think about this – flying my babies around is a damned expensive business. If I need to go home for a few days to see my family, I can’t just take one of them and skedaddle for a bit. Apart from anything else, where would I park it? They have to be kept in – well, I know I’m repeating myself now, but I can’t really tell you where they keep them. Not anywhere near civilian airports, though.
Yeah, one of the places is here in Italy, on account of the flying I do over in – ah, now, I can’t really say, but I figure you can work it out. You look like a smart kind of person.
So, yeah, I been through this here airport a few times before. Been in most airports in the world, I reckon, one time or another. Mostly they’re the same; the same crowds and the same rushing around. Even the same stores these days – I like the European ones, though; you get different things in them. Not that I buy much – take my daddy home a bottle of malt whiskey, or something nice for my mom, but nothing else, really.
No, I don’t have no family of my own. Kind of hard for someone like me – I move around so much, and I do – well, you know – secret things. Never get the time to find someone, and like the job says, I’m married to the Air Force.
Sides, I love the skies so much. Can’t nothing beat the feeling you get up there, doing the things I do, looking down on the rest of you. Nothing like it anywhere. Not down here, anyhow.
Airports is one of the only places I can talk to folks, even if I’m not supposed to tell you anything. Kind nice, we talk for a little while, then we move on. I never see any of them again, which suits me just fine.
Was one, one, though. Just the once, I wondered for a while. We was stuck somewhere in – let me think – Pittsburgh, if I recall. Yeah, Pittsburgh. Just passing through, both of us, and something happened – probably a storm or some such. We was there for half of a whole day, and we got to know each other a little. She was nice.
But no, I’m not the type for getting settled, I guess.
The uniform? Yeah, I guess it does help to break the ice. You’re talking to me, ain’t you? But I try not to take advantage of it. Too much respect for the uniform, I’m afraid. I know some pilots, though. And lots of ground crew – they’re the ones you gotta watch for, ma’am, if you don’t mind me saying. If you’re not sure, just look for these – the wings. Don’t see them, he ain’t no pilot, no matter what he says.
And – I guess I should warn you – lots of personnel have got wings who ain’t pilots, neither. If you want to be sure, look for this shield in the middle. If it looks like this, he’s a pilot. If not, he could be all kinds of other things; but no wings – don’t fly is the rule.
Medals? Yeah, I guess they look smart. Don’t do the job for the medals, though, or the badges. Some of these here ribbons you just get for sticking around, so don’t take too much notice of them.
Yeah, some of them are for other things, but guess what? Yup, I ain’t allowed to tell you about them.
No, no idea how long we’re going to be here. One of the things I figured out here is you expect to be delayed, and there ain’t no point trying to figure out why, neither. They ain’t gonna tell you – they don’t tell me, and I’m a flyer. First I used to think it was just not very efficient, but now I been in this country a while, I figure it’s just the Italian way of doing things. You noticed that? You been here long?
Well, I’m jealous of you now – time to spend looking around. I’m told it’s a beautiful country, but all I see is the view from the cockpit or the back seat of a taxicab.
You could get yourself some food, I guess – want me to get it for you? No, it’s how I was brought up. You like pizza? They do real good pizza here. Guess you’d expect that, being in Italy and all. They have the weirdest thing, too – pizza with no tomato. You ever seen that? Man, it’s weird, but it tastes good. Real good.
No, I ate already, thanks. Had a beer too; even though I’m not really supposed to. But it’s gonna be a long afternoon, so I figured why not?
The Pittsburgh story? Ah, you don’t wanna hear that. It was a time ago and just a young man’s passing fancy, nothing more.
Well, I guess – since we don’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.
I was going from San Antonio to Buffalo. Yes, it was more than ten years ago, and it wasn’t all that secret back then. So I can tell you that much. I was instructing back then, and there was a lot of talk about the Russians and what was going on in Eastern Europe, so we was being moved around a lot, and kept on our toes, I guess.
I was the only one going up to Buffalo, so I went alone – normally they’d try to make those kind of movements in groups, but, like I say, there was all kinds of funny business going on back then, so we’d be sent on civilian airlines if need be.
Anyhow, there I was in Pittsburgh. Let me tell you something, might explain something about the US Air Force. The quickest and easiest way from San Antonio to Buffalo sure as heck ain’t through Pittsburgh. In fact, I had to make three stops just so as I could go that way. Reason being, there’s a USAF base at Pittsburgh airport – or there sure used to be – and I had to check in there for something or other; maybe I forgot what, maybe I can’t tell you.
So, I’m in Pittsburgh, and I need to go to Chicago so as I can get to Buffalo. It’s kind of complex, and I already missed one flight. Next one is delayed by three hours or so, so I figure I’m going to get myself some lunch, it being that kind of time of day.
So I’m in the lunch counter line, and right in front of me there’s this little lady. I mean real tiny; kind of thought she was a kid at first, but we both reached for the same sandwich, and I see she’s probably a little older than me, just kinda – what do they say? Petite. That’s the word. She was darned petite. She laughed and offered me the hoagie, but I’m not brought up that way, and I insist she has it. She’s all smiles and thank you sir, and I’m kinda taken with her smile, so we sit together and eat, making small talk, my momma used to call it.
A little like we’re doing now, I guess.
Anyhow, turns out she’s some kind of writer on her way to London, England for something or other. She needs to go to Chicago too, but she’s already missed her flight out of there, so she’s kind of fed up and ready to talk to some kind soul who’s willing to listen.
Well, listening’s not my strong suit, but I can do it if I need to.
I ask her if I might have read any of her books, and it turns out I just might. After, when I was thinking of her, I thought I might have seen her on some TV show – I know I did a few years later – turns out she’s kinda famous, but I’m not that big a reader, so I don’t know for sure. I do know her real name, though, and that’s how I think of her when I do, so it’s a little confusing to think of her as this other person that writes the books.
So she talked a while, and I listened. She had the kind of voice – a Texas accent, I suppose, that’s real easy to listen to, and a man could spend days just hearing what she had to say. We talked about all sorts – even politics, which my mamma always told me was a dumb thing to talk about when you’re trying to impress a lady. But she had this huge LBJ button, which kind of made me laugh, but it’s something to do with being from Texas, she says.
And we talked about our lives. Mine wasn’t quite the secret it is now, so I told her about the skies and what it’s like up there above the clouds, watching the world spin around. And she told me about lonely nights in hotel rooms, and about how she can get lost in her own world and break people’s hearts without ever meaning to. I never thought of writing stuff; I fly, is what I do; but I could see she had a good idea of what I meant, and I sure knew about breaking people’s hearts.
And, see, I never knew about spending time in hotels. I thought if you write stuff, you stay in your own place and write, but it turns out being a famous writer’s a bit like being a famous rock star or something. You have to spend half your life on planes and trains just making sure people have heard of you and your books. Not for me, ma’am, I can tell you, I said to her. But you know something? Here I am, and this is what I do mostly.
So she lived in this funny little world, and I realize now flying’s like that, too. Your own little world, and sometimes you just don’t want to come back from it.
Every time she smiled up at me, though, I wondered about that breaking hearts thing some. Maybe sometimes it’s worth the risk.
But we never got the chance to find out, really. We watched the world go by, but we just sat there, waiting and waiting – you know how that is, right?
She had a pack of cards, and we played for a bit. I thought I’d go easy on her, seeing as how it’s ungallant for a man to fleece a lady like that, but she was a demon – a demon, I’m telling you. I lost all my loose money to this little slip of a girl, and I laughed while it happened. She tried to give it me back, but she won it fair and square – I was trying, but she was clever. Not like playing against aircrew; she would think about it, working things out in her head the whole time, while she was trying to distract me with her talking.
She was a smart cookie, no question.
Then the strangest thing. She started to sing quietly to herself while she was playing, and I recognized it. One of the old Spanish songs my grandparents would sing. Course, she’s from Texas, and she knows all this old Spanish stuff, but I was kind of surprised, and I got a little sad, I don’t mind admitting. Then, when I told her I knew that song, she made me join in. Now, I don’t have any kind of a voice, but she knew how to do that thing where she can make mine sound just great, even though I can hear it’s all kinds of rough and wobbling.
When she’d done, and I had to pretend I had something in my eye there for just a minute, it kinda felt like we’d known each other for ever. The plane was ready, and she hugged me quickly, since we were not likely to be nearby, and she asked me my first name, but I just smiled. No point, I was thinking; I’ll never see her again.
But when we were in our seats, something occurred to me. There was still no sign of leaving any time soon; all kinds of traffic was backed up and so on. I got out of my seat and went to find her. I pretended I’d just seen her getting on, and that I hadn’t seen her in years, and what a surprise it was, and I said I’d just come to see if the seat next to her was free.
Of course, being in uniform has advantages, I never said otherwise. The cabin crew kind of let you do anything you want – if I want to get up and walk around the cabin, then that’s just fine by them, and if someone in a nice smart blue uniform says something abut the seat next to you, then you kinda want to give it up. The guy next to her – I think he might have been a little interested in her, too, to tell the truth – offered to switch with me, which suited me just fine.
Normally I just sleep on an aeroplane. Unless I’m flying it, of course. But this time I had a friend. After I moved seats, we felt like we were in some kind of secret club together; we talked and talked the whole time. She told me about her first marriage, and how it all went wrong; I told her I didn’t think I’d ever get that far, how I loved the sky too much, but she was making me wonder.
And in a while, just after we finally got up into the sky, she leaned her head on my arm and fell asleep. Felt good to me; I thought I was this guardian angel there for a while; looking after a little lost soul. But, like I say, she was smarter than me, and she didn’t really need anyone to look after her. Least, not from where I was sitting.
Yes, she was pretty. A little like you, you don’t mind me saying. No, really. Short hair, in that – what do you girls call it? Bob, isn’t it? Yeah, so, like that, and she was kind of skinny but not too skinny, if you get me, and I said she was tiny, didn’t I? Yeah, so that’s how she was. If you’d have shown me her picture, I’d have said she was not my type, but who knows what anyone’s type is, you get me?
Ah, but you know where this is headed, don’t you? Here I am, ten years on, or maybe more, and I’m talking to you, and saying the same things. I ain’t the kind who gets involved, and I could tell – with her, that was one heck of a lot of involved to get.
So, we parted – she had to run to try and make a later flight; I decided to rent a vehicle and drive to Buffalo – I was kind of tired of travelling behind someone else’s flying, so we parted. As she ran down the jetway, she turned and asked me my name again.
And you know what? I told her. First and only time I ever done that. You ask me, I’ll tell you I’m Major Suarez, which you kind of knew already, I’m thinking. But her – that was something, I guess.
She’s still out there working, I see her name from time to time. So when I’m in airports, I look for her books. If they’re not there, I make sure and ask for them. People see a man in uniform ask for something, maybe it makes a difference. If they are there, I make sure they’re real easy to see; turn the cover out so you can see it on the shelf, that kind of thing. You go back up to the bookstore back up there, you’ll see my handiwork. In both languages.
And, yeah, when I talk to people – people like you, I tell them to lookout for her, ask if they ever read any, but I saw you. You had that one on your knee. Why I came over to talk, if truth be told. Yeah, that’s her. Funny, ain’t it? Meeting someone who knows her, even if it was only for a few hours. More than ten years and I still can’t get her out of my head. Not properly.
No, never tried. I guess it would be not so hard to do, to find her, but what would I say? Hey, I’m that guy you spoke to in Pittsburgh once. Still married to the clouds. You?
See, I know about her, because you can find things out these days. I know she married again, and that one didn’t work neither. I know all about her, or as much as she wants me to know – as much as she wants other people to know, really. Me, I’m kind of secret. If you met her, you could tell her I still think of her, but you couldn’t say much more, I don’t think. Not even my name.
Funny thing, though. Ever since that day, if I’m going in to any kind of dangerous place, I always give a little dip of my wings, in a kind of little salute, I suppose. Not long after that day, I was flying in the desert – you might remember that stuff about Kuwait and all? So I was there, and there’s some news film or something of my squadron taking off on patrol, and you can tell it’s me if you know, cause of that little dip I do.
I often wonder if she saw it. She said to me that she’d know me, because she’d seen San Antonio flyers all her life. But that was just a nice thing to say, I suppose, not anything really true. Kind of thing writers say, isn’t it?
So, what’s keeping us today, you think? Ain’t no-one saying nothing, and there’s a heck of a lot of fuss going on up there, even for Italians. Think I’ll just go see. You want me to get you anything?
Ma’am, you might want to come see this. I don’t think we’re flying to New York any time soon. Far as I can tell, there’s been some kind of accident. You know the World Trade Center? The Twin Towers? Well – maybe you want to come see for yourself.
I’m going to have to leave you for a moment. You be OK?
Well now, I don’t know if I can help you with that now. I made a couple of calls here and I’m going to have to report back to base. They didn’t try to get me ‘cause they thought I’d already be in the air. I’m just going to have to try and rent something to get me back to base.
Unless I can give you a ride somewhere? Sure, I guess we could find you a hotel on my way. There’s a place I stayed in a couple of times, just along the road here. Kind of expensive, though – OK, if that’s OK with you, then we’ll do that.
No, I can’t say. I was told a couple of things, but I’m afraid even my own top secret guys really don’t know what’s going on. Kind of makes you feel a little spooked though, doesn’t it?
Listen, don’t worry – that’s what guys like me are here for. To keep you safe from these things. Give it a few hours, and someone will be making sense of it on TV, then it won’t seem so bad. Maybe it really is an accident of some kind. Best not to worry too much. These things always seem worse than they really are. It’s just – well, I guess I don’t rightly know what it is.
Look, I never ask – not since Pittsburgh - but you mind if I ask your name?
Antonio. Major Antonio Suarez, US Air Force. There is a number – not a secret one, just a regular cellphone number. Not that I remember to turn it on all the time, but anyways. I’ll write it down for you.