by tobias crabtree
Before I knew what being a student meant, I was one. I can’t recall exactly what grade, but I remember this one grade where we were all required to stand and read aloud. The order started at the front of the first row and went from one kid to the next, each one standing and reading until the teacher said, “next.” I liked it. I enjoyed the feeling of the words flowing from the book, through my eyes, into my brain and then back out as my little, squeaky voice. I still like reading aloud, although it’s mostly to myself, I guess. I no longer sit in classes and wait till it’s my turn, them times are gone, but I do love my books. But there was this one little girl who I loved to listen to as she read, I even remember her name. Patty. She read with this wonderful, soft lilt that was broken every now and again by some kind of nervous catch, as if her breath didn’t permit her to continue for just a second. It was that part that I loved the most, that involuntary break that chose it’s own space, sometime right in the middle of a word. Nothing was ever said and I don’t remember it ever occurring when we were talking, only during those literary moments of singularity when all the ears of all the little ones were tilted in the same direction. I just thought of Patty again the other day, of how I loved to hear her read, and I wondered if she still does that. Back then, I was kind of afraid of girls. I understood what boys were, they were the same as me and so I recognized them as such. It was as if boys were more my specie and girls were very foreign and beautiful, like a sea otter, or a pine marten or a kinglet; all do things I can’t and won’t ever quite understand, all are wonderful and wild and I feel more here when they turn their eyes toward me.
Them days were good. Back when I was mesmerized by Patty’s reading, and when I saw the girls the same as birds in the sky. I sure do love birds. They move about above us, often quietly, and they turn every way possible, unencumbered by the ground. Birds are multi-dimentional and their dreams are real, like blues, like grays. They do not wonder what it’s like to fly. They know.
We left the ground in a CH-53, which is a big helicopter, capable of dynamic maneuvers for a craft of it’s size. There were 2 teams being inserted, I was on Team Alpha. Team Bravo was strapped in directly across from us, and we were talking loud and rowdy through the blue-green light being cast from various light sources. Scotty the Body was 6’6″ and all raw boned and muscle. His drawl spilled out straight from Clarksville, Arkansas, and he was talking to the pilot as only Scotty could manage. “Hey, I heard these flying boats could flat out kick some ass, but I ain’t never seen shit. Whad’ya say you show us what she’s got for once!” The flyer in back snapped his head toward the pilot and then moved to his place. Well, that ol’ boy sure did decide to take us for a spin and I ain’t sure how safe it all was, but it felt like we were all gonna die. Somewhere in the turnover (a CH-56 is capable of a barrel roll from what I’ve been told) I saw Scotty with his eyes clamped shut and his huge set of teeth shining out of a grimace that must be what comes from a decent amount of G’s. We dropped from out of the clouds and flew, nap-of-the-earth, to our insert point. As we ran off the ramp, I remember seeing a grin on the pilots face. He had given us a fight that was worthy of a story even now, 20 years later. Scotty is still huge and still smiles real big with a few more wrinkles. He’s a good one to have a drink with.
I flew from Lima, Peru towards Santiago, Chile. I was one of the few gringos on the plane and the wind was spectacular as we began to gain altitude. I politely said a weak hola to the short, round Peruana sitting next to me. She answered quietly with the same. I could see her hand, all rough from the work of life and brown from the kiss of the sun, and it was gripped. The plane went high and, right as the pilot began to speak about turbulence, the plane dropped violently, alarms went off. There was a brief moment where it looked like a bunch of people on a roller coaster, hands were raised and the the entire cabin began screaming. The little woman next to me reached over my shoulder and pulled herself nearly into my lap, I put my arms around her and said, very simply, “esta bien,” although I wasn’t sure. The plane straightened out. My seat mate moved back into the middle of her seat and smiled shyly. I smiled back.
Kathy knew me for over 10 years. We were friends. She was Tim’s Ma. Now, Kathy knew how to party. She was old school and could outdrink and outsmoke most anyone. She had endurance when it came to vices. She would light a smoke in your car, and if you asked her to put it out, she would look at you, take one last long draw, and snap the cigarette out the window with regret. I went on trips with her. Tim, her son, invited me several times to several places around the world, and I went. I love Tim and his family, so it was easy to say yeah. Kathy was dying for years, she just had good genes and she was challenging her own existence by pushing all the possible boundaries. Damn, Kathy was tough. I went to Mexico with her one more time, just last year. By then she had shrunk down to a tiny brown bag of skin and bones. As the Mexican sun came up, I often crawled up out of the ocean after a swim and found Kathy smoking out on the porch. We had coffee and she would laugh at my bad jokes. I could pick her up real easy, she seemed to be getting smaller. I thought of the mother in the book, 100 Years of Solitude, and how she eventually got so light that she blew away while taking down the sheets from the clothes line. I wondered if Kathy might not just blow away. On the last flight I took with her, the one before she died, Tim asked me if I could accompany his Ma back to the States. I said I would be glad to do it. The flight left from Puerto Vallarta and switched in Dallas (if I remember right). As the attendant seated us, assuming Kathy was my mother, she asked if we were ok? I must say that we had been seated first due to Kathy’s condition, she was in a wheelchair. Other passengers were still stuffing oversized bags in undersized compartments and Kathy answered the flight attendant with, “vodka and cran.” My head twirled back and forth and I kinda giggled, neither Kathy nor the attendant thought anything was funny. “Mam, drinks will be served once we’ve taken off.” The flight was too long for Kathy and the drinks weren’t as prompt as she had grown accustomed to in Mexico. She had this knee-jerk type habit of shaking her glass of ice when her drink was finished, similar to me when I used to slurp extra hard on my straw at the bottom of a vanilla shake. That rattle would sometimes drive me crazy!
We landed in the States and Customs and Baggage checks and Passports and long lines and check-ins and departure deadlines. Our layover was tight. Kathy was carrying a long wooden staff, similar to something you’d see in Lord of the Rings. It was checked in Mexico because it might be used as a weapon, so when we were collecting baggage, I asked about the staff. There was some multi-lingual chatter and confusion. Now, I knew what that staff meant to Kath and I said that maybe someone better find it…fast. I had all my tattoo gear, my huge bag of boating and swimming clutter, Kathy’s huge suitcase, two bags, a missing staff and Kathy in a wheelchair. There was a half mile between us and the connecting plane and we had 5 minutes. At critical mass, I heard a person whistle and I saw a uniformed dude running toward me with a staff overhead, like some kind of official Lord Gandalf. I grabbed the staff and began the run toward our flight. And here’s the funny part, as i was running and pushing Kathy in her chair, pulling two suitcases, she said something over her shoulder. “What?” I had to shout it. And with her hair blowing in the wind she asked, “could we stop for a quick smoke?”
We made the flight. I didn’t let her smoke, but I wish I coulda. Kath died not too long after that. She was on the path to do what she did, and there was no stopping her. I really loved ol’ Kath and all her bad along with it. Sure, it’s tough, but she was original and real and crazier than a shit-house rat. She rattled her glass at me, and I filled it. She laughed at me and I laughed back. And that one time, we flew together.
In a way, I fly all the time. I fly forward with wonder, backwards with memory. I fly inward with dreams and outward with love. I fly away from fears and I fly into storms with reckless abandon when I’m terribly sad. We all fly, sometimes. Like little birds.
And our words are our wings. Like way back when. When Patty read them words with that soft voice, like a bird.