Seventy Years to Keep
The old man held the curtain aside and stared at the wheat field through the window. Time slowed as memories raced. The first time he was here was long ago when a landing-strip covered the ground now flowing with grain. The lay of the land hadn’t changed much since then. He caught a glimpse of his reflection in the glass. That image had changed considerably.
Seventy years ago, rushing off to fight the Germans was his only option. It was temporary and things would return to normal, Jim had told himself and the other airmen. But losing his flight crew, his friends wasn’t temporary. And at the time, it sure didn’t seem normal falling in the love with the nurse who would bring him back to health.
“Dad,” the woman behind him said, “no one’s coming.”
“They are,” he replied. “Rick promised,” he whispered. With a trembling hand, he held onto the yellowing letter.
Jim resumed focus on the wheat field. Ancient thoughts, like fogged-filled dreams, drifted in and out of his head. Events from generations ago now seemed unlikely, even impossible. Jim remembered the sky overhead darkened with planes and smoke as squadrons flew their ordinance across the Channel to fight the Germans. Today’s innocent summer sky looked like a canopy that could never hold what the air from that era held. Hopefully, it would never have to. But Jim hoped to see the old Flying Fortress again. Just once more.
He felt his daughter tug on the letter in his hand. She was familiar with the letter’s contents. It spoke of living honorably, courageously, in a manner worth dying for. All the men had agreed that if anything happened to one of them, the rest of them would wait seventy years before leaving earth. They had made the bond as brothers. Jim fully expected his fellow airmen to keep their contract, just as he planned to. “Dad,” Cindy said, “would you give that to me already?”
“Never,” Jim shouted, and Cindy instantly released her grip on the paper. He looked at her through the eyes of a soldier but she only saw the firmness of a father. “Seventy years ago today we all promised the plane would return for anyone left behind. We gave survivors seventy years. I was the only survivor.” He squinted, then looked out the window again. “Time’s up.”
Cindy slowly shook her head. Dementia was winning the war in her dad’s head.
“I told you,” Jim said. “Your husband shouldn’t have planted the field this summer. Going to lose a lot of wheat when that B-17 comes in.”
“The same one that crashed?” Cindy said.
“Never saw it crash.”
“But you saw it go down. What else is there?”
Jim’s eyes fell. He felt guilty for being the only survivor. He was the first one to bail after an enemy fighter had shot their bomber. But after he jumped, he saw a flash. He assumed the plane had been hit. Shrapnel hit his parachute, which tore. He hit the ground hard and broke his leg. Then he contracted an infection while healing in the hospital. It all was a tremendous price to pay to meet the woman he’d soon marry.
Gary walked into the room. He stopped next to his wife and whispered. “Your dad still think a ghost plane is coming for him?”
Cindy shook her head. “Don’t start.”
Jim heard the whispers behind him. “Best to harvest what you can this morning. That bomber will make flour out of those crops.”
Gary glanced at his wife, then at the old man. “You know as well as anyone the wheat won’t be best for another week.”
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Jim said. He retrieved his WWII bomber jacket from the back of the chair and put it on. Gary watched him stuff the old letter into the coat pocket. Then the old man opened the door, slowly walked onto the porch, and sat in the rocker. His gaze returned to the wheat field.
Gary admired the old airman. He looked just as honorable today as he did in the faded photo on top of the piano. The crew, dressed in full gear, looked so young. Just kids barely out of high school.
“How are we going to deal with him tonight?” Gary asked his wife.
“He’s my dad – I’ll deal with him.”
* * *
Into the afternoon, Jim sat in the rocking chair on the porch and swayed. He stared at the horizon in anticipation.
Just after two, Cindy walked out onto the porch with a tray of glasses. “Some tea, Dad?” Jim watched as she set the tray down on the table between the two rockers.
“Thank you,” he said. She poured two glasses and sat down. Cindy prayed, listening for hints of how to bring her dad back to reality, but the only sounds were tickled out of the wind chimes by the breeze and rustling from the wheat field.
Finally, Jim slowly shook his head. “Told you – shouldn’t have planted the field this summer.” Cindy squeezed her eyes shut to fight back tears. How many times was he going to say this today? She didn’t know how to handle her dad’s dementia.
Minutes later, the wind carried the sound of a propeller plane. Cindy froze and her eyes widened. She stared toward the horizon. Jim looked at her and started to laugh.
Cindy traded glances between the sky and her dad. “What’s so funny?”
“Can’t you hear? That’s just a single prop plane. When the B-17 is here, you’ll know it.”
After a few seconds of contemplation, she started laughing with him. She wasn’t sure whether it was out of relief or merely to break the tension she felt. As the laughter died, she watched him as he continued his fixation on the horizon. It was easy to picture him as the young man in the sepia photo on the piano. For the next hour, she reflected on their years together and his guidance in helping her and Gary with farming. It was only recently that he’d moved in with them, much to the joy of her son, Walter. Having Dad at the house made it easier to keep an eye on him due to his mind becoming more frail, much like the rest of him.
“I should probably go in and check on Walt,” Cindy said.
“All right,” Jim said.
But as Cindy got up, she felt a rumble in the floorboards. Her hands were on the tray with the glasses and they started to shake as the rumble got louder. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her dad slowly push himself up from the rocker. Her hands let go of the tray, and she slowly turned around.
Above the horizon and the field, she saw the outline of a four-engine plane. “Dad….”
Jim turned to look at her. Through moist eyes, he smiled, and she would’ve sworn that he looked years younger. “Time,” he said.
"Okay," said said, not believing him.
Jim hopped off the porch in a manner of a man much younger than one his age, and he walked briskly toward the wheat field, which was a couple hundred yards from the house. Cindy watched him and his pace increased as did his stride. She looked at the large plane slowly descending out of the sky. Beneath each wing, two bulbous tires emerged.
She heard the door open and turned around. “What’s that noise?” Her husband asked. He stepped onto the porch and a few seconds later, Walter came out.
“Was there a plane show today?” Walter asked. “It sounds like one of the old ones grandpa used to fly.”
Gary stepped off the porch. His eyes grew as they fixated on the old bomber above the horizon. “Is this some sort of joke?”
Cindy’s faith was far greater than Gary’s doubts. “Dad was right,” she whispered to him.
“Grandpa!” Walter shot passed them, his unzipped windbreaker flapping behind, as he ran toward his grandpa, who was still walking toward the field.
Gary and Cindy watched him too, amazed. Gary swore when the B-17 touched down and grain flew up like smoke behind it. He broke into a run toward the field and Cindy followed.
The plane slowed to taxi until it stopped in front of Jim. In its wake, wheat continued to swirl like a storm as the four engines continued rumbling.
Walter was the first to catch up with Jim. He recognized his grandpa’s bomber coat, but not the young man wearing it. “What’d you do with my grandpa?” the boy yelled at the man and looked around. “Where is he?”
“Your grandpa needs to go,” Jim said. He squatted for a second and put his palm on the boy’s chest. “But the part of him you know will always be here.” Walter watched as his grandpa stuffed the old letter in the pocket of the windbreaker. “Remember,” he whispered.
Gary and Cindy stopped when they reached the pair. They were both amazed when they saw that Jim looked exactly like the young man in the photo on the piano. “Dad?” Cindy said, otherwise speechless.
A door near the rear section of the plane opened, and the man who poked his head out was the manifestation of a ghost from the old photo. I think that’s Rick, Cindy said to Gary. Jim walked over to the plane and reached up. Rick reached down for Jim.
“I knew you’d come,” Jim said. “Thank you for the time.”
Their hands connected. Rick looked at Jim’s family and said, “Time well-spent, I see.” Rick hoisted Jim aboard. “Sorry about the wheat.”
Jim shook his head. “I told him not to plant.”
“How is this possible,” Gary said to Cindy. They couldn’t hear what the two fliers were saying.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe all it took was faith. Dad always believed.”
Walter looked up at his folks. “What happened to grandpa?”
From the doorway of the bomber, Jim saluted them. They waved as the door closed. The engines roared as they developed power and again, wheat darkened the air.
As the B-17 turned around, the family shielded their faces with their hands. Eventually the plane was down the field far enough so they could open their eyes without getting blinded by grains and dust. Seconds later, the bomber and its crew left the ground for the last time and disappeared into the sky.