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Sunday Journal

Helping Dad pilot a dream

Published October 30, 2005

When Henry Lee finally surrendered to having his legs amputated, he stated and restated his desire to reside (die) in the Tampa VA nursing home. The waiting list was too long, so H.L. settled for a facility near University Mall. Near the window in Room 113, across the white curtain from a former salesman, then a former pharmacist, nice gents whose names I forget.

On Tuesday evenings, I visited him after I taught literature at MacDill Air Force Base. To this day, 41/2 years since he left his body, our rendezvous seem otherworldly.

I'd cross under I-275, head up Nebraska, and enter the Burger King on Fowler for two coffees with cream. Then I'd drive east on Fowler, stop at Walgreen's for a pack of Dutch Masters, snake around the University Mall parking lot, and pull in front of the serene nursing home at about 10 p.m.

Father would be lightly sleeping with the History Channel on. Because he insisted that I always awaken him, I did. He invariably greeted me with a variant of, "Hi, Son, let's get out of here." After putting a sweater over his gown and sliding him into the wheelchair, I would push him into the smoking porch or outside by the lake. When he smelled the fresh air, he sighed and said something like, "Ah" or "This is great."He was never sad. In fact, I have never felt anyone so happy to be with me.

After I locked his wheels and covered him with a blanket, I prepared his coffee and put it beside him on a table. Then I'd put a cigar in his mouth and light it. (The diabetes had blinded him.) Then I fixed mine, though I didn't drink coffee or smoke otherwise.

With true enthusiasm, he'd talk about his day and ask about Denise and Yasmine, then the families of his three other sons. Intermittently sipping and puffing, he'd update me on the home's goings-on, remark on the range of voices that he had heard, reminisce, or engage me in another installment of his (our) uncanny flying escapades.

Henry Lee had longed to be a pilot since he was a 5-year-old living with his grandparents in rural West Virginia. Through a series of improbabilities, he became an Army Air Corps pilot in World War II. After the war, he became an air traffic controller in the new Air Force. Flying and guiding planes had literally been his dream come true. Once he became immobile, however, his dream took an unusual turn.

I'm not sure when it began, but after his first amputation, he began to talk matter-of-factly about his airplane, the C-147 he was remodeling: "Kurt, the nurses have been so kind. We should take them up in the plane. As soon as we make a few adjustments. Then we'll fly it down to Homestead or Eglin."

The adjustments took a while. A few weeks later he said, "You know, when we finish with the plane, I think we should park it over behind the hospital so the nurses can have a lounge." Even in his suffering, Father considered others.

Early on, I realized his experiences were neither so-called hallucinations nor ordinary dreams. They took place in a "place" without misery or limitation. They were absolutely real, though they occurred on another mental level that became active when he shut his eyes. They had continuity. For months. They were like Saturday installments of Flash Gordon or the Iron Claw, or Dickens' Pickwick Papers.

I was thrilled. The old-timer talked to me as a participant, his co-pilot. I am sure I was, somehow. But I was never conscious of it. He would ask me to visit the plane, to perform simple maintenance, to bring something back - a lighter, keys or a watch. He would then tell me the item's precise location and how to find it, directing me through the cabin, to such and such a shelf, beside such and such an object.

Gradually, over months, I envisioned the inside of the silver dream machine. I had seen many C-147s at Mitchell and Kindley. Behind the tiny no-frills cockpit was the main cabin, which had four brown lazy boys, cabinets, wood paneling and a desk.Brown was one of his favorite colors. The rear cabin had two bunks. I cherished being his partner but deeply regretted learning of our adventures secondhand.

One Tuesday night he announced that the C-147 was ready and that we needed to install sofa beds in the main cabin for the nurses. "You, your mother and I will sleep in the back. I'm thinking we can fly across the Gulf of Mexico to the Yucatan. Low enough to see the terrain."

Henry Lee was an archaeology buff. He wanted to visit the pyramids at Chichen Itza and Uxmal. He suggested the passenger list and the menu, and asked me to gather supplies. "If this trip goes well, maybe we'll fly to Rio."

The next week, he effused about the trip, the plane's performance and the pyramids. But he seemed fatigued. Didn't mention the nurses. Instead, he talked at length about J.O., his Air Force buddy, and Dick, a kind pilot who had accompanied him, J.O. and me. Dick, whom I have never met in ordinary consciousness, was a great help, a fine pilot and a swell guy. After asking what I thought about moving the plane to such and such a corner of such and such a runway at MacDill, he offered that we might give Dick the plane because "he loves it so much and will take good care of it." I wholeheartedly agreed.

Father didn't mention the C-147 again. I trust I parked it where he had instructed. And I trust Dick, or a fellow lover of the sky, is still piloting it.

K.V. Wilt teaches writing and Native American literature at St. Leo University.

[Last modified October 27, 2005, 15:29:02]

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