I’d thought I was going for a final visit. My father had been sick for a long time, and had been living on borrowed time since his heart attack in 2005. I pictured myself spending a couple of weeks hanging out with my dad, looking at old family photos, saying things that needed to be said, answering questions and settling misunderstandings.
My flight reservation was for 4:28 p.m. on May 2. That morning I got a phone call, and the caller ID said it was Dad. Half asleep, I picked up and when I heard a man’s voice say my name I groggily thought it was him. Surely calling to say he was feeling better, and he’d see me later.
But it was my stepbrother, telling me my father had passed away half an hour before. Suddenly my visit became a trip to a funeral.
I used to like flying. Before 9/11 it felt like a Grand Adventure to climb on a plane and head off to places I’d never been before. Scotland, New York, Montreal, Frankfurt…then the TSA entered the picture and it’s never been the same since. But today there were no hassles. The world had turned…soft. Dreamlike. As if everyone knew I was not really here anymore, and that no matter what happened in transit, it would still be better than the morning I’d had.
I landed in Spokane shortly before the car rental counter was due to close down at midnight, with an hour and a half drive still between me and Colville. One of the handles on my suitcase had been broken off, but I had more pressing things to deal with.
I turned on my phone to call my husband to tell him the plane hadn’t crashed, but the thing went into a beeping fit and turned itself off. Huh. Turned it on again, and it beeped some more before blinking off. It appeared I would need to plug it in once I got into the car.
The nice car rental fellow gave me a key and sent me to slot J4 where I was supposed to find a cheap, wind-up-toy sort of car. Economy was all I could afford.
No car in J4. I peered at the key fob to see what it said, but my reading glasses weren’t anywhere near my face and all I could see was a big J4 scrawled on the fob in black sharpie. And even I could see there was no car in J4.
I pushed the door unlock button on the fob, and the car in J5 blinked a “hereIam.” I blinked back. It was a 2017 silver and black Camaro. Convertible. I was tired enough to go, “Oh, dear.” I knew for sure the car rental guy was going to come scurrying out of the terminal any second, and take away the fob he’d mistakenly given me. He couldn’t possibly have meant for me to have this car. But I was too tired to do anything but say “screwit” and make a note to argue with them later.
The trunk was absurdly tiny, but my bag made it in. I climbed into the driver’s seat, and couldn’t see over the dashboard. It was dark, and I was afraid to feel around for random buttons lest I accidentally put the top down and couldn’t get it back up. So I tried to see what I was doing in the dark. (See above: no reading glasses.)
I got the car started somehow, though there was no actual key on the fob. Also a first for me. Good thing the dashboard gave me an error message telling me to put my foot on the brake, or I’d still be there, pushing that button. I found the cigarette lighter plug and plugged in my phone. Tried to turn it on, but it only beeped and pooped out again. I started to become frustrated.
The car was one of those newfangled, quasi-manual shift cars with no clutch. I like a standard transmission, but I don’t think they make those anymore. I had never, ever seen one of these with no clutch. I had not the faintest idea how to shift this thing.
I had a GPS with me, and felt around, hoping to find a second cigarette lighter plug. No luck. I had to unplug the phone to plug in the GPS. I didn’t much like being unable to call my husband right away, but I had no clue which way to go to get to the road north.
With the GPS booted, I went to enter my destination, which was my dad’s house. I realized I did not know the house number. Which was on my phone. Which I couldn’t turn on.
I unplugged the GPS, plugged in my phone, then sat for a moment, beyond frustrated and holding back panic.
I noticed an OnStar button, and pushed it in desperation though I figured I would get a robot voice asking for a credit card number. But instead I got a live person, to whom I spilled my guts about my situation. She happily sent me the directions to Colville via the onboard GPS.
So I backed out of the space, nearly an hour after my plane had landed, and made my way out of the parking lot.
That was when I realized the shifting procedure wasn’t going to make itself apparent. The shifter did nothing once it was in drive, and there was no obvious control for changing gears. I could hear the engine winding up, and had to pull over to think about this. I was having nightmare visions of driving all the way to Colville in first gear and arriving sometime near dawn.
As I poked around the dashboard, looking for the bloody shift control, my phone rang. It was my husband. I picked it up, certain the thing would turn off as soon as I touched it. When I heard his voice, I burst into tears I was so relieved.
He talked me in off the ledge, explained to me how to shift the car (paddles on the steering wheel…who knew?), and then tried to help me figure out which way to pick up the road to Colville. Because he’s spent the past forty-five years driving everywhere in North America and some places south of the border, he knew where I should go. However, he couldn’t know exactly where I was because I could see no signs. I had to hang up, plug the GPS back in, and see if I could shift the car well enough to get out of Spokane. Then I looked up dad’s house number on my phone, entered it into my familiar GPS, and proceeded on my way.
An hour and a half later I pulled up at my father’s house, where my father no longer was.
My stepmother and two of my stepbrothers were there. Over the next few days we all picked carefully through the minefield of memories, photographs, and paperwork. We pulled together the details of Dad’s life, and I helped write his obituary. It was a surreal experience.
He was all about airplanes. He learned to fly before he learned to drive. After high school he studied aeronautical engineering and began military flight training in the Naval Reserve. He declined an appointment to Annapolis so he could continue his flight training, then was called up for active duty in the Korean War. He finished his training in Pensacola. His flight gear and log book are on display at the National Naval Aviation Museum there.
During his eight years of active duty, he flew fighter jets off the U.S.S. Boxer and U.S.S. Hornet, earning seven citations and service medals. After the war, he flew as a test pilot and was assigned to the U.S. Naval Air Missile Test Center at Point Mugu, California. I was born on that base.
After his discharge from active duty, he went to work at Lockheed Missiles and Space Corp. Still with the airplanes. In his forties he took a hiatus from there, finished out college, picked up an MBA, and worked as a flight instructor, instructor trainer, and aerial photographer. He tried to teach me to fly, but I couldn’t get past the unshakable conviction that the instant I took control of the plane it would plummet from the sky. I still have the logbook that shows half an hour of flight time.
One of my favorite pictures of myself was taken by my dad when I was about three years old, as I was running across the yard to hug him. When I was four, he came home from somewhere with a copy of Black Beauty for me. I looked inside and said, “I can’t read this; there aren’t any pictures.” He said, “Then learn to read.”
And I did.
In 2002 when my second novel was released, I was visiting my dad for a family reunion. We went into Barnes & Noble and found seven copies of Outlaw Sword on the shelf. I said, “Cool. Let’s see if they want me to sign them.” He laughed, thinking I was joking. But he stopped laughing when I took the copies to the service desk and the manager was happy to have me sign them. As I did, my dad stood there looking like he was going to pop from pride.
On May 18 he was buried in a veteran’s cemetery outside of Spokane, with full military honors. Jet airplanes taking off from nearby Spokane airport added an oddly appropriate soundtrack as we mourned a former fighter pilot. In the distance the United States flag flew at half mast. Three riflemen fired three volleys. Strangers in uniform saluted him, with all military precision and respect
I knew him for sixty years, and now I can’t imagine the world without him in it.