An Early Flight
He rode the Great Northern to Spokane. With nearly five hundred dollars in his pocket, more than plenty to pay off his team and wagon, he stayed in a room at the Riverside Hotel and visited the county fair, a diversion that lasted only half an hour, because his first decision at the fairgrounds was a wrong one.

In the middle of a field, two men from Alberta had parked an airplane and were offering rides in the sky for four dollars a passenger --- quite a hefty asking price, and not many took them up on it. But Grainier had to try. The young pilot --- just a kid, twenty or so at the most, a blond boy in a brown oversuit with metal buttons up the front --- gave him a pair of goggles to wear and boosted him aboard. "Climb on over. Get something under your butt," the boy said.

Grainier seated himself on a bench behind the pilot's. He was now about six feet off the ground, and already that seemed high enough. The two wings on either side of this device seemed constructed of the frailest stuff. How did it fly when its wings stayed still? --- by making its own gale, evidently, propelling the air with its propeller, which the other Albertan, the boy's grim father, turned with his hands to get it spinning.

Grainier was aware only of a great amazement, and then he was high in the sky, while his stomach was somewhere else. It never did catch up with him. He looked down at the fairgrounds as if from a cloud. The earth's surface turned sideways, and he misplaced all sense of up and down. The craft righted itself and began a slow, rackety ascent, winding its way upward like a wagon around a mountain. Except for the churning in his gut, Grainier felt he might be getting accustomed to it all. At this point the pilot looked backward at him, resembling a raccoon in his cap and goggles, shouting and baring his teeth, and then he faced forward. The plane began to plummet like a hawk, steeper and steeper, its engine almost silent, and Grainier's organs pushed back against his spine. He saw the moment with his wife and child as they drank Hood's Sarsaparilla in their little cabin on a summer's night, then another cabin he'd never remembered before, the places of his hidden childhood, a vast golden wheat field, heat shimmering above a road, arms encircling him, and a woman's voice crooning, and all the mysteries of this life were answered. The present world materialized before his eyes as the engine roared and the plane leveled off, circled the fairgrounds once, and returned to earth, landing so abruptly Grainier's throat nearly jumped out of his mouth.

The young pilot helped him overboard. Grainier rolled over the side and slid down the barrel of the fuselage. He tried to steady himself with a hand on a wing, but the wing itself was unsteady. He said, "What was all that durn hollering about?"

"I was telling you, 'This is a nosedive!'" Grainier shook the fellow's hand, said, "Thank you very much," and left the field.

--- From Train Dreams
Denis Johnson
©2011 Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Go to a
of this book

Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH