I begin with the ridiculous, in June 1952, middle-century Minnesota, on that
silvery-hot morning when Herbie Zylstra and I nailed two plywood boards together
and called it an airplane. "What we need," said Herbie, "is an
The word engine--its meanings beyond mere meaning--began to open up for me. I went into the house and found my father.
"I'll need an engine," I told him.
"Engine?" he said.
"For an airplane." My father thought about it. "Makes sense," he said. "One airplane engine, coming up."
"Soon enough," said my father. "Pronto."
Was this a promise?
Was this duplicity?
Herbie and I waited all summer. We painted our airplane green. We cleared a runway in the backyard, moving the big white birdbath, digging up two of my mother's rhododendrons. We eyed our plane. "What if it crashes?" I said.
Herbie made a scoffing noise. "Parachutes," he said. (A couple of his front teeth were missing, which caused bubbles to form when he laughed at me.) "Anyway, don't be stupid. We'll drop bombs on people. Bomb my house."
So we filled mason jars with gasoline. Through July and August, in the soft, grave density of that prairie summer, we practiced our bombing runs, getting the feel of it, the lift, the swoop. Herbie was eight, I was seven. We made the sounds an engine would make. In our heads, where the world was, we bombed Mrs. Catchitt's garage, the church across the street, Jerry Powell and his cousin Ernest and other people we feared or despised. Mostly, though, we bombed Herbie's house. The place was huge and bright yellow, a half block away, full of cousins and uncles and nuns and priests and leathery old grandmothers. A scary house, I thought, and Herbie thought so too. He liked yelling "Die!" as he banked into a dive; he said things about his mother, about black bones and fires in the attic.
For me, the bombing was fine. It seemed useful, vaguely productive, but the best part was flight itself, or the anticipation of flight, and over those summer days the word engine did important engine work in my thoughts. I did not envision machinery. I envisioned thrust: a force pressing upward and outward, even beyond. This notion had its objective component--properties both firm and man-made--but on a higher level, as pure idea, the engine that my father would be bringing home did not operate on mechanical principles. I knew nothing, for example, of propellers and gears and such. My engine would somehow contain flight. Like a box, I imagined, which when opened would release the magical qualities of levitation into the plywood boards of my airplane.
At night, in bed, I would find myself murmuring that powerful, empowering word: engine. I loved its sound. I loved everything it meant, everything it did not mean but should.
Summer ended, autumn came, and what my father finally brought home was a turtle. A mud turtle--small and black. My father had a proud look on his face as he stooped down and placed it on our backyard runway.
"That thing's a turtle," Herbie said.
"Toby," said my father. "I think his name is Toby."
"Well, God, I know that," Herbie said. "Every turtle on earth, they're all named Toby. It's still just a stupid old turtle."
"A pretty good one," my father said.
Herbie's face seemed to curdle in the bright sunlight. He scooped up the turtle, searched for its head, then dropped it upside down on the runway. I remember backing away, feeling a web of tensions far too complex for me: disappointment, partly, and confusion, but mostly I was afraid for my father. Herbie could be vicious at times, very loud, very demonstrative, easily unnerved by the wrongs of the world.
"Oh, boy," he muttered.
He took a few slow steps, then ran.
If anything was said between my father and me, I cannot remember it. What I do remember--vividly--is feeling stupid. The words turtle and engine seemed to do loops in the backyard sunlight. There had to be some sort of meaningful connection, a turtleness inside engineness, or the other way around, but right then I could not locate the logic.
Excerpted from Tomcat in Love by Tim O'Brien. Copyright © 1998 by Tim O'Brien. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of the Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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