Stories of Modern Americana

Stories, essays, and other miscellany from the author of An American Gospel.

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Location: Dekalb, Illinois, United States

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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Westward Hope

                It was that first hill out of Denver heading west. Hill, hell, more like slope, incline, mountain. You get the idea. Climbing, climbing, the motor in our van struggling against gravity. The speedometer needle slowing, slowing, backing off as though braking for a stop sign, backing off from 65 to 60, to 50, to 40. Cars, annoyed, passed to the left, guard rail and rocky wall to our right. My foot pressed down on the accelerator, yet the continued sluggishness gave no indication of abating. The motor whined, groaned, downshifted, whined higher.

                I kept checking my rearview mirror, miniature, rectangular, glass view, opposite the large, rectangular, glass view from which it hung. The car was filled with boxes, bags, more boxes. I forgot about the load. I forgot about having every single one of our material possessions packed tight into this metal box, this ancient Ford. I turned my head to the side mirror, first toward the rocky wall, then toward the open lane, just to see if I was holding anybody up, if I was delaying some other vehicle due to my weighted drag of deceleration. A semi-truck loomed, gaining, intimidating. Objects in mirror are closer than they appear. I had a feeling of being an obstacle, of being in the way of some cargo that had to get through the mountains, or well into them anyway. But when it passed on the left, roaring smell of diesel, it had an empty flatbed trailer.

                The speedometer needle finally stopped moving on a seemingly settled speed; we were gaining on another truck directly in front of us. This one a full box trailer and semi—fifty-three footer—which I assumed was loaded and weighted down like our van due to our closing gap. I estimated that the truck was going about twenty-five as I changed lanes and passed it doing thirty-five—the apparent maximum speed for our present situation, ascending a grade somewhere between six and seven percent.

                The sky was blue. The clouds were white. The temperature was forty degrees.

                And that’s when my wife said, “Look! Look at the top of that mountain. Look at all those mountains behind it. It’s so beautiful.” Out of the corner of my eye I saw her arm extended, pointing ahead and to my left, the lofty height toward which we were headed. I explained to her I can’t. I can’t turn my attention from the immediate sights in front of me, from the driving at hand. It felt dangerous. But once I got past the semi and returned to that far right slow lane, I glanced forward. She was right. Awe-inspiring was not an overstatement. Beautiful a most appropriate word. The dizzying altitude, the magnificent size, caused a see-saw of feelings: spiritual, existential, spiritual, existential. Was I at one with the universe or was I a meaningless token of carbon-based life wafting in the wind? I often thought philosophically about my place in this world, and with a healthy, though amateur, interest in astronomy and astrophysics, I knew the comparative size of this rock hurling through our solar system, this organic spaceship we all shared while sailing at immense speed through space, this “mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” And we, mere and clinging. We hurling right along with it. We out of control, randomly sailing. We the micro-organisms on this scale. I used to take comfort in that. I used to appreciate the diminutive and insignificant nature of that frame of reference. It gave me proportion, and had always empowered me with a mode of anything is possible. My personal form of spirituality. And here, among these giants of nature, these wonderful, evergreen covered, snow-topped tips, this ancient fault line between tectonic plates that gradually collided to force an upward thrust of the earthen crust, among this awe, this beauty, the size comparison was ironically amplified, made significant by proximity, made important by the climb up them. It was our pilgrimage, a trip that was the only option left, a journey that led us westward in America like so many before had done for all the reasons they had done them, economic being most common. And instead of horses and wagons, we had a ’94 Ford conversion van.

These high-minded thoughts placed me in reflection and with help from the snow on the side of the road, I thought back to Illinois, to the home we left behind, to an economic mess we needed to overcome, to a life in which the upward climb had slowed to a complete standstill.

                Everything was about consistent frustration and a depression so severe, I’m sure I’m still paying for it on some psychological level. Paycheck to paycheck living, while better than being homeless, was a futile existence. It made me angry, sad, easily annoyed, indecisive, angry, indecisive, easily annoyed, angry, sad. I had been given a raise recently, but it was meaningless. When your pay goes up three percent in one year, while inflation goes up over seven percent, you’re actually taking a pay-cut. And to put it bluntly, that sucks.

                Arguments about money were ceaseless. Well, argument is a bad word choice. My wife would state the facts and I’d get angry, sad, easily annoyed—and on and on. It was just how it was. We went three straight months of having to pay at least one overdraft fee on every payday. Banks seem to make the most money from those with the least money: higher interest rates, fees due to low balances, fees due to overdrafts, repossessed vehicles due to non-payment, foreclosed property for the same reason. It’s the typical capitalist model: people with the least money are stood on by those with more money in a pyramid scheme to beat all pyramid schemes, because nearly everyone in the country is involved in one way or another.

                On a payday Friday during one of the worst winters northern Illinois had seen in a long time, ice and snow covering all, I came home for lunch to let my wife know I deposited my check. The temperature was below zero. The furnace hadn’t shut off in days. I considered our gas usage and what that was going to cost.

While I made lunch, my wife shuffled through the monthly bills. I choked down a bread and mustard sandwich followed by a glass of water and realized my time was already up. Just as I was walking out the door, she told me we had maybe twenty dollars for groceries after paying the minimum due on all that needed to be paid. And that included bills we skipped last payday in order to eat. Twenty dollars for two weeks. I can’t explain the psychology, but anger was my first hot wave, a conflagration of blazing emotion. I slammed the back door as I left. Then, the anger twisted into a slow burn of frustration. Outward, frustration is a far easier flame to hide. Since I was going back to work, I had to hide that kind of feeling in order to ensure my employment, but inward, it’s like the hot, glowing embers of a died down campfire, gradually eating you up, smoldering the last of the ashen wood into a mess of desperation and confusion.

After experiencing depression on many levels of my life, I’ve found one of the primary end results after so much time is the inability to make even the simplest decisions. It’s no wonder people who are chronically depressed need outside help—I’m sure they can’t even decide whether they do or not. 

                I came home that evening, my innards burned away, my appetite ashes and smoke, to my wife sitting in the dining room smiling at me. She stepped up to me and on tiptoes pecked me on the cheek, making loving attempts to cheer me up. These small acts in the face of enduring my depressive streaks are how I know her love is true, and in for the long haul.

                “I have an idea,” she said, going to the kitchen to make tomato soup and grilled cheese for us.

                “What?” I said cantankerously. Idea after idea for us seemed to never work out, it always boiled back to money, so my cynical skepticism bolstered my vocal quality. And depression has a tendency to give you a truculent attitude, right or wrong.

                “Let’s just go to Vegas,” she said. And it was that simple. Let’s just go to Vegas. Five words to change the destiny of two human beings.

She was referencing an offer my parents had made to give us a chance, an economic opportunity to improve our situation. Jobs were more readily available and the cost of living was significantly lower than the present economic trap of our small Illinois town. “Go west young man!” In our case, “Go west middle-aged couple!” And so we sat, slurped soup, ate cheese sandwiches, and discussed the possibilities. Later that night I made a phone call to my parents to let them know, yes, we would take them up on their offer.

                The decision was quick; we gave ourselves about six weeks. I started packing the next morning. That kind of motivation, that kind of early start, only comes with great incentive. I was ready to leave. I thought it would solve all my problems. I believed it was the beginning of the end of my depression.

Like a fire sale, everything must go! We were getting rid of most of our material possessions. We unloaded things that weighed us down—they were just things after all. We gave away furniture, threw out crap that we kept in cupboards, boxes, the basement. Went through our large collection of books and gave away some, threw away others. We were cleaning house and the goal was to make it so that everything we kept we could carry in one single vehicle. We, not just being my wife and I, but also two dogs and a cat. It was going to be tight. Even with an old conversion van.

My mood toward work had improved during this short time. I smiled more and I was peculiarly more productive. After I turned in my two-week notice, I had a slow realization come over me—it wasn’t the job per se that got me down, though I didn’t particularly like being a file clerk, it was not being able to see a future, an ending. It was the hopelessness of paycheck to paycheck living and never knowing if that would get better, seeming as though it never would. And despite that we were making a leap of faith, a future undefined, it suddenly became a future of hope, of being able to dream again, of looking forward to something better.

                The night before we were to leave, I loaded the vehicle with our priority things. I’ve never reduced my possessions to so few items in my entire adult life. It felt good, like taking off a heavy backpack after a long day of hiking. And that evening, we walked through our rented house, now empty. A sight we hadn’t seen since we first looked at it and decided to rent it over four years ago. But that was when both of us were employed. That was when my wife was pre-cancer instead of being a cancer survivor. That was when our hopes had elevated slightly. Our bright-eyed willingness to accept the monthly cost of that house was dashed within the second year when my wife was diagnosed, and during treatment, was laid off from her job. My income alone just wasn’t enough to live in that house and pay the bills.

It had been a dream—we always wanted to live in a house after living in apartment after apartment after apartment, and one trailer home. The house represented something important to us—the American dream, even if we were just renting. But on that last night, it represented something else: the end of an era, the end of reduced opportunities, the end of being swallowed by an unfeeling economy, the end of fighting for mere survival, the end of a vision that ultimately did not meet our expectations.

The house was clean and empty, light and bright, just like our future. Our future in a city that lay over seventeen hundred miles away, a city filled with lights. That night we slept on our mattress on the floor for the last time in that old farmhouse, that old dream of ours.

We woke up early the next day, but got a later start than planned due to the last-minute packing taking up more room than I wanted or expected. But we fit it all in, jammed it in, gathered up the cat and the dogs, and left, giving one more quick look around. It was the least sad goodbye I’ve said to a material thing in a long time. My attachments over the years were becoming less material, more human, more spiritual. And leaving that house, leaving behind an old dream, put a cap on my old material desires. Everything seemed to be a journey of spirit, an evolution of the mind, along with an evolved view of our future, and our new vision, our new dream.

The first day of traveling started out with a warm, clear day, and excitement held back by a trepidation about whether we were making the correct decision. Of course, by this time, it was too late to turn back. When you’re in that situation, you do your best to put the doubts out of your mind, leave the past and cut yourself off from the future—you live in the here and now, in the fulcrum of the moment, without consideration for the past and future ends of the lever you’re balancing.

As we passed through the flat farmlands and rolling hills of Iowa, high winds from the south pushed our van around the highway, me gripping the steering wheel, tense and fighting it at every moment. There was no letting up. It was like constantly turning slightly to the left. And as we got to the other side of Des Moines, we heard a strange flapping noise on the top of the van, right side toward the rear. Since it was a twenty-year-old vehicle, it had a few noises I dismissed as usual for the situation. But this one was new. This one we had not heard before. So, I pulled off at the next truck stop.

We had a car-top carrier bound to the luggage rack, and I hoped it was just one of the straps come undone. But it turned out to be a little worse than that. The right rail of the rack had popped every machine screw that held it to the roof, except the one at the leading edge. I’m sure the high winds and the speed of the vehicle combined to put tornado-type pressure on the carrier. This was bad. With some of that depression from Illinois still trailing, I had a moment where this seemed tragic to me. Depression has a tendency to do that—exacerbate any given problem turning molehills into mountains. My wife calmed me down. She shored up my confidence by telling me she had faith that I would come up with something, pointing out all the inventive household fixes I had managed over the years. So, with a better attitude, and a tenacity to get the job done, I went into the truck stop store.

I headed for the tools, looking for self-drilling sheet metal screws and a screw driver. My idea was to fix it the right way, if I could. But, without even checking, I could tell the screws were too small for the holes that had grown in the roof of the van due to the pulling out of the original screws. One of the voices in my head told me not to waste the money nor the time. Another voice told me to think outside the box, told me to consider anything that’ll do the job. And that’s when I saw the cargo straps. I knew this was probably the only other option I had, so I bought one, a small, urgent orange strap and headed back to the parking lot. My wife held the hook of one end in the wheel-well, and I threaded it through the luggage rack and down the other side of the van to the opposite wheel-well where I hooked that end. I pulled the strap tight and cranked it tighter, drawing the loose luggage rack rail to the roof. I locked the crank handle in place, and thanked my wife for believing in me. Sometimes I needed her to remind me of the open windows where I only saw the closed doors. And away we continued.

The delays, both the late start and the luggage rack problem, put us in Lincoln, Nebraska that first night, instead of Kearney, where we originally had planned to be. We got a pet-friendly motel and settled in for the evening.

Outside the motel window, the wind howled and whistled all night long. Our temporary neighbors had a dog that yipped at all the wind-caused sounds, the creaks, the bangs. That night, sleep was intermittent.

It was dark when we awoke the next morning, giving me nostalgic feelings of leaving for vacation when I was a kid. Our goal was Grand Junction, Colorado, to get there by dusk, where we were to spend the last night on the road before reaching our destination.

While my wife stayed with the pets, and finished ensuring we had everything, I took our overnight bag to the van where I saw our neighbor with the yippy dog loading her own, stuffed vehicle—a four-door with bags, suitcases, and boxes filling the entire back of the car. She was no vacationer; she was moving.

“Good morning,” I said.

“Hi. You were next door, right? I saw you with your dogs.”

“Yeah. My wife and I are headed west to try to find better jobs, better opportunities.”

“Really? I’m headed west, too. Where are you coming from?”

“Illinois, near Chicago.”

“What a coincidence! I’m coming from the Chicago area, too. I’m originally from Seattle, but had a job opportunity I decided to take. It paid ten thousand a year more than what I was making, so I jumped at the chance and moved there about a year ago. But, the cost of living was so awful, I was actually worse off than I was in Seattle. So, I’m going back. Not to mention, I couldn’t stand the winter there. Too cold, and too much snow.”

“Yeah, the Illinois economy is terrible. We lived sixty miles outside of Chicago and still the cost of living was outrageous compared to the typical wages.”

“I know. I can’t wait to get back to Seattle. A lesson well-learned for me.”

She popped her puppy into her car and got in herself. I said goodbye and good luck to her, the Seattle lady with the yip-yip, and went back to get my wife and our accompanying zoo. We loaded up, stopped for fuel and coffee, and merged back onto the highway.

As the dawn began lighting our way, I could see that Nebraska had flatter terrain, more expansive views, the continuation of farms, but none of the rolling hills as did Iowa, which is why the high winds continued, and continued to get worse. Still coming from the south, blowing the warm spring air up into the plains, they had increased in speed and consistency. The fight with the steering wheel was becoming even more tedious. But no glitches this time, smooth sailing, until we got close to North Platte. That’s when the winds shifted on us, first blowing from the west, straight at us, then from the north. With that shift, the winds brought a freezing rain that turned to snow. We were delayed again having to slow down due to the slick road conditions, but nothing severe, we kept on through it, and into Colorado, the foothills of the Rockies, where the skies and the roads cleared, but the wind kept coming. Denver was right in front of us, and on the other side, there was a wall of mountains from as far north as we could see to as far south.

At the east edge of Denver, we stopped again for gas and food, and to let the dogs do their thing. It was a little before noon and the place was filled with people, truckers, families, locals. Next to the gas pumps and all through the parking lot, there were U-hauls, Ryders, Budgets, Penskes, trucks and trailers. If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought it was a mass exodus of people moving westward. I pictured them all as being from Illinois, but that was ridiculous of course. It was apparent from looking around at license plates that most were from the east, though. We weren’t the only ones.

Through the Rockies, we were floating on inspirational attitudes and a love of seeing such sights. Purple mountains majesty indeed. We had seen the amber waves of grain, the fruited plains, and even the alabaster cities gleaming. When you compact all that into a three-day trip, freedom is not a mere occurrence, not a mere word, but truly a deep-rooted, exalted ideal.

We arrived in Grand Junction earlier than expected, and found another pet-friendly motel. I awoke the next morning right at daybreak, and went outside to put our overnight bag in the van. And there, to the south, the sunlight shone upon the mountains, rocky and red, radiant over this western Colorado town. It occurred to me that with that kind of beauty, that kind of natural setting, I could’ve stayed right there. But we had a destination already, and we loaded up the pets and continued our trek into Utah.

One thing about the Rockies, while you’re driving through them, they seem to never end. They start with green trees, gray rocks, and white, pointed, snow-topped apexes as you pass through them westward. But they keep going on and on. By the time you hit Utah, it’s all buttes and plateaus in reds, oranges, yellows, browns—desert colors. And then you come upon a little town called Green River. We had fair warning from my father who had made the drive from Grand Junction to Las Vegas multiple times, being a truck driver, that there is no phone signal and no gas stops, no motels, no nothing for a little over one hundred miles between Green River and a town called Salinas. It’s all desert. Not flat desert, but mesa-filled desert like in old American western movies.

We prepared ourselves for that stretch, and continued the journey. No problems, the strap was holding the luggage rail. I commented to my wife that our van must be pretty cool because everyone kept staring at us, from cars, from trucks, when we stopped for gas. She told me it wasn’t the van, the van was a piece of junk. It was us. It was the load. Every window behind the front seats had boxes in it, there was the cargo carrier on top, the orange strap appearing to hold the van itself together, the bottomed-out suspension. She said they were curious. She said we probably looked like bohemians with no home except the wheeled one in which we drove around. I wondered if she was right, and she said, “wouldn’t you be curious? Wouldn’t those thoughts occur to you?” Yes. Yes, I would be curious, those thoughts would occur to me, wondering where such people were going with so much stuff in that kind of vehicle with Illinois plates in Nebraska, Colorado, Utah. It would appear adventurous to the outside eyes. And, honestly, it was adventurous from the inside, too.

Towering rock walls closed in on us as we entered the Virgin River Canyon—a sort of gateway that leads you through a brief stint in Arizona—and we exited the other side right into Nevada and the home stretch to Vegas. Here, the desert is flat, the mountains distant like far-off shadows. In the last part, we humped over the northern border mountains of the Las Vegas valley and from here, you can see the whole city. It’s not like other cities. It’s flat, spread out wide, with the only high rises on the strip. And when you’re in the valley, you can see mountains in every direction.

As we got off the exit ramp, I saw something, a familiar sight from drives to Chicago, a man holding a piece of a cardboard box with something written on it. It said, “Homeless veteran, any help would be appreciated.” I stopped and gave my wife a dollar bill to give to him. As she handed it out the window, she said, “It isn’t much.”

He said, “Any little bit helps. I thank you folks an awful lot.” He was wearing a Chicago Bears sweatshirt. I imagined that he too was from Illinois and had headed west for greener pastures. It must be better to be homeless in Las Vegas than it was in Chicago—at least you don’t have to deal with winter and sub-zero temperatures. He nodded our way, smiling and grateful, and we continued on to my parents’ house.

We arrived with stressed-out animals, a broken luggage rack, and everything we owned in this entire world. Our hopes had finally reached a higher plateau. My mother was in the driveway, waving to us, welcoming us to our new home—the end of our trip and the start of our revised American dream.

As I pulled in, I swore I heard a horse neigh and the squeak of wooden wheels coming to a halt.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Maroon and Very Fast

by M.T. Daffenberg

I am maroon and very fast. I have two wheels propelled by a V-four engine. I am one thousand ninety-eight cc's, called an eleven hundred. Each of my cylinders has its own carburetor, mixing the fuel with the oxygen causing miniature pressurized explosions that blast the pistons back and forth to hold an engine-idling eight hundred revolutions per minute. My tachometer red-lined at eleven-thousand five hundred and I always did well to avoid pushing the engine to that edge of bursting gaskets and a wrecked motor block. But in one night, I hit that red line twice on consecutive shifts.

I’m on my way home at one in the morning driving down a Midwestern country road, nothing but cornfields with mid-summer corn, bean-fields with mid-summer beans, and a vacant high-school, the same one I graduated from a month earlier, mid-summer empty. The road is straight; I’m doing eighty. My bike is big and has six big gears and cruises nicely at eighty with no vibrations, no noises—almost serene and meditative.

There is something Zen about driving a motorcycle, the concentration, the acceleration, feeling closer to nature, the bike and you as one. I purposefully ride sans helmet, leather jacket, long pants, and boots. My riding attire is tank-top, jean shorts, sun-glasses, and tennis shoes. Call it eighteen-year-old ignorance, but when caught up in the moment, it feels like freedom.

I approach the school and my Zen is interrupted by what, at first, looks like a police car in the parking lot, no lights. I maintain my speed, wagering it isn't a cop, that it’s a summer teacher whose tire has gone flat, or a night janitor still cleaning up. But I lose the bet, blowing by the school and seeing the cop's headlights flash on as I pass.

A decision has to be made.

Glancing down to my right, I watch the cop in my rearview mirror. I’m still doing eighty, hoping I won't see those cherries on top, and that's when I see those cherries on top, but only one's a cherry because the other one is blue. County.

It’s dark, no traffic except one motorcycle and one cop car and both were accelerating. I make my decision and kick the shift from sixth to third. To some, this may seem like I’m slowing down, but I’m actually looking for some high-torque acceleration. I rev the bike to where I should be at eighty in third and let out the clutch. The torque grabs me and the bike, twisting us, but nothing out of control. And then I’m gone.

I hit the red-line and shift to fourth. I hit the red-line again and shift to fifth. I let the engine whine and push the yellow line by the time I shift to sixth. I top a low-grade hill and hump over to the other side, out of sight from my pursuer. The speedometer reads one hundred forty and climbing slowly. I feel every pebble, every defect in the road. One hundred fifty and a surreal blurriness clings to the sides of my vision. One hundred fifty-five, the wind deafens; my eyes water. One hundred sixty—ah, Zen.

I must be about two miles past the hill when I dart my eyes to the mirror and see the cop crest. He obviously didn't expect me to run. I gain confidence knowing the space between us has more than doubled. I’m drunk on adrenaline and I’m melded with my machine. I’m maroon and very fast.

I come upon a T-intersection and a stop sign. With no stop I whip around the corner, then, I crank that handlebar grip again. No redlines this time, but I wind up the engine pretty tight getting through the gears. As I hit sixth, I begin braking for the next stop sign. The cop had not even reached the T-intersection behind me yet. My oneness with my machine seems to be paying off. The small farm-town I live in is just ahead.

I drive straight to my house, straight into my garage, straight off my bike, garage door closed, straight into the living room where I turn out the lights and peek out the front window. As I split the curtains, I see a cop car coming down my street with his spotlight on, searching yards, driving slowly, looking. As it gets closer, I see the writing on the door. County.

I lie back on the couch and smile. Ah, Zen.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Undue Arrogance and an Aviation Non-incident, or How I Almost Killed My Roommate

by M.T. Daffenberg

You know those summer nights, those halcyon evenings of warmth and anticipation, the ones that bring back memories of the free ventures of school-less youth, the upward view loaded with diamonds cast upon a black velvet ribbon, the western edge of which fading through hues orange, red, and purple, and you can smell grilling meats and hear people speak and laugh, and there’s a certain electric excitement coursing through everyone and everything? You know those kinds of summer nights? Well, it was one of those nights when I nearly killed my roommate.

His name was Mike, one of many Mikes I have known. If there's one thing about Mikes, you can rarely generalize about the person who is so named. Mike played guitar; with a few lessons, he helped me overcome my bar chord plateau and showed me that Carlos Santana was amazing. He was heroin-addict thin, sunken cheeks, noodle arms, and he was a recovering alcoholic. Mike smoked two packs a day and was rarely seen without a coffee cup in his hand, always half full. It was even his bedtime quaff. His dream was to get out of the military and become a crop-duster pilot, but at this time he was working on electronic boards for a P3 squadron at an Illinois Navy air base. I was one of his barrack-mates.

I straightened my gig line and fitted my sailor’s cap as I entered the living room. Mike’s guitar was loud, obnoxious with distortion and reverb—a Nugent riff I believed. He stopped to look up at me; his short stature and gaunt frame made his American made Fender Stratocaster appear large.

“When are you going to get a real instrument?” he snarled, motioning with a flip of his hand toward my Sears cheapie, the other hand spinning the volume nob on his guitar all the way down cutting the racket instantly and leaving that post-concert, muffled ringing in my ears.

I smirked at him. I was in a hurry.

“You in the cab today?” he asked.

“Yeah. I’m tower soop.”

“Well, I’ll probably be talkin’ to ya tonight. I have a few more days to get another hour or two, so I figure once the reserve planes land, it’ll be pretty slow, right?”

“Yeah. I usually just have some stragglers after seven or eight.”

“Cool, man. I’m probably hitting the flying club tonight then. I’ll just be doin’ pattern work—stop ‘n goes, touch ‘n goes, shit like that.”

“Okay. I gotta run. I’m late.”

To reach his goal, Mike was taking flight lessons from the on-base flying club. They had a couple small Cessnas and one ex-military piece—a single prop, a Beechcraft T-34A. On this night of good vibrations and happy reminisces, Mike was performing a solo in the T-34A and I was on duty as the air traffic controller in the tower. Right after sunset, I knew it was him—I recognized his voice crackling in my ear.

"Glenview Tower, November Two Niner Three Three Six is on the transient line ready to taxi to the duty runway."

"November Two Niner Three Three Six, Glenview Tower, wind one five zero at six, altimeter three zero zero two, taxi to runway one seven."

The T-34 jerked off the line and followed the taxiway, rolling slowly, carefully, out to the runway. He stopped short, performing his run-up, gunning the engine, running checks. I watched the red and green points, the wingtip indicators, flow and bounce as he taxied.

In the dark, outlines were invisible. Aircraft were merely floating lights on the sea and if the separate lights weren't moving in such perfect unison, you might think they were independent buoys, near each other, but unmoored. From the tower, technology intertwined with nature to make art. You see the lights of the city around you, but in commercial clusters crowded by the shadows of residential suburbia. You see the blue lights of the taxiways, the white of the runways, the red of the runway ends, the beacon on the tower flashing white, white, and green, and as you turn your head upward, the horizon blends with the sky and you see the mosaic background of stars, static, while a line of large passenger jets flies only three thousand feet above, descending to land at O'Hare. Mike called me, done with checks.

"Glenview Tower, November Three Three Six is ready for takeoff and would like to enter the traffic pattern."

"November Three Three Six, wind one six zero at five, runway one seven cleared for takeoff, make left traffic, report your base."

“Roger left traffic and will report base.”

"Report your base" is a safeguard for controllers. They can turn their attention to other duties knowing the pilot will call them when they need a clearance. I had nothing else at the time, so, I talked to the ground controller about his upcoming discharge date. That's when another aircraft called, coincidentally, another T-34. The ground controller had handed me the strip earlier, but with only one inbound and one in the pattern, I didn't feel I needed to look at it—I knew their call signs.

"Glenview Tower, Navy Six One Eight is with ya fifteen miles north for landing."

"Navy Six One Eight, Glenview Tower, report seven miles out for a straight in to runway one seven, wind one five zero at five, altimeter three zero zero two."

I continued my conversation and moments later, Mike reported his base turn.

"Glenview Tower, Three Three Six is three miles out on base."

"Three Three Six roger, wind one six zero at four, runway one seven, cleared for touch and go."

Then the Navy T-34 called me. I thought he made eight miles awfully fast, but I assumed he just misreported his original position. It happened more than you might think.

"Glenview Tower, Navy Six One Eight is seven mile final for one seven."

"Navy Six One Eight, roger, traffic is another T-34 at your twelve o’clock, on three mile final."

"Navy Six One Eight has traffic in sight."

"Navy Six One Eight, follow the traffic, be advised he’s a touch and go, wind one seven zero at five, cleared to land number two runway one seven."

No problems. Two T-34s, four miles apart, they go the same speed, one has the other in sight. I turned and picked up my conversation again. A few lines and a laugh later, I see the ground controller squinting over my shoulder looking at what I knew to be the tower RADAR screen.

"What? What?" I asked, turning and looking for myself.

"I only see one target. Don't you have two on final?" Yes I did. Where the hell was the other target? I turned and looked out into the dark, starry night, over the aesthetic tech art, squinting to focus on tiny moving lights in the sky over a mile away. I saw both planes; the RADAR must be wrong.

"Navy Six One Eight, say position."

"Over landing threshold."

Over landing threshold! How the hell did he get there so fast? I looked out to the end of the runway again and realized that Navy was directly over Mike, both with gear out and descending. I felt a tingling in my armpits, the beginning of sweat. I tensed and spoke quickly. If Navy didn't obey me immediately, he would surely land on top of Mike, or worse, land near him, clip his wing making the two aircraft one fireball.

"Navy Six One Eight, cancel clearance, go around left side without delay."

"Roger, goin' around."

I watched, hoping it wasn't too late. There are moments in air traffic control when watching is the only way to handle a situation—you’ve passed on the info, you've given the correct commands, you've lined the traffic up, then it's all about the waiting. Seconds as years passed. I saw the T-34 peel away, turning left crosswind, as Mike's T-34 landed. His voice startled me out of my panicked consternation.

"Glenview Tower, Three Three Six, we’re gonna make this a full stop, like to taxi."

"Three Three Six, roger, turn right next taxiway, contact ground."

Later, after his go around and a perfectly safe landing, the Navy pilot called the tower. He apologized for reporting traffic in sight he never saw. He, like me, assumed he'd never catch up to another T-34 four miles in front of him. I apologized to him for missing his quick approach. This is what we called a non-incident.

I was still stumped about how one T-34 could have passed seven miles in the time it took another to pass three miles. I looked at the Navy's flight strip; his aircraft type said "T-34C." Mike was flying a T-34A. I called Lou, the old guy who worked at base operations. He was a retired Air Force air traffic controller, a civilian now working for the Navy, and he seemingly knew everything when it came to aviation. I asked the obvious, "Lou. What’s the difference between a T-34A and a T-34C?"

He came back quickly in his rough, deep voice, "T-34C is turbocharged, Lima Delta" then hung up. Lou was like that. He talked to people on the phone the way controllers talked to pilots on the radio.

I walked across base, my floating head staring at the sky, absorbing a moment of relief and taking in the wonderful backdrop nature gave me for this life lesson. Never did I let arrogance make an aviation decision for me again. Mike was awake, playing guitar, smoking, drinking coffee, when I got back to the barracks. I apologized for almost killing him. He teased that I was after his Strat.