That Smile

That Smile


It was a fall day, one of those few and far between, pristine days that can only be described as crisp. The air possessed a clarity, a perfection of optics, that we pilots call “clear and a million.” For a few more minutes at least, I could see 93 million miles. The sun was setting, the color of an ember deep in the belly of a campfire, behind the bleachers of the football stadium.

I did not care for football nor about football. I did not usually watch the game nor, to be honest, did I share the devoted, patriotic hope that our Rockets would “Trounce the Tigers” or “Whomp the Warriors” or “Charge the Chargers” (not enough thought put into that last one by the cheerleading coach.) I might, if I scoured the entire varsity roster, have found a single name which didn’t inspire in me a visceral disgust. These were the beefy, bully sons of beefy, bully farmers who, by virtue of their great-great-grandfather’s covered wagon breaking an axle here, claimed pride of place in the community and in our school and on the football team. They were “the jocks” whom I hated with a white-hot passion when they singled me out for persecution and hated all the more when they ignored me. In my narrow world view, it seemed that they lived charmed lives, enjoying the adulation of the community, hero worship by the local WHBF sportscaster, and, I always imagined, the sexual attentions of any and all the girls in my class. 

Still, I attended the Rockridge home games religiously. I even came to enjoy the chilly autumn evenings with my breath visible in the air and the interesting contrast between the brilliance of the “Friday night lights” and the blackness of the cornfields beyond. I liked the unpredictable sounds generated by a crowd in the stands, the half-audible conversations of 500 people discussing soybean yields, PTA fundraisers, and, inevitably, the dickhead quarterback’s prowess on the field. I liked the occasional exuberant roar when our team scored, a bit like the flocks of red-winged blackbirds that twisted and turned in a synchronized ballet, as if a thousand organisms could share one brain. 

All of this modulated sound, was underlaid by the carrier wave drone of the big grain dryer at the nearby elevator, the sonorous, white-noise of continuous combustion. I came to enjoy these things – or tolerate them. But they were not, ultimately, the reason I was there. I came for the band. I came for the marching band and, particularly, a pretty, little dark-haired clarinetist who had stolen my heart and took my breath away. 

She was the loveliest thing my newly-pubescent eyes had alighted on. She was an angel – in every possible sense. She was beautiful and confident but with the demure shyness of the cherubs in Raphael’s Sistine Madonna. And she was smart, the polar opposite of the redneck linebackers on the field. She thought interesting thoughts and said interesting things and knew about books, had read books, and despite being the daughter of a local farmer herself, whose grandfather’s father had broken an axle in Edgington Township, she was the opposite of whatever a beefy, bully was. She was decidedly different from the stuck-up, pageant-queen-wannabe cheerleaders sharing the field with her.

I watched her from the stands as she played the national anthem. I applauded wildly as they covered Wipeout, with accompanying full drum kit on a hayrack towed behind a lawn tractor. I gave the stink-eye to the football fans who talked through her performance.  I had, after all, offered their moron progeny the courtesy of tepid clapping at touchdown time. 

And I had contrived, when the band returned to their designated seats in the grandstand, to sit nearby, in a place that offered me a convenient view of the little black-haired girl and her clarinet.

She had other suiters, a fact which now makes me reflect on the unlikelihood of what happened. She had even accepted an invitation to the dance that night from a “friend.” Still, after the game, I waited in the grass practice field behind the stands, with happy people filing past to their cars (we won the game.) I was miserable. There is very little worse than being miserable in the presence of happy people. 

I had brought a pitiful little flower for her. Initially this struck me as a “smooth move” but, as the minutes ticked away, my droopy carnation seemed to grow more pitiful and less adequate to its purpose. I saw a couple of trumpet players pass on their way to the band room. When they saw me they pointed discreetly and emitted a joint titter that echoed across the lot. I felt small and cold and stupid, a nerdy boy shivering in a nerdy tan jacket and corduroys. I held out unreasonable hope that something might yet be salvaged of this pathetic catastrophe.

And then she appeared, disgorged with the streaming crowd, from the opening between the bleachers. She was with her best friend and she was laughing. And she was beautiful. She was wearing a black sweater with a panda knitted on the front. She was wearing black and white saddle shoes, and, oddly, a black bowler hat. Her cheeks were rosy from the cold, one of Raphael’s cherubs. She looked up from her clarinet and noticed me standing alone in the middle of the field and, to my ever-lasting gratitude, she smiled. She smiled genuinely, involuntarily, the kind of smile that a person hopes for, longs for, lives for, all his life. It was a smile that demonstrated, without the need for mere words, that she was happy to see me and my sad flower standing there. It was an honest smile, with no sign of irony, or artifice, or even charity.  She was happy to see me. She was actually happy to see me. My heart skipped a beat. 

She left her friend then, and she came to me, and she gave me a hug. I remember that hug as if it were here and now. I wanted to remember it. I concentrated on the moment to grasp it, to capture it, to file it away. I recall the chill air in my lungs from that first intake of breath. I remember her friend, over her shoulder, tittering as her bandmates had done. I remember the beep of a car horn in the parking lot behind, not a warning or a display of anger, but a friendly acknowledgement of one friend in a car to another in the crosswalk. I remember the smell of bratwurst and charcoal drifting from the concession stand. I remember the visiting team’s dejected bus idling nearby. But mostly I remember her, the feel of her sweater and the clean smell of her perfume and the unruly shock of her bangs protruding from beneath the brim of that bowler hat. Above all, I remember the enveloping warmth of her hug as if she exuded a supernatural energy that lit me up inside like a neon bulb. 

Skip forward thirty-four years.

The term long day doesn’t begin to describe the labyrinth I found my way out of. I woke up before dawn in the featureless frozen tundra that is Fargo, North Dakota. I mainlined caffeine in the form of an acrid-tasting, styrofoam-cupful of perfectly mediocre hotel room coffee. And I started the day.

My crew was crabby and the airplane was cold. Even the water bottles in the galley cart were frozen. We had to deice the hoar-frost-covered wings and it took forever. Ineptitude seemed epidemic, from gate agent to ground crew to air traffic control – to me. I signaled the ramper to disengage the ground power unit before deselecting the switch in the cockpit, precipitating a ten minute delay as I restarted the plane, reentered all of the flight plan data, and suffered the Flight Attendant’s caustic remarks when the plane went unexpectedly dark and quiet. We flew to Chicago. 

We swapped airplanes at O’Hare, from Gate B24 to gate F14 (about 1/4 mile of walking.) We had to repeat all the pre-flight steps we had accomplished, so laboriously, in Fargo. The new airplane was late and included its own catalog of maintenance deferrals, including one that limited our airspeed on the ensuing flights to 250 KTS (about 80 mph slower than our usual speed). 

The weather sucked. When we arrived overhead, Dayton, OH was suffering a runway closure, leaving only one plausible instrument approach, one which would allow us to descend to 450 feet above the ground. The solid cloud deck hovered 230 feet above the airport. Aside from the top third of a tall radio mast sticking up through the murk, we could see nothing. We entered a holding pattern. 

As you might imagine, people who buy an airline ticket to Dayton, OH would prefer to go to Dayton, OH. They are not well-pleased when you take them, after 3/4 of an hour of airborne holding, to Columbus.  They are less enthusiastic when you tell them the punch-line to the biggest joke of all;  Dayton’s weather will not improve until tomorrow night. We will be either: A. leaving them in Columbus, B. transporting them on a bus to Dayton, or C. taking them back with us to Chicago, from whence they had commenced. 

Every passenger was surly to the flight attendant, which translated into a general crabbiness on her part, which ultimately poisoned the congenial relationship the First Officer and I had built up over the course of four days. Oh, and the weather had deteriorated in Chicago. The windy city was windy as hell. We made it back to O’Hare four hours late, tired and disgusted. Then I had to drive home, three hours across frigid northern Illinois.

I pulled into our icy driveway, and, with relief, turned off the ignition. My hands were sore from clenching the steering wheel. My back hurt from leaning forward to peer out of the ice- obscured windshield. When I cracked the car door, I was greeted with a blast of arctic air that made me think, just for a moment, that I had gone full-circle and was back in god-forsaken North Dakota. 

I trudged to the house, dejected, exhausted, defeated, my thin leather wingtips filling with snow. I opened the back door of our crappy little house. The screen door, with it’s sticky latch, was frozen. I had to batter it with my fist to break it loose, which, of course, released a cascade of snow from the gutter down the back of my neck. The inner door, with the bad seal, was also frozen and required battering. All of these things should have been repaired long ago. Something about my door battering vibrated the filament of the motion detector light on the front of the house and it broke, leaving me standing in the cold, covered in snow, in total darkness. I stepped onto the cold porch, set down my flight case, and reached for the kitchen door. And the world changed.

The kitchen door swung open. The porch flooded with warmth and light and the aroma of something delightful. And there, in the glow of a new and different world, stood the little black-haired girl. She had waited up for me. She had, indeed, waited up for me for thirty-four years. And she had made me cookies. She took my wet jacket and hung it on its peg. She set my suitcase over by the furnace register. She reached up and took off my epaulets and put them in their place in the china cabinet. And, all this done, she gave me a hug, a warm,  enveloping, life-affirming hug. And then the little black-haired girl smiled. 

I am one lucky bastard.


By: Dustin Joy