Friday, July 1, 2011

"Friday Night Frolic" — When Flying Badgers Roam

Photograph: Ansel Adams

They flew low. So low that they appeared to clip the tall oaks and pines lining the streets from where we first saw them. From the car, we caught sight of two mottled grey lusterless airships as we headed south on Abbott Valley. Theywide-bodied, slow-motion, thunderous-winged bulletssoared nearly side by side as they appeared from the east and throttled west over Bear Hill's ascent.

Lu looked worried, Are we going to be bombed, Mama? she asked.

What a question. But it made me think of 9/11. Of Vonnegut's Dresden. Of Pearl Harbor. Because this is how it works, I think in scenes. But my daughter doesn't have a scene like this. I don't either, not a real one, except for 9/11which left a deep aching imprint on anyone old enough to rememberwhich was also the same day, the same morning, that my husband left early for Washington, D.C. out of Rhode Island's T.F. Green via Pittsburgh, and lost contact with me for a good four hours. Nothing. His flight had been grounded in Pittsburgh once it was evident that we were under terrorist attack—wireless signals dead on the idling plane.

Clearly, Tuesday's flying machines were militarysimilar in size to the ones that used to buzz over the lake in Maine, before Bangor International changed their flight pattern, and nothing like the small, single engine Pipers that land at the towerless North Central airport in northern Rhode Island. I'd seen North Central's asphalt runways, been there with the kids to watch the lighter, sexier planes take off and land (what to do with your children on a Thursday afternoon), a pilot gave them plastic wing pins. Its largest runway is only 5,000 by 1,000 feet. Bangor's sole runway is nearly three times thatmore than two miles long.

I read somewhere that Air Force One can land on a 4,000 foot runway so long as it's done with full reverse thrust, hard brakes and full spoilers and flaps. I've no idea what that means, but it sounds violent.

No, we're not going to be bombed, Lu. It was curious though. Planes flying low enough to trigger that ducking impulse. Low enough to take out one of Providence's skyscrapers (if Providence actually had skyscrapers). And the only airport at which they could land was miles away in the opposite direction. They were too low. Prematurely low. Disturbingly low.

Only minutes after they flew from view, as we headed up Bear Hill, we caught the nose of another bus-swallowing aircraft coming from the north and flying south, right above Abbott Run. I could feel its weight. A second plane followed just behind. Now it was more than curious. It was odd. Were these the same two planes that we had just witnessed jetting west? They couldn't have changed their flight direction that quickly.

We drove to the bank, made a rapid deposit, and returned home within ten minutes. As we climbed the deck stairs to the back side of the house we heard another magnificent roar, and from the north, again, appeared a smoky plane. From the deck's vantage point, it appeared to be a cargo carrier, a heavy, beat up old junker lumbering along at low altitude, blue exhaust pluming from behind.

It was no longer odd. It was concerning, as if we were being harassed. I went out to the empty street, expecting to see neighbors peering at the sky, but no one was outside. No one. Lu followed and hugged me with worry. They're in their basements! Call the police! she begged.

I didn't feel like this was a rational thing to do. Call the police. What if we were being harassed, what if terrorists had hijacked the planes intending to use them as shrapnel? What the hell could our town's policemen possibly do? Have another donut quick, guys, it's all over.

So I called the police (truly, I'm not the sort of hysteric that calls the police every time I notice something amiss). Have you, by chance, been getting calls about low flying planes? I asked, feeling as nutty as one might feel when making such a call.

Yeah, the officer answered quickly, we have and we have no idea what's going on. NO IDEA. Sorry.

Oh, really? It's...

NO IDEA. Sorry, he said again.

We turned on the evening news. Trending topics dominated, but it was silent as to airborne assaults, which I thought ought to be a trending topic.

Who does one call for the answer to why a half dozen military planes might have crossed through town a few hundred yards above one's rooftop? I thought about this all night. Would one call the FBI? Would one call 911 (as Lu also suggested)? Maybe one calls the local airport? Or, of course!, the Department of Defense. Or does one take swift, fiery notes and sketch an outline for her first sci-fi thriller? No, that's been done.

The real questions, though, the questions that flashed before me like the Vietnamese nail salon's neon sign on a steamy summer evening is who does one call if one is actually getting bombed? What's to prevent those steel barrels from falling from the sky? Why am I even thinking about bombardment? Why do I like that name: Bombardier? It's sexy I tell you, that's why. And why are planes so sexy?

Well, not all planes. Not planes that can be something else. Not the planes flying over my house early Tuesday nightthe menacing planesshame on them for bullying us, for blackening my idea of the airship as magical machine navigating above snowy gossamer pillows, away from the mundane, to some faraway exotic dream.

Fleet Foxes (go visit their website, it's funclick back on Fleet Foxes after you visit each link) take me back to the days when planes were just planes. When the folk music of the 1960s and 70s was just folk music, like Bob Dylan, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Simon and Garfunkel.

Their May 2011 release, Helplessness Blues (click to play the title songyou can also download and share it) is stunning. Gloriously stunning. Above-the-clouds stunning. It soars.


  1. Wow. I hope they were... looking for a lost dog, or something. :-(

  2. Every summer two old WWII war birds, a B-17 and B-24 visit the local airport and make stops up and down the west coast. My father-in-law used to work on the B-24s during the war. One year we bought him a one-hour flight on the B-24 as a gift. Kind of a one-hour time machine trip back to his days as a handsome 19 y/o at at time when the outcome of the war was not yet known. He enjoyed it.

  3. Great image of you and your daughter standing in the empty street, watching and wondering. Might just be a story there-did you take those notes?

    Dig the Fleet Foxes-thanks for the heads-up.

    I went to the University of Wisconsin, and as a Badger, I have to say, the title of this post is brilliant.

  4. Great story, love the Ansel Adam's shot. Received Ha Ha Tonka today.

  5. You always put the coolest music on your posts. Very nice...

    Now that we have a 9/11 in our memories, how could we not have a deep rooted fear lurking in the back of our mind. I would be uneasy if there were any unusual low flying aircraft around me.

  6. Dear Jayne, just reading your post gave me a good case of the heebie-jeebies, the heart-stopping kind of anxiety when you don't know what to do, where to go, who to call. Terrifying. But hope you can have Happy Fourth!

  7. We have fighter jets blast over our place every now and then. It sends the horses into a frenzy, but I always like it. The power they demonstrate is mind boggling.
    You pose an interesting question- who to call? If we were actually being bombarded, I don't think there is anyone to call. During 9/11 we called our family.
    I love Fleet Foxes new release!

  8. Wow. That's weird.

    Is there a flying show nearby?

    Let us know what you find out....

  9. Ellington Field is outside Houston and after 9/11 it was common to have low flying combat helicopters flying low in formation over our house. They are loud and scary looking.

    I imagine the police did know what was going on but were not in a position to say. The powers that be in this country have gotten very secretive, something which scares me even more.

  10. Fun and a tinge sad, esp about the days when planes were just planes. I got freaked one night when choppers were circling outside of my window at 2am, they are usually looking for suspects so I hoped they weren't roaming too close!

  11. Good morning, and a happy 4th to your absent self and family, too!

    I was one of those weirdo kids who used to watch planes passing overhead and memorize their shapes for later identification. We had three or four small private airfields, one full-size international airport, and an Air Force base in our area (NJ/Philadelphia vicinity), so there were plenty of opportunities. And since I myself didn't fly anywhere until I was in college, I had a good number of years to imagine what was going on inside them, and how we must seem to someone looking down on us from hundreds or thousands of feet.

    The Cuban Missile Crisis induced many of the same skybound jitters that 9/11 did. And the presence of so many airfields, so close by, seemed to make us a really likely target for bombardment -- or rather, what they now call collateral damage from it (since nobody in the outside world really cared about a little blue-collar town of 4,000). When the windows rattled from sonic booms, you always sort of winced, reflexively.

    Here in north Florida, aside from civilian airports we're sandwiched between Pensacola (Naval Air Station) and Cape Canaveral, with some Georgia military fields and bombing ranges thrown in for good measure. We've probably seen the last of them, but every now and then a converted 747 would do a close fly-by, even circling the perversely designed Capitol building in some sort of weird symbolic flight path, so we could see the Space Shuttle mounted on its back, on its way back to the Cape from the landing strip in the desert.

    So anyhow, we never call anybody. Our nervous antennae may twitch, but then "common sense" kicks in almost immediately. Sigh. I much prefer a world where common sense is looked down on! :)

    L.O.V.E. the Fleet Foxes. Thanks for including them here!

  12. P.S. Re: the word "bombardier"... Aside from the robust sound of the word, I think its appeal comes at least partially from those romantic Hollywood images of WW2 bombardiers. Those fleece and leather jackets, y'know. Those strong chins. The grinning faces of the guys leaning on one another, posed for photos beneath the Vargas-style pinup nose designs.

  13. You'll probably never learn the reason for the low-flying aircraft. But I hope you do ... and share it with us!

  14. Excellent choice of music to go with the story! Curious and fleeting.

  15. I feel so bad for your little girl. Shame on them.

    I really felt this post - the uncertain fear in it, and, of course, anything that vaguely calls to mind 9/11 is deeply disturbing.

    I wonder if you ever found out what was going on? I am very curious, and this was so well written; it really grabs the reader.

    Hope you had a good 4th.

  16. Dale- I wasn't able to find out why the planes flew at such a low altitude, but it did appear that they were searching for something... must be a very important dog. ;)

  17. Robert- What a wonderful gift to your father-in-law! I don't enjoy flying but being airborne in an old B-24 flying time machine sounds pretty exciting. ;)

  18. Tim- I'm getting good at taking notes! Except when I'm on vacation... I don't have a single note for the entire past week. Now I can't even remember what we did. Well, actually, I don't think we did anything very notable--which a good thing, right? ;)

  19. Munk- Hope you're enjoying Ha Ha Tonka. Ansel's always been one of my favorites--can lose a lot of time gazing at his photos.

  20. Cheryl- If low flying large military aircraft were a common event, I wouldn't have given it a thought. But this was highly unusual. We do have an annual airshow at Quonset Point, which is far south of here, but the show had closed the previous Sunday. Maybe this event was connected, but i don't think so...

  21. Vespersparrow- It was very creepy and ominous, indeed, though I didn't believe that we were in danger. Yet, I did feel vulnerable and uneasy--suddenly aware of how much we are at the mercy of things other than ourselves.

  22. Leonora- Yes, I think that if the ordinary here was fighter jets blasting in the sky I might have been in awe of their skill and nerve.
    And you're right--there's no one to call. My questions, of course, were rhetorical in nature, as we have no control over many events in our lives. I struggle with not only relinquishing control, but never having it go begin with!

  23. JanieGirl- There had been an airshow in RI a few days earlier, but these planes were not the flashy airshow sort. Who knows, there could have been some connection??

  24. Ellen- I felt the same way about the police. The officer reminded me of Sergeant Schultz from Hogan's Heroes: "I see nothing, I hear nothing, I know nothing!"
    Yeah, right. ;)

  25. Shopgirl- Oh no, not the usual suspects! Yes, choppers circling around my home would probably make me even more nervous! Hope they got 'em. ;)

  26. JES- I too remember those days, before I ever boarded a plane, of observing aircraft above and being taken away to the magical places of my imagination. I flew for the first time when I was in high school (returning home w/my cousin from Montreal) and I remember what a thrill it was--especially so as I was unaccompanied by adult.

    I think I might have been more comfortable with this incident had we more airfields and more of this type of traffic. With 9/11, and, as you mentioned, the Cuban Missile Crisis (which unfolded when I was a baby--much like 9/11 did for my daughter) in our collective conscience, paranoia--or extreme concern--seems the norm whenever something highly unusual occurs.
    (And I cringe just thinking about that sonic-boom-induced-window-rattling!)

    What last week's incident called to mind, for me, was not only paranoia, but our vulnerability in general, and the sense of utter helplessness. Knowing that our government (Federal and local) withholds important information is unnerving, as well. But they must also exercise common sense, now mustn't they?

    And that capitol building--rather manly, yes?

    P.S. Precisely. (I love those old Vargas pin-ups--so glamorous.) My husband wore a brown leather bomber jacket on our first date in Boston 21 years ago. Let's just say he had me at the jacket. ;)

  27. Carol- You're right--I still don't have an answer! (That really bugs me.) ;)

  28. Lin Ann- Curious and fleeting... I like that. And as you know, I do tend to be drawn to curious and fleeting things, have many curious and fleeting thoughts...

    Hmmm... :-)

  29. Hillary- Welcome, and I'm glad to hear from you. Disturbing is the word. I haven't heard a thing about the low-flying planes. It's almost as if my daughter and I were the only witnesses. Was it just a figment of our imaginations??
    I suppose I would have to make some more phone calls, but I don't want to be that crazy lady...
    The police station call was bad enough!

    I had a wonderful 4th of July, thank you. Hope you did, also. :-)