July 16th, 1969.
You won't find Pellow's field on any map now. Its runways lie buried and mostly forgotten beneath the urban sprawl of St. Margaret - itself a place of lost ambition and failed enterprise among more prosperous and lucky towns. The airfield closed in the '40s after the carnage of France and Holland. Its few instructors and recreational flyers have either moved on or were shot to pieces fighting for their idea of freedom amongst distant clouds.
The blue still wheels above it, though, and every sharp Florida morning seems to hold the promise of those early days and an invitation to share the joy of that cold, high air. Does the sky above Pellows field look down and wonder where its children have gone? Nah, of course, it doesn't, it has new wonders to witness. Those few of us left, however, sure as hell look up and think back to those glory days. At least I do.
You won't find me on any map either. I, too, have been buried, not by Tarmac and sand, but by time and indifference. I push the dinner plate and the brown mush that sits on it away across the table and scan the room. There are a few residents left, lounging in the overstuffed chairs, reading magazines, or mumbling conspiratorially, either to each other or occasionally to themselves. Most left for their rooms after the initial spectacle of the launch, either believing that the excitement was over for now or disappointed that the mighty needle had not exploded on the pad. They wouldn't admit it, I'm sure, but some folks are like that.
One of the carers takes my plate.
'Y'all finished up, Mr. Tomlin?'
'Sure am, son. Tastes like shit as always.'
He ignores me. What does he care? He nods towards the TV, where some commentator holds a large microphone in the face of a NASA official.
'Y'see the launch? Jeez, we're on the way to the moon. Who'd have believed it?'
I nod and raise my eyes to his.
'Yep, son, I saw it.' I say.
He leans closer now.
'Say, you alright there, sir? You look kind of shook up. I seen you in the chair all day. Were you waiting for the TV? Making sure you had a good viewing slot? Maybe you need some air.'
'Maybe I do, son. Maybe I need some high cold air.'
He's easily confused this one, so I wave him away. I had been waiting for the launch, alright, been waiting these 41 years...
July 16th, 1928.
There were two ways a man could fly at Pellow's field in those days. Either you had money and owned a plane, or you were good with your hands and fixed them up. I was the latter, having moved into aero engineering from the auto trade some years back. I had worked hard for my license and been fascinated with aviation since childhood. The Great War had seen the technology accelerate, and now we were all fired up with Lindbergh's great feat of the previous summer. The place was busier than ever and on the up.
The Alexander Eaglerock biplane was waiting for me that morning, that's how I figure it now. Royal blue and grey, she sat on the turf, expectant, gleaming. I pulled up in the lot and smelled the air. Florida sunshine, avgas, and oil. I was where I wanted to be.
'My brother of the blue!'
Judd Harris waved from the hangar door, a cheroot dangling from his lips, swinging his feet as he sat on the oil drums. Jeez, you'd never get away with that now. Health and safety has eaten us up, chewed the adventure and charm out of it all, and spit it out.
'Yo Judd. It's a fine day. Thanks for getting her out.'
I indicated the Eaglerock. She was brand new, owned by John Chevitt of Chevitt tyres, St. Margaret. Chevitt was self-made and one of the new breed of blue-collar aviators who were slowly stealing the skies from the gentleman flyers of old. The skies were becoming democratic. I'd taken delivery for him the week before, checked her over, and sorted the paperwork. He'd paid with grateful thanks, and my flight today was a kind of gratuity. I felt a little patronised, but hell, I was going flying. Part of me thought that he figured that if she was going to fall apart on her first proper flight, it would be Ray Tomlin that bit the earth and not him. But what the hey...
I fuelled her up and did a walk around, running the numbers in my head. Curtiss OX5 90 horsepower engine, crushing speed 135mph, range just shy of 400 miles. A beauty, fit, and eager for this wonderful morning.
I swung by the office for my flying jacket, goggles, and cap and picked up old Judd on the way out.
I indicated the prop.
'Do what ya should, Judd.'
He gave a casual salute as I climbed aboard and moved around to the front. Fuel on and primed controls free, tap the compass rose. The needle did a curious 360 in its oil and settled. This stopped me for a minute, but then I tapped it again, and it seemed to float free. After that, I never gave it another thought until later...
I strapped in, then...
He swung good and hard and stepped back. She fired first time, and the roar of the Curtiss filled the world. Judd yanked the blocks, and I eased her out towards runway 090, one of the two turf strips that made up Pellows field. It would be a straight climb out, and then I planned to turn north and follow the Atlantic coast up toward the cape. As I ruddered around into the sun, I noticed a line of clouds over the coast, some three miles distant; this was contrary to what had been forecast. Maybe it would change my plans, maybe it wouldn't. We were more wary of clouds back in the day. There are old pilots, they said, and there are bold pilots. But there are no old, bold pilots.
Screw it. One last control check a wave to the tower and a glance at the drooping orange sock, and let's go. I opened the throttle, and the Eaglerock leaped forward, smooth and determined.
'Mr. Chevitt,' I thought, 'this is one fine bird you've gone and bought.'
A short, bouncing roll later, a pull on the column, and we kissed the grass goodbye for a while, greeting the sky with a small whoop. Despite the plugs, the noise was huge. Few folks realise that most of what you hear from a propeller aircraft is the noise of the blades breaking the sound barrier and not the engine. From the cockpit, the experience is different from that of an observer on the ground, to whom the buzz of an approaching aircraft integrates into the day slowly, either an intrusion or a call to adventure, depending on your point of view.
We levelled out at 700 feet and scanned the coast. That cloud was solid alright, seeming to hug the beach as often happens when it hits the warmer air of the land. I reckoned the base at 1000 feet, and it didn't look that thick, maybe 300 feet. No problem. Not yet. I broke off some chewing gum and made some lazy turns, looking for anyone else who may be up here this fine day. There was no one to be seen. I reckoned to get above the cloud before I got to it, then I could turn north as planned and be ready to race it inland if it began to move or form.
I think I was at about 1200 and just beginning to see over the top to where the sunlight turned it into a flat silver-grey sea when I noticed the compass rose again.
'Son of a bitch…'
The needle was spinning, refusing to settle, although I was flying due east and true. I tapped it again to no effect. Then the world went grey and cold. Where the hell that cloud came from so fast, I will never know. Likewise, how it expanded or formed around the Eaglerock and me when seconds before it had been some minutes away. The compass was still acting out its craziness, and for a minute, I was totally disorientated. We all know the drill, in cloud, trust your instruments. I ignored the compass and clocked the artificial horizon, which said I was still straight and level. Ok, what to do. I had an instinct to hold my heading and get down below the grey as quickly as possible. However, that would put me over the sea, which was fine in theory, but would be just another step on the road to the 'incident pit' if anything else whacky happened.
I knew I had to climb out of this. However fast the cloud bank had spread, it couldn't have thickened much in that short a time. Clouds didn't do that. No, they didn't do that. I pulled back on the stick and opened her up a little more. The airspeed stayed constant. The Eaglerock's engine wasn't troubled at all by this small demand, and I held a constant rate of climb for a minute.
At 1500 feet, there was still no sign of the sun or even a lightening of the grey fog whipping past. Ok, this would make a good whiskey story later, but for now, there was another decision to be made. I maintained my rate of climb and counted out what should have been a 90-degree left turn. By my estimation, this would line me up with the coast and not take me out over the brine while I worked this shit through.
Now, at that time, I had about 1000 hours under my belt and two peachy forced landings to brag about, so I can't say I was scared at all, just a little confused and irritated by this turn of events. The gum had lost its taste already, and I spit it out to my left and looked up.
Sure enough, the grey was lighter, then it was tinged with azure, then a deeper blue, and then we broke free, and once again, the sunlight wrapped around us, gold and silver, cool and clear. The sun was behind me and to the right, which meant I was heading north where I'd intended. I looked inland, over the edge of the chasm of cloud, at the patchwork of fields and the shine of lake and river. Way up ahead, the arc of the Cape curved around the northwest, just about covered by the rolling grey carpet that still spread below me. I allowed myself a smile...
... And I held that smile, crooked and frozen for the next minute or so as I tried to process what I was really seeing.
I think I can say that I knew the country below me pretty well. Eight hundred of my hours had been out of Pellows, both under instruction and beyond. Almost every test flight, every recreational hour had been spent looping and wheeling above these fields. What I saw below me now, over the edge of the cloud, just shouldn't have been there.
Buildings just too big and too square. Hangars? Warehouses? Too big, for sure. Roads where none should have been. The altimeter read 2000 feet, which sounds really high to you ground-bound folk, but it ain't. From that height, I could recognise my car in a full lot, almost wave at the guy trying to steal it...
There was a town. Melbourne? No, far too big. It sprawled. There was just too much down there. Highway one ran parallel to me, but there was something wrong there as well. The road was too broad and the wrong colour; it was also almost entirely devoid of traffic. I could see the beach, running and curving towards the cape, where it disappeared into the grey layer of cloud. I banked the Eaglerock to get a better look. The beach made up for the highway. There were thousands there, standing, just standing. Not in the waves, not at barbecues, just standing. This was all wrong, wrong in a way I couldn't understand.
This place, wherever I'd flown myself to, was waiting for something. I got a sense that the world was holding its breath.
That's when the engine began to misbehave. Leastways, that was my first thought. There was a deep throb now under the regular buzz of the Curtiss. It swelled as I listened close. I have weather-ear for engine trouble, and this sounded big. I scanned the instruments, and apart from the compass that still seemed intent on screwing itself from its mounting nut, all seemed fine. Then, the undertone grew to a roar with an accompanying shake. That's when I began to get scared. I peered through the windshield, looking for telltale black smoke from the cowling, and that's when the world changed...
The featureless spread of grey cloud had spread inland and covered the Cape entirely, and from the flat plain of vapour, she rose. From a distance of just under a mile, she appeared as a black and white column, heading skywards, vertical and true on a cascade of bright fire. She was an aircraft of some kind, but bigger than any I knew existed, and she needed no wings to get her where she was going. The roar that she made - and the source of my imagined engine trouble - came with a vibration now that physically shook the Eaglerock, seeking out loose bolts and wayward linkages.
The thing must have been rising fast, but because of her size, she looked to be climbing painfully slow, struggling to overcome the gravity that must be clawing her back. The Eaglerock and I seemed to be heading directly for her, or rather the smoke stack which trailed the fire she rode on. I can't tell you what I felt, for I felt nothing at all. I had no room to assimilate or process reactions. I simply observed. Here alone in the noisy wild blue, I beheld a thing that defied understanding. Afterward, sure, I would try and connect this with the compass and the strange landscape below, and sure, I would wonder at the men who had caused this magnificent thing to be.
The machine - for that is what she surely was, rose higher, accelerating. The sound of her passing began to fade as she climbed into the darker sky above. Whether she was a weapon of war or a means of transport, she was going where she was going by design, and that was somewhere very high, and I was sure, very far away.
Then something sparkled off to the right in my peripheral vision. I tore my eyes away from the great ship in front of me, and the world changed again. Whatever I had been chosen to witness that day, I wasn't quite alone...
The vision, the experience, the memory as it would come to be, lasted for about a minute, then something passed, and she was gone. I felt a physical release from something I had never even realised had a hold on me. I was over clear fields, the peculiar buildings gone, and the landscape back to what should have been. More notably, there was no cloud layer. It hadn't drifted or broken up. It just wasn't.
The compass read 360 degrees - True north.
There was just the Eaglerock and I, the roar of the Curtiss, and the whip of our slipstream. I started to breathe deeply and quickly, making up for the rapture of the last two minutes. I wiped a glove over my forehead, and it stained with sweat and oil. As I eased the stick to the left and headed back to Pellows field, I began to try and reason, to tell myself what I'd seen.
I had to work out a way to explain it to myself. Sure as hell, I would never tell another soul.
"My brother of the blue, you don't look so good. The old Eaglerock scare ya, huh?"
"No Judd, guess I'm just coming over with a chill."
"Want me to stick her in the hangar for ya?"
I mimicked his salute of earlier.
'Do what ya should, Judd.'
July 16th, 1969.
I'm alone in the sitting room now, watching the TV with the sound turned off. Once again, I drift back to that day above the cape. Of course, as the years sailed by, and history caught up with itself, I began to realise what I'd seen. When the first footage of Hitler's V2's appeared on the newsreels, I died a little inside, thinking that what I'd witnessed was a vision of the end of days. It was only when that conflict ended for the best and both sides of the new world order began to tinker with their satellite programmes that I felt a little easier. Then I watched, rapt and eager, as we developed Mercury and then Gemini. I watched the monochrome launches from the Cape and became certain for the first time of exactly what I'd seen.
Then Kennedy had boasted about the moon, and they'd rolled out the first Saturn 5. All of a sudden, there she was, that monster, that wonderful giant that I'd somehow shared the sky with that cold clear day in 1928.
Had I physically been there, or had nature just hiccoughed and played some weird trailer to me? Of course, I have no way of knowing which launch I'd actually seen. I'd checked the weather detail for each one, and there were no records of a strange, fast-moving bank of stratus over Florida on record for any of them. So I've concluded that it was a symptom or cause of the event and visible only to me. Something inside of me, however, knows that it was Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins I'd seen, forty years to the day in some possible future, and our first great howdyadoo to a world beyond ours. I want to believe that.
In all the long years that laid themselves out from 1928, through the desperation of the depression and then the war that followed, I think I was able to hold onto something denied to most. Whatever hate and despair the world threw at us, and whatever Hell we made for ourselves, there was hope. At least this one moment of glory waited for us.
So what sustains me now? Now that the glory days are gone, along with the dreams of young flyers and their stick and string machines? Now that the old skills of sky and sea, and mountain have made way for digital backups and systems beyond our imagining back then? Now that all I have left is a shared TV and brown mush three times a day?
Well, I saw something else on July 16th, 1928, something less easy to explain.
Even though I'd never chosen to, it would have been possible for a man from 1928 to describe to you a Saturn 5 rocket, even if his terms of reference are somewhat skewed. But I can't describe the other.
Not at all.
Let's call it a whisper in the sky, a lattice of light, a craft of some kind, or maybe a window to another place. I just know that I shared the vision that day with something' other', something that had come to see, whether by design or, like me, by accident. If you think that now I've seen the moon launch in its true time, I've caught up with my future, you're dead wrong, my friend. There's a lot more, a long time more. The world stretches away from us like a clear sky, it contains death and sorrow, cynicism and hate, but it also contains hope and the promise of wonder - a little piece of the blue.