Giving Oneself the Gift of Wings

ON his 21st birthday, July 22, 1939, Harry gave himself a present. He had planned it for weeks, telling no one ahead of time, telling no one afterward. It wasn't until the mid-1950s, after we had been married for several years, that I learned about it. Since his birthday fell on a Saturday that year, the household slept somewhat later than usual. On weekdays, although he left for work before 7 a.m., his teenage brother and sister were always getting ready for school, and his mother was either setting her bread dough or preparing to take a load of washing down to the wringer machine in the basement. On this particular Saturday, instead of boarding the streetcar to his weekend job, Harry rode his battered Schwinn bicycle west of Chicago to the closest private airport listed in the telephone book. It was a pleasant summer morning, warm but breezy, and he enjoyed the long ride through the Chicago suburbs, past the open fields and woods that surrounded the city in those days. I imagine him pedaling the 10 or 12 miles easily, his lanky body bent over the handlebars, his hair pushed back by the wind, his wire-rimmed glasses fogging now and then as early morning mist rose from the damp ground beside the road. The airport wasn't open when he reached it. A little after 8 a.m., one of the commercial pilots arrived to unlock the gate, and Harry moved his bike into the shade of a nearby hangar. He paid the pilot $5 and climbed into the passenger seat of a small propeller plane for a 60-minute sightseeing tour. It was his first airplane ride. He saw the Chicago River winding its way through the Loop, passing under a series of arching bridges. He saw Lake Michigan, stretching itself in all directions like an ocean. He saw the Wrigley Building, white and shiny as a block of carved ice. He may have tried to identify Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park, but it was the flight itself that thrilled him. He had given himself the one and only present he wanted, and because nobody knew about it, nobody tried to stop him. I picture him smiling during the entire flight, exulting in the roar of the engine and the pilot's loud voice as he pointed out the landmarks below. I'm sure Harry left that plane with his adventure held close inside him, a secret hidden where no one else could see it. When Harry first told me about the airplane ride, it seemed inordinately sad to me that a 21-year-old man, who had been the primary breadwinner for his family since the age of 16, should have found it necessary to sneak out of the apartment and ride a second-hand bicycle to an airport and then have no one to confide in afterward. I couldn't bear it. In time, however, my perceptions changed. Harry's 21st birthday wasn't about poverty or adversity or loneliness. It was about optimism. About resilience. It was about his ability to find joy in life's small, everyday wonders. On that summer morning, he succeeded in fulfilling a boyhood dream, giving himself an experience he would never forget, and achieving his own personal rite of passage. In many ways that July 22 was a metaphor for Harry's entire life. He never felt sorry for himself. He never felt the need to brag or boast or impress others with his accomplishments. He never let money, or the lack of it, shape his values, despite the financial problems that burdened him from childhood through adulthood. He never lost his enthusiasm for life or his quest for adventure. Minor adventures, perhaps, like a 60-minute flight over Chicago; like enlisting in World War II before he was drafted; like proposing to me on our first date; like graduating from college in his 60s. But these were adventures, nonetheless, to be remembered and savored all his life, leaving his family a legacy of small, sweet triumphs only he could give us.

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