Editor's Note: For the first time in the history of the San Mateo County Fair, a 300-page anthology has been published that includes more than 100 stories, poems and essays from writers who submitted award-winning work for the fair's literary contest. The idea was the brainchild of Bardi Rosman Koodrin, a San Bruno resident who runs the fair's literary contest, and the anthology, titled "Carry the Light," features work from many Peninsula writers.
This story is a work of historical fiction concerning the intertwined fate of man and machine.
From p. 153, “At the Smithsonian”
“Tom, could you come into my office for a minute?”
“Close the door.”
“Need you to do take care of something tonight I just found out about. Stay afterhours, maybe an hour or so – maybe longer. Can’t tell you what it involves – least not yet. Know this is last minute – you and Marie might have somethin’ goin’ on tonight you can’t get out of, but thought of you first.”
Mike had been Director of the National Air and Space Museum in DC since 1971, three years earlier. He came to the Museum from a career in aviation and the space program. Mike was the first Director in the Museum’s 20 + year history that hadn’t come from a career in government bureaucracy or museum curator. Tom, whose whole life had been tied to his love for aviation respected Mike’s background and, in the past few years had come to admire him personally. He’d do anything for his boss. While Tom and Marie had been planning to go out that night he knew she would understand.
“OK Mike, can I call her?”
The call was brief, his voice signaling he needed her to go along with his request. “Sure honey, I’ll keep the light on for you. Be safe.”
“OK Tom, you’ll need to clear everyone, and I mean everyone, out of the entry area at closing and make sure nobody, and I mean nobody, comes near until – well you’ll know when. Notify security to watch the perimeter, keep custodians and maintenance out of the vicinity, stay in the background if needed. I’ll get more specific on things this afternoon. Oh and Tom?”
“Knowing you, you’ll thank me for this later. See you here at four.”
Tom was curious, but he had an ability to put things in their proper place. No need to dwell on something he couldn’t control – well not till four anyway. He loved the museum. All Tom’s life aviation had been his passion. When old enough he was in the air, soaring over Indiana farmlands he’d known since birth. In his early 20’s when war broke out he enlisted, eventually taking part in some tough missions over Europe. When his years as a pilot ended, Tom moved into various functions involving interservice planning. As retirement from the Air Force loomed, a connected friend, knowing of his passion for aviation, and its history, asked if he would care to become Superintendent in the Aeronautics Division of the Museum. The affirmative came in seconds.
A great deal of coordination between curators, educators, historians, preservationists as well as a multitude of other disciplines required someone with an ability to act as a liaison; to insure that ruffled feathers were kept at a minimum. This was especially true in the rarified air of DC, where politics could lean heavy, and occasionally did, on places with a high public profile. Mike asked Tom to help that evening because he could get the irregular done with minimum fuss. He would have to take care of several things that night, moving security off their routine, personnel off the floor, and maintenance to perform an unscheduled task. Each activity - no questions asked. Tom had often done these sorts of things before, handling the unscheduled, the emergency, the unexpected – keeping minor fiascos from becoming major ones. OK – this was one more – but Mike said I would thank him for it later. Curious.
“I want you to get one of those wide ladders with handrails from maintenance. After everyone has left, personally bring it over to and under the Spirit of St. Louis.” Mike’s eyes locked on Tom’s when he said this. “Right under so as someone could climb up and into the cockpit. Understand?”
Tom ever so slightly, quivered.
“You know that employee’s entrance, the secluded one on the east side?”
“Make sure it’s unlocked and left ajar. Be there, out of sight, ready to help if needed, but stay in the background.”
“Sure Mike.” Again, eyes locked on one another.
It was near eight when Tom heard the faint sound of footsteps in the entryway. The old gentleman, appeared. Thin, one might say gaunt, walking slowly, every step an effort. He approached the ladder and slowly ascended. Hesitating at the top, he paused to get his balance, then slid into the cockpit. Minutes ticked off in complete silence.
Concerned that the old man might stumble on the way down, Tom quietly moved near – still out of sight – but close enough if needed. The door opened, the gentleman got out. Paused for a minute, gently caressing the fuselage.
Then, slowly, carefully he came down the steps. Tom intent, watching his every move. Toward the bottom a stumble – Tom saw it coming. Like a flash he was there to stop the fall. Startled, surprised, disoriented – but only for a second. Then a smile and soft, “Thank you.” Tom stepped back, out of the way. The man slowly ambled off, looking back just once at the airship. Tom was speechless, in awe of his boyhood hero.
* * * * *
It wasn’t a surprise to Tom when he opened his newspaper a few weeks later so see the headline.
“Famed Aviator Charles Lindbergh dies at 72. First to solo across the Atlantic”
Excerpted from "Carry the Light" with the permission of Sand Hill Review Press, the publisher. The book is available for purchase for $12 on Amazon.com.
Greg Erion is retired from the railroad industry and teaches history part-time at Skyline College.
To see all of the excerpts published on San Bruno Patch, visit the "Carry the Light" anthology topic page.