“You see,” says my older brother John, “it is the middle part I remember, always the middle part, because we heard it repeated so many times . . . every Sunday between nine and ten, downstairs, perched on stools. No one ever told us why.” There was a completeness to it, something solid and masterful, like an instinct, a disclosure of something secret.
RRRRROOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr … rrrrrrrrrrrooooooooOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Overhead the little (small?) biplane is climbing and diving, performing aerobatic maneuvers, stunts, above the table we are all seated around—we are eating. Tapping on his water glass for attention, father announces that the time has come to judge the pilot’s performance. Father calls out the maneuver, and we all rate it from one to ten. Someone gives the loop a ten. John disagrees. He says that the figure was egg-shaped on top and only votes a seven. On my plate my scrambled eggs are getting cold. Although it is March the weather is beautiful: clear, sunny. I had hung my jacket behind me over the chair. Sunny weather always has more charm in the winter because it is unexpected, and you know it won’t last. But despite the violence of the sunshine, I am getting cold.
Father shouts, “It is my turn to fly!”
The biplane lands on the table, bouncing lightly on the red-checkered surface. The pilot gets out; my father gets in. The pilot, appearing tired, is glad for the rest. He has been in the open cockpit, flying for our amusement for over an hour. He is tired.
Overhead, circling just below the ceiling, my father turns on the smoke and we all applaud. My father is old and doesn’t turn on the smoke much anymore.
He begins to write in white against the lapis lazuli sky: G O O D C O T T O N. The wind blows away the “good” before my father has completed the “cotton”; however we all know what he has written because it is all he ever writes.
Banging through the screen door (there always is a screen door in a southern screed) General Lee bangs into the kitchen waving his arms, shouting and pointing: “Who’s up there in the biplane? I, General Lee, generally fly the biplane!”
“My father is up in the biplane,” my older brother kvells.
“Then tell him to get the hell down here right now!” General Lee proclaims.
Hearing this my father, pulling back the power, spirals down in tight circles, the screech of the wind through the flying wires drowning out the sound of the throttled-back engine. He lands on the third bounce, sliding on the plastic table cloth. Exiting the cabin head first, my father rights himself, and, standing on the lower wing, holding a cabane strut with his left hand, salutes the general with his right hand saying: “I understand Sir that you, General Lee, generally fly the biplane.”
After performing a predetermined flight inspection, the general’s aides determine that the biplane’s fuselage is one and one-half inches shorter than it should be. The chief of the aides announces officially: “Generally, General Lee flies a biplane that is one and one-half inches longer.”
After considerable discussion a committee is set up to investigate the problem of the shrinking biplane. No one can figure out where the missing one and one-half inches have gone. The committee studies the plans and does a computer mock-up. Meanwhile General Lee has wiggled into the too small cockpit, and cannot get out. “I generally fly in a much longer biplane,” General Lee announces to the anxious crowd.
Hitting the starter switch (by accident or design no one will ever know) the general roars the engine to life; then he roars the biplane down the runway. General Lee is a bit over gross and the airplane cannot lift off. John, who is seated at the end of the table, quickly moves his chair, and the biplane and the general disappear over the edge, only to reappear again climbing slowly.
My mother, who hasn’t liked General Lee ever since he sent my brother off to be killed at Gettysburg hisses (sibilates): “May God have mercy on his soul!” Then she turns on the overhead fan.
At ceiling height now, General Lee, deftly avoiding the whirling metal blades, begins his skywriting.
“Good Cotton! Good Cotton!” we all shout.
But the general’s first letter is an “S”. We are stunned!
“Bet it’ll be shrimp,” someone said.
“Salvation,” John prophesied.
“Suffusion,” my sister hoped.
But the trailing smoke behind the general’s plane puffs out the word: S A U E R B R A U T E N.
We truly are stunned, no one knowing that the general was able to write in German.
Then commenced a series of maneuvers the likes of which we had never before seen in the sky, and, I dare say we shall probably never see again: spins (inverted and upright), loops (inside and outside), rolls (4, 8, and 16 point, as well as snaps; doubles and triples!), Cuban-eights, humpty-bumps, Immelmanns, hammerhead turns, tail slides, and lomcevaks, all executed by the general with consummate skill and precision. We are impressed!
As he flies low over the runway inverted, his hands outside the cockpit waving, General Lee shouts: “I generally fly much lower than this, but this here biplane is one and one-half inches shorter than it should be!”
“Don’t fly too low, General Lee!” we reply, our voices as one—but too late. The general is unable to pull up to avoid the lighted candelabrum (a Menorah?) my mother has placed on the table in front of her. (As the general was flying inverted, and the controls are reversed, he would have had to push the stick down to make the plane go up, which may explain why he mistakenly pulled the stick back, making the nose go down with fatal result.)
The flame from the candles must have ignited the spilled fuel; the explosion is quick and violent, the canvas-covered craft burning fiercely in the center of the table. An immense and lonely flame ascends from the wreckage, from its summit black smoke pouring continuously at the ceiling, mournful and imposing like a funeral pyre. A magnificent death had come to General Lee, like a grace, like a gift, like a reward at the end of his laborious days—the general surrendered his weary ghost to the stars, and to the memories of his glorious triumphs.
There is a statue of General Lee in our town square that depicts him astride a horse, his face upturned to the sky, with a flowing beard spread out across his chest. This depiction is generally considered to be accurate; however, I can tell you it is not. Although General Lee was generally believed to be well connected, there was something wrong with his luck—after the war he never did quite get it on.