(Based on an actual encounter)
“It was 20 years ago and I remember it as clear as the day they were born,” he told me, “My two beautiful baby girls joined me up in the clouds, in the skies, to fly a plane with their dear ol’ dad.”
The man was propped up against the bar by his well-worn arms, his elbows lining the chipped wooden surface with drunken familiarity. His back was slumped forward, his messy beard bouncing in time to his story. Levis from over a decade ago sat on his waist, arguing with the man’s belly for a little more room. If it weren’t for his affection for his children, I would have sidled away from the bar with my fresh drink in hand.
He turned toward me, “You have a very kind face,” he remarked, “You must have a few creative bones in your body.”
I blushed at this sudden attention, “Me?”
He laughed, a deep barrel laugh as though summoned from the enormous kegs behind the bar. He continued his story.
“You see, I made something of myself, like every good American should do. I started from the very bottom, came over to the US of A from the UK, created a cargo plane empire, made some good and hearty money and sold it off. I am a better man because of it.”
He stopped to take a long, deep swallow of beer, wiping the froth from his cracked lips and motioning to the bartender to serve up another. He looked over to me, “You finished there?” He nodded to the bartender, “A drink for the lady, too. Whatever she’s having.”
He winked at me, his caterpillar eyebrows slipping from position for a mere second. I swallowed the last of my whiskey ginger and accepted the second that made its way in front of me. I took a sip— strong. I winced quietly.
I prodded, “What happened 20 years ago?”
A chuckle overtook him for a brief moment and the man let his arms slip away from the bar to his knees, “You’re going to love this one. I love this one and I am a grown ass man with tear ducts that don’t do much no more.”
I laughed . I liked that one.
“It was 20 years ago and I remember it as clear as the day my girls were born. Now, mind you, my girls are all grown up and making something of themselves. Bella has gone on to go to Medical School. And Liz has gone on to be a world-class politician for this beautiful country we live in today. You know, she was the youngest serving member of the Vermont State legislation? That’s my baby, that’s my girl. She makes her old man proud, very proud indeed,” He stopped to take another deep sip of beer, his free hand mopping up the dribbles on his beard.
“Bella was 6 and Liz was 9, a dependable big sister, as always. It was Take-Your-Daughter-To-Work Day. They came up with me, up in the skies, in my cargo plane, and joined me right up there in the front. You know what that’s like? You can press your nose against the glass and see out below you into the world you were flying over—the world you were conquering as a human being! And my little girls got to sit there— no, I mean STAND THERE AND WALK AROUND— as their daddy and daddy’s crew mates took care of everything.”
“We were down south, past the tip of Florida, headed toward Puerto Rico. It was then, at that beautiful and amazing moment, that we saw… you ready for this?” His eyes merrily twinkled in the barely-lit bar, his right hand gripping the frosty glass purposefully, fingers ridden with condensation, “We saw a family of whales! An entire, extended family, leaping out of the water, gliding at the surface, playing and swimming and— I swear—laughing amongst themselves! I knew then and there what I had to do,” He paused for a moment, eyeing me wildly. I leaned in further, trying to get as close as I could to this story, to feel the words slip through my hair and my fingertips.
His face naturally and suddenly morphed into a serious standstill, his upper lip twitching with obvious excitement, waiting for me to say something.
“Well? What did you do?” I played along willingly, entranced.
“We got closer, that’s what we did!” He bellowed this statement, booming each word triumphantly throughout the entire Northampton bar, shaking the battery-powered flickering candles on the bar top and startling the bartender enough to come over to refill our drinks once again. My eyes widened.
“How close did you get?” I inquired enthusiastically. I genuinely wanted to know.
“500 feet!” He proclaimed it proudly, as one can only articulate something as profound as this, “It was very illegal, but we got so close to those whales! The look on my little girls’ faces,” He paused ever so briefly as though the crackling image was playing in his head, right there in that Northampton Bar. “We got so close we could see the eyeballs of those whales looking up at us…. It was that moment that I knew I loved more than anything,” He choked up and stumbled on his words, “I knew then, for sure and forever, that I loved being a Father.”
I reached out and touched his arm. I could see the whole thing play out in my own mind. The excitement of the cockpit. The hustle and bustle of the crewmates, getting their work done as best as possible with two cute little girls running around on their plane. The whirring of the plane’s engine edging closer and closer still to the glistening blue-green water, the whales dancing playfully in front of the plane, looking up and taking notice with indifference. And ultimately, the glee of two little girls and the satisfaction and love of their father. I smiled warmly and took a happy mouthful of my whiskey drink, watered down with melted ice.
He sensed my emotions, “That ain’t the half of it. Ain’t the half of it.” His eyes gleamed and looked onward.
I waited patiently. I knew he would continue.
“As those whales passed through the water beneath us, I edged the direction of the plane to face Southwest. There, below us in the water—mind you, only 500 feet away—were a group of Dominican refugees escaping to Puerto Rico.” He paused for effect, slightly working my patience. Luckily, he continued immediately, “The rafts lined up in the water, a large handful of weary travelers almost on the doorstep of the island. Wives and their husbands and their children, young men mostly, looking desperately for freedom and money for their families.
“My girls looked up at me with expectant eyes and I knew they were semi-aware. The oldest, the 9 year-old Liz, asked me, ‘Dad? Daddy? Where are they going?’ I couldn’t even take those deep brown eyes of hers looking up to me for an answer. I explained to them who they were, that they were escaping a life of poverty and misfortune for an island more promising and righteous.
“ ‘However,’ I did say to them, I said, ‘it is very illegal what they are doing. As Americans, it’s up to us to turn them in. Or, we can disobey the law and let them ride away to Puerto Rico. But, I am going to let you girls decide. You need to let me know if these people on the rafts should go back home or should get a chance to go to Puerto Rico.’ As I said this, Liz became very serious and took her younger sister by the hand. They walked out of the cockpit, into the main den of the plane, away from me, and talked it out in a very seriously and very quietly. I could barely hear them, but I knew they were discussing, slightly arguing, thinking and reacting.”
He sighed happily, as though the very thought of his daughters talking it out was ultimately contenting. And then, another beer. Another Whisky Ginger. Another dose of storytelling.
“Liz then came charging into the cockpit, her baby sister gripping her hand tightly. I gave them the look, the look to see what they decided to do. ‘Daddy,’ Liz proclaimed, a little gurgle to her, ‘Daddy, we got to let them go to Puerto Rico. They deserve to be free. America let us in from the UK. They should get into the country they want to.’”
The old burly man heaved a loud audible sign, prerequisite for the tears that could form in his eyes. He looked over at me, tugging my heart so violently I thought I was going to lose it right there in the bar, “I told her, Alright then. Alright then, let’s set ‘em free!’ I brought the plane down even closer and I gave the command to the crew. We tipped the wings back and forth, one side to the other, to show we would not report them to the authorities. And, my dear, how they celebrated! It was a sight to behold, I tell you! Shouts and whoops and oars in the air and smiles that nearly broke their faces in two! My little girls were pressed up against the glass, beaming back and waving and banging on the window, asking me if they could see us. Yes, they can, I said. Oh, yes they could see us that day!”
With that, he swept his arms high in the air and stood, his pint glass splashing nearby occupants. The pride that radiated from his body was indescribably loud, permeating through the bar, slicing the darkness with a magnificent glow. I shook my head and smiled along with him, raising my glass to his and clinked—for the cargo plane man and the 2 little girls that were given the gift of decision.