Johnny is a fighter pilot. He dives, barrel rolls, and swims among angels. Air screams past his windscreen at unknowable speeds while beams of sunlight flash through the clouds like the hand of God. The plane around him vanishes as every connection to reality seems to fade save for the stick in his hands. The roar of the engine disappears, quieting to a tiny vibration at the back of his head. He doesn’t need the steel or the glass – he is flying under his own power.
The screech of metal tears him from his waking dream as bullets rip through the checkered wings of his plane. Johnny’s head jerks around and spots his adversary twisting himself around the clouds, duplicating his every move. His shadow has caught up to him at last, blinking through the clouds like a ghost.
He jerks the stick upward, jumping toward the incalculable blue above. The plane heaves itself out of the white and shoots towards the heavens, violently shaking as the engine doubles its efforts to keep itself aloft.
The shadow lurks beneath him, matching his speed and grace. Another wave of bullets hiss their hate as they sail past him, two or three connecting with a precise staccato like some crude music.
The plane bucks as Johnny dives toward the ground… bucks, and then screams. Bullets tear into the plane’s belly, ripping through the fuel tank and spilling its blood into the heavens. Johnny twists the plane around and sees the dark ink hovering in midair, beautiful and weightless even as it falls.
The dashboard dials spin madly as bullets shred his wings again. He sees the white of the clouds through the ragged holes. He closes his eyes… and releases the stick. He feels himself relax, his breathing slowing as he reaches for the latch of the ejection seat. His hand closes about it, and he waits. The nose of the plane dips… and as it begins its first sickening spin back into the clouds, he pulls hard.
Johnny threw the toy plane at the ground and mouthed the word boom.
He stood looking at it for some time, reflecting on his brave final flight, even as he felt his mind return to reality. He felt his bare feet in the tall grass, and felt a gentle wind as a turntable scratched a tune from somewhere inside the house, made wordless by distance. At last he picked it up and held it in the air before him, studying its pleasing lines. The metal toy was heavy in his hands, its color the gunmetal gray of cold aluminum. It had black stripes and white stars on the wings. He turned the propeller on the plane’s nose absently. The science of flight would have escaped him, but at five-years-old, it was enough to know that it just worked – that this beautiful machine flew impossibly among the clouds.
Johnny turned on his bare feet and saw his mother coming across the grass toward him in her flowered summer dress, walking lightly in the midday sun. He looked at her and then at the ground. When he finally returned the look on her expectant face, he simply nodded.
The drive to town hall was silent. Johnny sat in the back seat of the family’s Chrysler and held the plane in his lap, his forehead pressed against the window. He watched homes march past, counted the telephone poles, and numbered the people who waved cheerfully at his mother. He watched the world turn.
Johnny fumbled with the door handle and jumped to the ground when the car came to a stop, and had his door closed before his mother had opened hers. He walked around the car to the driver’s side and waited, head bowed, for his mother to exit. Then, tucking the plane beneath an arm with one hand, and taking his mother’s hand in the other, they set off toward the doors of the hall. They were flung wide open with posters hanging above, printed in capital letters:
PHILADELPHIA SCRAP METAL DRIVE
GET INTO THE SCRAP!
SUPPORT THE TROOPS AND THE WAR EFFORT
GET CASH FOR YOUR TRASH!
“SOON WE WILL HAVE OUR STORM TROOPERS IN AMERICA!”
- ADOLPH HITLER
WHAT DO YOU SAY, AMERICA?
There was a small line of people that stretched out the door. They waited patiently for their turn, holding broken toasters, hubcaps, bent gardening tools, scrap paper, and anything else that would help turn the gears of war. Johnny didn’t notice that he was the only one who came carrying something that was not broken – something whose value could be measured beyond the raw materials that comprised it. But his mother did. The thought made her smile proudly as they took their place in line.
Soon enough he stepped across the threshold and left the bright sun outside. He blinked his eyes to ready himself for the interior and was greeted by a cluster of people approaching the series of collection bins standing nearby. Little old ladies smiled and bobbed from nearby, thanking the community for their selflessness, directing them to the appropriate receptacles.
He stepped up and took his place beside one of the collection bins. It was almost as tall as he was. He didn’t look at his mother but he felt her palm on his shoulder and it was all the reassurance he needed. His small arms hefted the plane aloft over his head one last time and held it suspended over the lip of the barrel. He expected it to be taken from him; he didn’t anticipate the letting go. The plane was warm from its time in the sun; Johhny felt his fingertips adhere to its smooth surface for just one brief, surprising beat too long and then it was tumbling nose-first and disappeared too quickly into the barrel, where it landed out of his sight with a small metallic clatter.
Johnny walked through the doors a fighter pilot, but he left a soldier. His face wore as close an approximation of nobility as a five-year-old could muster. The hand that had clutched the plane on the way in hung empty in his pocket. He stopped suddenly, looked up at the American flag hung proudly above him, and then at his mother.
She looked down, smiling her approval. She said nothing, letting her eyes speak instead. I’m proud of you, they seemed to say. But there was a sadness there, too, just behind her smiling eyes.
The science of flight may yet escape Johnny, but charity is not lost on him. He will rest tonight knowing that this daydream, one of the few things that was truly his to sacrifice, had been given in pursuit of a better world. Eventually he will question why men must fight and die. He may wonder, in time, why the world has begun to grow so cold and callous.
But not today.
For now he is a soldier, sacrificing what he can for the country he is yet too young to love, and too young by far to know how to question. And his toy plane – once a facsimile of an instrument of death, will become an actual one; bullet casings are hard to come by. Bombs require raw materials. Or maybe his miniature plane will become the full-size version, and keep Daddy safe in the skies.
As men march to war, children march toward childhood’s end. And one day Johnny might even wonder if there was ever any such thing as innocence; the Bible, after all, tells him that we all are born wretches, irredeemable but for the grace of God.
Childlike wonder is satisfied with evasions and half-answers to life’s messy questions. The mind of the adult comes to terms with the fact that no answers will ever be found, no matter how relentlessly they are sought.
For now, Johnny’s world is huge and bright. He can march past the propaganda and know that his was a job well done. The leering face of Uncle Sam on the posters tells him as much.
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