This novel started forming in my head in January 1985. My sister Kelly had gotten her pilot’s license in secret. I was inspired. In 1990 I started putting words to paper when I became an at-home mom. Not until August 1999 (having been pregnant and/or nursing for an entire decade) did I write my way to “The End” after many a 4 a.m. session on a long-since-extinct computer. I paid an editor to critique it, sent it out, got one rejection, then set it aside for so long, it dawned on me that what began as a contemporary novel was now a historical. Oops. And “nobody wants to read about the Vietnam War,” I kept hearing, even though the novel opens 20 years after John Eisen is shot down in Vietnam in his “phabulous” F-4 Phantom. Well, everybody wants to read about a woman who races a custom-built plane at the Reno Air Races, right?
Lou Rapier, the walking aviation encyclopedia, and several pilots helped me with the aviation scenes in the 1990s (Heidi Porch, Rick Charles, Tom Vernon, Fred Hulbert, Harvey Hop, Jim Henderson, Dick Lenth). Ten years after writing “The End,” I found the memoirs of Julie Clark and Patty Wagstaff, both co-authored by Ann L. Cooper. After hearing beta readers tell me Kate doesn’t “talk like a pilot,” I was delighted to see Patty Wagstaff quoting Zen masters, philosophers and sages such as Sartre, Eugen Herrigel and Krishnamurti, along with sportswriters and motivational speakers, and developing her own philosophy. Alas, writers are told that real life is “too good” for fiction. I.e., cliches and stereotypes are easier to believe than extraordinary people like Patty. My vision of Kate was shot down because not enough people have heard of Patty Wagstaff, Julie Clark, and other super-achieving women.
I owe a debt of gratitude and an apology to E.E. Giorgi for her time and talent in creating the cover art. Apologies, because this novel was supposed to be published once I got a book cover. Oops.
The look I had in mind was not available among stock images for sale. This is one side of Kate:
But Elena caught another side, a woman looks feminine and dreamy despite her leather jacket and goggles. Readers, which look do you prefer?
Thanks to Harvey Click, I added more details about the milk cows.
Stanchions look like medieval torture devices
And here is one of a gazillion versions of the opening pages. Online fiction workshops and beta-readers have sent me back to the old drawing board of revising, remodeling, wrecking-ball whole scenes and deleting characters, purging all traces of an omniscient narrator, removing scenes told from the mother’s point of view, and the sister’s, but I drew the line at removing the father’s POV. Here he is, taking up the most-valuable real estate of Page One, though he may yet be shuffled to second billing, behind Kate.
PART ONE: Eisen Country
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles
~ Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
A long white line spread across the sky, ruining a perfectly good sunrise. Paul Eisen squinted at the flash of silver trespassing overhead. Another jet. Some three hundred people might be up there, in that tin can with wings. Husbands, mothers, children, higher than the clouds, thousands of miles above the earth.
Eisen had flown only once in his life and not of his own free will.
He paused on his way to the old red barn, catching a whiff of something sweet and familiar from the north grove. As sure as death and taxes, violets bloomed in time for May Day. He squinted but the blossoms huddled close to the ground. The trees were budding, finally, a pale golden green against dark brown wood. Buffeted by prairie winds, the gnarled oaks and tilting firs had held their ground for a hundred years.
Through the trees, the view unfolded with thin strips of green on black, converging on the horizon. The land was his all the way to the end of the mile going north and for half a mile from east to west. What would happen to the place when he…
Like a billboard, the word DIED intruded on the landscape of his mind. He’d drive right by it, normally, but not today. The first of May had come down the track faster than ever this year.
He unlatched the gate to the pasture. The grazing Holsteins lifted their massive heads in unison and focused big, gentle eyes on him.
“Happy May Day, girls.” He could swear they understood him. His voice got their attention, anyway. “Well, it finally happened. Paul Henry Eisen is seventy now.”
The cows stared as if waiting for a punch line.
“Happy Birthday to me,” he explained.
His birthday was an international distress signal: Mayday Mayday Mayday. It had nothing to do with the first of May, just some misspelling of a French word that sounded like mayday. Not that anyone cared how things got started or why. Farmers to this day were demonized for Daylight Savings Time because people remembered things wrong. Some educated idiot got it in his head that farmers had been yammering for resetting the clocks, not against it, and the whole world had it wrong ever since. You couldn’t pound sense into people’s heads with a shovel, though Eisen was often tempted to try.
His parents’ generation was gone. He was the old guard now. Four younger brothers had not spoken to him in some thirty years, all because of the land. His own children had flown off without a care. Where were the grandkids to show for it?
Alexandra, their youngest, the only blue-eyed blonde, was gone from their daily lives, gone from Nebraska for good. Concert pianist, of all things, lost in the cluttered skyline of New York City.
Kate was all over the world. California for now, but tomorrow might find her in Africa again, throwing her life away in the Peace Corps.
He wouldn’t allow himself to think of the boy.
* * *
Her plane was a thing of beauty and a monument to the minds who made human flight possible. Best of all, this T-34 Mentor was hers. Kate Eisen had struggled, risked eternal damnation for it, and dreamed of a plane like this since her first feeble glimpse of the Fokker Eindecker her brother handcrafted as a crib mobile for his baby sister. He’d painted the fierce little monoplane red, so Kate’s first life-size plane had to be the same color even though Dick Jackson called it sacrilegious. Paint the town red, sure, but not that classic old blue military trainer.
Kate paid for and restored that plane herself. She could paint leopard spots or zebra stripes on it or whatever she damn well pleased.
“Get ready, Charlie,” she said to her plane. Five-Papa-Charlie was flight code for T-34 Mentor N245PC. Kate bounced onto the wing and slid back the canopy. Ah, nothing else smelled like the cockpit of a propeller-driven aircraft. The scent of gas and burnt oil was always faintly lingering, like the sweat of an engine hard at work. After wild plum blossoms and clover hay, it was the best smell in all the world.
Kate slipped into the cockpit, grabbed the faded blue pinstripe cap Johnnie wore a lifetime ago and tucked her long braid under it. She leaned into the backseat and clicked the five-point harness over a little passenger, a vintage Steiff fox with a cutely tilted head, long legs that once stood straight, a tail that used to be bushy and stiff. Other children had teddy bears; Johnnie had given her a bright red fox named Saggy, so called after it kept losing its stuffing.
Tightening her own harness, Kate snuggled into her metal cocoon. A glance at the oil pressure, the fuel tank: akro for aerobatics. Check. Prop all the way in: check. Mixture: rich. She clamped a cushioned headpiece over her ears and tightened the strap. A tiny boom mic projected before her lips. She powered the engine and absorbed its snarling, pulsating thunder as if appropriating it as her own voice.
“One minute to go,” crackled a voice in her headset. Kate craned her neck to see over the wing and waited for the thumbs up from her flight crew, aka The Liberians, or “Kate’s Strays” or worse, if Dick was talking about them. “Ready?”
“Ready,” she said on seeing four dark thumbs go up. “Clear prop!”
Propeller blades whirled into a blur. She hauled back on the stick. The wheels lifted; the engine’s growl turned to a whine.
Kate reached for the clouds, bright-edged, billowing cumulous in a blue, blue sky. Flying high, she spotted the dividing line between sunshine and shadow on the ground below. Down there, a sunny day could turn cloudy at the whim of the wind. Up here, the sun could shine forever.
“Happy May Day from Valdez, the Switzerland of Alaska,” came the announcer’s voice. “Welcome to our annual May Day Fly-In airshow. You’re in for a special treat, with Kitty Fox and her All-American aerial ballet …”
Oh, hell, no.
A throbbing beat from the stereo set the rhythm. Kate turned up the volume.
“Getting here is more than half the fun,” the voice from below broke in. Kate only caught part of his spiel. “… Alaska, one of the wildest and most wonderful countries on earth. As John Muir said, all that the sun shines on is beautiful, so long as it is wild.”
Starting with the Navy hymn, Eternal Father, Strong to Save, she put her T-34 through a slow and regal aerial ballet. The pace quickened with each military anthem that played in her headset and on the ground below.
Kate Eisen, a force to be wrecking with, her sister Alexandra would say, chronically unaware that the right word was reckoned with.
Their dad was seventy today. She’d mailed a card, which is more than he’d ever done for anyone’s “special” day (gagging over that word). She didn’t call home, though. Couldn’t call, even if she found a phone booth; couldn’t show up in person, not that she even wanted to–
Faster, harder, she pushed a 300-horse-power engine through twisting turns in the sky. Creating a force of 8 negative Gs, the effect was like 800 pounds of force trying to tear her out of her seat.
Throughout the patriotic medley, Kate pushed buttons to release red, white and blue smoke. Her feet responded to the pressure of her plane’s trajectory as she choreographed her aviation routine. Like a spinning ballerina, she never lost awareness of where she was in space.
Off we go, into the wild blue yonder, signaled the end of her show. Kate set off fireworks before she soared out of sight.
* * *
Dewdrops glistened in the grass. Eisen’s leather lace-up ankle boots turned dark and wet. “Here, k’boss,” he called to the Holsteins. “K’boss, k’boss.” Their bovine replies sounded more like mwaaaaw than moo, except for the one who swung her head at him and said “meh.” Every dairy herd had a lead cow, the bossy one who started the march to the barn, and this one had the perfect name, Ethel.
If Ethel Stadtmueller caught wind of that one, he’d be in for it.
Ethel the heifer lumbered to the open door and walked straight to her stall, third from the front. She pushed her head between the stanchions to reach a cast iron bowl filled with water, and Eisen moved a board on top to lock the stanchion in place. The Holsteins paraded in, slow, steady, and calm, moving the way Eisen’s daughter Kate did not.
The cows averaged fifteen-hundred pounds each, with horns, hooves and tails that could be put to deadly use, but the horns were sawed off. Ears were tagged with an ID number, but Eisen knew them all by the pattern of their white spots on black hides.
Betty came second, heading straight to the last stall, as always. Velma, Nadine, Bertha, Frieda and Malita followed. Every name came straight from the pews of Foursquare Gospel Church, where the old heifers, also known as old biddies, aka church ladies, walked in on two legs. Minnie, Lucille, Lorna, Ada. Polly Crocket was the exception. She kept sneaking through the wire fence of the pasture and wandering off, so her name came from a 1956 movie about Davy Crockett’s daughter.
Eisen paused before shutting the barn and glimpsed the O’Briens’ three-story brick house to the west. It had towered over the Eisen place for more than a hundred years. In all justice, Eisen men had towered over the smug, scrawny little Irish Catholics just as long. From their hilltop, the O’Briens had such a good view of his place, it was no wonder they wished he’d retire and sell them the best land this side of the Missouri.
Too bad his own children weren’t as interested in the land. A perfect half-section, three hundred twenty acres, south of Omaha. A pretty view, in the rolling Missouri River valley, two miles south and one mile west of Dumont, a town too small to merit a place on the map.
A breeze rustled the treetops, making the leaves dance and glimmer in the light. Eleanor would say the invisible wind somehow proved the existence of her invisible God. Eisen could feel the wind on his cheek, but he couldn’t feel God even in his heart. One day, a day no longer so far off, they’d both be six feet under. No wind could stir in the cold dark earth. No words could form on his lips, or he’d shatter the silence to say, “You see? I was right. There’s nothing. Nothing.”
* * *
Like all good things, her flight came to an end. It took a while for Kate’s ears and bloodshot eyes took a while to clear, after the assault of all those G forces.
She unbuckled her restraints, unbraided her hair and shook it loose. Best part of her show, Dick said, was the surprise of a beautiful young woman popping up from the cockpit, arms raised in victory, waving an American flag. No one expected the pilot of those manic maneuvers to be anything but a macho stud like himself.
Kate took a deep breath and headed to the airshow flight line. Time to summon her sense of humor, put on her entertainer’s persona, and be gracious.
“You sure do fly good, for a girl,” said the first guy in line to greet her. She’d heard that one a hundred times too many. Laugh it off, Dick said, and she did. Men who weren’t jerks liked to sound protective and concerned, offering advice that only showed Kate they knew far less than she did about aviation.
Smile. Never let on that they didn’t have a clue. Her flight crew, Emerson, Winslow, Ezekiel, and Isaiah, knew that trick by heart. They always smiled and nodded politely at The Dick, as they called him behind his back. She tended to let the man know exactly what she thought of his lame-brain ideas or demeaning comments.
She signed programs with her air show name, Kitty Fox. Quick and easy, she answered the usual questions: How did she fly like that without getting dizzy? Whatever gave her the idea to learn all those ticks? “I don’t do tricks,” she said with mock indignation to a cute little old man dressed in jeans and an air-show souvenir T-Shirt. “These are precision aerobatic maneuvers that take a lot of practice.”
Dick bought her a T-Shirt with the stock answers printed on back: “Yes, my mom knows I do this” (big, fat lie). “No, I’m not crazy” (that one was debatable). “No, don’t try this at home, kids” (sounded too much like her dad). At least the dumb shirt didn’t include Which branch did you serve in? You didn’t? Why not? Her answer had the well-worn patina of the wooden hand rail to the church door. “I got sidetracked in Liberia with the Peace Corps,” Kate said, “which just so happens to be where I found my flight crew.”
The Liberian refugees nodded politely at anyone who scored eye contact with them, but made themselves too busy to field any questions about the world they’d left behind. If confronted, Emerson, Winslow, Ezekiel and Isaiah pretended not to understand English. Kate honored their reticence. Some things were so serious they could only be joked about, and some things were best passed over in silence. Niels Bohr, and Wittgenstein. Not that she ever quoted philosophers. Her dad tried to break her of that, and Dick finished the job.
Children were a delight no matter what they said. Kate melted when little girls stood too close, gazing up at her in awe and wonder.
“Work hard,” she told them. “No matter how many times you fall, get up again. And remember, the best feeling in life is to do what people say you can’t do.”
Strangers told her of loved ones in the Gulf War and asked her to pray for them while she was in the sky, as if prayers at ground level carried less weight, as if prayer kept anyone safe from snipers and roadside bombs.
“Of course,” Kate promised them. It cost her nothing yet brought her so many smiles and tears of gratitude.
As usual, Does your mama know what you do? came up. Kate laughed as if hearing it for the first time.
“Hell no,” she said. “And don’t you tell her. Dad would have me grounded for life.”
Most people missed the pun in “grounded.”
Keeping her career a secret was too much work. After more than a decade as a pilot, Kate Eisen, aka Kitty Fox, was finally getting ready to fly out of the closet.
* * *
Six weeks after May Day, he could count on the next occasion for his children to forget him: Father’s Day. Right in between was Memorial Day, not that he’d ever set foot in a parade with other WWII vets.
Eisen circled the tractor, making sure everything was in order before starting the El Turbo, as Kate had dubbed the International 1066 turbo engine. He’d shortened it and Americanized it to Al.
In the yard, Eleanor was hanging shirts on the line. He could almost see Alexandra toddling behind her with the clothespin bucket. That bubbly little blue-eyed girl. Easier to picture her forever age five than to imagine her in some New York City auditorium, hands flying over a damned nine-foot grand piano.
The El Turbo purred. Diesel smoke puffed from the stack. Eisen knew that engine like the beating of his heart.
Seemed like only yesterday he’d hoisted the boy into his lap and those little hands had gripped the steering wheel of the old “putt-putt,” Eisen’s first tractor. All too soon, the boy’s bright brown eyes shifted from field to sky, from Ertl toy tractors to model airplanes.
The wind brushed his ear. Daddy, it seemed to say, wait for me.
He turned his head, squinting in the afternoon glare, half-expecting to find the voice had been real.
There. Plain as day! A little green Acco seed cap bobbing across the lawn. A toddler in pinstripe bib overalls and leather work boots like Daddy’s. Those plump, rosy cheeks.
For twenty years he hadn’t uttered the name.
Eisen hadn’t meant to say it out loud, not even in a whisper. His eyes smarted but no tears dared fall as he leaned over to help the boy up.
He nearly fell off the tractor.
The sun was bright in the east. A playful breeze stirred the grass. The lawn needed to be mowed. He blinked hard. No little Johnnie.
Overhead, a flash of metal crossed the blue. And another. His tractor drowned out their sound, but there was no mistaking the huge fighter jets streaking into Offutt.
Eisen rose from the seat and shook his fist at the sky.
Home was calling, and Kate had disconnected the line too many times. Then again, home was the sky, not the farm.
“This is written by a woman, for women” – ah, the kiss of death! I honestly believed I’d written something that men might like and women might dislike, what with all the planes, cars, trucks and antique engines, and a predatory POV character.
Once upon a time, this novel was a sprawling 185,000 words, but I’ve gradually pared it down–and I still have another 30,000 to cut to get down to the magical 100,000. That, or I follow the latest trend and make it two novels. Meanwhile, beta readers seem to love or hate the opening chapters. I keep changing them, shuffling them around. Today, the original is back: a seventy-year-old farmer heading to the red barn is on the prime real estate of page one.
“Intellectual Property Theft” is another hurdle to watch for. I’ve written before that I don’t believe the disclaimer novelists put up front:”This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real people, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” Purely? Ha. We all steal traits from people we’ve met, read about, lived with or share DNA with.
This novel was published long after I wrote (but never published!) my own story of a woman pilot. The cover art is pretty awesome.
Grace Lafferty only feels alive when she’s dangling 500 feet above ground. As a post-World War I wing walker, Grace is determined to get to the World Aviation Expo, proving her team’s worth against flashier competitors and earning a coveted Hollywood contract. No one’s ever questioned Grace’s ambition until Henry Patton, a mechanic with plenty of scars from the battlefield, joins her barnstorming team. With each new death-defying trick, Henry pushes Grace to consider her reasons for being a daredevil. Annoyed with Henry’s constant interference, and her growing attraction to him, Grace continues to test the powers of the sky.
After one of her risky maneuvers saves a pilot’s life, a Hollywood studio offers Grace a chance to perform at the Expo. She jumps at the opportunity to secure her future. But when a stunt goes wrong, Grace must decide whether Henry, and her life, are worth risking for one final trick.
Amy Trueblood grew up in California only ten minutes from Disneyland which sparked an early interest in storytelling. As the youngest of five, she spent most of her time trying to find a quiet place to curl up with her favorite books. After graduating from the University of Arizona with a degree in journalism, she worked in entertainment in Los Angeles before returning to work in Arizona. Fueled by good coffee, and an awesome Spotify playlist, you can often find Amy working on the next post for her blog. Her first novel, NOTHING BUT SKY releases March 27, 2018.