Flight to Babylon
That morning in the fall of 1967, as our Dodge Suburban station wagon crested Farmington, New Mexico’s tallest bluff, most of its flat desert terrain given over to the municipal airport, I didn’t really expect my father’s eighteen-wheeler to be parked on the narrow berm of the road. But I mentally measured a clearing between a juniper and a scrub oak, and pictured his White Freightliner expertly squeezed in between them. What I did see when my mother and I pulled into the parking lot was Brother Jonas E. Luther’s beige VW Beetle. I told myself that our pastor was there to see me off to college, but I knew otherwise—he was there, in the absence of my father, for my mother.
He was there for her in case she passed out or tried to board the plane with me to pray with the pilots before we took off. He was there if she decided to climb over the flimsy chain-link fence that surrounded the cigar-shaped tank marked “Flammable.” He was there to stop her from lifting the nozzle to her temple and dousing her hair until it fell limp and stringy onto the shoulders of her only good black wool suit, before proceeding to the middle of the runway, genuflecting, pulling one of my father’s old Zippo lighters from her purse, opening the lid, and flicking the spark wheel.
As much anxiety as I had about my mother having another one of her histrionic episodes, I had faith that Brother Luther would not allow her to harm herself to keep me from leaving home. He would hold my mother back from climbing onto the cross she carried with her everywhere. He would tell her that Jesus had already died for her son, and that God would watch over him at Baylor University—“Babylon on the Brazos,” as my mother had recently heard it called by Pat Robertson on The 700 Club.
Brother Luther was stronger than the fleshy neck sagging over his shirt collar indicated. He held firmly onto my mother’s shoulders as I escaped from her arms, hurried across the tarmac and up the rollaway steps. As I crossed the threshold into my future, I felt the prop wash from the left engine of the Frontier Airlines DC-3 buffet my body.
Inside, I glanced into the cockpit—the pilots going down their pre-flight checklist, the scores of gauges and switches—and I was transported back to my first airplane ride, age six, in an open-cockpit biplane. I sat in my father’s lap, his hand on the stick as it moved backward and forward, the plane climbing and diving in response. The wind burned my face, and the engine exhaust stung my eyes and throat.
I didn’t learn until I was older, looking at a picture my mother took that day, that my father wasn’t flying the plane, that we were in the back seat where a duplicate set of controls was synchronized to the pilot’s. That revelation was years later—after the nightly yelling ceased flowing from beneath my parents’ bedroom door, after he left for good, after the last time I lay awake listening for the sound of his diesel engine in the middle of the night. But the WWII airplane models he’d sent me every year for Christmas were still on my bedroom dresser; and I could still name each one, from the P-51 Mustang to the Hellcat.
Buckling my seatbelt, I looked through the window at the blurry image of my mother and Brother Luther, appearing as if they were in a 1940s movie, colorized years later, waving goodbye to their boy going off to war. The father handed the mother his handkerchief, which she used to wipe her eyes, carefully folding it as if she were going to hand it back. Then with a final heave of her chest, she collapsed into his arms, burying her face in his neck, waving open that handkerchief as a flag of surrender, never again looking directly at the son until he came home a man.
Four months later, Christmas break, standing on my mother’s porch, knocking—as usual, the door was locked, even though my mother was expecting me—I was sure I would receive the hero’s welcome. But I didn’t feel heroic.
My first semester had been full of battles, most of which I’d lost—sleeping in on Sunday mornings instead of going to church, playing 9-ball for money at The Golden Cue instead of attending classes, acquiring a taste for Lone Star beer and Marlboro Reds—more so after all hope was gone of salvaging passing grades. The worst part had been the weekly phone calls, pretending to my mother with an upbeat tone in my voice that everything was fine.
I knocked again, this time hammering hard enough with the side of my fist to rattle the front picture window. My plane had arrived early, and I had gotten a ride with a high school acquaintance flying in from Fort Lewis College, since my mother hadn’t answered the phone. Where was she? The Dodge was in the driveway. I walked around to the side of the house. In the back alley, beyond the line of junipers that my father and I had planted more than a decade before, I could see a parked car. There was just enough space between the limbs to make out the distinctive shape of a VW.
Walking to the corner 7-Eleven, I didn’t even care if my mother looked out the window and saw me stop, cup my hands over my mouth and nose until they released a cloud of blue-gray smoke, then slip the Zippo back into the change pocket of my blue jeans. I didn’t glance back as I crossed the street.
About the writer:
Terry Lucas is the author of two full-length poetry collections: In This Room (CW Books, January 2016) and Dharma Rain (Saint Julian Press, October 2016). In addition he is the author of two award-winning poetry chapbooks: Altar Call, selected by the 2013 San Gabriel Valley Literary Festival for the anthology, Diesel; and If They Have Ears to Hear, winner of the 2012 Copperdome Chapbook contest (Southeast Missouri State University Press, 2013). He has received numerous other writing awards, including the 2014 Crab Orchard Review Feature Award in Poetry, the fifth annual Littoral Press Poetry Prize, and six Pushcart Prize nominations. Terry’s poems, reviews, and essays have appeared in dozens of national literary journals, including Best New Poets 2012, Green Mountains Review, Great River Review, PoetryFlash, and South 85 Journal. He has taught in the Chicago public school system as a Master Poet in the Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center’s Writing Center, and is a guest lecturer for the Dominican University Low-Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing. Terry is a 2008 MFA graduate of New England College, having studied under Gerald Stern, Maxine Kumin, Alicia Ostriker and Michael Waters. He is the former Co-Executive Editor of Trio House Press, now serving as an Assistant Editor in order to devote more time to his own writing, as well as to his poetry consulting business. More about Terry and his work can be found here.
Image: “Untitled,” photo by Ines Villeparisis of Alicante, Spain, (@inesvilleparisis) and courtesy of Alcaina & Steve Art Projects. @artcuratorproject