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Flying with Dad: A Father's Day essay
I spent most of my childhood up in the air. My dad, Steve, was a pilot. He loved to fly.
“I just loved the feeling of being up in the air,” he told me. “Kind of above the machines on the ground, that were just kind of crawling along and picking their way. Because you could go anywhere.”
Some of my earliest memories are of sitting in the cockpit next to my dad, bursting up above the clouds, and watching the infinite blue sky out the windows of little single-engine planes. I learned the phonetic alphabet pilots use to talk to control towers, you know – Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot – before I learned to read.
Sometimes my dad would even let me take the controls. He’d guide me from the pilot’s seat as I made the wings dip left and right. We’d swoop and glide together, just the two of us, high above the patchwork landscape below.
My dad started raising me on his own when I was two years old. But, really, he’d been taking care of me from day one.
“I just remember when you were born, and I came back to our house, and I looked in this crib and there you were,” he said. “That was the first time it really occurred to me that you were part of my life, you know? I mean you were just a little baby, but you were my little baby.”
My mother was mentally ill, but nobody really knew it until after I was born.
“Your mom,” he told me recently. “Seems like she had imaginary friends and stuff like that. She wasn’t a mother in the sense that she didn’t spend time with you. And so I ended up doing most of that. And I just thought, ‘this is crazy.’”
My parents got a divorce, and my dad went to court to get custody of me.
I asked my dad if he was scared to go it alone as a single parent.
Without hesitation he said, “Absolutely not, no. Because I’d been doing that anyway."
He wasn’t scared of being a single dad, but he was scared of losing me. It was the early 1970s, and it was really rare for a man to get sole custody of a little girl. So, the night before the judge handed down his decision, my dad flew us from Wichita, Kansas, where we lived, to Barstow, California, where there was a little airport my dad knew about. We spent the night in a motel room. I have no memory of this. But I imagine us huddled together under the covers, watching TV, waiting out the long night. My dad wasn’t taking any chances—if he didn’t get custody, he was ready to go on the run with me. Luckily, the judge decided in his favor.
Being raised by a bachelor dad wasn’t always easy, but it was an adventure. As a toddler, my favorite toy was a screwdriver. I carried it with me everywhere, even to bed. Instead of playing with Barbies, I made families out of my dad’s socket wrenches. I wore mismatched clothes and had raggedy haircuts, and was impervious to germs and dirt. I spent more time in the garage than I did in the kitchen, so I never really learned how to cook, but I did perfect “magic potions” – made by mixing together my dad’s aftershave lotions. I didn’t have a mother, but I did have a champion – one who followed his passions, and taught me to do the same.
My dad loved to fly, but he couldn’t afford to buy a plane. So he did PR for airplane companies most of his life, and in return got access to planes whenever he wanted. Before that, though, he was a journalist. He did newspaper reporting, and before that, radio for the Navy. He was following in his dad’s footsteps.
My grandpa was on the radio in Albuquerque, New Mexico from the 1950s to the 1970s. He was born in Brooklyn, the son of Russian immigrants. And he was a self-made man. Even his name was his own creation: Benjamin Texas Caine.
“My father was strict about most things,” my dad told me. “Except that as I was growing up and looking back...well, he always wanted to have a business with his son.”
So my dad and my grandpa started a pizza restaurant together, long before I was born. But before they could make a success of it, my dad fell in love with flying.
“And even though it was his dream to have the family business, he said, ‘Go. Go, follow your dreams.’ And so I did,” my dad remembers.
I asked my dad if there was a lesson he felt like he really learned from his dad.
“He always taught me to look for the good in people––that everybody had something to offer,” he told me.
“And I learned to let you go, you know, because of that experience. To let you find your way and do what you wanted to do. And it's been interesting because my dad was a writer and a journalist, and a news broadcaster and did news commentaries on radio and television, and so I became a journalist, and then you did, too.”
“That's interesting that you said your dad wanted to have a father and son business,” I said. “In a funny way, we do have a family business.”
“Yeah,” he said, laughing. “I hadn't thought about it that way, but you're right, yeah. Because we've all done exactly the same thing. And I remember my daughter – you – saying that you didn't want to do what your dad did, you know. And here you are doing the same thing. Which pleases me to no end.”
There’s a line written by the poet Ranier Maria Rilke that always makes me think about what is was like growing up with my dad. It goes like this: “Believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.”
My dad doesn’t fly anymore—illness and age have put him in the passenger’s seat. But the gift he gave me is the same gift his dad gave him—he taught me how to fly, and then he let me soar.