One Last Ride

Everyone remembers the historic battles; only a tiny handful still carry the scars. The brave men and women that serve their country, in past or current conflicts, are heroes. Canada has always been a military that comprises itself completely of volunteers, and is renown world-wide for not only its ferocious fighting spirit, but also as a delegate of peace. There is a cost for peace, however, and those that bear such emotional scars have difficulty relating others, and often have trouble finding peace within themselves; in their mind they still hear the cries of the wounded, and the roar of the canon. 

I would like to dedicate this short story to all the untold heroes of the Canadian military. Each has a story to tell or a song to sing, but they all share one commonality; every one has experienced loss.
   This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
The fly buzzed loudly in the hot summer sun. It circled and landed on the old man's faded blue dress pants. He barely noticed as he sat quietly watching the crowd; the hum of the old fighter planes overhead drowned out the gasps of the spectators and the squeals of the children. It was a magnificent, sunny, summer day, and wispy white clouds slowly sailed by on a endless carpet of blue. The gathered crowd craned their necks to watch the aerial acrobatics in absolute amazement as skilled pilots expertly demonstrated the finesse of the Canadian vintage airplanes overhead.

The fly started to pester the man sitting in the wheelchair. He tried vainly to chase it away, but his wrinkled hand was too slow. Many years ago, he may have been nimble and quick, but now his hands were gnarled into a claw by arthritis, and spotted by age. The bothersome insect buzzed his face and it was all he could do to purse his lips and blow, trying to shoo the fly away. No one noticed the old man, as his family watched with excitement at the bright yellow Harvard aircraft flying overhead, with their tell-tale roar of the single propeller.

Once, a long time ago, the man had been a pilot of these iconic Canadian warplanes, but that was a different era. He had been young and strong; a perfect example of the brave men that flew these aircraft in the hell known as World War Two. Now, he could barely get out of his wheelchair by himself. His thick, brown hair had turned white, and his keen eyes were now glazed over with cataracts. Even the simplest thing in life was difficult now, and the old war veteran sat forgotten in the crowd.

The sound of the engine and the roar of the plane brought memories flooding back; a time of friends and lost love whirled through the old man's mind, as he recalled those he left back in Europe. Even now when he closed his eyes, his still keen mind could picture the faces of his friends and the woman that once broke his heart. Tears brimmed his eyes and spilled unchecked down his wrinkled cheeks as he stared dreamily up at the azure sky, still able to remember the names of those he fought beside so long ago.

“Grandpa”, he heard a small voice calling from behind him, “They're calling your name. Daniel White! That's you, Grandpa!”.

The old man feebly turned to look at the young boy. The innocent face of his Grandson brought a smile to his thin lips, and he reached out with his aching hands to gently pat the youngster on the cheek with pride. He could barely speak he was so weak, and he summoned all his strength just to whisper, “What was that?”

“Dad bought you a ride in a plane!”, the youth squealed with excitement.

“Did I ride in a plane?”, the old man repeated, not fully aware of what that meant.

The young boy's father bent over and hugged the old war veteran. “They're selling Harvard plane rides,dad”, he explained, “We talked about this, remember?”. He leaned over and kissed his dad on the wrinkled cheek and turned to his own son with a wide smile. “Grandpa used to fly these planes back in the war”, he proudly announced.

“Wow!”, the young boy gushed, “Really Grandpa? You used to fly in those”, he asked, pointing at the vintage two-seater airplane taxiing down the runway, his eyes open wide in amazement.

The old man could barely nod. He was trying to comprehend what they were saying about the airplanes, but he knew what a Harvard was. With pride he lifted his clawed hand and pointed at the sturdy airplane as it rumbled by, heading to the hanger, and announced in a shaky voice to his beautiful grandson, “I used to fly those.....”

“Come on!”, the youngster called out with excitement, “They're calling for you! That's your plane”, he pointed. He ran behind his Grandfather and tried hard to push the handles on the wheelchair, but it was too heavy.

“I'll help you with that”, the boy's father chuckled, as he quickly tucked the old man's legs carefully on the metal struts. He leaned over and whispered, “OK dad. Let's go”, and started wheeling the old war veteran over to the parked plane.

The smell of jet fuel clung in the air, mixing with the cloying scent of hot asphalt. The drone of airplane propellers overpowered the roar of the crowd, as the aerobatic team swooped and dove in formation to the thunderous applause from the appreciative audience. All around them, uniformed men and women worked tirelessly to make certain the airshow was on schedule, and that the pilots and crew were safely able to do their best. The gristly Ace pilot took no notice of any of this as they made their way to the airport hot-ramp. All he could see was the bright yellow Harvard gleaming in the sun.

He assumed they wanted to take a closer look, but was surprised when security let the three of them past the gate. He sat up a little straighter as he was wheeled toward the plane he once flew in the war. The paint wasn't quite the same, and the numbers were obviously different, but it still looked the same.

As they wheeled closer, the father leaned over and whispered in the old man's ear, “How's that look dad?”
With a few tears in his eyes, and a lump in his throat, he turned slowly and nodded with a tight smile. “It's missing a few bullet holes, but it looks good”. He reached up and patted his son's hand. Turning to his grandson he proudly thumped his chest, and explained, “I used to fly the original Harvard's in the war”. He turned to stare at the powerful aircraft, and his mind drifted back to the past. He could still see the faces of his friends vividly in his mind, and he barely noticed the tears spilling unchecked down his cheeks. Blinking past the salty, fat, tears, he stared at the old plane. It seemed like another lifetime, and yet, it seemed like just yesterday.

“Dad”, his son gently nudged, “It's your turn”.

“What?”, the old man wheezed. He stared in confusion as a young pilot walked over and shook his hand with pride

“..So, that's you, eh?”, the uniformed Harvard pilot flashed a big grin. “I have to say sir, it's an honour to be your pilot today! Your son tells me you used to fight in these planes back in the war?”

The old man nodded with excitement. He suddenly felt a little lighter. He sat up in his chair with pride, as he spoke to a man that shared his passion for the old iconic warplane, “Yessir!” he beamed, “I was trained in the Harvard, and went on to fly the Spitfire near the end of the war”.

The eager young pilot nodded as he asked, “And when was the last time you went up in one of these planes?”

The old man's face wrinkled as he though hard. “I'm pretty sure”, he rasped, “It was 1962, I flew my last training mission in the Mk 2”.

“Wow!”, the pilot gushed, “That's a long time then”. He turned back to the man still holding the wheelchair and nodded, “Well, I'm ready. How are we getting your dad in the backseat?”

The old man could barely hear them talking as he took a long look at the restored fighter plane. It wasn't until he heard the words, “....use a hoist to get him in the cockpit”, when he finally realized what was going on.

He gently tugged on the pant-leg of the Harvard pilot, and asked, “Did you just say that I'm going up in that plane?”

A broad smile broke over the pilot's face as he nodded, “Yea! We're just trying to figure out how to.....”

The old man stood up.

It had been years since he was forced to use a wheelchair. Arthritis had nearly crippled the use of his hands and legs, and lack of use had taken it's toll. The few times he was forced to stand caused searing pain, and he always needed something to hold on to.

He stood up straight.

He felt no pain. There was no hesitation in his legs as he slowly but steadily started walking toward the airplane. He was aware that everyone was trying to help, as they offered a firm arm, or even a hand, but he pushed past them all and kept walking across the hot tarmac toward the plane. Each step he took was stronger, and with more resolution.

“I guess he's gonna walk”, his son stated in simple amazement.

A metal ladder had been placed beside the Harvard, and the veteran carefully climbed up the stairs. Gone was age, pain, and the dull ache in his heart for those he had lost. With his head held high he eagerly climbed into the passenger seat. He picked up a worn leather helmet, and with fumbling hands placed it on his head. In reverence he ran his gnarled fingers over the instrument panel of the warplane; remembering each one by heart.

“You ready?”, the intercom crackled, as the young pilot settled into his seat.

The old man flashed a thumbs up sign with a big smile., He looked over at his sons and grandson on the black tarmac, and waved good bye as the plane thundered down the runway.

The familiar roar of the single propeller, and the vibration of the plane stripped away the years. As the yellow plane took to the sky, the old man smiled in content.

The intercom crackled, “Well, would you look at that? It's Danny!...” 

From the backseat the old man thumbed the intercom, “Hey guys! How's the weather up there?”

A few decades ago when the Ace pilot retired, many were shocked that the caring, brave, man didn't continue to fly commercial aircraft, so was his love of the sky; instead, he quit flying entirely. Anyone that knew him often wondered why such a skilled pilot would suddenly stop, and only a handful knew the real reason; after the tragic and sudden loss of his best friend, Michael, in a training accident in '59, he kept seeing members of his old squadron flying in formation or talking on the radio. At first the grief stricken pilot tried to brush off the occurrences, but after a couple of years it became too much, and he told his doctor about the incidents. Fearing rejection, he resigned from the Canadian Air Force with full honours. Most people merely assume he left to be with his growing family, and settle down.

The pilot in the front seat, listened to the radio crackle as the aged war hero talked to the ghosts of his past. The request had seemed very odd at first, but when the opportunity to give the veteran one last flight came available, everyone wanted the honour. The instructions were simple; let the 102 year-old Canadian fighter pilot get into the backseat of a Harvard aircraft, and let him die in the clouds.

At the start of the new year, the now aged fighter pilot had a serious conversation with his oldest son. “John, I want to die”, he whispered, “And I want to make sure that everything is ready”. In a long conversation full of tears and laughter, the final will was drafted. The old man's dying wish? “One last ride in the aircraft that carried me safely into battle , so many years ago. One last ride, and don't let me come back”.

The pilot flicked the dial, tuning the radio into the tower, and turned down the volume. Leveling out the plane, he pointed the two tonne warplane at the horizon of rolling green, and settled into a smooth ride. He glanced back at the war veteran seated behind him, happily talking on the radio with a large smile on his face. Nodding with determination, he turned back and settled into his seat. “I'll give you a good ride, sir”, he vowed.

Captain Daniel White looked out the canopy and waved at the familiar sight of his wing-man. “Hey Mike! It's good to see you!”, he called out over the radio. 

“Roger that, you old dog!”, the radio crackled, “You about ready to come home, Danny?” 

“I'll follow you in. Lead the the way”.


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