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Sweet Dreams

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On an early March morning in 1970, a wood-paneled Chevy Station Wagon headed west from Victorville, California. Tim stared at his hometown as it receded into a small dot in the distance. It was a beautiful spring day; he knew it was perfect for flying, with not a cloud in the desert sky.

The station wagon was new, equipped with dealer plates — a perk for his dad being a car salesman. On both sides of the road, he could see nothing but wildflowers and Joshua trees for miles.

They came to a turnoff and took a left down a dirt road leading them to an older building. It looked like an old barn, painted red, with a huge door over 45 feet wide. The driver’s door swung open, and a cane reached out to plunge into the gravel for stability. Bill Thompson, a man of average height, short brown hair with gray speckles, and a smoothly shaven face, stepped out of the vehicle. He reached for his pillow in the passenger seat; he needed it to operate the plane properly.

Bill wobbled to the back of the car. He struggled to walk due to a missing left knee, which was fused, making his leg unbendable. His right middle finger was completely mangled, twisted in opposite directions like a bendable straw you would put in your kid’s lunch. Scars from his jaw were prevalent; you could tell his mouth was once wired shut. A metal plate about two inches wide was fused into the top right of his head, making x-rays difficult for doctors.

Tim never knew much about his father’s injuries. All he really knew was that his service in Vietnam caused them. The how and why remained complete mysteries to everyone but Tim’s mother. When he questioned her about what happened to his dad, she would tell him that his father would share when the time was right. That time never seemed to be right.

He would often approach his father about Vietnam and ask what happened, like any young child would. His father would just smile and tell him that what happened to him was for the country, and the story was left in the jungles of Viet Cong.

This made Tim pry more, but after being shut out so many times, he knew it was pointless. Whatever happened in Vietnam would never be shared. He accepted that because no matter what happened, his dad was never down or depressed. He was the most positive person Tim had ever met, always encouraging, and looking at the bright side of the picture, no matter how bleak or dark a situation would appear.

Bill approached the hangar and shouted for Tim to give him a hand with the door. The two pulled the door open to see a Cessna 150 airplane parked in the middle of the old barn. It was a newer model painted in a white base with yellow striping down the side. These planes were popular among flight instructors.

A two-seater, both seats had flight controls capable of fully operating the plane. It was considered a tricycle aircraft, meaning one wheel in the front and the other two wheels were just behind the passengers. The wings spanned just over 33 feet, and a propeller was at the front, with a straight body tail finishing the plane’s backend.

Tim knew his dad was an expert in aviation; he flew planes in Vietnam. Once or twice a year, he would call up one of his buddies from his old platoon and borrow one of the passenger planes for the day. It was one of Tim’s favorite days of the year, causing insomnia the night prior, anxiously waiting to fly in the sky.

Bill cracked open the door of the plane. Inside, there were two black cloth seats side by side, with two throttle sticks and a rudder pedal for the left foot and right foot on each side of the cabin. A tan console ran through the middle, cutting the cabin in half. A wooden dash held the gauges in place; the majority were on the left side, along with the ignition, while the radio was perfectly placed on the right.

Tim loved when his dad needed to radio something in. He would turn to Tim and say, “Call it Cowboy.” It always gave Tim a sense that he was actually flying the plane.

He directed Tim to the right seat of the plane. Tim tried to control his enthusiasm but found himself lunging into the cockpit and raced to buckle his seat belt. His father loaded his cane and grabbed his pillow to place under his left leg. He needed it to prop his leg up so that he could control the plane and make a left turn when necessary. He would sit almost sideways and use the pillow to support his body to reach the left rudder pedal.

Bill began the process of taking off. He pulled the mixture-rich knob, allowing fuel to flow to the engine, then pushed the carburetor knob in case of any icing. Turning his attention to a red switch on his right, he flicked the master switch up and reached for the throttle to open it up ¼ of an inch. The key was placed in the ignition, and the engine began to roar. As Bill went through the pre-flight checklist, Tim was giddy thinking of the sights the sky had to offer on such a clear day.

The plane made its way to a homemade runway, it was about 2,500-feet long, and began take off. Once Bill reached 50 knots, he pulled back on the control column and began to bring the aircraft into the sky leaving a cloud of dust behind the dirt runway. The plane began climbing the stairway to the heavens above as Tim watched the hanger grow smaller.

As the plane elevated his heart filled with joy. It was true bliss in the sky for the father and son. They flew through the Mojave Desert crossing valleys and toppling some of the smaller mountains. Bill would descend close to mountain peaks and show Tim the terrain of the wild cactus and the clay-colored rocks. They flew over filled saline lakes due to recent rain fall and crossed the I40 to look at cars passing through.

Everything was smaller from the sky. It was like looking at an ant farm with a magnifying glass. You just felt superior. Tim would look over his left shoulder to peak at his father. He was at peace in the air, he was free, no pain on his face, everything was right with the world.

Crossing through San Bernardino towards a more remote part of the desert, Bill looks towards his son. “Take the controls, Boy.” Tim’s eyes widen to the point of nearly bursting out of his head.

“You are sure, Pops?” Bill nods.

“Go ahead.” Tim reaches for the stick on his side of the plane with both hands. “Steady now, Tim,” Bill advises. The plane was at 9,000 feet in the air, and Tim was in total control.

Bill looks over to his son. “We need to make a right turn and head back west.”

Tim, looking nervous, asks, “You want me to do that?”

Bill nods. “You’re flying the plane, aren’t you? I’ll guide you through it.”

Tim didn’t know how to feel about the idea of turning a plane. “What if I crash and kill us, Dad?”

Tim said. “Pilots never overthink; they react. You’ve got to feel the situation, Tim, move with the plane,”

Bill explains as he loosely grabs his throttle to demonstrate to his son. “Think of a rod connecting your arm to your knee; when your arm goes down, your knee goes forward on the rudder pedal

Unsure Tim takes hold of the throttle and mimics his father. He repeats to himself “arm down knee forward.” Then acts without any hesitation. The plane begins to slowly veer right as Tim’s confidence grows.

“Bill yells in excitement, great job son, your gonna be a hell of pilot one day.”

“Just like my old man” Tim replies with a grin.

Bill assists his son in leveling the plane with his controls as the plane soared west. For the next ten minutes Tim was invincible cutting through the sky as they both admired the sun setting in their westward direction. At that moment he felt like the most powerful 11-year-old on the planet.

He took a moment to look over at his dad and soak in the huge grin on his face. He was a real pilot; it was one of the best days of his life.

Tim is startled, a blue Buick behind him is laying on the horn. He’s sitting at a green light on Azealia Street. The car passes with the window half rolled down. A woman shouts “Get the hell out the road” as she accelerates by in a fit of road rage. He shakes his head in disbelief. How long have I been sitting here.

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