Of Books and Fighter Planes

Anne Organista

© Copyright 2018 by Anne Organista


Painting of a P51 Mustang in combat.

In numerous instances, teaching has made me a private spectator to the breakthroughs in my students’ learning. There is never as much joy in watching a person’s (be it child or adult) sense of wonder awakened and witnessing a discovery found in the most unlikely places.

Simon snapped shut his locker and slung his gym bag over his shoulder. The walk to the library was short but he wished there was some other place he could go. His shoulder bones ached from swimming practice. Moreover, the weight of his gym bag made it worse. Couldn’t he just walk home by himself, he wondered. Sure, the walk home was long, but lying on his own bed was better than waiting forever in the library. With hunched shoulders and hands in his pocket, he walked out of the gym as the afternoon sun’s rays glared painfully bright, blinding him for a second.

In the distance, a group of older boys was playing basketball, their voices raised in unison as one player made a quarter throw shot. Raising an arm to shield his eyes from the sun, Simon stopped and watched.

Hey kid, wanna play?” one of them shouted at him.

Simon turned without a word and cringed at the sound of their laughter as he walked away. Ball games had never interested him. Ordinarily, he would have wondered why he was different from other boys but after some serious thought, he surmised being different didn’t really matter. Playing with his Xbox and swimming were his favorite hobbies. There was as much excitement there as in a basketball or football game though he never understood the thrill the boys in his class felt when they talked about the latest game. He didn’t know much about them and didn’t care to know anyway. Swimming every day after school or playing his video games was enough. His mother, however, frowned upon video games on weekdays and the library wouldn’t be such a drag if he could play the games on his phone, he thought. But today was a weekday, so that was off the table too.

Ugh, what a bummer,” he muttered, trudging slowly towards the library door.

People were leaving the library as he walked in. Checking the time on his phone, he rolled his eyes realizing that his efforts at taking his time walking were in vain. No matter how often he stopped at street corners and walked at an incredibly slow pace, it took no more than seven minutes to reach the library.

A huge banner with the words ‘Welcome to Makers’ Day!’ ushered him to the place he dreaded. Rows of tables filled the south side of the library and people were walking around, checking out one table after another. His curiosity piqued, Simon went for a closer look. On one table was a group of middle-aged women teaching young girls how to knit; samples of their finished products hanging from a miniature coat rack. Next to them was a couple of teenage boys, presenting a scientific process on their laptop to a group of students. Simon smirked as one boy used a laser pointer when he could have easily used his finger. At the far end of the room, Simon spotted a college-looking man assembling a model airplane, explaining as he did so, to an avid audience of four elementary kids. He then painted the plane silver, following the picture on the box perched beside him. As the man showed off his finished product to the kids who watched with fascination, Simon wondered if a model airplane would be a more sensible gift to ask his mother for his birthday rather than a video game.

As he wandered off the rest of the tables, soft murmurs drew his attention to a 3-D printer a few feet away from him. He’d never seen one before but heard his teacher talk about it. The machine gave off a low rhythmic hum as people watched the initial stage of a vase being printed inside a glass enclosed case. “It’s incredible isn’t it?” a woman gushed as the man explained, “. . . it creates the object by laying down successive layers of material until the object is created. Each of these layers can be seen as a thinly sliced horizontal cross-section of the eventual object.” Simon tried to squeeze in among the people to get a better view of the printer but as the man held out the completed vase for his audience to see, a throng of people rushed in. With all the commotion, Simon’s jacket was pulled off his shoulders while his backpack lay strewn on the floor. Before things got out of control, he threw himself out of the crowd, thinking it was better to get out alive.

Whew! Wasn’t that fun?” Simon said under his breath, straightening his jacket.

He circled the rest of the tables abuzz with activity. A sign that said ‘Want to learn how to code? It’s easy and fun!’ caught his attention, but the fine print underneath ‘Coding for Girls’ turned him off. No wonder there were no takers, he thought. The sign could easily have been “Coding for Dummies”; as if girls didn’t have the intellectual acuity for coding.

Noting the clock by the staircase, Simon turned on his heel and headed towards the second floor where his mother worked. As he did so, he felt a forceful tug at his gym bag. Looking down, a girl, not quite reaching two feet, was holding out a basket of chocolate chip cookies at his face.

No money, kid. Sorry.”

He pushed away from the basket she held and dashed for the stairs before she could catch up with him. As he reached the top, he looked back and saw the girl, hopping around the tables, offering her cookies to whoever she met, unperturbed by his rather rude behavior.

Drat!” He whispered in exasperation. “They smelled tasty too.”

What was that, Simon?”

Mrs. Petersen was craning her neck on the other side of the counter, her glasses perched at the tip of her nose.

Your mom’s at the back. Want to browse around first?”

Sure, whatever...” his voice trailed off, wandering towards the shelves that lined the walls.

Working in the library had been, at first, like a hobby for his mother. But working outside the house, meeting people and helping students with their research have given his mother a new purpose after his father died. He was happy for her at first, until he realized he needed to wait for her every day after school. Checking out the video games in the library offered no respite either. His mother’s firm ‘no computer games on weekdays’ policy made the waiting worse than it already was.

No computer games on weekdays, remember?”

Mom, it’s summer. I’m on vacation!” Simon pleaded.

Same rules apply, sweetheart. Those games are poison to your mind. Look around you,” she continued, waving her hand around, “you’re surrounded by books. Surely, there’s a book here you’d find interesting.”

That first week passed and as Simon expected, it was a boring week. To appease him, his mother promised they’d watch the new Avengers movie tonight. While he looked forward to it, the promise didn’t do much to arouse his interest.

Simon now wished he had gone camping like the other boys in his class. But he wanted to swim. He needed to train if he was making it to the junior swimming team next year. It was the only sport he knew he could do well. Watching athletes fight over a ball was too rough for him, yet petty at the same time. He never liked contact sports. Training as hard as he could and competing with himself suited him just fine. There’s no one to blame but himself if he didn’t make the team. And even if he did make it to the team next year, he knew the mechanics and teamwork the sport demanded were far different from ball

Compromise, his mother taught him, is a deal people make all the time. ‘Can’t have your cake and eat it too’ she reminded him. So he compromised. Camp or swimming? Video games or training? He knew what his choice would be. It didn’t make the choice any easier though.

New books on the counter!” a library staff shouted to someone inside the office. As he rolled his cart away, a book fell out of the pile, tumbling on the hard floor with a loud crash. Simon turned and stood transfixed at the colored images that splashed from the open book. He walked towards it, crouched down and held the book with his two hands. It was big and heavy, heavier than any book he ever held. It had a glossy white cover, the pages thicker than usual, and with more pictures than there were words.

Turning a page, a bearded old man with a small, dark mole on his left cheek stared back at Simon. It wasn’t however the man that held his attention but the picture on the opposite page. The North American P51 Mustang! His grandfather used to tell him stories of his adventure with fighter jets during the war. The P51, he said, was designed as an escort fighter for WWII bombers. It blasted enemy trains and ships in Western Europe and destroyed Axis defenses before they even knew what was coming.

The next page drew Simon’s breath away as he raised his eyebrows in awe at the sight of the B-29 Superfortress, what his grandfather called the deadliest of all fighter jets. Advanced in design, the B-29 was equipped with four engines, a fully pressurized fuselage, central fire control systems, and remote-controlled machine gun turrets. The famous B-29, Simon remembered, was the Enola Gay, the one that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945 and the Bockscar which dropped the second bomb on Nagasaki three days later.

Cool!” Simon gasped. His grandfather told him stories of the war like he’d never thought before. Listening to him always made him imagine himself in flight, swinging the plane himself, aiming for his target. He felt his heart skip a beat as his grandfather’s words ran back to him.

No Simon, dropping a bomb in the middle of a war is not cool. But yes, despite the risk of being shot down, it was one of the greatest thrills I’ve ever experienced. One moment, you’re on land running at about 150 miles per hour and then all of a sudden, you feel this surge of speed, with the sea eighty feet below you! It’s incredibly unbelievable!

One page after another, Simon’s eyes danced with excitement, as they feasted on the fighter jets the Allied and Axis forces used in WWII. His heart raced when another page showed in full color the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, nicknamed the Jug. Simon remembered his grandfather saying that the Jug was a heavyweight, three feet wider and four feet longer than the P-51. Yet, it moved fast and tore enemy warplanes and ground targets to pieces.

Completely enthralled by the images in the book, the library ceased to exist and a story began to unfold in Simon’s mind. The sound of planes roared over his head.

He positioned his bird behind the enemy. The war cry of plane engines pierced the sky. His P-51 Mustang singled out an enemy fighter, shredding it before it had a chance to react. He latched on to the tail of another, expertly balancing his stick and throttle. Then, his finger poised over the trigger, aiming for the enemy's tail. Yes, he knocked him out cold! Later, he dove back, veered to the left and rolled over. Quickly, he dispatched another plane, his second kill in a span of seconds.

There you are. I’ve been looking everywhere for you!” Simon’s mother broke in, silencing the piercing cry of fighter jets in Simon’s head.

You look happy...” his mother said, confused at the dazed look in her son’s eyes.

Are we leaving?” he asked, not taking his eyes away from the book.

Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten our date?”

Date? C’mon, Mom! I’m not your date. Um...” Simon paused, his attention focused on the book once again. “Does the library have WWII movies?”

WWII? What happened to the Avengers?”

We can watch that another time. Please, Mom?”

She smiled. “WWII it is. Wait here, I’ll check it out,” she said, wiping off the sweat from his face with the palm of her hand.

Heading for the DVD collection, she wondered what had taken over her son. She looked back and found him, still crouched on the ground, a look of fascination on his young face.
Looks like your boy has found a treasure,” Deirdre smiled at Simon’s direction.
She nodded, pleased. “Would appear so.”
Minutes later, she called out, “Simon, have the DVD! Ready? As they walked out of the library, she turned to him and asked “So how was your library visit today? Boring as usual?”
Simon tilted his head and pressed his lips together. Books and fighter planes, the library’s a cool place after all, he thought. Turning to his mother, he said, “It’s okay, I guess.”

Simon’s mother smiled. Boys will always be boys. She knew he’d never admit that the library would be his favorite place this summer.

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