Ive seen a man die, but not like this. There was silence suddenly around us when he disappeared beyond the trees, silence after terrible sounds, that hammering of his engine, the engine of his aeroplane, and the other sound, after.
He had climbed miraculously up and he had circled the field and all our hats came off as one, us men. Mine as well. Hooray, we cried. My son cried out, too. Hooray. We waved our hats in the air, as if wed just seen Honus Wagner double down the left field line. This was why wed come to this meadow. We would peek into the future and it would be a glorious thing.
And Earl Sandt hammered overhead and down to the far edge of the pasture, defying the trees, defying the earth. The propeller of his engine spun behind him and he sat in a rattan chair, as if he was on his front porch smoking a cigar. Then he came back from the tree line, heading our way.
I reached down and touched my son on the shoulder. I had never seen an aeroplane and something was changing in me as it approached. I suppose it scared me some. I had no premonition. But I needed to touch my son at that moment, and the plane came toward us and there was a stiff wind blowingthe plane bucked a little, like a nervous horse, but Earl Sandt kept him steady, kept him coming forward, and I felt us all ready to cheer again.
Then there was a movement on the wing. With no particular sound. Still the engine. But there was a tearing away. If I had been Earl Sandt, if I had been sitting in that rattan chair and flying above these bared heads, I might have heard the sound and been afraid.
I lifted my camera. This had nothing to do with the thing happening on the wing. I was only vaguely aware of it in that moment. I lifted my camera and I tripped the shutter, and here was another amazing thing, it seemed to me. One man was flying above the earth, and with a tiny movement of a hand, another man had captured him. Earl Sandt was about to die, but he was forever caught there in that box in my hand.
I lowered my Kodak and for a moment the plane was before me against the sky and all I felt was a thing that I sometimes had felt as a younger man, riding up into the Alleghenys alone and there would be a turning in the path and suddenly the trees broke apart and there was a great falling away of the land.
A falling. He fell, Earl Sandt. The aeroplane pitched forward and for a moment it seemed to stop and to hang against the sky and the engine hammered on and then it fell, disappearing behind a stand of pine.
There was a heavy thump beyond the trees, and I have nothing in my head to compare it to. Not a barn collapsing, not a horse going down, not the dead sugar maple, forty foot high, I had felled only yesterday in our yard. This sound was new.
And our silence followed. We all of us could not take this in. He had flown, this Earl Sandt, he had raised his goggles to his eyes and stepped into his machine and he had run along the meadow and had lifted into the air, and now I looked into the empty place where he had been, only a moment before. In my head I could see once again the two great wings and the spinning of the propeller and then he was gone.
Papa? It was my sons voice drifting up from the silence.
I looked into his face, which was lifted to me.
Its all right, I said, though I knew it was not. I could feel Matthews bones beneath my hand, which still lay on his shoulder.
Hes gone, my son said.
I looked to the others. There was a stirring.
Mother of God, one man said and he began to move in the direction of the pines. He was right. We had to do something now.
I let go of my son and turned to the place where Earl Sandt had vanished. Stay here, I said.
We ran, perhaps a dozen of us, across the meadow grass and into the pines and I could smell burning and there was smoke up ahead and I could smell a newly familiar thing, a smell of the automobiles that had come to our town, their fuel. Then we broke into a clearing and the aeroplane was crumpled up ahead and beginning to burn.
I was behind several of the men and we were in our Sunday clothes, we had left our churches this morning and had come to see the exhibition of this wonderful thing, and now we were stripping off our coats and winding them around our hands and arms to allow us to reach into the flames, to bring Earl Sandt out. Two men were ahead of me, already bending to the tangle of canvas and wood and metal and smoke. I felt myself slow and stop.
I did not know this man. I had seen him only from afar, only briefly. He had raised his goggles and hidden his eyes and hed had some intent in his headto fly, of course, and he did. But he was a man, flesh and blood, and he was lying broken now, ahead of me. There were others to help him. The ones ahead, and still others now, rushing past me. I continued to hesitate, and then I turned away.
Matthew had followed me. He was standing a few yards behind, in the trees. I lifted my hand to acknowledge him, and I found it swathed in my suit coat, expecting the fire.
I moved to my son, unwrapping my arm.
The others are helping, I said to him, so he would understand why I had turned away.
I want to see, he said.
No, I said, firm. I turned him around and we stepped out of the trees, into the meadow. I looked once more into the sky where Earl Sandt had been.
Matthew and I walked from the meadow and through the center of town, passing the Merchants Bank, where I had an office, where I was vice-president, and we moved beneath the old growth maples of our street, and we were quiet, my son and I. The meadow, the open sky, all of that, was behind us. Then we reached the place along the road where I could see my house ahead.
The maple was gone from the front edge of my property, dead from blight and felled by my own hand. I looked away, not wanting to, but I felt suddenly bereft of this tree. I was sorry for its passing, this tree. Matthew broke away from me now, began to run. I looked.
His mother was coming down the porch steps. My son ran hard to her, not calling out. She turned her face toward us, saw him approaching, sensing, I think, that something had happened.
I stopped, still separate from them. My daughter, a tall gangly girl, my sweet Naomi, emerged from the house, and for a moment they all three were before me, and the house itself, a fine house, a house wed lived in for four years now, a solid house with its hipped roof and double-windowed dormer and its clapboard siding the color of the sunlight in the brightness of noon.
My wife went down on one knee, and Matthew reached her and he threw his arms around her neck. I knew I should move forward, to explain. But what would I say? Naomi came to the two of them, put her hand on her crouching mothers shoulder. There was a seizing in my chest. I wanted to take them all three up into my arms, but instead, I stood dumbly there, watching.
Finally, Rachels face lifted to look at me over Matthews shoulder. I felt heavy now, rooted to this earth, as if Id decided to take the place of the dead maple. But I made myself move. I took a step and another and there was a loosening inside me as I moved toward my family. My wife tilted her head slightly, a questioning gesture, I think. Naomi looked at me too, came around her mother, and I was glad she was drawing near and she put her arms around me, I felt the bones in her arms pressing at my back. I held her tight.
What was it, Daddy?
An accident, I said. It was just an accident.
Matty said he was dead, the man.
We dont know that for sure.
She said no more, but she needed me to hold her closer and I did. Its all right, I said. Were all right.
Matthew could not sleep. The house was dark and Rachel and I had just extinguished the lamp, alone and undistracted at last. Then we heard his cry, wordless, and Rachel rose. I knew what it was about. I looked toward the dark gape of the bedroom doorway, and I gripped the sheet as if to put it aside and to rise, but I hesitated.
My cowardice lasted only a moment. I made my way across the room and down the hall, and my sons tears were fading as I neared his room. I stood in his doorway and his mother said to him, Its okay, Matty. God decided he wanted an aeroplane pilot in heaven.
Like he wanted Henry for an angel, my son said.
I turned away. I moved back down the hall and then stopped, neither here nor there. Matthews first cousin Henry had died of smallpox. I didnt know whether he was an angel or not, but of course my son had already encountered death, we had all encountered death, it was a part of our daily lives, we waited always for the first sneeze, the first cough, the first spot on our skin, we waited to be carried away, if not from smallpox then from influenza or from scarlet fever or from diptheria or from pneumonia or from tuberculosis. I believed that God would call us. I was glad my son could picture his blood kin, a child of Matthews own age, as an angel and not as a corpse in the ground. But I stood in the middle of the hallway and I drew my forearm across my brow and I was having trouble drawing a breath.