Back to the USSA

(My ap0logies to the Beatles, but since they’ve not been invented yet I guess it’s OK.)

We arrived back in the good old USA from Germany in the late fall of 1958.  We touched down at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey after a harrowing eighteen hour flight in a military passenger plane.  It started out as a C118 and was subsequently modified into a machine of torture by the air force.  If you were less than 4 feet in height you were probably comfortable in the seats, but anything over that caused your knees to hit the seat in front of you.  Fortunately, the seats did not recline or legs would have been amputated.

We were not allowed to get up and “move about the cabin” unless under an armed guard (well, it seemed that way to us kids).  Comic books flew through the air as we finished them and traded for yet another one.  This was naturally followed by spitballs, wads of paper, pillows and very small children.  This activity was stopped by the older of the three cabin attendants – a buck sergeant who wore a moustache and spoke in a low, menacing voice.  He would growl and we’d knock it off until his back was turned.

The two younger attendants, both males also, began twitching around the ninth hour and would disappear from sight for a while until the sergeant dug them up and pushed them back to duty.  By the time the flight was over they were glassy-eyed and unresponsive.

The last three rows of seats were arranged in a semicircle with a low table that could be clicked into latches on the floor.  We older kids were allowed to sit together back there instead of being trapped in our normal seats.  Fortunately, my mom had exposed me to science fiction about a month before we left Germany and I managed to purchase three great books.  Two by Asimov and one by Heinlein.  I dropped into a rear seat right next to a bulkhead and nosed into the first book.  Three hours passed until I sniffed the delicate order of peaches.

I pulled my nose out of “Pebble in the Sky” and glanced over to see where it was coming from.  A very pretty dark-haired girl was craning her neck trying to see what I was reading.  When she saw it was by Asimov she brightened up and asked if I was into ‘SF’ also.  Also?  Could it be possible that this lovely girl had been infected with the bug?

I showed her the cover of the book I was reading, and lifted the other two from the bag at my feet.  She reached for the Heinlein book as she told me she hadn’t read this one.  I handed her “Have Spacesuit – Will Travel”.  She thanked me and we were back to other worlds again.  In about an hour, she grew drowsy, closed the book and laid her head on my shoulder.  This surprised me until I realized that she was really asleep.  I closed my book and leaned towards her.  We drifted off; her head on my shoulder and my head on her head.

The plane hit an air pocket and jounced pretty hard.  She woke up and immediately sat up.  A flush grew from her neck upwards into her hair line.  She apologized with downcast eyes and explained that she was pretty tired.  I told her that it was quite all right and she could put her head back where it was; she declined, but didn’t move from the seat though.  She again raised the book and started reading again.

I tried very hard to concentrate on my book, but it seemed like every minute I’d glance out of the corner of my eye to see if she was nodding off.  Sure enough, within fifteen minutes her chin fell.  I very carefully eased my arm over the back of the seat and gently pulled her downward to my shoulder again.  This time she didn’t even crack an eye.

For a very long hour I was happily breathing in the peach scent from her hair.  It had been a long time since Virginia had left for Italy (and subsequently broke my heart) so any contact with the fair sex was welcome indeed.  I nodded off briefly but woke up from time to time to make sure she was comfortable. I woke from one resting period and turned to see her looking steadily at me with her light blue eyes.

“You have a soft shoulder you know.  I don’t even know your name.”

“Sorry, it’s Tom.  And yours is…”

“Elaine.”

Elaine!  In my mental list of the top ten names for a girl, Elaine was right up there near the top.  I only knew of one Elaine right off: Elaine the Lady of Shalott.  At one point in time about a year ago I got into Tennyson’s poems because Virginia thought they were great and the name Elaine just took hold of me for some reason.  When I asked her if she was the Lady of Shallot, she knew exactly what I meant.

“I have never met any boy who has read Tennyson before.  How did you ever start reading his poems?”

“I got interested in some of the old authors and playwrights, Shakespeare and the like, and pulled a small book of his poems off the shelf at the library.  They intrigued me and I started reading them,” I explained, carefully avoiding that I was actually reading them to a girl who liked to lie across my lap when I read because she liked the vibration of my voice.  “Do you read Tennyson?”

“I love the old English Victorian poets.  Tennyson, Browning – both Browning’s – and especially Wordsworth.”

“Both Browning’s?  I only know of one – Robert.”

“Shame on you.  Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote sonnets also.”

Ah, man.  I had forgotten about her.  Nice going you smooth-talking fathead.  I apologized, and she smiled.  A nice perfect white teeth smile that set my pulse thumping.  Down boy.  This is just a very pleasurable interlude that will be shattered the moment we touch down.  I’ll never see her again.

“You said Shakespeare also.  Have you read much of his works?”  She asked.

“My first play was Romeo and Juliet.  I loved it.  Especially Romeo’s speech to Juliet at the window…”

I started to recite Act 2, Scene 2: “But soft!  What light through yonder window breaks?  It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!  …”

As I continued she began to smile again and moved closer to me as I recited Romeo’s speech.  When I got to “That I might touch that cheek”, Elaine spoke Juliet’s response: “Aye me!”

I was completely enraptured at those two words.  I flustered through three more lines and ground to a halt.  Her eyes were shining – actually shining at me.

“You have a wonderful speaking voice Tom.  Have you been on the stage?”

“No, not at all.  We didn’t have much of a drama department in school.  I had this very, um, intense relationship with a girl and we would read to each other for hours at a time.  Shakespeare was our favorite.”

“She was a very lucky girl.  I never did find anyone to read poetry to me.  I’m a sucker for poetry of any kind.  I could listen all day to good poetry.”

Just as I opened my mouth to continue, Elaine spoke softly, almost to herself:  “How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways…”

It was one of the poets I should have remembered before, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet number 43.  I closed my mouth and listened raptly as she recited the whole poem.  I thought to myself that I could easily fall in love with this girl.  She was so very easy to talk to and she loved poetry!

We continued talking about various poets until my brother came back and jolted me into reality.  He told me that I had to come back to my seat for a family conference and fill out or customs forms.  I tore myself away from Elaine and, with a lingering hand to hand touch, turned and walked away.  My brother, the little shit, smirked at me as we went back up the aisle.

“I really HATED to BOTHER you but Dad said to go get you.”

“Yeah, I can see you’re consumed with grief.”

One last look behind me at Elaine, a smile, a wave, and I sat down in my seat.  We all got handed customs forms which we needed to list everything we were bringing into the US.  All I checked was the box marked ‘nothing to declare’, signed it and handed it back to my dad.  We began our family meeting with details on who was going to do what when we landed.  My dad had just gotten the word from one of the wild-eyed attendants that we were almost forty-five minutes early into New Jersey.  This meant I didn’t have enough time to go back and visit with Elaine.

I fussed about fitting my books into the string bag that held everything else I needed on the flight.  It looked like a small fishing net that had managed to scoop up several treasure chests what with all the corners sticking out.  I knew it was going to be a bear getting it down the aisle, but it’s all I had.

By the time I’d polished off a couple more chapters, the light popped on telling us to fasten our seat belts and stop smoking.  I hadn’t been smoking but it felt like I’d gone through a couple packs of cigarettes.  Thank goodness they wouldn’t let my dad smoke his horrible stogies or his pipe.  It was going to be bad enough when we actually started out in the bus.

We swerved around as we approached the coast, dropped lower and lower over water until it looked like we were going to land on it.  We held out altitude for a little longer, cruising above an endless sandy pine forest and then suddenly, the edge of the airfield appeared and we touched down.  It had taken us seventeen hours and forty-five minutes to cross what took us nine days in a ship.  Personally, I preferred the ship.

Comment:  For those unbelievers among you, I really did memorize quite a bit of Shakespeare, Tennyson, and even Browning.  It is amazing what a young teenager will do for a girl.  Virginia liked to hear my voice, and I like to read to her, so there you go.  We once went a whole day speaking in pseudo-iambic pentameter and I didn’t feel like I had a screw loose even once.  Such is love.

T.O.M.

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