I Autumn   Piper   You would think that a woman named after a plane, the daughter of the briefly famous emergency-landing pilot "the Silver Eagle," would feel at home in the sky. At least she'd be comfortable with the idea of flight. Rather, I've spent my entire life close to the ground, not trusting that steel tube to stay aloft so far above land, or maybe not trusting the man flying it. My stubborn reluctance to fly was further evidence to my father of my status as second-rate adventurer and thus second-rate child. This battle over flight raged for my entire childhood, but airplanes never played as prominent a role in my life as they did from the fourth birthday of my son, Fred, until three months before his fifth. For those nine months, I lived and breathed jets, helicopters and fighter planes. I called my son Orville at his demand. I stalked appliance stores for refrigerator boxes that could stand in for crude, wobbly airplanes--cardboard boxes that Fred ate in, played in and slept in when I was simply too worn-­out to fight him.   As you can imagine, my father, Captain Lance "the Silver Eagle" Whitman, was thrilled with my son's obsession. For those nine months, I was elevated to the first-class status I had craved my entire life. My father saw me. And, more important, he saw my son. He did everything he could to feed Fred's obsession. He sent us links to Web sites that categorized every aircraft that flew before 1965 and troubling GIFs of planes crashing, which I dragged right to the trash. My father bought Fred subscriptions to somewhat obscure magazines with bikini-clad models lazing on the noses of jets, which Fred never batted an eye at. Whenever the Silver Eagle wasn't actively flying and Fred was awake, he wanted to meet us at the airport, where we could sit by the windows that overlooked the runway and he could answer Fred's questions about elevation and capacity, while Fred expertly removed each sprinkle from a doughnut to eat individually. Fred was the apple of my father's eye and I was lucky enough to bask in the cast-off glow as the person responsible for shepherding Fred to and from my father.   And then it was over. The morning Fred woke up and renounced his seven a.m. viewing of Planes and How They Fly! I was immediately transported back to my ten-year-old self, the one who had refused to step onto Daddy's plane, knowing she'd pay the price--­his silence--­for days. Airplanes faded from Fred's mind as quickly as they had rooted themselves there nine months earlier. He no longer called me Piper, and I became Mommy once again. Fred's miniature metal airplanes lay grounded in their basket in his room for a week before I had the courage to return my father's calls and politely decline his invitation to join him at the airport.   "What do you mean he doesn't want to go to the airport? It's been over a week."   "I asked him, Dad; he doesn't want to go. He's drawing race cars right now."   "Let me talk to him, Pipe."   I turned to hand Fred the phone, but he met my look with a steely gaze. His feelings were clear. "So, Dad? I don't think Fred's into planes anymore."   "Of course he is. It's not something you just forget about one day."   "I think it is for Fred." Fred was oblivious to my conversation, oblivious to the amount of courage it took for me to let down my father.   The Silver Eagle didn't go down without a fight. "I'll give it a day."   When after three tries the answer from Fred was the same, my father gave up. Gave up on me, gave up on Fred, gave up on us. The light that had shone in his eyes when he'd discussed Cessnas with Fred was gone.   Fred never showed any sign that he mourned the loss of his grandfather's attention; it was all too obvious to me that I had a much larger stake in our interdependent relationship. The Silver Eagle had been a conduit for information, and when Fred's need for information died, so too did his interest in my father. I cringed to think that maybe they weren't so different after all. Fred moved on to race cars and we immersed ourselves in the world of Formula One, learning the names of drivers and sponsors as if they were the letters of the alphabet. After his interest in that was worn-­out, he moved on, oddly, to arachnids, and so did I. We spent hours outside searching for spiders to trap and hold in plastic containers until they died and Fred wept for them. During that time, he requested that I call him Charlotte, which was awkward for me in social situations, but as usual Fred was oblivious to his own strangeness.   After he tired of spiders, it was on to the mechanics and wonders of the human body. His passion for how things worked knew no limits. In the evening, after Fred tossed and turned his way to eventual sleep, I watched videos of the inside of the throat during a hiccup so the next day I was ready to give an answer to the question that had stumped me earlier. Fred was well versed in the details of sex education long before most children, and, embarrassingly, he educated several members of his kindergarten class.   And the questions . . . There was a relentless surge from his mouth every moment he was awake. Questions in the car that had no answers: "Mom, why is this a car seat?" Questions I couldn't escape. My therapist told me that no one's brain can handle so much stimulation and I should just inform my son when I'd had enough that I would take a break from listening for five minutes and he shouldn't expect an answer. He began directing his questions to whatever inanimate object he happened to see out the window. While the chatter didn't stop, my responsibilities lessened for minutes at a time.   My husband, Isaac, preferred to make up answers. His gentle playfulness was mostly well received, but I grew tired of the silliness and wondered why he felt it was acceptable to tell our son things such as "The water in the lake only looks blue, Freddy. It's actually more of a persimmon paisley sort of thing." Isaac swung him up into the air and Fred begged to be let go, then immediately asked to be swung again. When I asked Isaac if it was really a good idea to lie to our son, he said, "Life's short. He'll find out the real, boring answers soon enough. Let's let him be silly and just be a kid." I don't know if it was the fatigue of his punishing work schedule or his genetic and unending optimism, but I felt in that moment that perhaps he didn't really know our son at all.   If I could go back to those days of Fred's early boyhood, the days I'll remember as wrapped in spiderwebs and discussions of why baby teeth fall out, I would in a heartbeat. I've become a walking stereotype: I'm the doting stay-at-home mother who gave up her own once-successful career as a water­color artist for textbooks rather than trust the care of her child to another woman. Mourning each day lost, holding on too tightly to a boy running toward manhood. I knew other mothers who abandoned careers to stay home and raise children, but the difference was that the second their last babies climbed aboard the bus to kindergarten, they packed themselves into out-of-style interview suits and returned to the real world. My son had boarded that bus years before and still I was home.   There should have been others, other babies for me to pour my love into, but it wasn't, as they say, in the cards for Isaac and me. Isaac was nothing if not supportive, his default position, but somehow we never got around to filling out all those adoption applications. My excuse was that Isaac was never around to help me fill them out, perhaps over a glass of wine, laughing together as we tried to paint the rosiest picture possible of two less-than-fertile adults who wanted another chance. Isaac was busy saving the world, and the truth was that I grew comfortable with just Fred. We became a couple of sorts, and I couldn't bear to take that away from him, replace my undivided attention with a screaming purple-faced baby plopped in his lap from time to time.   Anyway, Fred was suspicious of babies, never a child to volunteer to entertain an infant or hold a squirming cousin for a photo. At those moments, seeing him eye toddlers nervously from across the gravel pit at the playground, desperately trying to protect his legion of sand turtles from clumsy feet, I knew in my heart of hearts that Fred would be my only one.   These days I suspected Fred was having more trouble fitting in at school, although my only clue was his answer to my daily question: "Who did you play with today?"   It was always a few seconds of deep thought before he answered, "My own self, Mommy," with a shrug. Then he was back to studying the elaborate illustration of a medieval battering ram. He became frustrated with homework in first grade. He could do it, but he didn't want to. He wanted to do only things that he chose. For years, we fought nightly battles over homework. I didn't blame Fred for fighting back; I felt strongly that education had moved in a decidedly horrible direction toward standardized tests and rote learning and briefly considered homeschooling.   For once, Isaac didn't back me up. He was adamant that Fred needed the social interactions that school provided. He fell asleep easily the night we discussed it, but I was up for hours rolling my silent response around in my head: "What social interactions?" I could categorize in my mind every instance of Fred's ambivalence toward kids his own age: every ignored advance made by children at the play area in the public library, the hopeful smiles they laid upon him only to have him look right through them, the greetings of "Hi, Fred" when he walked into a room. As I watched him run around, up and down the climbing structures at the Castle Park playground with his hot pink cape flowing behind him, I could tell he was completely unaware of the small cadre of children who had enrolled themselves in his play and chased around after him.   On occasion, he would stop, turn around and seem genuinely surprised to find that he was playing with other kids. He'd toss off a stern direction: "The dragon was last seen heading west toward the mountain!" And they'd all be off again. I counted myself lucky that he wasn't antisocial or a bully or the kind of child who stepped on ants on purpose. He was kind and thoughtful, mostly with adults and with the children he knew very, very well, such as Antonio, the older and very patient boy next door. Otherwise he was polite and cautious, if a little distant.   We pegged him as shy and encouraged playdates. There were children in the neighborhood who were always eager to share in the fruit of his only-child status and immerse themselves in piles of Lego bricks. With each report card and conference, I waited for a comment, however veiled, about Fred's quirkiness, but that comment never came.   I mourned his younger days. While his obsessions continued, the objects of them took a darker turn. Fred had little interest in playing war, but it was suddenly all he wanted to talk and read about. When he was eight, I decided, after reading a wide variety of parenting books on raising boys, that I would not forbid Fred from reading about and talking about weapons and armies and war. We would learn about these things in their historical contexts. I steered him toward the catapults and battering rams of medieval England, the weapons that were the most unlike the modern weapons that made me cringe. Fred had other interests, though, as deep down I knew he would. After discovering that there was a war christened "the war to end all wars," and then further discovering that it, indeed, hadn't, Fred became fixated on the world wars. Of all the socially uncomfortable situations Fred had put me in during his lifetime, I've never experienced as much disgust from other adults as I did when he became enamored of the weapons of war.   On Saturday mornings, we made our weekly trek downtown while Isaac was at the office working with law students on whatever exoneration case they were throwing themselves into. I don't want to give the impression that I was immune to the plight of the wrongly imprisoned, but after ten years, one case of mistaken identity sounded like another to me, with only the changing details of where and when and what color skin. On an early fall day when summer was still laying claim to the temperature, we rode the bus downtown to the grassy square around the Capitol building. We stood outside the glass doors, waiting for the Wisconsin Veterans Museum to open; this was the only place at that time that I felt like I could truly relax and breathe. My mind could uncoil from its crouched position, ready to pounce and explain away Fred's often tactless fascination with the mechanics of war. He could wander around the displays of weapons and uniforms, flags, photos and other relics, keeping up his endless stream of one-sided dialogue. (He directed the conversation, but I was expected to listen intently and add hmm s and I see s at the appropriate times.) Visitors didn't recognize my son as anything other than a cute little boy with a respectful interest in Wisconsin's battle history--at least that's what I told myself.   Fred's favorite video, the one he would watch until I stopped him, featured a soldier recalling the day his platoon was ambushed in the jungles of Vietnam and he lost all the men in his unit. Fred watched it raptly, waiting for the black-and-white photo of a soldier standing amid vines and mud, cigarette hanging out of his mouth, phone receiver in one hand. There were three things that fascinated Fred about this four-minute clip. First, he couldn't believe that a man as powerful and shrewd as a platoon leader would smoke, especially after Fred had learned, when he was obsessed with the human body, what smoking did to a person's lungs. Second, he recalled that the first cordless phone was made available to the U.S. public in 1986, so the presence of a cordless phone in the remote jungles of Vietnam in the 1970s enthralled him. Last, Fred learned from the video that the fuzzy photo was taken just minutes before the man was killed in the ambush.   I felt the quiet awe come over Fred when the photo flashed on the screen, and I would be lying if I said it didn't bother me. I watched his small face in profile, his disheveled mop of hair, the way his blue eyes flashed when he took in the details, the way after several months he could whisper the soldier's monologue along with the video. He stood, leaning against the short podium that encased the television screen, his little hand, dirty fingernails, poised over the worn silver button, ready to push again as soon as the brief credits rolled. I can only describe what I felt during those times as a slow, steady panic. But then, just before he pushed the button to start the video again, he would turn and search me out, and I could see the sadness on his face, intermingled with fascination and, thankfully, a small amount of fear.   "Mama, isn't it horrible? They all died. The enemy just bombed them all and they all died, all except just one, just Don Weaver. Do you think they had kids at home in America?" he asked, not really expecting an answer, just wanting to let me know he recognized Don Weaver's pain and felt sadness in his awareness. I sank back into my wooden bench and the panic would disperse because I had solid proof that my sweet Fred was not a monster.   It was difficult to get Fred out of the veterans museum, but we eventually left with a small whispered bribe of a chocolate whoopee pie from the café inside the library, though I felt ashamed to be bribing my son with chocolate in the face of so much loss and devastation. With Fred's face smeared with chocolate cake and buttercream, we headed down to the Children's area in the basement of the library, once a crumbling example of midcentury modern architecture, now a sterile new series of right angles with fluorescent lighting and midcentury modern decor. We chose a mammoth stack of nonfiction on the world wars. Fred politely handed the round-faced, pink-haired librarian his library card, well used already though its owner was only eight. She smiled down at this caramel-haired little imp, making her lip ring rise. When I pushed the stack of books toward her, that lip ring dropped back down as a look of concern rose quickly.   "These books aren't really meant for kids, ma'am," she said calmly, as if perhaps I had run through the library randomly grabbing books, in some sort of Grocery Cart Shopping Challenge, paying no heed to the age of my actual child.   "They were over there." I pointed to the shelves nestled among the bright plastic miniature Eames-like furniture that littered the Children's area.   "That's the Young Adult section." She was quiet, waiting for me to admit defeat.   "Yes."   She slowly scanned each one with the bar-code reader; with each beep I could see her working up what she was going to say. Finally, after silently scanning all ten, she pushed them toward me and said, "I mean, if it was my kid, I wouldn't let him read this stuff. Violence begets violence. I mean, that's just me." She stared another beat so I would be sure to under­stand the line I was crossing into the land of irresponsible parenting, along with the clueless fathers playing Call of Duty with their five-year-olds and the young couples bringing their toddlers to R-rated films laden with both breasts and bombs.   I grabbed our stack of books, muttered a quick thanks and hurried Fred off to the elevator. Though I was used to adjustments for Fred's quirks, I had been raised to prize politeness above all else, so I always slunk away with my tail between my legs instead of marching out with my middle finger raised in salute to all the assholes who judged my son and me. Excerpted from Flying at Night by Rebecca L. Brown All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. 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