December 21, 2010

Upwards and Upwards

When the batteries finished charging, Nathaniel came running. "I'm going to fly it now," he said with precisely the sort of confidence that prevents the army from hiring 11-year olds to pilot Apaches.

Outside the tops of the pines swayed, slightly but steadily. "I don't know . . . " I said. "It's pretty breezy. Maybe we should go out early tomorrow, when it will be still."

He sneered at such cowardice. "Dad." He pointed at the box. "It says 'Ages 8 and Up.' It's not going to be hard."

"Did you even read the instructions?" I squinted at the tiny paper and quoted to him: "Persons than fourteen younger should be precluded as piloting aircraft for crashings and dangerous."

Two minutes later I was hauling outside a sheet of plywood to serve as a landing pad. He put the tiny helicopter down and stepped back. His T-shirt billowed and rippled around his belly as he paused dramatically, the remote extended in front of him.

He pushed the throttle to full. The toy shot into the air, corkscrewing wildly. Before I could yell, he had released the control. The chopper hit the earth spinning sideways and fell over.

"Okay," I began to preach. "You have to be gentle with the controls. You should barely be touching them at . . . "

"Did you see that!?" he exploded. "It was FLYING! I told you it wouldn't be hard."

The second attempt went like the first: up eight or ten feet, then back down hard, spinning the whole time.

"Can I try?" I asked. "I want to go slow with it."

He looked at me skeptically, then shrugged and handed me the controller.

Very slowly I spun the rotors. Still on the ground, the body of the helicopter started to pirouette.

"Come on, Dad. Just fly it."

Ignoring him, I adjusted the tail rotor very slightly . . . the pirouetting grew faster . . . ah, the other way . . . yes, at last the spin was slowing down.

I hardly noticed a particularly stiff breeze until the delicate toy slid off the edge of the plywood. Its landing gear caught in the grass and a blade bit hard into the earth.

Sure enough, the plastic landing gear was split in two places. Now the helicopter couldn't even stand.

"I'm really sorry." I had broken his toy without ever leaving the ground.

He grinned. "Let's fix it!" I followed him into the house: super glue, hot glue, no success. Finally I cut a piece of packing foam, unscrewed the broken landing gear and replaced it with foam. It was bulkier than the airy plastic, but still small and lightweight.

Back outside, the breeze was an irregular wind now, erupting from different directions in unpredictable coughs.

He balanced the helicopter on our plywood. Before he even stepped away, the wind knocked it onto its side again.

I waved him away and righted it. I started to get up. "Okay, now this time try to—"

But Nathaniel wasn't going to miss his launch window. The helicopter sprang up inches past my face, corkscrewing slowly as it rose, the air batting it like a ping pong ball in a lottery machine.

At last I stopped talking. It was all up to him now.

Higher and higher. A gust sent it toward the house, but it cleared the eaves and the wind carried it over the roof.

"He'll bring it down to the driveway on the other side," I thought. "At least I won't have to get the ladder."

But he pushed on, spiraling upwards and upwards in a dizzying, wild, uncertain ascent—like the way Jules Verne imagined travel to the moon, or like how it feels to learn something new, or like the way a boy grows—over the house, past the driveway, accelerating away to the edge of the pine woods, a horizon of treetops dancing 50 feet off the ground.

We heard a crack of breaking plastic. I could just make out a splash of red swaying atop the green sea. Someday it might shake loose, but it was gone.

I turned to Nathaniel, warning myself not to lecture him but to sympathize with the loss of his new toy.

"That was great!" he beamed. "How are you going to get it down?"

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