People live inside us. Sometimes they live in the darkness of the body, with its synapses and nerves and blood moving through veins, and their emergence is from that darkness, the shadow of lung or womb. Sometimes they appear in bright color, as if on another planet or dimension, walking a beach with blue water and blue sky and white sand. The occipital cortex sees with the eyes closed.
For as long as I can remember, my father has lived inside me, a short man, slight, bald, smiling shyly, a kind of Everyman from the family farm in Kansas. At seventeen, he joined the Air Force; at nineteen he was a fighter pilot in World War II. In the 1950s, he became a test pilot, a hero, the right stuff at Edwards Air Force Base, where test pilots were glamorized for their skills and courage and willingness to die. According to Aviation Times, my father was a “do-it-yourselfer” who had “paneled the den, put in a patio, and nursed along a striking flower garden,” the kind of guy whose nickname was Happy and who wore a lampshade on his head at one of the base’s many parties, where the party toasts went something like “Here’s to the lucky son of a gun they let ride the X-2!”the kind of guy who pleaded for the chance to test that experimental tricky X-2, taking it to three times the speed of sound.
My father reached that speed record on his first trial run. Then, on the turn back to the dry lake bed that served as the base’s landing strip, the X-2 dipped, rolled, and went into an inverted spin. Knocked out, waking up, my father jettisoned the cone of the plane, which also served as an escape capsule. The capsule pitched forward, and he was battered again into unconsciousness. Again he woke (all this recorded by the cockpit’s camera) and tried but failed to release his parachute. The newspapers read “Fastest Man in the World” and “Doomed Pilot on His Last Ride.” Magazines that specialized in hard-boiled true adventure highlighted those last moments: “The sand was coming up at him like a blazing yellow wall. Still conscious, still in his seat, fighting for his life to the very end, Captain Milburn Apt struck the desert.”
I was two years old. Out of magazine articles and a palpable absenceno arm to swing on, no hand to holdI created a father who always loved me, who never judged me, who never let me down. Until he did. Until he changed and I learned to my surprise that the people who live inside us have a life of their own.
My mother rarely talked about her seven-year marriage to the famous test pilot. She seemed to have jettisoned that past, keeping only two footlockers which she schlepped from apartment to apartment during my childhood, unopened and unknown to my older sister and me. I saw their contents when I was fifty-eight years old and my mother was making her last move to live with my sister in Northern California. Inside were the 1950s paraphernalia of my father’s career: two rather small flight suits, correspondence from the Air Force concerning postings and pay, books on aeronautical engineering from his university days, and records and analyses of flights. In a few days I would be driving with my twenty-eight-year-old daughter to my home in New Mexico and would pass right by Edwards Air Force Base, once the heyday of aviation testing. My job was to take one of the flight suits with me, delivering it to the Air Force Flight Test Center Museum on the base.
When asked if he wanted memorabilia from the X-2, the museum director had been more than pleased. He also emailed me a surprising offer: would I like to see my father’s crash site, the exact spot in the Mojave Desert where the ejected capsule hit the ground and the sand came up on the battered thirty-two-year-old pilot like a blazing yellow wall? I hesitated. Did I want to see that? Not really. But I knew the opportunity would never come again, and I had learned to say yes in my life more often than no.
The museum director, Tony, and a friend of his, Nick, were “aviation archaeologists” and tremendous fans of Mel Apt. When the X-2 crashed, a forensic team assembled immediately over the remains. Decades later the site had been forgotten until Tony and Nick compared the original crash photos with the horizon of mountains then and now to determine where the cone and body of the plane had fallen on the 300,000-acre military base. Because this was a military base, we had to get special permission to go to that site, on a day when no one was practice shooting or running secret tests.
On the day before that day, my daughter and I drove through the base checkpoint, conferring with the young guard. Yes, here was our identification, our special mission, our name on the visitors list. Yes, it was hota heat wave, in fact, already reaching 120 by mid-morning. Yes (though I didn’t say this to the guard), I had been born here in 1954, imprinting on this flat pastel landscape dominated by Joshua trees, a species of yucca that can reach eighty feet and live to be a thousand years old, the tops of their fibrous trunks ending in spiky bayonet-shaped evergreen leaves, their branches growing at unexpected angles to create complex systems of twisted shapeswhat the early botanist John Fremont called “the most repulsive tree in the vegetable kingdom”reminding Mormon settlers of the prophet Joshua as he reached his hands upward, skyward, to pray. This was the kind of desert in which you prayed like that, a desert that could boil your skin, sear your eyes. I have lived now in deserts all my life. Typically, this one felt like home and danger at the same time.
After delivering the flight suit (Tony passed his hand over the folds of cloth: Mel Apt’s flight suit) and before going to the crash site the next morning, I spent some time in the aviation museum reading the diary of Captain Glen Edwards, who had been writing these journal entries since the days he fought in World War II. In 1948, Edwards was stationed at Muroc Base (as it was then called) to help test the Northrop YB-49, which he would describe as “the darndest airplane I’ve ever tried to do anything with. Quite incontrollable at times.” A good-looking, friendly guy who liked parties and dancing and girls “with legs that never seemed to end,” girls who were fun and sparky and “a whale of a good time,” this was a young man for whom gloom hardly seemed to darken the door, except briefly when another pilot died, which they did rather frequently. “Darn shame,” Glen would write. And “Too bad.” And at his most personal: “Still can’t get over the death of Mac. Damn meseems so needless. He wasn’t even flying the cockeyed airplane! But he’s gone, and there’s no use thinking about it.”
The slang, the good cheer, the optimism. Glen Edwards seemed to be writing in my father’s voice. Above all, of course, he loved flying. “What a wonderful day this has been!” he wrote one evening, in what would be his last diary entry. “Got off two flights on the YB-49, a lovely flight on the DC-6, one on the C-74and I’m bushed!” Soon after, while Edwards was flying as co-pilot of the Northrup YB-49, the plane suddenly broke apart in the sky, killing all five crew members. A year later, the new command of Muroc wanted to rename the base in honor of a pilot who had died. He chose this native son of California, 19181948, strong-jawed and movie-star handsome.
That night, my daughter and I stayed at a hotel outside the military base. In the morning, we bought flowers at the nearby Walmart and came in early to be driven into the desert, one vehicle for me and her and Tony and Nick, another for our escort, a leathery man in his sixties who leaned into the car window to say how much he missed flying fighter planes in Vietnam, how the pressure of G forces had torn up his insides, how he wouldn’t trade those years for anything; he just loved to fly, above the earth, above the clouds. I nodded, having already made the connection between my father’s passion for flying and my ownhow I loved to write, above the earth, above the clouds.
In the first hour of the drive, Tony pointed out important sites: the old officer’s club and the base’s landing strip, that huge dry lake “flat as a billiard table.” Somewhere on that dry lake bed, my father had once pulled another test pilot out of a burning plane which had just crashed. “It was nothing but fire,” Mel Apt would later tell a reporter from Life magazine. “The only part I could see sticking out of the flames was the tip of the tail.” In this empty landscape, there were no sticks or stones to break open the Plexiglass canopy and so my father beat on it with his fists, despite the danger of the plane exploding. Finally he was able to reach in and drag the pilot to safety, although the man lost both feet. My father got the Soldier’s Medal, reserved for acts of heroism not involving conflict with an enemy.
At the crash site, Tony and Nick took on different roles. Nick focused on an accurate location. “It’s here,” he said, standing at a spot and looking at a paper in his hand and then at the horizon. “The capsule came down right here.” And then “No,” he declared, moving over thirty feet. “Maybe right here.” Tony focused on being solicitous. “It’s right around here somewhere,” he assured me and motioned Nick away, up the gravelly hill, whispering, “Do you want a few moments alone?”
I held my bouquet of flowers from Walmart, the cheaper choice of daisies and asters because of how quickly they would die in this heatwhy buy and kill the pricey tiger lilies or red roses? And because I had thought that a farm boy from Kansas would surely like daisies. My daughter took photographs, and I stared at the landscape, beautiful to me in its minimal colors and simple lines, its heat and austerity, utterly nonhuman. This would be a pretty place to die. I tried out the words in my head, knowing full well that my father was not thinking anything like that when he hit the blazing wall of sand, knowing there was only pain, confusion, determination. Get the parachute open! Get out of this escape capsule! Get out, get out! The world rushing by too fast. I felt emptied. I thought but didn’t really feel: I love you, I honor you. These were thought bubbles for Tony, in case he happened to be telepathic. Nothing I really needed to think or say. I thought about my father’s last moments, at this exact spot, and then stopped because the images were too sad and gory and unnecessary. I thoughtand this was distinct, this had a certain substance and heftyou’re dead. Because this wasn’t as obvious as it should have been.
Let me explain that my father and I never actually spoke to each other. He didn’t console or encourage me, not in my dreams, not in my waking life. He was a presence more than a personality. Instead of not having a father, I did have a father. He lived inside me and he loved me, and I considered this one of my lifetime achievements.
Now here in this landscape, in this powerful place, in a moment in which I felt moved to address him, what did I say? You’re dead. With an emphasis.
I had my reasons. For some time, and I can’t say how long, my test pilot father had been subtly changing. He still looked the same but was he…squinting at me? Did he seem anxious? At first, I hardly noticed. I don’t think I had consciously noticed much of anything before I went to Edwards Air Force Base. But I had intuitions. I was beginning to trace certain internal judgments back to Captain Mel Apt.
He had started to make comparisons. He was secretlyyes, secretly, not letting me knowcomplaining that I hadn’t accomplished what he had expected me to accomplish. He was a hero. But I hadn’t become a hero. What had I become? What had I done with my life? Who had I saved? He criticized my decisions. He criticized my adult children. He criticized my writing. At Edwards Air Force Base, I was struck by how we had each molded our life around something, each faithful to that love and single thing. But for some time before I went to the base and for some time afterward, too, my father obsessed about my lack of success as a writer. Publishers weren’t beating their way to my door, were they? I wasn’t exactly a household name. No great literary prizes.
And now he was definitely looking older, an older man reliving past glory and disappointed in the world today. If he had survived his test piloting days, he would have likely competed to be in the space program, as other test pilots did after Edwards Air Force Base started the first formal astronaut training. He would have become a general, had a career in the military, made important decisions, become an important man, and then it would have been over and he would be in his sixties, seventies, eighties. Maybe less cheerful. Maybe less happy.
To some extent, I had seen this coming. Over time, and with such discoveries as those hidden footlockers, my father had become more of a real person. That childhood on the family farm in Kansas had always seemed idyllic, stringing popcorn for the Christmas tree, hunting and fishing with my kindly granddad, playing pranks on his older brother and sister. But there was the Depression, of course, and lots of chores on a family farm, and perhaps life wasn’t all that idyllic because as soon as he could, at seventeen, my father had joined the Air Force. As a fighter pilot in World War II, he never saw combat and complained (complained?) about this in his request to be sent to Korea, a request that was denied. His wife was pregnant within months of their marriage. Later he wrote a letter in which he expressed his hope and assumption that the next baby, me, would be a boy. In a home movie I didn’t watch until I was in my fifties, he stands next to my mother, and now I really have to stare: I always knew he was short, but my mother is 5'3" and he doesn’t look much taller. Perhaps she is wearing heels. Thenanother black-and-white home movie sceneI see him holding my sister in a swimming pool. She is three years old, and he floats her in a circle as she giggles and moves into his chest, wrapping an arm around his neck. I am not born yet or hardly born. I feel a stab of sibling rivalry. He loves her more than he loves me! But, in fact, he looks a little bored. Next I see him sitting in a lawn chair, bald and thin and pale and hairy. Once again, he bounces my sister on his stomach…and is thinking of something else. Preoccupied. Adult business.
Over time, my feelings have become nuanced. I can feel a dismay, even a manufactured anger that this man with a wife and two small children begged to go up in the air and fly glamorous expensive machines that so often exploded and fell down. His death changed our lives forever and for the worse. Still, I can never stay annoyed long. He loved flying. Above the earth, above the clouds. On occasion, too, I have flashes that are actually about him and not me. All that he missed. Daughters who loved him. More hunting with his dad. Grandchildren. There is an arc to our experiences and an accumulation which shapes us. He missed the shaping.
Just after going to Edwards Air Force Base, I received a photo in the mail of a sleek rocket plane hanging in the sky in 1956. Dropped at 30,000 feet from the belly of a B-50, the X-2 was designed to glide until its engine powered and exploded and pushed it forward into the unknown. At the end of that flight, the X-2 glided again, the pilot landing it dead-stick on the desert sand. The man who sent me this photo was the pilot who had flown the B-50 over a half century ago, the man who had dropped the X-2 into that blue sky.
I knew my father was in the cockpit of this plane. Well, many people have pictures of family and friends taken just before they died. We stare at the image with a frisson of knowledge. We hold onto the moment before loss, and we also want to warn: Turn around! Hold back on the throttle. Don’t go so fast today. We play with the idea of time. We want to change time, knowing that if we did we would change ourselves, something we cannot really imagine. Who would I be without a dead father? I became a writer because other writers had made my father real, articles in newspapers and magazines I read as a child“nursed along a striking flower garden,” “the sand coming up like a blazing yellow wall”a gift for which I remain grateful.
That day as I looked at the photograph of Mel Apt in the cockpit, I saw how photography stopped time, stopped the world, and I thought how writing wasn’t like that, since words just add to life, creating new worlds and making more time, more worlds. I thought, having written several million words, that what I had really wanted to do was stop time, not extend it. So maybe I should have become a photographer.
After my father changed, after I began to feel his disapprovalheavy and sourafter I came back from Edwards Air Force Base and pronounced him dead, I sometimes argued back. I was humorous but firm. “You know, you don’t actually exist. I made you up. It doesn’t matter what you think.” I reminded him that I didn’t believe in an afterlife. I didn’t have to please dead people. He was an internalization. Nothing more. Less than a ghost.
More gently, I praised him: “I think you’ve helped me be a better person. You loved me, yes, but you also egged me on, trying to live up to you. I became an over-achiever. I wrote and published books. Who expected that? No one at all. Can’t you be happy with what I did achieve?”
Of course, finally I noticed how one-sided these conversations werehad always been. I wasn’t arguing with a disappointed old man. Or a young pilot from the 1950s. I was just arguing with myself, evaluating myself, judging myself. As is not uncommon, I knew this for a while before I really knew it. This happened on a walk while I was thinking about how to start this essay. While I was thinking a little snidely…you don’t actually exist…and then, suddenly, he didn’t. He was gone. That slight smiling bald man, that loving presence. Gone.
I had a kind of comic moment, rummaging in interior darkness, the shadows of heart and lungs, the dim auditorium of the brain pan. He wasn’t here. I knew that. I felt that. And I expected a loss. I expected to pause, stop walking, put my hands on my knees, catch my breath. Fall to my knees! This man who had lived inside me for more than fifty years!
I was walking along a canal in southern Texas, a desert landscape familiar to me with its big jumbled prickly pears and mesquite and scrub brush, the kind of thorn forest I had grown up with after our family of three moved from Edwards Air Force Base to Phoenix, Arizona. I was on the lookout for butterflies, having come to southern Texas for that reason, and seeing now the majestic black and orange of monarchs and queens and the cheerful democratic flutter of yellow and white skippers on blue-flowered bushes. My father was gone. I walked on briskly. I felt lighter. Not bereft at all. I could let the hero go. I could be someone different.
Another monarch like a stained glass window and a gray hairstreak and a zebra heliconian, lime-green and black and improbably deco, an extraordinary diversity of species here along the Rio Grande, this horrifically militarized borderwith another Border Patrol car just ahead, with helicopters whirring overhead. I felt a space open up inside me. The absence of my father opened a window, opened into a room, a world which I could fill with other people, maybe an animal (who would I choose?), maybe a place (not so different from this one, the thorn forest), with anything, with everything. This psychic space was brightly lit. The hairstreaks and skippers drifted inside. How unexpected.
This is a true story, what really happened, and my father wasn’t gone for long. In just a few days, he came back. Sweet and kind and shy again. He doesn’t have to explain: he just couldn’t be part of that conversation, that grumpy old man and that shrill witch, scritch, scritch, scritch, scratching at the soul. He had to leave. He doesn’t care about any of that. The achievements. The books. He never did. And he doesn’t care about being a father anymore. He doesn’t care about being the hero anymore. He reminds me: I’m not much older than your daughter. I used to wear lampshades.
All this happenshe comes back to meas I am running on a trail near my home in southwestern New Mexico and listening to music. Like me, my father is wearing earbuds, and not his traditional oxygen mask and dangling tubes for the airless stratosphere where he once lived. I realize how much music he has missed since 1956. And I think how great it is that I like to listen to dance and rock tunes when I run. Because now I can catch him up on some of those songs. Hey, Dad, check out “Single Ladies” and “Conga” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Working on the Highway.” Rolling Stones. The Killer’s “Spaceman.” Queen Ida. Bruce’s latest album“High Hopes” and “Heaven’s Wall.” Brandi Carlisle. K’naan. The new Leonard Cohen. Listen to this. And this. And this.
By the end of the run, my father has returned to the darkness of the body. I whisper goodbye. That’s where he is most comfortable. A presence more than a personality. That’s where he can dream about flying still. That’s where he doesn’t fall but glides into the night, above the earth, above the clouds.
Sharman Apt Russell has written a dozen books which have been translated into a dozen languages. Her most recent fiction is the speculative novel Knocking on Heaven's Door.