Life’s Lessons On A Paper Wing
It was just a paper airplane—a thing of child’s play at first glance. But each fold was calculated and precisely creased. Each of the many surfaces had a specific function in the overall ability of the paper wonder to achieve the miracle of flight. In one’s hands it was just a piece of paper to contemplate but launched into the air from a high, grassy hill overlooking the blue Pacific Ocean, it was an awesome thing of beauty to watch as it waft on the wind currents surging up from the ocean’s surface. I launched it from my hand into the wind and watched as my mind wandered back to the first time I had seen a paper airplane.
I was a child raised by my grandparents. My father died in the Korean War before ever seeing me…my mother was pregnant with me as he went off to fight. He never returned. Mother was with me until I reached the age of five then her health took a turn for the worse. Within a matter of months, breast cancer had taken her from me as well. My mother’s parents took over from there taking care of my needs and wants as my parents would have. For all purposes, they were now my parents and they cared as well as any parent could.
My grandmother was my nurturer. She took care of my needs in most ways until I was old enough to do most things for myself. She was there with me at school events with all the other moms. Most of all, she was a very loving and caring woman and she did a lot to spoil me in many ways. My grandmother was the rock that I leaned on after my mother had passed— always worked at making sure that I felt a “mother’s love” in my life. Although she acted as my mother, she never gave up being my grandmother.
My grandfather was an engineer by trade working in one of the largest aircraft plants in southern California where we lived. He was the one who first introduced me to paper airplanes. At the time, it did not seem so significant, like it does now. Back then, it was just a way to entertain a young boy on a Saturday afternoon on a grassy, golden hill overlooking the ocean. In time, I would come to realize that the site on that hill and those paper airplanes were significant elements in shaping my life.
I first went to the high hill on a Saturday afternoon right after my sixth birthday. My grandfather who I called “Pa” told me to grab my baseball cap and head out to the car. He said that he had something that he wanted to show me. We drove down the highway along the ocean shore and then took a winding road that climbed up a long hill finally arriving at a park located at the top.
We left the car and walked out across the grassy landscape. Suddenly, there it was. The great Pacific Ocean stretched out way down below and it seemed as if I could see for miles out across its vast water. For a long time, I just stood there in awe as Pa told me that this was one of his favorite places in the whole world and how he wanted to share it with me as his dad had shared it with him. We sat down in the grass and just took in the scene for a bit. Neither of us spoke as we each enjoyed the beauty of the world before us.
Pa had carried a manila envelope with him that day and now it lay beside him on the ground. My curiosity as to what was in the envelope was gnawing at me and Pa caught me glancing at it a few times as we sat there. Finally, I could no longer contain my curiosity.
“What’s in the envelope, Pa. Is it something for me,” I inquired.
“I thought that you would never ask, Tommy,” Pa replied picking up the envelope and opening it. “This is for you. It is something else that I want to share with you while we are up here on this hill.”
Pa then reached inside the envelope and withdrew a sheet of paper. I was confused and already wondering why Pa would want to share a blank sheet of paper with me but I held my questions in check for the moment waiting to see what came next.
“Have you ever seen a paper airplane, Tom?” Pa asked holding the blank sheet of white paper up in front of me.
“No Sir”, I quickly replied and then added, “But that don’t look much like an airplane to me.”
Pa smiled and said, “Right now it is just a piece of paper, Tommy, but we are going to transform it into an airplane. Then, I will have another surprise for you. You just watch.”
With that, Pa began to carefully fold and crease the paper into shape. At first it was just folded paper then suddenly it began to look like the airplanes which Pa had shown me in pictures. I was amazed that he could do this with a simple sheet of paper and a few folds. In a matter of minutes, he had completely transformed the paper into something that looked like a needle-nosed rocket with flat delta-shaped wings.
Pa asked, “What do ya think about that piece of paper now, Tommy?”
“Wow”, I said starting to feel the excitement of what was coming, “Will it fly?”
“Well, let’s us just go see about that, Tom,” said Pa as we got to our feet and headed toward the cliff.
Pa took the paper airplane in his hand and carefully launched it into the wind. It sailed upward at first then began a slow circling descent downward toward the water occasionally catching a wind current and changing course then riding an updraft that brought new life to its dominance over gravity. We both watched until it finally landed on an inbound wave and ceased to be an airplane.
“That was fun, Pa, let’s do it again” I said tugging at his arm and hoping that he had more paper in that manila envelope.
Pa laughed and hugged me taking me back over to where the envelope lay on the grass and quickly removing another blank sheet of paper to start the process anew. I watched in amazement wondering if I would ever be able to fold the paper with such precision as Pa but all the time knowing that I wanted to try. We spent the rest of the afternoon launching those paper airplanes off the hill and watching their descent to the ocean. I could not wait to come back and I hoped that we returned real soon.
The trip to the hill became a regular thing for Pa and me. Sometimes, my grandmother would go along and we would take a picnic lunch. After the meal, grandma would rest on the blanket spread out in the grass while reading one of the many books she kept about. Pa and I would be out by the cliff building and launching our paper airplanes. Neither of us ever tired of it. Each successive winged paper marvel soared its own signature on the sunny sky above the blue Pacific and we relished each release with pride.
As time passed, Pa began to let me launch the airplanes. Soon I had the technique down and developed just the touch to lay it upon the wind currents. Pa focused on building different flying shapes out of the paper. Each time we launched one, he would point out how the changes he had made was causing the airplane to react differently to the elements around it. He would talk about the dynamics of flight and the science that surrounded it. I didn’t know it at the time but I was learning a lot about airplanes and flight.
Then came the day when Pa handed the paper to me and said, “It’s high time that you started making your own airplanes, Tommy. Give it a go.”
I was thrilled and overwhelmed all at the same time. By now, I had watched Pa making hundreds of these flying models but I still was not convinced that I could do it myself. Pa sat and watched as I made my first folds never really saying anything as I worked steadily toward the goal. When I had finished, we walked over to the cliff and I launched the airplane. My paper craft did about everything but it never really flew. It floundered and fell out of the wind and down to the rocks below. Pa chuckled and wrapped his arm around me coaching me back over to our blanket.
We sat down and I was thinking that Pa would probably have me try my hand again. He did not. Instead, he was more in the mood to talk and have me listen.
“Tommy, I want you to think back on all the paper airplanes that we created and launched off of this hill into the wind. Each one was a little bit different because we made it that way. Each one behaved in its own special way due mostly to the way it was designed but also in part due to the elements surrounding it. Even the one you built had its own special way of behaving,” Pa said.
I nodded my head signifying that I understood but remained silent was Pa continued on.
“People are the same way, Tommy. We all are a little different in our size and shape. We all have different personalities and behaviors…some good, some not so good. We also react to the elements that surround us in our environment…sometime we handle it well but sometimes not so good. I say that to point out that you can learn much about people and life by understanding the design and behavior of these paper airplanes, Tommy. Does that make sense to you?”
Again I nodded my understanding while my brain was processing all that Pa had pointed out. I had never thought about things that way. How paper airplanes could have anything in common with people and how they acted. It was certainly something to think about for me.
“Come on, Tom…gather up your stuff and lets head home. Grandma will be putting dinner on the table soon. You keep practicing on folding those planes. By the time we come back out here, you’ll be ready to make one that flies. I am sure of it,” Pa said fluffing my hair with his large hand. I smiled up at him and nodded in agreement.
And so it went for years as I mastered the art of making paper airplanes and launching them off Pa’s high hill out over the ocean. As I watched them fly, I thought of Pa’s words relating the flight of the paper shapes to the behavior of people. Each time I thought about it some experience that I had recently had with another person in my life would give his words reinforcement. I soon came to realize that my Pa was a pretty smart guy in many ways.
I never lost that love of paper airplanes or of flight. By the time my college years rolled around, I was firmly focused on becoming an aeronautical engineer. It was now my passion as it had been Pa’s. Soon my paper airplanes would be those blueprints laid out for building the real airplanes that dotted the skies overhead. And just like the ones that I launched off the cliff, I would stand back and watch each one of these giants climb into the air with its own special traits and behaviors.
Both my grandparents lived long enough to see me graduate from college and enter the working world. But time was taking its toll as the years had stacked up on both of them. Pa had long since retired from his work and school had kept me away for long periods. Our jaunts to the high hill to launch paper airplanes out over the ocean were not as frequent. When we did go, Pa seemed as if he had lost some of the spark; that his mind was somewhere else and not quite focused on the thing he seemed to enjoy the most over his life.
Grandmother was first to go. She suffered a massive stroke while I was away at school. The doctors say she probably died instantly which is merciful I suppose. With grandma gone, that spark in Pa’s eye dimmed even more. It was as if he was losing his will to live day by day. I moved him in with me so that I could keep a closer watch on him. His mindset weighing heavily on my heart. The person I had so known and loved in my growing up years was now slowly disappearing.. I did not want to lose that person that was so important in my life, but it was apparent to me that I was losing him.
I thought back on all the times we had enjoyed together up on that high hill launching those paper airplanes. I realized that Pa, like the paper airplanes, was in his own descent into dark waters. Just as I had watched the paper airplanes descend into the ocean, I would watch Pa make his descent from this life. My thoughts were both comforting and heart-breaking at the same time.
The doctors said that it was “dementia” but cautioned that it might be something worse. They recommended that I put him somewhere that he could receive the proper care. I balked at first then realized that they were right. A nearby nursing facility became Pa’s new home. I could visit him regularly and he would be cared for while I was working. Our trips to the high hill had now ceased. As much as I missed that time, Pa no longer brought it up. Actually, he never said much at all anymore.
I received the call while at work in the middle of the afternoon. Rushing to the nursing facility I was prepared to find Pa had become ill. The nurses and doctor had me to sit down while they explained that Pa has passed away while sitting in his recliner. When the attendants found him, he had a paper airplane folded in perfect creases lying on his lap. I cried uncontrollably and unashamed.
Now I have come back to the high hill that Pa brought me to as a child so many years ago. I have brought his ashes with me to fulfill his request that one day he be allowed to come up here and stay. And stay here he will for I will see to that. Once I have scattered his ashes about near the cliff, I will then launch that last paper airplane shaped by his hands out onto the incoming ocean breeze and I will watch it fly among the updrafts riding on the currents of the wind. I will watch as that paper airplane flies forever out of my sight and thank God for all that I have learned from them.
©Copyright WBrown2012. All Rights Reserved.
5 March 2012