The small plane was above us, loud and sputtering. We kids, Holly, Charley, Allison and I, heard it immediately upon getting off the school bus. We raced across the highway and ran down our lane to the house. Something was wrong. Charley pointed to the plane as it dipped below the billowy white clouds in front of us. It was black against the bright blue sky and seemed to be gasping, like it was desperate for air. We ran, clutching our books and bags, to tell Mother. Where was it? It had been overhead, but then it went back into the clouds, and now it was over the next farm: its engine running smoothly for a second, then a bang, a hiccup, a groan, stalling, gliding, then starting over, a bang, a groan, sputtering.
Something definitely was wrong.
We could see the plane drop out of the clouds off in the distance, low over the fields. It was trying to land. No, now it was climbing, flying toward Berlin, the little town where we had just come from school, but Holly said it couldn’t land there, the only airport was in Somerset.
Mother saw us. She was standing on the back patio with our little brother, Jerry. Our dog George was with her. They too were searching the sky. Jerry was whining and pulling on Mother’s leg; he wanted Mother to pick him up so he could see the plane too.
“What’s going on?” “Where is it now?” we asked all at once as we rushed up to her. “Do you think it will crash?” “Why won’t it land?” “Whose plane is it?”
Holly was out-of-breath. “Is it Mister Bender’s plane?” she asked.
Mister Bender’s plane? I looked at Allison wide-eyed.
“I don’t know,” Mother responded, worried, looking into the blue sky, “His plane looks like that, but I don’t know. I didn’t think he was flying today.”
Mother was frowning, her eyes scrunched together, squinting, scanning the intensely blue sky; the coughing drone of the plane reverberating throughout the countryside.
Suddenly, we heard a boom from somewhere behind our woods – a loud boom – followed by silence – dead silence. The cows and our horse Ginger looked up from grazing in the field, even the birds in our little woods paused. We looked at each other surprised. Had it crashed? A thick plume of black smoke rose in the distance.
“Is that the plane?” Allison asked.
“I don’t know,” Mother said, grabbing Jerry and running to the house. We rushed after her, carrying our books and packs. Mother grabbed her car keys and purse and told us to hurry, to put our stuff on the dining room table and get into the car. Quickly she was out the door, running with Jerry in her arms to the station wagon.
“Why? Why? Are we going to see what happened?” I wanted to know.
“Was that Mister Bender?” Charley asked, tying up George.
Holly, catching up to Mother as she put Jerry in the car, asked again, “Was that Mister Bender’s plane?”
“I don’t know,” Mother responded, finding it hard to talk, “but I need to find out.”
Mister Bender was mother’s friend from Somerset. Though he owned a small plane, we never went for a ride in it. Mother did, but she wouldn’t let us.
Allison and I didn’t care.
Mister Bender didn’t like us. If he talked to any of us, it was Holly or Charley: Holly because she was a teenager and Charley because he liked sports, like Arnold Palmer, Mario Andretti, and the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Allison and I, even Jerry too, were in the way when he wanted to get together with Mother. Allison was a year-and-a-half older than me, and Jerry was, maybe, two or three. “I’ve got the younger ones,” I would hear her say over the phone, or “Listen,” she would remind us as we got out of the station wagon for a quick visit to see Mister Bender, “try to be polite, don’t touch anything, and mind your manners.”
He was Mother and Daddy’s friend: he and his wife, Mrs. Bender, who we met once or twice at the country club while squirming to get free from their small talk. They had two daughters Holly and Allison’s ages, but we didn’t know them very well. They didn’t like us. We were farm kids and they were from Somerset.
Holly would have nothing to do with them and called them snots. We believed her too. When our families got together, they always stood beside their mother and wouldn’t play with us.
Stuck ups! Allison and I hated snotty Somerset stuck ups!
Mother met Mister Bender in the art class she took during the second year we lived on the farm. Mister Bender convinced Mother that with Daddy’s job selling stocks and bonds, we should belong to the Somerset Country Club. Daddy, he said, could get clients from Somerset, Mother could play golf and bridge, and, every summer, we could swim in the country club swimming pool.
We liked the country club. That first summer as members, Holly discovered the pool had cute lifeguards back from college and Allison and I realized the concession stand offered ice cream sandwiches, which melted in your hands if you didn’t eat them really fast. The Olympic-size pool had a shallow end and a deep end with diving boards. Though Allison and I had to promise to stay in the shallow end, Charley would jump off the high dive, which was really, really high, and, while screaming at Mother to watch, would plunge deep into the water like a mad rocket. Mother and Holly would be sunbathing by the side of the pool and Mother would look up just in time to see him, but sometimes she would miss him altogether as Mister Bender would be standing next to her.
Most of the summer though, we swam in the pool by ourselves, Holly made friends, and Mister Bender taught Mother how to golf.
Mother and a group of them from that art class were close; in addition to Mister Bender, Mother met Mrs. Coffrets, who didn’t have children, but would watch Allison, Jerry, and me for Mother on occasion, and Mrs. Barry, who also had two girls Allison and my ages. Mrs. Barry’s daughters, unlike Mister Bender’s daughters, were really nice. Allison and I liked spending the afternoon alone with them, but Al Barry, Mrs. Barry’s husband, managed a large lodge deep in the woods on the other side of Somerset, where they lived, so we didn’t see them very often.
Mister Bender and Mother became daily afternoon acquaintances, golf buddies, and bridge partners.
Mother said she grew up playing bridge. She told us her family didn’t own a TV back then. She said TVs weren’t even around until after World War II. Kids, back then, back when she and Daddy were teenagers, read newspapers and books and listened to the radio and records and played cards and acted in plays and went to dances and saw lots of movies and drank milkshakes in soda shops and had a great, great time in high school, that is, up until the war changed everything.
Mother said she and her older brother, Uncle Tommy, often played bridge together as partners back in high school, but Daddy, who grew up an only child, didn’t play cards at all. She taught him bridge when they first started dating after the war. Mister Bender, on the other hand, grew up playing bridge too, and, in a way, he, rather than Daddy, took Uncle Tommy’s place as Mother’s partner. Mother and Mister Bender, she said, were very good and they often won tournaments at the country club and in small bridge parties, such as at our house, when we would host once in a while on a Saturday night.
Mother told us Mister Bender had been a pilot in World War II. He bought his own plane after he returned from Europe. He would fly his plane around the county and to different cities in Pennsylvania, like Pittsburgh, and elsewhere even, like Philadelphia, where Uncle Tommy and Aunt Ned lived. He owned a shoe factory in Somerset and, Mother said, used the plane to go to meetings and sell shoes. Mother loved his small plane and often wanted Mister Bender to take her flying.
I liked his plane too, but it didn’t have any guns on it and no bullet holes from dogfights.
One time Mister Bender told Mother, Charley, and me all about Italian shoes when we visited him at the shoe factory. He told us how Italian shoes were dominating the shoe business. We all would be wearing Italian shoes one day, he said. Mother was getting Charley and me shoes for Sunday school, but I didn’t want any Italian ones. I knew the Italians sided with the Germans in the war.
“If I owned a plane to sell Italian shoes,” I told Mother when we were by ourselves, “I’d put machine guns on it.”
Later, when Charley interrupted Mister Bender while he was pointing out thin high heels for Mother to wear and asked him if he had ever shot down any Nazis, Mother told both Charley and me to hush, to behave, and to thank Mister Bender for the shoes he gave us.
Later, in the car, Mother said, “Mister Bender has a hard time with kids. You have to be quiet or he won’t want us to visit.”
I looked out the window wishing we were back at the farm rather than always seeing Mister Bender.
“I’m not wearing his stupid shoes,” I said.
He yelled at Allison and me once when Mother wasn’t around.
He and Mother were playing golf at the country club and we were at the pool. We spotted him with a group of men coming up to the ninth hole green – this was the green closest to the swimming pool. We thought Mother was with him, but it turned out, she was playing with a group of women behind them.
Allison and I ran to the green in our bathing suits and he yelled at us.
We were shocked. He acted like he didn’t know us. He was such a meanie.
When we told Charley, Charley said forget him.
“Mister Bender is a dick,” he said.
We agreed, though we weren’t sure what that meant.
Mister Bender was a mean old dick.
“I wish he was dead,” Allison said and I agreed. We were sitting by the pool. “I wish Mother had never met him.”
When we complained to Mother, she said kids weren’t allowed on the golf course and especially not in their bare feet and wet bathing suits. But that seemed stupid. If we couldn’t go on the golf course, how could we talk to our parents?
To Allison and me, it seemed like everything changed when Mother started playing golf and bridge with Mister Bender. He became involved in everything we did. Allison and I simply didn’t trust him. How could you trust anyone who didn’t like kids, who sold Italian shoes, who flew stupid airplanes, and who yelled at us when Mother wasn’t around? We didn’t like him, nothing about him, and that wouldn’t change.
Mother told me in the car once, Mister Bender liked us all and liked Daddy too, but I knew Daddy was never around, commuting back and forth to Pittsburgh. Mister Bender wasn’t like Daddy at all: he had dark hair, was smaller than Daddy by a number of inches and took pride in being in shape. Daddy, who was heavy-set and had wavy blonde hair, was quick to laugh and could tell funny stories. He knew great jokes, could sing hundreds of songs from memory, and enjoyed being with kids and adults alike.
Mother said, “Mister Bender is really smart. He knows all sorts of things and he’s helped us. He knows all sorts of people.”
I said, “Oh yeah, well Daddy is more than smart and he likes being with us.”
Mother said, “Mister Bender has his own children to be with.”
I said, “Mister Bender hates us. Ask Allison. He only wants to be with you.”
“He does not. I can’t believe I am arguing with you about Mister Bender. When you’re older, you’ll understand.”
“Mister Bender’s mean.”
“That’s not true. Mister Bender’s a nice man.” She paused, looking directly at me in the rearview mirror. “No matter what you think, he makes me happy and that’s all there is to it.”
It didn’t matter what we kids thought, I realized, Mother and Daddy were now part of the Somerset social scene. Yet, for all the bridge tournaments, parties, dances, golfing, and country club events-for-the-whole-family, something was wrong. Our life on the farm was losing in an endless tug-of-war to the new and exciting things to do in Somerset.
Once, even, Mister Bender convinced Mother and Daddy to buy a sailboat. Everyone at the country club owned sailboats, he said, and sailing on Lake Somerset was the thing to do.
Out of the blue, one breezy spring day, we were sailing our new boat across Somerset Lake, racing along side Mister Bender’s sailboat. Daddy said he knew how to handle sailboats from his days as a camp counselor. Charley and I were in Daddy’s boat and we wanted it to go faster. Mother and Holly and Allison were with Mister Bender.
We were tacking back and forth, racing across the lake, when, by mistake, we dipped too close to the water and crashed into the choppy surf.
Along with Charley and Daddy, I was thrown overboard and, upon coming up for air in the frigid lake, I saw our new sailboat floating on its side, the white sail bouncing on top of the water. I was gasping and coughing and struggling in my clothes, when Daddy spotted me and pulled me over to the hull, telling me to hold onto the side beside Charley.
I was so cold, shivering like crazy, and gladly allowed myself to be lifted into Mister Bender’s sailboat. Charley, too, was pulled into Mister Bender’s boat.
“Sorry, Chuck, I can’t take anymore,” Mister Bender said to Daddy, who was holding onto the hull of our sailboat. “I’ll send a motorboat for you.”
Mister Bender and Mother were laughing.
Mother, trying to be positive with Charley and me while Mister Bender stood beside her, exclaimed, “Isn’t this fun!” Mister Bender handed her dry beach towels to put around us.
“Chuck takes too many chances,” he said.
I hated him then. Mister Bender seemed to be delighted in the moment. Charley wanted to stay with Daddy, but Mother wouldn’t hear of it. I watched as Mister Bender turned his back on Daddy and sailed us back to the dock.
Daddy stayed with the boat until help arrived. When our boat was pulled to shore, only Mister Bender was waiting for him. We were long gone, Mother having driven us home to warm up and get dry clothes.
Now Mother was driving the station wagon toward the black plume of smoke. She was having a hard time deciding which country roads to take to get her to the plane. She repeatedly yelled at us to be quiet, that we were confusing her, giving her directions all at once based on what we saw through the car windows, but after a number of wrong turns and dead ends, we finally reached the site of the crash.
We were at an open pit coal mine. Rocks and black dirt covered the lot with a deep quarry off to the side where black coal at one time had been dug up and excavated. We could see the plane had crashed into a huge mound of black rocks and dirt piled up along the side of the quarry. The plane was stuffed nose first into the dirt and crunched into a distorted mass of yellow plastic and glass. One of the wings had broken off and other one was pointing awkwardly to the afternoon sky. Smoke poured out of the front of the plane as we joined the throng of cars parked along the side of the road.
We quickly crossed the narrow county road, now busy with cars and pickups arriving at the scene. We could hear sirens from Berlin. Several county sheriffs cars, with their lights flashing, were parked haphazardly at the entrance to the property. A fire truck pulled into the quarry and fire fighters jumped off of the truck grabbing their hoses.
We ran to where a group of farmers and the local sheriff had set up a perimeter. Holly was carrying Jerry, and Charley, Allison, and I clustered around Mother where everyone was standing. No one was allowed to get closer.
The sheriff was telling everyone that the plane might blowup.
“He said it might blow,” a local farmer repeated to Mother.
“Do you know who was flying it?” Mother asked. She shouted over to the sheriff. “Whose plane?”
He shrugged, “Who knows, lady. Some guy.”
We watched as the ambulance pulled onto the property; it backed up beside the fire truck. Everyone pushed to the side to give it room. This was crazy! Someone in the ambulance turned the siren off, but its red and white lights kept flashing in our eyes. We watched as the doctors pulled a gurney out of the back and pushed it across the gravel toward the smoking plane stuck haphazardly on the mound of ash and stone.
I asked Mother, “Is Mister Bender hurt?”
She said, “Hush! Not now. We don’t know who it is.”
“How bad is the pilot?” Mother asked the sheriff. Everyone wanted to know.
“I don’t know,” he shouted over.
The farmer next to Mother said, “I don’t think he’s been over there,” pointing to the crushed plane. “He arrived late. But we’ll know soon enough. They got to get the pilot out, that’s for sure.”
It seemed like it took forever, but soon the gurney was being pulled back toward us.
More men were pushing it now, deputies and doctors struggling to get the gurney across the gravel to the ambulance. I could see someone on the gurney; a white sheet pulled over the body and tucked under tight; the outline of a man, his shoes pushing the sheet into the air at the lower end. I looked at the other end to see if it was Mister Bender, but the sheet covered the man’s head. He was tucked under from top to bottom.
“That’s not good,” the farmer mumbled as they pushed the gurney into the ambulance. “He must be a goner.”
Allison and I looked at each other. He was the first goner we had ever seen.
“Is Mister Bender a goner?” Allison asked Mother.
Mother didn’t answer her, but when the ambulance left with its lights flashing, she said we had to go home, quickly now.
In the car I told Allison, “If it was me, I would have landed the plane in a field. No wonder Mister Bender’s a goner, landing in a quarry was stupid.”
She said, “I would have landed it in Somerset Lake.”
I said, “That’s stupid too, the plane would sink and the Loch Ness monster would eat him.”
I could see Allison hadn’t thought of that, but she hadn’t been in the lake.
I said, “I would have landed it in the school parking lot.”
She said, “I would have landed it on the school roof.”
I said, “School roof? But what about the chimneys?”
I said, “I would have lined up all the buses and landed on the bus roofs to avoid the chimneys.”
Allison said, “But what about the tires. How could the buses pick us up for school if all the tires were squished?”
Mother told Allison and me to be quiet, to quit it.
She said she needed time to think.
Charley was more blunt, he said, “Shut up or I’ll punch you.”
Mother was making dinner. We were doing our homework. Allison and I couldn’t wait to tell Daddy about the plane and, maybe even, Mister Bender being a goner. But when I went to the kitchen to ask Mother a question, I heard her on the phone.
“I thought you were dead,” she said over and over. “I thought you were dead.”