Tuesday, July 4, 2017

JETS OVERHEAD by Peter Nolan Smith

Falmouth Foresides was a quiet neighborhood in the 50s. Ships blew their horns leaving Portland Harbor and channel buoys tolled out their passing wake. At night I listened to the Celtics game on a small transistor radio from Japan.

I set the volume to almost silence.

My older brother was a light sleeper.

My mother worried about my hearing and I pulled the earphone out of my ear before falling asleep to my brother's breathing.

None of this coastal quietude preparation me for our move in the summer of 1960 to a suburb south of Boston. The neighborhood itself was peaceful, however our split-level ranch house lay directly beneath the landing pattern for Logan airport. The jets powered down their engines sixty seconds apart, as if Boston was under attack from a bombing run.

I was eight.

Our first night in the house I lay in bed crying. My brother was dead asleep. Sobs and planes didn't disturb him, only the hoarse voice of Johnny Most calling the Celtics and they weren't playing this time of year.

Downstairs adults were laughing in the kitchen. My parents were having a house-warming party for the neighbors. Cocktails were popular in the suburbs. Their drunken conversation grew louder with each overflight and then subsided with the planes passing our house.

I covered my face with a pillow.

My Uncle Jack entered the darkened bedroom and sat on my bed.

"I thought I heard crying." Uncle Jack was the youngest of my uncles. "What the problem?"

"The planes." I whispered, as a set of jet engines whined down its speed.

"The planes." He laughed with relief. "Those planes are bringing people home from trips far away. Soldiers, sailors, mothers, fathers, and children. They're a good thing."

"But they're loud." Maybe the fireworks for the 4th of July were louder.

"Yeah, I guess you're right." Jack followed the plane with his eyes. His house was up the street. He shrugged a shoulder. "Believe me you'll get used to it. My kids did."

"They did?" Uncle Jack had three sons about my age. We were to attend the same school. They were the same as me.

"Yeah, you can get used to most everything." Jack said like he was telling a lie. "Well,not everything. I ever tell you about the time I was in the Chosin Reservoir."

"No." Uncle Jack had been a Marine lieutenant during that war. Comic books glorified these battles. He had won several medals for bravery. Everyone in my family called him a hero.

"I marched through that frozen hell with my troops. We started out two-hundred strong, but day by day we lost friends. I can remember their names. Their faces. The Chinese blowing their bugles. You want to talk about noise. Those bugles were loud and then we'd kill the men blowing them before anyone with a weapon. We mowed them down with machine guns, rifles, hand grenades, and rocks. Then it was over. The commies were either dead or so exhausted that they couldn't even breathe. Quiet. Just like now. Then there was a gasp. Not one, but by all the living, wounded, and dying. Some crying too, but none of it loud like that."

Uncle Jack pointed to the approaching roar of a jet. His eyes were wet and he wiped at them with his sleeve.

"Silent like no one was sure what they were, because we were scared. The chinks and us. No one wanted to die anymore. I went to sleep right after that. The only officer left in a command of ten men. I slept like a king surrounded by the dead and wounded. They knew how to cry, but in the end it got quiet. Now you go to sleep too." His voice had authority. Men of that era were knew how to speak like their fathers. He patted my head and then said, "Not an order. Dream if you got them."

It was a strange bed story, which probably should have kept me awake for hours, instead I slept until dawn and Uncle Jack was right. I grew accustomed to the jets that I didn't hear them anymore.

Years later I ran a cross-country track meet in East Boston. My high school against Don Bosco. The course skirted the beach across a channel from Logan. Neptune Road was so loud that the noise rattled loose your fillings.

A few of the opposing track team lived on that dead end street. None of them said that they had ever grown accustomed to the noise.

Not then and not now.

And neither will Uncle Jack to sobs at night.

For him they belonged to the dead.

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