They entered the old hangar through a side door, a tall rectangle that looked so strange and small on the side of half-circle walls sticking out of the ground. People were already milling about inside, gathered around the war machines. A small table was there with several pitchers of ice-water. They were sweating into the white table cloth and two of them were already empty. The Indian summer sun was pounding away, heating the inside of that tin tube. Tiny spots of sunlight peaked through the holes in the roof.
Bob worked his way around a handful of small groups. A cluster of army brass chattered about various campaigns that turned the tide of war. Local pilots chummed it up together, happy to be home and on familiar soil. Guests gathered, hand in hand and arms over shoulders, smiling faces beaming in front of a banner that read ‘Victory Meet and Greet 1946!’ and flash bulbs popped and had their joy immortalized. Further off, behind a small barrier of red velvet rope, was a F4U Corsair.
Bob neared the rope and looked on. The dark blue paint was fresh and the decals vibrant, but his discerning eye could see the scoring on the paneling and the pieces that were replaced to make it look new. He counted nineteen Japanese flag emblems below the cockpit window. Confirmed kills. As he rounded the front, he could tell that the original armaments were still in place. The guns that had fired during the plane’s time over the Pacific were still there, still layered with the residue of gun powder and sea salt. The machine looked like the several hundred he had helped to build in the factory for years before, but it looked different now. Like a grown child or a broken man, the same but forever changed.
Without asking, Bob unclasped the rope and went beyond the barrier. People saw, but none bothered to stop him. They knew who he was, where he was from. He ran his fingers on the underside of the wings and felt the rivets pulse along his skin. Everything was tight. Sturdy. Just as it should have been. He could never know for certain, but this could have been one of his. Like a hand in a catcher’s mitt or a caress over the skin of a woman once known, this one could have been his. Felt like his. He remembered seeing the machines off and the tinge of worry that came with each completion. Was every bolt tight? Did we build it good enough? He remembered the long hours and the drive home each night where doubt would spring up and linger in the back of his mind. Get them boys home, he’d pray. Get them boys home for me.
Just then, a pilot approached the red rope and hopped over. “You one of the machinists?” he asked.
“Yeah. Well… was.”
Before Bob could say more, arms were flung around him in the tightest embrace he’d ever known. Thankfulness intertwined with fear and love as emotion surged through the pilot. Shocked, Bob went still, unsure of what to say or do. But then his eyes fell on the other pilots and he saw their faces and he knew. They looked at him as though he were a messenger from God, a man sent to see them through whatever horrors war had called them to. He had crafted the wings that flew them through the blackest nights and the darkest days and brought them home to confetti and parades. He tried to imagine what it was like to hang your hope, your life, on a machine crafted thousands of miles away by men you’d never know, never meet.
He couldn’t do it. Instead, he hugged the trembling pilot and began to weep.