When Planes Flew By Low
My dad was in our garage when it happened; he heard the sound drop into his stomach, the whizz and boom. The smoke came after that. Our house was a quarter mile away, standing nervously in air. It happened across from my elementary school. All the kids stuck their faces out the bus window the next day. Tarps covered the house—so still without wind—though we wished for it, hoped for one peek at its insides. I pictured it the way I wanted it—rooms turned into sticks, others miraculously untouched. I wanted butter still in its dish. I wanted glass turned to sand. I wanted a bed under trees and stars. I wanted to sleep like that.
I used to have a book about the world’s worst disasters. It was big—a foot and a half tall at least—with sweeping illustrations. I remember the plague, a microscopic view of a flea and its thin brown legs. There were tiny figures burying people in pits, a wheelbarrow man with bodies, an open window with a family at a bedside, candlelight, fever heat. I remember the people of Pompeii running and a dog at the edge of the page running too. I learned in the book that animals know natural disasters before we do. The corner of the page showed the way the ashes formed around the people. Faces without eyes.
I remember cyclones, not a specific one, though, only the word and my fascination with it. The word terrified me. It sounded worse than a hurricane, it sounded inescapable. Huddled children were drawn into bathtubs. Palm trees frozen in motion on the page. Hindenburg was near the end of the book, a fragile skeleton of flames. In the illustration, all the people were shadows—all the lives so tiny in comparison to such great light.
The Forest Hill Airpark, just down the road, is where he took off and is probably where he meant to land. Around that time, I didn’t understand that an airport is mostly just asphalt—never having flown before. This one was no exception—so when my dad finally took me there to see it, I was confused. I expected tall men in flight suits, planes soaring overhead, spotlights beaming through air, but there was nothing.
It was an Aero L-39 Albatros, a Czechoslovakian jet plane, and all of us were just kids. We never talked about it like it was a tragedy and maybe that’s why I didn’t know he died. I knew he didn’t kill anyone. That’s the part I remember, the part the adults talked about—how lucky it was. He could have hit the post office across the street, the school playground, the bank next door, my neighborhood down the road, but he didn’t. He could have hit our principal’s house, the one with the retriever statue. The family was out running errands when he hit. Their doghouse was empty. Still, I don’t know if us kids knew someone died—I didn’t know. He ran the Forest Hill Airpark and had over 30 years’ experience in flight. It later became local opinion that he had a heart attack in the sky.
When planes flew by low, my sisters and I would run outside to watch on the porch. We knew they were coming, their sound billowing over clouds, the orange sun sliding off the earth. They felt close enough to touch, like their breeze was all around us, humming. We tried to find ways onto the roof, tried to run our fingers along their wings. We tried to catch them.
Amanda Zivkovic is an essayist from Forest Hill, Maryland. Her work appears in DIAGRAM, Juked, and Sonora Review.