As our son’s 11th birthday approached, he watched a TV commercial on men using a product that combs away gray hair. Jesse asked, “Dad, why don’t you use Just for Men?” Maybe he didn’t want me to grow older. I was already 58.
When spring ants invaded our house, Jesse asked, “Do you think there’s ever been an ant in my bed?” I thought not, and told him so. He said, “Do you think there are any ants upstairs?” I said, “No, they usually go where the food is. And that’s downstairs.” Jesse persisted: “Why did God make ants anyway?” I had no answer. “I’m going to ask God that when I die,” Jesse said.
One of Jesse’s first assignments in the fifth grade was to write an essay about quality of life. His immediate question was “What does ‘quality of life’ mean?” His teacher had said, “Something in your life that you couldn’t do without.” My explanation was a little different. “Something that makes your life much better.” Jesse wrote about Maggie, his cairn terrier, and the fun things they did together. He summed up the key points this way:
Since I’m an only child and almost all of my friends live kind of far away, Maggie provides companionship for me when my friends can’t come over or I’m just feeling lonely. I love Maggie and she loves me back. I think this is very important.
He had read many books on military aircraft and flown in commercial jets. So for his 11th birthday, I arranged a local flight in a Cessna 172 Skyhawk. He sat beside the pilot; Grandpa Ned, who’d flown in B-17s in WWII, sat with me behind them. The pilot flew to our town and dipped low over our house. As we returned to the airfield, the pilot let Jesse take the controls. Later, Jesse asked, “How much does a Cessna 172 cost?”
The next year, for a sixth-grade book-writing project, he researched planes each night — writing, drawing planes, and copying aviation photographs from the Internet. After eight weeks, he’d produced a 105-page book, Aviation: The Full Story.
As time passed, Jesse remained inquisitive. And he took to the skies.
Twenty-three years after he’d written his magnum opus on aviation, Jesse called on my birthday and asked if I’d like to go up with him in a single-engine plane that he flew on practice flights. Little did he know, this was an anxiety-inducing question for me. Going up in the air in a small plane with an inexperienced pilot who’d only had his pilot’s license for a few months jumped to the top of my worry list. But I sensed Jesse was offering this flight as an exciting birthday present, just as I had done for him years earlier. Turning it down would disappoint him.
On the tarmac at the Nashua Airport sat a dinky white plane with wings mounted over the fuselage. After inspecting the plane thoroughly, he settled me into the cockpit with headphones. Once airborne, he flew us up the coast to Portland, Maine, made a brief landing, and took off again. Whenever Jesse spoke to air traffic controllers along the way, he sounded confident and experienced. By the time we returned, I was feeling immense pride in a son who had flown us for two hours like a seasoned professional.
Afterward, I thought how fortunate I’d been to overcome the fear that might have prevented me from having this unique adventure with my son. I remembered the thrill a few months earlier of seeing him make his first solo flight with his wife in a Cessna 172, flying over our house as we had on his 11th birthday. I like to think his mother, Shelley, and I helped him develop this inquisitive mind and avid determination to aim high and achieve his goals.
Kurt G. Schmidt is a writer in New Hampshire. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Send comments to email@example.com. Tell your story. Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.