Waiting for the Red Baron

Jeremy and I, we’re playing planes. It’s his new favorite game, after all. “See?” he tells me. He spreads his arms out wide on either side, crooks his elbows, presses into flight. Meeewompff, his mighty Double-Wasp engine takes the sky, flies faster than a Zero, wheels and dives. I sit below Jeremy, my knees to my chin. “Whistling Death,” he grins down to where I am, secure in his cockpit. “The F4U Corsair.” I nod. He shows me wings that bend.

It’s a daytime mission. Jeremy hunkers down and lands. Then my only child rises up again, makes his elbows straight, slants his body, speeds. “Four propellers,” he says, though he is sure that I’ve already seen them. “Ten Brownings. Emerson nose.” I shake my head, back and forth: negative. He forgives, then relieves me. “It’s the Liberator,” he says, still flying. “The big banana boat.”

It is December. Jeremy is 4. The sun brings no heat where it falls. I rub my hands together, warm my knees, stomp the cold out of my feet, tighten the strings on Jeremy’s jacket to close his head into its hood. Jeremy will not wear this jacket next year; it is almost too small for him now.

“Guess, guess, guess,” I hear him say, and I do look closely, try, though his arms, straight out, are no different than before. “Striped like a zebra,” Jeremy is generous with clues. “Medium bomber. Four-bladed Hamilton Standards.” I wish, as I have always wished, that I had been brought up a boy. Then I make my admission. “I don’t know this one, either,” I say. Jeremy takes me in stride. “The Marauder,” he explains, lips pressed together like a school marm’s. Then he hardens his jaw and the lines on his brow to take the plane higher, so high.

I watch. I see how far he goes without moving. I feel myself filling with wonder. Then I cast my eyes around, collect my bearings. We are 8 feet up, Jeremy and I, on a platform in a playground he has always called Orchard. Though that’s not its name. It’s the Harry Renninger Municipal Playground—a few trees, a weak creek, predictable structures for play.

“It’s cold,” I say to Jeremy. I stomp my feet again for effect, make white bursts with the air in my lungs. The weather makes no difference to Jeremy. It never does. He flies more planes. They rumble overhead: the Flying Fortress, the Lancaster, the Invader, the Mitchell, the TBF Avenger. His nose is turning red. “Cold,” I say. “Burrr.” We are alone at the playground. Jeremy likes it this way.

World War II fighters, the cold: they are but diversions. They are the prelude. What brings us to Orchard in December is another war, another force, another tradition Jeremy plays out everyday: Manfred von Richthofen. He’s so famous, even I have heard the tales. World War I. The Fokker Dr 1. Red paint. Downed 21 planes in one bloody April, killing the observer-gunners first, then the pilots. So methodical, he sifted through wreckage for souvenirs.

It occurs to me that I want nothing to do with the Baron today. “Should we go home?” I ask. “No home!” Jeremy says. It was silly, even, to try. “Ten minutes,” I say. Sometimes it works, when I explain it that way.

Jeremy is a Mustang, Jeremy is a Mosquito, suddenly Jeremy nose-dives for me. He’s in my lap. He hushes. I lean all the way forward, past his hood, to see his face. “He’s coming,” he says, his huge brown eyes skyward, his voice reverent. “Who is?” I ask, though of course I don’t need to. “The Red Baron,” he says. Jeremy only moves lips, he’s so quiet. I follow Jeremy’s looking up through the blue, up through clouds. He is staring far away at a rumble he hears. It’s silence to me, but Jeremy has extraordinary ears, an extra sense, a genius, though his doctors give his gift another term. He holds his breath, he shivers joy. I distract him with words, so he’ll breathe. “Jeremy,” I say. “Jeremy.”

“He’s coming,” he says. “This time he is.” I notice the sun again, how it casts its light but brings no heat. I do not disagree with my son.

I remember my first lie. I am 5. I am on the wrong side of the classroom, away from the windows, away from the sun, which I am sure is hot, if I could just touch it. The teacher yammers at the front of the room like a Charlie Brown adult, no words. I press my body towards where the sun is. I make a diagonal lean and hear, outside, the pitching shrill of an emergency passing by. I hitch a ride on the back of the sound, go with it, arrive, in my mind, to a roaring blaze, a fire, water through nozzles, fierce spray. “What did you learn today?” my mother asks later, warm cookies, the oak table between us. “Emergency sounds,” I say. “How to tell before seeing what they are.” Then I sit at the kitchen table pushing wind out my nose and mouth. “That’s an ambulance,” I say, after a long whine. “That’s the police.” Then I howl and howl until the sound hurts my nose—burns it, going through. “The Woodbine Fire Protection Troop,” I say. “The sound of the Number 2 engine.” My mother watches me carefully. She makes a low whistle, then pushes her chair back against the linoleum floor. She exits the room and leaves me out of breath with the lie. Even now, even today when a fire engine passes by, I remember.

“Jeremy,” I say, “It’s getting cold.” But Jeremy can’t hear me, can only hear a sound far away. I try not to imagine how long this will take, how long we’ll stay shivering here on a splintered platform alone, waiting for the Red Baron to come. I get a quick flash of nights, days, weeks.

“I will tell you a story about the Red Baron.”J eremy says, and he does. He lists achievements. “He could land a Halberstadt. He could land an Albatros. He could shoot down F. E. 2s. He could lead ajasta. He was the head of the great flying circus.”

“Mmm,” I nod to the chant I’ve grown accustomed to. I could counter with the truth. I could say: He put bullets into his own grandmother’s ducks at 10. He hunted the ghost of a tortured man. His eyes were pale instead of blue, he lagged behind the others in school, and he wasn’t immune: He took a shot in his own head—a 4-inch wound that showed skull, splinters of bone, fear. I could tell Jeremy things that are true, but then I lean forward again, look in his eyes, see with what respect, what love he views the skies, and I go silent, shiver, gather him next to me, close. I do not speak. I am my son’s accomplice. We are waiting for the Red Baron to come.

I remember my second lie. I am 8 years old, behind a closed door. It is my mother s sewing room. There are scissors, silver shears, and my sister—four years younger than myself, Jeremy’s age—is sitting on the sewing stool, patient and trusting, long fly-away hair. I tell her I will fix her strands, and I mean to, but the scissors keep cutting in the wrong direction, keep demanding a fix. The hair falls longer and heavier on the floor, shorter and jumbled on the head, and the scissors keep making their slicing sound, won’t stop, though my hands tell them to. Later, my mother keeps asking, “What did you do?  What did you do?” All I keep saying is nothing. Nothing, I say. Nothing. It wasn’t me. Nothing. I stare straight into my mother’s eyes, and once more I say it: Nothing. She stares back, shakes her head, ashamed for my sake. Then she seals her lips, takes up the shears, straightens the tiers on my sister s shorn head.

I wish I had remembered gloves. My hands are so cold now they look like bone, feel brittle to me, when I move them. Jeremy’s hands protrude from his jacket, and I cover them with mine—numbly find and curl around them. I lean forward again, past the hood, press my cheek against his, though I can’t find the touch of his skin in the cold. His breath warms the air in front of us. He whispers to me, saying, “This time the Red Baron will come.”

I wonder how Jeremy sees. I wonder if right now, all around him, there is battle smoke, downed enemy planes, the roaring sirens of death. I wonder if he sees a red speck in the sky, hears the feathered propeller of a sputtering Fokker, is watching British Camels and Bris-tols flip upside down and loop. I wonder if any of what I see—the sewage creek, the broken spires of the trees, the hard iced sky—passes through his sight as well. I wonder just what vision is, and how a mother forms and guides it.

It is the constant question. It is the other voice inside my head. Ever since I was told there was something different in my son, I have felt—depending on the day—astonishment, despair. Expect obsessions, the doctors said. Expect cataloging, repetitions, fantasies, an aversion to ordinary circumstance, a different way of seeing. Expect these things, then fight them off: each one. Break them until a tree is a tree and a sky is a sky. Break them, or run the risk.

After the bullet tore a hole in his head, Manfred von Richthofen was an altered man, his taciturn nature gone black and melancholic. He began counting the dead pilots who had been his friends—obsessing, it was said, retreating. He was tired. He was disheartened. His head pounded like a heart out of place. War had consequences, and he, for the first time, was seeing.

Following the hospital, the surgery, the intensive care, he went home to the woods of Schweidnitz to rest. There he wrote his autobiography for the German propaganda machine and sought solace from the pistols, the goggles, the flying caps, the photographs, the altimeters, the silver he had stripped off other dead men. He ran his finger down a wall of wartime medals and tried, desperate, to retrieve his old way of seeing, to believe again that he ruled supreme: that skill, not luck, charted futures. He saw himself in a cockpit of fire instead, writhed with the conjectured pain of it, smelled, thought he did, the fumes of his own skin, ascending.

The sky is cold blue, like lapis crying. “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy. “The word hangs in the air—a white burst—then is dispersed. “Yes, Jeremy?” I answer. “It’s the Red Baron,” he confides. “I know he’s coming.” I press my ear up, do not detect a drone, do not detect anything more than the sky. “I don’t hear him,” I say, and then I check myself. “Perhaps he’s on the ground still, refueling.”

One lie is all you need and you’re over the threshold. I knew this even as a child. That’s why it became easier, over time, to lie to my mother. Never harmful deceits, never evil constructs, just big, impressive stories that made me larger and more noble, braver and more interesting than I ever in fact was. It got so that all that mattered was how grand the stories made me. It got so that all I ever wanted was for my mother, my father, my sister, my brother to look up and not see the ordinariness of me.

Manfred von Richthofen went back to the war not telling a soul that he had grown frightened. Doubt is the first defeat, and Richthofen knew that if he showed the slightest tremor, if he grew skittish in the skies, the whole German people would be dealt a violent blow. So he multiplied their delusions, he returned not speaking truths, he killed again and again though his whole body ached with the task and his heart, too.

The Red Baron is dead. I should say these words right now to my son. I should explain how it was when Manfred von Richthofen went down—the Fokker caught off guard, the Camel gaining speed, the Barons tripe ripped apart in an explosion of bullets. In the end, his body slumped, his triplane warbled, he was hurled inglorious through a hailstorm of ground fire. He hit the earth. It didn’t recede. He was just like any other man.

I should tell my son the truth. I should finish it, say that the Barons corpse was stripped apart the moment it crashed down. They rushed at it wild, in a frenzy—the Australian ground troops. They took his silk scarf, his monogrammed handkerchief, his boots. They made a skeleton of his plane, unscrewed the instruments, shredded his propeller into splinters. And when they were done they tied his body to a sheet of corrugated steel and dragged it five miles over the ridge, a bloody sled.

Tell your son the truth, insist on the truth, break his patterns, his obsessions, his dreams. The doctors say this. Anything less, they say, and there’ll be consequences.

The problem is, the reason I’m no good at this, is that I’m afraid that my boy will believe me. I’m afraid that he will see, the way he has a knack of seeing, the violent, shattering end. I’m afraid it will all go black for him and grim, that the skies, when he looks up, will be empty.

Or maybe he won’t believe me. Maybe he will look out of those extraordinary eyes and see only a mother, nearly middle-aged, who has lost her capacity, her vision. He will look at me and feel disappointment, he will see me as regular, plain, and then he will turn to see what he dreams, to watch the huge skies all alone. It is this—this threat of being ordinary and unseeing in my own son’s eyes—that has become, I admit, my great fear.

“Jeremy,” I shiver. “Little boy, it’s getting dark.” Because when I look around me now, it is—the tree limbs making black thrusts in the crisp and dimming sky. I am numb all over with the cold; my breath hangs in particles before me.

“Do you hear it, Mommy?  Do you?” Jeremy asks the question, and suddenly, imprudently, I am fumbling with my fingers, untying his hood, throwing it back off his ears, so he’ll hear more. “Yes,” I say. “I do.”

And that’s when it hits me like a howl of thunder: a rumble from the north sky, a feathering, rapid commotion. Startled, I put my eyes to where the sound is—follow it, though there’s nothing to see. “Jeremy,” I say. “Jeremy.”

“It’s the Red Baron!” Jeremy is squealing, and then he is up on his feet, and I am too, and maybe it’s a star that far away, maybe it’s a passenger plane, but something’s coming. The platform shakes with Jeremy’s jumping. The tree spires, the creek recedes. I throw my eyes up high. I wonder briefly if it is joy or confusion that I feel. “Can you believe it?” I say, though I don’t know who I’m asking. “Can you?” And it occurs to me that it doesn’t matter what happens next. It doesn’t matter, for this single, suspended instant. We have seen the Red Baron, my child and I, and he is still flying high.

About the Author

Beth Kephart

Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of more than thirty books and dozens of essays, an award-winning adjunct teacher of memoir at the University of Pennsylvania, and a cofounder of Juncture Writing Workshops.

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