It was quiet in my home office this past Sunday as I worked through my 2010 tax preparation. I was picking files and receipts out of a storage basket like someone separating the light from dark colors in the laundry room.
Subtly, at first, the sound of the piston engine airplane grew louder as it approached, then passed overhead. The sound changed—the Doppler effect, it is called—as the plane moved on into the distance.
As it left, so too did my concentration. The lonely departing drone seemed to inhabit my stomach which was now also filling with deep sadness and loneliness, along with feelings of abandonment and helplessness. It was a precipitous drop in mood for a reasonably successful man of 61 who was in the middle of one of the more mature tasks of adulthood.
The house on 17th Street, in Brooklyn, where I spent the first six years of my life, still sits under the glide path to LaGuardia Airport. People who live there today hear the relatively quiet sound of jet engines throttled back and engineered to make as little noise as possible. Older, once noisy, jet aircraft have been retrofitted with a device both poetically and effectively called a hush kit.
Back in the early '50s, though, all you heard was the drone of propeller airliners. They were loud but beautiful. The most common was the DC-4, made famous during the Berlin Airlift. The jumbos of the day were the largest piston transports ever to fly, the DC-7 and the Lockheed Constellation, which you would recognize from its triple tail.
In those days, airline traffic peeked during rush hour and thinned out by mid-morning. At that time of day, the planes arrived at widely spaced, if consistent, intervals creating the solo sound of the airplane I described above.
When you are 4 or 5 years old and your heart aches everyday, no one really explains to you why your mother cannot be with you or why you have no father. And so when I was not playing with my foster sister, Joanne, I would spend the balance of the week in my foster home waiting to see my mother on Friday afternoons.
But the mid-mornings were a problem. Joanne was older and, thus, in school during and I was virtually alone. My foster mom was busy with house chores, and I was expected to amuse myself or play in the backyard, in both instances to the neverending background music of propeller airliners. It was during those moments when I would feel the saddest and long the most for my mother.
One by one they would pass overhead, and one by one I would ask myself when my mother would take me to live with her. I would stare at each plane and ponder why she didn’t want me, or where it was she had to go.
One by one and little by little over the years, the sound of the plane and the pain became one. For reasons having more to do with society at that time than any insight, my two mothers felt the best thing to tell me was that my mom had to fly away every week, and that I should look up at the planes and know she was probably on one of them.
And so I did.
This is not a sad tale. My mothers did the best they knew how to do, and I have had a great life. I even developed a love and knowledge of airplanes that is above that of the average person.
But I do want to make this point: I am often asked why I am so passionate about foster homes, child abuse and parents who don’t do their jobs. Now you know.
And one more thing: Sometimes a sound you hear on a Sunday afternoon is more than just a sound.