From the motivation that came from somewhere between finding a good Christmas present and allowing my father to redeem his childhood, I bought him a model airplane.
It was a Champ RTF, and, although a beginner’s model, it was nevertheless the real deal: bright yellow and sturdily built. The box had a young teenage boy in a checkered jumper holding it up and smiling. The kid was irrefutably happy. This, I knew, was the plane for my father.
He wanted to wait until summer when I was home to fly it for the first time. I read the directions and learned how to charge the batteries.
After the first flight, the adjustments would have to be “trimmed” to make sure the controls flew the plane straight.
I laughed at the bolded letters inside the manual that read: “If you panic or lose control during the flight, drop the handheld remote.”
One summer evening, after milking, we took the Champ RTF to the top of the hill. The field was 40 acres across, and beyond that were woods and another valley.
The little yellow plane accelerated up the board and took off over the first cutting with a tinny buzz
We leaned an old 2x4 board on a cement block, which would be the runway for the plane’s maiden voyage.
“You can have the first one,” Dad said. I was reluctant to agree because it was his gift, but knew there was no point arguing.
The little yellow plane accelerated up the board and took off over the first cutting with a tinny buzz.
It gained altitude like any commercial jet, and, in effect, roared over the open land. Since the adjustments weren’t trimmed yet, however, it spun in a closed circle as it rose.
“Cool tricks,” my dad said.
I gave a nervous laugh.
I tried to adjust the wings like the manual said, but it seemed to have no effect. The plane continued to spin, and without my direction, climb higher.
“Wow, it can fly pretty far,” my father said.
I jammed the control lever one way, trying to curve the plane back towards us, and when that did nothing, jammed it the other way. I pressed the trim buttons on one side and then frantically on the other. I tried to lower its elevation. The plane kept spinning, higher and further away from us.
“You should probably bring it back now,” my father said.
“I’m trying,” I said.
“Bring it back now,” he said.
He grabbed the controls and pushed down on the levers. The plane was nearing the trees. He slammed the controls against his palm, wildly pressing buttons, and then thrust it back in my hands.
I did the only thing I could think of: I dropped the controls in the grass.
The Champ RTF circled through the summer night, slowly, methodically. The distance between us grew, until it was over the forest and then only a small, spinning shadow.
Eventually, there was no way to tell it apart from a real airplane miles away or a bird drifting through the air. And then, as we stood there, it disappeared for good.
We searched hard for the Champ RTF. We jumped into the pickup and coasted down the roads behind the woods, but admitted that it would take too much luck to find it in the ditch.
I walked through the forest, but already being dark, would have missed it if I passed by it.
For weeks afterwards, in silent moments, my father would turn to me and say out loud what he was thinking, which was always: “Champ is gone, isn’t he?”
“Yes,” I would say. “Champ is gone.”
Looking back, we’re still perplexed at what happened. Did the plane fly out of range of the receiver? Were the controls broken? Was it, (and I gulp thinking), operator error?
The other part of the story is this: because it was only a toy airplane we laughed about it for a long time.
There was a moment of stunned silence as it disappeared out of view, and then we roared the hardest we had all summer.
Champ went from being a model airplane to being a moment, and it made us as happy as the kid on the box.
Ryan Dennis is the author of The Beasts They Turned Away, a literary novel set on an Irish dairy farm. He grew up on a dairy farm in Western New York State and splits his time between there and the west of Ireland. In addition to receiving a PhD from NUI Galway, he was a former Fulbright Scholar to Iceland, writing about Icelandic agriculture. He is also the founder of The Milk House, an online journal that showcases creative writing on rural subjects. More about Ryan can be found at PenOfRyanDennis.com.