Valiant: The Airplane on Old Highway 41

John Carr Walker



It has no name other than The Airplane, but that’s description enough in the small town of Caruthers. The Airplane stands on the corner of Mountain View and Elm Avenues (old California State Highway 41) atop the portcullis of a gas station and mini-mart. The propeller has been buried in the stucco roof, the sheeting removed from the control surfaces, and the cover of the empty cockpit propped open. A pilot looking up would see the cars on the highway flying past, but The Airplane needs no pilot, The Airplane flies past nothing anymore. It’s a Vultee BT-13 Valiant, once the next-to-last class in flight school for pilots training to enter the second world war—interesting, but it’s The Airplane’s second career as my home’s only landmark that makes it famous.


It must have taken a lot of work to stand The Airplane on the roof in the first place, and a lot of work must go into keeping it upright. I imagine the guy wires that steady the tailpiece need regular inspection; tension bolts need tightening, and replacement when rust penetrates the core. It must be someone’s job to clean the bird nests out of the cockpit and polish the metal to a shine. Surely it costs its owner a lot of money, but The Airplane is a brighter silver today than it was thirty years ago. Landmark doesn’t describe it anymore. How about monument? To what is harder to imagine. Perhaps The Airplane has become a monument to itself.


Even grounded, The Airplane is the highest thing for miles, towering above ranch-style houses, pole barns, and acres and acres of vineyards. At dawn its shadow crosses over the vines, wings spread, tailpiece long and sleek, an image the movies would make majestic, a dark shape speeding across bright green crops, golden fields. But The Airplane is not in the movies. It’s in Caruthers. A few miles east of Caruthers, actually. It’s the sun moving, not The Airplane, which can’t disturb the quiet or whip up a wind or flatten the leaves as it cruises low. The Airplane, just shadow and shape, has less use than a sundial.


Growing up, I could see The Airplane from my bedroom window. In the distance, it appeared smaller than the airplane models I built at my desk then hung from the ceiling in pantomime flight. The Airplane is a pantomime crash. A nosedive interrupted before it hit the ground and held in stasis for decades, transforming it from a flying machine into sculpture. From kite to kitsch. An act that saved The Airplane from scrap, depending on one’s idea of salvation. Can something as fundamentally graceful as an airplane be preserved in this tasteless fashion and still be considered saved?


An airplane propped upright next to the highway is a useful if garish landmark. Friends with no concept of where Caruthers is know the place instantly when I mention The Airplane. Even after the highway moved the singularity of the landmark remains, rising above the flatness, perhaps more mysterious for being that little bit farther away. The Airplane’s uniqueness makes the surrounding countryside unique, meaning I didn’t live in the middle of nowhere, I lived near The Airplane.


The gas station caught fire. From my bedroom window I watched the smoke rising into the night, lit orange from below by flames, the skin of the airplane like a shimmering pool. My mother drove me by the ruin after school the next day. The lot was cordoned off with yellow safety tape. The shell of the building looked reasonably intact, but the glass had been shattered out of the windows, the service bay blackened, blackness that seemed to go beyond the back wall. Things that had melted in the fire were piled by the road. The belly of The Airplane had been scorched, smoke blown across the wings as if it had fallen from the sky in a fireball.


As a kid, I believed The Airplane had crashed, that the gas station portcullis was strong enough to catch and hold a plane nosediving from the sky. Unreasonable, of course, but no more so than believing in the tooth fairy, which I believed in eagerly. I didn’t ask who really left quarters under my pillow, nor ask what happened to the pilot who’d flown The Airplane, or question why I never heard my father or grandmother talk about the crash—as if, after his plane had been suspended above the pumps, the pilot walked away from his perfect wreckage, into Caruthers and anonymity, aided by new neighbors who never gossiped about him or his miraculous landing, which seems to me the most impossible aspect of this fairy tale. And yet, the real story of how The Airplane came to stand over the gas station—by highway, I presume, on a flatbed trailer, in large pieces—is never spoken of either. Part of The Airplane’s impossibility is the silence that surrounds it in space and time.


The sky of my childhood was filled with crop-dusters, every one of them a Steersman biplane: blue fuselage, yellow wings, square patches of paint over old roundels. They sounded distant then the next second appeared over the roof of the house, flying low enough I could wave my arm and the biplanes would tip their wings to wave back.


I talked my parents into taking me to the airshow at Lemoore Naval Air Station the year a civilian stunt pilot crashed and died. I still remember the moment: a fireball of fuel, black and orange, jumping at the suddenly empty sky, the gasp and silence that gripped the crowd, the somber walk we took among grounded aircraft while the fire was put out and what was left of the airplane swept away. My mother never went to another airshow—she couldn’t bear the thought of witnessing another crash—but my father kept taking me to Lemoore, and later, to the Warbirds airshow in Madera. Why didn’t my nervous system reject airshows? Why did my father keep taking me? Perhaps because we’d both grown up looking at The Airplane frozen harmlessly the moment before impact and my mother had not.


Is a static airplane, stood on its nose and lashed to a roof, different from an airplane that stands on its landing gear, parked in a hanger somewhere? Does the possibility of flight, or its impossibility, determine how we look at an airplane? Does The Airplane propped upright on the gas station inspire flight or encourage staying put? What do we who grew up in sight of The Airplane end up wanting? Wings to fly? Or guy wires for stability?


All planes were grounded following the attacks of 9/11. I’d never noticed how accustomed I was to the sight and sound of aircraft overhead until they were forbidden from flying. Those weeks seemed a time of extreme flatness, everything knocked horizontal. There was nothing in the sky to look up to. The Airplane, always our tallest landmark, became suddenly the tip top of a leveled world.


The last time I flew home I felt like a stranger. I kept thinking of things lost and gone, of friends missing from the places they’d once occupied, even my family’s vineyard changed utterly—my father had leased the land to a neighbor, bulldozed the vines, and planted almond orchards in their place. This would be my first time seeing the trees, and the closer I got, the farther away the place I grew up seemed to me. Until I saw The Airplane. Tail in the air. Wings spread. Propeller buried in the portcullis. It’s difficult to feel like a stranger looking at one’s childhood landmark, especially when the landmark is as strange as mine. Sure enough, I could still see The Airplane standing the same as ever out my old bedroom window, though the land was different.


A Sikh family owns and operates the gas station and mini-mart where The Airplane stands. I’ve heard the store is a help to newcomers, providing a job while they go to school, build lives in a new country—a way of landing smoothly. I find it right and beautiful such work happens in the shadow of The Airplane that never flies. I imagine people write home about it. I hope they describe its strangeness, and the strangeness it confers on its surroundings, the last thing anyone expects to see here, the first thing to welcome you.


John Carr Walker is the author of the story collection Repairable Men (Sunnyoutside 2014). Recently, his writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Newfound, Gimmick, Shantih, Gravel, Hippocampus, Five:2:One, The Toasted Cheese, Inlandia, Split Lip, The Collagist, The Real Story UK, and Queen Mob’s Teahouse. A native of California’s San Joaquin Valley, he now lives in Oregon.