Pilots

On ski mornings my father woke us long before dawn. He marched through the dark downstairs hall, pounding on thin doors with pitted knuckles, bellowing, Reveille, reveille, it’s daylight in the swamp! The sound of his voice filled me with dread. My father had worked jungle tarmacs in the South Pacific in WWII, where he’d been a marine navigator on prop transports. By the time I came around, the eighth of his nine children (seven biological, two adopted), he was head of Legal for a Montana-wide grocery store chain. More than most, my father understood the grim will required to move people and equipment from one location to another. He was captain of our family platoon, and we were expected to submit and perform like any good crew.

He was thick necked and broad armed, and his barrel-shaped upper body dominated slender, almost feminine legs. Just over six feet tall, he seemed bigger. This was at least in part a result of his expansive gestures and invective. His skin was ruddy Irish, but he reminded me of those old busts of Roman senators, with his broad forehead and strong nose. Mostly he was like a lot of men then. Men who worked too much and smoked (though my father never did); men who kept a clutch of green and brown bottles in the deep arms of their desks and no one had any problem with it.

I stayed wedged beneath heavy wool blankets, aware that my sisters upstairs were brushing their long straight hair, one Native brown and the other Irish blond, applying flavored Chapstick and curling eyelashes; they didn’t want me around. Neither did my five older brothers, grunting and fighting for the downstairs shower, just outside my bedroom door. I left them to one another.

The boys could be ruthless, except Bill, who simply got what he wanted. His transgressions were legendary. Once he’d missed his ride back from the Augusta Rodeo—a hanging offense at our house—but evaded punishment by running the thirty miles home, in cowboy boots. Or there was the time he asked the nun teaching high school biology, as a serious scientific query, “why some girls have pink nipples and some have brown ones.” I figured such fearlessness was partly from being Indian and partly from his years in an orphanage before I was born, but whatever the source, Bill had what I wanted. I was in second grade and he’d already graduated high school, so there was enough distance between us that I admired him the way I did actors and musicians in Tiger Beat. I was his fan.

When the racket of boys’ voices in the hall died down, I jumped out of bed, yanking off my Minnesota Vikings pajama top and wriggling into a turtleneck, shivering as I struggled to get it over my head. I pulled on long underwear, wool socks, snow pants, and a sweatshirt, then grabbed my jacket and the plastic bag with my name on it. The bags were one of my father’s methods for controlling the chaos, the idea being to have everything necessary for the day in one place: mittens, scarf, hat, goggles, and the ski pass that fastened to my jacket with a big horse-blanket pin. Dad didn’t go for having it on a string around our necks, the way most people did. “That’s what got Isadora Duncan,” he’d say, mimicking strangulation.

I huffed upstairs without brushing my teeth, then out to the converted garage we called the “smokehouse.” I was already sweating. Dad stood at the wide grill in the back, making stacks of hotcakes and serving them along the butcher-block bar. My sisters referred to his pancakes as the COD—Circles of Doom—with not a little despair. But breakfast was neither optional nor self-serve. Offspring of various heights perched on tall stools along the bar, reaching for starch and shoving for space. I looked around but didn’t see Bill, who wasn’t much for mandatory anything.

By the time I got a seat, the butter was gone and the only syrup left was maple, the very whiff of which made me sick. I turned the sugar shaker upside down over my pancakes until all brown was buried in white, like the roof of a Bavarian chalet.

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