BY MELANIE MATTHEWS
Moses asked me to write down what I remember from my cross country trip with Oliver. It was Oliver’s interest in roadside attractions that piqued Moses’ curiosity. We’d seen a television show about these sideshows along the road. They captured Oliver’s imagination. In 1987, many were still open. From the memories I have jotted down, three seem important—that is, based on Moses’ dreams of Oliver.
1. The Airport
My father had been an Air Force test pilot. He’d grown up in Pennsylvania and received his pilot’s license at age fifteen at a small airport near Clarion, PA. So we stopped at what I thought might be that airport. The stop was more for me than for Oliver.
The county airport was small, but not the grass strip my father’d described. We pulled up to a chain link fence and sat on the car hood to watch a small plane take off. After that we just wandered. The day was warm with a slight breeze.
A shack stood at the other end with a wind sock draped from a pole on its roof. Behind it there was a hangar. An old man walked out. He wore coveralls spattered with grease. I remember he dropped some kind of wrench on the ground. Just dropped it and left it there. It seemed odd at the time, but there was no one to steal it. He shuffled around to the front of the shack. As he opened the door, he noticed us.
“You need something?” he shouted.
“No. Just looking around.”
“Don’t go past the fence. Dangerous.”
I asked him if the airport once had a grass field. He continued to stare at us, hand still on the doorknob.
“Not in a long time. Why?”
His question why flummoxed me. I guess validating my father’s story was more important to me than I thought.
“I think my father got his pilot’s license here. A long time ago.”
“Could be. Who are you?”
I realized I hadn’t introduced myself or Oliver.
“Melanie Williams. This is my son Oliver.”
His name was Elvis. I remember that, and his dropping of the wrench, vividly. He invited us into his shack. It was cluttered with tools, maps and magazines. A radio squawked every now and then, pilots asking to land.
“Coffee?” he offered from the dirtiest coffee maker I had ever seen.
“What’s his name?”
“Oh. Joseph. Joseph Matthews.”
His eyes crinkled back in a smile.
“You remember him? So this is where he got his license?”
“No. Down the road a bit. That was ’42. Wanted to join the Air Corp. Too young for the war though. Whatever happened to him?”
“He did join the Air Force. He flew in Korea and later became a test pilot.”
“One of those crazy bastards, huh? Didn’t go for space, though?”
“He still around?”
“He passed away.”
“It was a long time ago.”
Elvis looked at Oliver for moment and then began rummaging through shelves and boxes in the corner. He came up with an old, tattered, slim hardcover book. He handed it to Oliver.
“That was your grandfather’s. First edition. He gave it to me when he left. Figured I’d get something from it.”
We both looked at the book. Elvis was right: it was a first edition, English translation of “The Little Prince”. On the front cover was my father’s name printed in pencil and now smudged with oil.
“Yeah. Said the author was one of the most important pilots of our time. I don’t know. But if he’s gone, you should have it.”
“Thank you,” Oliver told him.
“Sure. Got to get back to work.”
Elvis began to shuffle out of the shack. I stopped him at the door.
“How did you know him?”
“Grew up together. He always wanted to fly airplanes. I just wanted to take them apart.”
He walked out. Oliver and I got back in the car to leave. I said to Oliver how crazy it was to meet one of Grandpa’s boyhood friends.
“Yeah,” was all he said as he opened the book.
I pulled out of the parking area and got back on the road. Oliver didn’t say a word as we drove. He just read. I believe he read that book four of five times on our trip across America. I wish I’d kept the volume. But a year after his disappearance, I got rid of everything from that trip. Too many memories I couldn’t bear anymore.
I’ve found a picture online of the book cover. This one is in better condition than the one Elvis gave my son. If Oliver is still with us somehow, as the dreams Moses describes, I believe that book stayed with him.
I will post the other two later.