Potential Trigger Warning: historical fiction partially set in 1930s Germany.
As the last towers of New York City vanished into wispy clouds the dirty, off-white hue of undyed cotton, I sighed. Seeing the new Empire State Building from the air was an experience I could lord over my schoolfellows back home. Now I understood why they called it a “sky scraper.” Even at normal cruising elevation, we’d been forced to gaze up at the building’s towering spire and avoid circling too close, lest we collide. Boldly, we’d circled over the city, passing so near the building that I could wave at people through the windows: the minute but present threat of flying so close sent a frisson of mingled fear and excitement surging up my spine. No, surely none of the other lads in my school had ever been so fortunate! I imagined a boy of my own age standing in the city streets below and staring enviously up at the airship overhead and felt a smug smile sneak onto my face.
But now we were back over the sea yet again. It was almost as if we’d been magically transported backwards into the past, except that instead of the sparkling deep blue it had appeared at the start of our unending voyage, the reflection of the leaden sky above tinted the ocean what I imagined was the gray of a corpse’s flesh, tipped by regular, jagged bone-white foam protuberances. Looking back over the boundless void in the opposite direction, I shivered uncontrollably as a cool gust swirled through the open window on a brief detour before continuing its journey back towards Europe. Father would grumble that I was being fanciful and frivolous again if he knew my thoughts.
A heavy hand plummeted onto my shoulder. As if I’d summoned him, my father’s frowning visage interposed itself in my view like an angry Titan. “Boy. You should be spending time on your studies rather than lingering on the promenade and dangling your head out the window.”
“Yes, Father,” I muttered dutifully, staring down at the shining rail beneath my hands. To soothe myself, I stroked my fingers lightly along the polished metal, savoring its smoothness: no rough edges, although the low pulsing of the engines sent it to silent vibration. Perhaps, if I was careful, I might steal a few minutes to expand the growing fragment of poem scribbled hastily onto a scrap of paper hidden between the pages of my Latin textbook. Of course, if Father spied it, he would immediately fling it out one of the windows, to flap away freely on the breeze like a stray gull’s feather. He had never approved of my poetry. Mother… Mother had understood.
Father’s hand shifted forward on my shoulder to give me a hard push backwards, away from the window. “Move, boy!” he barked. “Cease your lollygagging.”
There was no point in answering back, in making excuses. I had learned that long ago. Father had no patience for idleness or anything other than sharp, instant compliance with his requirements. Sixteen years of vocal disappointment with my various shortcomings left him eternally curt. Like a loom in one of the many mills he owned, Father spent his life click-clacking away with ruthless efficiency; Heaven help a stray limb that obstructed that predetermined mechanical path even briefly. A lapse in productivity, even to spare a finger, constituted a mortal sin.
As I turned towards the passageway leading back to the cabins, Captain Lehman appeared in the lounge, Captain Pruss trailing behind him like a shadow. His broad face, usually quirked upwards into a grin, now creased in a thunderous frown. I liked Captain Lehman; even if Captain Pruss was technically the commander on this trip, he spent far less time on the passenger decks. Captain Lehman made me laugh and told bold yarns about his many years as an airship captain. A gregarious man, he circulated among the passengers regularly, telling jests and, even on one memorable occasion, playing traditional folk-songs on his accordion as he goose-stepped up and down the center aisle of the dining room during dinner.
Of course, Father didn’t approve of him.
“Don’t let his pleasant demeanor fool you,” he’d growled at me when I’d ventured a complimentary comment about the Captain. “I believe he’s just like the rest of Them: fanatical and untrustworthy. He merely hides it better. The good captain is all but a card-carrying member of that insane German socialist workers’ political party. All the disruption going on in Germany is bad for business, in my opinion. I still say we shouldn’t have let them rearm at all after the war. Don’t let any of their ridiculous ideas creep into your head. If I had known how much things had changed in Frankfurt since my last visit, I wouldn’t have brought you along on this business trip at all.”
I’d enjoyed seeing the traditional gingerbread wooden houses, curiously intermingled in downtown Frankfurt with modern office buildings. Yet obnoxious banners blaring the new national symbol had defaced their clean architecture, and the streets were filled with men in uniform circulating in near-constant parades. Gaudy exhibits celebrating the civic virtues of farmers and workers stood side by side with opera houses and art museums.
“Why did you bring me?” I'd demanded in a rare moment of courage. “Mrs. Hutchinson would have ensured that I was fed and attended school in your absence.” Surely our housekeeper could have safely supervised me for the three weeks of Father’s anticipated absence, for I was not given to gadding recklessly about. Not for me the former freedom of the flappers and the clubmen, now laid low by debt and dire poverty.
Father had given me a steely glare, undiluted by the glass lenses of his spectacles. “Mrs. Hutchinson unduly indulges you in your moping about the house.”
“Mrs. Hutchinson understands that Mother died less than four months ago!” I’d snapped back. His disapproval of me was an inevitability, but our loyal housekeeper, resident in our home for most of my life, deserved better from Father.
“What you need,” he retorted, “is an end to the constant moping. Keeping busy and occupied is the most effective way to alleviate grief. Not shutting oneself away from the world in dark rooms and scratching out sentimental drivel in poor rhyme.” For just one moment, his voice softened and he broke eye contact. “I’d hoped, Reginald, that a change in scenery and some travel might improve your current disposition. Unfortunately, it seems that I was wrong.”
Only Father called me ‘Reginald.’ Mother had always called me ‘Reggie.’
“I regret to inform you, ladies and gentlemen,” Captain Lehman announced in an accented voice that cut into my reverie, “that we have not yet been cleared to land at Lakehurst. I have been told there are thunderstorms in the area. On the positive side, you will have an opportunity to fly over many pleasant New Jersey beaches this afternoon.”
Muffled murmurs from all directions filled the lounge. No one sounded particularly pleased by this announcement.
Father threw up his hands, advanced on Captain Lehman, and somehow loomed even taller. Of course Father would be the most vocal verbal combatant. “I’m hardly interested in scenery at this point. Surely this is a joke in extremely poor taste. We will arrive even later? We’re already half a day behind schedule!” A point of much consternation to him. “I might as well have booked passage on a liner across the Atlantic. At this rate, we’ll miss our flight out of Newark Airport.”
Our return flight was scheduled for tomorrow morning. It wasn’t as if airplane flights after dark were even possible. Father needn’t have been quite so dramatic.
“Ah, but, good sir…” With near visible effort, Captain Lehman plastered a smile on his face. “Never would you find on a liner such fine company and such an excellent view. While I’m confident many of you gentlemen have become well acquainted with our zeppelin’s excellent bar over the last few days, why don’t you follow me downstairs to B deck to Herr Schulze’s domain for some libations? Perhaps your last Maybach 12 or LZ-129 cocktail of the voyage? Or, simply some scotch, if you prefer. On the house, of course.”
Since the national ban on alcohol had only ended in America a few years ago, it was a safe bet that this would be a popular offer. Perhaps even sufficient to placate Father. The inner workings of a mechanical loom did occasionally require lubrication from time to time, after all. Although I was of course too young to imbibe, I’d heard Father complain to both my mother and Mrs. Hutchinson on various occasions that it was still difficult to obtain high quality alcohol even now. He’d certainly enjoyed his fair share of German wines while we were abroad.
When Captain Lehman turned his head, his eyes meeting mine, he tossed me a more sincere grin. “Apologies, young master, but my offer stands only for the grown-ups.” He shrugged and spread his hands in a casual pretense of helplessness.
“Of course, Captain.” My heart accelerated with hope as I realized that one of my dearest desires (almost completely absent for the past two and a half days) might be within reach: privacy.
Already halfway to the door leading to the staircase to B deck, reminded of my existence, Father turned back towards me with a stern frown. “As we discussed, I don’t want you to fritter away your time on the promenade. To your books, Reginald.”
“Of course, Father,” I parroted. His demand suited me nicely: since most of the men were guaranteed to be downstairs for quite some time, the usually crowded writing room would likely be mostly empty. Instead of eking out my verses on the tiny, fold-down desk in our cramped, windowless (and airless) cabin, I could sit on one of the pleasantly cushioned chairs in the writing room. Few women ventured into the writing room, so I would have the room mostly to myself and could compose freely.
As the last of the men filed out of the room, Captain Lehman turned to Captain Pruss. In a low voice that forced its way through gritted teeth and that passengers were surely not supposed to overhear, he growled, “Reach out to Commander Rosendahl yet again and press him further as to when we can expect to land our zeppelin. Tell him that our passengers are becoming extremely frustrated with the continued delays from Lakehurst Station. As I have said repeatedly, based on my years of experience, lightning is no threat to a zeppelin as long as it doesn’t vent hydrogen. I have been on many zeppelins stuck by lightning in the past, with no real harm done.”
Pretending I had heard nothing, I retreated to the writing room after fetching several books from our cabin. As I’d hoped, no one else currently occupied the room. For several minutes, I did nothing more than stare at the cheerful, colorful paintings of scenes from around the world that adorned the walls. Admiring the fine brushstrokes, I wrestled once more with the question as to whether my favorite was the Chinese Pagoda or the Teepee. Then I lifted the leathery cover of the travel journal that I was supposed to be keeping to document my observations of our voyage to Europe. I would compose one final entry before stealing some precious moments for my poetry.
Setting pen to paper, I began. “The 6th day of May, 1937: Today will be my final day aboard the airship Hindenburg. The morning began well, with a flight over Boston. I have never been to Boston. Although seeing it from above was surely no substitute for appreciating the city’s beauties up close, some of its more famous sights, such as the museum ship U.S.S. Constitution, the Old North Church, and the granite obelisk erected in memory of the Battle of Bunker Hill, were visible. Shortly afterwards, the airship passed over New York City. In particular, I was excited by the opportunity to admire the architecture of the newly constructed Empire State Building. Yet, after leaving Manhattan, we found ourselves in endless circles over the so-called ‘Garden State,’ though I certainly failed to see any evidence of such ‘gardens’ from the sky. Like Ulysses and his men, it seems we are on an endless journey, carried ever further from the delights of Ithaca despite our efforts to reach it. Rather than being dependent on the vagaries of the wind like the great voyager and his crew, we have conversely and ironically deemed ourselves masters of the winds aloft, solely to be forceably confronted with our own hubris.”
For a moment, I paused to wonder whether Father would consider that final observation too flamboyant. Yet it was a classical allusion, so I decided after a few moments of agonizing that it would ultimately be deemed acceptably academic. Bored with generating stilted, formulaic commentary, I turned instead to my half-finished poem. Although I had yet to achieve the glory of T.S. Eliot, it pleased me more than earlier efforts. Father erred in calling it ‘poor rhyme,’ for in imitation of the great poet, I did not seek to rhyme at all.
Lost in thought, I became fatally oblivious to the passage of time. Unexpectedly, my paper was snatched violently away, leaving my pen skittering wildly. It left a long black ink-smear across the top of the writing-desk. “What is this, boy?” Father barked.
He expected me to wilt into myself like a parched houseplant. I surprised both of us when I bolted to my feet, thrust out my hand, and demanded, “Give that back!”
Of course he didn’t. Instead, he bristled and pointed his finger at me as he unleashed a furious lecture. “Do you think it was scribbling that carried our family through the depression that bankrupted dozens of people I’d known all my life, Reginald? I fought tooth and nail to hold our family’s companies together, hour after hour, day after day. You are my only heir and I refuse to leave our business to your even more useless cousin Scott! By God, boy, I don’t mean to be cruel but I can’t figure out how to teach you where your true interests lie! You need to put aside your childish whims like old toys and learn to bear a man’s responsibilities. Young men your age and even younger come to work in our mills every day. Is that what you want for yourself?”
He didn’t give me an opportunity to respond, for he never did: never expressed any interest in anything I might say. Crumpling my poem in his hand, Father stormed out of the writing room. I knew where he was going. I knew what he meant to do. I’d seen it every single time I’d imagined this moment.
Hopeless and resigned, I pursued nonetheless. I reached the promenade a full five steps behind him. With a bang, he wrenched open one of the windows, flicked my poem out, and slammed it closed again. “I came to tell you that we should be landing in Lakehurst shortly,” he announced crisply, eyes fixed on the stylized world map sketched on the far lounge wall. “Return to the cabin and pack up your possessions.” Without another word, he marched off, clearly headed back downstairs to the bar to while away his remaining moments on the airship.
My chest aching, I stepped towards the window and yanked it open once more. Unsurprisingly, though I stared intently into the thin air below, I saw no sign of my vanished poem. The cold breeze made my eyes water.
Perhaps, with enough effort, I will be able to recreate it. If not, there will be other poems in the future, I soothed myself. Eventually I’ll free myself from the tyranny of my father’s plutocratic fantasies, and I will have the entirety of my life before me to write.