By David Hardy
“Abram settled in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled among the cities of the Plain and moved his tent as far as Sodom.”
— Genesis 13:12
Laurens, South Carolina
Recently, our church finished a summer book-club reading of David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers. All through the course of the book and the discussion afterwards, I could not stop thinking about my daddy, who, to put it mildly, loved airplanes. Which, strangely enough, led me to the Genesis story about Lot.
Daddy got his pilot’s license at 16, supposedly without his parents knowing it. I don’t know how you would do that, but that is the story I remember, true or not. By the time my brother and I came along, he was a corporate pilot, eventually joining the Alabama National Guard part-time, flying helicopters. When the last company he flew for sold their plane, he went full-time with the Guard, but ended his flying career back in an airplane cockpit, working as a sort of corporate pilot for the U.S. Army.
Which brings us to Sodom. It was the day of my father’s retirement ceremony when I heard him read this passage from Genesis. He told of how, in 1949, his parents decided to move from the rural Old Town section of Dallas County, Alabama, closer to town, so he and his two older sisters could go to school in Selma. The land they moved to was part of the farm that belonged to the family of my Great-Grandmother Hardy — and right next to Craig Field, built in 1940 by the Army Air Corps to train pilots for the coming war.
Though admittedly a strange choice for this (or any) occasion, the scripture Daddy had chosen was making a little sense to me now. Things didn’t go so well for Lot, as you might know, but what happened to him and his family came because of where he chose to plant his tent, in Sodom. Daddy’s point was, just like Lot in Genesis, where his parents placed their “tent” — right next to an airfield — had a profound effect on him, albeit in a more positive way.
Daddy talked about being a boy, sitting on the roof of the house they built, just watching the planes take off and land. He was smitten by flight, and determined at a young age that he would fly.
For daddy, flight was an obsession. He wasn’t “just” a pilot. Our house was full of books and poems about flight I remember reading not only about the Wright Brothers, but also about the French pioneers Bleriot and the Montgolfier brothers. Our house was full of model airplanes we built. He would take my brother and I flying, sometimes taking off and landing on the runway he made in the cow pasture out at Old Town. On the best days, we would “dive bomb” tractors in the fields of people we knew. I remember us making an airfoil as a science project, making it “fly” by using a hair dryer. He always used sayings about how flying was like life. My favorite was: “Takeoffs are optional, but landings are mandatory.”
It is impossible for me to think about him without thinking about airplanes — or to think about airplanes without thinking about him.
Once he retired from flying, he and Mama moved to Belize as missionaries. While there, he got a serious pancreatic infection from gallstones and had to be airlifted from Belize to University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital. He never left.
Thus, his last act outside of that hospital was to make one last flight. True to form, all he wanted to talk about was the plane ride. It was a Learjet, the inside was nice, and the pilots did a great job of landing in Birmingham. From his childhood to his death, he held a sense of destiny about flying — all seemingly caused by where his parents placed their “tent.”
He’s been gone five years now, and I am approaching 50 years of life and 25 years of marriage. I find myself thinking about where we have placed our “tent” and how that will affect the lives of our two girls as they start to find their path in this world. We are entering the “college search” season for both of them. I wonder about how to help them find their way; I didn’t find my own professional path until my early 30s.
My wife and I have built a good life. We have careers that leave us fulfilled and happy. However, if our two girls look off the roof of our house, I can’t help but wonder what they see. What does their “tent” face?
There is nothing as distinctive as an airfield for them to look at, no airplanes to captivate them. Instead, we have tried our best to place our “tent” near our values, like faith, decency, kindness, goodness, and hard work.
Those who know me well know I am, by nature, a doubter and a pessimist. I am haunted by questions about our daughters. Have we done enough? Have we given them what they need to create their own independent, decent, and fulfilling lives? Was our “tent” good enough? Did it face enough good things? Most of the time, I believe we have done our best by them, but the doubts and fears are never far.
When I think about my life so far, I often think of a line the great Kentucky writer Wendell Berry’s put in the mouth of the lead character in his 2001 book, Jayber Crow:
“I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley. And yet for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led — make of that what you will.”
Honestly, despite our different paths, I don’t feel less “led” than daddy. My greatest hope for our two girls is that when they find their paths, they will never shake the feeling they were led there by someone and/or something.
And that one day, as they approach 50, something in this world will make them think of their daddy the way airplanes make me think of my mine.