THE PLANE RIDE
By Kay Merkel Boruff
There is a place where time stands still. Raindrops hang motionless in air. Pendulums of
clocks float mid-swing. Dogs raise their muzzles in silent howls. The aromas of dates, mangoes,
coriander, cumin are suspended in space. As a traveler approaches this place from any direction,
he moves more and more slowly. His heartbeats grow farther apart, his breathing slackens, his thoughts
diminish, until he reaches dead center and stops. This is the center of time. From this place, time travels
outward in concentric circles—at rest at the center, slowly picking up speed at greater diameters.
Who would make the pilgrimage to the center of time? Parents with children, and lovers.
“Why didn’t you kiss the boys good-bye?” I said.
“Peter and I feel like it’s better not to make a big deal of our leaving. It seems to make them less anxious.”
Allyson smiled and put her arms around me.
I thought of Merk’s death, now more than five days behind me, his departing, hugging me, that crushed, comfortable, taken-for-granted feeling, protected yet not encumbered—his smiling jauntily as he turned to wave, and calling to me, “I love you.” I was glad for my good-bye hugs and kisses. Even the fuck you’s screamed at my gentleman husband. No unemotional partings.
We ran to catch our plane at the military base. After the thirty minute flight from Udorn to Bangkok, we claimed our bags and took a taxi to the Siam. Peter registered us, and the Turners left me in my room.
I unpacked, put on a gown, and got into bed.
I had never been alone, one love affair eclipsed the next. Tonight I felt as if I were in a womb, asleep and winter-like: winter-brittle, a tomb. As I lay, quiescent, I thought of the ride back to our bungalow. After hearing the news of Merk’s death, I felt a shock. Then a sadness. Then quietly, slipping in, as a shadow of pale ice, a slight exaltation: energy surging: we had raced into one adventure after another. United. I envied him, his sharing that rich death before me—without me. Yet I thought of having someone who had made the transition, someone who waited on the other side. I thought of his dying in a war zone, bullets bursting around his H-34, the grey mountainous aircraft. Grey uniforms. Grey helmets. His grey shroud lifted by impetuous men who chased the scream of death, rounds pinging on the roof, through the floor, through his head—a sharp, painless red streak piercing the darkness, then the light.
The news was not that difficult to hear. One simply kept on living and breathing. How could I stop my heart from beating? How could I tell my mind to cease functioning? I wanted to, but I couldn’t figure out how. Long ago, I learned to deny—deny the reality and the pain will never surface. I dreamed, yet I couldn’t see Merk’s face. The night’s id was a labyrinth from which there was no escape.
The next morning the ride to the airport passed uneventfully as we three drove to the Air America office. Company officials awaited our arrival, ushering us quickly through a door marked “Private.” Reading Merk’s files thirty-five years later, they were afraid of what I would do. They had been waiting.
Surrounded by strangers, I noticed my hands. They felt clammy, my fingers were cold and my sandaled feet normally swollen from the heat were suddenly cold. Peter was speaking to me, but I couldn’t understand what he was saying. I could hear the words, but I didn’t understand. That sound in my head. Faint. Petal-like insects far off in the distance.
I listened, but I was having difficulty focusing. The words. A mouth. Opening and closing. His eyes. I looked at his eyes. First the left. Then the right. I was reading his lips. Taking notes. The man was saying words I vaguely understood. I was floating. The doctor spoke to me.
“Kay, take your tranquilizer.”
Dr. Brown? Professor? I’m reading your lips. I can understand you. Yes, I’m fine.
“Yes . . . Peter.” Single frames in my mind. “Yes, I’ll keep the tranquilizer . . . in case I need it . . . . ”
“Don’t discuss Merk’s death with anyone, Kay,” Peter said.
Then there was silence for several seconds. Then tears. I hadn’t seen my parents or Merk’s parents for two years. I forced myself to concentrate. I had to stay calm.
My weight had already begun to drop, and the circles under my eyes had grown darker. I stopped crying and gathered my purse and carry-on luggage to leave.
I hugged Peter. “Thank you.” I held his hand. “I know it was hard on all the pilots. I know you loved Merk too.” I hugged Allyson, I think to gather strength to board the plane. “I couldn’t have made it without you and the boys. Kiss them for me when you get home.”
I followed the tall Oriental dressed in an Air America grey uniform. My eyes cleared, and I read his badge. Nguyen. I hadn’t recognized him. It seemed a lifetime since I met him in Sai-Gon.
He handed me tickets and a boarding pass. “Mrs. Merkel, I was so sorry to learn of Captain Merkel’s death.” He spoke as I remembered, in slow, measured cadence. “He was a good man.”
“Thank you, Nguyen.”
I boarded before other passengers. After putting my small wooden purse Merk had given me for Valentine’s and the Mandarin bag below my seat, I fastened my seat belt. As the plane began to fill, the seat beside me remained empty. I closed my eyes. The plane taxied down the runway. I screamed in my mind, Please don’t lift off. I can’t leave him here. I can’t go on without him. I held my hands in front of my eyes to keep other passengers from seeing my tears.
After the flight from Bangkok to New Delhi, we were on the ground only a short time while a handful of passengers got on. I noticed a young man walk the length of the plane and finally return and sit down next to me. He buckled his seat belt around his slight frame, lighted a cigarette and turned to offer me one.
He inhaled deeply. “Are you on a holiday?”
“I’m married to an Air America pilot. We lived in Sai-Gon for two years, and recently we were transferred to Udorn, Thailand.” That was okay to say. “Are you on a holiday?”
“I’ve been overseas for ten years, but this is a holiday, of sorts. I’m flying back—to New York—to try and patch up things with my girlfriend. She just wrote me a Dear John letter.” He drew deeply again on his cigarette.
“My husband’s name is Jon—the French spelling.”
“Do you like living overseas?”
“Yes. Overall, yes. We haven’t been home on leave for two years. I’m going home alone.” I couldn’t think what to say. “My husband stayed in Thailand.” That was not completely a lie. Merk’s body had remained behind to return home the Pacific route.
I paused. “Texas. My parents live in Texas. I haven’t seen them in two years. It’ll be good to see them.”
The “No Smoking” sign came on.
“Would you like some gum?” I said.
As the plane lifted off, he extinguished his cigarette and took a piece of gum.
The man’s appearance was a paradox to his youthful state: his eyes darted over me as though he were mentally making notes. His hands drummed on the seat belt. His feet stayed only moments in one position, continuously crossing and uncrossing. In contrast, the man’s mouth, even the carriage of his shoulders, mirrored a haggard, defeated expression, and his years overseas had aged his skin to the weathered tan of a tennis pro. I sat relaxed, relieved to make no more decisions. I needed only to exist. But I felt compelled to encourage him.
“I bet if you fly all the way to New York, you can patch things up with your girlfriend. When my husband and I were dating, he debated endlessly whether to give up his bachelorhood at twenty-eight. His little black book had girls’ addresses from around the world, girls from his first tour in Viêt-Nam now living stateside, nurses from numerous military bases.”
The hostess took our drink orders.
“He got drunk three nights in a row and asked me to marry him, then each time sobered up and changed his mind. Finally I told him to fuck off and took a job teaching in California.”
“Slow to anger.”
“To a fault. He asked, ‘If I asked you to marry me, will you?’ I told him, ‘If you ask me, I’ll tell you.’ I left him hanging for three days.”
“You Texas women drive a hard bargain.”
“We play a lot of poker. I knew he loved me. When he flew out to California for my birthday, we eloped.”
“And you had your ring,” he said, looking at my wedding bands.
I stroked the two gold bands on either side of my engagement diamond. “I’m sure everyone thought I was pregnant.”
“But you weren’t?”
“No, we have no children.”
The hostess returned with my coke and his beer.
“At the base where Jon was stationed when I met him, nurses spent a three-week orientation period before reporting for permanent duty. At the first happy hour in the Officers’ Club, he would scout the recruits for a prospective short-time romance. His roommates told me he would bring a date home, position her in front of the stereo or fire place, open a bottle of expensive wine, pop a frozen gourmet dinner he’d prepared into the oven, make coy conversation, and woo her into bed. I don’t mean to say Jon was a philanderer since he went with one woman at a time. He was just . . . good as gold. Everyone loved Jon. Funny I didn’t fit into his mold. I hated wine and wasn’t use to such Playboy maneuvers.”
I thought of the psychoanalysis Merk did on himself as a psychology undergraduate at the University of Maryland. Oversexed and under loved.
“I met him at a party and immediately fell in love. Even though he passed out the first time I talked to him on the phone.”
“That was an interesting ploy.”
“He had broken up with a girl and proceeded to get drunk. I was returning his phone call, and he smooth passed out. My girlfriend said all her friends were in love with him, but they were afraid he would just swallow then up. They thought I was crazy marrying him and traipsing around the world. His thrill seeking was catching.” I turned the guards on either side of my engagement diamond. “We have a strange marriage. Being apart from Jon is normal, actually,” I paused at the correct past tense I felt compelled to say, “since we lived . . . a pilot’s schedule—four days home, four or five days upcountry. It’s a great schedule to have more time together than most married couples spend in ten years.”
I drank the remainder of my coke.
“You go back to your girlfriend and try to patch things up. Give her lots of hugs and kisses and then a little room. Don’t forget the chase, and she’ll be there before you know it.”
I stopped talking and thought how strange I had just told this stranger the story of Merk’s courtship. I closed my eyes and must have fallen asleep. When I woke, I felt the plane begin its descent over Frankfurt. I began to worry what I looked like, dressed in a cotton mini skirt, sandals, hair hanging to my waist, large smoke-tinted glasses.
“Would you like coffee in the snack bar?” the man said.
“Sure. I have a four-hour layover before I fly to Washington.”
“Do you have any carry-on luggage?”
“Yes, just the Mandarin bag under my seat.”
After the plane landed, he got the bag and then led the way off the plane. I followed him because he seemed to know his way around the airport.
“There’s an empty spot,” he pointed to a table across the room and gave me the flight bag. “I’ll get two coffees. Cream and sugar?”
The airport was crowded for the month of February. I snaked my way around the tables and chairs—mothers feeding babies, young children bleary-eyed from time changes. Dressed in a sari, one of the women laughed, showing a dark-colored tongue. I wished I could emulate Indian widows, throwing themselves on their husband’s funeral pyres. I would find great satisfaction dumbly falling into the grave with Merk.
Finally I made my way to the table. As the man joined me, our eyes fell on a New York Times lying on the coffee-stained table.
I glanced at the headline and watched the man’s eyes on the paper.
“CIA Pilot Killed. First Casualty
Plain of Jars Battle.”
“Anyone you knew”
“Yes . . . a friend.”
Stanley’s words rang in my ears. Don’t discuss Merk’s death with anyone.
In Udorn, I’d asked no questions because I assumed I would receive no answers. It really made little difference. Merk was dead. But now to see information I’d never been given—in print—made me want to kill someone at Air America. I felt betrayed by the press—and the Company.
Without conversation we drank our coffee.
Several minutes followed, and the man looked nervously at his watch. “God! I’m going to miss my plane.”
We exchanged pleasantries as I reached out to shake his hand, once again giving him encouraging words for his crumbling romance. He left to return to his plane. Or so I thought at the time. Ten years later, when I told my girlfriend the story of my flight home, she said, Kay, didn’t you know. He was a journalist. He was interviewing you. The article appeared in the Kansas City paper after Merk’s funeral.
I sipped my coffee, now cold. It had been twenty hours since I left the Orient. My eyes fell on the first paragraph of the article.
“A U. S. helicopter pilot was killed by sniper fire while ferrying supplies to
beleaguered Laotian government forces on the Plain of Jars. The U. S. Embassy
spokesman reported Sunday the pilot was identified as John Merkle of Fort Worth,
who was flying for Air America, a contract airlines to the Central Intelligence Agency.”
I heard Merk and other pilots speculating that the CIA owned Air America but the Agency’s proprietaries were purposely nebulous. In 1987, after the Air America Association raised funds and designed our own memorial for the 250 men killed and William Casey spoke at the dedication, acknowledging the involvement of the Agency, we knew, for the first time, that Air America was connected to the CIA. In 1970, it was speculation. We weren’t in Viêt-Nam. We were nowhere—we were in a zone of silence.
I stuffed the newspaper in my bag and walked over to the duty free shop.
I looked at the perfume. Bottles of Joy lined one shelf. I didn’t need any Joy. Merk had just given me a new bottle. I skimmed the other shelves and stopped on a shelf of Hummels.
Merk’s parents had visited relatives in Germany and each trip sent us Hummels. I saw a small figurine, shorter than the other twenty. A child dressed in a postman’s uniform, with a jacket, pants, and cap of mailman blue. The little boy held his arm outstretched, clutching a small parcel addressed simply with a tiny red heart.
I said a prayer that Merk and I had saved our letters and took the Hummel to the cash register. I thought of the letters mailed from Taipei. The envelopes had no glue. Mail was censored. I thought of the newspaper article of my husband’s death, his name misspelled.
Time passed, and I heard the boarding call. My learning disability makes reading signs in airports frustrating, fearful that I will get lost, miss my plane, do the wrong thing. I decided to take the tranquilizer the Company doctor gave me. The entire trip would take twenty-seven hours by the time I reached Washington. I had come through Europe, rather than flying directly to Los Angeles, because Merk had planned to take me to Europe on our home leave this May. I wanted to be in Europe where Merk and I were meant to be. Together. The fatigue and strain in the back of my neck made a dull throb in my head. I knew Merk had been shot in the head and died instantly. I carried a vision of his brains and blood splattered on the helicopter walls, like Jacqueline Kennedy’s pink suit painted with grey and red matter. In 1994, after I received his files from Langley, two years in the waiting, I learned the bullet entered his trachea and exited the back of his head. The lead pilot of the seven aircrafts told me years later at an Air America reunion that his head wound was clean. There was little blood. He died painlessly, loving the war and excitement. But on the plan ride coming home, I had Kennedy’s assassination imprinted behind my eyes.
I found the gate and gave the attendant my ticket. My seat was by the window. Looking out at the sky helped me stay focused. Centered. Two older women sat down beside me. I asked the attendant for a glass of water to take the tranquilizer, thinking I could sleep. I really wanted to be dead.
The two women talked, incessantly, annoying as gnats hovering in the air. Their first trip abroad, spending a single night in a different country, now on the plane, they excitedly discussed West Berlin and Kaiser Wilhelm’s Cathedral. They said something about a “blue power puff.” I thought I must have heard wrong.
The woman sitting next to me said, “Are you returning from a vacation?”
“No.” I forced myself to be civil. “My husband flies for Air America, and we’ve been living in Viêt-Nam for two years. I’m going home on leave to visit my parents.”
“Viêt-Nam! Was that frightening?” Not waiting for a response, she said, “How long has it been since you’ve seen your folks?”
“Two years.” I hoped short answers would discourage further conversation.
“Oh, you’ll find the states considerably changed. I teach at a university—Case Institute in Cleveland.” The woman’s eyes widened. “The long-haired hippies are disgusting!” The woman looked at my sandals. “I know you’ll enjoy being home again.”
I wanted to scream, Home! My home is in the Orient! Where my life was. Where my life ended. But I said nothing.
When Merk and I dated, I asked him what he did in the service in Viêt-Nam. He said it was classified. Flying for Air America, he was employed as a “civilian,” and technically I could question him about his work, but I never did. I knew he wouldn’t want me to worry. He seldom commented about his work. I assumed he would discuss his work if he felt the need. I thought of the time he cried on my shoulder, begging me to help him. He always feared I couldn’t cope with the stress of living in a war zone. His psychology degree let him think he was stronger than I was. I thought once again of the newspaper article.
As pleasantly as I could, I said to the woman, “Yes, mam, I’m sure I’ll enjoy being home.”
Frustrated I had wasted the tranquilizer, listening to the women talk about their trip, I fell in and out of sleep.
After several more hours of restlessness, the hostess woke me and gave me a card to complete. Groggily I filled in my name. My palms began to sweat. Merk always filled out the customs form. A surge of fear triggered in my mind: adrenaline shot into my bloodstream, dilated my pupils, altered my sight, clouded my mind; letters reversed and words disappeared, the printed page rendered into dark characters jumping spastically on a dull grey web.
I glanced at the woman’s card and read “Disembarkation.” I scribbled out the words and turned over my card to begin again. My god, I thought, what do I put for my home address? I had left my last residence in Udorn, my husband in Laos, my household goods on the docks in Bangkok. I wrote “42 Wichita Gardens” and marked through it and wrote my parents’ newer address. The city limits had been moved to include my parents’ home, and the street name was changed. I could feel depression creeping over me. I closed my eyes and chanted. Nam yo ho ren ghee keyo, over and over to quiet my mind. Through grace I am the incarnate spirit. I dabbed tears trapped behind my lashes and looked up, shocked to see the captain briefly emerge from the cockpit door, then disappear. Merk loved to fly. I thought of the only time I flew with Merk in Nha Trang. He would never have been happy flying in the states.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the captain has turned on the seat belt sign. Please extinguish all cigarettes. We will be landing shortly at Douglas.”
I filled in the remaining blanks, too tired to care if the information was correct or made sense.
“The temperature is forty-five degrees. Remember to check for belongs in the luggage compartments overhead.”
The plane lurched. I began to worry about the landing. Only once during an emergency landing in Phnon Penh had I been afraid. The plane had plummeted several thousand feet, and my dinner tray had risen inches. My stomach was driven up to my throat. My heart began its irregular rhythm. I turned to Merk, expecting his normal blasphemous rage at the captain’s ineptness. I was shocked with his silence. I’d never seen Merk react to fear. His face was ashen. The pocked marks from childhood acne shown with sweat. We’re going to die, flashed through my mind. Dark clouds boiled outside the window, the pressure inside my head, a crushing vice. Tears welled in my eyes and ran down my cheeks. Merk seldom saw me cry. The agony continued as the plane descended through the dark. Merk wiped away my tears. I remembered Merk’s words: The takeoff and landing are the most crucial times flying. God, don’t let me die—not before the funeral.
The hostess came on the intercom. “Ladies and gentlemen, if you have items to declare, you proceed to the green arrows. If you have nothing to declare, proceed to the blue arrows.”
I began rehearsing the words to the customs agent. I hated to stutter and feel like an idiot or not be able to say anything. Or lose control and break down. I have been living . . . . What tense do I use? I have lived in the Orient for two years. I have nothing to declare. I looked at Merk’s gold ID bracelet. His gold Rolex was in my purse. How did I explain several thousand dollars in gold jewelry? I am a US citizen. Fool, he can see my grey passport. I have been living in Viêt-Nam for the past two years. My husband flew for Air America. He was killed five days ago, flying in Laos. Or was it yesterday? Words surfaced from The Stranger. Mother died today. Or, maybe it was yesterday. Once Sartre’s words seemed bizarre. Now they were real. What could I say that wouldn’t sound as though I had lost my mind? I have nothing to declare. I have been living out of the states for two years. My husband was a pilot for Air America and was killed. There. I’d revealed no information. Then I remembered the New York Times headlines and the young man drinking coffee with me in the airport in Frankfurt, as though my life were normal. I felt betrayed by the government.
A friend. Merk was my best friend.
The plane lurched onto the runway, and cheers rose from the back of the plane—the noisy group elated from exhaustion, pleased to return to plumbing that functioned properly and telephones that spoke English. The two women beside me chattered, afraid they wouldn’t make connections.
I picked up my purse, got my flight bag, and thought of the last time I saw Merk—the moment etched in my mind, playing over and over. I stood on the porch of the bungalow. He reached the Company van and turned. I noticed the blue of his eyes in the early morning sun. He yelled to me—I love you.
I followed the crowd through the airport to what I hoped was the correct line, and finally it was my turn.
The balding customs agent appeared exhausted. I imagined his thinking, One more stupid tourist, trying to sneak back into the states with undeclared goods, trying to screw the government. He looked at my passport filled with exit and entrance visas from Viêt-Nam, Taipei, Bangkok. Several entries to Hong Kong and Singapore. He stared at my cotton shift and sandals. Strange for February.
“I have been living in Southeast Asia for two years.”
He continued to stare at me.
“I have nothing to declare. My husband was killed.” I didn’t pause but continued to breathe, in and out, counting my breaths. “I’m returning to the states.”
I stared at the man’s hands, huge, covered with dark hair, his fingernails dirty. I didn’t look at his eyes. I was afraid I would start crying.
He picked up the stamp and with a swift movement, he inked words into my grey passport, a mute welcome.
“Next,” he said.
People behind me shoved me aside.
My body was lifeless. I was wrapped in a chrysalis, a world of memories, a world of dreams. I was a hundred years old. I focused my eyes through the deafening voices beyond the gate and continued to walk down the grey corridor. I didn’t want the journey to end. I wanted to stop time and not have to bury Merk. I was shoved again and paused as someone behind me yelled, “JoAnn!” I turned and saw a child, about twelve, who looked like my best friend in grade school. I remembered the autumn day: JoAnn and I had taken a vow to remain best friends. Giggling over the phone, our voices muffles, secret plans. Each slipped out the back door and then raced: the West Texas wind and two scant tumbleweeds, blowing from opposite directions, straight for the riverbank. Thoughts of school. Thoughts of chores. Thoughts of siblings. Thoughts abandoned to freeze time in pensive stillness. Postured lazily in the fall sun, mesquite trees lined the dirt road pounded smooth by kids and horses. The road branched toward the river and our special place. Chinaberry bushes clustered along the murky river. The low wild trees covered the red clay bank. Their berries pale orange shriveled on spindly branches. Small grape-sized chinaberries that my mother used for decoration were hard as knuckles and cancerously poisonous. The ochre berries swayed in deaf silence. Our two lithe figures brushed rapidly through the gamboges berries. Breathlessly, we hugged each other. Our world was complete. Then my best friend had moved away.
I looked farther down the corridor and saw my mother.
New York Times
CIA Pilot Killed
First Casualty Plain of Jars
A U.S. helicopter pilot was killed by sniper fire while ferrying supplies to
beleaguered Laotian government forces on the Plain of Jars. The U.S. Embassy
spokesman reported Sunday the pilot was identified as John Merkle of Fort Worth, who was flying for Air America, a contract airlines to the Central Intelligence Agency.
History is written as we speak, its borders are mapped long before any of us open our mouths; and written history, which makes the common knowledge out of which our newspapers report the events of the day, creates its own refugees, displaced persons, men and women without a country, the living dead: Are you still alive, really?
About the Author:
Kay Merkel Boruff lived in Viet-Nam 68-70 & was married to an Air America pilot who was killed flying in Laos 18 Feb 70. She graduated from TCU with a BA in English & Education; & from UTD with an MA in Humanities, publishing her thesis “Constitution of Advanced Objects: A Theory & Application. Her work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Vanity Fair, Texas Short Stories 2, Taos Magazine, The Dallas Morning News, and the Wichita Falls Record News. In addition, she has work in Suddenly, Grasslands Review, Behind the Lines, Fifth Wednesday, Adanna, Stone Voices, Turk’s Head, Calyx, Meat & Tea, Concho River Review, West Trade Review, Offbeat/Quirky; and Paper Nautilus. Letters of her husband’s and hers were included in Love and War, 250 Years of Wartime Love Letters. NPR interviewed Boruff regarding her non-profit Merkel & Minor: Vets Helping Vets: A Class Act Production. She attended Burning Man 2012 and then climbed Wayna Picchu in Peru on her 71st birthday. Her novel Z.O.S. is presently being reviewed by several agents. To contact Miss Boruff please visit