The Navigator: A Christmas Tale

Life in Tennessee is generally peaceful and serene, people are a bit relaxed, and the atmosphere around Nashville generally electric. At Christmas, a time to be with friends and family; a time to be kind and generous; a time you’d expect would epitomize the lifestyle of this area is nothing but a downright miserable experience. No matter how hard we all try, everyone tends to spend far too much time rushing about, planning parties, gatherings, or finishing up those last minute reports for work. Busy. Busy. Busy.

Life at the airport isn’t too far removed from this hectic season either. Though my gas sales generally sky rocket with the influx of out-of-towners coming in to see family and friends, we all spend far too many hours working and far less having any fun. To boot, the weather is often sketchy and us vintage aircraft pilots get a bit cranky when we don’t have have enough air time, or have to wear three layers of clothes just to keep the circulation alive in our body. I hadn’t seen the inside of my Stinson in over a month. And the Goose, well, without a true place to go it was rather expensive to operate for a day cruise.

I sat at my office desk, just off the main counter of the FBO office. I was reading an article about winter flying, the “Do’s” and “Don’ts” around preheating your airplane, when I heard Caitlyn come stomping into the office, slamming the front door behind her. She had been a miserable mess for some time now, far from her friends and family, people who knew her. But she had chosen to be a part of our Navigation Team, and that meant we all had sacrifices to bare. Mine was simply the amount of strays that I kept picking up along the way – Caitlyn being my longest headache. However, with her long red mane of hair, slender legs, and innocent face, she kept my attention no matter her mood. On top of that, she was a great pilot and could hold her liquor like no woman I had met before.

“Jack!” Caitlyn yelled out.

“In here,” I answered back. I kicked my heels onto the edge of my desk, laid down the magazine and crossed my arms across my chest.

She came in, tossing her coat onto the leather chair in the corner. Then she sat on the edge of my desk.

“Jack, it’s Christmas tomorrow.”

“It is. Calendar on the wall agrees.”

“Christmas 2014.”

“Yes.”

“Jack, I miss Christmas in 1938.”

“I suppose you would, yes. And you’ve seemed down for a time now, and I am sorry for that. Tell me about it. I am all ears.”

She got off my desk and crossed the office, sinking into the leather chair. Then she gazed out the window, her eyes a bit glassy and I couldn’t help feel a heart tug or two. But no more than two.

“See, we always had a the whole family, and we had a big tree, made popcorn garlands, and Dad always managed to find a way to get us girls something, wrapped in the best paper he could find. He would always get us, well, something girly.”

“Girly?”

“Yes, you know. A new dress. A doll for my younger sister. Maybe a cheap necklace or bad perfume. But it was always something girly. He never did that for our birthday, or any other occasion, just Christmas. It was like the one time in a year he looked at us two girls and saw two little girls!”

“Huh,” I said. “What were you the rest of the time?”

“We were his boys!” She shouted. “Always doing what he needed us to do on the farm. Always covered in dirt, sweating and laboring in the field. Always. And when we weren’t, we cooked, cleaned, and kept the house.”

“Well, that sounds like girl work.” I said, smiling. She picked up Airport Dog’s ball from the floor and flung it at my head. I dodged it, just. Airport Dog, hearing the sound of his rubber ball bouncing off my walls, came running and snagged it. Then he sauntered back down the hall to the FBO lounge, content.

“Point is, Jack, its Christmas and I am out there pumping gas into a Mooney. I have oil on my favorite jeans, and grease under my nails.”

“You don’t feel very girly.”

“No, I don’t feel very girly. And I should, because that’s what Christmas has always meant to me. It’s what I remember. And I know my father is long gone, and my sister . . .” Her voice trailed off.

We all knew her sister was still in 1938. It was a sore subject, where she had to leave her there in that time in order to join the Competition and the Navigation Team. Not that long ago, I discovered a unique artifact and had my entire world turned upside down. Not to dwell too much on that tale, as it’s a novel in its own right, the gist is that with this artifact I have found a way to “drift” into alternate dimensions or worlds or universes, depending on your take. It appears to be like time travel, since each drift never appears in the same point of time as whence you came. My first drift had been back to 1938 and by shear accident. I was lured into a Competition in that time focused on the gathering of four separate artifacts all with the same ability. Long story short, it was on that adventure I had met Caitlyn, and without her, could not have found my way back home. In the process, she made the decision to leave it all behind and come with me, for it was the lure of adventure, endless possibility, and an undying curiosity that drove her.

Now, though, she was pumping gas for me at the airport. Not quite the adventure she had hoped.

“I get it,” I said. “This time of year is different for everyone. There are things we all miss. People we all miss. And I wish I could change that for you. But there are rules and there are people in 1938 that would love for us to show up again and take it all away from us.”

“That I know wholeheartedly. But it still sucks, Jack.”

“It does. Look, take the rest of the day off. Go shopping. Buy Airport Dog a new winter coat or something. Maybe see if Olivia wants to go, you two can do something girly, like get your nails done? Buy a new dress?”

“Jack, you’re being an insensitive asshole.”

“I know, but its who I am. Seriously, go out, have some fun. Tomorrow I am cooking a ham, all the good stuff. We have a tree, and I even have a surprise for you.”

“What?”

“Can’t tell you. But its a surprise.”

“Where is Mike and Olivia anyway?”

“Flew to Knoxville on a charity run for the University. They are delivering a collection of presents to the Children’s Hospital. They’ll be back in an hour or two, just in time for some Christmas Eve cheer to make you feel better.”

“I suppose.” She said, then she got up from the chair, grabbed her coat and slipped it on. “I’m heading out to the hangar, its quiet on the ramp now, maybe I’ll take Red out for a jaunt.”

“You do that. I’ll cover the ramp. You’ll feel better after a flight. Air Therapy.”

Caitlyn nodded and left, closing the door on the way out. I sighed. I lied to her, as I had no surprise under the tree for tomorrow. Then I looked across my room at the leather jacket hanging on the hook. Sewn into the lining was the artifact that allowed us to drift across the dimensions. And then I had an idea.

An hour later, Mike and Olivia landed their Cessna 172 and taxied to the gas pumps. I was standing there waiting, wearing my leather jacket. Olivia started shaking her head, and I saw Mike look at me and though I couldn’t hear him over the engine, I could read his lips well enough to see he was cussing the air blew inside that cockpit.

When the engine shut down, Mike got out of the plane yelling, “No, no, no! No, its Christmas Eve! Not today!”

Olivia exited the plane and with a little more sense came up to me, a question on her mind.

“Where?” she asked.

“1938.” I said.

“No!” Yelled Mike. “We are never to go back to 1938! We barely got out of there with our lives and you know there are at least four people waiting to kill us if we ever find our way back to 1938 Tennessee!”

Olivia asked, “Jack?”

“Because,” I said to Olivia. “Caitlyn needs it. And we’re not going to 1938 Tennessee. We’re going to 1938 England.”

“What?” Mike and Olivia said simultaneously.

“Mike, get the Goose prepped. Olivia, this is top secret. Caitlyn can’t know anything. But she will need an evening gown, some nice jewels, and a coat. It’ll be cold and forecast has a light snow fall. Oh, and you better both also pack some of your nicest evening clothes.”

“Where are we going, Jack” Olivia asked, genuinely curious now. Mike was a loss for words. Even the mere thought of a jacket and tie and he started to cringe.

“We’re going to the English Countryside. There, we will meet Lord Daniel for his Christmas Eve Ball outside of London.”

“How do you know about that?” asked Mike.

“He told me about it when we were in the Competition. And he invited me to the event that year, only we kind of left in a hurry, so I never properly responded.”

“Holy shit,” and with that Mike shuffled off into the office.

“For Caitlyn?” Olivia asked.

“Yea, for Cate.” I said.

A couple hours later, just before the sun set, Olivia had managed to pack a suitcase for Caitlyn and herself. Then she also managed to escort Caitlyn into the big hanger where we kept the Goose. Mike was already working on the tug and getting ready to pull the Goose outside. I  had fed Airport Dog and called a local student that did part time work at the airport, asking her to look in on the Dog before we got back the next morning.

“All ready to go?” I asked.

“Where are we going?” asked Caitlyn.

“On a short little trip. This is my surprise for you Cate.”

All gathered into the plane, the engines fired and the sound of two 450 hp radials filled the evening air. In no time at all, the Goose was climbing into the twilight, turning East, out over the countryside. Below, families were gathering for their Christmas Eve cheer, and children everywhere were settling down hoping Santa would be near.

The trick with the artifact was to know exactly what you wanted, feel it deep within your spirit, and then follow the path that it set in your mind. I knew exactly where I wanted to be, when I wanted to be, and why and as I flew I let my mind guide my hands and feet and in response the Goose climbed high until we hit the dimensional drift.

No matter how many times I had done this, we had all done this, it was never a good feeling. Sounds, visions, and feelings all blur, the lines of reality seem to drift and all the air escapes your lungs like getting hit by a heavy weight on the second round. Then everything snaps back into focus so suddenly, leaving you gasping for breath, new images fill your eyes and your mind races to process the new reality.

What we all saw were snowy fields, rolling hills, and a gray sky. The Goose flew strong, engines never missed a beat, unfazed by the transition through space and time. Mike adjusted the prop controls from between the two seats. Caitlyn was sitting co-pilot, her eyes tightly closed, waiting for me to say it was OK. I turned in my seat and saw Olivia, face planted to the window in back, smiling.

“Cate,” I said. “All clear, we’re through. You can open your eyes.”

She opened one eye and peered around, then her body relaxed and she breathed deeply a few times to clear her senses.

“I really hate these drifts.” She said.

Mike nodded. “Never get used to it either. We in the right place, Jack?”

“Think so. There!” I said, pointing to the west. “That looks like the Estate.”

“Good,” Mike agreed. “It’s getting dark already, wouldn’t want to cut this any closer and get lost.”

“Where are we?” asked Caitlyn.

“You’ll see soon enough. Help me with the landing checklist.”

Lord Daniel was an Earl by blood. Ever since the Wright Brothers first flight, he had been passionate about aviation. Though the Lord was not a pilot himself, he made it his hobby to study everything aviation, and he was an avid supporter of any flier attempting to set new records in the field. When we first met, the Lord was sponsoring one of the race contestants in a cross country derby in the United States. He thought I was nothing but a Barnstormer, interested in the race, and then by shear accident, he ended up assisting on our escape, learning the truth about who we were and from when we came.

“Better announce our arrival properly. I’ll take us down and we’ll fly over the main house at a couple hundred feet. That ought to wake the servants.”

I lined up the Goose as if I were about to land on the long drive leading to the house. I restrained myself from adding too much power and spooking the horses, but let the Goose gently glide over the main house, banking sharply, and climbing up to turn onto a long downwind. The Estate sat along a wide river bank. The shoreline had some patches of ice and snow, but the river appeared clear of debris. It was a risk, but there appeared to be enough water long and wide enough to get the Goose down. If everything went the way I hoped, we’d set down, taxi to shore, drop the gear and just drive right up onto his front yard.

With Cate’s help, I completed the water landing checklist, lined us up and started a nice gentle descent. Just as the hull touched the surface of the water, I retracted all the power, and pulled the yoke back slowly to my lap letting the big amphibian plow into the river. We settled down nicely and I began feeling my way with rudder and opposing power to forge over to the river bank.

As we neared shore, Mike was peering out the rear hatch, he called out from the back, “Looks good enough, Jack. Drop the gear, and give it the beans. Let’s see his this Goose will crawl!”

Gear down, power added, the Goose’s nose lifted to the sky as she climbed her way from the river onto the snowy bank. I kept the power in and the wheels rolling until we were a good fifty feet from the river, knowing I had nice solid ground beneath our tires. Just as I was shutting down the engines, I saw a horse and sleigh heading in our direction. No doubt, Lord Daniel was on his way to greet us.

“Come on Cate, let me introduce you to Lord Daniel.” I held my hand and escorted her off the plane. Mike and Olivia pulled the luggage from the plane and stacked it neatly in the snow.

The sleigh, two huge white horses pulling, came to a stop under the Goose’s port wing.

“Sir Jack!” Said Lord Daniel, leaping from the sleigh like a boy. “I should never have thought I would ever get the chance to see you again!”

Lord Daniel came up and shook my hand, then clapped his hands to my shoulders.

“My Lord,” I said, “Apologize for just dropping in, but I recalled your invitation and I just couldn’t say no. I do hope you don’t mind this intrusion and for the the fact I have brought some friends.”

“Dear Jack, heaven’s no. You’re just in time, and the chance to have your company on this evening is by far my honor. Let’s get you to the house and the warmth. Your friends appear a bit cold.”

We all managed to cram our way into the sleigh, and Lord Daniel, took the reins, urging the powerful horses to take us back up to the Estate. He guided the sleigh to the main entrance where we were greeted by three men, all wearing black jackets, coats, and white gloves. They quickly gathered our bags, and ushered us inside.

“Jack, please allow these men to find you to our guest rooms. Then, when you’re settled, come down and tell me how you got back here. Given our last encounter, I am so very surprised to see you. You must tell me everything!”

“Daniel!” came a woman’s voice from down the long hall. “We will be having guests any time now, the ball is about to begin. Who are these people?”

“Jack, come meet my wife, Lady Jayne. Phil, please take Jack’s friends to their quarters. Please help them with anything they need.”

Caitlyn looked at me, mouthing the word without sound, “Ball?”

“Off you go Cate. Olivia. Mike. Go get ready for the Ball. I need to meet the Lady of the house.” I smiled and winked. My three friends tried to close their mouths, but none of them quite knew what to expect, and in the end did what they were told. Off they went to get ready for the Christmas Ball.

Feeling rather dapper, my leather jacket, jeans, and worn shirt all traded for a black and white tuxedo. I felt like a movie star. More guests had been arriving over the course of a couple hours since our arrival. Nearly everyone of them was asking about the large airplane sitting in the front lawn. Lord Daniel and the Lady Jayne smiled and greeted them all at the door, then other servants ushered the guests down to the ballroom. The house was immaculate and decorated like a fairy tale, lit up bright, fresh garland and a huge Christmas tree in the ballroom itself. It smelled, sounded, and felt like Christmas; warmth flowed from the guests and the family. The staff, almost as if they were family, moved about the people bringing food and drink and joining in the conversations.

I found myself standing alone for a time, just observing the festivities, near the Christmas tree. I had not seen my friends since coming down from being dressed and fluffed by the servants of the house. They took no shortcoming in making me a presentable gentlemen instead of the airport bum I usually aspire to.

I had made small talk with the other guests from time to time, and helped myself to some champagne. As soon as someone realized I was the pilot of the plane, I was no longer short of friends, questions or topics to discuss. And since I could not really talk about where exactly I was from and how I got here, I had a lot of fun inventing new persona’s for myself, stories, tall tales, fibs, and I took no guilt from it. Only the Lord Daniel and the Lady Jayne really knew, and that was our secret.

But after a time I started to feel a bit lost, and also quite worried, where on earth were Mike, Olivia and Caitlyn? Finally, though, I saw Olivia come down the long staircase into the main ballroom. Mike followed a few steps behind, fidgeting with his jacket and bowtie. I couldn’t help but laugh, Mike hadn’t been that dressed up since his high school prom.

Olivia looked beautiful, dressed in a long lavender dress. She was glamour and class. She instantly saw me and smiled brightly, heading my way, but also quick enough to snatch a glass of champagne in the process.

“Oh Jack, you are a devil, aren’t you.” Olivia said, and she wasn’t referring to my looks.

“Where’s Cate?” I asked.

“She’s nearly ready. The moment we got upstairs, and she saw the clothes I packed, I think it all started to hit her. But what I brought wasn’t really suitable. The Lady Jayne has helped dress us all.” Olivia nodded at Lady Jaynes direction, the Lady returning the nod. The two of them sharing a silent bond. “Caitlyn told me what you and her talked about this morning. She started crying and kept saying, ‘I feel so girly’ over and over again.”

Mike approached, trying to secretly pluck at his pants.

“Shit, Jack! Why do you drag me to these things! I hate wearing ties!”

“Now, Mike. Behave. You’re amongst royalty, and we’re doing all this for Cate. This is her era, her world, and though not in America, her chance to be a princess at the ball. It’s all she wants for Christmas. Now, go mingle, get a drink and remember, we met Lord Daniel in America during the derby race. Nothing more than that.”

Olivia patted my cheek and smiled. Then she took Mike’s hand and guided him through the ball room. I watched as they walked away, perhaps we all were out of place and out of our time, but it still felt right. Then as I turned back, my breath was caught and I saw Caitlyn, standing at the base of the stairs.

She wore a long gown, emerald green, her arms adorned with long white gloves, and her hair fell in radiant red curls. She was stunning. And she was also frozen at the base of the stares, near panic in her eyes. I made my way quickly to her, taking her hand in mine.

“You’re beautiful, Cate.”

“Jack-”

“Merry Christmas.”

“You brought me here. You brought me to a Christmas Eve Ball. I don’t believe it.”

“You’re beautiful,” I said again. “If the Navigator is our destiny, where’s the harm in using it to bring us all a little magic, especially this time of year.”

I escorted Caitlyn onto the dance floor. “Now, may I have this dance? For tonight, this is our party, and your Christmas Eve fairy tale.”

Every so often, we all must remember that life has its dull moments. We pump gas, change oil, read dreadful stories in the news, work insane hours for ridiculous mundane jobs. But at Christmas, magic is possible, and when you have the power to drift through the Universe, you can bring dreams alive.

Let this season bring magic to your hearts and adventure to your soul.

Merry Christmas to all!

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