We started going down there at night, and flirting with the runway's margins until we could see the headlights of the yellow jeeps fire up and head our way. Then we'd sprint for the chain-link fencing surrounding the airport—it was a few hundred yards uphill—scrabble underneath, and disappear. The jeeps started hiding in the brush to ambush us. They finally did, successfully, and the resultant punishment settled upon by our parents was so draconian in length that my brother and Kenny lost interest in the whole thing and declared themselves out of yellow-jeep-baiting business.
That left Jimmy and me, when we were finally allowed back outside. We weren't out of anything. There is a scene in a goofy Western that was sometimes on the Million Dollar Movie—John Sturges's The Magnificent Seven—in which James Coburn, handed his gun and one last chance to come to his senses by the beneficent-feeling leader of the army of Mexican banditos, says by way of explaining why he's heading back into town to fight those same eight million banditos with his six friends, "Nobody throws me my own gun and says, 'Run.' Nobody." It was like that with Jimmy and me.
We decided to lie on the runway—just short of the huge numbers of the runway designation.It was at night. We lay on our backs with our feet toward the incoming planes and our heads toward the touchdown points. Whose idea was it? I think it was mine. I'm pretty sure it was mine. We didn't tell our older brothers. I think we knew that we'd strayed into a territory even they would no longer support.
We lay there in the darkness and waited, and eventually we heard a plane and when the engine noise got loud enough and we looked, our chins on our chests, we caught the landing lights full in the face and then came the red and white running lights and the underside of the wings and fuselage and the wheels swaying below them and the whole thing thundered to the tarmac a hundred or so yards up the runway. Not that close, really. But it felt like the trailing wheels had parted our hair.
Of course the pilots would have reported us; of course the jeeps were immediately on their way. We ran all the way home. We were too happy even to shriek. We were grinning with terror, beside ourselves with gleefulness, shaking with joy. Now that, we thought, that was stupidity.
I wrote a short story about it. Years later, in graduate school, my teacher, John Hawkes, was nudging me away from the niche in which I seemed to be most comfortable—wry suburban comedy, and sensitive suburban children—and toward the weird. It was by far the most valuable instinct he helped instill in me, that instinct to ferret out and further distress the unexpected strangeness wherever it surfaced in my work. You want weirdness? I remember thinking. And I wrote an account of what we did on the runways. I made the narrator adult, and solitary, and happy with his life, because I remembered that what was most striking about what we did was the way it seemed to coexist with our everyday and mostly happy existence. In order to put pressure on the situation for the purposes of the story's dramatic development, though, my guy had resolved to move farther and farther toward the touchdown point of most aircraft: In other words, his actions were designed to become progressively more and more stupid, by which I suppose I mean more and more inevitably catastrophic.
We Hear You!