My Witt's End

Model Citizen


   I looked up from my class assignment, eased my strangle hold on my cup of Columbian Supremo coffee, and gazed across the quiet brick plaza directly into the eyes of a rag-tag guy. Was he examining me? I followed his glance down to his well-worn paper Starbucks cup and could see that it held loose change, not coffee.

   What bothered me about this particular guy (who I assume was homeless) was that I felt like I was looking into a mirror. He outweighed me by 100 pounds, had a beard longer than mine ever dreamed of being, and he sported a headband—something I've not done in 40-plus years. His hair, in spite of the headband, had collapsed on his shoulders like a shattered window. His clothes looked like he'd slept in them since President Obama was elected to his first term, and his last bath had to be sometime in early 2011.

   Yet, there he (I) was, sitting on a sun-dappled bench in Iowa City, studying a stick-and-tissue Guillow's #801 Sopwith Camel, model airplane, exactly like the one I had on the workbench 600 miles away back home. The box on the bench next to him held the yet-to-be-assembled parts, instructions and tissue. The chrome-plated cart he leaned against held the shards of a once-assembled life. I relaxed when I realized he was not examining me, and that my life was more-or-less assembled.

   As he rotated the skeletal airplane-to-be in his left hand I knew exactly what concerned him. In his right hand he held a Swiss Army knife. As he examined the structure, he picked at little unseen specks of glue hidden in the formers and ribs, fully aware that they will otherwise, in the perfect-future tense, be hidden with tissue at some yet-to-be-determined date.

   He turned and looked, looked and turned and picked. His eyes narrowed, his mind slipped over the cowling into the cockpit, struggled to get the restraining straps over his shoulders as he gave a virtual thumbs-up signal to some unseen mechanic on the ground.

   Soon he was soaring through light rain above fallow fields. The noise from the throbbing Le Rhone rotary engine blocks the past, ushers in the future. In the distance he sees puffs of white smoke rising from unseen cannon softening up the enemy. The engine frustrates his vision of the ground where endless snake-like trenches fill his view. Without taking his eyes from the burrows, his right hand tightens its grip on the stick vibrating between his legs. He has to push against the plane’s natural tendency to fly to the right. He wipes his ungloved hand on his urine-stained trousers, fearing that sweat on his palm might rob him of a tricky maneuver to the left. He eases the stick forward and the nose of the plane responds. He sees the backs of uniformed men scurrying from trenches like rats abandoning a sinking ship.

   Push the stick farther left. Bank a bit more. Reach forward with your left hand, index finger through the trigger-guard. Steady the twin Vickers synchronized machine guns. The propeller shrouds the targets. Look left as wind-carried bullets disappear, drop and reappear as splashes in the mud below.

   Stick to the right! Hard! Are our guys wearing brown or gray uniforms?

   The homeless guy's eyes snap open. He releases his breath and picks at an errant speck of glue.

   I release my breath, wipe my sweaty palms on my jeans and take a sip of cold coffee.



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