It still feels like last week, when I think about it, but it was 1976. I was thirteen years old and on my way to my brand-new girl friend’s house. Her name was Xiemena (e-man-uh) Modesto. She was from Ecuador and at that time had been living here eight years with her family.
I was excited at how I was to spend this Saturday afternoon. It was a clear, brilliantly lit fall day. The air was cool and crisp, about seventy degrees, and my pace couldn’t have been quicker. My mom offered to drive me because I said I was going to a “friend’s” house but I declined, of course. It was only this week that Xiemena said she’d “go around” with me after weeks of lobbying. I wasn’t about to blow it by having my mother drop me off. Besides, she’d only tell me I was too young for a girlfriend; I’d only wanted one since I was twelve, so naturally I’d have disregarded her advice.
The walk to her house was three miles but it seemed shorter. I passed by the music store and saw the set of drums that I had been begging my father for. I passed by the library as I always did and the big oak tree stood there as it always did and I was glad to see it as I always was. Tweedy Boulevard was a good place that day. Fred’s Hobby Shop was open as always. Fred had posters, from old movies, World War II and whatever else, up all over. The place had old wood floors and a certain oil and electric smell. Maybe it was from the combination of miles of old comic books, magazines and decades old hobby curios mingling with the burning hot scent off the big electric race track in the other room. That track was easily a half mile of exquisite, G-Plus joy…Nowhere else on earth had that aroma.
I stopped in, quickly, to say hi to old Fred and told him I’d be by to race my G-Plus slot car on his track tomorrow. He charged a dollar an hour. He was exactly as one would expect of an aging hobbyist; late 60s, portly, big glasses, work boots and suspenders. He mentioned that he was a WWII vet. Our town had a lot of those. As I grew older and learned about that war, I could see why he would have gotten into the security of a store for hobbyists. It was a refuge, a safe harbor. You could control the environment; if the track shorted out, he could fix it. I knew he’d seen some action in the war. I asked him a couple of times after a history assignment about D-Day, or one of the famous battles. He’d just get real quiet or change the subject altogether. My mother got that way when she spoke of her father’s death, so I learned to just leave it alone. Fred was a nice man to me…
“Where’re you off to in such a hurry, Ben?” he asked.
“Well, I…” It was then that I noticed Billy Murphy, looking at some comic books. He was my neighbor and he was eleven. Fred would understand, I thought, but Billy would say something stupid and I just did not have the time that day to kick his ass; Fred would only break it up anyhow and suspend my racing privileges. “I’m just goin’ to my friend’s house, see ya tomorrow.”
“OK, I’ll warm up the track for you.” Fred said kindly.
I finally got to Xiemena’s house. I was nervous. It was our first non-school day together, which was a very big deal.
She opened the door – God’s Only Daughter. She had saucer shaped brown eyes and bangs that hung like a new black table cloth on a clothesline. Her skin was as creamy smooth as chocolate milk. The coup de grace was the way she smiled; her eyes were wide and bright while trying to hide her braces. This showed me that little something that said she liked me.
“Hey… how’s it going?” her voice was already sexy deep for thirteen.
“Pretty good… Um… What’s up?”
“Oh, not much… My parents went out for some bathroom stuff… You wanna come in? It’s pretty today, huh?”
“Yeah…” I walked in and saw pictures of her with her sisters and the parents with all the kids, including her brother, Carlos. “Hey, you wanna go get a burger or something? We could, like walk around and stuff.” My newly acquired allowance was burning a hole in my pocket.
“Um, yeah… but I have to watch this science show for Miss Hutchinson’s class and it starts in five minutes. You can watch with me if you want… OK? Then we’ll go.”
At first, the show wasn’t so bad; it was a National Geographic special on sharks. I had just seen “Jaws” the previous summer, so I had a point of reference. I was sitting on the couch. She was watching TV. I moved on to the floor, on my stomach right next to her, pretending to be into the show. I kept my eyes off of her; I was scared she might tell me to get back on the couch. I was trying for that first kiss and I so didn’t want to screw up. By that I mean my first kiss, not just ours. I noticed her looking over a couple of times and I almost moved closer but I chickened. I thought I saw a grin form and was afraid she would start laughing at me. Why would I think that? After all, she agreed to “go around with me.”
But she kept to her assignment. She was, unlike me, was a straight-A student, absorbed in taking notes. She was not going to blow an easy assignment like this. I was the sort of kid who carried his homework in his pocket maybe turning it in on a good day.
I could tell she could tell I was getting fidgety so she said during the commercial, “Hey, you know, Carlos is in the garage and stuff… This show’s almost over… You wanna go out there with him? I’ll meet you when this is done, OK?” she was nice about it.
I was disappointed but didn’t show it. The kiss was going to have to wait, it seemed.
Carlos Modesto was in tenth grade, two years ahead of me. He was Xiemena’s older brother. I knew him from little league at the park. We always got along and I really looked up to him. I was the oldest in my family and would have loved to have an older brother like Carlos. He was reserved but approachable and easy to know.
He was incredibly smart; he was California State Science Champ two years running and he wasn’t a drip about it. He had a girlfriend, Kim, who was beautiful and kind, at least to me, and he was the starting pitcher on the South Gate High School team. I wanted to be just like him but I would never have told him that. I guess because he was the only boy in his family he didn’t mind playing big brother to us kids. He got me out of a few scrapes with some of the older kids. I kind of had a big mouth.
I knocked on the side door of the garage.
“Who is it?” Carlos said.
“It’s me, Ben.”
At this point Carlos opened the door. He was smiling like a man possessed. “Come in, Ben. I wanna show you something.” As I entered, I thought I was dreaming.
I wasn’t exactly sure what was lying on the two sawhorses before me. “What is it?”
“What does it look like?”
“Well, it, um, looks like a jet-pack?”
“Bingo.” He had to be excited because he never used words like that.
It looked like a jet-pack, alright. There were two aluminum looking cylinders and in the middle was an engine of some sort.
Metal tubes came out of the top of the cylinders and went into the engine. It was on a back board that you used to strap the jet-pack on with. There was a cable with a hand-knob hanging from the side. Dangling from the bottom of the back panel was a hinged board of the same material. When I asked Carlos about this part, he chuckled and said, “It’s to keep you from burning your ass.” Carlos never cussed, so saying, “ass,” was another indication that this was real!
“Wow… if it works, you’ll win State Champ again for sure.” I was in awe of Carlos’ invention, although I had not seen it fly yet.
“What do you mean, ‘if’?” He said with an arched eyebrow. It was then I noticed that Carlos was only this thrilled about science. Not even his “no-hitter” against our arch rivals, Bell High School, got this kind of reaction out of him.
“Y-Y-You mean it flies?”
“Well you don’t drive it.”
“Does Xiemena know you have this?”
“Yeah but she thinks I’m crazy… So do my folks. My dad said, ‘Son, State Champion for the science does not mean you are the Einstein.'” Carlos impersonated his father’s accent a little bit. “They don’t know I flew it last night.”
“You flew it? I thought, like, maybe you used a dummy or something.”
“Nope. Runs quiet too…It was 3 in the morning and no one heard a thing, except the neighbor’s dogs. Wanna try it?” he asked confidently, as he handed it to me. “I’ve been making some minor adjustments all morning. It sputtered a little bit last night but it oughta be OK now.”
“Sure, but how do you run it?”
“Easy.” he continued as I strapped it on. (It was lighter than I thought it would be.) “That handle at the end of the cable on your right controls your level.”
“Well, see this knob?” He patted one of the knobs on the strap across my chest. He explained all the essentials in controlling a jet-pack. I had only seen the Japanese Sci-fi classic, “Giant Robot,” a hundred times. It was always on “A Movie for a Some Such Occasion.” Everybody in that movie wore jet-packs. I knew I would get this by a sort of instinct.
I told Carlos that I understood and so we walked into the backyard just as Xiemena Modesto, girl of my dreams, was coming out of the backdoor to check up on me. She started laughing uncontrollably.
“What are you doing?” she asked between gasps.
My nascent manhood, still a novelty, I said firmly, “I’m gonna fly this thing.”
“Yeah, Xiemena, why don’t you be quiet and go make some cookies or something.” Carlos said angrily. Apparently, this wasn’t the first time Xiemena made fun of his projects and his state-wide status didn’t buy him much credibility with her either. It doesn’t with most little sisters and pointing that stuff out is how they show love.
I believe the expression goes, “A prophet is never welcome in his own town,” or something like that.
“OK, OK… I’m sorry.” she giggled. “I’ll be good… Can I watch?”
“Yeah, but this is important, so don’t be a baby.” Carlos demanded.
I was waiting for him to tell Xiemena about his maiden voyage. I wasn’t about to tell her and risk getting Carlos angry with me, after all I wanted to try this out.
So we walked out to the middle of the yard. I was looking for burn marks in the grass to show me where Carlos may have taken off. When I asked him, he said that the exhaust didn’t reach that far.
“Alright,” he began, “stand straight and look up. Hold the handle tight and after you get as high as you like, level off. Ready?”
I nodded. He reached for the knob on my chest and turned it on. The engine fired up and hummed like new skateboard wheels in an empty swimming pool. I then reached for the other knob and turned it. Vvvvvrrrrrrooooommmm. I started skyward. It felt like an amusement park ride and the engine was quiet. I couldn’t believe it!
The rush in my balls, almost sexual, made me laugh hard because it tickled.
“The handle!!! Turn the handle!!!” If Carlos hadn’t screamed that out, I would have gone to the moon. I was up high; easily four to five hundred feet.
I moved the button with my thumb, a little too fast at first and lurched forward. I was scared now because, for a second, it looked like I was going to hurtle earthward.
But I leveled off in time and started flying. I was parallel to the ground. I noticed that the shifting of my weight also helped with controlling my altitude.
I came down a little bit; I didn’t want to be up so high if this thing failed on me. By now, I was probably about two hundred feet up.
I moved across the Modesto’s’ yard over their neighbor’s yard. I kept going and then, realizing that I might get Carlos busted, I turned around and started flying back. By now I was almost a whole block away. There were bugs crashing into my face. However, the speed of the jet-pack was slower than I would have imagined; kind of like an airborne mo-ped. But that made flying this thing nice, bugs notwithstanding. Mr. Science could have loaned me goggles, perhaps?
I was coming back the other way and was in awe of this situation. It was like looking at people’s yards from an airplane but the wind was in my hair and there was no floor. It was like a huge jigsaw puzzle.
I could see pools and pets and a beautiful stretch of sky lay directly before me.
The yards got boring, so I looked ahead. Amazing, blue and powerful, the joy was pure, I was in ecstasy. Providence had chosen this day for me to fly.
I was coming back to the Modesto’s’ and I could see Xiemena standing in her yard, by the driveway. Her neck was craned, as she was watching and waving at me.
I thought how perfect would this be: I’d come in for an incredible two point landing and she’d run up to me and hug me, because she was so worried, and give me a huge, sloppy kiss.
I was coming in closer now. It’s not often a boy and his earth are parted so I circled the Modesto’s yard once more for good measure. I figured that landing in the driveway would be a good idea as I had the hang of this.
I could have sworn Xiemena mouthed the words, “I love you” but with the wind in my eyes and no goggles, I couldn’t tell for sure.
As I approached, I was now over the tree at the side of the drive way, the engine began to kick and sputter. Then it stopped. I fell. I crashed and tumbled through the leafless tree; its branches and twigs flipping me around and scratching me all over. I heard Xiemena screaming. I heard running footsteps and Carlos yelling something about protecting my head. I fell free away from the foliage and saw the driveway coming at me faster than I had been flying.
I was head first. I had a split second to throw my hands over my skull to protect it and bam…
I was sitting at my desk, at school, when the bell rang. Xiemena was helping me get from class to class. I had broken my right wrist, torn some tendons in my left hand and cracked my collarbone. My new found hero status was a lot of fun, if you discount the pain. I was on the eleven o’clock news as “The Boy Who Fell to Earth” for two nights in a row. Even Billy Murphy became a fan. All of South Gate Jr. High was mine for awhile.
Carlos got a fine, for “operating an unlicensed airborne craft out of its proper jurisdiction.” I think it was $100. His dad was pissed, although he also got recruitment letters from places like Cal Tech and MIT. They were all full rides.
Jet Propulsion Laboratories offered him a paid summer internship, which sort of made up for it. He paid his dad back.
It was Friday of that week, snack recess was almost over. Xiemena and I were at a lunch table at the far side of the quad. I was sitting on the table with my feet on the bench. Xiemena was standing in front of me, playing my knees like a drum set.
“So I’ll bet this is a week you won’t forget, huh?” Her face was about a foot away from mine and she was smiling that kind of smile to hide her braces.
“No… I guess not.” I tried to force a laugh but she was looking at me differently, so I couldn’t. I felt what was about to happen next.
Xiemena was looking around nervously to make sure no one was watching. Then she leaned in real close, and closed her eyes as she tried to put her lips on mine. She almost missed. My eyes were still open, because I was surprised, so I moved in her direction.
It was there she gave me the kiss I dreamed of all my life up to that point. While I have been in love many times since, it’ll never be like that again. So there’s that…