Flight Crew

Despite my advice, Captain Juanito felt prepared to take a midnight flight. It was dangerous enough just standing in the stockroom. Why my cousin decided to fly his plane in the shelving fortress of our neighborhood grocery store was beyond my comprehension. Our presents arrived early that year. Following tradition, gifts were exchanged on the night of the twenty-fourth. In honor of the Son, I smuggled in some cutlery, clothing, power tools, and a few remote-control airplanes.

“¿Cuál es el más rapido?” Lucho inquired. “What is freakin’ see?”

Alexis asked, “Is A faster than B?”

I selected aircrafts with three different frequencies, so there would be no air traffic control issues. The label, “For ages 8-10,” was mistaken to mean something about maximum velocity and elevation abilities. Luckily, all three advertised similar values and digits.

With no discernable differences in the packaging, Mother Juana, Father José, and our neighborhood grocer, Lucho Paredes, examined propeller locations and estimated aerodynamics. And in the end, the Mira-Flores family selected the royal blue fighter jet for Adrián. Lucho chose the red plane for his son, Dirk. And Cousin Juanito ended up with the metallic purple plane with gold pinstripes.

Filled with the feast of The Lord, the patriarchs and Aunt Laura tore into the protective packaging. Lucho and Dirk ripped open twist-ties with ferocity while Alexis trimmed scissors with surgeon-like precision. Then, disaster struck.

“Hermano…las pilas…” My brother looked very upset. “¿No hay pilas?”

“What do you mean?” I asked. I knew “pilas” to mean something like “heads up” or “get ready.” Ponte pilas. Never had I heard the word used in its proper context. It’s meaning: batteries. And there were none.

“Hermano…las pilas!”

“Tranquilito,” José sang. “No te preocupes, mi’jo.”

Thumbing through the contents of his pockets, Father departed for Danita’s Store. Sneaking in through the back door, he helped himself to a basket full of batteries and yelled back at Lucho, the grocer nicknamed “Fight,” to put it on his tab. 

Before attaining half a charge, the three pilots pressed propellers into action. Alexis and Adrián attempted liftoff inside of the living room while Lucho and Pequeño Dirk played tug-of-war with the remote-control inside of the dining room.

From adopted cousin to progenitor, I inherited the role of Juanito’s father and gave a brief sermon on surveying surroundings, which my new son ignored. In the glow of a recently erected streetlight, I demonstrated how to steer before relinquishing the controls to Little Juan. He placed the purple plane in the middle of the road and pressed the joysticks down with all his chubby might. The jet flew up into the air and nicked the side of La Isla Grocery Store before dive-bombing back down to the ground. Stunned, my son took his hands off the controls to cover his gaping mouth.

I ran towards the plummeting plaything. But I didn’t make it in time. Inspecting the plane for damage, I found everything was still, surprisingly, intact. Outside Hostal Gran Tortuga, I heard hands clapping, gasping, and the occasional thud of plastic on the cool tile floor. Meanwhile, out in the street, mi hijo Juanito jumped up and down, fanning the controls back into his thick, sausage-link fingers.

“Gimme! Gimme! Gimme it!”

When the boys boarded their beds, the men departed. Bare lightbulbs hung from an extension cord chandelier, illuminating a very different kind of cockpit. Wind ruffled a pockmarked black tarpaulin—a miniature version of the sky above.

“Psst!” Alexis pointed across the cockfighting arena. “Look! This guy is so drunk he probably doesn’t even know what day it is…”

I looked at my watch. “Medianoche. Feliz Navidad, hermano.”

Still grasping onto the concept of spending Jesus’s birthday watching brawling roosters, I took in the scene as the selection process began. In front of us, trainers eyed their competitors, looking for birds of similar size and stature. Fowl fighters in tow, grown men approached one another, strutting their own faith and feathers.

“No schedules tonight!” M.C. DIAMOND announced. “Crowd dictates everything!”

A man clad in a crisp, half-buttoned linen shirt licked his thumb and index finger, groomed his bushy bigote and handed a photo of Ben Franklin to a bookie.

“White attire symbolizes pride,” Alexis said. “This man makes no mistakes.”

Behind us, bird manicurists applied auxiliary claws, adhering metal to talons with black electrical tape.

“Secondary spurs heighten the intensity of the blows,” Father José explained. 

The buzzer bellowed and two men took their poultry to opposite poles of the arena. Crouching low, they kissed their gallos and stroked feathers into place for good looks and good luck. With the exception of the mustached money man, the rest of the trainers reserved all aesthetic attention for the capon combatants. Everyone else was decked out in sandals, robes, boardshorts and pajama pants.

“Because of the High Holy Day, all birds are spared from death!” M.C. DIAMOND declared. “Gracias a Jesús. Gracias a Dios. Gracias por su atención.”

The next morning, Adrián greeted us in tears. We arrived home after breakfast and found Jessica cradling her kids in the dining room hammock. Grandma Rosa was scolding Juanito for hijacking Adrián’s airplane, after annihilating his own inside of the grocery store.      

I connected my laptop to GRANTORTUGAWIFI and sent a quick message to my mother: One of the planes crashed—but I arrived. Happy Hanukkah!



Alex Ehrenzeller spent the better half of his university years in the Galápagos Islands, Ecuador. In previous lives, he found employment as a lab technician, research assistant, math tutor, science teacher, “at-risk” youth program coordinator, camp counselor, swim instructor, lifeguard, real estate agent, boarding school dorm parent and janitor. He is 6’7’’.

Category: Airplanes

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