Publishers Weekly review of Prisoners of Flight
Dear Novelist, Beware of national reviews by anonymous reviewers
Kirkus review of Prisoners of Flight, 2003
If one writes novels that get published, the novels will be reviewed
Henson’s dead. I’m having trouble coming to grips with his passing. He’s up here somewhere. We led risky lives and his luck just plain ran out. He wouldn’t view it as bad luck, though. He’s an Indian, a truly native American. Luck doesn’t have anything to do with life, or death. Not in his view, which by now must be omniscient.
The mist I’m flying his plane through comes and goes. It stays. Suddenly my cocoon of clouds opens to a carapace of earth that dashes toward me. I pull up, skimming over the back wall of death, passing close enough to kiss the top of the world. I hang on to flight and catch a Chinook wind down the eastslope. Darkness envelops the atmosphere as I descend below the Continental Divide. All kinds of weather. This afternoon it was snow when I took off in a clearing of clouds. And now rain, coming and going, mostly coming. Winds of all sorts.
Little light remains to the west. Clouds bleed up the setting sun, an aura for Henson’s repose. An unfortunate wilderness death, my close friend dead. Dead, and I’m not yet in touch with his departure. A part of me has perished with him, a big twisted part of me. It’s quite a story, been quite a life; a rugged week and I have my hands full with this crippled plane. That, and I’m into rougher air. Rain runnels my windshield. I’m hoping to make it back to his ranch to inform his mother—his mother and children. And wife, his ex-wife. I need to land. Soon. I’m pretty sure I’m above his ranch. The weather breaks into a deepening darkness.
It’s tough to locate below. My loss of luck may not be far behind my partner’s. This is a shearing squall. A pilot’s nightmare. Weightless and eyeless. My fuel is low. I have two sets of skis on the plane; jerry-rigged skis on broken landing gear. Well, at least I had the skis when I took off. I topped some trees on the takeoff out of the riverbottom. I think I might have torn off the right set, snow skis Henson and I carefully strapped and riveted to the landing gear, landing gear crippled when we were forced to land on a river bank well over a week ago. And then there was the blizzard—the snow and bitterness that led to my friend’s doom—and now this.
At last I make out the faint prairie below—a dusky, dimming windswept expanse. The rain blows away. No lights in sight. Wind and silhouette, a contourless earth. No snow for a smooth landing. Blackfeet Indian Reservation nothingness. Henson’s ancestral homeland. I cringe as I imagine a runway bottomed by thick clumps of native bunchgrass, nothing quite as soft as snow. The blow sweeps me down the fall of mountains. I let it take me eastward, before I nose back around into the Chinook. I lose altitude, careening into wind, until I spot the vague elevation of a hogback ridge running out of the Rocky Mountain Front. I line up and bring my craft earthbound, hoping not to auger in. I stuff some blankets and a pillow in front of my chest and check my seat belt, tightening it as snug as I can. Could be touchy coming down. I heave my craft against the howling. I nose straight into her, throttle full open, and hold tight, easing down a bit closer. The dark earth rises toward me. When I visualize dimlit prairie, I realize I’m stationary to the ground, flying into such fierce wind. This may be good. I’ve brought a lot of crippled planes down in my time, but this ices my cake—wind, skis, no airfield, no runway lights. No instruments, no radar, no snow. This ain’t Vietnam. And I ain’t so young and cocky anymore. Scared, scared and old.
Darkness thickens. Flight thins. New spirits of rain break cross my windshield. Earth mesmerizes me. My ground speed reels backwards, then surges sidelong. I pitch and yaw, yaw and dip, dip and dive. I pray. Pilots do pray, you know. Jesus, do we pray. A brief smoothness in the flow descends me. Everything shifts to slo-mo and I drop in on a nimble ridge of grass when I have half a chance. I touch the left landing gear’s skis to grass. They grab and hop, grab and hop. Whoa. I reef on the flaps, get the tail down. So far, so good, until the skiless landing gear drops in and spikes its gaff into the earth. It all twists away. My world tips. I cartwheel. Slow enough at first, then everything tumbles akimbo—off I roll into the last feign of twilight… .
I awaken to darkness. Blood and darkness and fuel fuming. Mind whirling. A gash of midnight suffused by a gassed upsidedownness. My mouth bleeds. I spit out teeth and align my senses as best I can. I decide it’s probably too late for an explosion. My head throbs. My ear aches. I touch it and feel an eerie splay of cartilage. My fingers come back bloody. In the darkness I cannot see the redness, but tell by touch, the lubricant feel of life.
I wait. My central nervous system calms to a whir.
The flying rule is: when in doubt, do nothing. But I’m not flying anymore. I think I’m not.
Wind blows. The plane creaks and whistles, nudged shrill in its cramped angle of repose. Oh, my. My oh my. Gravity disturbs me. Blood sludges through my head. I decide to unstrap. Click. I crumple to the ceiling. I right myself and wrestle up the door. Wind fills the fuselage, turbocharging me with oxygen. I struggle into the night. Once outside I’m blown apart from my plane. My face stings. My bones bend, tendons simper. I fold to the land and hug the earth. The Chinook wind is warm, almost hot. I curl into the soft bunchgrass fescue. My body quivers in aftershock.
I wait for the sun to light my newfound world. Or maybe the moon. And in my wait I sleep. In this coma I dream vacuous dreams, their memory shucked away by the howl of the Chinook wind, until a dream comes along that I can hold onto. A dream of cleanliness. A dream of bathing. With a woman. I cannot hold the dream in place, so I pocket the memory and roll to my back and gaze upward.
The darkness of night mingles with the darkness inside me.
The darkness is not perfect. I focus my senses—a clock in my heart—and realize this night is not permanent.
Under the scrutiny of stars I bear my melancholy. Out of the deepest cavern of night a calloused moon rears into the starched sky. A calloused and waning gibbous moon, blood-red. Its light is not perfect or permanent, but it caresses me to sleep again. Sleep in which I dream in a halo of happiness. I am finally getting in touch with my dreams. I am six, maybe seven days sober—that after six, maybe seven years drunk; perpetually cottoned against the pain of living. And despite the wrecked plane, my wrecked life, my dead flying mate, and my imperfect but impermanent darkness, I have a new outlook. I can’t tell you why—not here, not now—flight has ravaged me… .
… a week earlier
Henson is a fine pilot and an even better man. We’ve been occasional close friends since we were 17 years old. That’s when we entered the United States Air Force Academy. You don’t need the brainwashed details. It was a long twisted time ago when we thought we wanted to fly. Funny thing is, we’ve been flying ever since. Could be time to come down. Please understand that between the Vietnam conflict, Henson’s flail as a Prisoner of War, my agony as his downed wing man (I miraculously escaped early on), and other sordid fine points, we’re baked. Now we’re on a shaky approach to old age. The landing doesn’t look smooth. He’s a half bubble off plumb and I’m not playing with a full flight deck. Sometimes there is no airfield. No place to land. It’s a long story. Christ knows the finer details, Christ and Henson. They know all the details.
Through it all we remain friends. After the academy it was flight training, Del Rio, Texas, river of blood. Then we shipped off to Southeast Asia, sky of smoke, a strange war. You stay friends after going through all that together if you stay apart enough. A spiritual connection emerges. They made us go to church every Sunday at the academy, which Henson and I attended together; mandatory religion (even way back then someone knew we might eventually need religion). Although I haven’t been to mass since they commissioned us officers, we both still have guardian angels, something I don’t speculate about anymore, something I know.
So here we are, outback Montana. Fall quibbles with winter. A warming Chinook waits to fall out of the Rocky Mountain front. The foothill grass begs for snow. I came up here to visit from my home near Yellowstone. Hadn’t heard from my captain in some time. His usual practice had been to send postcards. Always short on words, he would draw artwork on them. From the art I would know his condition. His muse escaped him. I’ve been too long without his art. I came to see, to make sure.
Henson’s not impressed with my sudden presence. I tell by the look in his eye. It’s odd, but our history enables us to understand each other in vague ways. He brings back memories I need, however not all pleasant and, as usual, seldom discussed verbally. We play around with life’s memories as best we can, over and over we spool out past time. Will our conflicts ever end? I don’t know. Doesn’t seem like it. This time it’s the delamination of his marriage, mine ended much earlier. We ponder past flight to distract ourselves from his current calamity. We talk of missiles. Surface to Air Missiles. Air to Air Sidewinder Missiles. Air to Surface Missiles. Canons. Oh, the misery and mystery of missing missiles. Henson dropped out of the sky courtesy of a missile long ago. He’s still not over it. We drink ourselves into the evening darkness, into the night, climbing out of our past, climbing… .
It’s early, very early. We stumble through the prairie to his Piper Super Cub, nice plane, small outfit. Another breathless morning in Montana—stars linger, then fade. Reappear. The Milky Way splashes into the spectral groves of night flickered aspen, trees gasping aroma through a dappled darkness. Below the horizon the sun hums up a copper buzz to meet a star-tossed sky. A cocktail ice moon rides the mountains to the west, a moon accompanied by Venus. I count the Seven Sisters and can only see five. Age. Vision and age.
Henson is a cattleman now, family ranch (never mind that his family just left), back to the earth sort of outfit, yes sir, lot o’ country to cover, hence the plane. I am a little peaked. Bad night last night, a good visit actually, drink; bad morning it is, soon to get better. Sip. I’m used to it, I suck up and look over his dinky cockpit, not quite like the F-4E Phantoms we flew over Nam, mostly over Nam. I see Captain Henson has disjointed my accessory joystick and stuck it in the pouch in the back of his seat in front of mine. If Henson has a heart attack and gaks in flight—not inconceivable at this stage of aviation—all I need do is plug the spare joy into her socket in the plane’s belly and I’m the pilot. No flap control, but I do have a throttle next to the window on my left and rudders at my feet. I could land this bird from the back seat if I had to. It’s been awhile, but I’d be able to float her down. If I had to. Yes sir.
I don’t usually think of such copilot drag, but this morning I smell reefer, Henson’s taken to smoking reefer before flying. The other flight detail of interest is that Henson only has one eye. Depth perception is a nice feature for pilots to have. It’s helpful to know, for example, how far you’re off the ground. With only one eye, the physics of brain and light leave you without—let’s say with limited—depth perception. He validates the tea habit with the glaucoma thing. He mentions that with one eye you don’t take chances with glaucoma. Who am I to argue? Who is the bigger fool, the pilot or the passenger? We both need the clarity flying brings, vision problems won’t hamper us. We haven’t heard from our angels in a long, long time. But they’re out there, always have been anyway, waiting somewhere in the sky.
His gone eye was snapped out trapping fisher after his psychiatric but honorable discharge. He slipped into the mountains with a bad wad of Missing-in-Action backpay shoved down his throat. He was after his soul and after fisher, the elusive forest mammal that maybe fishes. It was a nice try. He was hanging a ruffed grouse breast feather from fishing line tied to a limb above the trap (that’s how you lure ‘em; fishers can’t resist the lilting of the feather). Somehow (you got me) the trap discharged and snapped at his right eye, slitting it open. Eye fluid spilled to the pine-needled earth. Henson had perfect vision, what a crying shame. That was it for his clearly focused depth perception. Not funny. Nothing is for long anymore. His retina shriveled and detached, the optic nerve died.
Today he sports a new eye, pupil fixed and dilated just like the good one. The VA hospital sawbones copied his aquamarine Cree-blue iris pretty well, but the new glassy orb veers and yaws off kilter as he moves his head. Floats, floats in his skull like a gyroscope. Useful. When I first see him I’m not sure which eye is perceiving light and therefor don’t know how to look him in the eye, which eye. And of course I look Henson in the eye whenever we meet, picking up details.
Although flying is second nature to us we know better than this misbehavior, we just don’t care. You wouldn’t either, given our givens. Don’t get me wrong, flying still gets us high, just not high enough. I do a preflight check. The wing fabric is a bit tattered, not bad, I’ve flown worse. It’ll lift. Rudder cable good, ailerons’ likewise. Coldness softens the tundra tires, fatting them. I look the important things over. Over and over. Henson pours Exxon Super Extra out of a questionable gas can through a wrinkled chamois cloth scabbed over a bent funnel stuck in the wing tank. The fuel glugs along, seeping an ethereal vapor into the flow of night. At least the morning is pure. It needs no straining.
Henson talks over the fuel’s desperate gulps for air. If you didn’t know already, Indians don’t need many words to communicate. He makes a sign for elk antlers with an open hand and placed behind his ear, finger wiggles for emphasis, then he gestures with his elbow, west into the mountains. Sign language. We’re lifting off to scout the whereabouts of the elk herd in the nowhere land south of Glacier Park. Perhaps because of the offbeat look on my face he utters, “Wild meat.” He needs wild meat for the brittle winter ahead. His eye rolls. Again, what can I say? He’s a Blackfeet Indian. But he’s a Cree also. Part Cree, blue-eyed Cree. Captain Richard Henson, Vietnam ace, six MiGs down (so what if they weren’t all verified? I know, he knows, the enemy knew). Hen, fighter pilot warrior, a hero no more. His last name was originally Hen Son, but the military anglicized the words to Henson.
Our foothill light improves by the minute. Hen’s sculpted nose is running a clear discharge out of his right nostril into a thin mustache—proof a deadeye can still cry. Tenuous braids entwine crafted adornments that flag his cocked head to his wiry frame, hair blending with the fringe of his elk-leather flight jacket. To accommodate the one-eye field of view he maintains a slight but accurate head tilt, a cockeyed depth-of-vision adaptation.
These vision details don’t really matter. At this stage everything is the same distance away. He looks to the east. Time’s a-tickin’, he gestures. He’s ready to fly. I was born ready. I squeeze into the back seat. He tidies up the gas cans, covers them with a rock-weighted tarp, and eases back to the fuselage feeling the underside of the wing before checking into the front seat. Flick, flick, click, click. The battery’s dead. He makes some adjustments on his puny instrument panel and hops back out and goes to the nose. I watch his hands palm the 2 o’clock prop, fingers flat. He lifts his knee and flings the prop, pushing back, kicking away. The engine catches, bracing the plane. I back off my throttle to calm the startled craft, to keep the anxious prop from sucking Henson in. He steps around the fury, winks, and climbs back in to fold up his door. We wait for the windshield frost to melt. It’s quickly blown away. I contemplate flight as I gaze through the warped plastic to the prairie tarmac. Agitated frost frolics in the propeller wind, the birth of day bending the sudden shudder. Henson revs. We taildrag west up a hogback ridge. Hang on, here we go.
We get off okay, slipping the surly bonds of earth. God’s country below, we’re in angel territory now. No wind today, not yet, too early in the morning. We drill into the wolf light, sun a good 40 minutes below the horizon behind us. I notice the faint crucifixes of power poles ahead and I’m not sure if Henson flies over or under their power lines, but sure as our guardian angels exist, we miss ‘em, high, low, I don’t know. Or care. We’re plum and clear, safe to our home in the clouds. We rise and circle, circle and rise, listing west over the top of the world. At the Continental Divide we meet sunlight, first shine over the mountain tops. Nothing like the sun’s greeting above a dim ol’ earth. Altitude, Henson likes altitude, the higher the better. I could use some oxygen. Sippy sip. We level out and sift through the sun-split mirth of clouds.
With the world far below my captain starts jabbering, hands to stick, feet to rudders, guiding us, banking, rising some more. His braids intrigue me as they follow a seat-of-pants gravity. Turquoise and silver mingle through tightly woven sheens of carefully laced hair. He flings his head back at me, imploring an answer to his words. I can’t make out a single thing he says. Long ago I blew out an eardrum somewhere very high over the South China Sea, dogfight, MiG-21 Fishbeds, not bogus, heavy G’s and high altitude, Sparrow III missiles expended, blood running out of my ear and through my scalp. I’m dinked by a scatter of canon crossfire. Shoulda never been hit. In a spiral my navigator punched us out. Unresolvable? I’ll never know. We left Hen Son and his trigger-finger lieutenant outmaneuvered in the Wild Blue, Fishbeds everywhere. The Reds nailed my captain. The missile, the punch out, canon fire, something killed his lieutenant. The chute opened and he snapped, limp. Crack. Henson still has nightmares about the crunch. Down his copilot came, a swinging sack of crumpled bones, meat, and guts, Lieutenant Adler, dead. Boom. Dead. That fast, dead.
This is all well beyond the vibration of this rattletrap, engine noise stinging my good ear. Spoken words are of no use, but Henson needs communication. We start tapping code, a conditioned response, once top secret. You don’t know the code, our Prisoner of War thing, our lifeline in prison. Charlie knew Morse, listened too much. We had to invent and subvert, escape if possible. Duty. POW Code of Conduct. Yes sir. Twenty-five letters in the alphabet, k is c and c is c, no k, an imaginary 5 X 5 grid of letters. Z is 5 over, 5 down. G is 2 over, 2 down, get it? Tap, tap, pause, tap, tap. That’s G and I know multiplicities of G. The dogfight that day tapped my brain dry of blood. Go figure the rest. Henson won’t talk about it. I must. Code. An old dance. Each letter tapped out. To a word. Words to a sentence. Simple syntax. Skip unnecessary words. Day after imprisoned day spent tapping the code, rapping. Once again we tippity tap, our talk’s down pat in this flowing air trap. We’re still captives after all, oddly happy, tapping code. Like the raven soaring and hawking below, the tapping never fades. It never stops, here again. Little drummer boys talking rat-a-tat-tat on the airframe. Ho Chi Minh rap.
We soar higher. We chatter. You don’t want the specifics of our conversation. You wouldn’t understand, but then neither did China Red.
We skitter over the backbone of this world and plunge into weather, no instruments today, visual flight rules. The sky clouds. Big blanket of westside forest peeks through a drifting mist. Not many places to land, none in sight. Trees. Under the cloud-muffled distance the Big River boils out of lowlit mountains, meandering turmoil, cobalt blue. Feeder streams throw in their angry chill, headwaters gravid with bull trout redds, friendly fishbeds. Fisher country. Henson dips the left wing. With a gesture of his Roman nose he points down to the lost eye. My flyer levels and pulls us into a brisk climb. Aaah. We’re way high. The air temperature approaches the dew point. I sense the chilling westside dampness moving through the engine. I sense trouble, carburetor icing. Not good. My captain is ready. He knows these things. He’s rigged a carburetor heater and pours in the heat—too late or too much, our engine cuts, our engine cuts out. He stalls the bird, no noise but airflow, which stills just before the fixed prop drops away. Oh, that skiff of heaven. We drop through footless halls of air. Henson’s braids drift to the ceiling. My ace in the hole waits. He had us very high, very high. We dive, conform. My pilot muscles us flat. He sets the magnetos. Varoom. He restarts. Power, yes! Our lonesome drone resumes and we rat-a-tat-tap the nirvana of survival, hearts aflutter. We lift once again. My flyer wheels, and soars, and swings. Up we go. Away.
When the engine resumes coughing Hen Son banks, locates, descends. He lands on a gravel bar sweet as a mosquito on skin. Big River he taps. Middle Fork of the Flathead, designated wilderness, the Great Bear Wilderness, no spontaneous combustion allowed. Sorry. Indians don’t count, he raps. The motor whirrs in perfect harmony now that we’re grounded. Henson brakes. The propeller doesn’t sing the same when the plane is terrestrial. Reverberation ha-whangs off the river bluff. My ear rings. Sip, sip.
We taxi through colored rocks, jouncing along. As I gaze for camouflage, a place to tie down, a boulder grabs the strut and gives us a nasty throw, twisting the right landing gear on the riverbed. A pearly boulder’s tripped us up. Captain Hazelwood misjudged its location. Not enough visual on the starboard clearance. The Piper Cub tilts and yaws, wrenching to a standstill. No more flying today, excepting the bag of headwax Henson is holding. He kills the yodeling motor. My bottle is empty. Quiet. Peace and quiet. Didn’t we just hear this? We lip talk and squirm out of the Piper. I limber out of my copilot crouch. The air is pure and sharp, the trout water smooth. Hardening leaves whisper us. Henson smiles as I try to figure out which eye. He mentions there’s a cabin down the river. We wade across the flow. Mother earth, we’re with you again.
On the fugitive hike downstream we run into two breathless earth cookies, girls backpacking the wild. Fine ladies, young, sisters they say. They heard our plane choking, then incoming. They speak in tongues. They’re hungry and cold and lonely and lost in this life. Such a wild life. It’s chilly. They’re interested in flight, our flight. “Some landing,” they say, in unison.
“Heavy air,” Henson replies. “Sogged us right down where we belong.” He winks his good eye, temporarily blinded. Even he doesn’t know which eye! He masterminds a bivouac. In no time flat Deadeye breaks into the United States Forest Service cabin under penalty of law. No sweat. “They tell me it’s our country,” he says. A sign above the warning reads Gauge Station Cabin. Henson explains how they gauge the river flow in the spring. There’s a cable over the river across the gorge, a cable that gauges the flow.
The ladies are delighted with Henson’s knowledge. They’re impressed at his balance with the elements, his water awareness. I catch my breath and gauge my landed condition. Indeed, the water flows, the air flooding senses that remain. I can’t keep my eyes off the sky. Mushroom clouds lay in. They tumble and toss, sugared with water. Crystals form. A soft snow falls to coat the earth, graceful kissing flakes.
Between the fishing gear former Captain Richard Hen Son has cached in the fuselage and our ladies of gratitude, we’re staying, forever I hope. Don’t let me forget to mention the commissary of beans I found stashed in the cabin that will allow us to survive day to day. United States Department of Agriculture commodities. They taste great heated in the can, a little hole punched in the lid, set in driftwood coals to burble hot. We can safely build fires here and do. We flyfish. We feast. Pink flakes of native flesh. Bronze frijoles swim in their syrup. The girls throw in with rosy huckleberries and white pine nuts they've gathered.
Everything connects. The sky blues. Our guardian angels circle a thermal, drifting up the sunset, bald eagles looking over the fishes and fishbeds the fishers missed. Our earthbound angels can’t stop smiling. And we thought they only lived in the constellations of our skyblown minds.
Henson convinces everyone we must smoke to keep the realbear away. The sisters and I concur, but insist the last pint of whiskey is necessary to keep the wolverines at bay. Soon all such flight is gone. We feel safe, finally safe, failsafe. We tuck into the darkening equinox on The Big River. The sky falls.
PRISONERS OF FLIGHT by sid gustafson, author's debut novel, 2003, The Permanent Press
In Prisoners of Flight, Sid Gustafson’s veterinarian protagonist refers often to angels: “We haven’t heard from our angels in a long time. But they’re out there . . . waiting somewhere in the sky.”
Two ex-military pilots, Gustafson’s protagonist and his comrade, Henson, crash their plane into wilderness alongside Montana’s Flathead River. Former Vietnam POWs, they have wrestled with life’s trials ever since, holding to a single constant: a fierce longing for an idealized sky. Says Gustafson’s protagonist: “The flying rule is: When in doubt, do nothing. But I’m not flying anymore.” For indeed, Gustafson’s characters are themselves fallen forms of the angels they seek.
Gustafson (B.S., D.V.M. ’77) manages both an economy of words and a compelling lyricism. There’s a rhythm here that makes for a read difficult to interrupt. And he’s not afraid to toss the rules. Single-word sentences. Pop phraseology. Recurring metaphors. The result is a harrowing adventure part magical realism (with a hint of psychedelia), part paean to the deep forest, part redemption chronicle, and part cryptogram.
Gustafson strands his characters with only a river shack for shelter. Soon, twin sisters—“two breathless earth cookies”—searching for their dog (named Hope—“lost Hope”) emerge from the forest cold and bewildered.
The protagonist recalls how he and Henson communicated cell-to-cell as POWs—through tapping out a simple alphabetic code. They repeatedly refer to this “old dance,” often lapsing into it. Acutely aware of their frailties and failures, they call often on God. And while longing to be back in the sky, they fool themselves like lost boys whistling in the dark that happiness can be found on the ground: “Our earthbound angels can’t stop smiling. And we thought they only lived in the constellations of our skyblown minds.”
The narrative dealing with Henson’s fate is both mythic and sad. (I’m not giving away much here, since the first two words of Gustafson’s novel are, “Henson’s dead.”) Finally, the protagonist’s escape and redemption are pulse-pounding.
There is much that is satisfying about Prisoners of Flight. Best is that it ends, as all good prayers do, with a single word, tapped out in code:
— Brian Ames ’85, author of Smoke Follows Beauty (Pocol Press, 2002), Head Full of Traffic, (Pocol Press, 2004),and Eighty-Sixed (Word Riot Press, 2004).
Prisoners of Flight Book Review The Independent, July 2, 2003,
the Hamptons, Long Island, New York
By Joan Baum
We wince, we keep reading. This first novel by a Montana doctor of veterinary medicine moves with compelling, sometimes beautiful, and sometimes brutal, imagery. Shelley is famously blunt for opening his elegiac tribute to Keats, “I weep for Adonais -- he is dead.”
But here’s Gustafson, starting off this strange tale of bonding in the Northwest wilderness with “Henson’s dead.” Hen Son, part Blackfeet Indian, part Cree, had his name anglicized by the military. Later on, what Vietnam did not destroy, Captain Henson lost to a freak fishing accident and an inability to reconnect with the world of civilization -- an eye, his wife, his ranching business, though not his love of nature or a capacity for deep friendship with the narrator, Dr. Sling Roop, a veterinarian.
Their lives go back to training days in the Air Force Academy and then, after being shot down over the China Sea, to time spent at the Hanoi “Hilton,” where they were tortured. Prisoners of flight, they become prisoners of those memories. Ironically, they also find escape from the past in flying.
Prisoners of Flight begins with a brief present-tense prologue by Sling, who is airborne, but as he recalls Henson’s recent death, and “clouds bleed up the setting sun,” his judgment falters and the plane goes down. Injured, stunned, memories invade, and the stream of consciousness that ensues constitutes the actual story that will eventually connect with the prologue and explain how Henson died. The memories are many-layered but center on the recent weeks when Sling and Henson lived together in the wilderness after they flew blind and crashed in a desolate part of northern Montana. Within minutes of that crash, two college-age girls appeared, having seen the plane fall. They are twins, running away from an unhappy home and searching for their dog, who bounded into the forest. The situation is bizarre, but Gustafson avoids the expected and with great skill pulls their stories together, showing how they are all prisoners of flight. Essentially, however, the novel is a kind of love story between Sling and Hen, two maimed souls whose intimacy allows them to communicate with subtle gestures and code taps, and whose fierce need to escape into a pure, albeit dangerous sky, speaks volumes about the psychological and physical damage wrought by the Vietnam war, the addictions it bred, and the irreparable social discontent it generated.
It’s amazing what Gustafson packs in, including lore about veterinary medicine, some of it as discomforting as it is true, about what even the most compassionate animal lover has to undergo interning and then in practice. War made Sling “an animal” and drove him to drugs, but another war drew him to alcohol -- the losing battle against “stupid heartless people” who insisted he put their healthy pets to sleep. He loses wife, son, daughter, and home. Nonetheless, he is an admirable, decent human being, and readers will lament the passing of his kind: Machines? Not for him. They don’t know “the tone, the surge of capillaries, the pulsing blood.” People today “insist on machines—numeric proof, undeniable proof. They don’t trust a doctor’s touch, not anymore. I’m on my way out.”
In the wilderness, with Henson, Sling finds the insecurity he needs to slow him down and allow him to be a fully sensate being. “Living here is a ceremony, replete with sacrifice and rapture.” Together, in nurturing mode, Sling and Henson teach the girls what it means to live and face death. Yet, for all his instinctive and intuitive smarts, Sling knows he is not an animal, that man cannot live in the wilderness, that flight has limits. This is a haunting book. As summer deepens and city folk look to nature, to the outback, to so-called roughing it, it is refreshing to come across a literary account of The Real Thing -- so graphic, so poetically rendered.
Prisoners of Flight, a novel by Sid Gustafson, The Permanent Press, 176 pp. $18
Copyright © 2002 East Hampton Independent News Co
Living the literary life: Sid Gustafson, a veterinarian by day, published two books this summer along with a pair of short stories
By SCOTT McMILLION, Chronicle Staff Writer, June, 2003
It might be some kind of literary record, at least as far as local authors are concerned.
Sid Gustafson, a Bozeman veterinarian, has had two books published this summer, along with two short stories in new collections of literary work. The plot synopsis of Gustafson's first novel "Prisoners of Flight," (The Permanent Press) sounds a little suspect: two 50-ish former Vietnam POWs crash their small plane high in the Montana Rockies, only to find a well-stocked cabin and a pair of college-age twin sisters. But the story never takes the obvious plot twist. Rather, the tale remains chaste and goes interior, deep inside the mind of protagonist Sling Roop, an alcoholic veterinarian with only one good ear. Sling and his buddy, a Cree/Blackfoot named Henson with only one eye, have a long history together and their days at the Air Force Academy, their time in prison camp is only part of it.
It soon becomes clear that they stay so long in the backcountry only because they want to. They have marooned themselves by choice, looking both for a place to hide and a place to seek. Although the story line has some minor weak spots, the book's imagery and sparse, elegant language pulls you through. Linguistic gems pepper almost every page. A jet's contrail, Gustafson tells us, is "a scar of flight." And when a cloud slips under the moon, it leaves the world "sipping blackness." Sling focuses on his senses, relying on his nose, tastebuds and fingertips to diagnose his patients and divine his surroundings. Yet he knows the dangers of living too closely in the sensory world. "I know how the senses can deceive," Gustafson writes. "They aren't math and physics, sensations can fool a mortal." His second book is less literary, but likely to be a good seller. Entitled "First Aid for the Active Dog," (Alpine Publications) it relies on the skills he applies in his day job and tells people how to take care of their canines when mishaps happen and there's no vet around. "I like that book," Gustafson said. "It balances out the edge the fiction has, that some people wrinkle their noses at." The slim book avoids technical jargon and is packed with practical information on everything from plucking porcupine quills to administering canine CPR to diagnosing altitude sickness. The two short stories (Gustafson has published a number of others in literary magazines) appear in two Birch Brook Press collections entitled "The Suspense of Loneliness, Stories of the Forlorn," and "Tales for The Trail, Adventures in Air, Land and Sea."In the latter book, Gustafson's story "Sequel," is the lead story and the one on which the book's cover design is based. A novel, a nonfiction how-to book and short stories in two collections, all in one summer. It's not a bad trick for a 48-year-old full-time veterinarian. Gustafson, a Conrad native, comes from a creative and literary family. His father Rib, also a vet, has written books about his own life in the Hi-Line country and about Lewis and Clark. His sister Kristin, a lawyer, published a book about maritime law. His brother Eric, a teacher and musician, wrote a lengthy history of ancestors who were World War II heroes. And another brother, Wylie, is a country music recording artist and songwriter whose famous yodel is used in Yahoo! commercials. Gustafson works on animals at his Church Street clinic and lives in an upstairs apartment, where he writes every day, usually around mid-day when the press of sick animals and distressed owners hits a lull. "All the urgent veterinary stuff gets handled early in the morning," he said. The novel took five years to write, he said, and the dog first-aid book took a little longer. There's more on the way. Another novel, entitled "Horsemen," is now making the rounds of publishers and Gustafson will supplement the dog book with one that addresses first aid for horses. Few people in this area know of his literary work, although he has fans around the country, in places like Louisiana and New York's Hamptons, where literary magazines have been publishing his work for several years. "I've got enclaves of fans in places I've never been," he said. Gustafson will appear July 29, 2003 at the Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, at 7 p.m., to read from his new work.