The Colors of the Sky

On an afternoon in the late 1960s, John Pagano’s Rambler rolled to a stop on the service road of the Grand Central Parkway. His son, Joey, pressed his face against the passenger window, eyes trained on Runway 4. Having grown up four miles away from La Guardia Airport, Joey didn’t have to read fairy tales to believe in magic. Forget “Jack & the Beanstalk” – there were real, roaring, metal giants in the sky! Who needed the Man on the Moon when you had Neil and Buzz to look up to? As a child of the Space Age, Joey needed nothing more than an upward glance to know that he could fly – no pixie dust required. And so, on those lazy father-son afternoons, John and Joey sat on the hood of their Rambler, heads tilted skyward, until – “whaddaya doin’ stalling on the service road?” – the NYPD told them, without fail, to get lost.

Back in his home on 29th Avenue in Flushing, Joey spent the pre-dinner hours playing with model airplanes, poring over astronomy books, building balsa wood gliders, or launching water rockets. Nights, however, were reserved for “Lost in Space” marathons – (“I watched each episode at least five times,” he now confesses) – and New York Mets games with Pop. Occasionally, during home games, ballplayers would step out of the batter’s box as airplanes took off from La Guardia. Dashing to the TV, Joey would lower the volume and count down the seconds – 3…2…1! – until he heard the familiar hum of engines overhead. Come bedtime, he would toss and turn, envisioning himself floating in far-off places – eons away from the City That Never Sleeps, in a different galaxy of light. He was a child of the Space Age, and dreaming himself out of his pajamas and into a NASA spacesuit was as routine as brushing his teeth before bedtime.

Earth, however, had different plans for the young aspiring astronaut. In 1970 – a year after the first moonwalk – Joey had his first eye exam, only to discover that he was red-green colorblind. “Certain careers will be a problem for you,” explained the optometrist. Just like that, an eight-year-old’s biggest dream exploded on the launch pad.

***

Forty-six years later, Dr. Joseph Pagano, O.D., stands in his Greenport, NY office, eyeing the autographed photo that hangs on the back wall of his exam room. Inside the frame, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins, Pete Conrad, Richard Gordon, and Alan Bean return his gaze. Bidding the Apollo 11 and 12 astronauts farewell, Joe locks up the office, hops into his BMW, and drives west. Twenty-five minutes later, he pulls into the parking lot of Mattituck Airport. Mornings with the eyes, afternoons with the sky. Behind the hangar’s closed doors, the optometrist-turned-pilot’s sky blue Cessna 172 patiently awaits.

2016 marks Joe’s 25th anniversary of flying. His first lesson took place on October 20, 1991, with flight instructor Mike Christian. Seven months later, on May 22, 1992, the two men sat side by side in the cockpit, having just completed the seventh practice landing of the day. Motioning to the runway, Mike Christian turned to Joe and said, “Pull over. I need to go take a piss.” He paused before adding the six words that all amateur pilots are half-dying and half-dreading to hear: “It’s time for you to solo.”

“No, it’s not!” replied Joe.

Now, reaching for his tattered pilot’s logbook, Joe flips through hundreds of pages of recorded pilot-in-command flights. The “Pilot’s Flight Log & Record” is a rectangular black book with the name “JOSEPH J PAGANO” emblazoned across its front cover in gold. On the book’s first page, in Joe’s telltale doctor’s chicken scratch, is the word “REWARD!” Flipping through the logbook is an act of time travel – inside is a chronicle of flights dating from 1991 to the present day. Sinking into his living room sofa, Joe thumbs through the pages with childlike wonder, emitting fragmented exclamations like a sputtering engine.

“Flew to Foxwoods, up $800!”

“Next flight, Atlantic City…lost $600. Isn’t that always the way?”

Hah! The infamous ‘bagel flight’ of ‘93!”

1992. 1993. January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October 1994. Then, without warning, the flight records cease.

In November of 1994, Joe became a father, trading landing strips for Sippy cups, control towers for LEGO towers, and props for building blocks. What used to be “flying days” evolved into potty training days, then Little League Pee Wee days with his son. In 1996, Joe welcomed me, his first daughter, into the world. Finally, in 1999, a third and final Pagano child was born. For the next fourteen years, Joe would remain grounded with his young family. He’d never be an astronaut, he knew, but “Daddy?” Well, that was one hell of a job.

And he’s one hell of a dad. It is spring of 2016. From the Cessna’s passenger seat, I swivel my head and watch Dad’s hands carefully steering the yoke. Beyond the windshield, a map of memories waits at our fingertips. Down below, the Long Island Sound’s whitecaps shrink into seagulls, and seagulls transform into off-kilter paper planes, spiraling into the endless blue. Swooping downward, we glide over the local beach where I first learned to swim before dipping the plane’s nose closer to the bay that now has the Pagano family anchored for life. Flying over Greenport, I catch a glimpse of “Daddy Monster Park,” where Dad used to chase us kids with outstretched arms until we all surrendered in fits of giggle-shrieks. Dad and I spent two decades crafting memories on the ground; now, at 400 feet, we are soaring over Memory Lane.

“Does flying ever stop feeling like magic, Dad?” I’ll ask him, months later.

“No.”

Why not?”

***

He’ll think for a moment. Then, with a faint drawl reminiscent of Chuck Yeager, he’ll turn to me and explain, “On land, you’re a father, a husband, a businessman. But when you take off in the plane, nothing matters… You get up there, and you see how small you are.”

Looking out the passenger window that spring afternoon, I try to see the world through my father’s eyes. Yet, we are gazing out at two entirely different landscapes – fifty-four years of life have filled a colorblind man’s palette with hues unknown to me. While my map of memories teems with summer nights in Daddy Monster Park, family cruises to Bug Lighthouse, and bike rides during the golden hour, my father’s map is colored with loss that I have never known. I am the 20-year-old daughter of two loving parents. My father is a son who lost his mother to breast cancer at the age of 22 – a son who, five years after his father’s death, still cannot bear to delete “Dad” from his cell phone contacts. He is a man who graduated from a Catholic high school without ever fully subscribing to religion; he is a man who, four decades and two funerals later, tilts his head skyward at his parents’ gravesite and tries to convince himself that heaven is real.

Though my dad and I occasionally hold mid-flight conversations, our headsets remain largely unused – the sky is a place for silent reflection. And so, on that spring afternoon, I press my face against the window and watch the passing clouds.

From time to time, I swivel in my seat to steal glances of my father. Before him, the sky is endless. Red may be green and green may be red, but blue will always be blue.

 ***

We land, the seasons change, and soon, we are sitting in the cockpit once more, preparing for the last flight before my junior year of college. Just as Dad is radioing in to traffic control, we see a father and son emerge from their cottage beside the runway. Hand in hand, they pad barefoot across their backyard. The father motions toward our sky blue Cessna 172 while his son, wide-eyed, teeters closer, watching the plane prepare for takeoff.

“Skyhawk departing Runway 1.”

Smiling, Dad removes one hand from the yoke and waves. From the service road of Grand Central Parkway, on an afternoon in the late 1960s, a little boy named Joey sits beside his father and waves back.

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