Dad! Where are you? The first rule of a day trip is try not to lose your kid
Sunday 17 July 2005
I am 13 years old. I am wedged between a rough-hewn wooden fence, keeping a huge crowd back from a runway, and the stomach of an extremely overweight and smelly man. He looks down at me and smiles. I shriek. I shout, to his alarm. This is not my father. Where is my father? But my cries are drowned by the shoe-shaking sound of a Harrier jumpjet.
It is not easy to find your dad when you are lost among 300,000 people at the largest American airbase in the country. When the policemen you might ask for help have mirror shades and guns. When every punter in the place is wearing a simulated leather flight jacket, beige slacks and a baseball cap decorated with the gaudy squadron regalia of the Screamin' Eagles (just purchased, but which his wife will never let him wear out of the house). I am terrified. But I am not surprised. This always happens. Every time my dad takes me to an air display, which he seems to do every other week during this period of my life, I get lost. More precisely, I stay where I am and he wanders off, to photograph a Fiesler Storch or stroke the propeller of a Sea Fury.
There are thrills here, including the chance to sit in cockpits and wear flight helmets, and the elegant manoeuvres of the Red Arrows. I've seen a Starfighter go into the ground with a crump and a Mitchell Marauder disappear into the valley beyond the perimeter of an airfield. The ashes and smoky debris fell on us like sooty rain. To a witless pre-pubescent these tragedies were finer entertainment than even an Atari or a Chopper could provide. So I have been frightened to tears before at air displays and loved it. But not today.
I am tired, alone and scared. I will never forget this moment. Not even when Dad bumbles out of the sea of strangers carrying the most enormous burgers ever. They drip with weird sauces which we don't see in Walthamstow but they are no compensation. When he asks me to come with him again I will say no and a chapter of our lives - one that includes the precious memory of sleeping in the Austin Maxi in a layby together - will be over. I am sad about that all the way home.
And it will come back to me 20 years later, when he and I are among the crowds on the seafront close to my home watching an air display and he turns to tell my son that the Red Arrows are coming, only to look back at me with alarm and say, "Have you seen Jake?"
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