WHEN THE SUN SET IN THE EAST

By John Thomas Tuft

The old rusty crate of a crop duster aeroplane sat on the dirt strip outside of Moline, Idaho. Every time he took the Jennie up, he was reminded of his mother’s cooking. Clyde was not sure why, but every time he aimed for the sky and felt the backwash of the Jennie’s propellor across his face, he smelled the hamburger, tomato and rice casserole she made every Thursday, along with succotash and warm bread. With apple butter, of course. And by Thursday the milk had to be watered down with Carnation powdered, but that was just the way to hold body and soul together in tough times.

As he did every preflight check, Clyde sang “Spirit in the Sky,” the old Norman Greenbaum song, cheerfully testing the flaps, tail rudder, propellor and hoses and the inevitable, but pesky, oil leaks before climbing into the cockpit and firing her up. While most men seem to have testosterone delivered throughout their bodies by pickup trucks in the bloodstream, Clyde preferred to think of the thrum of his Pratt and Whitney nine-cylinder Wasp Junior as the main delivery vehicle for the thrills of living and flying.

In the year 1999, Clyde worried that since everything was going to come to a halt at the turn of the millennium, at the stroke of midnight on Dec. 31, he needed to decide what his life was all about. He wanted to do something great, something important, something people would remember before it all came to an end, inglorious or otherwise. Clyde set out to prove that the sun actually sets in the east, not the west as is so widely believed. He had a hunch. It did not match up with the accepted, but he had gone against the grain his whole life, and this would be his grand achievement. Clyde gathered together all the best charts and maps, surveyed the East Coast of the United States, made a mark on a spot on the North Carolina coast, and set out to prove that the sun really does set in the east. Not the west, as so many Y2K conspiracy deniers liked to believe.

One bright sunny morning in November 1999, Clyde prepared to liftoff from Moline, hoping that the flying would take his mind off his aching knees. Sherrie from the diner, saw him off with a bag of sandwiches, a thermos of coffee and a big box of powdered milk. And old Bernie, the maintenance man from the airport, gave him a case of oil with the warning, “Don’t forget, every ten hours of flying, she’s gonna need a quart. Just remember to land first.” Clyde thanked them both and lifted off, softly whistling “Spirit in the Sky” and inhaling the memorable smells of his mother’s cooking as he climbed toward the clouds.

The old crop duster was reliable, chugging through the firmament day after day, as Clyde made a beeline for the Mississippi. Over Tennessee he hit some bad weather and put down early for the day. Both Clyde and the little aeroplane were tired and a bit cranky. Clyde rolled into a sleeping bag under the wing, drank the last of the powdered milk, gave the plane the last quart of oil, and fell asleep dreaming of that hamburger, rice and tomato casserole.  Unfortunately, the bad weather followed them toward the East Coast. Just over Greensboro, the FAA radioed a warning of high winds near the coast. But Clyde pressed on, into the darkening skies, the old Jennie bucking and whining as it was buffeted about.

Clyde grew disoriented in the dark skies and wondered if he should turn back. Somewhere over Brunswick County the engine started to sputter and spit oil back in Clyde’s face. Frantic, he searched for some place to land the faithful aeroplane. Just in time, as the engine finally quit, he spotted a beach. Wrestling the stick, Clyde managed to land on the sand and come to a safe stop. As he climbed out, the storm blew on through and out to sea. Clyde walked down the beach glad to be alive and eager to see the fulfillment of his dream. Soon he noticed a sign: Welcome to Sunset Beach, NC. He was right. Vindicated in the face of all the doubters. He sat down and watched a glorious sunset unfold in all of its beauty and majesty. “The sun really does set in the east!” he cried.

A boy walking by heard him and came over. “Cool plane. That yours?” “Yes,” said Clyde. “I have come all the way from Idaho to prove that the sun sets in the east.” The boy scratched his head. “Mister, this is the west side of Sunset Beach Island. You’re watching the sun set in the west.” “That can’t be,” said Clyde. “I’ve come so far. It has to be true.” The boy paused for a moment. “All I know is what my grandpa used to always say: No matter how good the story or thrilling the adventure, or how much you want to believe, what’s true is true. Always has, always will.”

Words are magic and writers are wizards.