I climbed the stairs of the Old Town building-a converted brick three-flat-to my condo faster than normal. I didn’t stop at the threshold the way I usually did to appreciate the shiny pine floors and the marble turn-of-the-century fireplace with its bronze grate. Instead I walked quickly through the front room, then through the European kitchen on the other side, and went straight to the second bedroom, which I used as an office.
I got on the Internet and did a search for any flight schools in the Detroit area that provided helicopter instruction. There was only one. I picked up the phone and dialed.
The woman who answered the phone said they were about to close, but when I mentioned flight lessons, she launched into a sales pitch to get me signed up.
“I’m in Chicago,” I finally said. “I really can’t take flight lessons there, but I have a question about someone who did about twenty years ago.”
“Oh.” A pause. “Well, the owner has been around for thirty years.”
“Is he available?”
“Might have left for the day. One sec.”
I was put on hold. I stared out the window at my neighbor’s side yard, watching a young dad pull a blond toddler on a wagon. Was it even possible that my dad was alive? What would he look like now? Would he still have the messy, curly brown hair that looked so much like Charlie’s? Would he still wear the copper wire glasses over eyes that always looked as if they were laughing, or would he have contacts now, or maybe he’d gotten eye surgery? I thought about the man last night. The only time I’d seen him in the light was outside of Gibsons, and his face had been down, his hair covered by the baseball cap. I’d turned so quickly, run so fast that no other details had registered.
I looked at my watch. I’d been on hold for about five minutes and was considering hanging up when I heard a jovial, “Bob Bates, how can I help you?”
I gave him my name, asked if he was the owner and when he gave me a friendly You bet, I forged ahead, saying I was looking for information about a flight instructor who used to teach there almost twenty-two years ago. “I believe his first name was R.J., but I don’t know the last.”
“R.J. Hmm. Sometimes these guys come and go, but that doesn’t sound too familiar. I could be forgetting someone, though.”
“I’m sure it’s hard to remember.” I tried not to let my disappointment creep into my voice.
“Why do you ask?”
“Well, my father used to take lessons from your company.”
“Ah, Jesus. You’re McNeil’s kid? Now, there’s a name I won’t forget. That’s something you never get used to in this business, losing a pilot.”
“Do you remember now who his instructor was?”
“Well, yeah, I do remember the guy. He wasn’t one of mine.”
“What do you mean?”
“He was government. Came in just to train guys when the government needed him to.”
I blinked a few times, didn’t know what to think about that. “Which government exactly?” I told him my dad had worked for the Detroit police as a profiler. “Was the instructor someone from the county? Someone with the police?”
“No, the instructor was with the Feds. That’s all I knew. They paid me up front for the flight time, runways, hangar fees, tie-downs. I leased them the choppers, same way I do to the news stations. Couldn’t believe it when he went down over Lake Erie. It’s awful when it’s on your watch.”
“Do you remember the name of the instructor?”
“Hold on, I’ll see if I still have any records.” He put me on hold for a few minutes, then came back. “Yeah, I found it. R. J. Ohman. O-H-M-A-N.”