Backstage on the set of “Highway 89,” a weekly live broadcast from the campus of BYU, my mind wandering from what I have to share tonight as a featured singer-songwriter, because I am right now realizing how much I need your help- as a non-featured children’s book writer.
Thirty-five years ago, my songwriting partner Guy Randle and I wrote a “magical story with songs” called The Planemaker. We wrote a lot of it in his upstairs apartment on Center Street in Provo, the apartment that was re-built into Rosewood Recording Company, where we finally recorded what we had written. But mostly we wrote it while bouncing around between concerts at college campuses which lay in a trapezium with Boston, Minneapolis, Houston, and Athens, Georgia, at its corners.
In those days, we imagined there being a little pocket-sized paperback book of the story. Now we’re imagining a children’s book with lots of pictures. Trouble is, it took us 7,730 words to tell the story, and children don’t like that many words-also the adults who read the words while the kids are looking at the pictures generally find it daunting to deliver a whole page of text per picture. (How many of you have, um, “abridged” while reading to a child? How many of you have actually gotten away with it?)
So here’s where you come in. This month’s column is a telling of our little story in way fewer than half the original words. From those of you who are new to this story, we need merely to ask if it makes sense. From those of you who may be familiar with the original, we need to know which of the 4,481 missing words you really want back. Thanks in advance!
THE PLANEMAKER, 1978 and 2013 by Marvin Payne and Guy Randle. All rights reserved, including film rights, novelization rights, cartoon rights, and recipe rights. No part of this work can be mass reproduced by anyone, except maybe on license plates.
CHAPTER ONE, LUCAS
Lucas Lightbrow was a boy who loved to fly. Often he soared like an eagle. Mostly he just kind of swam through the air. Sometimes he would rise like a blimp and float gently just under the clouds.
In his dreams, anyway. He had some really crazy dreams.
Since he couldn’t spend his whole life sleeping and dreaming, he moved a lot of his dreaming into the daytime. These were called “daydreams.”
Every now and then things woke him up even from daydreams, things like schoolteachers, large sneezes, or tripping over things. So when he had to be awake, he filled his life with airplanes.
He drew old planes with cloth-covered wings, planes with no glass bubbles over the pilots’ heads, just wind and yellow sun. They filled his bedroom walls, the covers on all his books, the margins on his spelling tests. And at school he had this magnificent dogfight between two brave one-man war planes etched forever in his wooden desktop.
He made paper planes of every imaginable shape, with boomerang wings, stealth wings, gull wings. And all of them would fly, fierce and fearless… for an average of about thirty-eight inches.
Every kid in school had seen these “flights,” and every kid in school made fun of the failed flyer. Even Amy Fletcher.
This was pretty sad, because Lucas loved Amy Fletcher almost as much as he loved planes-the way the sun caught in her yellow hair, cradled in her clothes, and warmed her lovely hands.
But all her loveliness didn’t keep her from laughing her head off whenever one of his planes squanched in the dirt at Amy’s lovely feet.
As Lucas grew older, it got just too hard. He finally hid his love for planes from the laughing world. Over the years in secret he still made planes-mostly right out of his imagination. Not paper planes anymore. These were soldered and welded out of old coat hangers and eggbeaters, rusty bicycle chains, car parts, wire and cloth. But all were made in secret, and never made to fly.
CHAPTER TWO, AMY
Lucas finally grew up all the way and inherited the old family farm. He worked it all alone, and at night he shut himself in the shed and made planes. His hands got steady and strong. And his mind turned brown and green like the fields and purple like the clouds. The yellow he had loved as a child-the yellow of the sunlight through the air, the yellow he imagined beyond the edge of the blue sky-began to fade right out of it, until yellow was just the bananas on the table, the lemons on the tree-
-and quite suddenly, Amy Fletcher’s hair again! Which he found one day in the Post Office-on top of Amy Fletcher’s head of course, which he also found in the Post Office, working there, along with the rest of her, which had grown up really beautiful! So his palms started sweating and his whole head was shouting, “Oh no, don’t remember me! Don’t remember me and all those stupid planes!” But all the time his heart was calling out, “Please! Remember me!”
And she did. She remembered him real good, and started to fall in love with him right there in the Post Office, because her heart had grown as pure and yellow as her hair-and pure hearts always seem to know when they are loved.
Well, it took about six months of courting before they got married. And then many nights of gazing at each other in the yellow firelight. Planes? Lucas hid them up in the loft in the shed, because now Amy filled up that whole place in his love that used to get filled with airplanes.
So all that courting and gazing made them so happy that soon there was the beginning of a baby stirring in Amy’s belly. Well, Lucas went nuts. He wouldn’t let her lift anything heavier than a couple of layers of fingernail polish. He bought six new pillows for the bed, so she wouldn’t roll over in the night and bruise the baby on a hard blanket.
Baby day finally came, and Lucas had gone just about crazy nervous when the doctor finally came into the waiting room with the good news about his strong new baby boy-and the bad news about Amy Fletcher Lightbrow.
CHAPTER THREE, MERWIN
Since Lucas reckoned he couldn’t possibly take care of a baby all alone on a farm, his new son got taken to the far-away city by the baby’s aunt, who’d raise him with her family until he got big enough to come home and live with his father.
Time passed, time enough for yellow to die all away, and the time came for his son finally to come back to the farm for good.
Trouble was, the kid had been laughing in the movies and shouting in the streets with lots of brothers and sisters, and suddenly found himself out here alone in the windy country with this sad stranger-his dad. So it didn’t work out, and Lucas took his only son back to the city and came home again to an empty house. For many winters that old house rattled and moaned at night, and so did lonely old Lucas.
Then one afternoon in spring the yellow telegram came. It said that Lucas’ grandson, little Merwin, was coming to spend the summer with his grampa on the farm. Grandson?!
Merwin turned out to be about third-grade-size, with pokey elbows and a shirt that was too big around the neck. Kind of a wimpy kid, and his folks reckoned the country sunshine might do him good. For three long days, the two just made breakfast, lunch, and dinner, cleared it all away, and went to bed. The meals were very well prepared. The kitchen was cleaner than it had ever been, and both of them got about twice as much sleep as they wanted. It was going to be a pretty boring summer.
But then Merwin found the planes. Believing that anyplace at the top of a ladder must be magic and wonderful, he had climbed up into the loft in the shed and found them all.
“Wow, Grampa, if I’m really careful can I please take one down and play with it?” So Merwin flew off into the sun and Lucas went into the house for a long overdue nap.
Later that afternoon, Merwin shuffled in and apologized. Behind him on the porch was this big pile of wire and cloth that used to be a plane.
“Are you okay, son? Did ya hurt yourself?”
“Grampa, I took it up on that big rock out in the pasture, but I musta done something wrong, ’cause it went straight down when I threw it in the air!”
Of course Merwin hadn’t done anything wrong, and Lucas gently explained how the plane was never meant to fly. None of the planes were ever meant to really fly.
Well, Merwin couldn’t believe it. They all looked so airworthy! “Grampa, why didn’t you make planes that could fly?” Lucas had no answer.
Next day the kid took out another plane, but this time he was careful to fly it only in his mind. That’s how it was for many days.
But on hot afternoons when Lucas slept in the cool of the house, the little pilot looked out over all those planes that “can’t fly,” and began to see in them his Grandfather’s secret dreams.
Then Merwin started saying some kind of strange things. He talked about trees as being “real small and fuzzy and soft,” and about cows as “little black and white blotches.” Lucas heard how lakes are like flat mirrors, and rivers are long silver ribbons.
The old man thought, “Wow, this kid is blossoming! All this new energy, and how many kids have imaginations like this?” And he made a hard decision. “If Merwin gets so much good out of pretending to fly those old clunkers, I’m gonna build him a really fine plane.” And he immediately put it off until maybe next week, or at least until after his next nap.
But then the souvenirs began to trickle in. Cactus from Arizona, Heather from Scotland, a coconut from Hawaii. It puzzled Lucas that none of the coins in the grocery jar disappeared, and that he’d never seen that purple weedy flower before. He reckoned it was time for something of a test. So one morning he squinted his eyes and announced, “Merwin, what this farm needs is a penguin.” That very afternoon a little fat tuxedoed friend waddled in across the porch. And that very night Lucas started building the plane.
It wasn’t as easy for him as it used to be, but each day after that, Lucas smiled as Merwin disappeared into the morning sun. Thumbs burned and bandaged, back stiff and sore, the old man was always tired from long nights in the shed, but he smiled anyway, because as soon as Merwin launched into the sky, Lucas could dive back into building the plane.
But every night he knocked off soon enough to beat Merwin back to the house, and long enough to listen as Merwin told him all about the fog in London, the crowds in Hong Kong, and even one time about the bright curve of the earth as you fly into the morning! Then the kid climbed off to bed, full of health and giving. And the old man stumped off to the shed and poured his precious life into that plane.
He poured and poured until there came a morning when Lucas felt empty-like he had nothing left to pour. So he asked Merwin, “Please, do ya think ya could bring me today-for my souvenir-something…well, yellow…anything that’s kind of…yellow. I’m not feeling so well.” Merwin seemed to understand.
The little traveler got home way late that night, hushed and still. His face seemed to glow, like the moon, as he moved across the threshold slowly. He walked to his grampa, opened his fingers, and yellow fire shot through every corner of the room!
The startled old man peered into the kid’s hand. Whatever it was in there, it didn’t seem to have any edges! And Merwin’s palm showed right through!
They watched it for hours, amazed and silent. Then the light dimmed, hung in Merwin’s hand for a second, and vanished, as the grey of the morning paled on the windows.
“Grampa. It was a piece of the sun. I went to the sun!”
The old planemaker took the young flier in his arms, and they didn’t speak. Then Merwin turned and climbed the stairs to his room, and sat by his window, and looked out, and up, and the sweet sun reached across forever to touch his tears.
CHAPTER FOUR, THE FLIGHT
About six in the afternoon Merwin heard his grampa shouting from the shed. He clattered down the stairs and tore around a corner of the house, threw open the shed doors, and there, under the shining eyes of Lucas Lightbrow, was spread the most magnificent machine ever!
Not made of junk this time, but silver sheets and golden thread, sheer glass and fine steel net.
Merwin could only look, not daring even to touch it.
Lucas mumbled, “I don’t know what to do from here. I reckon a good pilot like you oughta know how to fly his very own plane.”
Tears sprang into the kid’s eyes, and he whispered, “Oh, Grampa. I think this plane is for you.”
“Me? Hey-No! You’re the one who flies!”
“I know, but you’re the one who always wanted to. And Grampa, why would you want to fly so bad, unless you could?”
So he settled his suddenly fuddled old grampa into the pilot seat. “Now close your eyes.” The old man did. “Now reach out and grab the throttle!” Lucas grabbed it. Then Merwin yelled “Contact!” and in a flash Lucas felt the night air whispering all around him. He opened his eyes and the plane glittered like diamonds in the moonligh-all around him. All it seemed to want was the old man’s will to thrust it forward and guide it through his childhood dreams.
So off he soared through moonlit mountain peaks and across the faces of great cliffs, then down through plunging canyons. Out above broad plains bathed in moonlight he sailed, and utter glory filled his heart. He flew that way for hours (or maybe years) until he finally closed his eyes and, trusting in the safety of this magic machine, gave himself to a sweet and dreamless and wholly refreshing sleep.
The plane streamed steadily on, and when at last he awoke in the greying East, Lucas found himself far out over some green ocean. He thought maybe it was time to be getting back to Merwin. So in his mind he banked the plane to starboard to sail off for home. But the plane didn’t change its course one bit. He tried banking to port. No luck. The plane seemed to be answering some entirely other power. That scared Lucas quite a lot.
The sky slowly lightened, and the morning sun broke on the horizon. Then it scared him like crazy to sense that as the sun climbed higher and higher from the rim of the world, the nose of his plane was rising exactly with it. Higher he climbed, up through billowing banks of clouds, whistling toward the end of the air, locked in on a course for the sun itself!
He looked back and moaned, then broke out through the final edge of the earth’s bright glow and off through clear sharp space.
He shot past the cool moon. He zoomed in on Venus! Rocketing past, he flew faster on, drawn like a missile to the sun! It got bigger, and brighter, and fiercer, and stronger! He whipped around Mercury, and half the sky was solid sun!
Then right behind him he heard a screech and a wrenching groan. He looked around in a flat panic to see the struts and rods and wires glowing bright, right on the point of melting! Slowly the broad wings and the tall tailpiece bent out behind, and the dream-plane exploded into a trillion tiny drips and pieces and swept away behind the doomed old man, who was screaming head over heels into…
…into Yellow. Bright, fat, Yellow!
The place he once knew in his mind and forgot, where the black space ends in warm rolling waves! He laughed out loud as he felt them crashing over his tumbling body, giving him strength, washing away his fear and trembling. He spread his arms, pointed his toes, and tore like an arrow on into the heart of the sun.
In all that rich warm yellow he remembered his Amy, and he almost expected her to reach out from nowhere and take his hand-but then the yellow began to thin, like he was moving too fast and the yellow itself was on fire and flaming into white. And easily into white passed Lucas.
And the white passed fiercely into him, tearing the years from behind his eyes. And now he saw a million colors in the white, and each one sang a deep song of its own. Lucas flashed a million colors back, then bashed out the other side of the sun and blazed through heaven like a bright new star. Double bright, because the brightness of Lucas Lightbrow and the brightness of Amy Fletcher were now one fiercely everlasting brightness.
Like a comet they sailed, hand in hand, until at last they came to rest in deep, deep space above a dark and empty world, a world where life had never been. And there they stayed.
How did it feel at the center of the sun? What was it really like to blaze like a new star through space? How does it feel even now to live and dream and love at the heart of all that rainbow strength, in fact to be the broad yellow giver of warmth and light to that distant planet? These are the feelings of suns and stars. And a star is what Lucas and Amy became, a bright new sun, faithfully echoing the old, scattering light and lives out over the darkness.
Well, a few million years have come and gone since they took their place there. And added to the new grass and trees in that world, young families of people have come and grown and hunted and farmed and built and invented and learned and loved.
And up in the yellow sky of that world there are planes-that sputter and streak and sail and soar.
And I can imagine one more plane in that far world, just a little one-folded of paper and launched with much hope on the wind…
…then a small boy trudging over to pick up the pieces. And as he kneels in the dust, the sun on his head seems to grow strangely, suddenly, very much brighter.