Just 'cause I was a girl in 1941, don't think I was some sissy. Shoot, I saw stuff that would've made that bully Farley Peck pee right through his pants. Like summer, the year before. That's when me and my best friend Wendy saw the Genny, the giant man-eating sea serpent that lived in Geneseo Bay. Except Wendy didn't get a good look like I did. To tell you the truth, I don't think she really saw anything, she just said she did to back me up. That's what friends do. But then Wendy's dad got a job building roads, or houses, or something with the Work Projects Administration, and they moved to Wisconsin. It didn't really matter, because no one believed me anyway. I was always seeing stuff that no one else did. Mom thought I probably just needed glasses, but my dad said it was because I had "imagination." Once, when I was two, they found me way up on the roof of our barn. Dad said I must have flown up there. That's how I got my name.
"What do you think, Bird?"
"This is the best birthday present ever, Dad."
We were flying above the clouds in Mr. Watson's yellow Piper. I guided the small propeller plane so that it moved through the air just like an eagle. Seeing me in my World War One pilot's skullcap and goggles and my Huck Finn dungarees, you would've never guessed that someone with a neat name like Bird McGill was actually just an eleven-year-old girl. But I was. I worked the controls carefully, scanning the skies for bogies at twelve o'clock.
"She's no Warhawk, but she sure beats that puddle jumper we had last year," Dad told me.
My dad was a mechanic, the best one around. He could fix just about anything, but his favorite things were airplanes. He had rebuilt Mr. Watson's airplane carburetor last month.
"Mr. Watson says we can take her up anytime," Dad said.
This wasn't the first time I'd been up in a plane. Dad had taken me up plenty of times. My big sister Margaret was afraid to go and my little brother Alvin was still too young. Mom flew with us sometimes, but she didn't like it like I did. Plus, when Mom wasn't around and it was just the two of us, Dad would let me take the controls. I knew just about all there was to know about flying. You have to watch your airspeed and your altimeter (that's what tells you how high you are). You've got to know how to ride your rudder, adjust your trim and throttle, and know just how much flaps to use when taking off and landing. My favorite airplane was the P-40 Warhawk. It was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. Someday, I was gonna fly one.
See, every airplane needs wings and a tail. The wings need flaps, and the tail needs a rudder. And it's a good idea to have wheels, if you ever hope to land and take off again. But you can hardly call it an airplane if it doesn't look like it was born to fly. An airplane can only fly as good as it looks. My dad said it's like falling in love. If one look at the plane doesn't make you want to shoot up into the clouds, the plane's hardly worth talking about.
Down below us was Geneseo, the town where we lived. It's in the state of Rhode Island. Funny thing is, Rhode Island isn't an island at all. An island has water on all sides, like Hawaii or Treasure Island. But we only had water on one side. We lived near the ocean, but thanks to the bay, which hooked around like a big arm, we could swim and fish and the water never got too rough, like it did farther out in the Atlantic Ocean.
My dad's name was Peter. That was what Mom called him when she was scared or mad, or didn't want him to let me do something that she thought was too dangerous or un_lady_like (like flying an airplane). My dad was handsome, with strong arms and a big, easy smile. I liked the way he looked at me when I was flying. Like he was proud.
When you're flying and you look down, everything looks different. All the stuff you thought was so big, or scary, is just small. Underneath us, Geneseo was laid out like a map, with Main Street dividing the town in half. On the north side were the bay, the airfield, our house, and the Widow Gorman's farm. On the other side were nine or ten clusters of houses in little rows. Main Street was crooked, and from up here it looked like a lazy snake. It was lined with two wavy rows of maple trees planted by Ruth Geneseo more than two hundred years ago to welcome her husband home from the Indian Wars. The story goes, Ruth couldn't see too well, so the trees weren't exactly in a straight line. But her husband, Wilford, thought they were the most beautiful things he'd ever seen. He built a hotel at the end of the road so that everyone would get to walk right between the two rows of trees whenever they came to town. To my left I saw the white roof of the courthouse, then a dull red box that must have been the school, and finally the pointy spire of the church. Below my right wing I could even see two men fishing from a rowboat in the bay, far below.
From the Hardcover edition.