Coast to Coastby Betsy Byars
Birch’s grandfather, “Pop,” wants to take his plane out for one more trip before moving into a retirement home. He wants to take Birch along with him, which sounds like a fine plan—until the two decide to turn the/b>
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When Birch agreed to one last flight in her grandfather’s Piper Cub, neither knew it would be a life-changing trip
Birch’s grandfather, “Pop,” wants to take his plane out for one more trip before moving into a retirement home. He wants to take Birch along with him, which sounds like a fine plan—until the two decide to turn the short flight into a cross-country adventure without telling Birch’s parents. As grandfather and granddaughter soar westward across strange, beautiful landscapes, Birch begins to learn more about her past, a grandmother she lost, and a family member she never knew she had. Coast to Coast is a grand adventure; a heartwarming story of family revelations; and a panoramic view of the United States by air. This ebook features an illustrated biography of Betsy Byars including rare images from the author’s personal collection.
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Read an Excerpt
Coast to Coast
By Betsy Byars
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 Betsy Byars
All rights reserved.
In the Attic
BIRCH SAT BY THE attic window. Motes of dust floated through the sunlight around her.
Ace, the dog, lay at her feet. He panted with the heat. Drops of saliva dotted the dusty floor. He looked up at her and gave a moan of impatience.
"If you're that hot, Ace," she told him absently, "go downstairs." She did not look away from the box in her hands.
The box had once held candy, but now it was bound tightly with an old, faded ribbon. In an attic that had been filled with old things, this box was all that remained.
Birch pulled at the knot, but it had been tied by someone who did not want the box to be opened. She paused for a moment caught by an unexpected feeling of unease.
"Birch," her mother called from downstairs.
"Come down here, I need you."
"In a minute."
"Is everything out of the attic?"
"Then come help me with the basement."
She began to work the ribbon off the box, carefully inching it over the old cardboard. The ribbon slipped off the end of the box and fell in a coil onto the floor. Ace glanced at it with interest, as if waiting for it to do something.
Birch fumbled with the lid, and the box sprang open like something out of a fairy tale. Sheets of paper, faded and discolored, green, cream, and blue, fluttered from the old lace lining and landed at her feet. Birch bent to gather them up.
She began to read. Shifting through the sheets, she paused to read again. For a moment she sat without moving.
"Oh, Ace. Ace!"
She scrambled to her feet. Clutching the box in both arms, she ran down the attic stairs. The movement caught Ace by surprise and it took him a moment to start after her.
"Mom, guess what?" Birch called as she ran. "Mom, where are you?"
"In the basement."
Birch took the basement stairs two at a time. Her mother was leaning over a card table, marking items for the garage sale. The electric fan, priced at four dollars, turned slowly from side to side, stirring the air.
"You'll never guess what I found."
"I thought you said the attic was clean."
"Mom, this was stuck on a ledge over the window. I didn't see it before. I could have missed it completely! And guess what it is?"
"Mom it's poems. And this"—she picked up the top sheet—"this is a love poem!" She held out the box. "Mom, these are your mother's old poems. Remember you told me she wrote poetry."
"Yes, but don't bother me with it now, Birch."
"Can I read you this one poem, please?"
"If it's a short one."
"They're all short. Mom, this is going to shock you. Your mother and father were in love. Granny and Pop were in love!"
"Well, maybe you aren't surprised, but I am. And the poems are all dated. This one's April 1944. Was that before they got married or after?"
Her mother gave it some thought. "Before."
"Here it is." Birch cleared her throat. "Word for word.
Listen, all the powers that be.
Earl loves me.
"Whoo," Birch said, "I didn't know Granny had it in her. You want to hear another one."
"One more quickie. This is dated May 1944. The romance is heating up.
"Of all the treasures
In the world,
Like the oyster
With its pearl
I have Earl.
"Where's Pop? I have to read these to him. To be honest I never thought of Pop as a treasure of the world."
"Pop's at the airport."
"When's he going to get home?"
"He'll be here for lunch."
"Mom, do you think he knows about these?"
"Your grandfather was never much for poetry. It embarrassed him."
"So can I have them? The poems?"
"I think your grandmother would want you to have them. You probably got your gift for poetry from her. But you have to check with Pop first. All of these things are his."
"I understand. I will buy them at the garage sale if I have to."
Birch sat down on the basement steps. There was a startled yelp from Ace. "Well, if you don't want to get sat on," she told him, "you shouldn't lie down under people."
She brushed off the back of her legs. "Sitting on Ace is like sitting on a porcupine."
"I wouldn't know," her mother commented idly.
Birch sat down, beside Ace this time. She rubbed him behind his stubby ears.
"I got the poems out of order when I dropped them," she told her mom. She began to sort through the sheets of paper.
"I need some help, Birch." Birch could tell that her mom was losing patience.
"I'll help just as soon as I get these straightened out—" She broke off. "Oh, Mom! Guess what? Here's one dated, June twelve. My birthday. She wrote a poem when I was born! A birth poem! 'For the Newborn.' I guess you hadn't named me yet."
She read the brief lines to herself. She read them again. Her smile faded.
"This doesn't make sense."
Birch bent over the pale paper and read the thin, spidery blue script one more time. She felt a chill at the back of her neck.
The baby took one fluttering gasp
Each softer than the last.
One more.... Passed. All past.
"So, read me the poem."
"No, it's nothing ... nothing. I thought it was my birth poem, but I was wrong. It's more like, I don't know"—she choked on the words—"a death one."
"More like what? I didn't hear you."
Birch held the sheet of paper gingerly, by one corner. It trembled as the electric fan turned in her direction.
"Read it to me. I want to hear it."
"I'm having a problem making it out—it's blue ink on blue paper."
She felt as if she were on the edge of. some knowledge that she didn't want, maybe that she couldn't handle.
"You've got me interested," her mother continued.
"I've already put it on the bottom of the pile. Anyway, Mom, it'll make you cry."
"It's that sad?"
"No, everything makes you cry. I saw you weeping over two pillows yesterday."
"Oh, Birch, those were your grandmother's pillows when she was a girl. Their names were Willow and Billow."
"She named pillows?"
"Yes. Oh, I'm going to start crying again if I'm not careful."
Birch lifted her head. "Oh, there's Pop, home from the airport." She jumped to her feet. And Ace, hearing the sound of the truck, ran on his short legs for the garage.
"Mom, don't tell Pop about the poems yet. Let me do it."
"I want to wait until he's not so worried about his plane."
"Birch, where are you going now?"
"Just upstairs. I don't want the poems to get mixed in with the sale junk. I'll be right back."
Clutching the box against her pounding heart, Birch turned and ran up the stairs.CHAPTER 2
"TALK TO ME, POP," Birch said.
"I don't come out to the airport to have conversations," her grandfather answered mildly. "If you wanted to talk, you should have stayed home with your mom. She's the talker."
Birch was sitting on a bench in front of the T hangar, nervously swinging her bare feet back and forth. Her grandfather was getting ready to wash his airplane.
"I had to get out of the house. I used to love to come to your house when it was your house, but now—with everything gone, it's, I don't know—spooky."
Birch and Pop had been at the airport for an hour, but Birch had not mentioned the box of poems she had found in the attic that morning.
"Oh, I know something I haven't told you." Her words came in a rush as if this afternoon was going to turn out wrong, and she had to hurry through it. "Guess how I found out I was named for a tree? You'll love this.
"It was my first day of kindergarten, Pop. My teacher, Miss Penny, goes, 'Birch, what a lovely name.' My mom goes, 'I named her for a tree.'
"Everyone started giggling. Miss Penny goes, 'Quiet, boys and girls, there is nothing funny about being named for a tree.'
"I just stood there, saying I ain't believing this. I was named for a tree.
"At recess, this snob named Priscilla goes, 'You were named for a tree-eee,' like that. When my mom picked me up I burst out crying—the only time I cry is when I'm mad. 'Why did you name me for a tree? Everybody's teasing me about it.' My mom goes, 'Who, exactly, is teasing you?' I go, 'Priscilla.' My mom goes, 'You know what a priscilla is, don't you? A priscilla is a curtain. Would you rather be named for a beautiful tree or a curtain?'
"The next day when Priscilla goes, 'We don't want to play with you. You were named for a tree-eee.' I go, 'Well, you were named for a curtain. Who wants to play with a curtain. Come on, you guys, we don't want to play with a curtain.'
"That's how I became popular in kindergarten—by making everybody scared of me."
"There's nicer ways to become popular."
"I suppose. Now it's your turn to pick what to talk about."
"There must be something you haven't told me—maybe something about when I was little. When I was born, maybe." She watched her grandfather intently.
"I know what I want to talk about. I don't want to get rid of this airplane. That's what I want to talk about!"
"Oh," she said.
"I want to get rid of the house. I'm rattling around in there by myself. I don't want the furniture." He laid one hand on the prop of the J-3 Cub. "But I mind selling my airplane."
"Why don't you take your airplane with you? There must be retirement homes that allow airplanes."
Her grandfather shook his head. "It was hard enough to find one that would take Ace." His intensity was gone as quickly as it had come.
"You can help me wash the plane if you want to," Pop offered. "First we'll hose it off."
"At last, some action." Birch took one of the old bath towels.
"Now don't press hard on the fabric. It's just cotton cloth with a few coats of paint."
"And don't worry about the top of the wing. I'll get that with the ladder."
Birch sighed. "Pop, I'm not a child. I'm thirteen. You're just like Mom. If Mom wants me to make a salad, she goes, 'Walk to the refrigerator. Open the door. Reach down. Open the crisper. Take out the lettuce. Walk with the lettuce to the counter ...'" She trailed off, then added in a different voice, "But she doesn't always tell me important things."
Her grandfather didn't respond. She watched as he hosed down the plane. Then she dipped her towel into the soapy water and began wiping the yellow fabric.
"I want it to look good when the man comes to get it day after tomorrow" he said.
"It will, Pop ... but, listen, when you were young, did your parents keep things from you?"
"I don't know, just things."
He pulled back to look at his airplane. It was a small high-wing plane with two seats, one behind the other. "You know, a Piper J-3 Cub was the first thing I ever wanted out of life."
"I can't remember the first thing I wanted."
"I was sixteen, and all my life people had been telling me I couldn't leave one place or another. I couldn't leave the yard. I couldn't leave the house. I couldn't leave the field until five o'clock. I cut tobacco in those days."
"I didn't know that, Pop."
"So I was sixteen and it had just hit me that it was going to be like that the rest of my life. I was bent over cutting tobacco with a knife—that's about the hardest work there is. My head was down around my knees, sweat was pouring off me, my back was breaking, and I straightened up and saw a yellow airplane in the sky. It might as well have been pulling a banner saying FREEDOM. I wanted to be up in that airplane as bad as I ever wanted anything in my life."
Birch's eyes were on her grandfather, his on the invisible freedom banner. For once, she let the silence stand.
"On Sunday, I hitchhiked to the airport, found out lessons were ten dollars an hour, and hitchhiked home."
"You didn't get to take flying lessons?"
"Birch, back then if I had two quarters to rub together, I was rich."
He moved to the other side of the plane. Birch followed. "I knew you were poor, but not that poor."
"I had one hope. There was a radio show back then called 'Wings of Destiny.' It was sponsored by Wings cigarettes. Every week they gave away a J-3, and a uniformed pilot named Arthur Segar Pierce would deliver it."
"Did you win?"
"No. To win you had to send in a coupon out of a pack of Wings and I didn't smoke. I learned my flying in the war,"—Pop rested his freckled hand on the plane—"in a J-3 just like this one."
"This is getting off the subject," Birch said. Her mind kept flicking back to that moment in the attic when she had held the unopened box and felt the first stirrings of unease. And, later, the poem—an arrow pointing to something she dreaded to see, yet had to follow. "But do you happen to remember the day I was born?"
He paused, trying to make the connection. "June twelve, wasn't it?"
As he said the date, Birch saw it as it had been written on the bottom of that sheet of old blue paper. She felt from now on she would always see it that way, even on calendars.
"I know the date, Pop. I want details, like, oh, were there any problems? Did I have a hard time breathing?"
"No, you were as big and healthy as they come—weighed eight or nine pounds."
"Nine. But did I, you know, stop breathing?"
"Who told you that?"
"Nobody." Birch felt she was getting too close to that invisible edge. She pulled back. "Tell me a funny flying story, Pop."
"Let's see. Well, I flew a J-3 in the war."
Her grandfather turned the nozzle of the hose, and the water changed to a fine mist.
"I was what they called a grasshopper pilot. We took off and landed anywhere. I dropped supplies to patrols in the jungle, I delivered blood plasma to the wounded, I spotted for the artillery. One time I flew Bob Hope to entertain the troops."
"The Bob Hope?"
Pop nodded. He picked up two dry towels and threw one to Birch. Together they began drying the yellow fabric of the fuselage.
"Now this plane," he said, "I bought this plane ten years ago. My partner—Dwane Hicks—and me were going to fly it across the country coast to coast."
"Oh, first Dwane moved to Florida. Then your grandmother got cancer, and I had to look after her."
"You could still go."
"Time's run out."
"If I wanted to go as bad as you do, I'd go. I wouldn't let anything stop me." She gave him a narrow look. "You know what?"
"You're probably smart to go to a nursing home."
He drew back as if stung. "Retirement home!"
"Whatever. You used to go, 'Life's an adventure, Birch.' You used to make it an adventure. The best thing about you and me was our secret missions. You'd say, 'Birch and I are off on a secret mission.'"
Those days seemed so far away that she felt tears sting her eyes.
"I used to love our secret missions," she went on. "One time you took me to the old Charleston museum. I was real little. There was a mummy in a case, and you showed me a way to sneak my hand under the back of the case and touch the mummy. I was so impressed. I was the only person in my play group at Kiddie Kollege who had touched a mummy."
"Well, I touched it too," he said stubbornly.
"Yes, but you weren't in my play group." She grinned and then sighed.
"Now you're through with things like that, Pop. If a secret mission came along right this minute, you'd go, 'No, I'm too old for secret missions.'"
She looked away.
"I guess all the good times are over."CHAPTER 3
Kick the Tire, Twang the Wire
BIRCH'S GRANDFATHER TURNED ABRUPTLY to watch a Cessna coming in for a landing. Even after the white wings had disappeared behind the hangar, he kept his face turned away. His neck had reddened.
"I'm sorry I said that—about you getting old."
He didn't answer.
"Pop, I don't even know why I said it. I've got things on my mind and I know that's no excuse but ..."
Birch kept watching him, looking for a sign that her apology was taking effect.
"Pop, don't give me the silent treatment. You know I can't stand it."
Pop turned with a sigh.
She continued in the same nervous way. "You know who gives me the silent treatment all the time? Mrs. Bumgardner. That's Dad's receptionist. See, every time I do something wrong, I have to go down to Dad's office to have a talk. And I sit there with all the little kids waiting to have their teeth straightened, and I go, 'Mrs. Bumgardner, do you know what I did wrong?' She puts one finger to her lips. I hate that. I go, 'I honestly don't know what I did!' One little kid got so interested he said, 'When you find out what you did, let me know, all right?'"
Birch fell silent. She wouldn't mind being in that waiting room right now. She would go in and have a serious, office-type talk with her dad. She knew she couldn't talk to her mom. Her mom was too emotional.
Birch straightened. "Hey, I've got an idea—one final secret mission," she said. "Let's go up."
Pop's expression did not change. When he was hurt, he looked like something carved from stone.
"I'm serious," Birch said, putting more enthusiasm into her voice. "I really want to go up, don't you?"
He gave his head a shake, the way a horse shakes off a troublesome fly.
"Why not? You wanted to go up yesterday. You offered to fly me over the beach, remember?"
Again he shook his head.
"Why are you shaking your head? Because you don't remember or because—"
"You don't want to go." His smile was tight.
"I do. I want to do something. I can't explain it. I have to do something. And here is this perfectly good airplane."
His jaws moved, chewing on the idea.
"What I meant about getting old, Pop, was that it's not getting pain in your joints or bad teeth. It's, like, not wanting to have fun."
Her grandfather got busy. He emptied the bucket and put the wet towels inside. "Help me push the plane back in the hangar. I'm tired of talking about my age."
Excerpted from Coast to Coast by Betsy Byars. Copyright © 1992 Betsy Byars. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Betsy Byars (b. 1928) is an award-winning American author of more than fifty children’s and young adult titles, including The Summer of the Swans (1970), which earned her the Newbery Medal. She has also received a National Book Award for The Night Swimmers (1980) and an Edgar Award for Wanted . . . Mud Blossom (1991). Byars began writing in college and submitted stories to magazines while raising four children. Her first novel, Clementine, was published in 1962, and in the decades since, she became one of America’s best-loved authors for young readers, with popular series including Bingo Brown and the Blossom Family stories. Byars and her husband, Ed, are both licensed aircraft pilots and live above their own private hangar on an airstrip in Seneca, South Carolina.
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