What If "Wrong Way Corrigan" Had A Little Less Nerve?

Written for the 2008 James Thurber Treat Contest. The assignment was to take a historical event and give it a different ending. The morning of July 17th, 1938 dawned like many others at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, New York. It was unseasonably cool for mid-July and the sun was playing hide and seek amongst clouds and a thick layer of fog. The birds chirped melodiously and people were rushing about, making their way to church. Douglass Corrigan had been up before the sun having barely gotten a wink of sleep. All he could do the long night before was lay in his old army cot, staring up at the ceiling and methodically going over his laundry list of excuses as to why he had flown the wrong way to Ireland instead of back home to California; a broken compass needle, bad sense of direction, poor light in the cabin and what ever else he could concoct.

Corrigan could wait no longer. He put on his pilot’s jumpsuit and set foot out of the hanger door. It was utterly impossible for him to wipe the mischievous grin from his face when he saw the sky. This was it, the day that all his training had prepared him for. For years the government had denied giving him clearance for his lifelong dream, a transatlantic flight, and he had lost hope that they ever would. After multiple attempts and countless miles of governmental red tape the appearance of the blessed fog was not only the perfect excuse but was an affirmation that, this time, even the gods were on his side. He took a long drink of his strong black coffee, winked affectionately at his heavily modified OX5 Robin monoplane parked on the runway and said, “There’s nothin’ they can do to stop us this time, girl.”

Corrigan had taken his first flight many years earlier when he was a mere lad of eighteen. Eagerly arriving with $2.50 in hand, he was taken for a short flight over the city of Los Angeles in an old Curtiss biplane. He had been hooked ever since. Douglass had taken many aircraft mechanics jobs over the years and even worked on the crew that built Lindy’s famous plane, “The Spirit of St. Louis”. Ever since baring witness to that famous transatlantic flight in 1927 he had vowed to one day make his own symbolic journey to the emerald land of his ancestors, beloved Ireland.

In the distance Corrigan saw a man of slight stature quickly approaching him. His was toting a clipboard and trying his best to keep the wind from snatching his tattered fedora.

“Good Morning Mr. Corrigan.” said the thin man as he squinted over the top of his wire-rimmed glasses. “The name is Jones, Edward Jones and I’ll be the one seeing you off today.”

Corrigan took the last drink of his coffee, nodding his head, “Good mornin’ to you, Mr. Jones.”

“Hmm. It says here that you’re flying non-stop to California today. Unfortunately, it seems we have a little bit of a problem here Mr. Corrigan.”

Douglass got a lump in his throat as his heart began to beat like a drum in his chest. “Umm, what do you mean Mr. Jones?”

Jones fought with the wind to steady the checklist on his clipboard as he walked around the plane, “You see, because of this here fog rolling in, you can take off any direction but West. As you know, plane loaded with enough fuel to fly cross-country isn’t the easiest to maneuver. Are you confident that you turn ‘er around quickly enough to clear those buildings if you take off in another direction?”

Corrigan took a deep breath and felt as though he had dodged a bullet. He calmed himself as best he could. “I’ve been flyin’ her for years Mr. Jones. You have my word that I‘ll be extra careful.”

These preflight inspections had always been a nightmare for Corrigan. His plane was literally a patchwork of pieces and parts. Approval was always a crapshoot and depended upon the mood of the inspector. Sensing by the furrowed brow of Mr. Jones as he inspected the left wing, they had reached a pivotal moment in the inspection. Douglass reached into the pocket of his blue jumpsuit and pulled out a dark stogie. He decided to sacrifice one of the three cigars that he planned on enjoying during his post-flight celebration.

“There’s nothing like a fine Cuban cigar to make this harsh world seem like a more civilized place.” Douglass managed a nervous smile as he tucked the cigar into the breast pocket of Jones’ threadbare sports jacket.

The gesture seemed to have the desired effect. Jones smiled as he touched the lead of a stubby pencil to his tongue and marked off the last box on his checklist.

“Why thank you sir, it appears that everything is in order here. You’re cleared for takeoff!”

If Mr. Jones had any indication of what Corrigan was up to he either sympathized or possibly couldn’t care less. He removed the cigar from his breast pocket and sniffed it slowly from end to end.

“Oh, I almost forgot. This telegram came in for you early this morning. Seems to be from your wife back in California.”

Mr. Jones handed Douglass the thin strip of paper and shook his hand, disappearing as quickly as he came.

Corrigan beamed as he opened that hatch of the OX5 Robin and climbed inside. After firing up her mighty propellers he absent mindedly unfurled the strip of paper and let it rest across his knee.

The telegram read, “Douglass Corrigan. Stop. Do not even think of doing what I think you’re going to do. Stop. P.S. Bring home bread and milk. Stop.”

A grimace appeared on his face as he crumpled up the strip of paper and furiously threw it over his shoulder to the floor of the cabin.

The plane taxied quickly down the runway and the wheels at last broke free from gravity’s heavy grip. Corrigan expertly cleared the tops of the buildings with plenty of room to spare, just as he had promised. When Douglass was safely at cruising altitude the weight of the moment came crashing in on him.

He mumbled to himself, “If the blasted plane doesn’t do me in, the wife surely will!”

With his head hanging low, Corrigan turned his plane westward and flew home to California to live the rest of his days in relative obscurity, forever to be known merely as Douglass instead of “Wrong Way” Corrigan.