Yesterday was the 6th annual fly-in at Stearman Field, a small, privately-owned airport just outside of Wichita. Jon knows the owners from an aircraft purchase a few years back. So we pushed the T-34 out of the hangar and off we went.
The wind was blowing 30 knots, gusting 40, and most of the unique show airplanes that would normally be at a fly-in had grounded for the day. Stearman Field’s Facebook invitation had promised over 400 attendees — a mix of pilots and non-pilots all there to bear witness to a live band, air show, car show, sky divers, melon drop, and rides.
We met Dwayne and a few other friends at their on-site restaurant for pizza and drinks, then loaded up in their golf carts for a tour.
The field sports a concentration of millionaires — from retired astronauts to the grandson of Folgers Coffee. When they fling open their hangar doors to show off their “toys,” things get amusing. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon.
An hour later, everyone had over-served themselves and everything felt absurd. The party roared, and I mean roared, long past midnight. So much money, so much excess.
I tried to get good pictures, but I was drunk.
Ten year olds raced souped-up golf carts up and down the taxiways, their drunk parents in ruddy-faced tow. Police officers waved tickets for people parked illegally in the street. Conquests, King Airs, and military-era aircraft were parked on the lawns. A man with a three-story apartment designed to look like a villa in the back of his hanger opened the rooms for public tours.
I went, of course, happy to snoop.
Flat screen TVs in every room, a fur blanket lying perfectly-tossed on the master bedroom, a room stuffed with strippers sporting tattoos along their ribs. The owner had the kind of thick sandy blond hair that only a rich mid-50s man can afford to keep — long and swept back from his forehead in a loose roll meant to look casual and carefree. All around him, women in neon dresses and impossible heels stalked by.
“Think there’s any hired help walking around?” someone wryly asked.
And later that night, another man, rumored to be friends with Jay Leno, tore up and down the taxiways in his 1915 racecar. Before dark, a blonde with collagen-pudge lips and a dress slitted up to her hip had nestled into the passenger seat, naked leg bent like a girl in a magazine ad.
And all the while, everyone else watching.
At first I assumed we were all there for the same reasons: attracted to the performance, the absurdity. It felt like Las Vegas, where everyone walks through the chaos, chasing the manic need to have fun.
Whenever I see wealth like what I saw last night, I always think of my dad, a success by any American, capitalist standpoint. “I always knew there was a million dollars out there,” he likes to say. He’s had a big life, better saved for some other post. But he spent so much of it on the move, pursuing the money, he claims. I think he was actually always looking for something else, a thing he didn’t even know he wanted — some small measure of peace, a little place to turn where the wanting would finally stop.
But as I watched the women — from plastic surgery boob jobs to skin-tight leather skirts — hanging on the arms of men tipping past their prime (embroidered shirts and flared jeans are a sure stance against aging, right?), I realized those of us watching weren’t all the same. It wasn’t all a weird mockery to everyone, this parade of wealth.
It was an advertisement for a very specific kind of rare life, one armed with gleaming surfaces and fringed by people hungry to touch this souped-up American dream. The airplanes and cars and women? All props, romantic relics from the past flanked by the modern conveniences of high-tech airplane lifts and plastic surgeons. And money. So much money. Unimaginable money. It’s hard not to judge.
“You have to figure out when enough is enough,” Jon likes to say.
For Jon, I suppose, “enough” means three hangars and a couple farms and an airplane collection, a rope line in the backyard with four hanging baskets and maybe, if our luck holds, just one woman and her dog, too.
“Are you happy? Are you happy?” Dwayne kept asking Jon.
“Yes,” Jon said. “Yes.”
Near the end of the night, we sat in the back of a golf cart, watching billionaires smear burnouts in the sparkling concrete outside their hangars, watching disco lights descend and spin from the ceilings of strange houses. He told me that he almost didn’t understand it, people who lived like this.
Most people, he theorized, use the same two or three rooms and two or three pieces of furniture in their houses every single day. Most people don’t touch most inches of their own lives.
In one hangar at the end of a taxiway, I caught a glimpse of a man and a young woman dancing in an open wedge of light. They swayed back and forth, occasionally tipping their heads until their mouths met. There, in that tsunami of excess, something small and real.
“Looks like someone found himself a shiny new penny,” I said to Jon, nudging him in the ribs.
He turned. “Two shiny pennies,” he said, then kissed me.
At the end of the night, we walked hand-in-hand through the shadows on the edge of the runway. A solstice moon poked through the haze overhead. Dwayne met us and ushered us toward his house. We all three tripped over the tiny ledge of his concrete deck, Jon cursed Dwayne’s idiocy for ever having such a thing installed, and Dwayne agreed. He has a good sense of humor. Dwayne led us inside and through a dimly lit room and down a dark hall with a John Deere floor rug. Opened the door to an empty room with someone else’s belongings scattered across the floor.
“It’s just my brother’s stuff!” Dwayne roared, kicking the open suitcase to the wall. A stream of clothes and three rattling pill bottles jumped out, and he kicked those, too. Nearly lost his balance, but then turned and shut the door behind him.
We shrugged and switched off the lights. Stripped. Poured ourselves onto the bed, laughing as we wriggled under the sheets. We rambled in half-sentences about the strangeness of the night.
“I felt like I was walking through a Fitzgerald novel,” I said. “It was that weird.”
“Me, too,” he said, even though he’s never read a Fitzgerald novel in his entire life.
I pressed my head into the small, perfect hollow between his shoulder and chest. “My favorite part was seeing the two shiny pennies.”
“Me, too,” he said.