Authors: Marilyn Nelson
Also by Marilyn Nelson
My Seneca Village
How I Discovered Poetry
Sweethearts of Rhythm
The Freedom Business
Miss Crandall's School for Young Ladies & Little Misses of Color (written with Elizabeth Alexander)
A Wreath for Emmett Till
Carver: A Life in Poems
Other Poetry Collections
Faster than Light: New and Selected Poems
The Cachoeira Tales and Other Poems
The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems
The Ladder (translated from the Danish of Halfdan Rasmussen)
Ostrich and Lark
A Little Bitty Man (translated [with Pamela Espeland] from the Danish of Halfdan Rasmussen)
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Copyright Â© 2016 by Marilyn Nelson
I'd like to thank Solomon Ghebreyesus, William Timmins, and John Stanizzi for their helpful suggestions, and Jacob Wilkenfeld for his research on Connor's behalf. Thanks to the Air Force Historical Research Agency for their help in locating the photos used in the book. And I'll add here another shout-out of gratitude to my friend Pamela Espeland. âM. N.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Nelson, Marilyn, date.
American ace / by Marilyn Nelson.
Summary: Sixteen-year-old Connor tries to help his severely depressed father, who learned upon his mother's death that Nonno was not his biological father, by doing research that reveals Dad's father was probably a Tuskegee Airman.
[1. Novels in verse. 2. Fathers and sonsâFiction. 3. Family lifeâFiction. 4. IdentityâFiction. 5. United States. Army Air Forces. Bombardment Group, 477thâFiction. 6. Racially mixed peopleâFiction.] I. Title.
PZ7.5.N45Ame 2016 [Fic]âdc23â2015000851
Cover art: plane Â© 2016 Ronnie Olsthoorn; sky Â© Ekspansio, iStock; head and shoulders shape Â© Leontura, iStock
Jacket design by Lori Thorn
To the sons, daughters, and grandchildren of the Tuskegee Airmen, and to those who wish they were their children or grandchildren
y dad went weird when Nonna Lucia died.
It was like his sense of humor died with her.
He still patted my back and called me buddy;
we still played catch while the mosquitoes rose.
He still rubbled my head with his knuckles.
But a muscle had tightened in his jaw
I'd never seen before, and the silence
between us in the front seat of the van
sometimes made me turn on the radio.
I knew he loved his mom. We all loved her.
But when he smiled now, his eyes still looked sad,
all these months after Nonna's funeral.
Maybe there was some treasure he'd wanted,
that she gave to one of his brothers in her will?
Maybe he'd wanted some of the furniture?
But he got the embroidered tablecloth
Nonna and Nonno brought to America,
which she spread out at family festivals
under platter after platter after platter.
He wasn't a movie dad with another woman:
He was an oldish husband who'd just moved away,
a dad who didn't hear you when you spoke.
Me and Mom and Theresa could see his pain,
but we don't know the language of suffering.
ne of Dad's younger brothers is a priest,
so we thought he could be the one to break
into Dad's silence: It's part of his job.
But he was so busy finding common ground,
preaching compassion, and working for justice
and human liberation that the small
curling-inward of his own big brother
got only his occasional hug, and prayers.
I couldn't ask, because I don't believe;
or don't know if I do. The difference
is moot, since anyway I've been confirmed,
like all half-Irish, half-Italian kids.
But Dad was spending another joyless night
sipping Chianti in front of the TV.
He looked like he might have been physically ill:
his face gray, his eyes lightless. He sat there
in his reclining chair sipping red wine,
letting Theresa control the remote.
Mom and I avoided each other's eyes,
each of us aching with mute, helpless love.
I went to my room and called Uncle Father Joe.
Do you know how depressed my father's been?
Should he be on some kind of drugs?
He said we should let Dad's mourning run its course.
hree months later Dad smiled a little more,
but that's the only improvement I could see.
Mom and Theresa and I tiptoed around
as if his silence was glass that could shatter.
Uncle Frank, Uncle Petey, and Aunt Kitty,
his partners in the restaurant business,
kept Mama Lucia's Home Cooking afloat.
They said the regulars were asking how Tony was.
Uncle Rich insinuated that maybe he should see a shrink.
Theresa whispered that Nonna Lucia
wouldn't have wanted Dad to take on so.
Nonna lived a good life. She was ready to die.
My half brother, Carlo, Dad's son with his ex,
who seldom visits, brought his wife and kids
to see their grandfather and cheer him up.
But nothing seemed to make much difference.
. And I got scared.
A blue glacier was growing between us.
The melt started on my sixteenth birthday.
(March 17: St. Pat's. Mom's family
says it means I'm 51 percent Irish.)
Dad said I should get my driver's permit!
He promised me forty hours behind the wheel!
That was the best birthday present I ever got!
ive o'clock Saturday morning: Dad's idea
of the safest time for driving practice.
It's pretty cool to be up and out together
while the day's still dewy and birdsong-y.
I got the hang of driving pretty quick,
except for the hyper-responsive brake pedal.
We drove around in my high school parking lot,
then drove aimlessly in the neighborhood.
At six o'clock Dad turned the radio on.
There was talk of illegal immigrants.
Dad mused about building a border fence:
To fence them out, or to fence ourselves in?
I told him we read a poem about that,
that I bet he would like, by Robert Frost.
Is he the one on the less traveled road,
with miles to go before he sleeps?
We read him in my eighth-grade English class.
I always wondered what the hell that guy
had promised, that made him stay on the road
instead of going home for hot cocoa.
My teacher thinks he was in love.
And for the first time in a year, Dad laughed.
Behind the wheel with two lives in my hands,
I felt the wall between us start to fall.