He parked the car near the entrance of the small bridge extending over the San Dieguito River near the Del Mar Racetrack. The weather was pleasant on this Sunday morning in February 1998 and he soon found himself walking to the end of the bridge, looking over the railing and staring at his reflection in the water. He had done this same ritual oh so many times. He longed for the days of his childhood when the bridge extended across the river and went to the airport, where his father had worked for so many years. Today, like so many others, the bridge stopped midstream and so did the life of Horace Atkins Dillinger.
Horace felt sad and helpless. His dad had passed away over a decade ago, and he had been left as the sole caretaker of his overbearing mom, Alice. It wasn’t that he didn’t love his mom, but her strict, overarching manner had pretty much ruled his life. He felt remorse as he looked at the slow-moving reflections of his puffy red face on the water in the sunlight. Yes, she had pretty much stolen his joy over the years. As an only child, she rued the day when someone would call her son anything else than his real name. There were no nicknames allowed in the Dillinger household. Horace was to be Horace, named after her grandfather Horace P. Carbunkle III.
The kids at school often made fun of his name, but he knew that his mom would have it no other way. One time his school chum Matt called him Ace within earshot of his mom. That was the last time Horace was allowed to play with him. She even marched down to the school and told his teacher and the principal that they were not to use nicknames with her son. Alice also told them in no uncertain terms that Horace would be an accountant. She wanted Horace placed in all the advanced math classes. Mathematics would be his salvation. Math was the modern way to prosperity, and by gum, he was going to be immersed.
Immersed he was. Through the sixties and seventies, he had accounting drilled into his head. After high school, he attended college with an accounting major. He did OK, but he really only had one problem. He hated math. But that didn’t sway his mother. She wanted her son’s name on the door of an accounting firm, and by God, he wasn’t going to be cheated. She got her wish when Horace turned forty. He had finally made it. He was now a partner at Schlessinger, Mayberry and Dillinger, public accountants.
Unfortunately, this job title came at a price. Alice saw to it that Horace divorce his wife, Sally. At 35, she was pulling him away from his career. It didn’t help that Horace and Sally lived next door to mom in a rented house. Sally became poison and Alice made sure that Horace knew it. For the last ten years, Horace lived alone in the tiny house next to his mother on the inland side of old Del Mar. He went to work and added things up. He came home and drank and smoked his sorrows away.
As he looked deeper into his reflection in the water, he reflected on his life. He was now forty-nine and a half years old. He was overweight, balding and totally out of shape. The cough from the cigarettes was bad. Two things had come in the mail yesterday, his mother’s death certificate and a strange white envelope. His mom had passed away two weeks before at age eighty. The funeral was pleasant, and she died a happy woman. Her life had been a success and why not. Her only son had his name on a door. He was a public accountant.
Horace looked up from the water and out across the marsh. He remembered vividly where the hangars used to be. His dad wasn’t home much. He was always working, fixing and doing something that Horace always longed to do. He flew airplanes. As a little boy, his dad would take him to the airport and let him sit in some of the planes. Unfortunately, when the 5 freeway came through to San Diego in 1959, the Del Mar Airport was decommissioned.
Horace reached into his back pocket and pulled out the thick envelope. As he opened it he laughed. It was the initiation letter from the AARP. At forty-nine and a half, they were offering him all the benefits of being a senior citizen. He looked back down in the water and a feeling of despair came over him. His mom had become his whole life. Alice wasn’t there anymore to tell him what to do. Heck, would he even know what to do?
Now both his parents were gone. He was working a job he hated. He was out of shape, bored out of his mind, and now considered old. A senior citizen at 49, imagine that. What was there to live for? His life was a dead end, just like the bridge he was standing on. A bridge to nowhere.
For a second, he actually thought about taking his life. His mom had never let him take swimming lessons. Don’t need those as an accountant. He’d just jump over the railing and drown. Then he looked a little closer and laughed again. The water in the river was only three feet deep. God, he couldn’t even kill himself.
That’s when a grey-haired old man with a big ol’ smile named Hank happened by. He stood by the railing next to Horace and said, “I remember the time when there was an airfield there. They used to have blimps in a massive hangar during the war. Long time ago, mid-forties. Can’t believe it’s gone. I used to hang out there. Bummed a few rides on some small craft over the years. I love to fly.”
Horace replied, “My dad used to work there. Maybe you heard of him. Norm Dillinger was his name.”
The man smiled. “Everyone knew Norm Dillinger. Most helpful guy in the place. Always talked about his son, Ace. Always bragging how he was going to the moon someday. You must be him?”
Horace shook his head, “He called me Ace?”
“Sure did. Said you loved to fly.”
Horace smiled, “I sure do.”
I met Ace Dillinger yesterday on that same bridge. He told me his story. Told me his life was like the dead end bridge we were standing on. It was a dead end until he found out his dad truly believed in him. Found out his dad called him Ace. Found out he could fly and he’s been flying ever since.
He had a model plane with him. Radio controlled. He launched it off the back of the bridge and we watched it soar in the sky. The plane had a camera on it and as he flew it high above, he showed me the screen. “This is where the hangar used to be,” he said. “And this bridge here is where my life changed twenty years ago. This is where I became Ace Dillinger.”
(Please note: This story is a work of fiction, but the bridge and the history are real.)
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