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Chapter 1

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Photo by Samuel Hoffman l The Journal Gazette
Illustration by Lara Neel | The Journal Gazette
Summit City Lights

Chapter 1

The Journal Gazette's summer fiction serial

Jake peered at the thing in the crater. He wondered whether it could see him.

Dozens of people circled the big, grassy divot in Smith Field – soldiers from the nearby National Guard armory, Homeland Security officials, FBI, police, airport personnel, engineers from local defense contractors. And Jake.

They had been prepared for this night.

Firetrucks and ambulances were arriving at the airport. Police put up barricades on Cook Road on the north side of Smith Field and on Ludwig Road on the south side. Nearby homes were evacuated. Cars and trucks traveling along Coldwater and Lima roads were directed past the area, producing bottlenecks of gawkers hoping to glimpse what had happened. They had been prepared for this night, too.

Jake felt smug, vindicated, relieved. Several years earlier, he had joined the fight to try to save the general aviation airport on Fort Wayne's north side. Citing low use, high costs and safety concerns, the Fort Wayne-Allen County Airport Authority board had decided to close Smith Field. But less than a year later, after protests and lawsuits from pilots and other airfield supporters, the board recanted.

Jake had been just a face in the crowd among the protesters. He did speak against the planned closing at an aviation board hearing, and his brief remarks were reported the next day in a newspaper article.

Jake wasn't a pilot or aviation hobbyist; he was rarely an airplane passenger. He never much cared for commercial flights, taking them only when his destination – a wedding, funeral, vacation, job interview – was too far away to drive in a day or two. He wasn't afraid of flying, he liked to tell people – he was afraid of crashing.

But as a homeowner living along Ludwig Road, he liked having Smith Field as a neighbor. The long, wide patch was flat, open and mostly green, leaving a huge chunk of sky stretching overhead. Except for the occasional hum of a small, single-engine prop, the airstrip was quiet, although the buzzing was welcome because it gave Smith Field its purpose, its life. This sure beat living next to an apartment complex or a shopping center or a big-box store. There were enough of those in the area as it was.

Jake had made a habit of sitting in a lawn chair in his driveway in the evening, watching the Cessna and Piper Cherokee planes take off and land as he tried to sort out why his life hadn't turned out the way he had expected or hoped.

He was working another dead-end job, his goals and ambitions abandoned a long time ago. Now well into his 40s, he despaired at what he saw in the mirror: His black hair had thinned considerably and was nearly as much salt as pepper. His once-wiry frame was starting to slouch, and he'd grown a paunch. Occasional reading glasses had become full-time bifocals. He was living alone, talking to the walls, taking regular counsel from tall glasses of vodka and orange juice. At least he was getting lots of vitamin C.

Smith Field had gone the other direction. Not only had the airstrip been rescued, it had been revived. Indiana's oldest airport – it opened as Paul Baer Municipal Airport in 1925 – had rebuilt a runway with more than $1 million in federal stimulus funds. A $2.3 million maintenance hangar went up as a lab for students at Fort Wayne Community Schools and Ivy Tech Community College. More improvements were in the works. And plane traffic had increased dramatically at the airport renamed for local aviation pioneer Art Smith, known as "Bird Boy" nationally for his stunt-flying skills in the early 20th century.

But Smith Field would close for sure now, Jake realized as he looked into the crater. It no doubt would be the scene of a federal investigation first and a research site later. Perhaps even a monument or memorial someday – although Jake didn't know whether the thing in the ground had ever been alive or was now dead.

But whatever it turned out to be, it was the answer to Jake's prayers.

bfrancisco@jg.net

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