Last summer my friend got a job working for Rita’s, an Italian water ice dessert chain restaurant, which I found out was East Coast based after a year away at college in the midwest. She would get free water ice at the end of every shift and could get employee discounts for any of her friends who came to visit. I would always go see her at work with friends or I’d go to her house after work and she’d ask me what I wanted. I would tell her something like “nothing for me, thanks, I’m not much of a Rita’s person anymore.” As weird as it sounds, the place has too many memories attached to it.
My dad was a flight surgeon in the Navy in the mid-80’s. The Navy taught him his craft as he flew passenger missions in F14 Tomcats on the USS Saratoga aircraft carrier. He was studying medicine, but to properly operate on these Navy pilots he needed to understand what strains their bodies went through on a daily basis, so he got to fly and learn with them in the back of their jets. I grew up listening to stories of Navy fighter pilots running missions during Desert Storm like it was nothin’ and I remember putting on his old helmet from the shelf in the library at home when I was little and pretending I was a pilot too. It’s a part of who he is, and it’s a love he passed on to me.
By 1990, my mom had retired from the Navy already and my dad was working as a radiologist in Bethesda, MD. I was born in mid-July and three weeks later he was called to a hospital ship in the Gulf War. He served for another six months, until January 1991, when he came back home and we moved to Mechanicsburg, PA, where we live now, and things calmed down a bit. Around 1995, he bought a Piper, a personal airplane, and we kept it in a hangar in Harrisburg. We used to go flying all the time — after school on weekdays, weekends, and sometimes on Sundays we’d leave early in the morning to fly somewhere for Sunday brunch and come home late. When I went to summer camp one year in Huntsville, AL, he flew the family down there for my camp and a family vacation. Every once in a while we used to fly to Chicago to see the extended family. We used to fly everywhere.
I was fascinated by it all and I loved every minute of it. I used to sit up in the cockpit with him (it was a four person plane, and I always called shotgun) and on clear days up in the air he’d let me take the controls and keep it level. It was essentially impossible for me to mess up, and he’d take the wheel as soon as I started doing something wrong, but all the same, it was electrifying. It was hands-down the most incredible thing I’ve ever done and my favorite feeling in the world. I remember reading over the ignition checklist and trying to memorize it by heart so that I would be able to talk the talk and walk the walk. I wanted to have “the right stuff.”
There was a Rita’s right next to the airfield, and after every flight we would stop and get an Italian ice and talk about all kinds of things. I would always get a small mango ice. I would eat it too quickly and get a brain freeze and my brother would laugh at me. This was our routine, every few weeks, every month, for years. We would go to the Hardee’s across the way for lunch, fly for a bit and get a Rita’s on the way home. Like clockwork. Rita’s was the cornerstone of my childhood and the basis for many of my favorite memories.
Eventually we had to give the plane up because, as one can imagine, owning an airplane is quite expensive. We never stopped loving flying, though — my dad took helicopter lessons a few years ago, and over the summer the two of us had the opportunity to ride in a restored B-17 bomber from World War II for an hour — one of the best rides of my life. Two weekends ago, my parents flew to Orlando, FL where my dad had the once-in-a-lifetime chance to fly a P-51 Mustang, considered by many to be one of the best fighter planes ever built. The pictures show him as a young man again, posing outside his plane in an unzipped flight suit, a youthful, excited grin on his face, eagerly awaiting takeoff and the home he knows so well.
I’m taking the train home for spring break this quarter, and I’ve been looking forward to it for a long time. 17 hours on the rails, taking me through the American heartland back home. I’ve wanted to do it for a while now, and it’s going to be great. As excited as I am for the train, though, I can’t wait for my flight back to Chicago at the end of spring break. I hate the airline industry, I think it’s horribly mismanaged — I can’t remember the last time a flight of mine has been on time, and I pray every flight that my baggage ends up where it’s supposed to, when it’s supposed to. As painful as airports and airlines can be, though, it’s all worth it when I get up in the air. One of the benefits of flying alone is I’m almost always guaranteed the lone seat by the window, and I spend the entire flight just looking out over the skies from the wingtip. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
Sometimes, on the hot, boring summer nights when we’re thinking of things to do, someone will recommend Rita’s. I’ll counter with Dairy Queen, I’ll get overruled, and we’ll end up driving down the Carlisle Pike to the Rita’s by the Blockbuster. Sometimes I’ll get a frozen mocha or a vanilla custard or sometimes I’ll tell everyone I’m not that hungry and I’ll just sit and watch and talk about all kinds of things and bond with friends. It’s fun, but it also brings me back to all those times flying, years ago. I think Rita’s is going to be forever tied to my childhood. As much as I want one, I resist ordering a mango water ice. I save those for special occasions.