My dad passed away on January 30th. He was just 12 days shy of turning 84, and he lived a hell of a life—which was incredibly hard to summarize when I wrote his obituary. He immigrated to the US in 1961 and set his mind to making it in the US. His life was the perfect embodiment of the American dream. He started a family, started a business, and gave 1000% to both of those things. We didn’t always agree, in fact my entire teenage years and early twenties were spent butting heads with him day after day. But I know, and I knew then, that everything he ever did was for me and my brothers and sisters.

Before he came to the US my dad worked at a factory in Mielec Poland that manufactured Soviet MIG aircraft. He told me funny stories about men he worked with who smuggled parts out of the factory in the hopes of building their own plane in a barn somewhere in the Polish country side. Recently Todd played that Johnny Cash song One Piece at a Time, which was about a man who worked on a line assembling Cadillacs, and how he decided to bring home a part at a time to assemble his own. That song reminds me of my dad and his stories about those men who stole MIG parts. I wonder how much of the plane they managed to complete.

Going to air shows was a thing my dad loved to do. When I was a kid he would drag me and my siblings along and we’d go climb around in some bomber, watch the Blue Angels race by and twist and loop above us. So it was a no brainer that the first summer after Todd and I got married we invited him and my step mom, Ania, to the air show here in Rhode Island. It’s a massive show right at the old Quonset navy base, where they still have massive planes that swoop around on maneuvers above Narragansett Bay.

When we arrived at the show, there were a few planes on exhibit on the tarmac, and then the area for the runway is fenced off where we can see the aerobatic plane routines. Usually the Blue Angels are there, but I think the Canadian Snowbirds were there that year. Don’t tell anyone I told you this, but I think the Snowbirds are way better than the Angels. I know it’s blasphemous, but it’s true.

We had time to check out the exhibits. Ania’s Dad and her friends from Poland were visiting at the time, and they were there too. Ania’s Dad and my Dad worked together at the MIG factory in Mielec—that’s how Dad met Ania. I was excited to walk around with Dad and hear him talk planes—he was encyclopedic about them. He’d point out some B-whatever and tell me what it was famous for—welcome to my childhood.

Then he saw it. IT. He grabbed Todd’s arm and tugged him along as he shoved his way through the crowd. There was a line waiting to step up to the MIG that was on exhibit. He disregarded the line and stepped right over the velvet rope tugging Todd along with him. This caught the curator’s attention.

He flat out ignored the curator as she freaked out on him. She had a damn good reason to freak out. He’d stepped right up to the fuselage of the plane, pulled a latch and opened a compartment. At this point a crowd was gathering to watch my maniac dad with his massive bear claw hands paw through the compartment on this airplane like it was an unattended picnic basket and he was a hungry bear.

My dad had massive hands. His fingers were the size of bananas. Everyone used to say that they’d considered getting an x-ray after a handshake with him because he’d squeeze so hard. His hands were rough, machine oil was permanently encased in the lines and creases in his skin. Over his 60+ year long career as a machinist he’d amassed so many metal splinters in the callouses on his hands I am surprised I didn’t set off metal detectors in the airport. When he got ones that were really bad he used to ask me to fish them out of his skin using safety pins and tweezers when I was a kid.

So my maniac dad with the bear paws was rooting through this compartment, the curator was losing her shit, and my dad was flat out ignoring her. It was at this point when Todd started to wonder whether the military police or the North Kingstown police would be summoned to deal with the insanity that was unfolding. Images of Guantanamo filled his head. Finally Dad stopped rummaging in the compartment, just an instant before the curator called security on the lunatic desecrating her antique plane.

He had a plaque in his hands and he held it up to her. He pointed out the serial number. “This number right here. This was the factory where I worked, and this was my line.” Then he pointed out the year of manufacture. “I worked there in this time.”

Then he said the four words that blew the curator’s mind, along with everyone else gathered around.

“I made this plane.”

Those four words were an instant attitude adjuster for the curator. Her mouth gaped open as she looked at him. “I have so many questions for you,” she gasped.

And he stood under the hot June sun and answered every single question. I’ll bet he even signed an autograph because he was a rock star that day. We wandered the rest of the exhibits. Watched the guy with the jet engine on a semi truck zoom past us and up the runway. We watched the Snowbirds, and then we joined the crowd as we made our way off the base and to the field where we parked the cards. We were hot, thirsty, and a little bit sunburnt.

There were thousands of people there around us and I looked at their faces as we walked. I would be willing to bet that not one other person in that crowd could point to that MIG and say “I made that plane” like my dad did.

BJ Knapp is the author of Beside the Music, available for purchase here. Please sign up for the Backstage with BJ Knapp mailing list to get updates on events, signings, dog pictures and so much more.