After losing everything, a Reno couple finds new beginnings in the sky
Small patches of snow are scattered on the bare hillsides of the Sierra Valley with no explanation of how the snow has held on in such small, incongruous places. The jagged mountains seem small from above and even smaller when compared to the dark blue and snow-capped mountains to the west. Soaring over earth, pilot Paul Scafidi is calm and seems to have a peaceful silence, but inside his F33A Bonanza, it’s not actually quiet. Eric Clapton’s voice and his smooth guitar chords flow gently inside the plane. “Before you ‘ccuse me, take a look at yourself,” he sings. Paul’s wife and co-pilot, Joan, presses black buttons on a small screen in front of her, which gives her wind information she relays to her husband.The landscape below is brown and barren, but it is still. And that’s precisely why Joan and Paul Scafidi fly: the sanctuary of stillness.
“When your mind is idle, that’s not good. You start thinking and going down that road, and it’s a bad deal,” he says, shaking his head. “Flying helps you stay out of that place.”
For the Scafidis, that place is memory. Memories of good times, and of course, the memories of the bad, memories of a Saturday afternoon in December 2001 when two highway patrolmen drove up to their house.
On a rather warm winter day, the sun began its descent on the southwest Reno home. Joan Scafidi was working in her kitchen while her husband Paul, a 43-year-old territory manager for a large window company, worked on the closet in his eldest son, Daniel’s, newly remodeled bedroom. The college freshman spent his first night home for winter break in the new room, and Paul wanted it to be finished for his second. Paul’s younger son’s room would be renovated next. The excited 15-year-old, Joe, had already put boxes in the hall, some labeled “Keep” and some “Throw Out.”
“It was weird,” Joan later recalls. “He had everything marked and set aside that was important to him.”
Joan called Paul into the kitchen. A friend had phoned and said there was a serious accident on the Mount Rose Highway, and she thought Dan and Joe might’ve been involved. The Scafidis called hospitals, police and 9-1-1 but found no information. The couple could only wait. Joan and Paul Scafidi’s nightmare as parents became reality when uniformed men knocked on the door.
“I looked the man right in the eyes and said, ‘Are my sons alive?’ And he said, ‘No sir, they are not,'” Paul says.
On the way home from skiing, their son’s green Toyota 4Runner had slowly drifted into oncoming traffic. The boys died instantly. It is believed that Daniel fell asleep while driving. The man they hit was severely injured but survived the accident. His two dogs were in the back of his pick-up; one survived, and one did not.
One month after the accident, Paul says he felt like he was drowning. “Everything I had to look forward to died on the Mount Rose Highway,” Paul says. He needed something to keep him going. Paul says he didn’t know if the idea just came, or whether God had put it there, but in February 2002, he found his motive. He told Joan he wanted to fly.
“Under one condition,” she told him. “You can’t fly unless I’m in the plane with you.” Paul signed up for lessons in early February. A friend recommended Pete Thomas, an instructor at the Stead Airport, and on his first lesson, Paul flew the Cesna 152 plane with ease.
“Want to learn more about wind currents? Fly over those mountains, and I’ll show you,” the middle-aged instructor pointed to the small mountains of the Sierra Valley near Graeagle, Calif., and Paul flew over them. Maneuvering the small plane came naturally. It was learning the rules and regulations, reading the books and studying for written tests that presented the challenge.
“When they say, ‘School’s not for everyone,'” Paul says, “they’re referring to me. You know I really wanted to fly because I put up with the schoolwork. I never thought I’d ever get through this, but it’s become easier.”
Paul spent the spring and summer of 2001 taking flight lessons, reading and studying. On his morning jogs, where the cool daybreak always caused a flooding of painful memories, educational pilot CDs filled the quiet.[page]
“Having flying in our lives—whether we’re in the air or not—always gives us opportunities to learn something new,” Joan says.
The community seemed to stop and grieve with the couple. The Monday after that nightmarish Saturday, Joan and Paul stood on their porch as hundreds of kids, huddled together with candles and Kleenex, lit up their front yard. More than 800 people showed their support at the boys’ memorial service the following Friday. Daniel graduated from Reno High School the previous spring, and Joe has just finished his first semester. The school nearly shut down for a week.
Joe’s best friend and classmate Tay Strawn remembers Mrs. Kim Cuevas’s freshman English class. The young teacher began her first semester at Reno High teaching freshman English and was lucky enough to have 15-year-old Joe in her first period and three of his friends. That fall in 2001, Joe ceaselessly teased Mrs. Cuevas, imitating her awkward way of walking when she turned her back and having daily spitball wars with his buddies. Yet the boy’s charismatic smile got him out of ever being in trouble. Joe was a favorite student. The empty chair in the third row on Monday morning made the class unbearable.
“Our teacher just sat there and cried,” Strawn said. “We didn’t do anything for a week.”
Joan and Paul Scafidi were famous for their loss. Everyone was talking about it. Hushed whispers of “I can’t even imagine” seemed attached to their names. A few weeks after the accident, Paul chose to buy Joan a gift at Richard’s Jewelers in the Moana Shopping Center near their home. He felt tears on his cheeks and could hear crying from the backroom as the man engraved two rings, one gold and one silver. Paul examined the rings, two everlasting messages on everlasting rings. Paul leaned forward and reached in his back pocket for his wallet. He looked up at the jeweler. “They’ve been taken care of,” the jeweler said, nodding toward the man who was walking out the door.
In the same Southwest Reno home where two blond brothers watched football with their father and played Homerun Derby in the backyard, Joan and Paul cook dinner for two. It’s a Saturday night in March 2008, and the Scafidis don’t want to be at home. The house is clean, and the smell of the cinnamon candles Joan puts in the entryway linger throughout the house. Their two Bernese Mountain dogs calmly chew on stuffed animals in the living room. Joan mixes a vinaigrette while her husband prepares chicken for the oven. She is about 5 feet 8 inches and looks 35, although she is closer to 50. The staple of their new lives, their F33A Bonanza airplane, which they fly every fair-weather weekend, needs a new engine. The plane was supposed to be ready in one week, and it has been five. The couple is grounded.
“We didn’t get to fly today, and we didn’t have any plans,” Joan says. “So today wasn’t such a great day. We’ve come home early from several exotic vacations, Mexico, Fiji, because we don’t do downtime. We do nothing, and we start thinking.”
As of May 2008, Paul has flown almost 900 hours. Nine hundred hours being above earth, above the pain, and temporarily free of the sting of memories.
“Flying is the vehicle we use to move forward,” Paul says.
Joan and Paul Scafidi eat chicken and salad at heavy rectangular table. They don’t want to be grounded.
It was an early August morning in 2002 when Paul left to take his flight test. On his way out the door, he flatly told his wife of almost 20 years, “If I don’t pass, I might not come home tonight.”
The smoke from the summer fires made the air thick and the visibility poor. He was concentrating on flying with perfection when his instructor said the five words Paul didn’t want to hear.
“Take me back to Reno,” the instructor told him. Paul was quiet the rest of the flight, figuring he’d “busted his check ride” and concentrated on his soft landing. Soft landings are meant for non-concrete surfaces and generally take time. He made a landing he wasn’t proud of and hung his head. Now he was sure he’d busted it. Paul didn’t want to have to take the test again. All the time, energy and money. He wished getting his pilot’s license didn’t have to be the flotation device keeping him from drowning.
Paul sat shamefully. As he began to think what he would tell Joan, he saw the man’s hand reach across from the passenger seat, “Congratulations Paul, you’re a pilot.”[page]
“You’re going to pass me after that landing?” Paul said. Paul flew with low visibility and no view of the horizon, his instructor reminded him, something most pilots struggle with. Paul hadn’t even noticed.
On Aug. 16, eight months after the worst day of their lives, Joan and Paul Scafidi’s new lives took flight.
Paul never tried to hurt Daniel’s feelings, Paul is just really competitive. When Daniel was a boy, Paul took him to the neighborhood tennis court on weekend afternoons. A natural athlete but never a true tennis player, Paul gave his son a racket and put him on the other side of the net. He teased the 8-year-old before every game.
“I’m gonna rip you apart, boy.” He relentlessly creamed him every time.
“My brother-in-law said I was such a dick, that I should just let him win,” Paul said, “but I’m just not like that.” With every point Paul scored on those sunny Saturday afternoons, Daniel got mad. The egging on and the merciless defeats built an unmatchable competitive streak in the sweet blond boy. After a couple years of these father-son tennis tournaments, Daniel got good. By age 11, he was beating Dad.
“I created a monster,” Paul said. Unlike many of his teammates in high school, expensive coaches and years of summer camps didn’t create the tennis star, but a father on a shoestring budget.
Daniel’s tennis ability earned him top 40 in the nation, and his honor student status helped him receive a large scholarship to Saint Mary’s College. He was popular, smart, and, to put it lightly, a hard act for a little brother to follow. Joe looked up to his brother but always sought a different path. He was a spirited risk-taker and charming clown with a heart of gold. One afternoon when Joe was in middle school, Joan came home and was bombarded by the boy’s pleadings.
“I’m sorry I did it,” Joe said. “I’m really, really sorry. I shouldn’t have done it.” He curled his finger, beckoned her into his room, and slowly slid open his closet door. A black and white kitten contently sat in a cardboard box and peered up at Joan.
“Mom, he’s so cute, and he doesn’t meow, and he really just sits there. Maybe Dad will finally have a cat he likes … ?” Joe’s lip quivered, and what choice did the mother have?
The opposite personalities of the brothers mirrored the opposite personalities of their parents. Much of Daniel can be seen in his practical, intelligent and gentle mother. To illustrate Joan’s rationality, close friend Pam Harrison said, “Joan literally eats only to nourish her body. To her, that is the only reason to.”
Joan’s husband of 26 years is a musician. At large gatherings, he is the one with the loud voice and exaggerated hand gestures, convincing everyone he’s got the point. The spark of Joe is seen in the very blue eyes of his outgoing and big-hearted father.
Joan and Paul’s decision to get rid of the family boat was easy. The spring after the boys’ accident, Joan and Paul sold their symbol of summer to a man and his family at Lake Almanor.
“That was a decision we didn’t have trouble making,” Joan says. “We got the boat for Joe, and he wasn’t here anymore. The crew was gone.”
A photo of Joe hangs in their dining room. Windblown blond hair frames his face, seemingly unaware of the camera, and he looks calmly over the lake. Joan and Paul Scafidi sold their boat and bought a plane.
“N Niner Three Seven Delta Juliet,” Joan says, announcing their presence to other planes. Before the couple bought the plane, they bid for numbers. And like many things they do, it was to honor their sons. Nine for September—Daniel’s birthday, three for March for Joe’s, and seven is God’s number. When inside the plane, announcing “Delta Juliet” into the headset, the words are really “Daniel, Joseph.” Pilot-in-command and his beautiful co-pilot speak aviation jargon, read maps and dive in and out of the clouds. After take-off, the plane becomes a surreal haven where the couple can focus on wind speed, look for landmarks and make new memories.
The Scafidi’s usual destination is Charleston, a small town outside Coos Bay on the Oregon coast. They are renovating a small house that sits on a knoll of cool, green grass above the ocean. The air is moist and dense, very unlike Reno’s dry air. They are surrounded by hundreds of evergreens, one big redwood and the smell of the ocean. Distant foghorns blow as ships come into the harbor. Joan walks the dogs down the beach, in and out of rocky shoreline. Paul works on the closet in the guest room upstairs.