Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Biscuit City Chronicles: I Can Fly

The first movie I ever saw was Peter Pan, in the first grade . I went as part of a school trip, since my parents never went to movies themselves and certainly never took us . I think this occasion might have been near the end of first grade . I remember several things about the experience : the theater was the biggest place I had ever been in (a bit frightening when the lights went down) , one of the parents bought everyone M & M’s, the first I had ever had, and I was terrified by the ticking crocodile. From this one movie I gained an enthusiasm for movies, a love of M&M’s and a healthy respect for crocodiles--and, oh, yes, an insane desire to fly.

I don't remember this, but my mother tells me that as a toddler 1 liked to climb to the highest point 1 could find and then jump off. She thought I had a kind of infant death wish, but I think I was trying to fly. One afternoon she looked out to see me standing atop a four-foot fence post. She snatched me off before 1 could jump, but I think  the experience unnerved her.

Peter Pan apparently added a couple of new twists to my aerial career. Again, 1 don't remember, but I'm told that I would take some salt from the shaker (pixie dust, naturally), throw it in the air above my head, shout |"Christmas!" (the magic word in the story, as you may recall), and jump into the air.

Unfortunately, this ritual didn’t cause me to fly any better than I had before. I think my mother has grateful we didn't have many visitors to our home. A three-foot child sprinkled with salt leaping into the air shouting “Christmas!" in July is an odd sight.

My next source for ideas on how to fly came from television. I was astounded at the picture of George Reeves barreling across a metropolitan landscape, cape flowing in the slipstream in the small screen version of Superman. It was indescribably cool. 1 studied the screen up close, searching for a clue as to his mysterious abilities, missing the very obvious wires that held him horizontal against a rear-screen projection. I concluded that Superman's cape enabled him to fly, and all I had to do was to procure one and 1 would soar off into the stratosphere (but 1 would be home in time for dinner). I tried towels tied around my neck, leaping off our front porch and crashing into the bushes. I gained long scratches on my arms instead of altitude, and my mother prohibited me from using any more of her towels after I tore a couple of them.

Then, on a bag of carrots, I saw an ad for an Eagle Flying Cape. For the princely sum of 25 cents, I could send away for this guaranteed flight accessory. The answer to my dreams, and only a quarter! 1 showed the offer to my mom. She laughed and said something she was to say many times in the years after that: "Don't believe everything you read." Then she threw the bag away. I knew better than to ask for a quarter.

So, 1 gave up on flying on my own and turned to other means, namely, airplanes. My favorite show became Sky King, a sort of cowboy transition show about a rancher who flew a spiffy twin-engine Cessna and took care of all sorts of incredibly difficult situations through reason, non-violence and a big airplane.

He also lived with his niece Penny who of course in those long- ago days did the cooking and cleaning, but also could pilot the Song Bird when Uncle Sky was disabled. I think it was at this point that I began to think that girls might be OK after all. My main focus, though, was an airplane.

How could I get one? I couldn't buy one, since they cost upwards of a thousand dollars and my allowance was 25 cents a week.

I would have to build one.

And so I did, with my brother's help, using scraps of wood I found in the garage. The finished product was about four feet long with a six-foot wingspan and tires scavenged from an old lawn mower. To my mind, it looked like The Spirit of St. Louis, sleek and silver and shiny. In reality it looked like a bunch of scraps nailed together in a cruciform shape. Of course, it didn't have an engine which was probably just as well. I figured I couldn't get the engine off the lawn mower without my dad noticing.

So, I needed a way to get my craft airborne. I didn't care that 1 knew nothing about airfoils. Or aircraft design. I remembered the Wright brothers and how they had searched for exactly the right place to fly their aircraft. Soon l had settled on the ideal launching situation: the sloping roof of our garage. I would haul the airplane to the top of the roof, climb in (or on, actually) and swoop down the roof, become gloriously airborne over the yard, climbing like an eagle far above our neighborhood and the school, vanishing to the east, following Lindberg’s aerial trail all the way to Paris, where 1 would be honored as the first person to fly the Atlantic without an engine.

First, though, there was the problem of getting the aircraft to the roof. It was built of what my dad called ironwood and it weighed about as much as an iron stove. Ron and I could barely push it out of the garage, much less lift it to the roof. I sadly concluded that I would have to take my masterpiece apart and reassemble it on the roof. 1 had read about someone somewhere building an airplane in a basement and then realizing that it wouldn't fit through the door. That guy had to disassemble his airplane, so why couldn't I?

And so I did, and Ron and I hauled it up piece by piece with some rope we found. How my parents missed all this I’ll never know. Two kids hammering away at a pile of wood on top of a garage is something we didn't see every day. Nonetheless, we accomplished the feat. My airplane was ready for its maiden flight.

I stationed Ron in the yard so he could later describe how elegantly the craft and 1 swooped off across the Atlantic. I climbed aboard and waved to him.

“Switch on! I called.

“Stitch only!” he returned. He didn't know the right words, but it would do.

“Contact!” I called, and made revving airplane engine noises. I pushed off with my foot and my craft made slow grating progress down the shingles--to begin with. By the time we reached the edge of the shingles, the roof was sliding by at an alarming rate.

I really did think it would fly, just as 1 had earlier thought that pixie dust and a cape would let me fly. The pile of wood and I didn't even clear the flower bed. We sort of slid over the edge of the roof and plummeted down the side of the garage  right into and on top of one of my mother's huge climbing rose bushes.

Pieces of trellis and erstwhile airplane flew--the magic word--in every direction. I landed in a painful thornstuck heap and sat there, stunned not so much by the physical impact as by the realization that 1 hadn't flown. My brother pounded over.
“Wow! That was cool! He exclaimed. “Do it again.”

“Oh, shut up, I said. That episode ended my attempts to fly beyond a few rubber and gas powered models. 

But Ron caught the vision. He learned to fly in the Army at Fort Gordon, GA, went into the Air Force and became an F-5 fighter jock and then, wanting a career with an airline, joined a C-130 unit out of Andrews to build multi-engine time.

He came through town on his way to Atlanta and his new job with Delta Airlines the day Amy was born in 1977. Ron put in 17,000 flight hours with Delta over 27 years and retired as a captain seven years ago. I only talked and thought about flying. But he put wings to his aspirations. He could fly.

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