My parents did not lavish gifts upon us. We were expected to provide for ourselves any “extras”, or luxuries. (Well, with the possible exception of my baby sister….) My mother has said on several occasions, “I just don’t understand why all you kids work so hard”.
I told her, “Momma, you convinced us that the wolf was at the door, and if we wanted a fur coat, we better skin him!” I learned at an early age that if you wanted something, you best be figuring out how to earn the money. In the first grade, I “earned” my bicycle $0.05 and $0.15 at a time, doing chores, washing dishes, etc. I guarantee it taught me the value of money to get $29.00 saved up like that. And yes, the money was in the “account” (in the Bank of Mom and Dad) prior to the purchase of a bicycle. There wasn’t a policy of “buy it now”, with the parents conveniently forgetting to make you pay it back. Yards were mowed for the neighborhood at age 8, and by age 12 I was running a tractor and a combine. I’m sure my parents would cringe if they knew all the stuff that I operated (completely illegally, I’m sure, but the statute of limitations has surely run out by now).
In this environment I found my passion. Aviation. At age 12 our next door neighbor, Winston, took me with him to deliver someone down deep in Central Texas. I rode in the back going down, but “in the front” going back. I still remember that “horizontal DG” and the throwover yoke. As any self-respecting 12 year old would do, I said “I bet I can do that” to him. He laughed, threw the yoke over to me, and my first lesson began. I doubt he ever knew how deeply he planted the seed. I struggled to maintain altitude and heading, and finally got the hang of it. I was hooked.
The ancient copies of Flying magazine in the school library weren’t safe. I read every article I could, every book about flying in the library I could find. Nancy Narco and her tips in the back of the magazine were consumed. We moved to a town where the airport wasn’t as accessible, but the reading continued. Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo spurred my interest in WWII planes, and every bit of knowledge I could hold onto was saved. We moved again, to a rural town where the airport was just another dusty piece of West Texas land, with the residue of years of half-hearted attempts to keep the pavement up to usable standards, the hangar was the archetypical tin over a dirt floor, and there was a crusty old man working inside. He seemed to me to have that ancient appearance that working men get…could have been 45, or 70. (I suspect that he was younger then than I am now.)
With some trepidation I made my way in to see a skinny, elderly guy with a haircut straight out of WWII, a hawk nose, and calloused hands. Fortified by my memories of the flight four years earlier, I approached with the idea that I wanted to learn to fly. His query as to my financial status was met, I’m sure, with disappointment. However, an agreement was reached that if I would work for several months, with no pay, that my work hours would be logged, and he would teach me to fly. Little did I know that in the finest tradition of agricultural aviation, he had no plane suitable for instruction. I doubt he barely had money to pay the light bill, much less to buy avgas.
However, he honored his agreement. I would work for hours after I got off my other jobs, and I’d juggle to be able to be out at the airport as much as possible. Flight lessons began in the spring, including an actual engine failure with landing on a highway south of town. No damage to the plane, and we began to figure out how to get the stubby winged Piper back to the airport.
West Texas is blessed with wide roads, few obstructions, and at the time highly cooperative Highway Patrolmen. A ride to the airport to get a pickup truck, a log chain and a couple of assistants, and we began to tow the plane from south of town, up through the middle, and out the road west to the airport. All was well.
My father was a minister. Specifically, a church of Christ minister. Much to his credit, he had tolerated my aviation “career”, even though I’m sure that inwardly he had wished I’d taken up something more along the lines of golf. My mother was and is a devout woman, who had begun to look askance at all the time I was spending at the airport. Church was held Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday evening. As fate would have it, the airplane crankshaft had chosen Wednesday afternoon to break in two. All would have been well, except we were now no longer flying, we were being towed. Specifically, *I* was being towed, as my instructor was driving the pickup truck with the log chain attached to the front of the plane. I was dutifully steering, and operating the hand brake on the plane (no individual brakes).
Wednesday evening services were just getting out about the time the pickup truck with plane in tow passed on the highway right in front of the church. Some of the worshipers were no doubt looking askance as our unusual entourage passed by. As soon as we got the plane secured, I headed home immediately, knowing full well that it wasn’t going to be pretty. The son of the minister was not given a free pass to miss church. We had already had some discussions of my missing various events and activities, all for the sake of being at the airport.
Dinner was somewhat awkward. My mother began her line of inquiry as to my whereabouts. I told her the truth (admittedly, sometimes I hadn’t, but tonight the story was so good the truth sounded pretty good to me). She gave me that look that only a righteously indignant mother can generate. “Young man, you are sounding like your Uncle Keith! He always did have a tall tale explaining why he didn’t do what he was supposed to! You better tell the truth, and better tell it now!”
Upon recollection, I recall my father’s poker face. I think he actually was enjoying this. Maybe there was a twinkle in his eye? Maybe he had seen the plane going by? I kept insisting “Momma, really, the plane engine quit, we landed on the highway, and then towed it to the airport!”
I could tell this wasn’t working. Much to my surprise, my brother, who was viewed as “a usually reliable source” piped up, and told her that he had actually seen the plane go by. Given that at the time we sometimes didn’t exactly get along, I’m kind of surprised he didn’t just let me hang.
Even prior to my license, I had planned on getting a plane. Partly this was due to the fact that our “arrangement” to use a plane had been somewhat disrupted by the engine failure (although another local man let us use his for me to finish my license, a fact I’m amazed at that now), and that my instructor managed to only get the arrangement done long enough for my license to be obtained. Trade-A-Plane copies, none of which were current, littered my bedroom. I would sneak a phone into my room, and make calls about likely candidates. I also had to deal with the phone bill. This was prior to the days of cell phones and unlimited long distance plans. Calls after 9 pm were cheaper. I’m sure there were sellers who were thoroughly irritated by some kid calling at 9:01 pm about their plane for sale. (Can you imagine that now? A teenager, calling to buy a plane. Speaking in hushed tones, so that parents didn’t hear. I guess nowadays that would be suspicious of a drug deal).
A Cessna 140 was located in Olathe, KS. For reasons that I don’t understand to this day, my father agreed to go to the bank with me to co-sign the note. I am not sure if he thought it was a good idea, or an opportunity for one of those “life lessons”. To this day I keep the copy of the note, signed by him, signed by me, and notated “paid-off” by the banker. The grand sum of $2400 was the purchase price, I had $600 saved up, if memory serves me correctly, and the rest was to be paid off at the princely sum of $75 per month. (Back then, it took 75% of my money to support that plane. The absolute numbers have changed, but the ratio is still about the same).
My instructor, the owner of a local Tri-pacer, and myself loaded up into that Tri-Pacer. (I was in left seat, my instructor in the right, and the owner in the back. To this day I have no idea why that kind druggist took the chance on letting me fly his plane). We flew to Kansas, bought the plane and headed home. In Oklahoma one mag failed, and we rebuilt it on the spot. Went into a local shop, bought parts, borrowed tools, and fixed it. Right there.
I gave my dad the phone call he had requested, and let him know the estimated time of arrival. Dad told Momma that “we should go out and see him come in”. She says to this day she suspected something. They came out, saw the little 140, and let me come home for dinner.
42 years later, my mother has taken pride in my flying. She and Dad have come to airshows to watch me perform, they’ve even ridden with me a few times. I think from time to time they mention my flying in their Sunday School class. She has a model of my old Mustang on her shelf.
Momma made peace with it.