I have a friend who told me that I think too much. I suspect that’s probably better than not thinking enough, but essentially she’s absolutely right. I DO think too much. Unfortunately, I have two one-hour commutes each day along the freeways of Washington, DC and talk radio is getting REALLY tedious these days. So I have two hours to kill each day. Some days I just drive and some days I think.
Often I find myself reminiscing about the various adventures I’ve had since I came to this town: climbing the Washington Monument with my son, Jon; being trapped in an undisclosed location on the first anniversary of 9/11; helping kick off the 2003 NFL Season on the National Mall; running two miles around Roosevelt Island three times a week. All very cool things.
During my commute, I always pass by National Airport. It’s a modest airport by Dulles standards along the Potomac River on the Virginia side. As I head south in the afternoon hours, I can always observe the larger airliners departing National and heading north-ish along the Potomac River. And it always reminds me of something one of our ground school instructors mentioned the first day of class.
He said “Did you ever notice that when you see and airplane flying within sight, no one can resist watching it. Just look around at people.” With very few exceptions, he’s right. Nearly everyone will stop to watch an airplane slipping seemingly effortlessly through the air. It’s a compelling sight for most people.
I haven’t a clue why this is the case and that’s not what this is about. But it gives you an idea of some of the odd things which come to mind on my commute.
Today, I started to think about why it took me so long to start flight training when I knew from the time I was in single digits that it looked like something I’d want to do. So I started tallying up the aviation related memories I could dredge up. (Fair warning: While this may have been a fun exercise for me, I wouldn’t blame you if you clicked on the next email and bypassed this altogether. So Ahoy, matey! Prepare to be bored-ed.)
I must have been younger than six when I saw my first airplane. I only have flashes of this memory, but those moments I remember are pretty vivid. In my hometown of Fostoria, Ohio, there was a small grass airstrip on the edge of town on state route 12. There was a house along the two lane road and the airstrip ran diagonally from the house back toward a corn field. I remember seeing the airplane and… Well, I just typed “… and thinking…” but I am not sure rational thought was a part of my repertoire back then. So I probably just gawked. I remember the airplane and in the nearby house, the aviation band radio that was squawking away. I’m not sure what the event was, or when. I just remember being out there. And every time I drive by that house, even though it looks so small and unassuming to me now, passing by there never fails to remind me of that airplane and that radio.
I was twelve when my Dad decided to go off to Vietnam for a year of fun and games at government expense. Halfway though his tour of duty, my Mother and Dad decided that we would all meet in Honolulu, Hawaii for his mid tour break, known as rest and recuperation or R&R. I was beyond excited. And yeah, I wanted to see by Dad and all that stuff, but I was going to fly in a JET! Awesome!
My Mother bought the airline tickets at a travel agency in a nearby town. They were typed by hand on a typewriter on tickets with red carbon paper in between the pages. When we finally started the flight, I was jumping around like a nutcase. So much so that my Mom had a tough time controlling my excitement and had to embarrass me into behaving. We flew from Columbus, Ohio to Chicago where we took on passengers. By then, it was evening and during the stop, and I wanted to know what was in the first class cabin that was so damned special that it was curtained off. So I meekly asked one of the stewardesses “Can I go up front and…” Before I could even finished my query, she smiled, said “Sure,” turned sharply and took me not just to the first class cabin, but up front in the cockpit to meet the pilots and see all the instruments. I kind of felt bad, because she didn’t have to go through all that trouble for me. I just wanted to see what was behind the curtain. (That must have been the year I got the demeaning lecture about being selfish.)
The flight terminated in Los Angeles, and we stayed overnight with one of my Mom’s nurse colleagues who had moved to Orange County some years earlier, then boarded a United jet to Hawaii. Foretelling my hormonally based adolescence, all I remember of this flight was how damned pretty the redheaded stewardess was. Even then, I was developing a healthy appreciation for redheads.
The Apollo program. At the time, it was everything to me. Every time there was a NASA mission, I wrote away to the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland begging for any and everything they had on every mission. NASA was only happy to oblige a young boy’s fantasy by sending brochures, glossy publications, official transcripts of capsule communications, all of which I devoured and read and absorbed until I knew them by heart. I also wrote away for a hardback book that the Gulf Oil Company was selling about NASA and the Apollo program in particular. I had a tape recording of the Apollo 11 moon landing I made by hanging the microphone next to the TV speaker the moment it actually occurred. I would spend hours reviewing that tape while looking at the mission photos and following the transcript in that book. If memory serves, I literally read that book until I just plain wore it out. (A quick Wikipedia search led me to it’s title, “We Came In Peace.” Now I remember. Still gives me goosebumps thinking about that.)
Two words: Star Trek
At some point, the new Fostoria Municipal Airport opened replacing the grass strip over on State Route 12. This new airport featured a paved runway something like four thousand feet long, which seemed like a long runway to the uneducated Me. I don’t think I yet had my drivers license, so I must have been around 13 or 14 years old. I promised myself that I would get my pilot’s license before I got my drivers license.
Once you’ve been in the Army a little while, you find it wise not to tell people you were nominated to the Air Force Academy, but not appointed. Given the inter-service rivalries which exist, admitting that the Army was a second choice isn’t wise. So that little detail gets shoved back to the back of the brain where the old things go. But when I pull that one out, I remind myself why I chose Colorado Springs: I wanted to fly. I wanted to get into the space program. I wanted to enter the astronaut program. As an 18 year old kid from a well-respected east coast military school, I was fully aware of the enormity of the dream. But it was not to be. The political nominees have precedence over the honor school nominees and I didn’t get in. So I stayed another two years in military school by attending the junior college, and then joined Army ROTC for my last two years of college.
The commander of the aviation company of the First Infantry Division (Forward) in Germany took me for a helicopter ride. He was a Vietnam era pilot and for some reason, he wanted to show off a little. He put that UH-1 through maneuvers that had my stomach alternating between my throat and my balls. And he seemed happy to have a non-aviator show such an interest in his work. Nice guy for a Major.
I retired after a total of 28 years in the Army.
Ten. The Present.
When I go back and think about it, it’s tough to really remember just how much I have always wanted to fly an airplane. For awhile there, this knowledge seemed to be relegated to a set of mere facts with no feelings attached. When life hits you, it usually his you pretty hard. The responsibilities, commitments and obligations take your focus and relegate those dreams to that place where the old things go. But every once in awhile, one is fortunate enough to escape, and if you’re paying attention, you can recapture that spirit. You can dream.
On Monday when I flew on my own for the first time, I was astounded at the matter-of-factness of the event. I was astounded that I wasn’t astounded. Same yesterday. It was no big deal. I was a little disappointed that I wasn’t more excited. But in reviewing during my commute the events which led me here, it surprised me how much I had forgotten. But the important things and feelings you never really forget. I guess one’s never too old or too committed to responsibilities to go back to that place where the old things are and see if any of them want to come out and play. Most are well entrenched in their complacency, but every once in awhile, one of those things shyly creeps out from among his shadowy cohorts, raises his hand meekly and says “Remember me?”
I remember. I absolutely remember. I’ve been thinking about you — and today, probably too much.
C’mere. I missed you.