A wrinkle in time

Sometime in the mid-1930s, when my dad was about 12, a Ford Tri-Motor (aka “The Tin Goose”) flew onto a cow pasture just outside of Holdenville, Oklahoma.  For the next several days, for the mere price of a bread wrapper and fifty cents, a person could buy a short flight.  Bereft of even a half-dollar in those Depression days, my father spent every afternoon and evening at that pasture, watching as the airplane took off and landed.

On the last day of this rare barnstorming visit, after it was already dark, he felt a hand on his shoulder.  When he turned and looked, it was his father (my grandfather).  Fearful that he was about to be scolded for neglecting his studies and chores, the question instead was a gentle, “Would you like to go?”

The unspoken answer was “Yes!”  My father bounded onto the airplane, the first passenger of that last flight.  Four flares were ignited, one on each corner of the pasture.  The pilot moved up to the cockpit and checked the condition of the tires with a flashlight (the totality of his pre-flight safety inspection).  My father sat on a wood crate next to him and recalls he was smoking a cigar.

The pilot looked down at him and winked and off they went into the night sky.  As they circled over Holdenville, the only thing my father recognized was a brightly lit downtown grocery store.  For 15 minutes or so they circled the area and then finally returned to that flare-lit cow pasture.  It was only after they landed that my father looked around and noticed that my grandfather had been sitting behind him all along…

Today was one of those moments when two generations connect via the touchstones of a shared experience.  A 1929 Ford Tri-Motor came to Hot Springs, Arkansas this week.  If only for an hour or so, I caught a glimpse of what the world must have been like through the eyes of a wide-eyed boy, now my 93-year old father, in a simpler time and place.

— Monsieur Jacques d’Nalgar, Samedi 12 mai 2018

PS — my father first told me this story about fifty years ago, when I was assembling and painting a plastic model of a Ford Tri-Motor.  Over the years I seem to have embellished my memories (an old family tradition) with flotsam and jetsam from books and movies about those early decades of powered flight.  For example, I was certain he had helped carry cans of fuel for the pilot in exchange for that final ride.  This retelling of the story, based on his still vivid recollection, returns it to its original simplicity.

His fascination with aviation has never waned.  When we talked this morning, he recalled another incident, when two “brand-new” military aircraft landed in that same pasture.  Or at least tried to.  One was successful, and he still remembers the pilot’s high leather boots, tan tie, and flared riding pants.  The other pilot overshot the pasture and landed in a cotton patch.  The airplane somehow remained upright, and my father and other boys crawled through a barbed-wire fence and ran to see what had happened.  All he remembers now is that the plane was significantly damaged, and the pilot was so agitated his mustache was “going up and down.”  My father went on to fly in the last months of WW2 as a B-17 navigator (there is more on Levantium about that), and then later spent decades in Beirut as a Baptist missionary and educator.  Those were the years when I crash-landed onto this bloody little planet, in a forsaken piece of paradise called Lebanon…

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