Cupcake & Snowball

The animal, in the dimming light of a new moon, gingerly stepped his way through an ill kept barbed wire fence. It was the only barrier found between his native country and Northwest Montana. The Canadian Eskimo dog unknowingly wandered into the small community known locally as Poverty Flats.

Not long after daybreak, a Rancher driving near the Flats discovered the stray lying in the middle of the road. He helped what seemed to be a sweet malnourished large dog into the cab of his truck and drove it home. His daughters Elizabeth and Cathy, ages seven and nine were then introduced to their new pet. The sisters named him Cupcake. The girls had another pet, a white fluffy cat, they called Snowball. Most of the day their ball of fluff, sat in a window or lay curled up on the couch; only making her presence known at dinner time. Cats come that way… they don’t require a lot of attention. They are loveable mostly to me because they used to be kittens.

The community focus at Poverty Flats was animal rescue. Most of the families living there participated. You’d find various size corrals providing homes for assortments of abandoned pets. Anything and everything people can no longer care for they just dropped off. There were yaks, llamas, cows, horses, pigs, goats, and many varieties of chickens and geese; with a lingering flavor of “Ole MacDonald’s Farm” in the air.

Animals from Canada; dogs, cats and other wildlife, as it relates to border fences, all enjoy dual citizenship. In areas not far from the official border crossing the barbed wire is well past its age of effectiveness. They come and go as they please no passports are required.

Even in Canada the mixed-breed is rare. The Rancher and his daughters had no idea Cupcake was a Canadian Eskimo dog, a tribal sled dog, that originally were bred with wolves. Like many sled dogs, they have a strong prey drive and are not suitable as pets if you have small animals.

During his brief stay in Poverty Flats, Cupcake all too soon developed an appetite for the resident exotic animals. He wanted to eat them all. After school one day in late spring, Elizabeth and Cathy, climbing down their school bus steps, spotted Cupcake lying in their front yard owning a look of guilt. His head, pinched between his front paws, was quietly staring at several clumps of white fur in the yard. In a fit of panic, the girls ran into the house screaming, “Daddy, Daddy, Cupcake just ate Snowball!”

Bolting through the house the family spilled out into the front yard alarmed at what might have just happened to their beloved Snowball. Friends and neighbors got word and gathered to investigate. Kids were crying, moms and dads were crying… even Cupcake managed to look somewhat sorrowful. At the same time, licking at his front paws, he occasionally swiped at shreds of white fur sticking to his lips while keeping watch over the remaining clumps of fur.

After paying Snowball considerable respect, attached with elements of grief, the families began to excuse themselves. While in the process of leaving a neighbor boy was noticed pointing toward Elizabeth and Cathy’s upstairs bedroom window asking, “Whose cat is that up there?” He was pointing towards a cat sitting in the window. It was both white and fluffy and was staring at the crowd gathered below. Snowball was sitting in the window seemingly enjoying the scene taking place below over his demise.

It wasn’t long after the incident with Snowball that Cupcake’s relationship with the Poverty Flats community took a turn. The source of the balls of white fur was never completely determined, and small animals regularly began disappearing.

As reports of missing animals mounted suspicions arose that Cupcake may be more wolf than dog and he was soon found out. Under threat of being picked up by the local animal control officer neighbors decided to remove him from the Flats. Enlisting help from Wolfdog sanctuaries and networks, the locals found a place for Cupcake near Missoula. Owners and handlers of mixed breed wolf-dogs require special knowledge of their habits and needs.

The Rancher, after placing him in his kennel for travel, wiped a tear form his eye, blinked and turned away. The Canadian Eskimo dog Cupcake was transported to his new home near the Blackfoot river east of Missoula. Higher-content animals, more wolf than dog it turns out, are more prone to show intense “primitive” behaviors, such as their high prey appetites and escape artist talents. A little more than a week later, looking a bit grubby from his journey, the mixed breed somehow escaped Missoula and returned to where the pickings were better, his former hunting ground at Poverty Flats.

This wouldn’t do of course. For the permanent well-being of the many residents in the corrals, it was decided to take him east of Glacier Park; in the region west of Cut Bank. A family on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation decided to try rehabilitating him. The group hoped; if he escaped again, he might find his way back home, perhaps northward back in the direction of Canada. The residents of the Flats were assured it would be impossible for Cupcake to make it back through Glacier and the Rockies.

They were all wrong. It took him longer this time… two months longer.

It is mid-summer and now what? Good question, big problem. It was obvious he was a determined and cunning creature; this time it would take an extraordinary effort on his being extradited to a rehab facility. It was suggested taking him west but only further this time. In Washington State, known to have an abundance of mixed-breed habitats got the nod; getting him there would involve a huge burden on someone.

A search for “the-someone” and transportation followed and a gentleman pilot was found at the small airport nearby. Bob Sweet, the pilot, volunteered both himself and his airplane. His aircraft only had two seats, one in front and one in back. It was an old Ryan PT-22, a vintage WW-II era, open cockpit former pilot trainer, it was perfect. Fitted with a pair of goggles and special seat harnesses, Cupcake would ride in the front cockpit, much like a student pilot. Bob, while flying the airplane from the backseat, could easily keep an eye on his passenger up front.

Oxygen masks hadn’t yet been fashioned for the likes of pointy noses. It was planned the flight would stay low, following the rivers and streams through the mountains to the west, so the animal could breathe in his normal fashion. The neighbors thought Cupcake wouldn’t mind flying, no consideration was given about anxieties he might experience.

Early on the morning of Cupcakes planned departure; he was taken to the airport in his makeshift harness and goggles and strapped into the front cockpit seat. The flying weather was perfect as the sun, now peaking over the mountains to the east, made mellow the morning air.

The PT-22, with pilot Bob and Cupcake aboard started up and taxied out to the south runway, the before takeoff checklists completed and they quickly departed. After lift off the aircraft banked slightly to the right and headed west for the Koocanusa Reservoir, a huge body of water formed from the Kootenai River. It ran south all the way to the Libby Dam, about sixty miles, where it again becomes a river. The reservoir was both long and wide. About ten miles south is a bridge that spans the water from east to west. At its midpoint it sits about two hundred feet above the surface and nearly a mile across.

Cruising along between the shorelines, they approached the bridge at about fifty feet above the water. It was a comfortable altitude for flying under the span which pilot Bob liked to do. As a matter of fact, each time he flew down the res, he made it a point to pass under the bridge. It was an acquired habit.

This morning was a little different, perched on the bridges top guardrail at about mid span, sat a Bald Eagle. Keen to keeping an eye on his distance to the water below pilot Bob hadn’t yet spotted the bird, but his passenger Cupcake had. The closer they got the more agitated the passenger in front became. Cupcake had never scored an Eagle; various varieties of chickens and geese but never an Eagle. He hadn’t been this close to one ever. It soon became obvious to pilot Bob something untidy happened up in the front seat. Just as they were about to pass under the bridge the Eagle took to flight, plummeting in a near vertical dive for the water’s surface. And, likewise, so did Cupcake. The dog had wiggled and twisted himself free of the harness and took to the air in pursuit of the bird. It was a short free fall to the water as pilot Bob watched in disbelief. Cupcake, his teeth gnashing at the air, nose-dived after his prey. After a brief splash onto the surface, the big bird pulled up fast with a fish gripped in its talons, just as Cupcake plunged into the water not far behind. The Eagle, accompanied with dinner, flew west. Cupcake, after surfacing, swam ashore to continue his chase.

Pilot Bob circled back and the last he saw, Cupcake was still in quest of the Eagle who appeared headed for the border. The Canadian Eskimo dog never returned to Poverty Flats or Montana. He cared nothing about riding in airplanes; it was unnatural.

Cupcake, having wandered into Montana by accident, found an array of scents and flavors there he had never experienced. It was a wonderland. It was a cafeteria. It was a buffet. It was a place where animals mixed and mingled without want or need. It was Neverland.

The Canadian Eskimo dog formerly known as Cupcake eventually found his way to Ashton, Idaho. It is the home of the first American Dog Derby which was held in1917 and still an annual event. He was reunited there with the life he knew in the world of sled dogs. It wasn’t Neverland, but it was a place he was happy to be and a place happy to have him.


America’s Most Violent and Inspiring Small Town

 The Author Robert Turley has written a book about a community I am familiar with having grown up there myself. It is a story my friends, neighbors and relatives need to know about and the world we live in needs to know about. What follows below is just the first chapter of a superb piece of writing; of which I am profoundly jealous: Enjoy!

America’s Most Violent
and Inspiring Small Town


The residents of our 99% black neighborhood have been quite gracious; in our 46 years here, no one has minded nor mentioned it is my family that has kept our community from achieving 100%.

In my hometown of Inkster, Michigan, I have occasionally experienced having a police officer stop to ask me,

“What are you doing in this neighborhood?”

I reply with the only answer I’ve ever been able to give to this question,

“Living in it” . . . “and loving it.”

This statement of pride in our rich cultural life and expression of the devotion that lives here, would sometimes result in a confused police officer and a demand for my ID. (In 2015, the U.S. Justice Department found our police department to be among the least racially representative in the country.)

I admit Inkster has a murder rate 60% higher than Chicago’s and 6 times that of New York City’s. And with a population of 25,000, it is the smallest of the cities listed in America’s ten most dangerous. (These numbers are from comprehensive data from all law enforcement agencies: neighborhoodscout.com/top100dangerous.)

But that is the tale of the statistics. The story I offer here is that of a life shaped, and propelled throughout, by a city and a family.

Don’t try to picture Inkster, because you can’t. If your image of violent cities comes from popular entertainment, you may expect swarms of menacing youth wearing gang colors and hanging out in front of graffiti-covered buildings riddled with bullet holes. You might be surprised or perhaps even disappointed by the almost-rural appearance of this suburb of Detroit—with its rolling green hills, small-town tranquility, well-maintained lawns and gardens, and cheerful greetings from neighbors. A Hollywood director would never use this place as a set for a crime-plagued city.

There isn’t the sort of organized crime that is romanticized in popular television shows and movies that feed the public’s seemingly insatiable appetite for glamorized criminality. It is largely unorganized crime—random, violent, stupid, heartbreaking.

Such as the so-called Inkster Craigslist murders that are in the news as I am writing this. I can see our house on the TV news clips. One of the murders occurred on our block just a few doors down from us. Another took place on the next block. Someone is placing ads online to sell an item, then robbing and murdering the victims in their cars when they arrive with cash to make the purchase. The first victim, James Nguyen, father of four sons (including one with special needs), often bought and sold cell phones online. The second victim, Dakari Mitchell’s last words to his family, as he was heading out the door of his home in Detroit, was that he was driving to Inkster to pick up a Sony Playstation that he saw on Craigslist for $200. My body collapses in on itself as I watch Dakari’s friends and family members, from his mother to his little son, generations of agonizing grief that will be felt for lifetimes beyond ours, wailing in broken voices, “How could you take him from us?” . . . for two hundred dollars.

Also in recent Inkster news is the conviction of the murderers of two-year-old Kamiya Gross. They shot her just before shooting her father, because the last thing they wanted him to see before they killed him was the sight of his little daughter being shot in the head from point blank range. The murder took place just ten days before her planned third birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. Her father survived the shooting and was able to testify. Without his testimony, this could have ended up as just another unsolved and desperately inexplicable act of brutality in Inkster. Still, it is one more tragic act in an overlong play of violence.

My family members have been both victims and perpetrators of the violence. My immediate family still lives in the same house in Inkster that they have occupied for 46 years now. I left for New York City 28 years ago, at the age of 26, but Inkster has never left me. It remains in me as an aching yet comfortable feeling. It isn’t a painful ache. It is more of a yearning ache, to story forth my hometown and my family, and a life influenced, informed, and inspired by them both.

In that process, what bears consideration is not just the tragedy, but also the absurdity of violence, crime, and circumstance. My cousin is currently serving a third-strike felony sentence because he concluded an armed bank robbery with the clever getaway plan of changing into clothes he hid in a dumpster behind the bank, but then dutifully standing directly in front of the bank he had just robbed to wait for the bus (all while holding a large and quite visible bag of money). Another felon first cousin just recently completed a prison sentence for committing an equally witless crime.

The family tragicomedy is peopled on my father’s side by broad-shouldered men and women all towering well over six feet, some nearly seven feet tall. My mother’s side provides balance with characters five feet tall and some under five feet who, despite their small frames, are equally willing to carry the weight of a long and contentious history with the authorities. It is a legacy that has hopefully come to its conclusion with my federal lawsuit against the New York Police Department (and with all four brothers in my family settling into average height).

The casualties and culprits among my classmates include one from high school who was doused with kerosene and burned to death as he was walking on our elementary school’s street, and one who was stabbed to death by my other classmate because a pair of new shoes was stepped on.

But of all the events and images, there is one . . .

I was sitting in my 3rd grade classroom at the beginning of the school day. The substitute teacher was taking attendance and called my best friend Jeffrey’s name. There was an unforgettably cold silence. I anxiously looked over at his empty desk. I had just played with Jeffrey the day before, and was looking forward to playing with him again that day. There is nothing quite like the love that little friends feel for each other, and the warmth and excitement they stir in each other’s hearts.

I learned at that moment, from another classmate, that my cherished companion Jeffrey would not be coming to school anymore. His mother, a kindly woman who was the only person who ever asked me “What did you learn in school today”, was stabbed to death by her husband before he shot and killed himself.

I always remember the unique anguish of a child’s heartbreak, with the suffocation of feeling as though your heart is going all the way up into your tiny throat, the innocent little mind too easily and deeply confused to be consoled, feeling like you are going to choke on your own tears, wanting the crushing sensation to go away . . . and just hoping against hope that you will somehow see your friend and his sweet mother again. It was a hurt that visited me so many times, I eventually learned that when searing pain keeps mixing with the burning blood in your little heart over time, it creates a chemical reaction . . . a fire that can either burn you destructively into useless ashes or blaze you brightly into a beacon of change—change to yourself and to your world.

Inkster has taught me much about both violence and peace, degradation and inspiration, deliberate ignorance and insatiable curiosity, deep hatred and profound love. There is a peculiar mix of disgust and pride that you feel when you come from a place like this.

For me, pride is the stronger feeling. For such a small town, Inkster has a remarkable history and has cultivated an impressive list of residents: from Malcolm X to the Marvelettes, Motown’s first act with a #1 pop record; from the iconic Rosie the Riveter to NASA Director Dr. Woodrow Whitlow; from Olympic medalist Earl Jones to NFL player Tyrone Wheatley, and a number of professional athletes and musicians, including Bill Summers, original member of Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters band whose first album Rolling Stone Magazine placed on their list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time (Bill also played with Michael Jackson, Prince, Sting, and a long list of other music stars), and my classmate Rhonda Griffith’s father was Funk Brother Johnny Griffith from the Oscar-nominated documentary, Standing in the Shadows of Motown. Inkster is named by Alex Haley in his book Roots as home to descendants of Kunta Kinte. One-time Michael Jackson business partner, Don Barden, was born and raised in Inkster.  America’s first black-owned radio station, WCHB is in Inkster.

Inkster was the home of singer Syreeta Wright, a prolific songwriter who gave the Spinners their first hit (“It’s a Shame”) and whose songs were recorded by Smokey Robinson, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Phil Collins, Diana Ross, B.B. King, Peter Frampton, Edgar Winter, Chaka Khan, Charlie Daniels, The Osmonds, Joan Baez, Jose Feliciano, Michael McDonald, among many others. She sang with Ray Charles, George Harrison, Quincy Jones, Billy Preston, and many more. The haunting melody that she sang on “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers” became a standard among the greatest guitar players, such as Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Steve Lukather with the Crusaders, John Mayer, Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour and others.

Most importantly, as a teenager, Syreeta Wright sang in the choir at Mission Baptist Church on John Daly Road in Inkster, and she performed in our high school talent shows. A little girl with dreams of becoming a ballerina, who lost her father at the age of five when he was killed in the Korean War, who was raised with her two sisters by their single mother, moved from her little house on New York Street in Inkster to a home in New York City with her husband . . . Stevie Wonder. Upon Syreeta’s passing in 2004, Stevie said of his experience co-writing numerous successful songs with her and the influence she had on his songwriting, “She played a significant part in my working with songs and really getting into songs.” Humble little Inkster, in its own way, inspired even the greatest.

And as if to make a game-ending play in a contest for City of Irony, this town with some of the youngest fatalities was the home of the oldest living person in the world, Jeralean Talley, until she passed away on June 17, 2015 at 116 years old. Her life spanned three centuries: the 19th, 20th, and 21st.

When the world’s last living person from the 19th Century departed this earth, her final sight was of 21st Century Inkster. She closed her eyes for the last time, and dreamed of that concluding vision: Inkster and her family, and all our families who faithfully abide here, struggling but never giving up on our town or on each other, continually dreaming along with Jeralean of a powerful people and a picturesque land of great promise and potential.






“Oh damn, shit, shit, shit,” I mumbled, as my right knee folded dropping me to the runway surface. My Dog Killer, gun shy she is, squirted for home as fast as I have ever seen her move.

What better place for an airline pilot to live than in an old remodeled airplane hangar. Home sits on a little airport near a border crossing, where you can travel from NW Montana into British Columbia. It has metal siding and a green corrugated roof. As small airports go, this one is low rent; when its air traffic activity is measured it needn’t be put on a map. If over the span of a year we average one take-off and landing a day, it’s been a busy year.

For questionable reasons our local airport authorities don’t take well to our walking a dog on the runway, or as a few locals like to do, roller-skate. They are fearful of our getting hit by the one aircraft that may or may not land that day. Local airport security is regulated by agencies that live and rule from Washington, D.C. whom, no doubt, are afraid of the many terrorists embedded within the herd of Elk that transit our perimeter on a regular basis. A twelve-foot high hurricane fence, topped with no less than three strands of barbed wire, surrounds the field. It reminds me of scenes from Alcatraz. Gunshots heard from the border, near where the US Border Patrol maintains their gun range aren’t unusual.

Our black Lab we call Killer, came to us via the local animal shelter having arrived there via a whole in the border fence. Her rabies tag was from Cranbrook. She is a huge dog, part of her being Great Pyrenees, giving her long legs and a thick furry undercoat. The stray dog brought with her a unique appetite for coyotes. She alone keeps the airport free of the local band; fortunately she hasn’t caught one before they manage an escape under the airport fence. I fear they will lure her into their circle one day. Unable to escape her perpetual look of guilt, Killer’s sad brown eyes reflect a mournful warmth and easiness. She does not possess a mean fiber in her constitution and would lick you to death if given the chance. Each day Killer loves and insists on a morning run down the airport’s runway, a length of forty-two hundred feet with lights and a visual glideslope if needed.

An embarrassing incident, for which I felt a weighty responsibility, forced me home pending an investigation. Walking the runway this morning wasn’t in the plan; I should have been at work today. While enjoying our daily ritual, about midway down the runway, Killer and I hear the crack of gunfire coming from the direction of the border. At the same instant I felt a sharp stinging pain in the back of my right knee. Killer took off running having suffered a lapse in judgment; she forgot momentarily where her daily rations originate.

Hearing gunshots in our area isn’t something we get excited about; we live in Montana. The gunshots and then feeling sharp pain should give one pause; enough so to imagine having been shot. I thought I had; Killer thought so too and wasn’t hanging around for a second opinion. Gathering myself, checking my knee I found no sign of injury and felt no further discomfort; not that I’d know how being shot should feel. I merely tweaked an old knee injury when turning sideways keeping watch on my coyote-crazed dog. After regaining my footing I felt both thankful and relieved to have escaped being shot.

The suspension from work involved my entire crew; both pilots and flight attendants. For all concerned it was too embarrassing an event to make the news so it didn’t. The unlikely crime, not intentional, required a coming together of a rare assortment of circumstances; all of a nature not easily assembled.

Airline on-time performance then, as a product of the times, was a key metric in airline rating systems. Increased competition by new entry airlines disrupted a former stable market in ticket pricing. As airline executives began getting their bonuses in stock options passenger perks suffered. Seat mile costs and short-term gains ruled the day. The boarding agent’s mantra became, “Ladies and gentlemen please take your seats as quickly as possible.” Passengers became numb to being treated like cattle, as cabin doors were slammed shut behind them. Echoing their displeasure occasional bellowing and mooing sounds could be heard. During this era, the only distinction between riding a bus and flying coach was the time spent getting to the destination.

Why and when I became attracted to this industry is an even longer story than the one at hand. It still puzzles me. As a child with many choices of toys; which included a boys standard police car, a fire truck, an airplane; I always chose the latter. Why, I can’t explain. Do crickets fly? Mine did. Inside models built of balsa wood, I placed crickets in the cockpit seat where the pilot was supposed to sit. Tossing them into the air, chasing as they flew; I wanted to see if the little critter survived the inevitable crash-landing. They never appeared injured so I assumed flying was a safe venture. Whether they enjoyed their short flight couldn’t be determined, I felt like they did and liked pretending to be the cricket.

The month of the flying incident, I was paired with Steve “The Buzz” Forte. Steve was lean and wiry with a close trimmed graying head of what used to be red hair. His military squared-away appearance earnestly earned him his nickname. Buzz was one of those guys that could have been an astronaut had he wanted and of whose military experience I was envious. A graduate of the Air Force Academy he had enjoyed a lengthy military career as a pilot. After retiring he was hired by American Airlines where he’d been flying for nearly three years. A great story-teller Buzz always carried with him a pocketful, along with an abundant willingness to share them. There were also some harrowing stories of flying experiences during the Vietnam War. Possessing a unique ability to create his own narrative, it often took him lengthy periods to get to the punch lines. Buzz was a natural entertainer.

The remarkable set of circumstances that set the stage is hard to imagine; I could never have dreamed this one up. Our dilemma began after our morning show time at the Seattle Airport Terminal. Many airlines fly the same types of equipment – those aircraft are built by the same manufacturer. They come off an assembly line, much as a car does, but aren’t issued their own set of ignition keys. In fact, no ignition keys are required. They come with custom brand colors and a few interior equipment differences that aren’t always obvious on the surface. Their identical cockpits are familiar to any set of trained pilots no matter which airline they work for.

Even today, given the heightened security procedures now in place since 9/11, a trained airline pilot with a set of wire cutters, at some remote airport at say two o’clock in the morning, could cut his way through the airport fence and walk onto an aircraft, start it up and take it for a spin around the pattern single handed. Not that anyone would want to do that necessarily.

At most large airports, by design, more airplanes overnight than are gates available, creating the necessity to park extras at remote locations. For example; they can be parked at maintenance facilities, on the ramp or even remote taxiways. Late in the evening or early morning, mechanics, when called upon, will taxi aircraft to their scheduled departure gates. Not untypical of large airports, to accommodate flights at the same time, some gates have long Jet-ways with multiple Jet-bridges at their end. A gate number might have an A, B and a C Jet-bridge. Early morning departures depending on the season are mostly done in darkness. Such was the case on this chilly, snowy, mid-December morning. In the rushed atmosphere of a fast-approaching holiday, and during a low visibility snow storm, an airliner was mistakenly parked at a wrong gate number. The misplaced airplane, covered in ice and snow, became known as, “The Snowbird.”

Our arrival in Seattle, on the last overnight of our schedule, provided a minimum of crew rest with a 6am departure the next morning. This meant we needed to be at the airport an hour earlier. It was still snowing as we arrived. Our cabin crew, landing earlier in Seattle the day before, was overnighting at a different hotel nearer the city. Their arrival, unknown to us, would be delayed because their hotel bus slid off the road on the way to the airport. Another van retrieved them. This quirky accident only highlights some of the dangers flight crews often face having nothing to do with flying an airplane. It is the van ride to and from the airport that is by far more dangerous than the flight itself.

Once at the airport terminal it was routine to first check the monitor for our flight number and its departure gate. Observing ours, AA 440, showed us on schedule departing from our concourse at Gate 17C. Crew flight operations at most airports are usually located at the ramp level beneath the departure gates. Seattle Ops was located upstairs near their administration offices. It was there we obtained our paperwork required for the flight, which included a weather package, a flight plan and release sent from the on-duty Flight Dispatcher at DFW.

It was customary to leave our bags (flight kit and suitcases) behind our gate’s check in zone. After doing so I headed over to the elevator to take me up to operations. Buzz, with his bags in tow, descended into the dark Jetway to power up, preflight and get the aircraft ready to fly. Arriving in operations I received an immediate call from Buzz advising we have a big problem; he found our bird completely covered in ice and snow and it would require a major de-icing. An early morning freezing rain, topped with a couple inches of snow had blanketed the entire aircraft, creating as he referred, “Our Snowbird.”

After arriving in the cockpit and getting settled in, I checked the fuel slip against the flight plan fuel load. It was correct and nothing appeared out of place. The exception was, the ACARS unit was blinking red, which meant it wasn’t available. It was, unfortunately, out of paper and we couldn’t locate another spool to replace it with. ACARS (Aircraft Communications and Reporting System), interconnects intra airline messaging via Teletype, our normal direct link to our airline’s data base. Checking my Minimum Equipment List, I carry in my flight bag, I decided we could get along without the system; we can manage using our communication radios. They will have plenty of paper in Dallas.

The maintenance logbook looked somewhat unusual, but in a rush, I signed it without paying close attention. We were pushing up against our flight’s departure time and needed to get on with the remaining checklists. Our late cabin crew members had just arrived and passengers were being rushed into the Jetway. Covered in ice and snow the aircraft hadn’t thawed yet. We would still need a de-icing crew to hose us down; that will take place on a taxiway out closer to the departure runway.

When our Flight Attendants arrived in the boarding area the gate agent had the passengers follow them into the Jetway. He held back boarding at the Jet-bridge while the crew completed their preflight and safety checks. Once finished, and as the last passenger set foot through the cabin door, the agent announced, “Ladies and Gentlemen please take your seats as quickly as possible” swinging the door shut behind them. As the Jet-bridge pulled away, the aircraft covered in snow, sitting in the silence and glow of terminal lights, remained unidentifiable.

As passengers were finding their seats and while the Jet-bridge moved away, our first flight attendant stuck her head into the open cockpit door saying, “Stop them, we don’t have enough plates in First,” meaning First Class. Concerned, we called the ramp for help, their reply was, “Sorry, in this weather it will take the caterers an hour to get back.” We were then assured by the cabin, as they always do, they can make it work.

All buttoned up and after engine start we taxi out from the gate towards the de-icing block to await our turn in the lineup. While waiting, Buzz, the personal entertainment center, begins one of his long tales. It involved a frog and a golfer.

Buzz began:

“Late one afternoon this golfer see is playing singles and finds his golf ball sitting near a rough grassy patch on the right side of the first fairway. Thinking over his next shot to the green, the golfer is ready to play when he hears a low croaking voice say, “Hit the six-iron.” The Golfer doesn’t see anyone.

“It’s a six-iron” he heard again. He looks around, nothing.

“Over here” says the croaky voice. The golfer, looking off to his right, spots a frog sitting in the grass.

“Betcha it’s a six for sure” the frog says.

The golfer replies, “Well, let us just see.”

The golfer hitting his six-iron crushes the ball off the center of the blade heading for the center of the green. Once there it did one hop, rolled up and buried itself into the center of the cup.”

It’s a long story and Buzz continues for the next ten minutes or so. The end result has the frog, with his “What about me pleas,” convinces the golfer to take the frog home and ultimately to bed; ending up on his pillow. The frog convinces the golfer to kiss him goodnight and when he does so the frog goes Poof and turns into this beautiful fifteen year old girl. The final scene has the golfer trying to convince the judge how this young girl ended up in his bed.

As the story ended we were next in line for de-icing so we move up and shut down the engines. The fluid mixture used for de-icing is only slightly flammable but isn’t at all healthy for breathing and could be toxic. To prevent fumes being sucked into the cabin requires completely shutting down power, which includes the APU, our Auxiliary Power Unit. It’s an eerie feeling sitting in the dark listening to De-icing hoses splashing on the outside… swoosh-swooshing up and down the aircraft cabin. The sound, combined with darkness, I feel certain is unnerving for passengers sitting in back. Once finished we get the high sign from the crew outside and again start up to continue progress towards the runway for departure.

Because of the early hour and low visibility in continuing snow, the tower controllers are unable to visually see aircraft in line on the taxiway. Our turn came up for take-off and we were cleared to depart. Now, free of ice and snow, we head south for Dallas having no idea what surprise awaits us on arrival.

Once we have the aircraft leveled at cruise altitude, we hear a knuckle tapping on the cockpit door followed by an immediate call from the flight attendant’s interphone in the forward cabin. She requested we open the cockpit door. This was pre 9/11; before airline flying and life in America forever changed. The flight attendant, sticking her head inside the cockpit says, “My key isn’t working in this door” and in a humorous note commented, “We are still working for American Airlines, right? The guys in the way back noticed after passenger briefing the evacuation cards all read Delta Airlines. But, catering gave us our normal American fare; maybe cabin services mixed up on the cards, coffee anyone?” Buzz and I didn’t give it much thought and continued with our business getting the flight from Seattle to DFW. I loved the three-day flight schedules where during our first and second days we flew more segments. On the last day, it was a simple one leg sequence back to our crew base allowing for a commute home the same day. The home report from Montana says Killer the dog has been in a pout the last few days; the coyotes have taken control of our little airport again and she is having anxieties about that.

Rude Awakening

The weather was clear for our arrival at DFW. A normal descent and visual landing to runway 13 Right was planned. We touched down just a few minutes behind schedule which I thought good considering our delay leaving Seattle. After landing and during rollout the controller instructed, “American Four-Forty… take the next high speed and join taxiway inner Bravo, hold short of Runway One-Eight-Right, contact ground frequency One-Two-One-Eight-Five.”

The Tower Controller continued; “American/Delta Four-Forty holding short there… who-are-you, really? Do you have a gate yet?”

“Ground, you calling American Four-Forty… we’re confused?”

The ground controller came back, “Aircraft holding short of One-Eight-Right, there at Bravo, say again your call sign?”

We answered, “Um, American Four-Forty is holding short at Bravo,”

“Oh Boy, I am confused now”, continued the ground controller, “I am looking at an MD-80 in Delta Airline paint holding short at Bravo. Say again, American Four-Forty, is that you?”

We replied, “Affirmative, Four-Forty holding short at Bravo!” We were then instructed, in a terse manner, “Four-Forty… Hold Your Position!”

The conversation taking place in the tower must have continued something like this. Calling to his duty supervisor the ground controller would say, “What do you make of this, a Delta answering to an American call sign, he’s holding short there at Bravo? You think something’s up?” “Well,” the super paused; let’s not take any chances, call security.”

We were soon surrounded on the taxiway by a half dozen airport security vehicles accompanied by sirens with blinking red, and blue lights. Instructed to shut down in place, near the runway intersection, we lowered our air-stairs and opened the cabin door. As I stood in the doorway I could see at the bottom of the stairs, a security team, complete with dogs on leashes. A German Shepard and a Black Lab were sniffing around the stairs at ramp level; the Lab could have passed for a sibling of my own great black hunter, the Killer. I thought to myself, Oh boy, these guys aren’t looking for coyote’s.

Well what more is to be said, it was true, we did it; we had flown an MD-80 airliner belonging to Delta Airlines to the Dallas Fort Worth Airport. There were some tell-tale signs as we looked more focused around the cockpit again and I said to my co-pilot, “I wonder when my hearing will be?” Buzz humorously replied, “Wha-ut about me?”

In defense of ourselves, the hearing for the unintended use of Delta’s aircraft turned out to be not much at all. During my many years of flying there were periods when airlines would use one another’s aircraft. They were generally short term leases or acquisitions of another airlines expendable aircraft for new route expansions. Some of those aircraft hadn’t always been through the cosmetic conversion for changes in interior and exterior branding. We, both pilots and flight attendants, had been conditioned by previous experiences. The nuances of our airlines identity had been easily overlooked, but our experience won’t be long forgotten by anyone, least of all us.



The following is a recent missive from our Daughter Madeline. Lost in the forest of addiction, she is trying to find her way out. An opiate addict for most of her adult life; I want to share, for the benefit of family, friends and other addicts, her powerfully profound, intelligent and articulate description of her current state that hopefully is the beginning of her journey out of the trees.

Maddi, sitting curbside outside a rehab facility, typed out the following message to her friends and family prior to her walking in the front door.  For, as she says, a fourth attempt at getting clean. We are praying for her success. Please join us.

“Thinking About Making a Change”

“Here goes nothing… 4th times a charm right Jilian Wolfe? Thank you to those who stuck by my side and a bigger thank you to those who turned their back on me and showed me how strong I truly am on my own. I will not be judged by anyone who has never had to face my demons every day. I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy let alone a “friend.” Nobody chooses this hell and yes it is fucked up and we do stupid shit and hurt people, but we are our own worst enemy. We struggle to look in the mirror everyday… We are terrified of ourselves; even we don’t know the lengths we will to go just for a fix… It hurts and disappoints us too.

A lot give up along the way and it consumes their life until they die or go to prison. They accept that their lives are going to be waking up to your own personal hell stuck in a vicious cycle of never truly being happy. I personally am more unhappy after I get it, than when I’m sick because I’m going to have to be sick again the next day… You can’t function and it’s so frustrating but you can’t stop. You slowly lose everything including your mind and you are stuck alone and miserable. Not only all of this is going on but on top of all of that, they are judged and put down by everyone else. We hate ourselves enough already… Thanks though we don’t need the extra guilt we have enough!

What an addict needs more than anything is kind words and unconditional love. I have been fortunate enough to have amazing parents Chris Healy Hart and Ron Hart who have never failed to support me and feed me confidence. Most don’t have that luxury. Pass along love and hope and this world would be a much more pleasant place. LIFE GOES ON… Forgive those who deserve it and don’t waste time hating those who don’t. You only hurt yourself with hatred. Live your own life and do what makes you happy!!! Life is too fucking short to waste it doing anything other than exactly what you want. Love your lovers and love your haters. “Do no harm, but take no shit.”
Love you guys be back when my mind is clear and my body is recovered.”
Madeline Morrell Hart

Our message to our Madeline by someone who says it best:

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…”

― Dr. Seuss, Oh, The Places You’ll Go!

Go Maddi Hart

We love you, to the Moon and back,

Mom and Dad

The Shortest of Lives

The Shortest of Lives

An unknown, un-understandable tragedy occurred on April 6th in 1963. Un-understandable because of my youth and naiveté to comprehend what had just occurred to our young family. A baby’s life didn’t happen. Rona Lynn Hart, a full term baby girl, didn’t survive the birthing event. She was stillborn and laid to rest in an unmarked grave in Blytheville, Arkansas. I was unable to ask questions because I didn’t know I could have (and should have) done so. Today I would like to know more about that day; did she breathe, did she cry, did she see the light of day? I would like to know more about what had happened to our family on that spring day in 1963. Depression and family breakdown are known complications of events such as these.

Who would have recognized, barricading oneself in their bedroom and shooting holes in the floor with an ill placed 22 pistol, as post-partum depression in 1963. Thinking it was nutso behavior then, wouldn’t be fair today would it.

We didn’t have the money at the time for what would be a proper burial so one of my squadron’s administrative officers at the Air Base contacted the Red Cross on our behalf. They agreed to give us the required two hundred dollars, but first we would have to sign a twenty-five dollar a month allotment over to them to repay the advance. I didn’t think much about it then but today I don’t harbor great thoughts about the organization, although I feel certain they have and continue to do good things in the world for many people in need.

Over the years I often thought about Rona Lynn and her unmarked grave. Ten years ago I decided to do something about it. I paid her a visit; she would have been in her late thirties by then, and I arranged for a monument to be placed on her unmarked grave. I am so happy I did that… in fact I am ecstatic. Because, about two weeks ago, I paid her another visit and I cried of course. I had difficulty saying goodbye. Now, in my advanced years, because of time and distance involved I realize I may never get back to pay my respects again.

What is even more remarkable about this my latest visit, I learned only a few days ago, Rona Lynn’s mother had been to the grave site just a few days earlier; we almost crossed paths. I wish we had. She too suffers the same time and distance problems as do I. Life travels on and you never forget the memories, both the good ones and bad.

Good Hands

The Art of Good Touch

The artful pilot will often be referred to as having “good hands.” An aircraft is equipped with three flight control elements. The rudder is controlled by rudder pedals on the floor in front of each pilot and they control, obviously, the rudder. It is located at the rear end of the airplane; much like a rudder on a boat except an airplane rudder sticks up in the air while in a boat it is in the water. Both have the same effect on directional control. Ailerons are on each wing tip, left and right, and when deflected by rotating the control wheel in the cockpit, they will bank the aircraft to the left or to the right.

There is some coordination required when manipulating the ailerons and rudder simultaneously to accomplish what is called coordinated flight. Some pilots are naturals and some learn it by experience. A few never get it and could be referred as being ham fisted. Fortunately, for those, the yaw damper was developed. It isn’t much help though when landing in a crosswind where the rubber literally meets the road. Swept wing aircraft had the proclivity to enter a Dutch-roll and the yaw damper solved the problem. It was a huge issue early on in flying jet aircraft with the introduction of swept wings.


Pushing the control column either forward or aft will control the elevators. They are located aft near the rudder and when pushed forward will raise the tail pitching the nose of the aircraft downward. The reverse is true for pulling the control wheel column back thus pitching the nose upward.

Early in my airline career I had the luck to fly with a Captain that possessed a very soft touch when manipulating aircraft flight controls. He was truly like an artist with a brush in his hands and treated the airplane like it was his only child and, as if his life depended on it; which of course it did.’ What he possessed was finesse in the manipulation of the controls. It didn’t matter whether he was on the ground or in the air; he was totally focused on his passengers comfort.

Captain Finesse’s touch was also featured in other areas of his life. He liked to share the many exploits he had using “his kit” as he referred to it. He was never without “his kit” (within his kitbag) he liked to say; meaning in his flight-bag. While cruising along one sunny afternoon, high above the Rocky Mountains, he decided to share its contents with me. From his bag he pulled out a pouch neatly folded and tied together with a leather shoelace; the kind you would use to lace on a boot. It was quite long and took him awhile to unroll and unfold. Within the pouch were several different colored candles, some leather straps and bracelets along with a few more of the laces. As he referred to his various combinations of paraphernalia he would say, “Sacramento likes this one and Oklahoma City prefers these,” always referring to his obvious paramours as cities on our flight schedules.

I didn’t learn much about his techniques with his kit back then, he didn’t share, but I always found his stories interesting and colorful. The man could really fly an airplane the way it was designed to be flown; for the pleasure and comfort of his passengers. I’m sure he had really great hands when it came to his other peccadilloes, and I’m certain their pleasure and comfort were equally important.

Air California

Air California

Following my nearly ten years of hopping between various airlines my closet was now filling up with underused uniforms. During this period I’d gained some great flying experience to various corners of the globe and decided it was now time to commit to a long-range employment strategy. Fortunately, in 1978, the Airline Deregulation Act came into being.

A few friends from my original class at ONA had found jobs at an interstate airline in California. I was alerted to the fact that the airline was planning to expand beyond the states borders, and would soon be in need of experienced pilots. My good friends sent me an application and helped arrange for an interview with the Director of Operations and Chief Pilot. To these friends I remain, even today, eternally grateful.

Air California hired me to be in their next pilot training class. I was back in New York where I had just finished my tour with Rosenbaum Aviation when the telegram arrived. It read, “Please confirm your attendance for Boeing 737 pilot training class commencing on May 29, 1978.” My new wife and I were ecstatic, we would be moving to Santa Ana in sunny Southern California.

What followed was ten years of full bliss. I became part of a group of employees so dedicated to the success of the airline it is almost beyond description. We were part of a gleeful competition with fellow intrastate airline PSA which was based not far away in San Diego.

The flying was rigorous, we could have as many as eight to ten take offs and landings in a single day shuttling between various destinations within the state. The strategy had an expeditious nature to it, with a challenge to still provide good service to our passengers. We prided ourselves on that. Whatever we could do to beat PSA at its game we tried and in most cases succeeded.

When the economy faltered slightly our management came up with ten minute turnarounds to better utilize our fleet of aircraft. Ten minutes, block in to block out, involved deplaning passengers through the front exit while cabin cleaners boarded through the back cleaning seats and seatbacks as passengers made their way out. Ten minutes later we were taxiing out for departure.

Within a very short while the airline deregulation act took hold. No longer did the CAB (Civil Aeronautics Board) control airline routes and pricing. It faded into what was referred as its sunset and the industry became a free for all. Air California grabbed a new image and emerged as AirCal and began major expansions in out of state destinations; like Reno, Las Vegas, Portland, Seattle, and even Chicago O’Hare.


What we needed were more airplanes, more employees, which meant more pilots and the big change for me personally, more Captains. In less than two years I became a Captain again. I would remain in the left seat for the remainder of my flying career. Twenty-five years as a Captain, in a thirty-two year career, is almost virtually unheard of in the industry. I chalk it up to luck and the classic cliché; “being at the right place at the right time.”

I would never experience again the fun I had flying for this little airline. It had personality and style and a dedication of its employees that went beyond typical brand loyalties. Who would have guessed after a major industry shakeout, which had a lot to do with deregulation, some of the major airlines would no longer exist so soon afterwards. Pan Am and Eastern come to mind.

One that remained was American Airlines and in 1987 it chose to acquire our little home grown airline. Life changed again. The opportunity to fly long range wide body aircraft presented itself and I took advantage.

I would soon be flying the oceanic corridors across the North Atlantic again; Paris, London, Milan, Zurich, Stockholm, and Frankfurt, destinations where I took advantage of the layovers by visiting their Art Museums which were to me national treasures. I especially liked Paris. Later I would fly the Pacific enjoying the long haul to Tokyo. Having spent so much time in the finest of art museums one could imagine reignited my artistic interests and I began again educating myself in the craft. All thanks to American Airlines.

It was shortly before American took hold of my flying career that I discovered I had been adopted as a child. A situation I was totally unaware of; I was forty-five years old. That realization set in motion the fervor to find my biological parents. It didn’t take me long.

Enter the Artist

Enter the Artist,

another journey


Enter the Artist: At this point in my flying career I wasn’t making much progress with my attempt at completing my Famous Artists Course, a correspondence effort with the school in Westport, Connecticut. Lesson 10 is as far as I ever made it. The desire however never faltered and would haunt me for many years to come and I did not understand my pursuit or purpose. Our family had migrated from the Bay Area out to Vacaville primarily because our flying schedules required us to originate from both Navy Alameda and McClellan AFB, near Sacramento. The city located in the mid valley was halfway between them and was also near Travis AFB.

While living in Solano County, I discovered a junior college that had a commercial art course that could be attended at night a few days a week. I enrolled. It is here that I met Ray and Donnie Salmon who became lifelong friends. They both taught the classes. Donnie was a freelance book illustrator and Ray was a published cartoonist and former trumpet player. They both shepherded me through a couple of years of commercial art training and then later sent me on to the Academy of Art College in San Francisco.

During this period of time the airline industry became somewhat unstable. It began with the Arab Oil Embargo in October of 1973, which created the crisis that limited our nations energy supplies severely. All of this the direct result of Egypt and Syria attacking Israel on Yom Kippur, a war in which the US came to Israel’s aid by providing them arms. This era, from 1973 on, seems to me the beginning of a world awareness of the polarization in the region that remains today very complicated.

Competition for the Air Force Logair and the Navy Quick Trans contracts increased significantly and ONA chose not to compete for as many routes. The decision was made to sell their Electra aircraft fleet and to increase the DC-8 numbers plus adding 3 DC-10’s. I ended up transitioning to the right seat of the DC-8 passenger operation based in New York, and I chose to commute from California.

There were several incidents that contributed to the strategic long term plans of the airline. The first was the loss of one of our DC-9 aircraft in an accident that never should have happened. Little did I know that almost one year after I finished initial flight training in my first jet aircraft that the very same airframe would be laying on the bottom of the Caribbean Sea, just thirty-five miles short of St. Croix, where it remains today.

ALM 980

The flights Captain was a check airman (an instructor pilot), whom I’d had my own experience with a year earlier, was well known among fellow pilots to prefer flying the aircraft below performance capable altitudes. He liked to fly low using long range cruise airspeeds and unfortunately, it is also where fuel is exhausted more readily. One needs to keep in mind that this era of jet airliners was fairly young. Most older airline pilots, although well experienced, had graduated into swept wing jets from a totally different era.

The jet aircraft was a different animal, unlike the piston aircraft with straight wings, it had the capability to fly high and fast. The aircraft range (its distance capability) was determined by how high you could get it to climb. The limiting factor was the limitation on wing stall speeds (when the wing no longer is creating lift or stops flying). There are two of those: referred to as the low speed stall, and the high speed stall. As you climb higher the two speeds merge into what was ominously called the “coffin corner,” but the moniker really had no merit. The most efficient altitude for fuel burn rate was in an envelope where there was only a ten knot spread between the low and high speed stall of the wing. It isn’t at all scary if you have been doing it for twenty years. Without this long term background it is easy to understand why some early jet pilots were a bit wary. The Captain of Flight 980, the ONA flight I am referring to, was perhaps one of those. But, he was also known, by his own admission, as the Cherub-Faced-Assassin. He seemed to take pleasure in flunking his pilot victims. Plus, he operated the aircraft as a one man band preferring to do everything himself. CRM (Crew Resource Management), was still a few decades away which was made necessary, within the industry, by pilots such as himself.

My personal experience with the Captain of Flight 980 occurred during my initial qualification training with ONA. After my sessions with another flight instructor, I was given over to the cherub-faced-one for a final check-ride. I flunked! But, I have to give him some credit, he was correct in doing so. I learned a very valuable lesson that day. My problem, like so many that come from a pure piston, straight wing background, was my response during takeoff after an engine failure. During the unspooling of the engine, using a simulated engine failure technique (done by retarding the engine throttle to idle), you try to keep the airplane on the center line of the runway using only rudder controlled directional input. My mistake, besides using the rudder, was unconsciously applying a little control wheel steering which deflected the ailerons (and possibly flight spoilers) on the wing. This can be disastrous. A deflected spoiler can affect a wings lift, which they are designed to do, but it’s not something you want happening during a very critical time when trying to become airborne. The assassin, rightfully so, said he was sending me back to Moose, my original instructor pilot. I have to admit I was a bit teary eyed as I found my way back to a seat in the cabin, thinking I may have flunked out completely while the next guy in line jumped into the co-pilot seat for his date with the check captain. It was, in retrospect, a very valuable lesson for someone who had never flown a jet.

My friend, a fellow new-hire classmate, was the co-pilot on the ill-fated flight 980 that day, in May of 1970. I have heard the full story from his side of the cockpit. It was a very unusual assortment of circumstances that all came together at once, and for all concerned a sad day, especially the twenty-three people that lost their lives. Neither the captain nor the co-pilot ever flew for another airline again. Even today, in my opinion, the co-pilot was not treated fairly and given a raw deal. The captain took the bait not of his own making and decided it would be safe to continue instead of diverting. My guess, seven out of ten pilots in his position would have done the same. Unfortunately, he suffered the consequences of being pilot in command; that would be called responsibility.

It was twenty-five years later that I met up again with Harry, my fellow classmate from 1969 ONA. We crossed paths at the American Airlines Flight Academy in the late 1990’s. I was there for recurrent training, a semi-annual requirement for all line captains at US Government Certified Air Carriers. He was there doing a training regimen and was currently employed as a ground school instructor at the FedEx training center in Memphis. We made a date to have lunch the next afternoon to catch up on our lives since ONA.

I’d flown in and out of dark clouds and sparkling sunshine during the intervening period since I last saw Harry, some twenty-five years earlier, and I related to him the many airlines I’d flown for since. During this later portion of my aviation career I was heavy into my art and I shared this with him. Harry then mentioned the aviation art located at Simuflite which was located nearby and asked if I would like to go have a look after our lunch. I agreed.

Simuflite, now CAE Simuflite, is the world’s largest trainer of corporate pilots and crews. Each year they sponsor an aviation art contest called the “Horizons of Flight, Aviation Art Exhibition & Competition.” It was here that Harry introduced me to my next endeavor. I loved the art I saw and recognized some artists I was familiar with that enjoyed national recognition. I thought to myself then… “I can do this,” and so I did. All thanks go to Harry.

I was by then a signature-member of “The Pastel Society of America” whose annual show was held at the National Arts Club on Gramercy Park in New York. Considering the aviation art genre that Harry had introduced me to, I created a pastel painting of a “Curtiss JN-4” aircraft, commonly referred to as the Jenny. The title of the painting I called “Oh Jenny, Jenny.” It was accepted into their show and to my surprise won an award. I was off to the races.


The Epilogue to this short story is; that just a few short years after my encounter with my former friend Harry, the ill-fated copilot on flight 980 in 1970, was my first participation in the CAE Simuflite, 2002 “Horizons of Flight, Aviation Art Exhibition & Competition. It was a painting titled “Westbound, Direct Tucumcari” an image of an American Airlines MD-80.

The painting won “Best of Show.” Again, thanks to my friend Harry Evans.

The Airline Years

The Airline years:

From the beginning

Let’s just begin with “I can’t believe what has just happened.” I have just been hired by an airline to fly a jet aircraft. I have a new life, a new wife and a brand new baby son. What part of cloud nine should I be requesting.

Euphoria has taken hold and to be standing on the training grounds of a real live airline was way beyond description, or my expectation in this period of my life, I had just turned twenty-eight years old. I began training on January 6th of 1969 at ONA’s Training Center, located at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport, just off Rockaway Boulevard. We, a class of twelve pilots from all walks of the aviation industry, will be subjected to an orientation period, followed by aircraft systems training, and in an adjoining classroom sat a mockup of the DC-9 cockpit. It was called a Cockpit Procedures Trainer. A period of time would be dedicated in it to learn where all of the switches and controls were located within the cockpit. We will then be expected to go from this trainer, directly to flight training in the actual aircraft, skipping the usual flight simulator.

Company orientation involved learning the ONA company history and meeting some of the key personnel, while at the same time receiving our ID cards, which also established our seniority number in accordance with our birthdays. I was one of the younger hired so would be placed near the bottom of the seniority list. ALPA, the Airline Pilots Association, represented our pilot group at ONA. A pilot union was something new to me and we would be on probation for one year, which allowed the company to pay us a minimum wage of $700 dollars a month, plus a per-diem.

During orientation we were introduced to the Chief Pilot of the New York domicile for the DC-9 operation there. As a group we were taken to his office, he was a very busy man, and I was prompted to ask him what time it was. He responded by unzipping his fly and pulling out a pocket watch. This was one hilarious move on his part and it turns out he was a very hilarious pilot to fly with.

Of the dozen of us beginning training, three were retired military, two were former airline pilots who were rated and had previously flown the DC-9. Six had worked for commuter airlines and then there was me. I was the sole general aviation, corporate pilot candidate, without an ounce of turbine experience, how was I to fare. Only nine of the twelve survived the training to become line pilots which, thankfully, included me. And, it wasn’t an easy transition. Thanks go to my flight instructor, known as Moose Adams; who coached me through and taught me how to fly a jet. I will be forever indebted to this kind and gentle man. Yet another Navy transport pilot, much the same as Bill Holbrook did at Kelley, came to my rescue.

After training ended our group went three different directions, a few stayed in New York and the rest of us were divided between Oklahoma City and Dayton Ohio. We would be flying freighters in support of the US Air Force at Tinker AFB, located in Oklahoma, and Wright-Patterson Field at Dayton. ONA had signed a military contract to fly Logair, a scheduled military cargo network that covered all of their bases in the country. I was fortunate to get assigned to Tinker AFB, near Oklahoma City, which wasn’t all that far from Little Rock, where my wife and infant son were staying with her parents while I finished training. ONA operated both its Electra’s and DC-9 aircraft on the military circuits.

Where was I when? I baked my first cake when our son Ronnie celebrated his first Birthday living in a Delwood City apartment; where just a month earlier we witnessed Neil Armstrong do his moonwalk after landing the lunar module Eagle there on its surface. Cast in the same light, it is also the period when our little one began walking on earth. For obvious reasons there are some things you can never forget.

On the road again

Our stay in Oklahoma didn’t last long. Our airline had picked up another military contract for their DC-9 fleet. This time it was for the Navy’s Quick-Trans Cargo operation. Much the same as the Air Forces Logair network, this was the Navy version. We would transfer to Navy Alameda, located in the San Francisco Bay Area, our newest crew domicile. So we packed up and headed west… it was “California or Bust,” we had ten days to get there and settle in. We would remain in California for the remainder of my career with ONA, which would be another seven years.

There were approximately 15 aircraft, both DC-9 and Lockheed Electras, devoted to cargo operations covering the commercial and military markets. Auto Air, at Detroit’s Willow Run Airport, was a freight forwarder for the auto industry shipping massive amounts of car parts overnight to various factories around the country. It was a lucrative contract but you never knew where your next destination might be, as the shipping was responsive to the industry’s needs. Most of this flying was done at night and when showing up at the airport you had no idea where you might be the next morning.

As a supplemental airline, often referred to as a Non-Sked, the majority of revenue for the airline came from its international passenger service. ITC’s (Inclusive Tour Charters) provided the bulk of flying for the airlines New York Base. With a fleet of Douglas DC-8s the airline flew group charters to destinations all over Europe. With its increase in business more aircraft were added to the fleet, including new DC-10’s. This in turn necessitated an increase in pilot hiring. This by no stretch of one’s imagination made me a Captain prospect, in just a few years’ time, much earlier than I would have expected. Therefore at the ripe old age of thirty years I became an Electra captain. Life is good.

Now securely settled on the west coast I began commuting to my new crew domicile at Dayton, Ohio and the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. From there I would fly the Logair routes and on occasion fly out of Willow Run on the Auto Air contract. One of my favorite destinations was from Detroit to Mexico City. That trip required a fuel stop at Houston before heading south of the border.

Just some Cut-Flowers here!

One subsequent trip on a commercial contract involved a trip from Miami to Bogota, Colombia, carrying Motorola TV cabinets. We were live freight going down and scheduled to ferry back to Miami empty. The long trip, made longer because of an inoperative pressurization system, would also require a fuel stop at Barranquilla on the gulf coast. After a long night navigating through the mountains using non-directional beacons, instead of the usual VOR’s because of our low altitude, we arrived safely at Bogota the next morning; elevation 8,360 feet above sea level.


After a good sleep and an evening in the city, we happily made our way out to the airport the next morning for our return ferry flight back to Miami. We were happy to be in more familiar territory especially after passing the many military tanks parked on street corners that were manned by machine-gun toting soldiers. While fueling and preparing a flight plan to be filed, I was approached by a gentleman in uniform, also with a machine gun, who posed an interesting question. In broken English he says, “Captain, you take flowers Miami yes?” Of course I had no authority to approve such a request. My reply would be the obvious… “I’m sorry, but no, we can’t do that.” The man looks me in the eye and repeats, “Captain, you take flowers Miami yes?” Again I repeat, “I’m sorry, no.” The gentleman with the gun then turns and walks away.

So now we are ready to depart and climb aboard and while the flight engineer pulls up the ladder and closes the big cargo door, we call for a start cart. Because we don’t have an APU (an Auxiliary Power Unit) we will need the start cart to provide a pneumatic source of air to rotate the turbine engines. We have four of them, but we only need to start one and can then provide the air ourselves to start the others; a simple, normal, turbine operation.

After several minutes, say about fifteen, we have not seen a cart heading our way and we call again for the cart. Finally, we get a reply, “Sorry, no cart for you today.” Naturally we ask why no cart today? An instant reply comes back to us in the form of, “You take flowers Miami yes?” Well, they for sure have us now; the handwriting is on the wall, we are going to take flowers to Miami, Yes.

What I wasn’t sure of was, what else might be in with the fresh-cut flowers. It was well known there were many drug smuggling operations from South America and especially out of regions in Colombia. We had no way of knowing until U.S. Customs gave us the once over when we arrived back in Miami. After a couple of hours of loading boxes of flowers an air start cart mysteriously appeared beside our aircraft so we cranked and were on our way. Our bill of lading showed “Cut Flowers” and thankfully, according to the inspection team in Miami, that is all they found. But, on second thought, it could easily have been an inside job. In the ever growing trade and even today, it’s going on somewhere.

November 55 King Sugar

November 55 King Sugar

Kelly-Springfield Tire Company

Cumberland, Maryland calling:

My decision to move on from Holiday Inns flying was motivated primarily by our family necessity, I didn’t want to be away from home as much, because my new wife and I were expecting a child in late summer. I had recently, using my GI Bill benefits, acquired an Airline Transport Pilot rating and so began in earnest our hunt for a serious job. Hopefully, one that provided for a young family’s needs and the potential for long term employment. So, once more, Mr. Luck knocked on our door.

I answered a classified ad in an aviation magazine, much the same as they remain today; it could have been either Flying or the AOPA Pilot. “Pilot Wanted”, is how the ad began; Commercial, Instrument, Multi-engine ratings… ATP preferred. Major Benefits – Contact Tom.

I contacted Tom. Tom was the owner of a pilot employment agency in Cumberland, Maryland. He was also a pilot working for the same company that was in need of another pilot; that being the Kelly-Springfield Tire Company. They arranged to fly me from Little Rock to Washington D.C’s National Airport, where they would pick me up to fly with them back to Cumberland, where I would be interviewed.

Bill Holbrook, the company Chief Pilot, a former Navy veteran of WW II and his co-pilot, met me on the appointed date and time at the D.C. airport. They appeared in another handsome airplane that I would be eager to fly. The Lockheed Lodestar (L-18), was a converted former airliner whose type had also been used in the military during the war. The aircraft, N55KS (November Five-Five King Sugar), was old for its day but looked brand new to me. It was a bigger airplane than I had ever flown. Originally designed as a bomber prior to World War II, its type served in Europe as both a transport and bomber. N55KS specifically began its war service in New Zealand in 1943, and afterwards, entered service as an airliner with Union Airways in 1945. It eventually ended up with New Zealand National Airways in 1947. In the early fifties the aircraft was ferried to the US and purchased by the Kelly-Springfield Tire Company becoming N55K.

The Kelly-Springfield Tire Company, founded in 1894 by Edwin Kelly, in Springfield, Ohio, was acquired by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in 1935, and continued operating as a subsidiary. During the interview I was introduced to the nicest group of people I was ever to meet, which included the company chairman. Then later, experiencing it myself, I discovered all the employees at Kelly were treated as family. But then, unfortunately there was Tom, he would be different.

Following the interview I was offered the job. How could they resist, I had eager and earnest written all over my face. After I returned to Little Rock, we, a very brave pregnant wife and myself, packed up our belongings in a U-Haul and towed everything we owned to Cumberland, Maryland. We didn’t suspect it then but we wouldn’t be there very long.

The nature of the flying at Kelly was focused on bringing sales and marketing people in and out of its home office. There were two aircraft (both Lockheed Lodestars), that ran shuttle flights, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. One would leave Cumberland in the early morning making a round robin trip that included stops at then Washington National Airport(now Reagan National), and on to Baltimore and occasionally include Philadelphia, returning back to Cumberland by late morning. The afternoon shuttles would go to Pittsburgh and Akron, the home of its mother company Goodyear, then returning to Cumberland by early evening. Home every night and I really liked that idea a lot.

The Goodyear flight department, based in Akron, also sported their Blimp Operation which has become, and remains, a national icon at sporting events all over the country. The Kelly and Goodyear flight operations were closely related, as they also flew the Lodestars. Additionally they flew a business jet, a North American Sabreliner and a Grumman Gulfstream I, a turboprop. I was fortunate to conveniently hitch a ride in one of the blimps one day, during one of our shuttle flights into Akron; something I would never have imagined happening in my lifetime. As we were landing, I had visions of the Hindenburg’s fateful arrival at Naval Air Station Lakehurst, in 1937, which didn’t turn out so well.

I learned later that none other than American Airlines (my future employer), had contracted to fly the arriving passengers from Lakehurst, New Jersey to Newark to join up with their connecting flights.

Bill Holbrook, World Record

Bill Holbrook, my chief pilot at Kelly, was a very warm and exceedingly pleasant man to fly with. He would also later become the world record holder for distance flown in a glider. That event would take place on May 5, 1973, long after I had departed for what I thought were sunnier skies. Bill, in his Libelle sailplane, did an “out and return” from the Cumberland Airport(CBE), a distance of 783 miles, flying as far north as Lockhaven, Pennsylvania, to as far south as Hansonville, Virginia. The Knobley Mountain Range, lying to the west, provided the initial lift necessary to send him on his way. Bill would add many more trophy’s to his collection of gliding achievements during his lifetime. I was always proud to have worked for him during the early era of my career in aviation.

Flying in and out of the mountainous region surrounding Cumberland, provided some hair-raising experiences. Practices and procedures followed by one pilot in particular, I would find uncomfortable and unacceptable. Most airports surrounded by mountains don’t have what are categorized as precision approaches to their runways. In other words, having an instrument glide path to guide you to the end of the runway you are to land on. Non-precision approaches are the norm, which don’t allow a descent to altitudes that might involve an aircraft coming into contact with the terrain. Which, could be hazardous to ones long term life expectancy.

Turning the page

The hair-raising flight that helped turn the page for me occurred with, none other than, pilot Tom. At the end of a late morning shuttle flight on a return leg from Pittsburg back to Cumberland, with the weather marginal, it was customary to radio ahead to the hangar to get a read on the local weather. One of the mechanics, or a pilot if they were there, would answer and run outside and have a look. He would then advise how high he thought the cloud-bases were, often referred to in aviation terms as the ceiling. It is that distance from the airport elevation (ground level) to the bottom of the cloud layer which allows an aircraft, once beneath, to navigate to the airport for landing. It is what you do in a non-precision approach.

Approaching Cumberland, and well into our descent for landing, we could see ahead the ridges of the mountains peeking through the layer of fog that swamped the valleys between them. Though it has been forty-eight years, I vaguely recall there being an NDB (non-directional-beacon) approach into runway 23 which is to the southwest. The beacon itself, the ground station, was located north and east of the airport. In the aircraft, the navigation instrument used for this approach is an ADF (Automatic Direction Finder), that when tuned to the correct frequency points towards the NDB on the ground. Shooting an ADF approach is one of the more difficult tasks one faces as a pilot. Let alone doing it into mountainous terrain. It’s the time when you really pay attention and earn your keep as a commercial pilot. By today’s standards of GPS this, and GPS that, the NDB approach was, and remains today, a primitive endeavor.

We were descending into a non-radar environment, with no control tower at the airport. Once the enroute air traffic controller cleared you for the approach, you were on your own. The weather report from the guys in the hangar, on their guess at the cloud bases that morning, wasn’t exactly comforting to me. Shooting the approach, when you suspect you aren’t going to see anything was doubly troubling. My Captain, the pilot in command, this would be Tom, seemed anxious and I was aware of his tensely chewing on his unlit cigar, of which he was always very fond. As we continued to descend, and approaching the final approach fix, the aircraft was configured for landing; flaps and landing gear were extended. The friction lock on the throttles was loosened to allow for their easier movement, prop controls were pushed to high RPM and the mixture controls were now on full rich. So down we go.

There is no decision height (DH) on non-precision approaches, where upon reaching with no runway in sight, you fly away. There is instead a minimum descent altitude where once level you continue flying along until time runs out. The time element is calculated ahead of time by estimating the aircraft ground speed. If the number is based on 90 mph that equates to a mile and a half a minute, or, if it is 120 mph it is two miles a minute. If the distance from the final approach fix is one mile at 90 mph you allow 45 seconds to the missed approach point referred to as the MAP.

The field elevation at Cumberland is 775 feet above sea level. As we descend into the cloud I could see the many towers on the ridge-lines to the northwest and southwest, some reaching as high as three or four thousand feet. There were more than twenty of them. Because it has been so many years I’m guessing today our MDA, or minimum descent altitude, would have been in the area of 1500 feet and the time to missed approach at a little over a minute beyond the final approach fix. I’m also going to guess the minimum safe altitude is in the vicinity of five thousand feet within the twenty-five miles surrounding the Cumberland airport.

We have descended now to our published minimum altitude, cruising along, looking out for the airport ahead and have just run the limit of our timed approach. There was no airport, only fog. At this point I say to Tom, in the form of a question, “Missed Approach Tom?” Captain Tom doesn’t reply and I glance at him and watch as he continues gnawing on his cigar. I then look at the altimeter and become alarmingly aghast as I see we are continuing our descent. We are now just a few hundred feet above the airport elevation and Tom hasn’t said a word. What does one do at this point? I feel trapped and somewhat terrified. Busting minimums is not something I am accustomed to doing, nor has Tom let me in on his plan. Fortunately, within a few seconds, we break out of the clouds and dead ahead sits the runway. I got the feeling that Tom has done this before, I just wished he had let me in on his plan. At least then I might have had a vote.

Afterwards, I let Tom know how unhappy I was with his procedure. He was a gruff character to begin with, and my questioning his piloting decision didn’t sooth him to any new degree. Tom and I didn’t get along well after that event. I was to learn later, what goes around comes around and continuing with bad habits have a way of biting you in the butt.

Nearly ten years after our incident, Tom was involved in an aircraft accident at the Cumberland Airport in a Kelly airplane. Fortunately, there were no injuries to the eight passengers aboard. The aircraft, an MU2, suffered substantial damage. At the time of the accident there were low ceilings in the area, the visibility, restricted by snow was less than 2 miles. The NTSB lists the probable cause of the hard landing as: “Aircraft not aligned with the runways intended landing area, improper level off, and failure to initiate a go-around.” The aircraft, a small turboprop, ended up in a snow bank. The winds were listed as calm.

I was to continue working for Kelly through the end of the year in 1968. We were happy living in the area and loved our neighbors. Our apartment was on a hilltop overlooking the North fork of the Potomac River. We were settling in for the long haul and so I signed up once again with the Famous Artist Course in Westport, Connecticut; my second attempt. And why did I suffer this continuous urge to also be an artist, it would take another generation before I was to discover the why of that.

A blessed event occurred on August 23rd of 1968; our son Ronnie Jr. was born in Cumberland. Doctor Leland Ransom, a self-described glider pilot himself, of the soon to be Cumberland Soaring Group, delivered our prize possession.

Yet another Big Surprise

Sometime in early November, of the same year, I received a letter from a friend that had attended, along with me, the same Electra Flight Engineer Course at American Flyers in Ardmore, Oklahoma. His name was Bill Sieg. He went on to inform me that Overseas National Airways was hiring both pilots and flight engineers for their Lockheed Electra cargo operation. Without hesitation I sent them a request for an application and received one back in a few weeks. I hadn’t decided that I wanted to leave Kelly just yet, I still had major issues with Tom, but I was able to work around them. Bill Holbrook made it worthwhile, but I sent in the application anyhow.

Within a week or so I received a telegram informing me I have an interview scheduled at the ONA Headquarters, at the JFK Airport in New York, during the second week in December and to please confirm your attendance. They outlined my interview would involve taking a written Stanine exam, a medical, a psychiatric exam, and to expect a lie detector test. Whoa I thought, am I ready for this, so I showed up anyhow.

Their forewarning was correct; I experienced all of the above as it applied to the exam process. I returned home to Cumberland slightly disillusioned, because the number of pilots appearing for interviews that day owned flying experience that far outweighed mine. There were former military pilots, furloughed pilots from other airlines and active pilots from local feeder carriers. I didn’t expect to hear back from ONA other than a thank you for attending and we’ll be in touch when we have something. This was a standard reply for most all airlines. I had a drawer full of them. Well, maybe not a drawer full, but I had a few.

Shortly before my 28th birthday, which is the 15th of December, I received a telegram asking me if I could start ground school training on January 6th, 1969 at the ONA Training Center in New York. But, here is the biggest surprise of all; I was to be trained not to fly the Lockheed Electra, but to fly the Douglas DC-9, a pure jet. I had never flown a jet aircraft in my life. Where had I gone wrong?


It was a difficult decision to leave Kelly because I liked my boss so well. What I find most interesting is when Bill, asked me, if I had a recommendation for someone to take my place. I informed him I knew of one such person that he might like. His name was John David Bingham, my friend, former roommate and fellow pilot at Arkansas Aviation, in Little Rock. Much the same as he did for me Bill arranged for his interview and David got the job. I am proud to say David stayed with Kelly for the remainder of his flying career and became the new Bill Holbrook, Kelly’s next Chief Pilot. David always had an eye for a good deal. He retired and still lives in the area nearby Cumberland. He and his wife Helen, settled in West Virginia on the other side of the river, where they watch Nascar racing, morning, noon and night.

My wife, with our new baby, moved back to Arkansas to live with her mother while I went to training in New York.

The next thirty-two years of my career involved flying for airlines of one sort or another, until finally settling in with American Airlines where I was forcibly retired at mandatory age sixty. I call this period “My Long Range Cruise” era. But, I also maintained a dream I would one day finish my “Famous Artists Course,” which I never did. I did though get as far as Lesson 10.

Fly Holiday Inns

Fly Holiday Inns

How I survived the foolishness of youth I don’t know. Truly someone was looking out for me, perhaps the higher power we hope is there, the one we pray to when thankful or in times of need.  There is also the chance it is just luck working in my favor. I may never know; we may never know… especially if it all just goes dark one day and surely it will. I have been grateful though for the help from whoever or whatever for a very long time.

How I got the flying job with Holiday Inns went like this: I was standing in the reception area of Arkansas Aviation at the Little Rock Airport when the phone rang. The secretary working behind the counter answered it, then looking over at me asked if I would take the call; she went on to say, “it’s someone looking for a pilot.” I picked up the extension and the man on the other end asked me if I was an instructor and did I have a multi-engine and instrument rating. And, if so, would I be interested in doing a test flight for him. He had an airplane that had just had both engines replaced and it needed to be test hopped. “And by the way,” he asked, “Have you ever flown an Aero Commander?” I, of course, had never flown one and I (of course) said, “Yes I had.” It’s what you do when you are young and stupid and want to fly an airplane you have never flown before. He asked me to show up down at the Benton, Arkansas airport the next morning and we would fly the thing together. Benton was about a thirty minute drive south, in the direction of Hot Springs.

On arrival at the Benton airport the next morning I asked to see the Aircraft Flight Manual and I reviewed a few things I needed to know. Especially if I am to maneuver the aircraft into the air and get it safely back on the ground again. Using the checklist I completed a preflight making myself aware of where everything was located; the necessities, the usual suspects as in throttles, ignition switches, fuel valves, major engine and flight instruments, flight controls, flaps, etc.


What about those flaps?

I really love the looks of this airplane so I’m of course anxious to climb into the seat and fire it up. I hadn’t flown a cabin class multi-engine aircraft before, so it was a thrill to enter from ground level through the cabin door on the left side located just under the wing. The man in charge of this operation followed me in and I asked him to lock the cabin door in behind us. It was a necessary decision on my part as I had no idea how exactly to do it. I’m sure I would have figured it out, aircraft doors can be complicated and it might have proved embarrassing if I should fumble thru the procedure.

The stupid pilot, me, climbs into the left seat and the other stupid guy climbs into the right. He is only stupid for one simple reason, the mistake of letting me have a go at it without questioning more of my background. I’d figured out where all of the important switches were located during my flight manual review, and then followed it up using the aircraft preflight checklist; all the while thinking… this is kindergarten stuff.

Me and my humble co-pilot managed, working together with the checklist, to get the engines started; although even today I am not sure he was a pilot. He did own the maintenance operation that had installed the new engines, so I assumed he knew more about the aircraft than I did.

Benton, Arkansas had a small airport; I believe it was then known as Watts Field and has since closed. There was no control tower so on our own we made our way out to the end of the runway. Once there, making use of the aircraft published checklists, we did our standard engine run ups and mag checks. The runway length was a tad shy of 4000 feet, a little less than a mile long. It was a cool morning and the wind was calm.

Before taxiing out onto the runway, the “Before Takeoff Checklist” goes something like this:

1  Parking Brake – SET,
2  Fuel Quantity – CHECK,
3  Throttles – IDLE,
4  Propellers – HIGH RPM,
5  Mixture – FULL RICH,
6  Elevator Trim – SET for takeoff,
7 Flaps – set 10 degrees… It is here that communications somehow breakdown. The flaps didn’t get set to the takeoff position, which is a “must have” in most airplanes including this one, and even more so on a short runway. The final nine items on the list are accomplished which end with:

15  Fuel Boost Pumps – ON,
16  Transponder – ON.

We believe the checklist has been completed and we lineup for take-off in a southerly direction on runway 17.

The takeoff procedure goes like this:

1  Smoothly Apply Full Throttle,
2  Release Brakes,
3  Accelerate to V1 speed 85 MPH,
4  Pitch – 10 degrees Nose up,
5  V2 speed 95 MPH (flying speed) at positive rate of climb raise Landing Gear.

Well, here’s the problem: at our 95 MPH of indicated airspeed we are not anywhere near flying just yet. Seems we may be in need of some flaps for added lift. Problem is, the flaps are not extended. We are accelerating of course as we approach the end of the runway but not yet flying. It was at about this time the flap position indicator caught my eye… it was pegged at zero, as in Nada. Just as the end of the runway is disappearing under the nose I slip the flap handle down to 10 degrees and we suddenly leap off the end of the runway into the air. Feeling we weren’t quite there yet, a comfortable flying speed, I eased the nose over to pick it up a little, while at the same time raising the landing gear to lessen the drag and clean us up some.

I didn’t exactly need it at the time, but I should have been wearing a diaper. This was a close call. We can call it a learning experience on many fronts, beginning with not being honest and second, being careless in judgment. I could have been more inquisitive about the someone else I am flying with along with asking about who owned the airplane and why there were new engines to begin with. These are the experiences one picks up in the early stages of a flying career. You learn from it, or you die early having not taken the lesson seriously.

Not too many years distant from this event, in my early stages of an airline career, it would be common practice to be doing no-flap takeoffs out of necessity. For example, when departing a high altitude airport on a hot summer day, even with a runway over two miles long sometimes, to reach flying speed, the zero flap take-off was the ticket to accommodate the weight we were carrying. For added safety, the jet aircraft we were using had an unusual aircraft feature, a system designed specifically for the purpose of carrying extra weight. Our ONA (Overseas National Airways) Douglas DC-9 had JATO (Jet Assisted Take-Off) bottles (four of them), mounted at the fuselage wing root, standing in reserve in case of an engine failure. Those were very scary takeoffs; hurling down the runway at a hundred an eighty miles an hour hoping the tires wouldn’t come apart… some did.

The Job Offer

I don’t recall the exact sequence of events following the no-flap takeoff that nearly sealed my fate as a commercial pilot, not to mention just plain remaining alive and still breathing. We flew the airplane around for a while doing some air work and returned to the airport for a few takeoffs and landings; this time using the correct flap settings where appropriate.

Following the test flight came a surprise question. I was asked if I would be interested in a job flying this aircraft for Charles Bland, the Vice-President of the construction division of Holiday Inns of America, based in Memphis. Whoa, had I known this bit of information in advance, I feel certain I wouldn’t have been so cavalier about taking on the test flight the way that I did.

Sign me up, or some form of reply in that vein was made, and I agreed to fly around the following week with a gentleman familiar with their type of operations. The job was offered and I took it. For the next year I flew upwards of 100 to 120 hours a month to destinations all over the US, the Caribbean and Mexico. It was a great job working for a fine bunch of people and it provided me with great confidence in my abilities, not to mention the experienced gained flying single pilot IFR. In other words, I became a really good instrument pilot and it would serve me well in my future as an airline pilot.

A Sad Day in our History

I’m sorry to say my most memorable flight with Holiday Inns, and it was near the end of my time there, occurred on the evening of April 4th, 1968. During a return flight to Memphis, our having begun what became a very long day in St Louis, then flying to Oklahoma City and Baton Rouge, and on our last leg home as we approached Memphis, I got a call from Air Traffic Control at Memphis Center announcing that a few minutes ago Martin Luther King had been shot. The police were expecting riots in the streets and the question to us was… “Did we want to continue to Memphis?”

We did continue, landing just a few hours after the shooting incident. I was to witness first hand a sad day in the history of our country.

Back to whoever or whatever has been looking after me.. I don’t believe anyone actually has the answer… and I wish I knew. People think they know for various reasons, perhaps because mother said it was so or, it is deeply rooted in their faith. Believing what mommy said was not a problem I owned. Being grateful though for the help from whoever or whatever is me; I do own that, both then and now.

Church Taxi Services

Church Taxi Services

One of my mother’s greatest frustrations had to have been my wanton need to attend the Catholic Church with my Dad. It was obvious to me it made her unhappy. What could I do to change that? I gave it absolutely no thought what so ever. Instead, it may have placed me on a road to mischievousness and perhaps blessed me with a prankster persona and the need to thwart authority. I was never allowed talking back or to voice an opinion. So I learned to love practical jokes and some might say unfortunately, it continues to this day. Most of my relatives have had to suffer some sort of foolishness on my part. They liked me enough but if I weren’t so invested in these devious habits I think they would probably like me better. I’ve heard it said being a prankster is all about control – which may have an element of truth in it. I do like having control; it is my handicap to wallow in.

The McPeaks

I was about twelve when mother found a neighbor family that attended the same denomination she had grown up with. She was determined that I be educated in a better place than what she thought the Catholic Church provided. The McPeak family lived a couple of blocks away; they drove a four door Nash that I believe was blue. It was arranged they would stop and pick me up on Sunday mornings to attend church with them. My mother didn’t come along. This was, I believe, some sort of covert act against the wishes of my dad and his very catholic family. I liked the McPeaks but I wasn’t too happy with having to go to their church with or without mother. I suspect I was a pawn in her standoff with dad concerning my religious upbringing. He was after all the dutiful catholic son of Polish immigrants. The rules of the road, I learned much later, required when marrying a Catholic you agree to raise your children in the Catholic faith. However, somewhere along the way that rule fell by the wayside as did I.

It was a white cinder block building where the Church services were held. It was located in a nearby neighborhood up near Van Born Road and Beech Daly. I’m guessing the building itself was never meant to be a church. In its former life it must have been the home of a commercial enterprise of some sort. it could have been a former distillery; possibly from back in the days of Al Capone and prohibition… it smelled that good. It was hard to ignore the essence of alcohol and or turpentine that emanated from somewhere in a back room.

The Gathering

The congregation would gather in the main room. It was the larger of what was available and had been temporarily populated with wooden folding chairs. There were no windows but there were a few curtains hanging along the walls. They obviously covered something; some signature of what went on there in a previous life. After appropriate greetings were made the service would begin with the singing of a song from the hymnals. The song books having been placed earlier on the folding chairs by younger family members. Page numbers for the services songs were posted on a board up in the front near the preachy place. The Lectern.

After a brief bout with singing announcements were made concerning members of the church. Which sometimes, to my amazement, included a prayer for our dear Sister Hart. Whom, it was reported, had taken ill and couldn’t be with us today. We would then gather in our bible study groups, either behind curtains arranged up front or in separate little rooms. These could have been former storage closets from the bygone era. Keep in mind these events all occurred a very long time ago. And considering my advanced age now, I may have forgotten a few details. But, I cannot recall my Mother, our dear Sister Hart, ever attending the little church, either with or without me.

Cancel the Taxi

This taxi arrangement, with the McPeaks picking me up, went on for several weeks.  It was the same period of time when Mom found it convenient to be ill in bed. It seemed way too convenient for my liking; In fact she remained sick in her bed for a very long time. It was so much so the congregation would from time to time, come to the house and pray over her. I was not comfortable with the visitations… it involved a lot of moaning and groaning. But it was hilarious to see them coming and the ensuing mad scramble for Mom to get herself into bed. Then afterwards, getting up and going back to whatever it was she was doing.

The McPeaks Sunday Church Taxi Services came to a screeching halt soon after their car accident. I am happy to report it was only the Mister that was injured seriously. He survived with a few broken bones but the car was a total loss and shortly thereafter the family disappeared from the neighborhood. I was delighted about losing their services, but of course it didn’t all end there.

50 Cents

My Cousin Danny, my former roommate on 32nd Street, who was a year younger than me would occasionally come and spend weekends at my Uncle LuLa’s house where we lived. One Saturday evening, not long after the McPeaks unfortunate accident, my mother suggested we could walk ourselves to church the next morning. It’s hard to say no when it is insisted we go or else. We were each given 50 cents to put in the collection basket when passed around. When attending the Catholic Church with my Dad, or Uncle Lula, I was always fascinated with the wicker baskets they used that were lined with green felt on the bottom. They had long handles on them and they had ushers extend them into the pews where you then placed your offering. I remember being mesmerized by the heaps of quarters and half dollars in the basket and was at times tempted to reach in and pull a couple of them out, but I never did because I could never have gotten away with it. It would have been too obvious and for certain would have been caught. It would be hard to answer to a double sin for stealing from the church. Most people put in cash but some didn’t. Others I suppose didn’t want anyone seeing their donations, so they placed instead a sealed envelope in the basket. I would guess some of the envelopes were empty. It’s just the way I think.

The next morning the appointed hour came so Dan and I headed off toward our destiny with the church. The fifty cents we were each given for the donation basket, we decided on the way, might be better spent at the candy store on the way back; we were going to share our good fortune with the store owner… a very Christian thing to do wouldn’t you think? If we only kept half – we could both have twenty-five cents to spend. The market on the way home happened to have great candy in both selection and supply.

We arrived at church and after assembling in the main room we waited to sing a song before we were to head for Bible study up behind the curtains. The song leader would say “Please turn to page number such and such in your hymnal” and that number would be whatever was on the little board up at the front. He would then take out of his pocket a little round silver device, like a miniature harmonica, and blow lightly into it and after humming back the sound to himself he would say… “let us begin.” Singing was what I enjoyed most about the church service and after the sermon the passing around of little trays filled with little glasses of grape juice and crackers. Sadly, we weren’t allowed to partake in this ceremony, we were outsiders, we hadn’t been baptized.

After the introductory song and a prayer we were instructed to assemble in our bible study areas.

The Misdeed

Soon after gathering in our classroom I necessarily needed to excuse myself to use the bathroom and off I went. During my return, as I passed by the song board at the front, I don’t know what made me do it… but I did it. The individual numbers that were placed on the board for the service were the type you slide in and out easily… so I did just that, I rearranged a few of the numbers. Seems like a harmless thing to do… wouldn’t you think? I did not mention to Cousin Dan what I had done and about midway through our study I began feeling a little bit guilty, but not a lot guilty. Church does that to you; there are a lot of “thou shalt not” rules hanging about. At what age the “Thou Shalt Not” became a call to arms for me I can’t say? It was for sure a motivator throughout my young life; as in… “Oh yeah, watch this!” I feel certain the malady has been diagnosed many times over and there are probably many that share the illness locked up somewhere behind bars. Fortunately, I so far have escaped…. don’t anyone inform the Queen.

The look on the song leader’s face wasn’t what I expected. After reassembling in the main room for the continuing services he arose from his seat and made his way to the front center aisle. He stood there alone and asked us to sing along with him referring to the next page number on the board. There was the usual rustling of pages as everyone searched their hymnals. Then followed a hum from the little silver gizmo. And while looking for the words of the song he expected would be there on the anointed page, there came a slight harrumph, a clearing sound echoing from his throat. He turned to look again and then again at the numbered board and returned his gaze to the hymnal. At this point I had much difficulty containing myself as I recall detecting a slight bulging of eyes in his disbelief. His attention shifted from his hymnal back to the board a number of times. “Oh Shit” I heard him murmur; I’m pretty sure that is what I heard but, if he didn’t say it, it was for sure what he was thinking.

Needless to say this event took place so many years ago I can’t recall exactly how the situation was rectified. But, I am sure, it was to the satisfaction of all. As for myself, and for many of my pranks, I recall thinking… “Thou shalt not ever do that again.”

As for sharing our good fortune with the candy store owner, even while harboring the slightest hint of guilt… we thought it was sweet. A very UN-famous person once said “Thou shalt not linger long in guilt; it is hard on your arteries!”

Confessions of a Green Hornet

Confessions of a Green Hornet

As a youngster like most boys my age I was a big fan of baseball. During the summers I recall late at night listening to the Detroit Tigers games on the radio in my bedroom well after I should have been asleep. Van Patrick and Dizzy Trout called the plays; it was WKMH-1310 on the dial.

In the early summer of 1953 I was twelve and small for my age. It seemed to me everyone was bigger than I was. Some days I would spend hours bouncing an old taped up remnant of a baseball against the metal cover of our coal bin located on the driveway side of the front porch. I would practice fielding the ball further back in the neighbors drive. Whenever we had a pickup neighborhood game I would likely be near the end of the players chosen by team captains. The method for choosing was a hand over hand progression to the end of a bat and the last captain to gain a grip chose first. It was standard practice. I didn’t have a bat of my own so had to use the other kids who of course being bigger had big bats. I never got the hang of hitting with a big bat. I couldn’t drag the bat through the hitting area over the plate without some help from my right hand. Which when doing so would throw the bat either above or below the baseball. Kind of a loopy swing; it would take me a few more years learning to swing the bat smoothly through the hitting area.

There was an ad placed in the Dearborn weekly newspaper that I was then delivering about little league tryouts on the following Saturday afternoon. I decided I would go give it a try but I was the only one from my neighborhood that was interested in going. So at the appointed time I climbed on my bike and headed for the little League baseball fields then located on Outer Drive and Michigan Avenues.

There were several hundred or so kids that showed up for tryouts and when asked had to decide on a preferred position. I of course chose the infield because about all I could do was field a bouncing ball off of the coal-bin door. We were divided into groups of teams and set to scrimmage one another. Our opposing team had a pitcher that could scare the paint off of a wall just by staring at it. This pitcher, let’s call him Mike because I think that was his name, had wide set eyes with a squint so narrow you thought his eyes were closed. He also had a very wide mouth that sported a perpetual frown that appeared to stretch from ear to ear. Not only was there his frown to deal with he was actually foaming out of the corners of his mouth apparently from chewing on a huge wad of bubble-gum. This kid, mind you not a big kid, could throw the ball faster than anyone I had ever seen. His windup involved nearly facing the centerfielder then a quick turn toward the plate and while looking out of the corner of his squinty left eye, he hurled the ball at his catcher. I wasn’t looking forward to stepping into the batter’s box and, neither was anyone else.

I walked. Yup, four balls and Mike the zipper walked me. I’m guessing I was so short he couldn’t find the strike zone and I got lucky because I for sure could not have hit the ball even with a small bat. As it turns out I didn’t get selected for any of the teams. I was disappointed surely… but I also learned I wasn’t ready for prime time.

The rest of the season I played pickup baseball with kids in the neighborhood. And later that summer my new neighbor, Harold the rookie cop (my newest Harold) moved in next door. I trashed his new car in his backyard with my bike one day and he taught me how to throw a curveball; I basically got a reward for my careless behavior. We played balls and strikes almost daily for the remainder of the summer, till daylight shortened and the sun went down in the fall. I’d developed a new weapon and a pretty strong arm for a little guy if I say so myself.

1953 was the summer that 18 year old rookie Al Kaline broke into the Tiger lineup where he was to remain for the next 22 years. Like most twelve year old baseball fans I collected baseball cards that came wrapped in bubblegum packets. I was never able to get all of the Detroit players but I had most of them. One in particular stands out today… his name was Ray Herbert. He was a pitcher born and raised in the Detroit area and was signed by the Tigers after graduating from Catholic Central High School. After a brief period with their farm club, the AAA Toledo Mud Hens, he was called up to Detroit to play in the major league in the early 1950’s. I was a fan initially because Ray was born on December 15th, same as my birthday, but he was 11 years my senior. Ray was a young fastball pitcher with good control.

After being snubbed in my little league baseball debut in 1953, 1954 brought on a new opportunity that unfortunately I still regret today. I could throw a mean curve ball and had a little zip on the ball for my size; although it was nothing like the wiz I had faced the previous summer; that wild eyed Mike with the awesome fastball.

A school friend, Adam Johnson and I would on occasion ride our bike (we only had one and we took turns pedaling each other riding on the handlebars) down to a local baseball diamond located near Oxford and Westlake Streets. Taking along our gloves and a baseball it was our intention to throw a few balls and strikes to each other using the fenced backstop at the park. Or, if lucky enough, maybe get involved in a pickup game. Unfortunately there was a live game occupying the diamond when we arrived. So, being creative, we set up shop on the other side of the backstop and began throwing to each other. Adam was a natural born catcher and a good all-around athlete and obviously he was much bigger than I was at the time. I seem to dwell on how small I was only because it was a factor, and when small “is you” it matters a lot.

After a couple of rounds I was throwing again to Adam, and while he’s in the customary squat of being the catcher, an older gentleman who had been watching us sidles over to him and asks “how old are you kid?” Adam told him he was twelve. The man then asks if we had ever heard of the Green Hornets Little League baseball team and would we be interested trying out? Adam replied “Naw, I don’t think so” or something to that effect. Then, unexpectedly, the man looks over at me and says… “How about you kid?” I don’t recall the exact words of my reply except it came out as a “Yes, and where do I sign up?” He asked about my name and could I come to the ball field at Outer Drive and Michigan Avenue on Saturday morning; which of course was the scene of last year’s humiliating experience with Mike and his foaming grin; the same kid that threw the hot potatoes at us.

It turned out to be a most fun summer. I became a Green Hornet and me and the curve ball did OK. I also got to play third base when I wasn’t pitching. I still wasn’t a very good hitter although I managed to make the All-Star Team as a third baseman and played in the game held at Ford Field in mid-summer. The problem was… I learned to late I was too old and shouldn’t have been playing in the league. I had turned thirteen the previous December which was a few months too early. There were thirteen year olds playing but their birthdays came later than mine. I’m guessing that because I was smaller than most of the kids on the team no one ever asked about my actual birth date. I became aware of the problem midway through the season but was afraid to say anything… to fess up, which would have been the right thing to do. And, I was having so much fun playing and believed they were depending on me. We made it deep into the state playoffs and it would have been a tragedy had we won and then have to forfeit the title because of me. It is one of my biggest regrets that I didn’t have the courage to come clean.

Oddly, my parents never attended any of the games that season, or any season for that matter, but my Uncle Louis, my roommate, made it to the All Star game and took a picture of me playing third base. Even under the circumstances I am very proud of that picture mainly because he took it. It wasn’t unusual for parents not to attend games. My Dad worked the afternoon shift and my mother didn’t drive; soccer Moms weren’t yet in vogue.

I became a huge Al Kaline fan that same season and went to several Tigers games at Briggs Stadium. I would take the bus down Michigan Avenue by myself; it is something parents would never let their kids do today. Life has changed in so many ways. I would arrive at the stadium early enough to watch batting practice and warm ups. It was then I learned about the fungo bat, a bat specially designed by baseball coaches for practice. The small diameter allows coaches to easily hit pop-ups to catchers and infielders. What I found fascinating about watching warm-ups was the lackadaisical approach the players took. All of their actions were seemingly in slow motion as if continually posing. Nonchalant might be a better word and Al Kaline was the best doing that.

Last summer I paid a visit to Ray Herbert, the former Detroit Tigers pitcher, the one I was fond of as a kid and who also shares my birthdate. Ray is married to my cousin Patsy and they now live in Central Michigan. Pat is the same cousin that babysat with me when I was first adopted by the Hart family who then lived on 32nd Street in Detroit. Patsy Bronikowski and her family lived up the street in the next block. Her little brother Leo was near my age and became a big part of my life with the extended Hart family while growing up (see Cousin Leo).

After my visit with Cousin Pat and Ray Herbert, as I was set to leave, Ray asked if I would like a little souvenir to take home, and with that he handed me an autographed baseball and the signature on it read… “Al Kaline.” What a great way to say good bye.

Flying Skills

Flying Skills

I don’t recall at exactly what age I began flying all by myself; but I recall being very young. It may have had some influence on my choice of career; I’m not sure, flying did after all become my occupation of choice. I am referring to a series of dreams of course, but it seemed like a very real world I was flying in at the time. It always began with a hover; I would then lift my arms rising above ground level and go from there. I enjoyably went pretty much everywhere I wanted.

I suspect there is much more to my dreams of flying as a child than just being dreams of happenstance. Making conscious choices of dreams has never been an option one ever has, though I did find dreams of flying when they came around a lucid exhilarating experience.

It has been said; “If you have dreams about flying, you’re expressing a desire to be free, to be unencumbered, to find release from a situation. They represent your “rising above,” whether it’s a person, a situation, or a conflict. It might indicate that you’ve found a solution to a problem or a new perspective on how to handle things.

Flying gives you a sense of power and dreams about flying are indicative of that. It can mean that you’re about to get freedom from something. Perhaps your troubles, perhaps a bad relationship, perhaps a job or a life crisis. People also dream about flying when they discover and connect with their spiritual side and feel a release from the day-to-day of the world.”

I’m not qualified to anoint or dispute these speculations on why one might have these dreams. I had them as a child and it continued well into adulthood. My latest recall of them; I was in my forties and flirting with the notions of Shirley MacLaine and her out of body experiences. I recall one year in Los Angeles attending one of her seminars on the subject. It had to be in the mid-eighties, sometime after she wrote her book “Out on a Limb.” Meditating and the harboring of crystals of any sort were the fad of the eighties at least in southern California at the time.

Getting back to my flying around all by myself (without the benefit of a dream); my first solo flight occurred in October of 1964. The vehicle was the real deal, an airplane, a Cessna 150 to be exact; its registration Number was N5837E. I paid a visit recently to my student pilot logbook of so many years ago and relived my first experience with solo flight. It occurred on an October day at the Steele, Missouri Airport, a short distance from the Blytheville Air Force Base which was located in northeast Arkansas near the Mississippi River. I was twenty-three years old.

My courageous flight instructor was one Gino J. Cortesi, his certificate number was CFI 1243234. Gino was a tail gunner on a B-52G Bomber Crew based at Blytheville AFB, and taught flying at the Aero Club located on base. I purposely didn’t mention to him that I had lots of flying experience while asleep out of fear he wouldn’t take my curiosity about real flying seriously. I was very serious after all about the reality of flight.

My seriousness was motivated primarily by my reading of a book I had checked out of the base library. The Title of the book was “Fate is the Hunter”, written in 1961 by Ernest K. Gann.

Credit is given to Wikipedia for the following information concerning the book and its author:

“Fate is the Hunter” is a 1961 memoir by aviation writer Ernest K. Gann. It describes his years working as a pilot from the 1930s to 1950s, starting at American Airlines in Douglas DC-2s and DC-3s when civilian air transport was in its infancy, moving onto wartime flying in C-54s, C-87s, and Lockheed Lodestars, and finally at Matson Navigation’s short-lived upstart airline and various post-World War II “nonscheduled” airlines in Douglas DC-4s.

Roger Bilstein, in a history of flight, says that of books that discuss airline operations from the pilot’s point of view, “few works of this genre equal E. K. Gann’s ‘Fate is the Hunter,’ which strikingly evokes the atmosphere of air transport flying during the 1930s.”

According to the log book entry by Gino, my first flight instructor, my flight training began in earnest on October 21st, 1964 with an hour and thirty minute orientation flight in the local area surrounding the air base which included southeast Missouri. On the following day, October 22nd, my second day of flight training Gino entered into my logbook eight take-offs and landings and 25 minutes of flying under the hood which meant keeping the airplane right side up flying only by instruments. Total flight time on the second flight was 2 hours.

My third flight training session occurred 5 days later and involved doing five takeoffs and landings at the Steele, Missouri Municipal Airport. After the fifth landing Gino instructed me to taxi off of the active runway and taxi back to the takeoff end; after arriving there he says “set the parking brake because I am getting out here.” I wondered at first if I had scared him somehow? What Gino did next should have been a crime in my book: After setting the brake Gino hops out of the airplane and says “it’s all yours… take it around on your own this time!” It happened so fast I didn’t have time to begin a self-doubting ritual, the re-examination of my capabilities to do this airplane thing on my own. I knew I could do it in my dreams but this is a totally different animal; something to be said for Gino J. Cortesi, Tail Gunner-Flight Instructor, invoking the element of surprise.

Obviously I made it around safely. I had a grand total of slightly less than four hours of dual flight instruction when I was turned loose to do it on my own. There are no words I can think of now that expresses fully the feeling of piloting an airplane solo for the first time in your life. It is a once in a lifetime experiences you can never forget. If one has issues of self-doubt about life’s challenges, they are quickly erased as you sit in the cockpit of the airplane all alone, high above ground, and the only thing that is going to get you safely back on the ground is you. It is and will always be the thrill of a lifetime for me, never to be forgotten.

I’m certain my instructional time with Gino, although seemingly low, isn’t a record by any means. I did after all live and breathe airplanes as a kid growing up. It becomes part of your dna so to speak; especially after building and flying so many model airplanes, it was in my bloodstream. I already understood many of the fundamentals. All I needed was for someone to release me of my landlocked straight jacket. Also, keep in mind, I was piloting in my dreams well before model airplanes ever entered the picture.

Ernest K. Gann, the author and former pilot at American Airlines, deserves a lot of credit for pushing me over the top with his written word. It was another of those fork-in-the-road moments; do I go left or do I go right? I pursued the dream and really that’s all it was at the time. I had a huge hurdle looking me in the face and yet another in a series of painful life decisions.

I unknowingly followed in the footsteps of my biological father, who had (unknown to me)abandoned me and my birth mother when I was an infant, I too found myself in a marriage that wasn’t going to work. The end result of children having children; I regret the pain it caused all that were involved. It was complicated with plenty of blame on both sides. Had we not gone our separate ways I feel certain one of us wouldn’t have survived and the other of us might well be in prison for having committed a crime of passion.

Thanks be to Ernie Gann for having written so convincingly of the atmosphere of air transport flying from a pilot’s point of view, as if in a personal note addressed only to me, he says “Kid, this is your want in life, get on with it.”

Wake Up Now

Wake Up Now

It happens. You never forget it but it happens. It happens more than you can imagine and it isn’t a forgettable experience. After more than sixty years the memory is still fresh in my mind. Terry Lipski, briefly a boyhood friend, disappeared one day.

Terry arrived in our neighborhood – I’m guessing sometime between our 5th and 6th grade years? He was well mannered and never failed to tell my mother how nice she looked. My mother loved that about him. He was sincere about his compliments; he just had that way about him. Terry had moved in with his Aunt who lived on Annapolis, a couple of blocks over; right across the street from another friend Tony Hernandez. The house became a mystery because we, as Terry’s friends, weren’t allowed to come inside. That mystery was never solved except that after Terry disappeared, the Aunt’s house was made a mystery all the more.

I can’t recall the city that Terry said he was from, it was somewhere up in Northern Michigan and he said he had to move to our neighborhood to live with his Aunt. We never asked why he had done so because it didn’t matter. He was fun to have as a friend because he was so nice to be around. The only thing that bothered me about Terry was my mother continuously suggesting that I should be more like him. Terry, for his age, had a deep voice and spoke very loudly. You always knew when he was around because he commanded the space wherever he was. Then, without explanation, he quietly disappeared.

It was several months later that I learned what happened to Terry. I believe it was on a weekend morning when I was downstairs in our basement that my mother came with the news. “Ronnie” she said, “I have something I need to tell you.” She went on… “Your friend Terry, I just learned, has committed suicide.” Well, I cried of course for a very long time about my friend.

I assumed he had shot himself and whether it truly was suicide or not I will probably never know? As an adult, and a parent now, I don’t know how else you are to tell an eleven or twelve year old that his friend has just committed suicide. We as parents aren’t taught how to do that. The fact that it still troubles me at this late age should say something about how these types of events affect us for the rest of our lives. Though many generations have passed, the hurt never goes completely away.

There are similar events, increasingly and continuously, going on around us that we have a tendency to want to ignore. Because, I think, they are too painful to think about. No one wants to deal with them. The events I am referring to are children killing children. When finding a parent’s, or guardian’s unsecured weapon; a child’s guilt can only be their inherent curiosity. It is the parent’s carelessness where-in the guilt lies. I think it is time, we as a nation did something about it.

Another memory comes to mind; as a young adult I had a favorite Uncle that committed suicide with a gun. He was a World War II veteran and had earned a purple heart having suffered the loss of an eye in battle. I’m sure he was a victim of what we now know today as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). I have a horrific vision of my cousin, his daughter, having found him. I think how terrible that memory must be for her to have to live with. Our Veterans today are killing themselves at an alarming rate, at last count, as many as 22 a day and it needs to be fixed… NOW!

Statistics show, by the end of 2015, about 265 children picked up a firearm and shot someone by accident. Their families, and their victim’s families, will never be able to forget what happened to their loved ones. The pain and the memory of the event will forever be unforgettable.

He was a kind soul that Terry. I have spent time looking for records of Terry’s life to no avail. It is almost like he never existed and that should be a crime as well. At eleven years old, where did he get a gun and who did it belong to?

Wake Up Now Nation, it is time we did something about our children and gun safety.

I’ll leave you with my paraphrase of a poem
by a favorite poet – Philip Larkin:

They’ll screw you up,  your Mum and Dad
They’ll leave their guns,  know not where
They don’t mean to,  but they do
Then cry a stream,  when you’re not there.

5217 32nd Street

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