A Pilot’s Place

A Pilot’s Place

A dear friend from the past paid me a visit this week. Captain John Rogers and his wife Diane ventured north from their home near San Francisco, to the wilds of Northwest Montana where my wife Chris and I introduced them to the many boat launches in our area. I don’t think they were impressed. John Paul, as he is known by his many friends, was my chief pilot for many years at the American Airlines San Francisco pilot domicile. Once we discovered our mutual love of art we became forever friends.

John Paul possesses talents that have yet to be discovered. He writes, he paints, he builds and he tells great stories, and best of all, he listens. He can have the answer to your question before you fully get it out of your mouth. His mind is so quick you sometimes have to listen for a while to figure out what the subject of the conversation is, so you can hope to then catch up.

On December 20th, 1995, nearly two decades ago, an American Airlines Boeing 757 on a night flight from Miami to Cali, Colombia, crashed into a mountaintop. During descent for landing the pilot typed into the aircraft’s on-board computer, the wrong navigation coordinates. By doing so, he told the autopilot to turn the airliner hard left, flying it straight into a South American mountainside just north of Cali.

My friend John, troubled by this event, wrote the following:

“American Airlines lost an aircraft and many lives on a night approach to Cali, Colombia. Fingers were pointed at all possible responsible parties. As the effluence of guilt spread around, a question was raised in my mind. Why are computers not flying airplanes? It occurred to me that the pilot is the last link, the last link to integrate Science, Machinery and Wisdom. My following note about the Cali accident addresses this question.”

CALI… “A Bowl of Stars”

“A bowl of stars touched the black Pacific and in the darkness struggled to define the horizon. Color-saturated computer images danced across six black screens and described with exacting preciseness the here and now, the plan, the systems. The silence of aerodynamic noise painted a picture of comfort. Connecting continents with a constant stream of scheduled air travel drenched us with the illusion that flight is routine. Flight is not routine.

A rivet was fitted with exactness. Each fluid line was fitted with a check valve and guarded by another, and another. Black screens beneath attentive eyes followed blips. Throttles moved, controls deflected, engines roared. Every participant contributed to the process as the completeness of flight evolved.

On a dark night in South America time became critical. Communication, technology, the human-condition, and failed or missing components lined up in such a way that the pilot became the last to face the challenge, the last check valve. The silence of aerodynamic noise stopped.

Embracing the challenge, reaching for perfection, accepting the pain and the pleasure is the lifeblood of our profession. We are the last check valve.”

Approaching retirement in July of 2001, Captain John Paul Rogers wrote the following poem, which is now printed (inside front cover), of subsequent Captains Retirement Banquet booklets at American Airlines.

The Cockpit

There is a place where only pilots meet
A place like no other place
A small place
No chairs for visitors

A place where moonless nights contrast
with morning rays to set the tone
A tone of extremes
Where aerodynamic noise is silent
And catastrophic events breed silence

There is a place where accountability is accepted
Where performance is measured
Where philosophy abounds
And lifetime bonds are formed

There is a place where teamwork
and discipline are supreme
A place where perfection is the expectation
There is a place where only pilots meet
And I will miss it

– Captain John Paul Rogers
American Airlines Retired

 

We loved our profession, John and I, and shared good times in a cockpit together. I had no idea then how much he would mean to me in these our sunset years. Although we remain in contact, mostly concerning our artistic struggles, we hadn’t seen each other for many years. On his arrival in Montana to visit, after stepping out of his car, I embraced him and much the same as when I first read these writings by John, the tears always manage to well up. Although it was short we had a great visit… I am out on the hunt now for more boat launches to show him, if and when he and Diane return.

My Farm Family

My Farm Family

When I became a Boy scout I was at first a tenderfoot and never went much farther than that. The reality was, by the standards of my Farm Family, I was a city slicker through and through. Being from the city up north, I always had difficulty walking barefoot when down on the farm. I tried many times but always came up short. Walking on gravely paths, or in the hot sand where the watermelons and tomatoes grew, making my way through the chicken yard to the orchard, was just downright painful. To my Farm Family I would always be known as the Yankee tenderfoot city slicker.

My Farm Family, as I refer to them, mostly cousins and cousins of cousins, neighbors and neighbors of neighbors, were all related to settlers of the Indiana Territory in the early 1800’s. The Jett’s show up in early Knox County records and so do the Colbert’s from Daviess County. The Jett family of the 20th century lived to the east of my Grandpa Amann’s farm, in Maysville, Indiana, on the far side of a very large tomato field. Their house sat next to the B&O Railroad track. Marshall Presley Jett, born in 1909, had married my mother’s older sister Edna during the early stages of the great depression. They had three children, Donald (b.1931), Richard (b.1933), and my dear cousin Nancy (b. 1938). Nancy could get bossy and was also a bit of a tattle tale. Danny and I could have gotten away with so much more had she not intervened into our pranks, like when she caught us throwing toads into the cistern. But, when it came to having fun, the three of them were the core of my Farm Family. They teased us relentlessly and we loved it.

There were some good stories told about the early Indiana settlers prior to the civil war. One involved a man that had a pet bear. He invited about a dozen or so of his neighbors with their dogs to come fight his bear. He posed his bear against their dogs. About twenty or so dogs showed up to do battle and some wagering was said to have happened. After an hour or two of skirmishing there were no dogs left in the fight. The bears owner, very proud of his pets performance, decided it was time for a barbeque. It was said that besides being a good fighter the bear was also a good taster. I was never very happy with that stories ending.

My big cousin Don, always an easy laugher, loved to tell us tall tales. He was responsible for our lifelong nicknames, Egghead and MuleEars. I was egghead and Dan was MuleEars. Don asked if we like to hunt coons, a leading question for sure. He promised to take us one day and one day he did. I had no idea what a coon was, but it sounded like it would be fun. The hunt went like this: Don, with his 22 rifle and a handful of shells, along with Dan and I, headed south down the B&O railroad track towards Petersburg. We had walked several miles and then several miles again. There were no coons to be seen. We ran into several trains, but no coons. What we did run into was a girl named Ginny Gray, who lived not far off the railroad track down near Petersburg. Don and the little Gray girl, we found out later, were married not long after. I don’t think it was the first time they had ever met. Dan and I have yet to see a coon on that railroad track.

The next summer we spent on the farm, Dan and I would take off every morning running across the field of tomatoes or melon, whatever crop they had in, to run and visit the Jetts. We would roust Don and Gin out of bed by jumping up and down on them. We would giggle later and wonder why in the world they slept without their clothes on? We’d never seen anyone do that, sleep without their pajamas. We reasoned we northerners wore pajamas because it’s colder where we live and people just needed them to stay warm. It would take me another ten years before realizing why some people sleep without their clothes on.

Cousin Don’s new wife Gin was a very pretty girl, and not only was she pretty, she was a nice. Gin was nice and pretty. Dan and I, at our ages, weren’t aware that girls could be nice. Nobody ever told us that was a possibility. She wasn’t bossy and she wasn’t a tattle tale, so Dan and I got along with Gin very well. It became obvious to me that the Gray family had a way of producing pretty girls. There were younger sisters named Mary and Laura and a brother named Bill. It’s for certain, by my way of thinking, if Bill Gray were a girl, he would have been pretty too. There was only one problem… I had a fancy for Laura and Cousin Nancy knew it.

Nancy’s Dad, my Uncle Herchel, even though his given name was Marshall, my family always referred to him as Hershel. This oddity has never been explained to me? Anyhow, Uncle Herchel was the Daviess County Justice of the Peace, it was an elected position. He was also the night janitor at the County Courthouse… this also seems odd? The fun part was, we would on occasion, be invited to go along with him to the Courthouse while he performed his janitorial tasks. We had the run of the place for hours. The building was like a castle to us, with its marble floors and stairways leading to darkened hallways, the office windows with gold lettering, some really cool drinking fountains and of course, we had to drink out of each and every one. It was a totally unfamiliar environment for a city slicker. Outside was a large fountain surrounded by huge statues of local civil war heroes.

One night in late summer we were invited again to come along with Uncle. This time however, Laura Gray, Gin’s younger sister, came along with us. I was still in the girls aren’t fun mode but softening a bit and I have to admit… feeling very shy being around her. My feeling shy, a sure sign of discomfort at something, and the something, I thought, was Laura in attendance during our usual free for all in the courthouse… Not so! After running around for a while with Nancy and Laura, we finally settled, sitting in the shadows of statues out by the fountain. Nancy, my dearest cousin Nancy, then says…“Why don’t you kiss her Ronnie?” OMG, “Darn you Nancy”… I thought to myself, “You didn’t have to say that..” Needless to say, I was totally dumbfounded and couldn’t speak, total shy had kicked in. Well, in good time… I kissed Laura. I had crossed the threshold, cute was no longer for babies and I saw a new light, opposition to all things “tattle tale and bossy” went out the window when I kissed Laura Gray. I was no longer a tenderfoot.

To my Dear cousin Nancy, wherever you are, Thank you.

 

Little Lady from Lickskillet

Little Lady from Lickskillet:

SOUTH WASHINGTON, Indiana.

My mother claimed to have been born in Lickskillet, Indiana. Her Birthday was March 10th, 1915, a little over one hundred years ago. While researching the community name, and its authenticity, I discovered there were indeed many small rural communities, throughout the United States, known as Lickskillet. According to legend they were economically challenged areas, where locals were observed feeding their dogs the scraps of their left over dinners in the skillet they were cooked in. Thus, the name Lickskillet became more of a euphemism for poor town.

From historical documents of Daviess County, Indiana,Lickskillet is situated on the Petersburg road, one mile south of Washington, and has 150 inhabitants. Its population is nearly altogether made up of the employees of Cabel Kaufman’s coal mines. It draws its supplies from Washington, and has no post office, nor church building, but one of the township school buildings is located here. Thirty-two lots were laid off at the site of the town by Levi D. Colbert, in 1874. Ministers of the Christian, Methodist and Presbyterian Churches sometimes preach here. The place is commonly known by the euphonious title of Lickskillet; given it in days gone by, before it was dignified by the name of South Washington.”

As noted above, a Levi D. Colbert in 1874 was stated as having laid off 32 lots in the towns location. This is remarkable because my Grandmothers maiden name was Colbert. So, just because there may no longer be a sign, doesn’t mean it didn’t or doesn’t still exist in some form.

At some point, while my mother was still a young child, my grandfather moved the family out to Maysville, which was southwest of the city of Washington. It was here, on the farm that became the family homestead, that I spent my summers during my childhood.

Maysville:

Maysville was laid out in 1834, only 18 years after Indiana became a State, by John McDonald, on the land of the late Charner Hawkins. It contained seventy-two lots, its situation being on the Wabash & Erie Canal, four miles southwest of Washington. During the days when the great canal flourished, Maysville was the most important business place in the county, but it went down with the canal, and today nothing remains but a few tumble-down houses, relics of a once thriving town’s departed greatness. It was the advent of the railroads that rendered the inland canal systems obsolete, thus realigning commerce and population centers as it grew.

The greatness of Maysville never existed for my mother. She was the middle child of five surviving children, all girls. Five other children were born but lost to diseases of early infancy. It was a time before the antibiotic penicillin, the wonder drug, surfaced. During her youth my mother suffered the ravages of rheumatic fever, leaving her with a weak heart and a total loss of hearing in her right ear.

In 1931, at age sixteen, after finishing her sophomore year at Washington High School, the little lady from Lickskillet decided she had had enough of Maysville. Living under the firm hand of religious parents (she hadn’t yet attended a school dance or movie theater), a social life outside of church activities was unknown to her. My future Aunt Inez, my Mothers older sister, beckoned her north to live with her in Detroit. With the country in the middle of the Great Depression, Millie of Maysville, headed for the lights of a big city. It was a courageous move on her part. She took a train.

Ten years later, in early 1942, as an orphaned one year old, I would be placed on John and Millie Harts porch (so to speak), at 5217 32nd Street. Within my Dad’s family my mother would be referred to as the “hillbilly bride.” She was well liked by most family members, so it wasn’t as negative a connotation as it may sound. It was the natural way people talked within the bigoted society that existed then. It was part of the accepted regional vocabulary. There were the Pollocks, the Irish, the Spicks, the Italians, the Blacks… I can’t bring myself to say the derogatory “N” word as it was used then, and gratefully, not so much now. Each of these ethnic groups had their own neighborhoods and they were all competing for the same auto industry jobs, so that rivalry was provoked regularly in conversation. I might add… the bigotry is still alive and well in the region today and for me difficult to be around. Now Arabs, with their displaced populations from the Middle East, have entered the regions employment competitions as well. I wouldn’t want to listen in on those conversations at the moment.

The Indiana Territory, before becoming a state in 1816, was known as “Land of the Indians” or “Indian Land.” Indiana is now home of the Hoosiers, formerly known as “Back Woodsmen”, Rough Countrymen or “Country Bumpkins.” The latter goes well with “Bug Hollow” and “Quail Knob” not to mention the hungry dogs “Lickskillet,” which is where it turns out, my Mum was from.

As a child, I was introduced to my Mothers physical disabilities stemming from her childhood experience with rheumatic fever. I was told often, “Ronnie, I don’t know how much longer I am going to live?” I lived with that revelation for a very, very long time. Friends and family lived with that revelation for a very, very long time. Fortunately, as I grew older, I was able to ignore this malady she used for gaining empathy. As it turns out, it was much the same way her mother had professed her long life potential. As I knew her, I recall, my Grandmother Amann, always sick in bed, lived well into her nineties. As is said often… “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” What’s good for the Grand Goose is good for the Goose.

My mother, The Little Lady from Lickskillet, Mildred Ann Hart, with her rheumatic heart… lived to the ripe old age of 87 and died on my Birthday in 2002. And may I say, without prejudice or ill thought, bless her “Little Hart,” and that would be me!

Mel Jack

Mel Jack

of “Roller Skates and Airplanes”

Idol: n 1 : image of god 2 : object of devotion

Airplanes:

In our new neighborhood on Stanford I discovered a kindred soul living across the street. He was tall and lanky and was obviously a good deal older. Like maybe a teen ager who was in High School. I used to watch him in the field next to his house from our front window. It was the same field where I had earlier shot an arrow through my finger while pretending to be Tonto. He was tossing in the air a model airplane that I assumed he had built. I was already in love with building model airplanes, but they were plastic and I had a room full of them, and they didn’t really actually fly. So, here he was, this big kid, doing what I really wanted to do and his name was Mel Jack.

I didn’t engage with Mel about his hobby with model airplanes back then, or ever for that matter. I was shy and it was a new environment where I now lived. And, let’s face it, a ten year old in the fourth grade, doesn’t walk up to a High School kid and say, “howdy.” We wonder and admire from afar and that is what I did.

I began saving my snow shoveling, grass mowing, and paper route money to buy Flying Model Airplanes. And, for the next several years, which carried me into my teens, I probably built more than a hundred of them. They were made of balsa wood, which came in sheets that had printed on them the pieces of aircraft structure, which needed to be cut out with a razor knife and glued together. Placing waxed paper over the plans, I would cut, glue, and then pin the pieces over top of the plan. I learned about wing spars, ribs, bulkheads, longerons, ailerons, flaps, vertical stabilizers, horizontal stabilizers, rudders, and elevators. I figured out how an airplane was steered, but hadn’t been exposed to “Bernoulli’s principle” and why it was that an airplanes wing sustained itself while moving through a fluid body of air. That would come later during a high school physics class. All Magic of course.

A brief look ahead…(A true Story and a good time to share):
It must be tough being a grade school teacher, where you are supposed to know everything about a few things, and generally do, but the reality is, you know a lot about very little. It was painfully true for my sixth grade teacher… let’s call him Mr. Fisher, because that was his name. Everyone in the class was assigned a science project and given a few weeks to finish. I chose to build an airplane with fully functioning flight controls and I did just that. I used scrap pieces out of my Dads woodpile in the basement. I attached smaller pieces of wood as ailerons using hinges to a wing fashioned from a six foot long twelve inch wide piece of pine. The same was done with the tail which included a moveable rudder and elevator. Using kite string attached to a control wheel, through eyelet screws, I made them all work… including the rudder pedals. Each control surface flipped and flapped as they were supposed to.

Well, I wheeled this contraption, a full seven blocks into Mr. Fisher’s classroom on the appointed day it was due. I turned it up on its side to get it through the door and set it up on the stage behind his desk. Whereupon, Mr. Fisher, looking quite puzzled begins scratching at his chin. He then tried playing with the flight controls and turned to me saying… “Come with me.” He took me out into the hallway and said… “You didn’t build that did you? Your Dad built that didn’t he?” As the tears welled up in my eyes I found myself nearly speechless and mumbling… “No he didn’t, I did it.” In all of my years of experiencing teaching and teachers, Mr. Fisher was by far the worst example of the genre. There were other episodes concerning Mr. Fisher I hope to share later. My Dad, having to quit school in the eighth grade to help support his family during the depression, couldn’t have spelled “aileron” if he tried, let alone read it.

It had been perhaps a year or so after watching Mel, my idol from across the street, tossing his airplanes into the sky that he disappeared for a short while. Then one day, his mother Elsie, came over to our house and asked if I wanted to ride out to Selfridge Air Force Base to meet Mel when he landed. He was flying a B-25 on a cross-country training mission and would be home on leave for a few days. Mel Jack, it turns out, was finishing up his Air Force Pilot Training. He had been a member of the Civil Air Patrol during High School, which led him into the Aviation Cadet Program after graduation. Obviously, I went along.

OMG, when I think back, watching him land a B-25, then walking across the ramp in his flying suit and leather jacket to meet us. Sign me up, you don’t need to put a worm on the hook, I am caught. Mel Jack became my everyday hero, and he didn’t have a clue about that.

Roller Skates:

The final act in hooking me came that night. Mel had a date and took me along… we went roller skating at a rink in Lincoln Park. To this day I can’t believe the heart of that man. I’d never been to an indoor rink before and to include me was above and beyond anything I can imagine even to this day. I discovered that this wasn’t his or his dates first time ever on roller skates. The music, the lighting, all created this most unreal atmosphere for the novice me. When it came time for “pairs dancing” Mel and his date were not beginners. They owned the floor… it was magical!

Mel went on the finish a career in the Air Force. The last I heard he was flying C-124’s out of Dover in Delaware, and that would have been in the late 1950’s. It wasn’t until forty some odd years later that I looked him up.

It took me awhile but I found him in Denver, Colorado. I was an Airline Captain at the time with American Airlines, flying Boeing 757 and 767 aircraft out of San Francisco. Denver layovers came up on our schedule, so I bid the trip one month and arranged to meet up with Mel. We met at a local VFW near the Airport, and I told him my story and how much influence he had made on my life. The only thing I couldn’t do yet, I confessed, was roller skate. His parting words to me were, and I still remember… “Ron, you do me great honor.” It came from the heart of a man I still idolize.