“Poverty Flats”


Cupcake & Snowball:

The animal, in the dim light of a fractured 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 a 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 lovable 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.

The Shortest of lives

The Shortest of Lives

An unknown, not-understandable tragedy occurred on April 6th in 1963. Not 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 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.

Making a Change


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


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, 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, a yaw damper was developed. It isn’t much help though when landing in a crosswind where the rubber meets the road, literally. 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 a few more of the leather 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.

Enter the Artist

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 of 24 is as far as I ever made it. The desire however never faltered and would haunt me for many years to come. I did not understand why the pursuit, or purpose.

Our family had moved from Alameda in the Bay Area, out to Vacaville in the valley, because our flying schedules now required us to originate from both Navy Alameda and McClellan AFB, near Sacramento. Vacaville, located between, was halfway between them and was also near Travis AFB, another Logair cargo stop.

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 several years in their commercial art course, and then later introduced me, 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 nation’s 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 polarized populace in the region, that remains today very complicated.

Competition from other airlines for the Air Force Logair and the Navy Quicktrans contracts increased significantly and ONA chose not to compete for as many routes. The decision was made to sell their Electra’s (L-188’s), and to increase the number of DC-8 aircraft, plus adding 3 DC-10’s to the fleet. 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.

The Sinking of Flight 980

There were several earlier 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 finishing initial flight training that the very same airframe would be resting on the bottom of the Caribbean Sea, just thirty-five miles short of St. Croix, where it remains today with its fuel tanks empty.

The ill-fated flights Captain was an instructor pilot, and former DC-9 chief pilot, whom I’d had my own experience with a year earlier. He 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 this era of jet airliners was in its early stages. Older airline pilots, although well experienced, had graduated into swept wing jets from a totally different set of flight parameters.

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 its weight and 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. With this short experience level in early jet flying (at higher altitudes), it is easy to understand why some early jet pilots were a bit wary, not to mention loss of consciousness issues with a rapid decompression.

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 or 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 on one engine. 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 as the next guy in line jumped into the co-pilot seat for his date with the check captain. However, not everyone was as lucky as I and in retrospect, it was a very valuable lesson for someone who had never flown a jet.

My friend, and fellow new-hire classmate, was the co-pilot on that flight that day, in May of 1970 that ran out of fuel. 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. As far as I know 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, especially during the previous year leading up to the accident. The captain took the bait from the tower operator at St. Maartin deciding it would be safe to continue instead of diverting. My guess is seven out of ten pilots in his position would have done the same if only for economic reasons. He knew the airline was losing money every time a fuel stop was necessary. Unfortunately, he suffered the consequences of being pilot in command; which is called responsibility.

Lunch with Harry

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 some dark clouds (and sparkling sunshine) during the intervening period since I last saw Harry, some twenty-five years earlier. In relating to him the many airlines I’d flown for since then, he didn’t seem upset that he wasn’t still flying. 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 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 story: in just a few short years after my encounter with my former friend, the ill-fated copilot on flight 980, was my first participation in CAE Simuflite’s, 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 a chance meeting with an old friend.


Airline Unwinding

The downward spiral of ONA continued slowly. I believe it began a year or two after the loss of the DC-9 in the Caribbean. Then, in November of 1975, we lost our first DC-10 due to a flock of seagulls that were ingested into the right engine during takeoff at JFK. The aircraft came to a halt off the end of the runway where it was destroyed by fire. Everyone got out before the aircraft was consumed in flames. The aircraft, loaded with crew members, 139 flight attendants and pilots, was positioning to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia to participate in transporting religious pilgrims to Mecca during the annual Hajj.

Less than two months later we would lose our second DC-10 when our most senior captain landed short of the runway at Istanbul, Turkey, ripping off the landing gear and an engine. The aircraft, carrying 364 Hajj Pilgrims, was destroyed. Fortunately, there were a few injuries, but no casualties on this DC-10 either.

During the same Hajj season I was flying our DC-8 Freighter with Captain Jesse Williams. We flew a trip that month that took us completely around the world. Beginning in San Francisco we flew to Montreal and from there Shannon, Ireland. From Shannon we went to Frankfurt and then to Iraklion, Greece and on to Shiraz, Iran from there. We only spent a night at each stop except for Shannon. After a brief stay in Iran we went on to Hong Kong and then Seoul, Korea. The next day we flew to Anchorage and finished our round-the-world excursion back in San Francisco.

Jesse and I shared an apartment in Alameda for a short while during the spring of 1976. Being away from home so much had a devastating effect on airline pilot’s marriages and mine was no different. My wife and I had separated during this period and we never got back together. I couldn’t provide what it was she needed. We have maintained a good relationship for the benefit of our son.

I was furloughed in the fall of 1976 and was never recalled. I moved to San Francisco and attended the Academy of Art College, my wife and son moved back to Arkansas living with her parents while she went back to college. She earned her teaching degree and eventually became a High School student counselor. My son Ronnie followed in her footsteps and is now teaching high school math in North Little Rock Arkansas.

Not long after I was furloughed Jesse Williams, my round the world fellow crew-mate, while flying another ONA Cargo trip as a copilot, was involved in yet another aircraft accident. In 1977 on a night approach to an airport in North Africa, Jesse’s DC-8 hit the ground short of the runway. The Captain and Flight Engineer were killed instantly, Jesse was the only survivor. He suffered a severe head injury and remembers nothing of the accident circumstances.

The ONA that I knew stopped operating in October 1978.

Air California

Long Range Cruise:

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 seat-backs 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. That realization set in motion the fervor to find my biological parents. It didn’t take me long.

What followed was a collage of the events as discovery of my birth parents unfolded. The fact that I grew up not far from where my birth mother raised her second and third families I find astounding. I’m sure I walked past her house on many occasions not knowing I had blood relatives living inside. You can’t get more closely related than mother and child unless you are a twin of course.

The Airline Years

The Airline Years:

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 an actual 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. We as 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 spent in it dedicated to learning where all of the switches and controls were located in the real thing. We will then be expected to go from this trainer, directly to flight training in the real aircraft, skipping past the flight simulator.

Company orientation involved learning of the company’s history and also meeting some of its key personnel. We also received our airline ID cards, which 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 were to be on probation for one year which allowed the company to pay us a minimum wage of $700 dollars a month. They would also pay us a per-diem when away from our domiciles. That would be determined if we finished training.

During our orientation we were introduced to the Chief Pilot of the New York domicile for the DC-9 operation. As a group we were taken to his office, he had all appearances of being a very busy man, and I recall being prompted to ask him what time it was. He responded by unzipping his fly and pulling out his pocket watch. I thought this was one hilarious move on his part and it turns out, even though very serious, he was an entertaining pilot to fly with. I never knew anyone that disliked Ed.

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.

After training 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 had stayed with her parents while I finished training. ONA operated both its Electras and DC-9 aircraft on the military freight routes.

Where were you 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’d witnessed Neil Armstrong do his moonwalk after landing the lunar module Eagle on its surface. Delwood City is also when our son began walking on earth. Some events you never forget.

On the road again

Our stay in Oklahoma didn’t last long. Our airline had picked up another military contract for the DC-9 aircraft. This time it was for the Navy’s Quicktrans 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 17 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 auto industry’s daily needs. Most of this flying was done at night and when showing up at the airport you had no idea where you might end up 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 airline. 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, which would make me a Captain prospect in just a few years’ time. Therefore at the ripe old age of thirty years I became an Electra captain. Life was good.

L-188 Captain

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 were 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 VOR because of our low altitude, we arrived safely at Bogota the next morning; elevation 8,360 feet above sea level.

After a well-earned sleep and an evening in the city, we happily made our way out to the airport the next morning for our return flight back to Miami. We noted we were happy to be in more familiar territory back at the Bogotá airport, especially after passing a myriad of military tanks parked in the streets 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 his gun, then turned and walked away.

So now we are ready to depart and we climb into our seats while the flight engineer pulls up the ladder and closes the big cargo door. We then 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 air 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, what sort of trouble we might be in. 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.

55 King Sugar

Lockheed Lodestar, N 55 King Sugar

Kelly-Springfield Tire Company
Cumberland, Maryland calling:

My decision to move on from Holiday Inns flying was motivated primarily by family necessity. I didn’t want to be away from home as much and for so long, 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, to find one that provided for our young family’s needs, and have a 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 was 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 DC airport. They appeared in another handsome airplane that I would be eager to fly. The Lockheed Lodestar (L-18) was a converted former airliner which 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 the European Theater 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 we 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.

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 instrument 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 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 you allow 60 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?

Fly Holiday Inns

Moving East – 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 so 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 whomever, or whatever; I do own that, both then and now.

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 having dreams of flying as a child than just being dreams of happenstance. Making conscious choices of dreams has never been an option one has, though I did find them when they came around a lucid exhilarating experience.

Dreamologists say; “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, a bad relationship, maybe 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 lost.

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 from 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 followed in the footsteps of my biological father, who had (unknown to me) abandoned me and my birth mother when I was an infant, and I too found myself in a marriage that wasn’t going to work. 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 committing 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.”

More Feathers

After soloing and accumulating some flying experience I decided it was time to expand my horizons. I remembered from my previous technical training at Lowry AFB, in Colorado, their Aero Club had much more to offer by way of training facilities. Their club had more types of airplanes, along with a link trainer, which is an instrument flying simulator and there were more flight instructors having advanced ratings. So my next hurdle became how to get myself there.

On every SAC Base (Strategic Air Command) that had an A&E Squadron(Armament and Electronics) there was also a PME Lab(Precision Measurement Equipment). The Lab was responsible for calibrating the myriad of airbase test equipment. It involved a wide range of electronics, oscilloscopes, voltmeters, weapon system analyzers, etc. Pretty much anything that was used to physically measure something needed to be recalibrated on a regular basis. The school for this specialist training was at Lowry AFB, and involved a whole year of classroom study,` which was just the right amount of time, Viola!

The problem was; In order to apply I would need to pass an electronics and physics fundamentals exam, which was known to be difficult. I found the related materials and went to work boning up. After a few months of study I took the test, passed it, and applied for the course. I’d grown to be a stick in the side of the Squadrons Bomb-Navigation shop and they were more than happy to ship me off. The squadron brass’s standard operating procedures (S.O.P.’s) were to manipulate data to make the unit look better than its actual performance warranted. You were required to go along to get along. I became vocal about bogus data being input into their Management Control Systems (MCS) computers, which obviously affected airman performance reports. If you sucked up you got promoted and I had a problem with that. I became well aware early on that I would not make a good career military man.

I realized I needed to use the Air Forces resources to advance my own career in an alternative field. It was the only avenue to get me where I wanted to be… a commercial airline pilot. I had a long way to go. To learn to fly was the reason I joined up in the first place and the Aviation Cadet Program was no longer available.

The PME course was crowded; the school was operating three daily shifts, an A, B and C and classes were six hours a day five days a week, morning, noon and night. I applied for the “C” shift (the less popular for obvious reasons) attending from 6pm till midnight and got it. I had a whole year to look forward to and I immediately joined the Lowry Aero Club.

The club’s aircraft fleet included 2 Cessna 150’s, both a Cessna 172 and 182, and 2 Beech T-34’s, which had been former military pilot trainers. The rate for renting the T-34 was $3.50 an hour wet, which meant it included fuel. The military rate at the time for aviation fuel was 10 cents a gallon. To cover some of the training expenses I applied for a job at the club as a dispatcher and line boy during the day and on weekends, which meant I was washing aircraft underbellies when they needed cleaning. That job involved soaking a rag in gasoline and wiping the exhaust and oil streaks away. Not a fun job by any means.

I would spend the next year building flying time anyway and anywhere I could find it. I first received my Private License and immediately began working on the Commercial ticket while at the same time taking instruction for the Flight Instructor Rating. During my course at the Lowry PMEL School, in a period of a little less than a year, I acquired my Commercial Pilot and Flight Instructor ratings. I’d accomplished my original goal when joining the Air Force of becoming a pilot; even though I would have preferred to be an Air Force pilot, this route proved to be more beneficial in the end.

I was now a licensed Flight Instructor and so began the business of learning to fly airplanes in earnest.

Flight Plan Re-route

I assumed I would be returning to my former duty station at Blytheville AFB and assigned to work in the PME Lab located there. After graduating from the course at Lowry I received a change of plan and was ordered to report to the Lab at Little Rock AFB, at Jacksonville, Arkansas. Like Blytheville, it was also a SAC bomber base, but instead of B-52’s they supported the B-58 Hustler, a four engine supersonic aircraft made by Convair. The reassignment was a totally pleasant and fortunate surprise.

The Flight Instructor opportunities at Blytheville would have been dismal to say the least. A community of cotton farms with their necessary cotton gins surrounded the airbase with only a small local airport on the Mississippi River east of town. The city of Little Rock on the other hand, was the State Capital having a vibrant aviation community. I’d just struck gold on several fronts.

The commercial airport was Little Rock’s, Adams Field, where there were several FBO’s (Fixed Base Operators) which all had flight schools in need of Flight Instructors. I had my choice but because I already had a full time job with the Air Force, I could only work part time as an instructor. I took a job at Arkansas Aviation which was the Piper Aircraft Dealer in the region and they had a very active aircraft sales department. They spoke a language and in a manner I was unfamiliar with and could tell great stories and good jokes. They were all good ole boys and were a fun group to be around. There was also an avionics technician we called BJ, I never knew his real name but he played a great honky-tonk piano and worked nights at the local Shakey’s Pizza Parlor. He was a girl magnet and we loved him for that too.

Another piece of luck I encountered was having a supervisor at the PME Lab that was very accommodating with letting me arrange my work schedule so I could take off early in the afternoons to go fly. In return, I would open the Lab in the wee hours of the morning, start the coffee maker, sweep the floors and empty garbage cans.

The lab itself was required to be a filtered dust free environment; we wore white coats and slip-on booties over our shoes. You would think we were all surgeons if you were to witness the scene. The rooms were sealed and had a positive pressurized HVAC system. Whenever a door opened there would be a swooshing sound as air escaped the room. No one was allowed into the work areas without the proper attire which included a radiation monitor. It was a very prestigious job to have at the time.

I would begin my shift early in the mornings around 5 or 6, depending on workload, and leave just after the lunch hour break having worked straight through. I would eat my lunch on the way to the airport. I also managed some flight instruction on weekends.

I soon learned why teaching primary flying was left to we inexperienced instructors. Older more experienced pilots didn’t want much to do with it. Teaching someone to fly an airplane all by themselves, in other words to fly solo, was known to be hazardous duty and not to be taken lightly. Learning how to survive in an environment only friendly to birds can be daunting to the best of us. Teaching someone to fly that isn’t in the “best of us” category is even more challenging and the reason one doesn’t teach primary students as a career choice. Flight instructing is generally a mere stepping stone for most pilots; they only do it as long as necessary to get to the next level. That would include me. I occasionally ran across older pilots that really loved teaching primary flight but there weren’t many and they for sure did not do the grind. They did it sparingly and weren’t in any hurry to build flying time like the upstarts we were.

Yet another Blessing

In order to attend the PMEL training at Lowry AFB it was required that I extend my enlistment in the Air Force by two years, which I willingly did before leaving Blytheville. It was a great surprise to me, when barely four months after arriving at my new base, I received notice to report to the personnel office in preparation for being discharged. It seems my extension paperwork had been lost in my transfer of duty stations. Who am I to mess with fate? Would I feel guilty of not honoring my commitment for the training I received… yes, of course? I had already given the Air Force seven years so I reasoned; maybe this early discharge was divine intervention on my behalf. It is an easier task to stay on course when the wind is at your back. This was like winning the lottery without buying a ticket. What do you do… give it back? Better souls may have done so but not me. I’d had enough Air Force.

This is funny but true; the Air Force made my decision easier by promoting me to Staff Sergeant (E-5) shortly after arrival at Little Rock. There were other career Airman working in the Lab I thought deserved it more than I did, so it was difficult working alongside them. I felt some of their resentment, so it made my departure decision much easier. Before leaving the Air Force though I had one more chore to finish up and that was getting an instrument rating. I used up some of my acquired leave and went back to the Lowry Aero Club in September 1966 to get the rating there. It was a matter of economics, I knew the instructors and they knew me and it would be far cheaper. I was short on time and money so I asked my Aunt Inez in Michigan to loan me $200 and she did so. And, I am proud to say, I repaid her not long after.

I was honorably discharged from the Air Force on October 18th, 1966 and went to work fulltime as a Flight Instructor and Charter Pilot at Arkansas Aviation. The very next day I began working on a multi-engine rating. Once I got that out of the way the work just seemed to materialize almost out of nowhere. Two years later I would use my GI Bill benefits to obtain my Airline Transport Rating.

During this same period I was privileged to fly every type of Piper and Cessna aircraft made, both single and multi-engine. Not long after I took on a corporate job with Holiday Inns of America flying a twin engine Aero Commander aircraft that belonged to Charles Bland, the Vice President of their construction division. It was in the era when the buildup of interstate highways was in full swing and the company was putting in motels on highways still under construction. There were many times that we would land on the paved surfaces of un-open sections of interstate highway, then taxi up the off ramp to the job site. I flew allot during this period; sometimes upward of 120 hours a month in single pilot IFR conditions. In other words, flying in instrument weather and doing it without benefit of a co-pilot. It made you very proficient out of necessity.

Stroke of luck

The airlines that were hiring during this period, and there weren’t many, required you to have the Flight Engineer written test passed before you got an interview. American Flyers, an airline and flight training school in Ardmore, Oklahoma offered the course as a ground school. They taught the L-188 Lockheed Electra and I found some time and made my way there. I passed the exam some months later and also made a few friends who were fellow classmates. They would later alert me to an airline job opportunity that got me in the front door and onto my new career path. These gentlemen would also become fellow crew members as well as lifetime friends.

On my return from Oklahoma to Little Rock I was to enter my second marriage to another Arkansas girl I had been dating, that I’d originally met in the airport passenger terminal. She then worked for Trans Texas Airways and would later become a school teacher in the Little Rock school system. We produced a great little guy we called Ronnie Jr.; he was born on August 23rd, 1968 in Cumberland, Maryland. He would follow in his mother’s footsteps becoming a High School math teacher in North Little Rock. He was, and still remains, a lovable fun guy to be around. There is a coincidence here about marrying girls from Arkansas that can’t go without mentioning; when I first met my biological father some twenty-years later, I would discover he also had married a girl from Arkansas and her sister had been an American Airlines Stewardess. Truly, the apple does not fall far from the tree. How son Ronnie came to be born in Cumberland, Maryland moves the story along nicely.

Church Taxi Service

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. When sometimes to my amazement, a prayer for our dear Sister Hart was included. 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 by 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!”