of “Roller Skates and Airplanes”
Idol: n 1 : image of god 2 : object of devotion
In our new neighborhood on Stanford I discovered a kindred soul living across the street. He was tall and lanky and was obviously a good deal older. Like maybe a teen ager who was in High School. I used to watch him in the field next to his house from our front window. It was the same field where I had earlier shot an arrow through my finger while pretending to be Tonto. He was tossing in the air a model airplane that I assumed he had built. I was already in love with building model airplanes, but they were plastic and I had a room full of them, and they didn’t really actually fly. So, here he was, this big kid, doing what I really wanted to do and his name was Mel Jack.
I didn’t engage with Mel about his hobby with model airplanes back then, or ever for that matter. I was shy and it was a new environment where I now lived. And, let’s face it, a ten year old in the fourth grade, doesn’t walk up to a High School kid and say, “howdy.” We wonder and admire from afar and that is what I did.
I began saving my snow shoveling, grass mowing, and paper route money to buy Flying Model Airplanes. And, for the next several years, which carried me into my teens, I probably built more than a hundred of them. They were made of balsa wood, which came in sheets that had printed on them the pieces of aircraft structure, which needed to be cut out with a razor knife and glued together. Placing waxed paper over the plans, I would cut, glue, and then pin the pieces over top of the plan. I learned about wing spars, ribs, bulkheads, longerons, ailerons, flaps, vertical stabilizers, horizontal stabilizers, rudders, and elevators. I figured out how an airplane was steered, but hadn’t been exposed to “Bernoulli’s principle” and why it was that an airplanes wing sustained itself while moving through a fluid body of air. That would come later during a high school physics class. All Magic of course.
A brief look ahead…(A true Story and a good time to share):
It must be tough being a grade school teacher, where you are supposed to know everything about a few things, and generally do, but the reality is, you know a lot about very little. It was painfully true for my sixth grade teacher… let’s call him Mr. Fisher, because that was his name. Everyone in the class was assigned a science project and given a few weeks to finish. I chose to build an airplane with fully functioning flight controls and I did just that. I used scrap pieces out of my Dads woodpile in the basement. I attached smaller pieces of wood as ailerons using hinges to a wing fashioned from a six foot long twelve inch wide piece of pine. The same was done with the tail which included a moveable rudder and elevator. Using kite string attached to a control wheel, through eyelet screws, I made them all work… including the rudder pedals. Each control surface flipped and flapped as they were supposed to.
Well, I wheeled this contraption, a full seven blocks into Mr. Fisher’s classroom on the appointed day it was due. I turned it up on its side to get it through the door and set it up on the stage behind his desk. Whereupon, Mr. Fisher, looking quite puzzled begins scratching at his chin. He then tried playing with the flight controls and turned to me saying… “Come with me.” He took me out into the hallway and said… “You didn’t build that did you? Your Dad built that didn’t he?” As the tears welled up in my eyes I found myself nearly speechless and mumbling… “No he didn’t, I did it.” In all of my years of experiencing teaching and teachers, Mr. Fisher was by far the worst example of the genre. There were other episodes concerning Mr. Fisher I hope to share later. My Dad, having to quit school in the eighth grade to help support his family during the depression, couldn’t have spelled “aileron” if he tried, let alone read it.
It had been perhaps a year or so after watching Mel, my idol from across the street, tossing his airplanes into the sky that he disappeared for a short while. Then one day, his mother Elsie, came over to our house and asked if I wanted to ride out to Selfridge Air Force Base to meet Mel when he landed. He was flying a B-25 on a cross-country training mission and would be home on leave for a few days. Mel Jack, it turns out, was finishing up his Air Force Pilot Training. He had been a member of the Civil Air Patrol during High School, which led him into the Aviation Cadet Program after graduation. Obviously, I went along.
OMG, when I think back, watching him land a B-25, then walking across the ramp in his flying suit and leather jacket to meet us. Sign me up, you don’t need to put a worm on the hook, I am caught. Mel Jack became my everyday hero, and he didn’t have a clue about that.
The final act in hooking me came that night. Mel had a date and took me along… we went roller skating at a rink in Lincoln Park. To this day I can’t believe the heart of that man. I’d never been to an indoor rink before and to include me was above and beyond anything I can imagine even to this day. I discovered that this wasn’t his or his dates first time ever on roller skates. The music, the lighting, all created this most unreal atmosphere for the novice me. When it came time for “pairs dancing” Mel and his date were not beginners. They owned the floor… it was magical!
Mel went on the finish a career in the Air Force. The last I heard he was flying C-124’s out of Dover in Delaware, and that would have been in the late 1950’s. It wasn’t until forty some odd years later that I looked him up.
It took me awhile but I found him in Denver, Colorado. I was an Airline Captain at the time with American Airlines, flying Boeing 757 and 767 aircraft out of San Francisco. Denver layovers came up on our schedule, so I bid the trip one month and arranged to meet up with Mel. We met at a local VFW near the Airport, and I told him my story and how much influence he had made on my life. The only thing I couldn’t do yet, I confessed, was roller skate. His parting words to me were, and I still remember… “Ron, you do me great honor.” It came from the heart of a man I still idolize.