It’s Monday, 7-1-13. I had a different and well-needed weekend away from Tailwheel Town. Maybe my weekend is somehow symbolic of what flying means to so many of us and also what it enables us to do and enjoy.
I would fly my little Cessna 140 over the Cascades to Medford. There, I had a lot of things planned.
The flight to Medford on Friday morning was delightful. I had a nice big cup of coffee with me, the 85 Continental hummed contentedly and the air was smooth as could be. The flight was uneventful and even restful. My MP3 player sent my favorite tunes into my ears, Seattle center watched over me with superb professionalism and friendliness. 1.9 hours later the little 140’s tires were “chirp-chirping” on the runway at Medford.
That evening there was a fun hangar party for all us airport bums. That was great fun. If you’ve ever heard “Nuts from a Blind Squirrel”, you’ll understand my love-hate relationship with the Medford airport. I love what it was and how it served as the breeding ground for me and other young aviators as we gained experience and insight from people like Bill Warren, Wayne Reavis, George Milligan, Tom Sanco, George DeMartini and many others. People are the “love” side of that love-hate relationship. Medford’s home to a lot of people whose company I really enjoy, and a barbecue at that Medford hangar is a great symbol of that enjoyment. I think that hangar barbecues are against the rules now. My friend, Tana, and I sat there and slurped wine while visiting with the likes of Dick Foy, who has forgotten more about aviation than I’ll ever know. I even started collecting some info for a new story based on some of his adventures. While we all traded flying stories and enjoyed the company, our host was at work cooking buffalo burgers. It was a great evening.
The next morning we were up with the roosters for our morning mission. Due to Medford’s obsession with keeping terrorists out of the airport, I was unable to get to my airplane until right at the time everyone blasted for Prospect. I felt like I was doing a “Pony Express Mount” on my little airplane as I chased a loical T-Craft down the taxiway and blasted into the air for Prospect. On the way I formed up on that T-craft. I had to stay on the up-sun side. I tried to get over on the other side of the T-craft once, but I was staring into the morning sun, so I flipped back underneath him to the other side where I was forced to stare at the co-pilot instead. Ah, she looks better, anyway. We all landed higgledy-piggledy at the little Prospect airport and those who landed first could line up and judge those who followed. I was just about the last to land. Thank goodness they forgot to bring their scorecards! I know you’ll think this silly, but I think the little Cessna was happy to be tied down in a row with lots of other taildraggers instead of alone in his hangar.
A nice brisk walk into town was followed by a filling breakfast served by two surly teenaged waitresses annoyed at having to be up so early and serving such a large group. We didn’t care. We were having a great time.
Back at the airport, I ran into “RV Mike” Macon, whose plane normally lives at Sisters. It was fun to see his smiling face.
The flight back included a quick little joinup with my pal, George DeMartini’s T-craft. George is a superb aviator and it’s always fun to fly with him.
Sunday morning featured the now-expected battle with the gate code and resulting inability to make my planned departure time. It was made up for by a great lineman at Medford Air Service.
This would be the more serious part of the trip.
The 140 putted into the air and we headed over the route I’d flown so many times so many years ago. South over Ashland, past Pilot Rock, past the Hornbrook City dump where Margaret Edgington landed her balloon on her first solo, then over Craggy and down into Montague.
The little 140 had never been there before. When I’d first landed at Montague I was flying my first airplane, a Taylorcraft BC12D. It was the place I first found work as a flight instructor. I introduced the Cessna to this great little airport and it seemed to feel at home there as its wheels chirped onto the runway that I’d spent so much time on so many years ago.
I was there to attend two funerals. Two aviators had shared an end when the Glasair they were in impacted the ground a couple of weeks before. There weren’t many fly-ins to the service and it was easy to find a place to park. I wandered down to the east-west grass runway where the service for Lloyd Rugg would be held. I hardly knew Lloyd, but I knew of him. He’d towed for the glider operation at Montague and I believe he had gotten his preliminary instruction at this same airport right before I started there as a young CFI. Terry Weathers had been his instructor. Lloyd had been a tire shop owner and operator for a living, but flying was his passion. He’d obviously excelled at it. He’d also excelled at winning the respect and friendship of a whole lot of people. The grass strip was packed with people who’d come to say farewell.
Terry and Jean Weathers met me. My first employers, it was great to see both of them and to catch up a bit before the service started. I had a chance to meet old friends. Bill and Charlie were both there, as well as that lovely woman, Peggy, who’s put up with Bill for so long. I’d flown with Charlie a lot and I think I’d soloed him in Jean’s Citabria long ago.
Then Bill and Charlie had bought my old Taylorcraft when I went on to do airshow comedy and got my Cub. Bill still has the T-craft. It was fun seeing them all. Catherine was there. A former student and good stick who has become a good friend, she seems to pop up when least expected and it’s always a pleasure to see this gifted flyer and good person. I can’t begin to name everyone I saw or describe how they figured in the past, but Blair stood out. He had aged, as have we all, but the sparkle was still in his eye, the humor and warmth was still there in this fun guy who used to teach aerobatics at the little Northern California airport.
The first person to speak was Lloyd’s widow, Lisa. I’d never met her, but I was absolutely impressed with her ability to convey the thoughts she shared with us and I was doubly impressed with the strength it took to do it so soon after losing Lloyd. I’d have to say that it was a great service. There was a local group of musicians, who played well and lovingly. Lisa was in the group and played her violin with the rest. When everyone there joined in to sing “Amazing Grace”, it was like a scene out of a John Ford Western with the hills of Northern California, the impeccable Pawnee towplane that Lloyd flew for Montague Soaring and his RV 6 as a backdrop for the service. If Bill Warren had been alive, he’d have organized a missing man formation. It was about all that the service needed to make it perfect.
Terry and Jean and I went over to the Community Hall in Montague for Larry Graves’ service. I’d known Larry better and I guess that it was my debt to Larry and his wife, Sharon, which had brought me to Montague this day. Years ago when I was first flying for Terry at Montague, I’d gotten in some trouble. I’d waterskied that little Taylorcraft on Frog Lake near the airport. A picture of the stunt was in the local paper.
A guy who had the FBO at the nearby Siskiyou County airport had made a fuss about it. He’d called the Feds on me and even wrote a letter to the editor of the paper. I will never forget the joy I got from reading a rebuttal to that letter from Larry’s wife, Sharon. In it she defended me and, as I remember, excoriated those who didn’t appreciate the exuberance of waterskiing an airplane, an act which injured no one. I always remembered the Graves’ support. I was there to express my never-forgotten gratitude for it.
Darrin Mercier, in conducting Larry’s service, got my attention when he said we were there “to celebrate the life of one of the good ones.” I was immediately transported to Gayle Crowder’s elegant little story in the Tailwheeler’s Journal called “Only the Good Ones”. Yikes! Had he read it? He was right. We were there to celebrate two guys who would have qualified to have appeared in Gayle’s imaginary pilot’s heaven. For they were, indeed, Good Ones.
Terry, Jean and I lingered for a while after the service. I wanted to see Sharon and let her know how much I appreciated Larry and how I’d never forgotten her own actions, but there was quite a crush around her and I think the outpouring of support for her, as positive as it was, must have been extremely stressful. I chose to skip it and send her a note later.
One of my friends later said that he much preferred wakes to funerals. I think these two services were more like wakes. Sure, there are tears at services like these, but look what else there is: We see old friends and acquaintances who we might not otherwise see. We hear stories, some of which take us back to old times and some of which give us insights into someone which we never had before. We get to see the departed friend through other eyes and gain a perspective that we otherwise wouldn’t get. See, these things make certain things possible that would not be possible otherwise! For a long time I’ve objected to the expressed thought that someone died doing what they loved. I guess that, to me, it was too much of a cliché. It seemed to be meant to soften the blow of losing people we didn’t want to lose. It was a small consolation. But now I don’t mind it so much. I’d never say it myself, but I understand it. I guess it’s because I’m saying to myself, “well, SURE, he died doing what he loved to do… that’s what you’re SUPPOSED to die doing.” It’s okay; it’s a perfectly fine and normal sentiment….. just not one you’ll hear from me. Hell, old Bill died doing what he loved to do… he was drinking a beer! I guess I should point out that he’d just finished a day of flying when he took that last slurp before keeling over.
The Weathers’ dropped me at the Cessna. I fueled it up, then wandered into the FBO building that had provided so many great memories and lessons. Unfamiliar people were now sitting around the familiar table. We chatted for a bit. I took one last look, then the Cessna and I launched off for the long trip home in the heat of the day. It wasn’t as rough as it could have been. We cruised along at 10,000 feet.
We enjoyed the coolness of altitude. We also enjoyed a slightly different view than we usually get when crossing the Cascades. Our route took us across Crater Lake and of course I had to swoop past my favorite mountain, Mount Thielsen.
It occurred to me that this whole weekend had been about airplanes. Airplanes had linked me with all of these friends for all of these years. Although they loved airplanes, an airplane had taken two of them to their end. Airplanes were what the breakfast bums had in common. They’d taken them to their shared meal and were, for the most part, what they yakked about as they munched their bacon. An airplane had taken me all this distance while showing me all this country. An airplane had enabled me to develop a specific skill, to write about, film and teach the art of flying. I don’t know where I’d be without airplanes.
In just under two hours, our tires touched the new, smooth runway at Sisters. The little Cessna and I putted up to our hangar/house. We’d had an interesting weekend. We’d covered 472 miles and flown for 5.2 hours. Not really that many miles or that much flight time to have done as much as we had, to have seen so many good people, to have met some new ones and to have said “goodbye” to a pair of good ones. I got to have special and important time with my little airplane. I love my students and I love teaching, but perhaps because I so rarely get to share a flight alone with that nice little plane, when I do it’s really special. I’d actually gotten to have a few hours alone with my little plane. Not teaching, not shooting a video, just the two of us off together on a trip, something we rarely get to do.
It was a good weekend.