Saturday, June 18, 2011

Flying with my father

The picture is of my dad as an aspiring pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps —Waco, Texas — I am not sure of the exact year, it is sometime in the late 1940's. He had already done his service in the Navy during WWII when this picture was taken. He'd been around aircraft a while, first as a naval ordinance man and then as a combat air crewman. He'd enlisted in '44, served for three years and when he got out he turned right around and signed up for Army Air Corps flight school. And there he is in this old photograph I found.

My father loved flying, he always would, but not only flying —it was the piloting, that sense of command over the massive forces involved, with all its armament and engineering, the speed and power of the modern airplane. I can remember when I was just a small child. I'd be sitting at the kitchen table, chatting with him as he had his afternoon coffee, and he would hold forth on the sacred mysteries of laminar airflow over an aircraft's wing, ailerons and trim, the tone of reverence in his voice as he spoke the words 'Pratt & Whitney Engine' —the years later you could sense the rapturous awe that still held sway over him. There was something about flying with my father. There was something there at the core of his soul. Long before Ronald Reagan ever borrowed the lines for his speech after the shuttle disaster, my dad could recite from that poem about flight, about leaving behind the bonds of earth and reaching out to touch the face of God.

High Flight

Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth

Of sun-split clouds -- and done a hundred things

You have not dreamed of -- wheeled and soared and swung

High in the sunlit silence. Hovering there,

I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung

My eager craft through footless halls of air.

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue

I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace

Where never lark, or even eagle flew.

And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod

The high untrespassed sanctity of space,

Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

Now I have this picture of my father. I look at it and realize he is at about the same age there as my own son is now. In the photograph my father is a young man achieving his dream, realizing that command. When this picture was taken he had arrived upon this place of validation and vindication after such a long hard journey. At the age of eight years, the effects of The Great Depression had broken his family and he had been sent away to live with his aunts on a country farm. I only learned after my father passed away that he had spent time in his early teens as a homeless runaway —my mother explaining why the Little Wanderers had always been a favored charity of his. Then came the war and the Navy. He joined in 1944 at the age of 17. Another prize photograph in my possession is my father in the side gun turret of a PBY Catalina Flying Boat somewhere in the Pacific in 1945. When he got out in '47 he would use his GI Bill to help his parents and his sister buy a little house in Brockton, Massachusetts.

Then he was bound for Waco, Texas.

Over the years I would hear a great deal from my father about his stint in the Army Air Corps Flight Training Program. He could relate in minute detail the rudder, flaps and throttle specifics of every maneuver he had learned on the North American T6 Trainer he flew. And he could relate with chilling clarity the momentary lapse in control during one of his last flight tests, his flight instructor expressionless and clinical as he noted his observations in the flight logbook.

My father "washed out" at Waco. That's what they called it when you didn't make the grade, when you learned that you weren't going to be one of those to earn the wings. He told me about sitting through something of a ritual procedure —Washing Out, sitting at attention (which meant using only the front three inches of the chair and having his spine frozen straight and unbending —eyes locked forward front and center) as across a table sat an administrator or two and the flight instructor he had come to know over the previous weeks. They reviewed his log and explained their decision about his future participation in the Army Air Corps' cadet training program.

They asked him if he differed with or disputed anything in the account of his training flights given in the log and he said he did not. They asked if he agreed with their conclusion that he should not continue in the program and he said he did not. That wasn't going to change anyone's mind of course. As I said, this hearing was something of a ritual. At one point the flight instructor asked my father if he thought of himself as a good pilot and my father answered that, yes, he thought he was. There was a moment of recognition and respect between the two men, just a trace of a smile on the flight instructor's face.

He didn't say I was wrong, my father recalled years later.

I heard that story from my father many times growing up. It was a story about disappointment that he would share when I was faced with my own in life. But he also shared the story from time to time when he was simply in a philosophical mood. It was about as bitter a disappointment as he had ever faced, that's what he felt at the time, but it was that momentary lapse in one maneuver and that close judgement by his instructor that sent my father home to Massachusetts, where he met my mother and formed our family. Had things gone as he so desperately wanted them to, he would have been flying dangerous combat missions over Korea instead of meeting her at a dance in 1950. As he sat there talking with the youngest of his three sons in the home he made for himself with his family, he could see that disappointment of years gone by as providence —a blessing.

And there was something of a gift in that moment with his flight instructor, too. Failure and disappointment didn't define my father or darken his joy in flight, his sense of himself as a pilot. He knew the truth in that poetry about flying and no one could ever deny him that. He would never deny it himself.

Twenty years after "washing out" of the Army Air Corps Training Program, my dad started taking flying lessons again. He used the same leather bound log they had given him in Waco to record his training flights. He completed the necessary hours, soloed and then got his license. He ended up sharing the ownership of a small Cesna and flying out of Hopedale Airport for years. The Cesna 172 he ended up flying didn't have the awesome power of the military planes he'd flown in his youth, where he had first learned to love flight. But nevertheless I know he had his moments, flying over the New England country, reveling in the landscapes below and the skies all around, catching the occasional glimpse of God.