Thursday, July 06, 2006

A Bonanza of Memories

My mother must have been short on gift ideas the Christmas she gave my dad her inheritance money to purchase the airplane in this photo. After all, she was deathly afraid of them and dead set against his having one. Guess that’s true love, huh?

I was only eight or nine at the time. My first memory of the little red-white-and-blue Beechcraft Bonanza is the Sunday we went to “visit” it at the tiny airport in Rancho Conejo where Daddy "boarded" it. Only three hangars and no tower. I mean, we’re talking primitive here. (Side note: watch It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and you’ll see both the airstrip and my dad’s plane in the background.) Anyway, we’d just come from church and I was wearing brand new black patent leather shoes. A fresh coat of asphalt made me wary of getting yucky tar on them, so when Daddy rolled the plane out into the sunlight, I kept my eyes glued to the ground.

Guess what?

It turns out the wings of a Bonanza are low enough for a nine-year-old to walk right into. Cue gushing blood, my mom pressing a handkerchief to the wound, and our hasty departure from the airport. Didn’t get any stitches though, and I still have the scar on my head, about an inch above the hairline, to prove it.

Scrawled on the back of this photo is the year 1963 so within months, my mom was gone, leaving Daddy a widower. My brother Barry (also pictured and about fifteen at the time) was busy with a teenage social life, so my father and I spent a lot of time together−often in the plane. I remember writing entries in my diary like, “Daddy flew me to Ventura for a Coke today.” (Pretentious, I know, but true.) Another time, we actually flew to my dad’s office. Oh, it was a roundabout way to get there and took a lot longer than the 30-minute drive by car but it made another great diary entry (especially the part where I threw up).

Some of the most memorable trips, I wasn’t present for (thank God). Like the time he was on a hunting trip with his buddies and they had to put down in a farmer’s field when the wings began to ice up. The next morning, worried about excess weight and an ominous power line, my dad took off alone and met his friends later at a proper airport. Or, how about the time he tried to take a short cut over the Sierras and instructed his buddies to keep writing their names? When their signatures grew illegible, he had to turn back—the guys couldn’t handle the lack of oxygen at that altitude, although my dad could (well, at least, that's what he claimed).

My favorite trip in the Bonanza (and now that I think of it, probably my last) took place the summer I turned fifteen. Along with my stepbrother Mike and stepmom Annie, Daddy and I embarked one morning on a cross country trip to Minnesota. You can’t fly over Las Vegas without hitting the casinos, so that was our first stop. In the morning, we set off again, our next destination: Rocky Springs, Wyoming. After Rocky Springs, we hit turbulence so bad that Mike, sitting in the front next to my dad, spent the entire flight with a jacket over his head. I had my own go-to solution when the air got bumpy: I turned the “do not open during flight” lettering on the window into an anagram, making as many words of it as I could. Guess even then, you could see the signs I wanted to be a writer.

We finally landed at some Podunk airport next to some Podunk town—in South Dakota, I think. Mike and I literally tumbled our way off the plane and onto the grass, swearing we were never leaving.

My dad pointed to a swarm of approaching thunderheads and said if we didn’t get out of there in the next fifteen minutes, he’d have to hold us to our word.

We took a second look around the sorry excuse for a city, and clambered back in. Fortunately, after that, things smoothed out, the scenery morphed from dry, rocky desert to a patchwork of green fields and farms−the rest of the flight into Detroit Lakes, Minnesota was beautiful.

On the way back, however, bad weather dogged us again. I think we’d taken off from Lincoln, Nebraska on our way to Vegas, when we flew right into a raging storm. Streaks of lightning flashed on either side of us. My dad tried everything to circumvent the storm—first flying around it to the right and when that didn’t work, changing back to the left. Over, under−everywhere we went: storm, storm, storm. Strangely, I don't remember being scared at all--I guess because when the guy flying the plane has spent several years as a P-38 pilot in WWII, you figure you're in safe hands.

Eventually, we must have found a path, because at last, Vegas lay up ahead.

As we glided toward the runway, a song kept playing through my head, and suddenly I realized what it was: the theme from the movie, “The High and the Mighty.” You know the one—starring John Wayne as the pilot of a disabled plane flying from Honolulu to Los Angeles? I had to laugh at my subconscious, but I sobered when my dad pointed to a ridge of mountains and said, “We didn’t have enough gas to get over those.”

To this day, I don’t know whether or not he was kidding.

Years later, for some unknown reason, I developed a horrible fear of flying (no, not the Erica Jong kind, although come to think of it…but, I digress). Don’t know what triggered it, or where it came from…except that maybe I never trusted any pilot who wasn’t also my Daddy.


John said...

I almost missed this one. Very well done, like a short story in a magazine. RD? I have the move MMMMW, and remember the airport. Cool.

Carol B. said...

I agree with John. Great story. Nice memories, even if it did include the occasional release of bodily fluids. :-D