The World as it Was
In Memoriam, to a wonderful father
(Excerpt from Fly Over Down Under)
1946 – WW II is over… we are joining my father in Luzon. The transport ship pulled in to dock at destination Manila. A brass band played with great gusto and feeling, “Kiss me once, and kiss me twice.” Next line of that song is “It’s been a long, long, time.” And so it had. We pressed against the railing, eagerly scanning the crowd, the pier so full of army caps, shouting and waving. The arriving dependents were busy spotting husbands and fathers, the men anxiously peering up to find sweethearts and children. I spied mine right away, intense and handsome, his face joyful at seeing us. Off the ship we rushed into his welcoming arms. I was surprised… a few little guys were quite terrified by these men their mommies were hugging – they hadn’t seen them in so long they didn’t recognize them! Probably they had been babes in arms at their last encounter. Or waiting to hatch? So there I was, sitting behind my pilot Dad, riding over the China Sea out of Luzon in a rackety single engine reconnaissance plane, tandem seating. We ventured out to see the relics of his war, a few sunken warship hulks pointing their dead black hulls from sea to sky… I said how huge they were. Dad growled, you should see the parts under water. I was so young – but he must have wanted me to see that, and to remember.
R.I.P., Daddy. I remember.
I was wiggling my toes deep under the covers, feeling the cool sheets after the hot summer day. Ahhh. There are pleasures you never tire of, and that end of day bliss in your safe harbor is one.
The phone rang, putting a shrill end to our bedtime’s peace and calm. It was past 10:30, we were cozied down, ready to drift off with books propped comfortably for reading. Hal had answered, and passed the phone to me with pithy mutterings… A tear-choked voice quavered in my ear. A pitiful wail cried “Aunt Michelee, I’m in Newark… my plane to the Vineyard just took off early without me!”
Our niece had found herself abandoned at the dead-quiet Newark NJ airport, its day’s activities mostly over and done – not the best place for an unescorted pretty young woman to be, late at night. Frightened and alone, left behind by an impatient pilot who decided to cut a corner and leave a few minutes early. (Shamefully, that used to happen; wily travelers always stuck close to the departure gate just in case) “Don’t worry, lamb chop,” I said – “Sit tight. We’ll fly down and get you. We’ll be there in a couple of hours.”
Groaning, we threw on clothes, grabbed up our son (last kid still at home), tooled down the road to our trusty little 4-seat Cessna at the local airport. It was charmingly rural, our sweet airstrip. We could park on the roadside, step through brambles, and quickly access our mamabird. Those were the days, pre-terrorists and major security fences. In no time we were airborne, marveling at the fantasy of lights passing below, against the inky background of earth.
Boston’s twinkling lights slid past on our left… soon the New York megalopolis edged into the horizon, Connecticut’s distant shoreline marking the Atlantic and thence Long Island Sound. We were with Air Traffic Control by now, receiving compass-heading instructions as we approached the city from the northeast. At this hour, nearly midnight, he was working a slack load. Most airlines and certainly little guys like us were already down and put away. So when he said, as we came down the Hudson River, “Turn right at the statue” he was bored and ready. “(Yumpah-dee-dah…) What statue ?” I asked. “The Statue of Liberty (his tone said ‘you dimwit’).” Hey – she wasn’t so prominent at night. But soon her raised torch beckoned the way, and we hummed towards the big lights of EWR. And now came the hard part.
The tower cleared us to land, and with the grumpy help of Ground Control (stressful New Jersey air traffic can exhaust their nerves) we idled along through the dark outdoors of the nearly vacant giant airport to the puddle jump airline serving MVY.
The story ends well. We gathered up our grateful niece, flew her back to our home via the stunning Hudson River departure procedure from NYC – with the low altitude safety restriction through there to keep us below the airlines’ JFK, LGA, and EWR’s approaches and departures, we got quick peeks into apartments as we wended our way out and away (always over the river, never over city buildings). Final instructions from EWR tower had been: “Turn left at the Statue and contact Departure.” Again the illuminated roadmaps of civilization spread out before us as we climbed onto our course, lights gradually thinning out into the black forests of rural sleeping CT. Soon we were clicking on the pilot-controlled runway lights at home base – and rolling out. Next day we arose late and whisked our lamb chop to the Vineyard. It was all good.
Of course she had to bear intense family teasing for missing her flight. Her mother was having fits about the imposition on us. They don’t get it, do they, the goggle-eyed ground-huggers? When adventure calls, we leap! Flying the New York Corridor into Newark at midnight and beyond?
“Lawsa, Miz Morgan, dat chile is lahk a lambs-tail in fly time, dartin’ all ovah dat yahd!!” That was my beloved black nanny Dolly, patient and tender, who still lives in my heart. Love doesn’t know color, when you’re a child. She would shield me from sadness “Oh dat kitty jes’ gone to kitty town” when my pet died… She was goodness in a ruffled bonnet, a gentle soul in a combative world.
The blacks of my childhood had a language tapestry rich in expressions pale white folk talk couldn’t come close to. When my Texas great-grandmother’s housekeeper announced she was leaving her husband, a long-suffering man, a man the maid had sniffed at and pronounced “no-‘count” – Mamacita asked “Do you really want to do that, Sally?”
Sally responded, “Yes’m. I done packed my bag and packed my mind.” It doesn’t get clearer than that.
And maybe those early words “fly-time” echoed in my dreams as the years spun out. I can yet hear the faint zip-up sound of my daddy’s B4 bag in that predawn darkness, down the hallway. It was wartime, and he was quietly leaving us in the cozy warmth of our safe beds to ready himself and others for air-to-air combat, the fight to possible death for our cherished freedoms. That part was meaningless to me, a 4-year-old – But I understood about flying. My first words were “airplane” and “Hello world.” Each day before breakfast he would carry me from my bed to the window, point to the outdoors and call out “Hello world.” What a sweet way to learn, no?
He once took me down way off behind Wright Field’s flight line to see a friend who came in with a Flying Tiger, something the gown ups spoke of in hushed tones of respect, even awe. The plane and pilot’s presence seemed to be a secret Daddy was sharing with me. I stood rigid under the viciously painted nose and peered up at it. It was huge, ugly, and certainly evilly unfriendly – it was a sight made to terrify the enemy’s attack aircraft. I remember how I felt. Overwhelmed – and wary. So those lurid fangs at least terrified small children. Anyway, my dad was clearly crestfallen that his busy little tree-climber was made timid by that bloody shark – and by his friend. Daddy, of course, found it thrillingly magnificent. Funny – I still remember the young face of his pilot friend, oddly dressed in civvies. Years afterward I found out what heroes those volunteers of Claire Chennault’s had been.
The Flying Tigers, P-40s, were flown out of China where they were repaired as needed, manned by men mostly gleaned from the United States Army Air Corps. What ever was this one doing in Ohio? “Why” was never shared. But my father clearly wanted me to see it – and to remember. No other children were taken to that hidden place tucked in behind other parked airplanes, on the backside of the hangars. I was told not to mention it. My mother had not wanted him to show me, and she also told me not to speak of it.
So I didn’t.