The Rip Post                      

Flying the nostalgic skies

By Paul Weeks
Columnist, Stockton Record
Originally published Tuesday, June 1, 2004

I was a child of 3. My father used to swing me high from between his legs into the sky. But the sky was higher than that. And he saw to it that my sister Lois and I, with our mother sitting between us, got to look down on the ground far below from the open cockpit of an old World War I "Jenny." It was summer, 1924.

We were touring in a Model T Ford across the Fort Berthold Indian reservation in North Dakota, near the Canadian border. Parshall was the lone dot on the wide prairie. How an Arikaree Indian village got the name of Parshall, I don't know. History says that it was a little niche near the wide Missouri River where the United States brought three warring tribes together in 1866 and bundled them into one reservation 58 years before we got there.

The buzz of an airplane overhead undoubtedly signaled Dad to pull over and let the family look up. I don't know for sure, but it was probably the first plane I ever saw. The barnstorming pilot put her down on a cow pasture. My father, who lived to watch mankind make that first big step onto the surface of the moon, couldn't go up with us that day because the passenger seat could only hold Mamma and two tots. But he flew to Europe when he was my age today -- 83.

Much of this story is family lore, but I do remember this much: Our pilot firmly warned Mom not to let us touch the wires strung along the sides of our seat that were flight controls, and to never unbuckle the seat belt.

Someone hollered, "Contact!" and stepped right in front of the airplane and gave a breathtaking heave as he swung the propeller. Nothing happened. Just like trying to crank our Ford. Another turn or two, and the engine sputtered to life. We were off, past the people waving, past cows frightened away.

I remember looking down in awe from higher in the air than Dad ever swung me. People dwindled to tiny tots and houses to toy size. So did cows.

The propwash, streaming around the windshield, threatened to blow us away, and the noise was deafening. Those not-to-be touched wires slid back and forth just as the plane did. My sailor hat blew off and away. Only the pilot had a helmet.

Who was at the controls? Years later, I knew that he might even have been Charles Lindbergh -- one of the barnstormers who flew Jennies on barnstorming swings across the prairies, then flew the Atlantic three years after our flight in a plane not much bigger. It would have been nice to know.

My next flight was almost as memorable. Adm. Richard E. Byrd's Ford Tri-Motor -- top speed 125 mph -- had carried him in the first flight over the South Pole in 1929. No more than six or seven years after that, Albuquerque High School gave us a field trip aboard it. The countless ones since -- exciting at first, some harrowing and most of the latest, boring -- might better suit a book than a newspaper column.

But my latest flight, only a couple of weeks ago, is reserved for this space:

Lois, now 85, and I went up again -- our first together since 1924. This time, we were squeezed into another open cockpit aboard a red-winged 1929 Travelaire biplane. Her son, Chuck NeSmith, who works for the state Water Resources Control Board in Sacramento, bought her a ticket for the ride as a birthday present -- and as an afterthought for my 85th, too, which is still more than a year away. Isn't that good forethought?

After getting assurance from barnstormer Vic Schneider, our pilot, that the plane has had regular oil changes since it rolled off the assembly line 75 years ago, we hit the wild blue yonder.

Dad, it was almost as exciting as the swing from between your legs into the sky long ago.

How do you like to go up in a swing,

Up in the air so blue?

Oh, I do think it the
pleasantest thing

Ever a child can do!

-- Robert Louis Stevenson


Paul Weeks is a distinguished veteran journalist who worked for the Los Angeles Daily News, Mirror, Times, and later the RAND Corporation. He lives in Oceanside and works as a freelance writer.

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