I grew up in Pekin, Illinois. Grade School. Junior High. High School … Class of ‘68. After I moved away, I visited occasionally because that was where family lived. But, for the past decade or two, none of my immediate family has lived there. We have all moved for jobs or opportunities or retirement.
What has kept me in touch with Pekin in the past few years has been Facebook. I joined Facebook initially as a way to keep in touch with our son in Utah—see his photos and read his comments. When a former classmate asked to be friends, I began a much deeper relationship with the online community, friending more classmates and others in my interest areas.
My only connection with any of my classmates since graduating in 1968 has mostly been Facebook in the past few years. Earlier this year, the class had a 45th reunion. I could not attend. One of the guys, Ron Hill, decided it was important to keep the guys in touch and started a weekly lunch. I always get an invite, but it’s hard to meet for lunch in Pekin, Illinois ,when you live in Cincinnati, Ohio. That is …. until I went back to Illinois to spend some time with my brother who just retired, and he lives about an hour from our hometown.
As I made my online reservation to the weekly event, my anticipation grew. There were friends I hoped would be there, friends who have attended the weekly ritual. And I was not disappointed.
Ron Hill sat in the middle of the long table. Willis Beyer, Lou Wilson, Bob Dalcher, Ron Wilson, John Garls, Dave Nash, and Danny Durbin who almost forgot, but came in late anyway. My brother Barry attended with me, and he knew a couple of these guys better than I did because they worked together. And then there was Mike Esteppe, who pulled into the parking lot at the same time as I, and we gave each other a hearty greeting after so many years.
Mike and I were not only classmates, but we worked together part-time at the Super Valu during and for a short while after high school. We worked a Friday night shift restocking shelves, then we would wash our cars and meet in the park to wax them. He was driving a cool Pontiac Catalina with a stick, and I a Pontiac Lemans. After school, I went to work for the telephone company, then was drafted, and when I returned from the Army and back to the phone company, Mike was working there. We were working together again. After a few years, I moved on to other things. He stayed in Pekin and recently retired … from the telephone company.
In all my travels, I have met fellow travelers and vagabonds from all over the world. I have also met individuals who lived in the same place all their lives. People who have made commitments to community and its economic development. As I sat at lunch reminiscing with my fellow classmates—all who have stayed in Pekin for the most part—I began to wonder about the advantages and disadvantages of a mobile life. Moving on for better opportunity may have its rewards, but staying put and becoming one with the fabric of community can be just as rewarding. Moving on is to become an outsider wherever you land. Staying is the opportunity to really know the sense of place.
Lunch over, my brother and I set off onto other errands for the day. As I drove through Pekin, observing how much has changed, I wondered if one can ever really go home again.
“Come on. We’ll take out the little Chief and putt around the sky.”
“No. I don’t need to go flying. If I go, I’ll just get to thinking about how much I miss flying.”
The conversation ended there … for the time being.
I was the first of us three boys to earn a pilot’s license. Dad had a dream of one day earning a pilot’s license, and he did. But, after he achieved that goal, he never did anything with it. It was just one of his dreams from the days of his childhood when he built model airplanes out of balsa wood from scratch. On just one or two occasions, all four of us were able to attend the Experimental Aircraft Association Annual Fly-in at Oshkosh. It was a father and sons getaway. The four of us had something in common—the love of airplanes and flying.
Earning my pilot’s license was a joy and a mission. I started flying lessons after I was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1970. I was stationed at Ft. Lewis in Washington state, and they had an Army-sponsored flying club. I started my lessons under the tutelage of an Air Force instructor from next-door McCord Air Base. Flying was cheap. I think the airplane cost $5.75 an hour with fuel, and the instructor was $5.
My lessons were interrupted at Ft. Lewis when I received notice and shipping orders to Vietnam. I would have a 30-day leave at home before shipping out. I went home, visited the local airport and continued my flying lessons with a fervor. I had 30 days to take and pass a written exam, receive instruction and fly enough hours to earn my pilot’s license before going off to war. My heart sank when I failed my first written exam. I scheduled another one as quickly as I could, and I passed. Time was running short.
With a successful written test results in hand, having met the flight requirements, and clearance from my instructor, I scheduled a flight exam for my license. Nervous and with the confidence of a student pilot, I demonstrated to the flight examiner that I understood the FAA regulations, proper flight procedures and knowledge of airspace, and then how to properly and safely fly a single-engine airplane. I passed. It was three days before I was to leave for Vietnam in January, 1971 at the young age of 20 years old.
No matter what happened in Vietnam, I had my pilot’s license, and it turned out to be a Godsend. When President Nixon wanted to start bringing the troops home, any good reason was entertained. Since I had demonstrated that I wanted to fly, and possessed a license, I applied for an early out of the Army for education—commercial flight training. The paperwork went in, and before I knew it, I was headed home.
After the Army, I went on to earn a commercial pilot’s license for single and multi-engine aircraft and an instrument rating. I also managed to earn a two-year college degree, A.A.S. Commercial Aviation. It was my first earned college degree. It wasn’t the fastest path, but I got it done.
I have personally owned two airplanes, a Cessna 150, and of all the aircraft I have flown, my favorite was my second, a 1977 Citabria 7ECA. That Citabria was a modern version of basic stick and rudder flying. Fun. Fun. Fun. Did you know that Citabria is airbatic spelled backwards? My love of flying also took me down the path of a business disaster when I bought and lost an aviation business. That was not fun.
Flying was a huge part of my life. But as general aviation grew more expensive, the inverse was true of my ability to afford to go flying. It just got too expensive. I pretty much decided that I would never be able to afford or enjoy flying like I did. My last log book entry is dated March 27, 1999. I flew three hours, under the instruction of my brother who had become a flight instructor, in an older Aeronca Champ 7ECA—the forerunner and previous manufacturer of the line of Citabrias. It was an airplane that my brother owned at the time. It almost felt like home. On other rare occasions and visits to my brother, I have gone flying with him, and piloted the Champ or his Cessna 170, but those entries are not in my log book.
Whenever I pass a small airfield with a grass strip, I will slow down to look or maybe even stop. Whenever a plane flies overhead, I look up to see where it is headed. What kind is it? I reminisce, and they are all fond memories of what once was a great passion.
Jump ahead in time to the other day, the morning after the first conversation.
“Brent, let’s go flying.” He didn’t wait for an answer, he just started lifting the hangar door and rolling out the 1946 Aeronca Chief, a two-place airplane with a wood prop and no starter button. It is a recent purchase. You have to hand-prop it to get it started.
“Okay, but I’ll just ride and take pictures. You fly it.”
Brakes set, engine primed, throttle set, he gives the prop a pull. Once. Again. On the third try, the engine fires to life and the propeller is spinning. We climb in, he in the left seat, me in the right. We make an engine run-up to check mags and other gauges, and we roll out onto his private airstrip, a grass runway, accelerating faster and bumping along. The tail comes off the ground as the speed increases, and as if by magic, a bump in the middle of the field launches us into the air, and we are flying.
The ground below us starts to sink as we rise higher into the air. The corn fields and soy beans pass under us. Well maintained farms with bright shiny silos can be seen dotting the landscape as the early morning sun glistens off the dew. The farms are laid out in neat little squares bounded by county roads. We are flying, and it is not like anything else you will ever do. No commercial airliner can ever give you the thrill of flight. Instead of feeling like you’re riding in a bus or more like a cattle car, you are part of the environment that reveals the incredible landscape below you. At the right time of day, you can see the shadow of the airplane on the ground racing along, keeping pace.
We fly into and around town. We look down on two hot air balloons—a sight you will never see from the ground. “Here is the park we go to often to walk or ride our bikes,” he says. “There is the new hospital. There is the county court house.” We are cruising along at about 55 mph in the air. Cars and trucks are passing us on the ground on the Interstate below.
We head back home and land with the grace of a tail dragger airplane, the kind that is meant for grass runways. We roll up to the hangar, and he swings it around to make it easier to roll back to it’s parking place.
That was fun. Very fun. But, damn you brother.
I have been teased … mercilessly. The airplane is calling my name. Flying is beckoning like a siren call. I want to feel the controls again, to feel the surge of the airplane accelerating forward as I push the throttle in. I want to feel the emotion, the glee of lifting off the ground and seeing the world from a perspective that a few know. I want to putt around the Midwest visiting little airports with grass strips that host their big pancake and sausage breakfasts on the 2nd Saturday of the month for the benefit of the Lions-VFW-American Legion- Cancer Society-friends of the airport. I want to talk with other pilots about their exploits and adventures. I WANT TO GO FLYING AGAIN.
Damn you, brother. See what you’ve done. I’m never going flying again. I feel like I am addicted and I just fell off the wagon.
I am never going flying again …. Well, maybe at the family picnic in September. Just once or twice around the pattern. Okay? But … that’s it. Okay?