His eyes don’t focus as they once did, but the twinkle in them remains bright. Cochlear nerve damage from piloting a small plane for hundreds of hours has silenced the magic of his classical guitar and velvet tenor voice, yet his laugh is strong. Not even the loss of his beloved wife of 52 years has dampened his vow to “have fun every day, no matter what.” Without reservation, I proudly call Dad my only hero.
At 90, Dad still amazes me. He could have died several times, but he’s defied it. Gracefully. Life is fickle, but I think he’ll survive to see 100.
Born in 1926 on the family farm in LeRoy, Illinois, Dad still owns the bed of his mother’s labor. Her mother, grandmother and perhaps even her great-grandmother were born in the bed as well. The first of two children, Dad grew up during the Great Depression. He learned to play guitar early, and remembers learning folk songs from older family members.
Sometime during his eighth year, he came upon a barnstorming pilot giving rides out of a nearby field, and so began his love affair with airplanes. When Dad was 13, his father died suddenly and the farm became his responsibility. Juggling farm chores with school, he dreamed of someday learning to fly. Farming was not his calling, and at 18 he enlisted in the Army with World War II raging on several fronts. Already a fine musician, he enjoyed a brief stint on saxophone in a military jazz band. The next summer, he joined thousands of soldiers on a somber journey across the Pacific Ocean. He was to serve in the first wave of soldiers to invade Japan, with 100% casualties expected. A war-weary President Harry Truman saved thousands of soldiers’ lives when he ordered the A-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Dad arrived to find a smoldering, defeated country. While exposure to the radiation is likely the reason he later battled two forms of cancer, the advent of nuclear warfare saved his life.
After the war, studied music at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, where the young tenor developed his strong, velvety voice into an impressive instrument. He found work in Chicago as a clerk with the Illinois Central Railroad, and was enjoying life as a bachelor. His favorite pastime besides music was fishing for Northern Muskie in Wisconsin. One day some friends set him up on a blind date. Patricia Romaine was a tall, willowy beauty with a sharp wit and quick smile. She fell in love with Dad’s gentle yet determined personality, and he with her beauty, love of the arts, and intelligence. Within a year, they married and began producing a family of four sons. Dad continued his work for the railroad while pursuing his Bachelor’s Degree in Music. When Dad wasn’t performing folk music in Chicago coffee houses, he and Mom raced cars in hill climb events.
When we lived in northern Illinois, summers often found us camping in Wisconsin. Dad enjoyed bathing in lakes. One morning, he noticed a bear cub nearby. Alert to the probability of Mama Bear’s proximity, Dad lit out of there like his tighty-whities were aflame. As he was hoofing it, sure enough, Mama Bear lit out after him. Ahead, he could see an open car door. Legend has it Mama chased him around the car and nearly caught him. Dad had other ideas, and scrambled into the car, landing on the lap of Not-My-Mama before closing the door to the enraged bear. I can only imagine the shock of the lady at having a rather large man in his underwear sitting on her lap, with that bear glaring through the window at them!
In the fall of 1966, doctors grimly warned my parents to move to a warm, dry climate or my older brother Bill would die from asthma. Without reservation, they immediately packed everything they could fit into the biggest U-Haul trailer, stuffed us all into our ’65 Chevy BelAir and left for Arizona. My two older brothers and I shared the back seat with my hamster Herman, whom I kept warm with Mom’s fur coat. Mom cradled our baby brother Dan in the front seat. We spent Christmas in a motel near St. Louis, Missouri as a blizzard raged outdoors. We arrived in the blissfully bright desert outpost of Phoenix in late December. Mom and Dad quickly found jobs, and we settled in Tempe. Within six weeks my brother Bill, who had been so desperately ill when we left Illinois that Dad had to carry him to the car, broke his wrist falling as he ran in a race. It was a magical time for our family. Everything was new to us, especially the warm winter weather and the incredibly hot summer days.
In the mid 1960s, Phoenix still had stockyards in the outlying areas. When we drove by one on a hot day, the fragrant cow manure would assault our senses, but Dad the old farm boy would breathe in deeply and exclaim “that there smells purtier than roses in springtime!” He also told us that cowboy training consisted of sitting in a stockyard all afternoon on a hot summer day without complaining. Any ideas we may have had of becoming cowpokes quickly evaporated.
Bad luck had its way of occasionally tripping Dad. When we moved to Arizona, he secured a job as a mail carrier. The first day of his appointed route greeted him with warm desert sunshine. Always a man who loves exercise, his cheerful demeanor would have endeared him to those on his route. They never had the chance to get to know him though, because on that first day, a dog bit him. Soon after, he became a Vocational Rehabilitation counselor for the State of Arizona.
Our new home also afforded Dad the chance to realize his dream of learning to fly. He took lessons from a crusty old crop-dusting pilot and spent every moment of his spare time practicing his skills. As soon as he earned his pilot’s license, he purchased a 1947 Aeronca Champ tail dragger. He and Mom set to work restoring the plane’s fabric skin, and mechanics soon had the plane air-worthy. Joining the Arizona Civil Air Patrol, Dad flew many hours searching for downed planes. We all enjoyed rides in the plane, and Dad soon became a top-notch pilot.
As the third of four sons, I enjoyed a lot of face-time with Dad. For my eighth birthday, he flew me to Roosevelt Lake in “the Champ.” While our fishing yielded few catches, it was an ideal birthday. We spent the night camped under the wing. I recall Dad telling me stories of his youth, and laying there gazing skyward at the Milky Way. Early the next morning, we enjoyed a quick breakfast, packed our gear and took off for home. The passenger seat was directly behind the pilot’s, so while I couldn’t quite watch Dad’s actions as he flew. Instead, I enjoyed the view below. Many years later, Dad told me that as soon as he had gained cruising altitude, the engine lost power. One of the four cylinders was blown, but he glided the plane safely 50 miles southwest to a perfect landing at Falcon Field. The only thing I noticed was he hadn’t made a final approach. This, he told me, was because he had just enough altitude to glide down into Mesa, but no power to make a standard-approach landing.
In 1970, Dad transferred from Phoenix to Safford, opening Graham County’s first VR office. Since we had only recently moved to Florence, the folks decided not to uproot the family again. Instead, Dad hauled our small camping trailer to Safford and lived in it during the week, driving home every weekend. Mom soon grew weary of four boys squabbling without Dad to keep us in line. With four years separating me from Bill and six from John, I took out my frustrations on my younger brother Dan. I missed my father. Luckily for me, he found a cabin for rent, nestled against the Galiuro Wilderness. As I entered sixth grade in 1971, it was decided I would move in with Dad and attend Bonita School.
This began my tenure as the only Bonita Elementary student whose father flew him to school. An early Monday wake up call preceded a bumpy ride through some of the roughest air in the state, as we flew over the Galiuro mountains into the Sulphur Springs Valley in our “newer” 1950 Cessna 120. This model featured the second seat next to the pilot’s, a vast improvement from the Aeronca Champ’s rear passenger seat. This had great advantages, as I would sometimes be allowed to take over the controls and actually fly the plane! Dad would take over in rough spots, or as we approached “Bonita International Airport.” It consisted of a small landing strip bordered on two sides by huge cottonwood trees, with power lines bordering the cross strip. Dad would drop low over the trees and cut the power, dropping into a smooth landing. I’d jump out and run away from the dusty prop blast to school, a quarter-mile distant. Dad would turn the plane around and take off again, over the western end of the Pinaleño Mountains bound for Safford. After school, I’d bus 20 miles out to the ranch. Dad would drive the 60 miles home each night, and we’d spend the week together in the cabin.
It was a blissful experience, easily the happiest time of my childhood. Dad would practice his guitar and singing as I did my homework. Sometimes we’d step outside and listen to the coyotes sing in the near distance, or take an after-dinner hike with one of our neighbors. We’d peer up at the sky and locate satellites or the Big Dipper, and when the moon was full we didn’t need a flashlight. For a boy who adored his father, it was an ideal existence. I even felt a little guilty, because my brothers and mom were a few mountain ranges distant, and I had Dad all to myself.
Dad gently guided me into early adolescence, regaling me with stories of his youth and life lessons. We dug post holes together for a quarter-mile section of barbed-wire fence. He would break through the rock and I’d scoop out the pieces. It was hot, hard work, but we managed to get the job done. His quiet strength and patience with this 10-year-old rascal still amazes me. After the first year, we had learned a lot about each other.
The small school was fun, and I enjoyed my rough-and-tumble classmates. Encompassing kindergarten through eighth grades, the school had 103 students, so the basketball teams needed every boy available; this afforded me valuable playing time. As the school year ended, I hoped the summer vacation would quickly pass so I could return to our routine.
Our flights were not without challenges. One morning as Dad circled on his final approach before landing, we spied a large Brahma bull lying on the ground, right in the middle of the runway. Shaking his head with rare frustration, Dad came in low and then went full throttle, blasting dust and sand into the bull’s face. The bull stood up and angrily shook his head, but didn’t move. Knowing he only had so much fuel to fly over the mountains, Dad had only one more chance to move the bull. This time, he dropped the roaring Cessna to within a few feet above the pawing beast, who finally obliged us by running off the runway. Dad quickly climbed and circled for a final attempt at landing.
“When I land,” he shouted to me over the engine’s roar, “you high-tail it for that fence, okay?”
I was nervous, not knowing if I could out-run that angry bull. Sure enough, as the wheels touched down, the bull had his attention on the noisy monster that had disturbed his early morning siesta. When Dad spun the plane around at the end of the runway, I opened the door and jumped out. The bull was 30 yards away. Slamming the door and giving Dad a quick wave, I sprinted for the fence. The bull was unsure which of us to chase, but luckily for Dad he chased me instead. I made it up and over the fence just as 1,200 pounds of angry bovine slammed into it. Heart pounding with the thrill of victory, I yelled triumphantly at the enraged bull, “Toro is too slow!” I waved up at Dad as he soared above us, and he wiggled his wings at me while the bull snorted in disgust.
One bright winter morning found the valley completely socked-in with low clouds. It was a beautiful sight from above. The nighttime snowfall left Mt. Graham a glistening white sentinel guarding the puffy blanket below. Sunshine glistened off the deep snow on the peak, but Bonita was obscured by an unbroken blanket of clouds. Studying his instruments, Dad descended for his final approach. His skill, knowledge of the area, and a bit of luck helped him pinpoint the airstrip’s location. As the plane dropped below the low cloud ceiling, we found ourselves precisely on target and Dad made yet another perfect landing at Bonita International Airport.
After two years of this magical life at the ranch, my heart sank when Dad transferred closer to our home in Florence. My days at Bonita School were over, as were our weekly flights. Yet Dad still found time to take me on occasional flights, as well as a family trip across the country. Soon after I entered my freshman year at Florence High School, Dad rented a Cessna 182 and flew Mom, my brother Dan and me on a two-week odyssey. We flew from Arizona to Oklahoma, then to Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin, and around Lake Michigan to Detroit before heading back west. I had hoped to retain the co-pilot seat in front, but Mom insisted I sit in the back with Dan. I poured over pages of homework during the long flights, writing reports of our journey as an English assignment and struggling with math and science. The vistas of fall colors over the Ozarks were dazzling, and the magically winding Mississippi River found me daydreaming of Mark Twain’s adventures. I spent my 14th birthday at my maternal grandparents’ home in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, where Grandma Romaine baked me a cake from scratch in her enormous kitchen. Grandpa had me read a bawdy poem as he and Dad sipped brandy in the library; the story was so funny, I laughed until I cried. Dad and Grandpa roared as I struggled through the story. We visited family and friends, tasting beer at the Schlitz brewery in Milwaukee, visiting the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Detroit, as well as our family homes in Mundelein and LeRoy.
As my teens rushed by, I cleaned airplanes for spending money. Doc Hyde had a beautiful Cessna which he paid me $50 to wash and wax about once a month. It took an entire day, but that was a great amount which helped pay for my girl-chasing exploits. Dad had upgraded to a Cessna 170 by then, which he occasionally paid me to clean. While I took a couple of flying lessons, I didn’t follow through and obtain my license, which I’ve always regretted.
To this day, I retain a special set of memories only Dad and I are privy to. When he had to undergo open-heart surgery in 1990, Dad’s last flight as a private pilot included my daughter Anna, whom he flew over the city of Tucson. She was a delighted six-year-old who reminded me of a little boy just a few decades earlier. To this day, she fondly recalls “flying with Grampy.”
His health grounded him by age 65, but his love of flying never stalled. He would often eat lunch at airports, watching planes take off and land. He learned how to pilot sailplanes, which didn’t require expensive medical certificates, and spent many hours “catching thermals” high above the desert floor. For Christmas a few years ago, my brothers and I pitched in to give him a flying lesson with an instructor, who let Dad fly again for over an hour. Even though I was several states away, I could just see his gentle smile as he glided in for another of his patented smooth landings.
To say I “love” my father is a gross understatement. His mantra of having fun each day has been an inspiration to me as I’ve navigated adulthood. The courage he and Mom displayed by moving us to a new state where they knew nobody, amazes me still. They ignored doctors who told them my infantile brain injury would render me severely handicapped for life, and I am living testament to their stubborn devotion. My parents taught me to believe in myself, and to have confidence. “If you want something bad enough,” Dad told me one evening at the ranch, “you just need to work hard and you’ll be able to achieve it. Nothing good is ever easy.” Because he and Mom believed in me and were my biggest fans, I learned confidence. Whenever I was down, they built me up again; in my darkest times they convinced me the sun will always rise and brighten my days no matter the weather. Our flights together showed me a beautiful world awaits those who rise above the clouds and embrace the light.
We enjoyed a family reunion for Dad’s 90th birthday. The only presents he requested were whiskey and cigars. At a dinner party in his honor, my brothers toasted him, and he stood afterward. “I have some good news and some bad news,” he said quietly, as is his manner. “The good news is we’re all here together, and I thank you all for coming. The bad news is I’m already planning my 100th birthday, and for that I want French cognac and Cuban cigars!”
I suspect Dad wishes he could fly around the country and pick us all up for his centennial. Of course, I’d have to ride “shotgun;” that’s just how we roll.