Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Of Baby Girls & Aeroplanes­

Eventually, they all grow up, but you can still share the memories­

BABY Alice. Like Budd’s daughter, his granddaughter will grow up in an aviation-friendly family.
Does your mind ever wander, unable to think about any one thing in particular? Instead, your thoughts are unfocused, and your mind is mentally channel-surfing, leafing through memories, lingering for a few seconds and then flipping to a new memory, a new thought. Sometimes, when you do that, your mind starts working in a given direction, sparked by an incident or episode that kicks off a chain of vaguely related thoughts. Tonight, as I try to gear down for bed, my memories are being kicked into action by this thought, “My little girl just had a baby, and I’ll see her tomorrow.”

Tomorrow morning, we’re going to launch in the dark and do another of our 800-mile round-trip marathons—this time, it’s to meet baby Alice. And the thought kicks off a flurry of semi-related memories, most having to do with my daughter as a young girl and me as a young (or at least younger) man, the life we shared and the things that shared our lives with us.

One item that became part of our life before my daughter was born was a little red airplane, identical to the little red airplane with which I still share my life. She grew up, as do many aviation babies, believing that every single family on the planet has an airplane in the garage (a Stinson L-5) and another at the airport (the little red one), and spends the last week of July with thousands of other families in a funny-sounding town in Wisconsin.

I remember giving a forum in Oshkosh and spotting my kids in the front row. Just for the heck of it, I asked the audience, “How many of you have been coming here for five years?” A bunch of hands went up. “How many have been coming for 10 years?” Far fewer hands came up. “How many for 15 years?” Only a few hands remained in the air—these included my two kids, both waving their hands frantically to let the entire tent know that they were true Oshkosh veterans.

During their preteen years, attending Oshkosh and other fly-ins was as natural as going to camp or playing in Little League. The fact that both of my children—who, incidentally, have no serious interest in airplanes—could identify Mustangs, Pitts Specials and a wide variety of other airplanes didn’t seem unusual to them. Those kinds of birds were just part of their surroundings, and they learned about them by osmosis.

When my mind tripped onto that memory, I laughed as I remembered something that happened recently to my daughter. As part of her job, she orchestrated the gathering of dozens of Hollywood celebrities to be in a YouTube video about getting out to vote. These big-time stars would say one or two lines, then the camera would quickly cut to another star saying the same thing, and on and on. One of the actors she brought on board was Tom Cruise, whom she had never met before. After he had finished filming his segment, he was standing around, and my daughter mentioned, “You fly a Pitts Special don’t you?” He was surprised and said rather proudly, “Why, yes. How did you know that?” She replied, “My entire life, we’ve had a Pitts Special in our family.” For a second, Cruise, the big-time Hollywood star, forgot how the world saw him and chatted about his Pitts and his Mustang, and my daughter kept right up with him. She was both pleased and surprised to find that she knew as much as she did about airplanes. I hope she flashed onto me telling her that nothing you learn is ever wasted; you never know when the oddest piece of information will float to the top and be handy to know. This was one of those times. Of course, the fact that she’s deathly afraid to fly never came up.

Just as quickly as that image faded, I saw myself in my shop back on the East Coast welding on a fuselage frame for the Howard “Pete” replica. I glanced up and saw my eight-year-old daughter sitting on the stairs watching. I asked what she was doing and she said, “I don’t know. It’s just…sort of interesting.”

She has always had an interest in things mechanical, but rather than foist airplanes or my own interests on her, I let her find her own way mechanically. One day, she showed up carrying an old telephone and asked if she could take it apart. I nodded, and she spent an entire afternoon removing every single wire and screw from that phone. I had never seen one taken that far apart. So I gave her an old radio the next day. She did the same thing with it, occasionally asking what this or that did. From that point on, I kept a supply of dead copiers, typewriters and such around so she could figure out what was inside them all on her own.

I’m fairly confident that she no longer takes phones apart for enjoyment, but I’m also confident that she’s one of the few females in Hollywood who enjoys getting her hands dirty, although I’ll bet she would hate me bringing that up to some of her motion-picture friends. Memories never fade, and tomorrow I’ll add to the long list a new light: my daughter’s own little girl, Alice. But no matter what, my daughter will always be my little girl.


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