The first time I climbed into an airplane, it wasn’t at an airport. It was at a park.
We, and everyone else in my hometown of Harrisonburg, Virginia, called it Airplane Park, though its real name was Purcell Park.
The park’s defining feature was a Grumman F9F Cougar that had been converted into play equipment, with a ladder reaching up one side of the cockpit and a slide hanging off the other.
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The aging plane sat firmly on the ground, secured by steel tethers. It had no engine, no fuel, no way of achieving flight. It was dirty, dingy and beat up. But in my 5-year-old mind, it soared.
Today, the idea of parking a rusty old plane with chipped Plexiglas poking out of the hatches at a park would never fly—I can only imagine how many lawsuits, and cases of tetanus, would result. But when I was a kid, the park was magical.
I would whip down the slide over and over with my sister, age 3. When we tired of that, we’d run to the back of the plane, exploring the cargo space. We’d pretend we were pilots packing up the exotic treasures we’d found on our travels, such as Scooby snacks and Fonzie’s motorcycle (what can I say, I was a child of the ’70s).
That plane hosted so many good times for us—well, save the time my cousin got attacked by bees in the cargo space, which was awful. Alas, that was a harbinger of things to come. The bee attack occurred in 1981. Three years later, another child got badly hurt on the plane, injuring himself on the unstable concrete blocks that held up its ladder.
His mom called for the city to get rid of the Cougar or institute new safety measures, a long overdue move. More than once, my sister and I cut our chubby fingers on the plane’s sharp metal edges. In 1984, Harrisonburg’s Parks and Recreation Commission dismantled the plane, which had been on loan since 1961 from Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach.
A few years later, Purcell Park’s remaining equipment got a complete makeover, and the Airplane Park was left to history.
I moved out of the area in 1982, so I never knew that history. After we left Harrisonburg, my sister and I replaced playdates at the park with bikes, ball games and, eventually, boys.
I hadn’t thought about Airplane Park in decades until last spring. My family was winding through western Virginia on a long drive home from vacation, and our 9-year-old daughter really, really had to pee.
My husband navigated off the highway onto the nearest exit—into Harrisonburg. “This is where mom grew up,” he told our kids, smiling. As I looked around, I realized we were just blocks from Purcell Park. I dictated directions to my husband. Surely the park would have a restroom.
Purcell was nearly unrecognizable. It featured a newly constructed wooden castle playground—sleek, sophisticated, not a piece of rusty metal in sight. I was a little disappointed.
Our daughter dashed into the port-o-potty. My teenage son grabbed a baseball and began throwing with his dad.
When our daughter emerged from the bathroom, I pointed past the playground to the spot where the Cougar had been and said, “Imagine there’s an airplane there. Right on the ground. We’re going to fly it.” She smiled at me. She loves to pretend.
“Are you ready?” I asked her. She nodded. I grabbed her hand, and we took off, flying across the field toward that imaginary plane. That day, we were pilots, and we soared.