One of the advantages of visiting a friend in his home and/or office is that you get a sense of their environment. From that point on, every time you talk on the phone or exchange emails, you can visualize the face and the setting that belong to the words you’re hearing or reading. It adds another dimension to the conversation. If that visit never takes place, your imagination fills in the blanks. The following is meant to eliminate those blanks.
The words on this page, Grassroots, have always come out of a defined space that I call an “office.” Regardless of the size of my apartment or house, a single room was always appropriated and was modified to be a workspace. One was actually a converted closet. Most who have seen those “offices” have designated them disaster areas. Tidy isn’t a word that fits. However, an office in some eyes, mine included, should reflect the loves of the inhabitant, and every aspect of it should have a dimension that reaches far past simple decoration and says something about the occupants. In my case, if I’m not in a cockpit, I’m in my office—generally 10 to 13 hours a day. So, I want it to be a space in which I’m wildly comfortable. I want it to be a home. And that translates to surrounding myself with artifacts that, through some sort of cosmic connection, I feel them telling their tales.
The original owners of our home did me a huge favor when they converted an oversized, two-car attached garage into a family room. So, as home offices go, mine is huge. Bigger than huge actually. The net result of the size is that it lets aviation and my other loves completely take over the massive amount of wall and floor space. The result is an always-interesting level of visual chaos that, in a twisted sort of way, is inspirational.
All of the walls are plastered with neat junk. For instance, the wall directly behind the two monstrous monitors features an aging N number in an equally aged frame: NR869E has notes of long-distance records the airplane set scribbled in the margins. It’s signed by Jimmie Mattern, a famous 1930s long-distance racer. It’s all that he retrieved from his Lockheed Vega after crashing in Siberia in 1933. I try to picture him crudely cutting the plywood skin off the rudder in the Siberian wilderness and somehow getting it back to Patterson, N.J., where the fading sticker on the back says it was framed. It meant enough to him to put forth significant effort to save it. It means that much to me, too.
When I look at the scrap of fabric with the numbers NR2Y hanging under Mattern’s frame, I picture Benny Howard’s little 1930 racer, Pete, that carried that fabric around innumerable pylons while winning far more than its share of prize money. More than that, I picture a smiling, elderly gentleman handing it to me as a gift: As an adolescent, he had stood by the airplane when a later owner cut the fabric off to recover it and said, “Here, kid!” and handed the tail number to him. He kept it safe for well over half a century. Now, it’s one of my favorite possessions.
On the same wall are photos of airplanes that have had huge effects on me. One is the round-motored Wedell-Williams 1933 racer replica for which I did the engineering and drawings, and then helped my friend during the 15 years it took to bring it to life. I’ll remember shooting that photo for the rest of my days. The same thing holds for the shot of a three-plane stack of Pitts flying along in tight formation…upside down! A memorable flight made more memorable by the fact that the lead airplane is 8PB. This was long before it came to live with me and, for the last 22 years, has shaped my life.
Overhead is a big old Sensenich wooden propeller that has followed me around for at least four decades. Before that, it hung in my dad’s store. It’s brand new and has never been on an airplane. I finally found out why it hadn’t been used: Sensenich said the numbers on the hub say it was designed for the Cessna AT-17/UC-78/T-50 Bobcat. I never knew Bamboo Bombers once flew with fixed-pitch, wooden propellers. What a dog it must have been!
All of the “stuff” only covers about a third of one wall. The other three-and-a-half walls are similar.
If I turn my head in any direction, voices and stories jump out at me. Four old saddles try hard to tell the stories of those whose DNA is embedded in them. Most are from the late 1800s, when cowboys were real and the Winchesters that now ride in my saddle scabbards may have been used for more than simply chasing the occasional coyote away. A gigantic bear trap in the middle of the floor reminds me of our trips to Alaska. Rifled muskets on one wall put me in Gettysburg or Antietam, and the dozens of antique ignition model airplane engines on a shelf remind me of a simpler time.
There’s a stack of old-time goggles around a fat mailing tube capped with one of the very earliest leather helmets that were made by Westinghouse to carry their new-fangled headphones. It’s hard not to wonder what kinds of messages came through those crude listening devices.
A number of rusty Wehrmacht WWII helmets, some with bullet holes, speak of indescribable horrors during the six-month Russian/German slugfest on the Kurland Peninsula in Latvia where the helmets were unearthed. The half-dozen hewing axes, with their offset handles, take me to a time when American pioneers eked out an existence in a wilderness and logs were their primary building materials.
A wide shelf holds a dozen or so optical gunsights: A K-14A from a Mustang, an Mk. 8 probably from a Hellcat, the huge computing sight that hung down between the knees of a ball turret gunner in a B-17 and many others. Had any of them actually seen combat? Had any of them seen flames and smoke coming from an adversary? What of the young eyes that squinted through them in a life or death struggle? Are any of them still with us?
Often, the words in Grassroots get their start on the walls of my office. So, now you know the rest of the story.