It seems improbable, but the Pilgrims helped shape my love of flying.
The Thanksgiving holiday is strongly associated with air travel, for good and for bad. It’s good that so many of us are able to jet from where we live to be with our extended families, and at the same time, airline terminals are a bit of a nightmare this time of year. Turkey Day travelers don’t love it; they put up with it. Flying in your own plane is ideal, but depending on what kind of plane you own and how far you’re traveling, not always practical.
For me the aviation/Thanksgiving connection is not only a positive one but absolutely formative.
I grew up in Western Massachusetts near the banks of the stately Connecticut River, and back there, the Pilgrims were (and probably still are) a big deal. Here in Texas, we’re more into the Alamo than the Mayflower. It’s kind of heartening that some cultural differences persist in our ever more connected world. In Western Massachusetts in the 1960s, the Pilgrim story was powerful, and its names were everywhere. The grass strip airport where I first went flying, in Hatfield, Massachusetts, was called Pilgrim Field, and many of the streets in my hometown were named after Pilgrim leaders or Native Americans. The state itself was named after the original inhabitants, and many of the towns were given the place name of the existing English towns that used to be home to the new settlers.
As a little kid I had a sense of the scope of the story my friends didn’t. That was thanks to my dad, who did two things for us kids. He took us traveling all over the region—how my mom and he did that with six of us, I as a parent of two, will never know—but he and my mom loaded us into Travelalls, Land Rovers and VW Buses and hauled us to the Cape, the Berkshires, the White Mountains, the coast of Maine and to the river. By the time I was ten, I was competent and comfortable on my own in the wilds.
Just as importantly, I went flying with him from an early age. My first trip aloft, that I remember anyway, was in an Aeronca Champ from the friendly grass fields that were Pilgrim Airport. I not only fell nose over tail in love with airplanes, but I was spellbound by the visions below. I realized immediately that the world below was really, really big. I saw the Connecticut, winding south, islands in its path and mountains flanking it, the valley with its settlements, Springfield, Northampton (my home town), Turners Falls and Greenfield, lined along the shores, and I realized just how mighty real rivers are. I also figured out just how important they must have been to the early settlers, who I already knew at six years of age lacked an air fleet and all the advantages such would offer.
As I grew up and we moved about, the theme was repeated again and again, and I fell in love with landscapes from New England to the Midwest, to Southern California, and up to the Northwest, understanding as only a pilot (or a lucky frequent passenger) could, that the landscapes that we see only bits and pieces of from our homes and cars are grander, more coherent, more beautiful and more fascinating from the air than the pioneers or the original people could ever have imagined. This sense of America as grand, beautiful and sacred endures.
I seldom go flying on Thanksgiving, as I’m reserved that day for eating turkey, watching football and hanging out with my family and friends, but there hasn’t been a post-Thanksgiving weekend in many, many years when I didn’t head out to the airport, fire up whatever plane it was I had the keys to at the time, and go flying.
And when I go, I always remember (without having to even try) that first flight in that white-and-red Champ, strapped in tight, peering out left and then right, my eyes wide to this new world I’d been given the privilege of seeing with new eyes, eyes that saw the world from on high. And from that very day I knew my life plan was to see as much of it as I could from such high perspectives for as long as I could. For that, I’m thankful this year, and every year.