Tuesday, June 07, 2005

What Hath the Wright Brothers Wrought?

"Oh, how I like to go up in the air,
Up in the sky so blue,
I do think it's the most wonderful thing
Ever a child can do."

It is fun to look back on 80 years of leaving terra firma for adventues up in the skies, over the prairies, the mountains, the oceans. Even though many were for business, touring,for just "getting there,"it always gets a bookmark in my chronicles.

I probably flew in the first airplane I ever saw. Nineteeen twenty-four. I was three. The family was returning from a family gathering in Williston in northwestern North Dakota. We had entered an Indian reservation near a litle village named Parshall

The plane was coming down on the prairie when we spotted it. Our father, who never got over wanting to give new things the once-over, pulled over to where it had landed. It was a "barnstormer," flying an old World War I Jenny -- not so old at that, come to think of it, since the war had ended only six years earlier.

The pilot helped Mom, sister Lois and me climb into the forward (gunner's)seat, with one seat belt strapping us in --Mother in the middle.

He pointed to wires running from the cockpit to the wings and warned us to keep our hands off them or something bad might happen. Already I was scared and probably squeezed both arms in close. He should have told me to pull my hat down close over my ears. It was the first thing to go when we climbed into the sky.

Undboubtedly, most of what I "remember" is what I was told for years afterward, but no one can tell me I can't remember being lifted up in the air over anything a swing ever carried me up to.

Was the next ride in Admiral Byrd's Ford Tri-Motor that lifted me and some of my classmates up over the western mesa of Albuquerque in the early 1930s? He had flown it over the South Pole, so we felt it entirely safe to ride in it over the Rio Grande on a sunny morning.

Enraptured by now by flying -- and also becoming interested in girls -- I invited the lovely little Betty Jamison to go joy riding from the same west mesa airport in a little byplane flown by a local pilot. It was a disaster. I shouldn't have told Jim Toulouse about it. I thought he was a friend. He ratted on me and told my -- 'er, steady girl friend, Ruth Looney about it. Even though we parted 15 years ago after nearly a half century of marriage, I'm sure she will tell you about it today if you asked her.

Girls and airplanes go together. . .

Gilrs an airplanes seem to go together for me. At 16, I got a job as a reporter on the Albuquerque Journal. I learned that airlines frequently gave passes to newspaper reporters as a public relations gesture.

Wasn't I a reporter? Before I turned 17, I walked into the TWA office down at the new Hilton Hotel and said I wanted to fly to San Francisco at Christmas. Secret destination? A little cottage sacrosss the bay on Bond Street in Oakland -- the home of Muriel Cameron, who came into my life when we were juniors in high school.

She wass the one who showed up in history class in a yellow suede jacket. I had driven Dad's Chevrolet on a date for the first time when I took her to the Junior Prom. But she moved back to El Paso and then to Oakland, and I remember singing to her, "Just the Way You Look Tonight."

But I was writing about flying -- not philandering -- wasn't I? Yes, TWA, with a twinkle in the agent's eye, gave me the pass. It was a one-stop flight, landing in Winslow. I should have changed flights, but didn't. They stopped and put me on the right one. Man, what an elegant gentleman I was, walking into Muriel's, wearing a fedora and gloves.

We romped across the bay by ferry boat, eating pastries on the way, and I being shown an ocean -- the Pacific -- for the first time in this North Dakota-born lad's life. We saw a car with a press card in its window on San Francisco's Market Street. We rode across the new Golden Gate Bridge to visit a cousin, Harold Neideffer, in Marin County. Muriel's mother was in love with me -- at least, I guess, she thought I was 'cute." I was never so sure her daughter felt the same way.

See how easy it is to get side-tracked when you're "flyin' high"? On the return flight on New Year's Eve, we looked below at one point and saw a few tiny lights below. "Las Vegas," the pilot said. It was a tiny spot on the desert then.

Utah, 26; University of New Mexico, 0. . .

The next memorale flight? The University of New Mexico Lobos were scheduled to play Utah in the Sun Bowl at El Paso on New Year's Day,1939. Mr. Pickrell, my kind old editor, played it big: He chartered an airplane to fly me home from El Paso in time to make the next morning's deadline. The Lobos had been licked 26 to 0.

The only hitch was that I had to get to El Paso under my own power -- my 1932 Model A Ford roadster. Gail Smith rode along so he could drive the car home. The three or four-day sojourn provided another situation where I stepped out on (Miss) Ruth Looney:

I took another date that I met in El Paso to the bullfights across the border in Juarez. To be a gentleman, I got seats on the shady side of the arena, where we nearly froze to death. And what did we see across the arena, basking in ethe noonday sun? Miss Looney with her old boyfriend, Eddie Burgin.

The Model A was low on gas the next day when Gail drove me to the airport. He filled it up with aviation gas. That Model A took off like a jet airplane -- before jets had even been invented, as Gail said goodbye.

With the wartime draft blowing in my face, I returned to El Paso, this time as an enlistee in the Air Corps -- not at the controls, but in the backseat of the AT-11 bombardier trainer planes that flew the athletic teams to games across the county.

You see, Uncle Sam's call to arms was a call to me to sharpen my pencils inasmuch as I was assigned to the physical training office at Kirtland Field in Albuquerque -- as a sportswriter. Col. Frank Hackett wanted his base to have the best damn football team in the Corps, so he commission Coach Ted Shipkey from the Universiy of New Mexico as a captain and his "physicl training" officer --ergo, his football coach. Now every coach needs a p.r. man. Shipkey, having noted my skills as sports editor for the Albuquerque Joournal -- and noting my high call-up number for the draft at the same time -- urged me to come aboard

Pilots geat weary flying bombing runs. . .

How did this creep into my story about airplane flights? Simple. I was in the Air Corps, wasn't I? And doesn't any sportswriter confined to the rear cabin of a bombardier trainer airplane entitled to some extra hazard pay? Those pilots, with a weekend off from flying dreary bombing runs over targets in the New Mexico desert, enjoyed nothing more than flying the teams to games. They would buzz chicken coops, hop cattle fences on the Texas plains, dive on lonely farm houses in Kansas.

Once, after flying to Wichita for a baseball tournament, the pilot of our plane executed a barrel role to break up the monotony of the flight. That night, at a banqquet given by the manufacturers of the AT-11, who happened to be in Wichita.
our pilot said to one of our hosts:

"What would happen if you did a barrel roll in one of those airplanes with a hundred pounds of baseball bats in the rear?" He didn't include the sports writer in his query.

"You couldn't do it," the AT-11 man said. "You'd break the tail right off the plane."

Another jaunt in an AT-11: A young warrant officer who piloted one of them, was a friend of my sister-in-law, Helen Parker. One of our planes was missing, and he was assigned to scout the flight path from Arizona to the home field. Antifcipating no summons home and not eager to cut the flight short, he turned off his radio. We flew all across the countryside. No sitings.

"I gotta pee, Paul,"he said. What kind of talk is that by an officer to a private first-class? "You ever find an airplane?"

"Nope -- er', sir."

"You see? You just take this control stick and keep the nose pointed to the horizon, and you'll do ok."

Omigod. Sure he must be kidding. He disappeared into the back of the plane. I clinched the stick with both hands. I clenched my teeth firmly. I kept my eyes on the horizon.

"Thanks, Paul," he returned, casually zipping up his fly.

The flight droned on. I noticed a little indian pueblo coming up.

"My brother and his wife teach school down there," I said.

"Shall we go down to see them?

Before I could utter a word, he pointed the nose of that AT-11 directly at the teacherage. We roared load. We quickly turned up the nose again. There was a hill on the other side, which I doubt if my pilot had taken into the equation before the dive.

No sooner had we emerged from the dive and leveled off, than the pilot turned on his radio again to approach for the landing. "Come on in," the tower said. "We couldn'g call you back. The missing plane was accounted for shortly after you left the field."

My stateside "combat" fluying didn't end there, although after a couple of years and the colonel's departure, I was transferred back to the pub info office, mostly to write combat returnee stories.

The pub info officer had a girl friend in Seattle. . .

The massive -- and awful ugly -- B-24 Liberator bombers were getting a bad press in contrast to the sleek flying Fortresses. The public information officer arranged to take a B-24 out for a weekend for me to write a feature story about what a wonderful plane it was. Destination: Seattle. I learned the p.r. officer had a girl friend there. I took an old GI photographer along.

He took gag shots of me holding my nose and posing with my hand on the ripcord of my parachute, ready to jump. Hardly the kind of publicity we were sent to get. We whiled away the dreary flight doing such foolish things. Seattle for us was about as dull. The p.r. officer obviously was having a better time. We went to see Spencer Tracy in, "The Bells of St. Mary's."

On the way home, our flying crew got just as playful. The pilot decided to give us an aerial tour of the Grand Canyon. He flew down into it. He tried to execute a 360-degree turn. He couldn't quite make it. He side-slipped the plane abruptly, droppihg lower into the canyon, then jammed on the throttle to cflimb out again.

When we got back to base, we learned that a B-24 like ours had smashed into a mountain peak near Flagstaff, and it was believed to have been ours. It wasn't of course. But there's more to the story. Our plane was pulled off the flightline the next morning for complete engine change. They had been virtually burned out because the oil was not circulating properly.

My career in the Air Corps flew on. One day, I tried to hook a free ride to the
Coast to visit my brother Ken, then working in a shipyard in Long Beach. I ran into my other brother, Keith, a warrant officer seeking a fligh in another direction.

suddenly, I needed a latrine. So did he. We couldn't go to the same one. He was an officer. I was a GI. Under the circumstances, I think I would have peed on him, had we found adjoining urinals.

The flight I got was with two officers flying a hot new B-26 from the East Coast for delievery to Lockheed in Burbank. Apparently, they weren't too familiaer with the controls of the new plane. First, they couldn't find Lockheed. We flew all over L.A., but Lockheed was so well camouflaged to ward off the Japanese, that we had a hard time finding it. When we did, the pilot came in too slow, started to lose airspeed, gunned it, settled down so fast that he had to spin the airplane around at the end of the runway to keep from running off it.

I had to carry a parachute that I was forced to take with me. I carried it on buses and trolleys all the way to Long Beach and back home again. I never want to see a parachute again. Unless it is necessary, that is.

Commercial flying after the war was glorious. Piped-in Music. My fondest memory is flying cross-country, looking at the countryside below, and listeing to the sonorous, "America, the Beautiful." THAT is my idea of patriotism. My beautiful country passing below in its majesty.

Once, the Daily News assigned a wonderful junket to me. I was to go to Oakland for the commissioning of a huge new airplane for the Navy, The four motored "Constitution."It was to take the largest passenger list across the nation -- 100 news people. It was powered by new " jet-assisted" takeoff power to point the nose up in the air with a heavy load.

Climing a rope to heaven. . .

We rolled down the runway at Moffett Field the next morning after a riotous night of celebration following the commissioning of the plane. It gained speed slowly. It kept rolling. We all kept straining to lift it off the runway, as if we could do it by sheer wrenching our own gutds. Suddenly, shockingly, it pointed it nose up as if it was climbing a rope to heaven. And we flew to Washington, D.C., in 5 1/2 hours -- the most passengers in the shortest time.

Two days later, we returned west. The plane wouldn't lift its nose. We knew it would. But we weren't sure. We faced terrific headwinds. We had to land somewhere in Kansas to refuel. It took 17 1/2 hours for the return flight. I never heard of the Constitution again.

There was another highlight of that trip, however. I was riding in the tail, and we were about to fly over my old hometown of Albuquerque. The loudspeaker blared forth. "Paul Weeks. . .Paul Weeks . . . report forward to the flight commander."

I hadn't done anything, but sit with my nose to the window, as usual, while flying, and watching us eat up the miles across New Mexico.

Entering the forward cabin, I was greeted by the commander himself, Capt. Donald S. Chay, UNM, class of 1940. He'd seen my name on the passenger manifest and wanted to share our return to our old campus, maybe 20,000 feet below.

After graduating, he and a classmate, Tal Godding, were to report to Long Beach, California, to be signed up for flight training for the U.S. Navy. I was headed that way for a summer vacation that was to take me eventually to Oakland to visit an old girlfriend.

With a few days before beginning training, they hitched a ride with me up the coast in my 1935 Chevrolet. One of them rode in the rumble seat and was crudely awakened when I spun the car in a 360-degree turn to avoid a stop-sign runner along the road.

When we got to San Francisco, I learned that neither had flown before. So we bought ourselves a ride in a small plane to see the city from on high. Little more than a year after that, they were in combat in the Pacific, dodging Japanese Zeroes in the early days of the fighting over Maylasia, as I recall.

Both Tal and Don went on to careers in the Navy. When I checked with my UNM alumni book just now, I noted that both were deceased.

Junketing -- that is, getting a pass from the airline or their sponsor or flying on your newspaper's expense account -- is certainly preferred, but those glory days are about over.

'How many reporters have you got in Alaska. . .?'

When the mighty earth quake hit Alaska in 1964, the L.A.night city editor had me ready to go, but the managing editor, whom I dislike to this day (may he rest wherever old, nasty managing editors lay) said whatthehell, AP (the wire service) will cover it for us.

Early the next morning, The Washington Post, which shared a wire service with us then, asked the M.E. how many reporters he had by then in Alaska. Within an hour, I had purchased boots, long flannel underrwear, wool socks, heavy jacket and was on a flight to Anchorage.

I rememberr the marquee of a theater having sunk down even with the curb. Some of us slipped down into it where the seats looked as if they were riding a roller coaster. An after-shock suddenly rocked our boat. We exited in haste.

Also, we dropped in on a bar, which also had sunk below street level. Drinks lay untouched on the bar -- and frozen solid, giving quick evidence of how much the bartender had watered his drinks.

The President sent his plane out with the Federal Emergency Management chief to view the damage and took a load of reporters up on one flight. We saw where a ship had been carried on the tsunami over the main street of a village and dropped it on the other side.

Several days later, I returned to Seattle on a military cargo plane. The door to the space near where I was sitting blew off on takeoff. It missed me. We continued our homeward flight.

Having never been to Alaska, I found myself up there three times in a row: a tour with the Coast Guard by plane that took us out to islands off the Aleutians and up and down the Coast. Later, with the War on Poverty, we inspected sites across Alaska as far at Point Barrow above the Arctic Circle. That will be a blog in itself one of these days when I get around to it.

The most interesting junket occurred in October 1954 -- just a couple of months before my newspaper, the original Daily News in L.A., bellied up. But I had a five-week tour on El Al Israel's charter flight for a plainload of Jewish people's return to their Holy Land. Oh, the stories I've retold many times from that trip.

I bought a rosary for my then Catholic mother-in-law from a Jewish merchant in the Vatican Square where the Pope came to the window to bless us all. I guess I'll save those fir another day too.

P.S. I got home in time to cash in my expense account before the management closed up shop


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