Dave Wood

Dave Wood: Wood Working

I recently heard our new president say that our country would make history if we were willing to spend the bucks, that in a few years we would have airplanes that could fly around the world in one day! 

That made me think of the day 60 years ago when I had the privilege of getting my first closeup look at a real airplane.

It began on a Saturday morning as my pals and I lounged in the rough of Number Two smoking up a storm of cigarettes Bergie had lifted from his father's sock drawer. 

“God, are these cigs strong!” said Chuck Pederson, wiping his nose with an already stiff shirtsleeve.

“Yeah but good,” countered Bergie. “Pa says they're the only cigs worth the money.” 

Bergie was feeling his oats because the day before ace footballer Bob Bensend had actually talked to him at the train depot. “He said to me, he said, ‘Hi Bergie, you dumb little turd.’ What a card that Bensend is!”

Soon all 80 cigs had gone up in smoke. A heavy haze hung over the mighty Trempealeau River and a heavy boredom hung over all of us.

“Let's climb up the ski scaffold on Number 1 and spit to see whose snot lands first.”

“I'll bet mine will land first. It's heavier.” Thus spake Pederson, whose cold had forced him to miss Mrs. Lily Reich's lecture on Isaac Newton, gravity and the two apples. 

As we clamored up the rickety scaffold, Worm Olson charged over the hill with an announcement: “John Hegge just told me that an airplane has landed on Schaefer's pasture! Let's go!!!”

Not a movie or a Life magazine plane or a model plane with a rubber band through its belly, but an honest to gosh real plane! We charged down Number 1 with a speed that would have shamed the Light Brigade. We raced across the Highway 53 bridge, stopping only momentarily to hurl stones in the water where celebrated bum Bert Breed was angling for the wily Red Horse in the murk of the Trempealeau. An Irresistible temptation that elicited a shaken fist from old Bert.

What kind of a plane would it be? A Flying Tiger like the one Dane Clark flew in “God is my Co-Pilot”? A captured Jerry Messerschmidt taken at gun point from Hollywood's Nazi-in-Residence Helmut Dantine? (Boy could that guy wolf down a loaf of bread in Mrs. Miniver's kitchen!) 

Or maybe a Japanese Zero? Nah, they were too flimsy to make it this far, made as they were with rice paper and tinfoil sold to the Nipponese by New York bankers on Dec. 6, as Upper Midwesterners would have it.

We raced past Schaefer's farm, huffing and puffing, frightened in the certain knowledge that smoking cigs was a Bad Thing. Arriving finally at Schaefer's pasture, we saw it.

It was beautiful, it was poetry, it was a Piper Cub. A forest green Piper Cub.

 

Proceeding cautiously now, we approached this aeronautical marvel, this tribute to man's ingenuity, his aspirations and the American Way of Life. The pilot stood by the plane. Although dressed in street clothes, he was Charles Lindbergh arrived at Orly Field in Field, Paris. He was Admiral Byrd in Antarctica; he was Van Johnson in “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. He was, in short, everything everyone of us wanted to be. 

“What important mission has brought you into our midst?” It was my cousin Billy, who was always reading comic books.

“I had to go to the biff. Is there a toilet around here? Like all pilots he had a crooked smile, but straight teeth. And he spoke with terse authority.

“Up there,” we pointed at Harland's farmstead. 

“Don't TOUCH this craft or you'll end up with your noses in slings.” 

“Those pilots are really cards,” said Bergie “‘noses in slings’ what'll they think of next?”

We agreed. Last Saturday at the Pix Theatre we’d all seen a golden oldie, Universal's “Airmail Daredevils,” and we remembered the rapier-like thrusts of wit, the badinage, indulged in by Pat O'Brien and Chester Morris. 

As our very own ace trudged hurriedly through the pasture to Schaefer's outhouse, we admired the varnished wood propeller, the green canvas wings and fuselage, the mysterious instrument panel. It was no B-29, but it was ours for the moment. 

All too soon, the pilot was back. As he roared down the pasture, bump-thump-bump, we waved him goodbye and began our trek back home for noon lunch. Crossing over Bert Breed and the bridge, Chuck Pederson gave his nose a swipe on the crisp flannel shirtsleeve and spoke up. “Jeeze Cripe. I never thought about it before, but I guess pilots have to go the can, too.” 

We nodded assent and all went home to lunch, a wee bit older, a wee bit wiser.

Dave Wood is a semi-retired journalist who grew up in Whitehall, Wis., and now lives in River Falls with his wife, Ruth Pirsig Wood. Phone him at 715-426-9554.

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