Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Magi of Harper's Field

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The following is from the special holiday episode of Airspeed for 2008. Airspeed starts its fourth year next month and we have big plans for 2009 and beyond. Thanks for listening for the last three years and we're looking forward to bringing you more of the best in aviation and aerospace!

(With apologies to O. Henry.)

Leila looked at the stack of bills on the left-hand side of the kitchen table. Her gaze then fell on the check register on the right-hand side of the kitchen table. One hundred eighty-seven dollars. Yes, they’d make the rent and have the store-brand groceries and put gas in the battered pick-up trick for a few more weeks, but doing so would leave them a grand total of one hundred eighty-seven dollars.

Leila stood up and walked to the window and stared out at nothing in particular as the wind played with a few wisps of snow up the street.

Let’s leave Leila with her thoughts for a moment. If we were to look at Leila from the other side of the window, we’d see her dressed in jeans, a blouse, and a fleece vest. The vest partly for style, but partly because the thermostat that had remained at around 60 since October so as to avoid weighing down that left-hand side of the kitchen table. At 24, she is half of the relatively new enterprise of Mr. and Mrs. Jack and Leila Whitmore, and so says the index card taped to the mailbox at the bottom of the stairs that run from the second-floor flat above the hobby store at the edge of town.

The flat is timeworn and even a little flea-bitten, but it’s cheap and it’s only a couple of miles from Harper’s Field, the local airport down the county road. Which is good, because Leila spends much of her time on, or above, the field, where she daily climbs into the right seat of Cessna 152s and Piper Warriors and does her best to teach the art and science of aviation.

The flat is a waypoint on a grand adventure that Mr. and Mrs. Whitmore have charted. The destination of this grand adventure lies in places and situations and in persons yet unborn but, to the extent that it is a place, it is a number of acres that lie a mere 20 minutes from the flat, just outside of the lateral boundaries of the Class C speed ring. Inherited from Leila’s grandmother, it is mostly open and gently sloping. It drains well. And one of the locals mows it several times each summer and pays Leila a few hundred dollars for the timothy grass that he hauls away for cattle and horses.

She had received several offers from neighboring farmers to purchase the land. Offers at fair prices. But none had interested her.

Leila loved Harper’s Field. It was there that she learned to fly and there she build her ratings until she was one of two instructors at the local FBO. But it remained undeniable that the parcel was perfectly suited as a grass strip around which a little airport might be built. A place where Piper Cubs and Aeronca Champs and all manner of small craft might visit and where pilots might be made of pedestrians – in taildraggers on grass. And where she and Jack might resurrect some piece of the golden age of aviation there amid the hayfields.

The plan was to put up a pole barn on the property sometime soon that would one day be the first hangar for the field. But it seemed a faraway thing at the moment for she and Jack.

Jack. Jack walked onto the ramp at the flight school and into her life two years ago.

“Is this a good place to see the airplanes?” he had asked.

“Sure,” she had said. “Look over there at midfield about 800 feet up. When planes come in, you’ll see them enter downwind right there.”

“Downwind,” he had said, letting the term sink in “I’ll watch downwind, then.”

Later in the summer, she had walked out to the line to meet a new student to find Jack standing next to the 152. All thumbs through the preflight and clearly uncomfortable through the first few lessons he nevertheless became her most determined student, even if not her most skilled.

It was in a fit of hubris on the day that he held his new temporary private certificate in his hand that he told – rather admitted – the reason for his perseverance. He walked her down the hangar row and pulled aside the doors to reveal the Champ. It had started life as an L-16A serving the US Army. In 1956, it had gone the Civil Air Patrol and then through several sets of hands before landing in Jack’s. He had not known at the time why he had purchased the dilapidated aircraft. He had never flown an hour in his life. Not even commercially. But the Champ had captured his imagination immediately when he had seen it while visiting the airport with a friend, who was an A&P.

The few thousand dollars in his savings had more or less matched what the owner was willing to accept for her and he had managed to wrangle a deal on the remaining lease for the hangar. And, by the time he had drawn aside the hangar door to show Leila, she sat there in glorious Civil Air Patrol livery just as she had been in 1957.

The Champ lacked only a proper engine. The engine in the aircraft was shot and it remained a challenge to identify a worthy Continental C85. But there remained time for that. And it would look great there on the grass field some day. In the meantime, it was the envy of all of the old timers at the field. And even visitors who knew nothing about the aircraft seemed to understand that it, and aircraft like it, were somehow important.

Leila and Jack grew ever fonder of each other until, that Christmas Eve almost two years ago, Jack had summoned Leila to the ramp just before the FBO closed.

“Thought we might hang out and watch the downwind to see what comes in,” he said.

There was the red Pitts that Jack had arranged to arrive about then and it duly dropped the small parachute that Jack had supplied. And there was the ring in the box that depended from the parachute. And there was the wedding the following spring and the flat and lots of time at the airport. She busy instructing and he training when he could get away from his job at the tool and die shop. And both, as often as they could, sitting in the grass just off the ramp talking about nothing in particular and watching the downwind to see what might arrive.

And so we return to the flat, where Leila seems no happier than when we left her a moment ago.

“Five days to Christmas,” she says to no one in particular. “Five days to Christmas.”

It’s not necessarily sudden when she turns to walk across the room, but she half surprises herself at how quickly she finds herself at the little bulletin board near the door. And pulling out her mobile phone to dial a number that’s been there on the board for some time.

Suffice it to say that that phone call led to several others and a trip downtown over the next couple of days and that we now find ourselves at Harper’s field on Christmas Eve.

Leila wheels the truck into the parking lot of the FBO, relieved to find the delivery truck still there. She finds the driver inside and offers to lead him down the hangar row.

When they arrive at the hangar, Jack is just locking the door.

“Hi, Baby!” she calls. “Done for the day?”

“You could say so,” he says.

“I wondered if you might have a moment to do Christmas a little early this year?” she says.

“Always,” he says. “Do you need to take care of your buddy there in the flatbed first?”

“Well, it’s actually you who’s going to have to help him out,” she says.

She walks him around to the side of the truck and cocks her head toward the large crate chained to the flatbed. Clearly stenciled on the crate are the words Continental C85/C90.

“Merry Christmas, baby!” she says, here eyes gleaming. “It’s newly overhauled and it has the C90 conversion. Bet you can have it in the Champ and signed off before spring. And I can give you your tailwheel endorsement in it as soon as you’re ready.”

“And before you ask, I sold the property to get the money. The grass strip and our little version of Gaston’s was just out of our reach for now. There’ll be other times and other chances, I’m sure. Besides, it’s Christmas and I love you and I want the Champ to fly and I want to see you fly it.”

Jack stands there somewhat stunned. Not that this is an inappropriate reaction, but the reaction lasts a little bit longer than expected. Finally, he speaks.

“Don’t get me wrong, hon. Landed gentry or no, you’re mine and I’m yours. But if you’ll look at this, I think you’ll understand why I’m fumbling a little for words here.”

Jack reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out a yellow sheet of paper folded in quarters and gives it to her. Leila unfolds the sheet, which says “Grover’s Lumber” at the top and “Customer Copy – Delivery Date January 2nd” at the bottom. In between – in a series of neatly-numbered lines that speak of lumber, metal, concrete, and hardware – it said, for all intents and purposes, “pole barn.”

Leila looks up, wondering.

“I’m sorry, hon, but you’ve caught me a little flat-footed. Joe Baxter was by a couple of hours ago and it’s all done. I sold the Champ to buy the stuff for the pole barn.”

They stand looking at each other for what seems like a long time.

“Y’know,” says Leila, “I think our presents are too nice to play with just now. Let’s help the poor delivery guy unload the engine and let him get home.”

When the engine is placed along the wall of the otherwise empty hangar and the delivery truck has rumbled away down the hangar row, Leila turns to Jack and says, “You want to just hang out here and see what shows up on downwind?”

There seems nothing else to do but embrace. Whether against the cold or to steady each other, it doesn’t really matter. This they do for some time as we take our leave of the scene as the snow eddies and floats down the taxiway.

Along the county road and in town, people’s attentions drifted variously to songs and stories of the season. Some of the stories evoking magi – wise men who travelled far to give gifts that have become symbols of the season. Being wise men, the gifts of the magi were likely wise as well. Perhaps even being susceptible to barter or to exchange for a different size or color.

Here, you have taken some moments of your life to hear me relate this tale of two young people who foolishly sacrificed for each other the finest treasures of their newly-constituted marital estate. But as you celebrate the season, remember them. Because, in their foolishness, they are yet the wisest of all. For they are the magi of Harper’s Field.


Anonymous said...

Well that's me in soppy tears then.

Beautifully sweet.

Sean Berry said...

Steven, you're always catching me on my way into work, and leaving me teary-eyed, rushing to forward it to my wife when I get in the door.

You do -excellent- work, and are a treasure to us.

Thank you.