Friday, July 6, 2012

Dad and Amelia's Disappearing Act

Two events from last week prompted this true story: the seventy-fifth anniversary of the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, and what would have been my Dad’s 86th birthday.

Whenever Dad saw a picture of Amelia Earhart, he’d get a wistful faraway look on his face and mumble under his breath, “You know, she would have been an attractive woman with just a bit of makeup.”

I remember observing Dad as he watched a news report about her on TV: A picture of a smiling woman with short-cropped hair had popped up on the screen, and Dad was wearing that wistful look.

I asked him who this friendly looking lady was, and he said,” Why Amelia, of course. Amelia Earhart.”

“But who is she?” I wanted to know.

Dad looked at me solemnly. “She was a famous pilot who disappeared in 1937 and was never seen again!”

I remember thinking what a wonderful name Air-heart was for someone who flew.

“What do you mean she disappeared?” I asked.

“Well, she just vanished. She was trying to fly around the world, but she disappeared somewhere over the Pacific Ocean.”

I was fascinated. That night he told me all about Amelia and her co-pilot Fred Noonan, and how they’d taken a Lockheed Electra 10E ( Dad knew his airplanes) and attempted to circumnavigate the earth. I’d heard adults bump into each other unexpectedly and say, “Small world,” but I still figured it for a very big place. In school we were learning about exotic lands, and it seemed unbelievable that this smiling woman, this Air-heart, had attempted to fly around the whole kit and kaboodle.

Planes were Dad’s passion. He first got to ride in a plane during the war. He was in the Navy at eighteen and had been shipped off to the island of Guam. Dad was there with the Seabees to build runways and barracks to prepare for the invasion of Japan. When I was young, I misunderstood him and thought he was saying the island of Gum, which to a kid sounded like a terrific place. I imagined an azure sea surrounding a tropical paradise composed of chewing gum and bubble gum, licorice-flavored gum and cinnamon gum. No wonder there was a war out there—who wouldn’t fight for a place like that?

During the war, Dad was temporarily removed from duty when he hurt his hand. I used to fantasize that he got hurt while helping remove the wreckage of a Japanese Zero that had kamikazied into their camp, but his injury occurred while moving a latrine. Nevertheless, he was allowed to go up in a B-24 Liberator with a few of the guys and treated to a spectacular aerial view of the island that he never forgot. He must have gazed out at the limitless Pacific and wondered about his beloved Amelia, lost in all that water.

Many times when Dad and I would be walking together, my little hand in his big one, I’d look up at him and see his prominent Adam’s apple, his head tilted back as he studied a plane flying overhead. When I was small I was terrified that one day he might get into an airplane himself and disappear like this Air-heart person.

I was miserable when Dad decided to learn how to fly. My mother didn’t approve of the costly lessons but didn’t complain. Dad seldom asked for anything. I went with him when he took his first flying lesson. My brother David rarely accompanied us; he was too busy playing sports and filling his trophy case.

The flight lesson departed from Airport Village, a small extension of the San Jose Airport. I watched Dad and the flight instructor climb into a tiny plane and take off, the plane getting smaller and smaller until it disappeared into the haze. I waited nervously on a small observation deck until Dad and the instructor returned.

Several months of lessons followed, and before long Dad took his solo flight. When he returned, there was a ceremony; his instructor took a pair of scissors and cut the tails off Dad’s shirt. I remember being startled by this, but Dad assured me everything was okay. In fact, he’d worn that old shirt for just that reason.

He explained that pilots always got their “tail-feathers” clipped when they first flew solo. Dad looked happy about it so I decided it was okay, but the whole thing seemed off putting to me. We once had a pet parakeet named Chipper, and Dad paid extra at the pet store to have the bird’s wings clipped so it couldn’t fly away. It seemed strange that clipping a bird’s wings prevented it from flying, yet pilots symbolically submitted to similar treatment to celebrate the fact that they could.

I liked accompanying Dad in our old Packard when he drove to the metal building beside the airport where he rented a plane. The building smelled of grease, gasoline and body odor, a pleasant smell I’ll always associate with Dad. There was a candy machine, and he would give me money for a chocolate bar. There I’d be, with a big circle of chocolate around my mouth as my father disappeared into the wild, blue yonder. One day I was rewarded for being Dad’s airport buddy—he invited me to go up with him. I panicked at first. The little Cessna Dad rented looked pretty rickety. But the lure of flying over rooftops overrode my fear. Before long I was champing at the bit to be soaring like an eagle.

Dad was extremely methodical. Although he never said it, you always knew what he was thinking: “If you’re going to do something, do it right.”

He began his pre-flight checklist. To my horror there were nearly twenty items on the list. I watched him pull back the engine cover and pull out the dipstick to check the oil. I should have been grateful that he was so conscientious—after all, our lives depended on it—but I wasn’t. In my head I screamed, Enough already. Let’s goooooo!

We didn’t go. Dad examined the plane like a surgeon looking for a lump. Then he pressed a button and the plane pissed a small stream of gas onto the gravel; he said something about clearing air from the fuel hose. I stood beside the plane and tried to be as patient as possible. I was pondering how long eternity was when Dad suddenly dropped the hood back over the engine and informed me we were ready to depart. He lifted me up and buckled me into the co-pilot’s seat. He turned the ignition switch and the engine roared to life. The little plane trembled, and then purred like a living being.

I couldn’t wait to slip the bonds of gravity. Fear and excitement were dueling in my stomach.

Conclusion on Sunday


  1. Oh no, what's going to happen next? Well obviously you didn't crash and burn, unless you've really been a ghost all these years. That sounds like the plot of an M Night Shamaylan movie. What a twist!

  2. My Dad flew a one engine Navion "4172K(kilo)" Scared the beJesus out of me to fly with him...glad i did!

  3. What a special memory of your dad. Thanks for sharing.

  4. You did lead an exciting life.

  5. "I imagined an azure sea surrounding a tropical paradise composed of chewing gum and bubble gum, licorice-flavored gum and cinnamon gum. No wonder there was a war out there—who wouldn’t fight for a place like that?"

    Licorice-flavored gum?

    Count me out of this battle.

    heh heh

    Great story and can't wait for the conclusion, until then, I'll be chewing on some Trident or Orbit spearmint flavored gums. heh heh

  6. Another great story! Looking forward to the conculusion.

  7. Wonderful story, can't wait for the rest. Oma Linda

  8. Obviously, he did okay...since you're still here. Wonder if your Dad knew my Dad...LOL! Mine was in the Navy too and worked on airplanes in the Phillipines...all he ever talked about was the day the "Japs" (he was not a very PC guy) flew over and bombed the stockpile of canned sheep tongue. Then he'd laugh and laugh...

  9. A long time ago now, my husband took me up in a two-seater Cessna. Too much like flying in a tin can to me. I had flown in the 4-seater serveral times and it had not bothered me at all -- but that little two seater I did not like at all. Not to mention I was pregnant at the time and he was practising taking off and landing -- over and over -- each time I felt sicker and sicker until after number 12 and he was gearing up for 13 I begged him to let me out!

    Amelia 'Air-Heart' -- I love it!

  10. What a terrific story! And with the recent new discoveries about Amelia's fate, very timely, as well. Looking foward to the next installment~

  11. Uh oh, sounds like there's trouble abrew. Did you ever see the movie "Amelia" with Hilary Swank? Pretty good.

  12. Licorice flavored gum: Black Jack. Cinnamon flavored gum: Clove? I loved 'em both. But I see usage of an air bag ahead in your next installment.

  13. Love your imagination as a kid. Guam and gum. Nice interpretation. Kids are way more fun than adults.

    Awaiting the conclusion.

    Have a terrific day. :)

  14. Interesting childhood you had there.

    Looking forward to finding out how this story ends.

    I've flown a Lynx helicopter several times (with a proper pilot) but never got the flying bug.

  15. I love your stories about your connection to your family. There isn't anything sweeter than having good memories such as remembering what it was like to hold your dad's hand. I am so glad for you to have those types of memories as well as your ability to remember them so well. You are a lucky man.

  16. Great story, Steve. I hope the latest expedition to solve the mystery of her disappearance is successful. Sounds like your dad and I could have been good friends, as I'm an aviaiton nut, too. Side note: A friend of mine, Linda Finch, recreated Amelia Air-heart's flight in 1997, this time with a bit more luck than Amelia had. I was fortunate to know her while she was restoring her Lockheed 10E, her telling me of her quest for financial backing from Pratt & Whitney, Lockheed, etc. It was quite a feat she pulled off.

    Looking forward to part II. :)


  17. Roll on Sunday! He sounds like a special man.

  18. "I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth . . . " -- my dad's favorite poem. Great post. I wish I could have flown with my dad. He was a flight instructor in the Army Air Corps during WWII, and then he was in the Air Force reserves for many years. I loved it that when a plane flew over, he could look up and say, There's a B-52 (or whatever he happened to see). Daddy, how I miss you and will till the day we're reunited.


  19. Don't forget the Teaberry gum! I'm not a fan of flying, don't know the difference in plane models. I was rescued once in Alaska by a four-seater that landed and took off on water. Those bush pilots are a gutsy bunch.

  20. Husband was learning to fly when he met me, then quit. I think, all things being equal, this was probably a good thing, as I am terrified of flying. Let's say, I probably would not have been as eager to join him in the wild blue...


  21. "Just like a man, always expecting a woman to look her best!"
    This is one my favorite lines from "Keeping Up Appearances", one of the TV Brit-Coms.
    Your Dad's remark reminded me of it.

    Look forward to hearing what happens next!

  22. The sign of a great story teller -- always leave them wanting more.

    You always do.

    Thinking about Amelia always makes me a bit wistful, too. She deserved a better ending.

  23. I'm on board, waiting for Sunday's installment.

  24. How lucky you were to have a Dad like him! I think he's wrong only about one thing - Amelia Earhart WAS attractive, even without makeup.

  25. Always leave them wanting more!
    Did you see the movie about Amelia they made recently? I haven't seen it yet, but I will when I can get it on DVD.
    Be waiting for part two. ;)

  26. Super post. I also took flying lessons and now I see them through the eyes of a little kid. Neat how you related the lessons to The disappearance of Emelia. And I will be looking forward the the next installment.

  27. What a great story! I've never been up in a small plane, I'm not sure how I'd feel about it.

  28. What a great experience which is now a great story!

  29. This is told so beautifully! You are an amazing writer. I guess I'll be back on Sunday.

  30. What a cool dad. I understand his fascination with Amelia.

    The writing in this post is such that once I started reading I could not put it aside. I could see and feel what was going on. Great story.

  31. Ah, where would we be without our dads? A heart-warming piece of reminiscence - I'll now go and read the second part.

  32. wow..sounds like a dream come true for him!