Airplane Days

I guess I wanted to look at airplanes. Honestly, I’m not sure why. But I was 12 years old, lived in a boring and culturally impoverished little desert town, okay, in the brushy desert near a little town…and there was this one thing, a small private field. The airport in the mountain pass west of Palm Springs had been there since World War II. Built for training? It never occurred to me to ask . In 1960 the presence of World War II was tangible enough to take for granted. There had been a war. There was stuff from a war. And there, in the middle of the desert was this one-mile concrete strip with adjacent taxiway and hangers.

So for reasons I honestly can’t recall, after school was out, I got on my bike and rode to the airport. The hangers, corrugated metal buildings were on the far side of the runway. They were always locked and sealed, very much like garages. But one day I happened to see an open door. I rode my bike down the taxiway and looked inside. A man, probably about my father’s age, circa 50, was cleaning an airplane. I recognized the latter as an expensive Beechcraft. He smiled at me. This was totally unexpected. He even let it be known, in the gentleness of his voice and the unhurried way he went about his work, that I was welcome to stay.

Stay and do what? Here I must have run out of ideas. Or more precisely, nerve. My boy’s shoulders were heavily weighted with the guilt of failing to save my parents’ marriage. Life with my father was lonely and bleak. It was more than surprising that someone, a stranger, would want to have me around. I did not know what to do. The man continued cleaning his Beechcraft. The incongruity of an expensive aircraft revealed within a metal building on the edge of a rundown desert town wasn’t lost on me. Hidden wealth. Even here. Painfully shy, I tried to prolong the moment, but the way wasn’t clear. I must have smiled back, but what next? Asking questions would only annoy him. But I asked a few anyway. How fast did it go? How far? More questions than this would exceed some limit, and overstaying my welcome and being sent away would feel crushing. Goodbye, I said.

Across the field in a rundown shack and adjacent hanger was a business. Stanke Aviation. There was a hut with a small wooden reception desk of the sort one might find in a very small and primitive motel. Mr. Stanke had an actual office, occasionally glimpsed, never entered by me. It was not much better than the reception hut, only slightly larger. But it was Mr. Stanke’s place most of the time. Except when Mr. Stanke’s son was around. He was older than me, probably in high school, and full of interesting lore about airplane accidents. Crashes in the nearby mountains were frequent. One had severed the heads of four passengers. I relished this insider knowledge.

In the hangar next door was my friend. I can’t recall his name, but he liked me, and I liked him. He was an aircraft mechanic. In retrospect, he may have been a sort of apprentice or trainee. This might explain why he was working in such a godforsaken place. As I recall, he had a fiancé in town. He told me he was from Philadelphia. This meant nothing to me. My father told me he was Jewish, which also meant nothing. All I knew was that he let me hang out in his workspace, watching and watching. What I expected to see, is unclear. Mechanical things really didn’t interest me. I’m not sure airplanes really did either. What on earth was I doing there? Whatever, the mechanic worked quietly, with great concentration. I knew not to disturb him. We rarely talked. Why was I there?

Nursing fantasies. The airport seemed like the fastest way out of town. What did this mean in practical terms? I had no practical terms. I had no way of escaping my father or my life or the desert. But I could imagine. Planes landed there, admittedly not very often. And they took off. Once a man spotted me, came over and said hello. He was a doctor friend of my father’s. Or to put a finer point on it, he was a colleague. My father was a sort of hermit, a man without friends. But I had met this doctor when I had accompanied my father to the hospital when he saw patients. The doctor had a plane, and I asked him questions about it in the hospital cafeteria.

Now, loading up his sons of the local airport, I stood and watched. Without waiving or saying hello, my stare must have caught his attention. He stepped down from the wing of his airplane, came over and asked if I wasn’t…whoever. I told him I was. He returned to his airplane, had some conversations with his two boys. And somehow it was determined that one would stay behind and I would take his place. Would I like a ride?

They were out for a brief ride, all of 30 or so miles, to the Desert Air Hotel. The latter had grass runways, and presumably rooms and restaurants. It took no time to get there. And then there wasn’t much to do. One after the next, private aircraft hit the same muddy spot on the turf runway. I stood and watched. The doctor may have bought me a soft drink. It was time to go home. We took off, now facing the opposite direction, heading west. Had I not paid much attention on the way? In any case, the trip back proved stark and brutal.

The San Jacinto Mountains loomed in all their 11,000 feet. The adjacent range, 12,000 feet, appeared on the other side as we headed for the little concrete, war surplus runway in between. That’s when the plane began to pop. Bouncing wouldn’t do it justice, the jerking. The airplane seemed to be flicked, jolted suddenly up, down or sideways. Nothing accompanied these violent jerks by way of sound. It was all disturbingly quiet, just a series of slams, this way and that way. The lack of sound, the disorientation of a bouncing elevator combined with something else. The roar. No noise accompanied the motions of the little plane. But the engine, or the rushing air, or both, created a steady background blast.

Neither the man nor his son seemed to notice. In particular, they appeared oblivious to the way the tiny aluminum thing with its Plexiglas bubble kept getting kicked sideways. One moment we were flying beside the San Jacinto Mountains, far too close, their granite chasms just off the left wing…and then, for an instant, we were knocked around to face the peaks. The doctor had on headphones and was now saying something. I knew he was announcing this sort of thing I heard on the scratchy loudspeaker outside the shed at the airport. That he was Mooney 77T-Tom-883, or something, and was landing.

I thanked him profusely, as I scrambled over the wing and down to the weathered concrete. I was alive, after all. My interest in small airplanes would soon wane. Still, I had this fantasy that one of the flights from Palm Springs Airport would somehow stop at this strip. Daily I saw the Bonanza Airlines plane sailing right by us. It wouldn’t stop. Neither would life, fortunately and unfortunately. I would be there in the desert, deserted, for some time. Today the desert mountain pass is full of wind generators. It is, and was, a terrible place to fly.

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