Jack D. Hunter's Blog

11 September 2007

Haudi von Dudi (he said in perfect German). Wee gates?

Forgetfulness. Assumptions. Taking things for granted. The tyranny of habit. I actually groan when I recall the many occasions in my life in which these abominations have given me the shaft.

My mind went today to this quirk of human nature when I was prepping a painting of a 1929 navy training biplane coming in for a landing on the waters off Pensacola. The subject reminded me of Jimmy Collins, a famous test pilot in aviation’s early years, who described such an incident in his autobiography. My copy of the book has turned up missing, alas, so I have to tap my imperfect memory to pass it along here, pretty much in paraphrase.

Collins wrote of the day he was checking the level of skill of another flier who, as I recall, was being considered as an instructor for aspiring seaplane pilots. The candidate lived up to his billing as an accomplished pilot, taking the plane aloft and flying through an exceptionally impressive series of maneuvers that were, by Collins’s measure, right on the dime. Except that the guy obviously had been so preoccupied with flying for flying’s sake he forgot he was in a seaplane and, at test's conclusion, was in perfect alignment for a tidy, businesslike landing on the air base’s main landside runway. Collins said he reminded on the intercom that pontoons didn’t do very well on concrete, and the candidate immediately corrected, heading for a proper water landing and sputtering all the while a profusion of self-deriding apologies.

When the propeller was still and the plane floated serenely on its pontoons, the candidate unbuckled his belts, swung out of his cockpit, and placing his foot in the fuselage stirrup, leaned over Collins's cockpit and explained himself. "Jimmy, I sure am sorry about that dumbbell landing approach. It’s just that I’ve been flying land planes all my career, and I was caught up by habit, I guess. Whatever, I sure apologize for doing something so forgetful, so stupid." So saying, he turned and stepped off the stirrup and into the sea.

* * *

Today was a rainy, blustery Sunday. I was staring out the window at the misty rooftops and streaming streets, and, for some vague reason, I was being all kinds of nostalgic, remembering the same kind of day, many years ago, when I was a kid visiting my Aunt Hazel’s house near Niagara Falls.

Her house was old even then, with the bill of sale for $17,000, dated in the 1890's, framed, and on display in the parlor. To my cousins — Aunt Hazel's kids — and me, it was impossibly huge and exciting, with nooks and corners and secret little places for rainy-day hide-and-seek games. There were mysterious back stairs, tall and forbidding closets, dark-paneled walls that gleamed softly in the afternoon light, stained-glass windows in the vestibule and on the high landings of the curving staircase. Everything smelled of soap and wood polish, except toward evening, when the iron-gray cook oven was sending unbearably delicious supper smells through the huge old rooms.

There was a library, with books from floor to ceiling. There were marble fireplaces, sliding doors between the parlor and dining room, window seats with velvet cushions, a grandfather clock that tocked the hours away and chimed politely when “the big hand was on 12.” There seemed to be porches and balconies and gables everywhere, and far up, beyond the turret and under the steep-sloping roof, was an enormous attic, all shadows and cobwebs, that Bobbie and Whit assured me, goggle-eyed, was “haunted by an old river captain” whose boat had been “swept over the Falls.”

I thought of those ancient times and, in the process, was tempted to see them as “the good old days.” Things went slower, easier, more graciously then, I told myself. There was little of the clang and clangor of the plastic, superhighway, microwave razzmatazz that beats on us in these frenzied years of partisan hatred and global warming and inflation and runaway government and terrorism and nuclear parity.

Back then, my mind told me, you could hear the lake whispering and smell the pines in the Canadian vastness beyond. Today, it's shopping plazas and blattering traffic and the diesel stink everywhere.

Happily, though, I escaped the trap that 20/20 hindsight, softened by the rose-colored glasses of imperfect childhood memories, invariably forges for us. Hold on, I thought: Were they really the good old days, after all?

With some untinted reflection, I could recall that those were the days of what my parents called The Depression, when everybody worried openly about no work and hunger and political unrest, when men in homburg hats and pearl gray spats stood on street corners and tried to sell apples and pencils, when the younger kids had to wear the same clothes the older kids grew out of. Out West the Dust Bowl was killing farms and farmers, everywhere unchecked polio was killing kids and young adults. Straight teeth were only for the very lucky or the very rich. Cars were always having flats. Gangsters were machine-gunning each other on crowded streets. Mail planes were forever crashing, dirigibles exploding, ships sinking. People went blind on rotten bootleg.

Unavailable to the working stiff — at any price — were TV sets, cell phones, electronic computers, power steering, canned beer, washer-dryer combos, nylons and permanent press and double-knits, electric toothbrushes, penicillin, overnight flights to Europe, Super Bowls, deodorants, and Big Mac attacks. There wasn’t a man anywhere who had stepped on the moon — or even driven a VW, for that matter.

As for Aunt Hazel's house, it was a drafty barn in winter and hotter than the hinges in summer. It had wooden screens and storm windows that always had to be washed, patched, put up or taken down. It always needed painting somewhere, had one bathroom that was as inviting as any army latrine and a kitchen, which — with its high ceiling, wooden wainscotting, tin sink, and handlebar faucets — looked like a set from a B Western. The light bulbs were forever burning out, and the fuses were always blowing, and the hand-crank washing machine never worked right, and the icebox melt pan always needed emptying. The grass had to be cut with a push mower and brute strength; the snow had to be shoveled by little boys with blue noses and wooden paddle-shaped shovels.

Sure, it's fun to look at plans for towering, 16-room stone houses with balconies and piazzas that could he built in the l890s for $17,000.

Nostalgia's OK. Museums I enjoy. Also antiques, old movies, historical novels, Dixieland jazz and photo albums. But go back to the “good old days” of my boyhood?

No, thanks. Not even if I could.

Because the fact is, today is the good old days. The house I live in today — and what's done and said there — are tomorrow's memories. All I've got to do is to try my best to make them fond ones.

Copyright © 2007 by Jack D. Hunter.  All rights reserved.  No part of this document may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.