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Atypical Planet, The "Ferry Command," and "Wrong Way Corrigan"

In this media driven age that celebrates fame and fortune it’s easy to think we mere mortals are insignificant in the brief flicker of our existence. If you’ve entertained that thought from time to time, as I have, zoom out for a bigger picture, and remind yourself that you are extremely rare phenomena on a very small atypical planet in a cold vast universe. Nothing remotely like you exists as far as our powerful telescopes can see.

I have to remind myself now and then that our stories are just as exceptional as we are as individuals. They may not make it to film or a library shelf but some social anthropologist from a far away planet might find this blog circling in space someday and take notes of what life was like for an average family on planet earth in the twentieth century.

I have only faint recollections of that first year of life on earth when these letters were being written. I’m sure that everything I smelled, heard, tasted and touched is stored in some locked box of my memory. There are vague fleeting images of being carried through a narrow hallway, sitting in a high chair at the dining room table, a brown teddy bear covered with rough cloth that had a torn abdominal seam that I stuffed unwanted food in. Memories of a one year old are undependable. I try to remember my little pedal powered jeep and the pedal powered air-plane. I apparently owned and operated both. Only the jeep was allowed in the house, where, according to the letters, I inflicted a great deal of property damage as I pedaled recklessly through the length of the house. The metal airplane was relegated to the circular landing strip that doubled as our backyard patio. Both the jeep and the plane disappeared mysteriously.

The one solid early memory I have is being bounced on my mother’s knee that went something like this;

This is the way the ladies ride

The ladies ride, the ladies ride

(Easy bouncing)

This is the way the gentleman rides

The gentleman rides, the gentleman rides

(A little more bounce and speed)

This is the way the farmer rides

The farmer rides, the farmer rides

Hobbledy-Hoy Hobbledy- Hoy

(A much exaggerated uneven bouncing from leg to leg

Then she would let you drop between her legs

Catching you just before you hit the floor)

There was another knee bounce routine called “Trot Trot to Boston to buy a loaf of bread” that I can’t recall completely. These memories come from somewhere in my toddler stage.

My older siblings will have more solid memories of those years near the end of World War 2. The letters talk about school, the neighbors, church, and only peripherally about the war. America entered the war late and our family wasn’t impacted like families in England that were being bombed daily.

There were blackout drills at the airport in Manhattan, Kansas where my father was stationed, and at airports in Kansas City, where they practiced extinguishing airport runway lights and radio tower lights. I remember my mother talking about blackout drills in our neighborhood, where she would take all of us into the basement, and mask the small ground level basement windows with black paper.  

In 1944, when these letters were written, America was nearly fully mobilized for the war effort. Many items were rationed or in short supply. The Office of Civilian Defense called each American family to become a “fighting unit on the home front.” In one letter from my mother she says “the paper problem is getting worse.” I assume she’s referring to the paper shortage in the country caused by the war, and not her inability to find usable stationery. She mentions in a letter that my brother Dale was stacking paper in the back hallway, doing his part in a Cub Scout paper drive in support of the war.

That is not me out of uniform

Everyone was asked to collect cans and scrap metal to re-work into weapons. Children were the most avid collectors. Their efforts helped gather 22 million pounds of metal. This might be what happened to my pedal powered jeep and airplane? If that was the case I approve the patriotism of my mother or brother, or whoever made the decision to donate them to be melted down into armaments. In one letter my mother jokingly refers to me as “General Daniel Winfield Sherman.” In looking back I think that one year old General would have approved of his toys becoming part of the turret or barrel of a Sherman Tank. If at all possible in this imagined scenario, the grease my mother was saving in the large metal can beneath the kitchen sink was used in a high caliber shell that was shot from the barrel of that Sherman tank. I’m not sure my mother knew that the glycerin in her bacon grease was being made into bombs and gunpowder.

One letter from my father reveals that he was enthralled by the tales from a Civil Aeronautics Authority supervisor from New York that visited the Manhattan base. Joseph Lyons was a Jewish pilot with a storied past. He had operated an air field in Palestine, flown war sorties in Africa, and Egypt, and flown with the Russian Air Force against fascism in Spain. I suspect this fascinating character with jaw dropping tales was at the Manhattan Air Base recruiting pilots for the “Ferry Command,” and came very close to reeling my father in.

History has nearly forgotten the “Ferry Command.” 3500 civilian pilots from 23 allied nations helped shuttle nearly 10,000 planes for the British war effort. Before the U.S. had even entered the war American pilots comprised over half of the civilian pilots that flew the “Ferry Command” routes. They were unarmed, non-uniformed, and non-insurable. There was a low loss of airplanes but more than 500 of these civilian pilots lost their lives. In a letter to my mother my father complains about the application papers required to join the “Ferry Command” and grumbles about the restrictions for flying those government owned planes. He was definitely intrigued with the idea of flying these covert routes and might have pursued it if there had been any encouraging words in a return letter from my mother. There were none, and the subject doesn’t come up again.

Somewhere in the letter he writes, “Wrong way Corrigan, that’s me.” I don’t know if he’s referring tangentially to being tempted to apply for the" Ferry Command," or just making fun of himself.

Douglas Corrigan had spent three years trying to get permission to fly from New York to Dublin, Ireland, without success. On July 17, 1938, he took off from Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field in a modified Curtiss Robin plane, carrying two chocolate bars, two boxes of fig bars, a quart of water and a U.S. Map with the approved permission to fly from New York to California. He had been given the O.K. for the flight to California, but an ocean crossing was out of the question. It was a foggy morning, as he recounted, and Corrigan flew into the haze and disappeared. Twenty-eight hours later, he landed in Dublin and instantly became a national hero. He made headlines across the country, and stuck to his story that the fog was the reason he headed the wrong way and ended up in Dublin, and not California.

There will  be several more short blogs concerning the letters.

My great- niece Megan has persuaded me to keep the blog public despite my reservations about social media and security.

Postscript information - My sister Judy says there were multiple blackout drills and that officials would canvas the neighborhood to make sure you were complying.

She also cleared up the pedal airplane I couldn't remember - it was a prop that a photographer used.  She did remember a picture of Dale in a pedal airplane so the photographer must have periodically gone through the neighborhood which explains the letter in 1944 where my mother writes that Miss Flowers (our kindergarten teacher) was bringing the entire class to our house. The kids were posing for pictures in the pedal airplane.

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