There are a lot of unanswered questions about my parents that I had hoped to find in the pile of letters I’ve been reading. I find unwavering devotion exhibited in the letters that never bring up the two most common problems in a marriage; money and mistrust. The money problem actually does come up repeatedly in the letters but only in discussing some mutual resolution. There are never any accusations on the mishandling of it. The letters unlock a narrow four month window on their lives, but money was very tight, and at one point my mother is forced to sell our chickens and the rooster for the $17.08 they brought.
On his personal time in Manhattan, my father is giving private flying lessons to men and women, and comments “I don’t know where they get all their money.” I don’t think my dad squandered his extra income, or chased skirts, but I question some of his business decisions in the years before and following these letters. I’m also thinking of some of the lame brained business decisions I made myself at his age. I guess one of my unanswered questions is why my mother never questioned any of my father’s decisions.
I chose parts of two letters to share; a letter from my father that has two poems on the back side of the page, and the letter my mother writes in response. The first of my father’s poems is a silly nonsense poem about his smelly feet; the second describes a frightening mid-air engine failure. I’ll share the second poem, but first I must digress a little:
The first time I set these two letters aside I was focused on the poems. The second time I read the face page of my father’s letter, I discovered a precise prediction he made on when the U.S. would make their major assault on German Forces in Europe. He starts the letter asking about the family and his younger brother, Everett, who is home on leave from the Navy. Then he complains about the unpredictable Kansas weather that keeps him out of his favorite element, the air.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see the big invasion in the next two months, from the way things are looking now.”
As the tides of war were turning in our favor he’s writing about the anticipated assault on German forces in Europe by Allied Forces. .My father’s letter was written April 5th, 1944. The highly classified "Normandy Invasion" was being planned under great secrecy and misdirection, and General Dwight Eisenhower was pacing and chain smoking for fear that the secrets would be leaked and the Germans would catch wind of the attack. Before his Presidency and his heart attack, Eisenhower was smoking up to four packs a day. Under this intense pressure Eisenhower was probably smoking even more than usual.
My father, on a relatively small air base in the middle of America, is watching leaves being cancelled, his pilots shuffled elsewhere, and pilots with special skills pulled out of his unit, and makes the prediction that the big invasion will come in the next two months. Allied Forces launch the "Normandy Invasion" exactly two months and 24 hours after my father writes this letter.
At the bottom of the face page of the letter my father writes:
P.S. on the other side of page is my reaction to the first motor failure I ever had in the air. It was fun after I got down.
My dad is 34 years of age when he wrote this letter and still getting a buzz from the adrenaline rush of a dangerous situation. There are numerous accounts and photos of him walking a bridge rail, standing atop a flagpole, which was a fad for awhile, and doing hand flips over cars. Transitioning from that youthful feeling of invulnerability to a more sedate path was not my father’s first choice. I enter as evidence the stunt flying he takes up after the war. My mother was mildly encouraging the transition to a more earthbound career, but never in an overt way and she never gives voice to any fear of his flying. Here is the poem on the engine failure:
Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the horrible fright, of your Pappy dear
While flying today, in the clouds so high
My motor konked out, and I thot I would die
That good ole propeller, that pulls you along
Well it stopped dead still, and that was wrong
I looked in the mirror, and to my surprise
There sat the poor student, with fear in his eyes
One hand on the ripcord, and one on the door
He was going to leave me, and that’s for sure
I talked to him gently, on me he must trust
To bring him back safely or together we bust
So I must think of something, I must I must
Ah, here is the answer, the answer I’ve found
I must point the nose of the ship straight down
The swish of the air, as we drive for the ground
Should make our propeller go round, and around
By golly it’s moving, it’s starting to go
I am a son of a gun, well what do you know
The motor has started, Oh what a relief
This all happened to your dear Little Chief
Several days later my mother writes back in verse without directly addressing the motor failure. Possibly she shared my father’s belief, that as a seasoned pilot with an untarnished safety record, he had little risk compared to less experienced pilots.
The children are fine and sleep without fear
Although so far from their daddy dear
Danny is fine and tough past belief
He’s afraid folks won’t know he’s the son of a chief
He jumps and he laughs as he tells of his Dad
He’s the son of a chief and that’s why he’s glad
He had a tumble and found to his grief
That the floor didn’t know he was son of a chief
As I suffer the pounding of this little boy
I really don’t care- and I murmur with joy
I’m the mate of the chief, who is Dad of this boy.
I have no recollection of the trouble I must have been as a toddler, but I send apologies to my mother looking down from that heavenly cloud she resides on.
My mother always had an unflagging respect for a man in uniform, be it a scout uniform or a military one. I think she was very proud of her husband in his CAP uniform and his position as Chief Pilot serving his country and training other pilots.
One of those unanswered questions is when and where did the flying start? There was a little airport in Independence, Missouri, less than three miles from my father’s home. It had the added attraction of a fishing lake. The “Independence Memorial Airport” was basically two graveled runways near where the Independence Mall sits today. It was abandoned years ago. Vesta Ailshire inherited it from her Aunt Minnie in 1945. It had some history before that date that I haven’t been able to find. Vesta Ailshire, who everyone called “Mrs. A” was quite the businesswoman and operated a grocery, a restaurant, a small airport, an airplane repair shop and a school for pilots. I‘m guessing this is where my father, and possibly my mother, got their first taste of flying before Mrs. A took it over. Somewhere in the vaporous past I hear a voice saying that my father was part owner of this Independence airport. If he had some deal with Aunt Minnie and worked his way up as part owner by exchanging labor there was never a legal document to substantiate it.
After the war ends my father gets involved in a similar situation with “The Heart of America Airport” in Kansas City where he operates the “Blue Valley Flying Service,” offering flying lessons and repairing planes. The repair service included shuttling the plane to the client. My brother Dale remembers being the wingman when my father delivered an old plane to a client in Springfield, Missouri. Dale said “it sounded like it was coming apart.” The “Heart of America Airport” was a very small airport like the “Independence Memorial Airport.” It consisted of three graveled runways and was shut down years ago. If there was any legally binding paperwork to substantiate my dad’s partial ownership of the “Blue Valley Flying Service” at “The Heart of America Airport” it was missing from the airport safe following the accident. There was a lot of speculation about the honesty of his business partners.
Getting back to the love of flying that my parents shared, here is a little prose in one of the letters that probably pushed the love buttons on my mom.
The sides of these rolling little hills are strewn with little flowers, from top to bottom. The little brooks that wind in and out between the hills are clearing up, and from the air they look like pretty blue ribbons that had been tossed in the sky and had fallen in weavy little patterns on the ground. The wheat in the fields is growing so fast it seems to move while you are watching it, and when the wind blows it back and forth it looks like rippling waves on the ocean. Farmers and little boys doll size are in the fields with tractors stirring up little clouds of dust as they plow and harrow the ground. Load after load of feeder cattle are being turned out in the hills and they look like little ants as they go single file up one side and down the other. Everyone seems busy.
Whenever I see something beautiful and lovely like this I think of home and you.