During the first twenty years of our marriage, Ed and I unabashedly acknowledged our fear of flying. One winter, friends armed with statistics and resort brochures finally convinced us that flying was safer than driving, boarding a train, or even taking a bath. At first, we took separate planes for the sake of the children.When we survived several flights, our confidence in the Wright Brothers rose. Deciding that flying separately was no fun, we made out our wills, had a signing and witnessing party, and thenceforward risked our necks together. Never did the thought cross our minds that some day we would possess a plane of our own—and even more unthinkable—fly it.
The summer Ted turned eighteen, he got a job handling freight at Boston’s Logan Airport. Someone took him for an airplane ride, and the next thing we knew, we had a pilot in the family.
When I told Mother Ed was taking flying lessons, she cried, “Oh, I wish he wouldn’t!” I felt the same way, but since he was determined not to let Ted get ahead of him, I could only bow to the inevitable. I had thought that if Ed took up flying, I’d want to. Then I saw all the technical stuff he had to study and memorize and changed my mind. If he’d just show me how to land the thing in an emergency, that was all I needed to know.
Ed bought a small plane called a Tri-Pacer, and after a few lessons, he and Ted made plans to fly to Florida. The night before they were leaving, Ed invited me out to dinner:
“This is our last night together for almost a week," he said, "and I want to be alone with you.”
I was so flattered, I went upstairs and put on some silver eye shadow. We dined at the Scituate Cabin. Ed was in a rare mood and kept laughing at my wry comments about his new toy.
When we got home Ted latched onto his father (“Hey, Dad, come here and show me how to work this slide rule”), and that was the last I saw of them for two hours. Airplanes, airplanes, you’d think there wasn’t another subject in the world. I went to bed in my silver eye shadow and still they talked. At midnight I asked the Flying Malleys if they would please lower their voices.
“Be right up,” Ed said.
He couldn’t understand what had cooled my ardor. I said querulously—and somewhat incoherently, I can see in retrospect—that I didn’t mind their going to Florida without me, I truly thought it was lovely for them to have a week alone together. I knew they’d said no females on the trip, but I wasn’t a female, I was their wife and mother and not the backseat-driver yakety-yak type they probably had in mind. Even if they’d asked me I wouldn’t have been able to go, but just the same, it would have been nice to be asked.
Ed undressed without comment, got into bed, pulled the covers up, and said, “Well, Ok-unk-ub-gmn-fmph.”
“What was that?” I said, beginning to giggle.
“Smartest thing I ever said,” Ed replied smugly. “Funniest, too, apparently.”
Then he terminated our conversation by falling asleep.
March 31. 1962
5:30 a.m. (groan)
“Ted just checked the weather,” Ed said, waking me up. “We’re going to have rain part of the way but it’s still—“ he mumbled something unintelligible.
“It’s still what?” I asked, trying to raise my head from the pillow.
“VFR,” he repeated.
“Oh, shut up!” I said. Ed chuckled.
“I’m going to start talking nothing but Spanish and see how you like it.”
“O lay,” he said, coming over to the bed to kiss me goodbye.
“I expected to see you wearing some sort of gung-ho flying suit.”
“It hasn’t come yet. Mine has three stripes on the sleeve, Ted’s has six.”
“Be careful. Remember to use your turn signals. Don’t pass on the right. Keep out of the breakdown lane.”
Ed headed for the door.
“VFR!” I called, waving jauntily.
“ILS!” he replied. And off they flew into the wide overcast yonder.
Ed called from Norfolk, Virginia. Because of headwinds, he explained, they’d landed short of their goal. The next day they were still weathered in at Norfolk. Ed was bored and lonely and wishing he hadn’t left me behind. Poor Edward, I said to myself insincerely.“If you were down here—“ he began.
“You miss me!”
And he’s been gone barely twenty-four hours. O happy day!
April 4, 1962
Ed called from Fort Lauderdale and launched into my favorite subject, Missing Wives:
“Separate vacations are for the birds. I look across the terrace and expect to see you sitting there in your little straw hat, writing in your diary. The nights are the worst. That bed is awfully big and cold.”
“This one is bigger and colder,” I assured him.
Before he left for Norwood Airport, Ed told me he was going to be tested on flying cross-country. When he got home, I asked him how he’d done.
“Terrible. I was supposed to go west to Southbridge, so I figure out the course and say to Bruce, `Two hundred and eighty-two degrees, right?’ He just grunts, and off I head in the wrong direction, one hundred eighty-two degrees. After twenty minutes Bruce gives me a poke and says, `What’s that over there?’ I take a look and say, ‘Must be a lake.’ He said it was the Atlantic Ocean. He let me fly all the way to Fall River, the bastard. I told him he reminded me of the chap who kept letting his son fall on his head and then warned him, `Don’t trust nobody.’”
I must have looked pained because Ed said, “Still planning to go up with me this summer?”
“I can hardly wait. How about inviting that nice Bruce to come along.”
August 9, 1962
Ted celebrated his 20th birthday in a novel way yesterday. I was in the greenhouse watering plants when I heard one of the workmen (we’re having the back porch rebuilt) say to Mother,
“Lady, do you know someone who might be in an airplane circling the house?”
I ran outside, and sure enough, there was Ted, all by himself in his flying machine, smiling and waving. He had been circling for five minutes, trying to get our attention. I tore back into the house and got Vonnie out from under the hair dryer. Then the two of us stood on the picnic table, cheering and waving back.
The next day my pride suffered a small setback when Ted told me one of the neighbors had reported him for flying so low. He didn’t know—or so he said—that he wasn’t supposed to fly below five hundred feet in residential areas. However, Ray Remick claims there isn’t a first-class pilot alive who hasn’t buzzed his house at some time in his career.
“The fellows that follow the rules to the letter are the ones who panic when something unusual comes up. The guys like Ted, who have a touch of daring in their natures, keep cool and use their heads in an emergency.”
We were vacationing at the Vineyard when Ed asked if I’d like to go flying with him for an hour. It was a question I’d been nervously anticipating ever since he passed his flight test. He was a “private pilot” now, qualified to carry passengers.
“Why not?” I said. I could think of a dozen reasons why not, none of them marriage buttressing.
My confidence in my husband’s new hobby, already flimsy, disintegrated completely when he got lost on the way to the airport. “Do we turn here?” he muttered at the Lobster Hatchery sign. “No, I guess it’s the next right.” The next right was a dead end. Captain Malley cussed as he turned the car around and said he couldn’t understand why he always had so much trouble finding this airport. I didn’t say a word, but I was thinking in a Jack Bennyish accent: “If he can’t find it from the ground . . .”
We went back to the Lobster Hatchery sign and turned left—to another dead end at the Lobster Hatchery.
“Good for you, I knew you could do it!” I said when Great White Eagle, as he now calls himself, finally located the airport.
Oak Bluffs Airport looked like a reclaimed cow pasture with no runways at all as far as I could see. Ed checked the Tri-Pacer’s propeller, gas tank, and other essentials; then we climbed in and fastened our seat belts. As he taxied down to the end of the pasture, I said, “That looks easy, I could do that.” All at once his hands and feet were pulling levers and pushing pedals and we were roaring toward a grove of trees at ninety miles an hour and I changed my mind.
We flew to Nantucket, and Great White Eagle decided to land, “just for practice.” A voice on the radio told him which runway to use, and he started his approach.
“First time in my life I’ve ever made a right-hand approach,” he remarked. I said I wished he wouldn’t tell me these things.
“Nothing to it,” he said. We landed safely and, since it seemed silly to fly all the way to Nantucket without doing something, I went to the Ladies Room. Ten minutes later we were ready to take off again.
“Five zero zulu,” Ed radioed the tower as he taxied toward the runways. “Do I make a left turn here?”
“I’m not too proud to ask.” Ed said. “Gave everybody heart attacks last week when I turned the wrong way.”
After we leveled off, he let me fly the plane for a few minutes. Let me? He was tuning the radio in front of my knees. Someone had to fly the bloody thing. I had a tendency to climb. Ed kept telling me to bring the nose down, but my stomach didn’t want to bring the nose down. My stomach had a passion for altitude.
As we neared the coastline, Ed descended to a thousand feet and circled Oak Bluffs Harbor. Below us, the Vineyard Queen chugged toward the dock, a toy-sized boat trailing a miniature wake. Matchstick figures milled about on the deck, waving to their matchstick friends onshore. I preened my feathers and thought, “Poor earthlings! What a slow way to travel! How confined! How dull!”
Ed found his way back to the airport with no need to stop and ask directions and we coasted gracefully to earth. Thus ended, uneventfully, my flight as Great White Eagle’s first passenger.
“Why is it that sometimes you file a flight plan and sometimes you don’t?” I asked Ed as we climbed into the Tri-Pacer and fastened our seatbelts. Flying up to Waterville to see Ted play football was easier than driving, I had to admit, but I was still far from relaxed about Ed’s hobby.“It depends on how far we’re going, usually. If we’re just on a sightseeing tour I don’t bother, but when we have a specific destination and intend to stick to a definite course, I file a flight plan. That way, if anything goes wrong, they’ll know where we are.”
“And who we were,” I said gloomily.
We were no sooner aloft than I was sure I smelled something burning. Ed laughed and told me not to worry, it was just the engine heating up.
“The last time I smelled something like that, our boat was on fire.”
“It’ll go away in a few minutes.” A few gray hairs later, it did.
I found myself becoming interested in this flying racket. I asked Ed dozens of questions and I studied the chart, and once I even helped him. We were nearing Lebanon, he thought, but so far he hadn’t been able to correlate anything on the terrain below us with our probable position on the chart.
“How about that lake down on our right, the one that’s shaped like a boot? Doesn’t that look like this lake on the chart?”
“Could be. It’s hard to tell, though. Everything looks like everything else up here.”
“Yes, but look at that other little lake right near it, that arrow-shaped one. See, honey? This one on the chart looks like an arrow, too.”
“You’re right,” he said. “That’s exactly the way you’re supposed to figure out where you are. You try to make the puzzle on the chart match the puzzle on the ground.”
As we flew over Concord, Ed asked the man on the radio how the weather was at Montpelier.
“Only a thousand feet—I don’t see how we could be that low.”
“He said `one zero thousand,’” I said. “Wouldn’t that mean ten thousand, maybe?”
Ed looked at me, then thumped me on the back. “That’s just what he means. They always say `one zero thousand’ instead of `ten thousand’. Good for you!”
I could see I was going to enjoy Ed’s flying hobby more than boating. On the boat my loving spouse was more apt to yell at me than tell me how bright I was. Perhaps the salt water had a corrosive effect on my brain.
On the way back to Norwood, Ed gave me more pointers on the art of flying. I still get butterflies when he lets me take the controls, but I'm beginning to think a few lessons someday might be fun.
October 13, 1962
We slept on the boat last night. Ed got up at 7:30, stuck his nose out, and said, “Brrr, it’s freezing! Let’s go home.”
“What do you want to go home for? We just got here.”
“Great day for flying,” he said.
We argued (“I want to go home,” “I want to stay here”), but in the end I gave in, as I always do once a year on Ed’s birthday. We began the depressing chore of emptying bureaus and lockers. Ed said we’d be back, but I knew better. Goodbye, dear boat. Sob.
But there would be other summers, and fall wasn’t a bad season, what with Ted’s football games at Colby and hot dogs and foliage. We stopped at the house to stow our boating gear and drove to the airport.