The Silent Spinner Runner

A few years ago, I was working in an ancient and massive mill building. The rent was cheap, the land lords were good guys and it was an ideal place to set up a small scale manufacturing business. It was however, pretty rustic. No… rusty. It was pretty rusty. The roof leaked when it rained, the heat was come and go and though I never saw a rat, guessing by our proximity to a river and the shear number of ferrel cats who stalked the tall grass outside the castle walls, you had to assume that they were there. Actually, I quite liked the place. It was built of red brick and granite some time in the early eighteen hundreds and operated as a textile mill. The building is massive and imagining it packed full of clanking looms, twisting machines and chattering French Canadian girls is not hard to do. Though the galleries that saw all this life are now empty, the massive building remains and if you squint just right, you can see the ghosts of that time.

One think I learned early on was that if you were going to be a tenant there, you needed to put all foodstuffs in closable, air tight containers. Though I never saw a rat, there were mice. Plenty of mice. If you left anything tempting out over night, you could bet that by morning, some little fuzzball had helped them selves to your carelessly abandoned snack. I lost a lot of snacks that way. Setting traps would have been farcical. You might as well have decided to kill all the mosquitos in a swamp by standing there swatting them as they landed on you. You’d never EVER get them all, or even enough to make a dent, really. Besides, I’m a live and let live kind of guy and so long as they aren’t in my house, what did I care? I was a manufacturer! Mouse poop on one of my grease smeared, eight ton, hydraulic presses? Heavens! What ever will the neighbors say?

So, there were mice, but that was fine. Heck, they were here first after all. One day as I was working in a back room I thought I heard something. Usually the machinery was loud enough to drown out most other sounds but it was off at the moment and for some reason, so was the radio. I stopped and pricked up my ears. There it was again! I slowly walked around the room listening for the sound and tried to zero in. There! It was over there!

In a box that was half filled with foam packing peanuts was a small greyish-brown cotton ball with a tail. It wasn’t merely a mouse, but a baby mouse. To say that he was small was an understatement. About the size of a prize shooter marble, and with only one eye partially open, he was in a box and couldn’t get out. How he got there, I have no idea. Obviously he was too young to be out and about on his own, having only a little bit of one eye yet open. All I can guess is that his mother had moved him when her nest was threatened. Mice will do that if they think their brood is in peril. No other little brothers and sisters were to be seen, so I assumed that he had been abandoned.

He was too young to make it on his own and though I have set up and cleaned out mouse traps at home many times in the past, I also have a strong sense of empathy that gets the best of me rather often. He hadn’t been doing anything to bother me and now was in dire straights. He’d die if I let him go. What to do?

One empty bucket, some wood shavings and a bottle cap with some milk in it later, I had a pet mouse. Since he was so young, I was sure that he’d die over the next few days and tried not to enjoy him too much. A week went by, both of his eyes opened, he became accustomed to me and I started really having fun watching him in his little bucket-world. A few weeks later, I had picked up an inexpensive glass aquarium, a screen top for it, more shavings and a squeaky wheel for him to run in. That was quickly replaced with one called the “silent spinner”. It had a ball bering to keep if from squeaking like mad and setting my teeth on edge when he used it. I decided that I would call the mouse “Peanut”, not just because if his size but because of where I had found him. Peanut, he became.

Here’s one thing that blew my mind. Here’s this little, wild, white footed mouse that I had found. He had never seen a mouse wheel, but the second I had placed it in his cage, he was off and running. Immediately! How the heck do they know? That’s some seriously strange pre-programing that mice come with. I’m tempted to put a wheel out in a field some place with a camera watching it and see if they turn in into a little mousy-fitness center.

Mice aren’t very long lived. About a year is the norm and being wild, I didn’t expect Peanut to be long for this world. I kept him fed and watered, which wasn’t exactly a difficult chore. He escaped only once. I had carelessly left his cage top open over night and the next day came in to an empty cage. After twenty four hours, he had returned on his own volition to his cozy glass home. I guess he decided that a life of dried dates, rolled oats and clean shavings was better than a life running through the grimy halls of a dilapidated mill searching for dead bugs. I enjoyed his antics and liked watching him zip around his tiny home. A year and a half later, I moved him from my shop to my house. Short Stack was just old enough to notice Peanut and he also liked to watch the runner in his wheel and would ask to be lifted up so he could peer in and visit.

Last month I noticed that Peanut looked like he was slowing down a bit. I didn’t see his little brown and white shape zipping around his cage much any more and he wasn’t eating as much. He did still hang out in his wheel but mostly he just curled up there and watched the world walk by. Last night, I found that he had passed away, curled up in a bed of fluff and shavings. He was three years and three months old. I believe that’s about 286, in human years. Not bad at all for a mouse lost in a box in the back room of an old mill.

We’ll miss you, Peanut. You’re a good little mouse. Spin on, fuzzy runner.

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Sayings

There is a saying that my mother is fond of. Right now, it sums things up nicely for me.

“Busier than a one armed paperhanger”

I will endeavor to get writing again this week. I’m just not sure how. Something later this week though. I swear!

In the mean time, here’s something to snicker at.

-Turkish Prawn

Back to School Shopping

The air is cool and heralds the end of summer. Trees are still green, but it’s the deep, dark color of overly mature leaves. Soon they will be sucked dry of life and thrill leaf-peeping visitors in lethargic motor homes as they back up traffic for miles on the winding New England roads.

I’m waiting for my first meeting that could possibly bring me back to a decision I made a long, long time ago. To teach. I had made up my mind that I wanted to teach back when I was in high school. Other than the fact that my mother was a teacher, I’m not sure why I thought it would be the right place for me to make my career. I had never been a stellar student and to be honest, always viewed school more like prisons with desks rather than a place of learning. I would rather have been doing my own thing than listening to someone else’s.

The funny thing is, my own thing often consisted of researching topics I was interested in, building projects that I thought were fun or drawing and painting. The idea of sitting on the other side of the big desk in the classroom and teaching the INTERESTING stuff appealed to me. When it was time to go off and get my bachelor’s degree, I had picked Art Education as my direction.

I had always been artistic and it was easily one of my favorite classes. The other possibility that tempted me had been history, however since my mother was a history teacher, going into that particular field felt… too obvious, some how. Also, I had watched the piles of homework she brought home and had to grind through on Sunday nights. Art’s workload looked better to me.

Four years later and degree in hand, I got to see the cold hard fact that my advisors had been warning me about for the last four years. The job market was hideous. Unless, that is, you were an art teacher. Then it was HORRIBLY hideous! Although I was able to teach grades Kindergarten through high school seniors, the jobs just didn’t exist in any real numbers. If you think about it, most schools have one, maybe two art teachers. They were hired twenty years ago and now that they had the job down cold and tenure, there was no way that they were leaving any time soon. Schools too, were rather caustic when it came to art programs. Though it is very difficult to actually let an art teacher go once they have established them selves, there was nothing to stop them from closing the position once they retired or moved on. Bottom line, art as a subject wasn’t being expanded then and isn’t now. It wasn’t looking good.

So, I did what all hopeful and unemployed teachers do. I subbed. When I say, “subbed”, what I mean is that I awoke to the phone at six in the morning with a call from the school secretary, telling me that there was a school that needed a punching bag in a half an hour. I would fish out a shirt and tie and bring them with me to hang up in the bathroom in the hope that the the steam from my shower would smooth out some of the wrinkles. In the blur of the early morning, I would arrive at an unfamiliar school, look for an unfamiliar class room and then try as hard as I could to both decipher the missing teacher’s lesson plan for the day and not get taken advantage of by the students. What ever happened, you can’t show fear. Forth graders can smell fear and if they do, well… I’d just prey for a swift and painless death.

To be honest, it wasn’t that bad. Close!… but not that bad. What I did learn was that I loved the little kids! I had always envisioned myself teaching art in a high school somewhere and had done my student teaching at that level. What I discovered was that I should have been a kindergarten teacher. To pass on dealing with sullen teenagers who know it all and are utterly unimpressed, if not out right dismissive of what you are trying to teach them, for the wide eyed enthusiasm of a five year old learning a new song was something I found out after I had assumed I was done with college. Unfortunately, I didn’t peruse the change to being a Kindergarten teacher. It would have meant going back to school again to get another degree and I was still twitching from my last round of finals a few years before. After years of mornings like this, I was getting crispy from the subbing and loosing interest and any hope of being an art teacher. Rather than going back for the second teaching degree, I looked away from education and moved into the world of business. It’s been ten years of that now… and I’m getting crispy again.

A few weeks ago, Action Girl and I took the kids to the local school playground for some fun. The new school year was due to start in just one week and as Short Stack played on the garishly colored plastic jungle gyms; I peeked through a window of the building. Hands cupped on the sides of my head and nose against the glass, I looked in on a first grade classroom ready for action. Desks neatly lined up, black board cleaned, bulletin boards decorated and everything needed for learning, neatly tucked into cubbies an baskets just waiting for little hands to fish them out. In the middle of my chest, I felt the pull again. I wanted to be behind the big desk. I wanted that to be my room!

So, I’ve made a decision. I’ve put my business up for sale and will be stepping away form that. It’s time for a change. As I wait for my appointment with the director of the education department, I’m watching the other young students walk down tiny paths on their way to another class. I remember being them and hope they are enjoying what they study. Life can be a long and strange road and you never know where it will take you. It might be away to unforeseen places. It may be leading you where you never expected to go and wouldn’t pick now if you did. Or, like the path might be for me, circular. Having shown me some amazing vistas and overlooks along the way, it could lead back to the place I started at so long ago. I’ll have to wait and see.

The thing is, to enjoy the walk.

Living Inside the Moat

The sun has come up on our little corner of Maine and as the chilly night air of autumn finds its way back into the dark corners and hollows, it makes room for warmer breezes and evaporating dew. This morning I find myself driving slowly around the neighborhood on a pleasant Saturday morning. The combination of encroaching cool weather and the start of the school year has sent most of the summer visitors back to their primary billing addresses and leaves the roads wonderfully navigable again. Things are quieter now and the folks who I see enjoying the fresh, new day tend to be folks whom I know well. I love this season.

At the moment, there are just two of us in the car. My daughter, Lulu Belle sits, wrapped in pink and flowers as she takes her early morning nap. The only visible movement being the miniscule bobbing of the pacifier as she does her best to suck the beejeebee’s out of it. Action Girl has left for work and Short Stack is no doubt still dreaming about locomotives, little white bunnies with scooters and possibly a dump truck or two at his Grandparent’s house. That is, for my folk’s sake, I hope he’s dreaming. A night with a two year old is always a crapshoot.

Friday nights for him are routinely spent at their house. It gives him something to look forward to during the week and to be honest, it give us something to look forward to as well. We love our son, but getting to deal with just one kid, for one day a week is a real treat. We’re all very lucky to have this opportunity, parents, grandparents and kiddos all.

I had driven to my parent’s house shortly after Action Girl had gone to work for the day but upon finding their house dark and locked, I decided that we should go for a drive and try to actually enjoy the place where we live. It’s really beautiful here but between kids, work and the pile of construction materials I like to call a “house”, I rarely get to go out and see this place for my self. Coffee in hand and Lulu Belle in tow, we headed out to see what there was to see. It would be a circular drive. They always are.

I’m going to tip my hand here and let you in on something that I’ve been keeping to my self. The reason that our locals are so “local” and our community so tight knit is that we really don’t have much of choice. The geography dictates it. This is because where we live is pretty cut off from the surrounding area. Very cut off, actually. By water… All the way around.

Action Girl, Short Stack, Lulu Belle and I live on an island off the coast of Maine and the Atlantic Ocean reminds us of that every day. I take a ferry every day to get to work. The only other option is to swim and that’s really not a lot of fun. If I’m very lucky, it’s Action Girl who’s piloting the ferry and I get to kiss the captain and deliver her some good coffee. It’s a definite life style choice to live where we do and it isn’t a good fit for everyone.

We have a local grocery store that does a very admirable job keeping us all fed. There are a few places where you can go and eat out and some really nice people who make living here a very enjoyable experience. There are however, no secrets out here and you have to be all right with that. If you have a skeleton in your closet, you can bet that everyone has talked with it and found out your deep dark secrets. If that bothers you, then this place isn’t for you.

It cuts both ways though. We have barely purchased any clothes for our young kids since they keep appearing by the bag on our front porch. During a particularly nasty storm last year that had us with out power, water or heat for several days, we lived with neighbors who were only too happy to share their home and wood stove. We lock our door when we go out for the day, but it’s really a formality since most folks know where the key is kept. I really like it here.

As our drive progressed, I took the rare opportunity to take some pictures of the things that I love about this place, both beautiful and foolish. Here are the products of my drive.


The apples are dropping now and the island geese are very happy about that. I don’t actually know if these are anyone’s geese in particular. They hang out on this end of the island and cruse the shallows down at the beach. You can find them year round either looking for handouts, hissing at random kids or more often, both.


The cottages and year round houses here tend to date from the early 1900’s. This neat little row, over shadowed by ancient oak trees looks down to the water. The 1950’s era lawn chairs are probably the real deal. It’s such a pain to get stuff out to the island so folks tend to hang on to things longer and take better care of them.


One of the last, old street signs. Its blue enameled face shows the creativity that went into naming the roads.


The view across the swamp of the old gun battery. During the Second World War, German u-boats were known to prowl these waters. The remains of military installations dot the islands of Maine. Ours in no exception.


The view from “back shore” is one of open ocean and other islands. Some are empty, some have towns of their own and others are owned completely by the rich and xenophobic. We can all see each other from our own little rocks in the water, but don’t visit much.


An excellent example of why I like it here so much. An islander’s car wound up in this little swamp at one point and had to be towed out. The road crew out here thought that the event deserved a marker. If you come to visit, remember; no parking in the middle of the swamp!


And back we come to our main street. A typical off season Saturday morning with empty roads and quiet lawns. When it’s time for the ferry to make its visit at our dock there will be a brief flurry of activity but once its gone, all will be quiet again.

So, that was our drive on a nice Saturday morning. Lulu Belle had slept through most of it and by the time I had come back around to my starting point, my folks and visiting son were up and enjoying the day. It’s not often that I get to take stock of my home. We spend so much time immersed in the work of life that we forget to pop our heads up from time to time and actually look around. It was a good morning for that. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a pile of lumber that needs to be cut, placed and nailed into the approximate shape of an addition on Lulu Belle’s room. I glad for the mornings respite.

Cool Down.

Fall in Maine does not approach calmly or with advance notice. On one day, it’s summer. The leaves are green, the air is warm, the flowers in bloom and the tourists cover the roads like lost frogs oblivious to the traffic bering down on them. Local drivers like to award point values.

This morning fall arrived. It is not an arguable point. The temperature out side, as well as in, is chilly, and the sad fact that the heat will need switching on after a long summer break is inescapable. If any doubt remained to the change of seasons, then the arrival of the cats last night, sleeping on our bed, removed any further argument. It’s time to button up and get ready for the cold.

The trick with Fall in the upper New England states (Here, I’m talking about Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont) is that there is no good way to dress for a day like today. When I got up, it was feeling quite raw. Socks and a flannel shirt was picked out for my own attire while miniature sweaters with a variety of entertaining themes were put on the kids. That, and the comfort of corduroy pants for Short Stack. It was that cold.

To quote my son, today was quickly turing into, “A fine, bright day”. Every day is a “fine, bright day” for him now. It’s a quote from one of his favorite Miffy episodes and he tells it to us often. Pretty much, if it’s not actually raining, he decrees it a “fine, bright day.”

Today however, he was correct. Bright, fine and nippy. After my first two cups of coffee were gone and the grisly remains of a shared english muffin sat next to me on my plate, we headed out on to our porch. The mid morning sun flooded over the various toys and strollers and Short Stack amused him self with some plastic trucks while Lulu Belle reclined in her bouncy seat and soaked up some vitamin D. I worked on cup number three. Within about ten minutes, I was shedding my flannel and stripping objecting children of their woolens. By the time it I had to get them to the baby sitter’s I was in shorts and sandals. Mother Nature in New England might not throw earthquakes, fire storms, or tornados at us too often, but she does try to confuse us to death.

The part that amazes me the most is our neighbor. She left for the season just yesterday and her timing this year is verging on the clairvoyant. She is a summer resident of our little corner of costal Maine and calls Florida her home most of the year. She’s single, in her seventies and appears in portrait in most dictionaries next to the definition of “Fire Cracker”. We love to see her arrive each summer and bring her boundless personality with her along with the official mark of “High Summer”. She adds a lot of life the place and lets nothing stop her, with one exception; the cold.

“Cold” is a relative term, really. I like to think I’m pretty tough when it comes to winter. Born and raised in New Hampshire, I’ve seen snow and freezing temperatures and they don’t scare me. I am however, a big wimp compared to a good friend of mine who is a native of North Dakota. If I’ve got maple syrup in my veins, then she’s got molasses. I may not gripe about the snow, but she goes out in it barefoot to get the mail from the end of the drive. Routinely. That, is tough.

If I’ve got maple syrup for blood and my friend has molasses, then our hot shot, summer neighbor has tap water. Action Girl and I have seen her in a full length down coat in June and come the first whisper of the possibility of a rumor of cold weather moving for the season, she locks up the house and returns to the stifling heat of central Florida. She probably doesn’t even switch on the AC when she gets there.

The amazing part for me is that she has been gone now for exactly 24 hours and fall has moved in like it’s been waiting for he flight to leave. From now on, the windows will be mostly closed around our house and I’ll start panicking about the outside jobs that I’ve been foolishly putting off all summer. I’ll test the generator out this weekend, just to make sure the gas is still good lest we discover it otherwise come a power outage in mid winter. I’m not going through THAT again!

There are some real good things to look forward to as well though and Fall is truly my favorite season. The leaves blaze up with the colors of a thousand sunsets. The tourist, bedecked in their fanny packs and out sized cameras start to thin out and the black fly and mosquito finally meet a deterrent mightier than Deep Woods Off. Frost! I’ll get to go to the range more often and do some shooting and with some luck, go turkey hunting with a friend once the leaves drop. It’s all worth the chill, so far as I’m concerned. In just a few weeks, I’ll be able to put on one set of clothes and leave them on for the whole day without broiling come noon or freezing once the sun goes down. Okay, the freezing part will probably happen, regardless. It’s a long, cold winter here, but I’m not complaining. It aint North Dakota!

A Sailor’s Rest House

The view out my early morning window was one of beautiful timelessness. The small village square two stories below me was quiet except for the sound of a distant highway and the cooing of pigeons. The rough cobblestone streets below undulated with the effort of hundreds of winters and the romanesque Catholic church opposite our building was undisturbed except for the elderly woman who appeared from a side street some time around six AM and disappeared behind it’s massive oak doors. Perhaps she did this every morning. The old brick sidewalks were silent and empty and the fresh, low rays of the sun briefly lit up corners that would likely be in shadow for the rest of the day. It was the epitome of Europe and expressed to me perfectly why I loved it so much.

Except I wasn’t in Europe. Just three weeks before, I could not have imagined that such a place existed so close to home.

“Absolutely not. There is no way that I’m okay with that. No way at all.”

I’m a pretty laid back guy and can usually be relied on to be agreeable to any hair brained adventure. I don’t put my foot down often but this was one of those rare times. Action Girl looked back at me with a, “That’s very sweet, but you worry too much” look on her face and told me that it was probably fine and that I was blowing things way out of proportion.

What she had proposed was spending the night in Boston. This was hardly something to strike terror in my heart. She and I had been loads of times, either together or on our own. We love Boston. What worried me deeply was where she was intending to stay… Alone.

As in, “With out me”.

She had been working as a longshoreman for a local ferry company for quite a few years now and had of late, bent her will to studying for her Captain’s license. She had worked her way up to Mate and now wanted to have the helm to her self. I was all for this and did my best to assist with studying and flash card quizzes over the dinner table. She had her sea time requirement fulfilled and had been studying her guts out with riveting tomes such as “Chapman Piloting & Seamanship” and other text books so dry that you needed to dump your water glass on them before attempting to read.

Now it was time to go take the test. That took place at the U.S. Coast Guard facility in Boston and the test started early in the morning, necessitating an over night stay. She told me about the discovery of a great, cheap place she could crash at, right down the street from the exam facility! She was intending to spend the night at place especially set aside for sailors and sailors only, right down on the waterfront. All I could picture was the flop house where Ishmael first encounters Queequeg, the tattooed behemoth when they had to share a bed. Action Girl is tough and all but as a concerned party for her well being, I had problems with this. I needed to know more about this house full of sailors, down by the wharfs before I was going to even entertain the possibility of her staying there alone. I’d find the money somewhere for a room at a real hotel.

As I dug for more information about this place, I started to feel a little better about it. The sailor’s home had apparently just had a major refitting in the last year. The rooms were private and the facility actually had a religious component that it was built on. The place is called the Mariner’s House and was established in the 1800’s as an alternative abode for sailors on leave to the whore houses and taverns . There are non-denominational religious services in the chapel, breakfast served on the premises, no drinking or smoking allowed in the building and absolutely no one other than proven sailors, their spouses or children allowed inside. No exceptions. I felt a lot better knowing this and relented in my opposition. Action Girl was kind enough to let me think that I had a say in this decision in the first place.

I was still a bit uneasy when she left but a phone call from her once she arrived put the last of my fears to rest. She took the test the next day, passed and it was official, I was married to a sea captain.

When she came back home, elated with her new hard won rank, she had glowing things to say about this place. We needed to plan a trip soon. A few weeks later, she returned with her hesitant husband and proceeded to check us in. It was actually quite rigorous. She needed to have proof that she was in fact, a sailor and then we needed to provide a copy of our marriage certificate to prove that she didn’t just pick me up from the Gigolo’s Home for Excessively Handsome Men.

Ok, that wouldn’t be hard to prove.

Once inside I was impressed with the simple antiquity of the place. The building dates from the early 1800’s and the architecture shows it. Huge, double hung windows open onto a European style village square where cars are few in the early day and the Italian language burbles up from the streets below as morning news is shared among locals. The high ceilings inside make the otherwise smallish rooms feel airy and the furniture, though simple, was new and comfortable. It was wonderful in every way. We were nestled in the heart of the North End. That night we had our pick of the fantastic restaurants down the street and finished off the night with cannoli from Modern (service with an attitude) Pastry. It was the perfect way to enjoy this corner of Boston.

We have since spent many more nights at the Mariner’s House, both as a couple and with our kids. Short Stack takes to city dwelling well and helps me make dessert runs to the pastry shop (I find that the service improves markedly with a well behaved two year old in tow). We only went once this summer and are hoping to make a trip again soon. We’ll leave the hoards of leaf peepers driving north and clogging the secondary roads while we pretend to be city folk for a weekend and do our best to blend in. For us, the Mariner’s House is the only place to stay. We wouldn’t dream of going elsewhere. We’ll see if our usual room is available, go out for a much appreciated Italian dinner and after our ricotta fix is taken care of, head back to that old sailor’s rest. Queequeg won’t be joining us I hope. It’s not really his type of place.

Flight of a Lifetime, Part II

When the time got close, we needed to help get the plane ready for take off. Both aircraft have four massive radial engines. The radial is a fantastic design. Tough, easy to work on, very powerful and air-cooled. The only problem with them is that if you shut them down and let them sit, all the oil collects in the lower cylinders. To fix this, you have to “turn them through”. That means is that you rotate the propeller by hand to get the oil up into the top cylinders. It took a group of about ten of us ten minutes on each engine. By the time we had finished, all of us were sweaty and my hands hurt. For the record, those blades might be massive but, boy, are they ever sharp and they only spin with a good deal of effort. It was like pushing a piece of sheet metal, edge on, through mud.

When it was done, it we headed for the door. Doors, actually. There are two access hatches on a B-17. One is the smallish door on the right hand side, aft of the wing. That’s where everyone was heading except me. There is another, far smaller hatch, three quarters of the way under the nose on the left side. When the door opens, you are at eye level, looking directly into the navigator’s station. The opening is only about twenty inches square and there is no ladder. To get in you have two options. First is to reach through, and pull your self through as your legs bicycle foolishly in the air. The other option is the cool one. It’s what the boys who flew this plane over seventy years ago did. You reach up, palms toward you, and grab the top lip. Then, like an overenthusiastic chin up, legs are pulled up, shot through the hole and you push off with everything you’ve got, hopefully, flinging all parts of your body after them. There was no one at the hatch and I was sure that if I asked, the answer would not be the one I wanted. A quick glance around, a grab and… Heave! In I went, just like on the newsreels and, off came my hat. I looked through the hatch from inside the bomber at my hat as it lay on the tarmac. To go back out and get it would both kill the “I’m so cool!” sensation that was coursing through my veins and open me up to being in trouble with the ground crew. Crap. Just then, a face appeared through the hole covered with a big toothy smile. It was one of the ground crew. I smiled back sheepishly. With one hand, he scooped up my hat and handed it to me through the small opening.

“Ever see ‘Twelve O’clock High”? He asked, still grinning.
“Um.. Thanks. Yah, a few times. I own a copy, actually.” I replied as I retrieved the hat.
“Heh, me too. Have a great flight!” And with that, he reached in, grabbed the hatch and swung it closed. I scrambled back to the radio room for takeoff, happier than ever.

FAA regulations dictate that all passengers must be belted in for take off and landing. The B-17 was not built for regulations like that and accommodations had to be made to fit the times. The floor of the radio room is wooden and along the sides, against the fuselage, they had bolted seatbelts right to the floor. You simply sit down with your legs out straight and buckled in. The sitting portion of the flight would be short anyway.

As I sat down on my bit of plywood, I looked around at the others who had paid for this privilege. I knew that it would be a few minutes before takeoff and I was curious what drove the other guys here to plunk down enough cash for a flight to Europe, just for an opportunity to fly in a plane that used to drop bombs on the same. To my left sat an older man. He looked like he was in his seventies and unlike the rest of us who were casting our gazes around the interior of the plane; he looked more like he was meditating. I decided to ask.

“I used to fly in these during the war. I was a waist gunner.”

This is always a trick moment for me. I desperately want to know all the details but at the same time, don’t want to be intrusive. I don’t remember asking him any more questions, but I probably did ask a few. He was defiantly there for a personal experience and I quickly left him alone with his ghosts. It seemed like what he wanted, I recall.

Across from me, lashed to the floor sat another man. He looked like he might be in his late fifties or early sixties and was well dressed. He looked like someone who didn’t spend much time sitting in anything other than an executive, leather office chair. I decided to chat with him a bit and found him to be quite affable. I also detected a hint of an accent. After a few minutes, I asked him why he wanted a ride. With out skipping a beat, he told me.

“ I grew up in Germany during the war. I remember as a little boy, running for the air raid shelter with my mother as the planes came over from England. Even then, I thought that these planes looked so beautiful and I always wanted a ride in one. Now, I finally will get my wish.”

Two men who were on opposite ends of the bombing of Europe, together in one of the planes that was used. Amazing.

Before I could pester anyone else, engine one barked and puffed to life. The B-17 was built for fighting, not for comfort and when the engines are running, you can forget about holding a conversation. Little could be seen from our seats as we took off, but once in the air, we could roam all over. I felt like I was living a dream. I poked my head through the open radio room top window and the slipstream hit me like a tidal wave. The force was amazing and I let out a long, “WOOOOOOOOHOOOOOO!” into the prop wash

Eventually, I found my way to the nose and sat in the bombardier’s seat. A huge, bowed window of Plexiglas sat in front of me and as I pressed my forehead against its center, the rest of the aircraft disappeared from my view. All I could see was the rolling hills and open air in front of me. It was an amazing view and it made you feel as though you were alone in the sky.

I crawled back through the plane and visited each station. I stopped and watched the pilot and copilot for a while and stood in the top turret and looked around. With no German fighters present, I decided was safe to keep moving. The radio room was empty for the most part as I passed through on my way to the tail. The openings for the waist guns yawned open on either side of the plane and the wind and sound of the engines made an amazing noise. You had to shout to be heard. In the port waist window, the old gunner stood at his post, just looking out at the rolling countryside. Like the others here, I gave him his space. It was obvious that he had wanted the ride for very different reasons than we did.

The only restricted areas were the tail gun position and the belly turret. The turret on the bottom of the plane is very difficult to get in and out of and you need the help of someone in the aircraft. It’s also very cramped and during wartime was reserved for the smaller crewmembers.

The tail too was roped off. This was due to the fact that you have to step over the yawning opening that the tail wheel mostly fills. Essentially, it’s a hole in the floor that is big enough to fall out of if you aren’t careful. OSHA would have a field day with one of these things.

The ride was just as fantastic as I’d dreamed. As luck would have it, because it was the last ride of the day and the last day of the visit to my area, the half hour flight went on for well over an hour. By the time we landed, they had the strobes and landing lights on.

It took about an hour after we landed and shut her down for my hearing to work correctly again, but I didn’t mind in the least. It was grueling and deadly work to ride those planes into war and I feel like I can imagine what it was like a little better now. We didn’t need oxygen or flack suits. No one was shooting at us and no live bombs were on board, but the mixture of excitement and fear must have made a toxic cocktail for those young men who did it every day. I’m feel honored that I had the chance to do what I did and marvel at what others went through in the name of duty.

Epilogue:

The Nine-O-Nine is still flying today, as is the B-24 that I opted not to fly on. They belong to a group called the Collings Foundation and if they come to your area, they are worth the visit. I don’t know if they still offer rides, lawsuits what they are these days, but I’d ask if you care to. It’s a almost vanished part of our world and some day soon, they will no doubt be put on permanent display in some worthy museum, but never fly again. Grab the chance while you can.

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