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Memory Tripping Biplane Brings Back First Plane Ride

Today I saw a yellow-winged, blue-bodied, open cockpit biplane. It was flying lazily in a cloudless blue sky.

So what, you say, that’s not an unusual sight. It may not be out of the ordinary to the average person. But what sharp visual memories it brings to my mind. When I was about 7 years old, my father and I were washing the family’s maroon, 1937 Hudson Terraplane in the backyard. All was right in my small world.

As usual, a big family Sunday dinner was in the offing. After dinner we would all gather around the big Philco console radio. I would take my favorite spot, lying on the floor close to the speaker. We would listen to Fred and Gracie Allen, Red Skelton, Fibber McGee and Molly, Phil Harris and Alice Faye, Dennis Day, and of course Bob Hope. And if I was allowed to stay up late, I would get to hear Lux Radio Theater. I’m sure I left out somebody’s favorite program, but when you’re 7 years old, you only remember the ones that made you laugh.

On that day, my dad turned to me and said, “Tell your mother we’re going to be gone for a while and we’ll take a short drive.” I knew mom wouldn’t mind us leaving. She would be busy frying chicken. It was Sunday, after all.

After delivering his message to mom, we jumped in the now shiny Hudson and headed east toward the Valley. We often drove to the small local airport to watch the U.S. Army Air Force National Guard biplanes. They could usually be found performing touch and go landings. Of course, they were yellow-winged, blue-bodied open cockpit biplanes.

They were also adorned with a fascinating insignia - a dagger plunged through the center of the Ace of Spades. There were even visible drops of blood on its point. This was heady stuff to a 7-year-old boy.

After watching for a while we drove down the road toward the civilian area, past all those official looking signs that said, “No Trespassing, U.S. Government Property.” We soon stopped and got out of the Hudson. Dad said, “Come along Jimmy, I want you to meet someone.”

We strolled toward an open hangar where he introduced me to a rather tall man, wearing a brown leather jacket. On his head was a leather helmet with goggles pulled up over the front. The helmet itself was pulled up so it sat at a rather jaunty angle on his head. His attire was topped off with a white silk scarf around his neck.

Dad said, “Jimmy, meet Mr. Nick Mamer!” He smiled broadly as he shook my hand. After a few pleasantries, Mr. Mamer turned to me and said, “Are you ready to go?” I failed to understand his meaning until dad said, “Come on, son, we’re going for a plane ride.” With dad’s hand in mine, we walked toward a yellow-winged, blue-bodied, open cockpit biplane. Dad and I got in the front cockpit and my newfound friend settled in the rear cockpit. I was so thrilled. I never had time to feel any fear. After all, I was with the bravest, strongest man in the world, my dad.

The wind whistled all around us as this beautiful plane lifted effortlessly into the sky. After only a few moments, I looked back and saw Mr. Mamer smiling. Seemed like he was always smiling. The goggles covered his eyes and the ends of his white silk scarf were blowing in the breeze. I can feel and see it all like it was yesterday.

After about a 45 minute flight around the surrounding area, we started our descent. Up to this time I had no qualms. That is, until I looked over the side of the cockpit and saw the river that flowed alongside the runway. All I said was, “Don’t land in the river.” Mr. Mamer smiled and said something I couldn’t understand as the wind was roaring in my ears.

After a smooth landing and a brief goodbye, dad and I headed home. All dad said, as we neared home was, “Don’t tell your mother, she wouldn’t understand.” My lips were forever sealed.

Since that day many years ago, I have flown thousands of miles, in all types of planes, both prop and jet. None of these later flights would ever compare to that first flight in the yellow and blue open cockpit biplane. After all, today’s pilots don’t wear leather jackets or leather helmets with goggles, cocked at a jaunty angle on their heads; neither do white silk scarves adorn their necks. Most important, on these later flights, my dad was not sitting at my side, looking at me and smiling assuredly.

I sure hope I see another yellow-winged, blue-bodied, open cockpit biplane someday soon. The heartwarming memories it evokes are overwhelming. Maybe I’ll envision Mr. Mamer at the controls.

You see, he was killed in a plane crash, flying the U.S. mail, only a few months after our flight.

I knew he couldn’t have been flying a yellow-winged, blue-bodied, open cockpit biplane. He was too much a part of that type of plane - and too much a part of my boyhood adventure in this craft - to ever have suffered harm at its controls.

MEMO: James A. Nelson writes free-lance articles from his home in Spokane.

James A. Nelson writes free-lance articles from his home in Spokane.