Saturday, June 2, 2012

Junior Birdman

My daddy 2010 
Up in the air junior birdman
Up in the air upside down
Up in the air junior birdman
Keep your noses off the ground

My father, William Otis Johnston, Jr., worked as an Aeronautical & Aerospace Engineer when I was growing up.  He has always loved everything about planes.  He learned how to fly after he got out of the Army in 1942 when he was 18.  After he married my mother he flew her to the Indianapolis 500 twice.  She threw up.  He also flew with my 2 oldest siblings, Bill & Kristie when they were small.  My mother threw up again.    My brother, Frank & I, never had the thrill of riding with my dad, something I now regret. He quit flying in 1953 because my mom never got acclimated to the cabin pressure and he didn't want to do it without her.  He loved her so much he gave up the one thing he wanted to be with her.  I'm not sure how I feel about that.  Most of the gifts my dad received through the years were airplane related.  Pins, models, pictures, calendars even ties and tie-clips.  He would look up each time a plane would fly overheard and identify it within seconds.  He was amazing.  I was in awe of him growing up.  He could do anything.  A real giant to me.  Well, until I became a teenager, then he became my personal ATM.  As I have aged and especially after my parents moved here, I have begun to look back with different eyes.  I see the man that he was not only as I see him now.  A man who knew what it meant to sacrifice his own needs for the greater good of the family.  I have to remind myself that that is the real man not the one who drives me nuts today.

Bill started his career at Curtis-Wright in Dayton, Ohio while he was a student at the University of Cincinnati.  He began school at the University of Tennessee, but transferred to UC to take advantage of their engineering program that allowed for Co-op, a work study program.  Every other semester he would work in his field balanced with school in between.  In his last year of school, he received an offer to work at Curtis-Wright full time and he decided to drop out of school to work.  One of his many regrets in life, dropping out with 1 semester left before graduation.  (Several years ago I sent an e-mail to the Dean of the Engineering school to inquire about my father obtaining his degree using his work experience for his last credits.  I've never received an answer.)

From Curtis-Wright he went to North American (now Rockwell) in Columbus.  Through the next several decades he worked in Georgia, Maryland and Connecticut.  And although he never flew after 1953, his love of planes and anything aeronautical never waned.  So it was not too surprising when he arranged to go on an airplane ride in the Spring of 2010.  Not just any airplane ride, though, it was a ride on a vintage Stearman bi-plane, you know the kind you see in old movies with the open cockpits?  I haven't seen my father that excited before about anything, or since.  He was downright giddy and folks, my dad doesn't do giddy!  Steve took him up to Canton and my son, Alex, went with them.

They arrived on a clear Saturday morning in May.  Perfect flying conditions.  The hangar had Big Band music playng and the pilot handed my dad a headset so that they could communicate during the flight.  Because he is so unsteady he needed help getting into the Stearman, but once he was in he was in his element and ready to go.  Back at the house, my daughter, Taylor and I took my mother outside to the front driveway to sit.  The pilot flew the plane overhead and wagged the wings.  It was so thrilling!  When his hour flight was over and my dad was back on terra firma, he turned to my son and said, "You're next!"  Alex bounded over to the plane and took the ride of his life.  Steve followed.  When my dad came home he had a spring in his step that wasn't there earlier.  He was still floating in the clouds a month later when he arranged for Taylor and I to go up together on Father's Day.  We flew over Downtown Atlanta, Stone Mountain and Doraville.  It was great.

My dad has since been diagnosed with a strain of leukemia and continues to be quite shaky.  His days of flying are most definitely over, but for that one brief shining moment 2 years ago, he flew high and felt no pain.  What I take from this story is that we need to see people as they were in their prime.  That is who they were.  That is who they still are.  Just hidden beneath years of disappointment, sacrifice and the preconceived notions of others.  No matter where you've been or how little you think you are, everyone has a story to tell.  I never believed that until I started writing.

No comments: