I can't believe the brevity of summer and the ghost of town docks past. so soon the days grow short and tomorrow we we all be at Hesky Park in Meredith for the 2nd Annual "Toons for Spoons" sponsored by the Meredtih Altrusa Club with a great deal of help from John Rafuse and Steve Hayden. "Altitude Lou" McNally will be there from Maine to play and sing along with Lou Peroza, Cindy Duchin, Doug Hazard and so many others. I will be MC'ing and it will be a grand time for all. There are so many good singer /songwriter /musicians in this area.
Check out my new blog page on Grit www.grit.com/blogs/blog.aspx?blogid=4294968172
"The Village Troubadour - Notes from a Small New England Town"
Piper Cubs and Atom Bombs
By George Heath Locke
I remember as though it were yesterday.
The cow pasture was coming up at us very fast. We were traveling probably about seventy-five miles an hour; the most this airplane would ever travel, unless it fell from the sky.
If it fell, it would do some damage to the occupants, for, at the time, we were up about five-hundred feet. I was sitting to Mr. Crawford’s right. The throttle was a push/pull lever in the very center of the Piper Cub console. Push it in, the propeller would stop propelling. Pull it out too far, you might stall the bird – you would then propel yourself at a steep angle to the ground. And he turned to me and said - “Take the controls and land it.”
Just like that.
Not even a – “Would you like to….?
Just - “Take the controls and land it.”
Curly red hair a-rose from my skull. A chill snapped through my spine. And I smiled. “This is going to be fun.” – thought I.
Fun? What was I thinking? One mistake and Mr. Crawford and I would be tumbling through cow flap, grass and the tangled wreckage of the most forgiving airplane ever invented.
Of course, that was the truth, for the Piper J-3 “Cub” built between 1937 and 1947 was the Model T of airplanes. Or the Timex. It could take a licking and keep on ticking and was within the price range of many with a low income and a hankering to fly.
This particular bird had a 65 hp air-cooled in line motor and its top speed was eighty-six mile and hour. But that was with a stiff breeze behind you. It had an incredibly short take-off/landing distance and was used during WW2 (known them as the J-4) showing as much endurance in the air as the Willy’s “Jeep” on the ground.
I had just begun the sixth grade in Wilmington Vt., but the colors of autumn had not begun their yearly parade of rolling soft glowing colors in the hills and valley. The days were still a bit warm and the night cool, with evening shades beginning a bit earlier as the month of September progressed.
A week or so before that morning, my mom had been talking with our milkman., Mr. Crawford. You remember those guys. White hats and coats and metal bottle containers that would rattle when they were put to work; carrying glass quart bottles of milk?
That was the time before milk was homogenized and the type of percentage you wished was printed on the label.
Back then, you only had two choices.
You got either skim, or whole milk. My folks always got the whole milk; the kind with a light-tan few inches of cream in the neck. My father always poured a little cream in his after-supper coffee. Then we would shake the bottle to remix it.
It’s been over sixty years and I still shake a milk “container” to this very day.
My mother knew what I liked. They were the same as George Bailey (from the movie classic “It’s a Wonderful Life”).
Jimmy Stewart ( as George Bailey): “Do you know what the three most exciting sounds in the world are? Anchor chains, plane motors and train whistles."
I was partial to plane motors. Every time one would fly over, (which, frankly, was not very often in Southern Vermont) I would trip over myself to find where it was in the sky. And when I got glasses, I was crushed because I knew the Air Force didn’t take four eyed guys.
Mr. Crawford was the only milk man in Wilmington and also the only person in town, I think, who flew his own airplane. My mother mentioned my love for planes and he told her he would be glad to take me up some day if I wanted to.
If I wanted to? I would have leapt through a hoop of fire just to sit in the seat!
And so, a few days later, with a five dollar bill pressed in my hand by my mother (to pay for gas - that was still a lot of money in those days) I climbed into his milk truck and headed up the hill to his farm a few miles outside of town.
On the way we passed Lysle Hill Road. I used to call it “Lilac Hill” because of the white, purple and pink lilacs that exploded on each side of the road in the late May days.
Up that hill lived a man who spotted planes for the Ground Observer Corps. My buddy “Bing” and I would visit him from time to time as he stood out in his backyard next to a small shack stuffed with airplane identification silhouettes tacked to the walls, along with cards, graphs, binoculars, phone numbers and other paraphernalia of plane spotting which, during the Cold War, was important.
No “Russkies” would get past Wilmington Vermont as long as “Hal” was on the job. That wasn’t his real name of course. But he had a real job as a volunteer to spot and identify any aircraft which flew over his home, no matter how high; and then plotting their course and logging the time they were observed.
Of course, most of the time they were “friendly’s”, but Hal would faithfully record and called in any aircraft spotted to the local GOC filter center.
The GOC or Ground Observer Corps began as a civilian wing of the US Army Air Corps during WW2, beginning a month or so after Pearl Harbor (1941) and continuing until about 1943, when it became clear that the tide of war was turning in the direction of us and our allies. Things got a little quiet after that – until about five years later when the Cold War heated up.
There were 73 centers in the early 1950’s and Hal was one of over 800,000 volunteers and his post was one of about 16,000 in the country that acted as a first line of defense against any military aggression.
This was before there was a DEW line or a Pine Tree line of early warning radar systems and way before satellite observation.
As kids, we loved traipsing up the hill and Hal was always courteous and let us watch him at work. This mainly consisted of scanning the skies for any unusual activity or “contrails” (the visible signs of condensation trails given off by aircraft engine exhaust), checking his compass, logging the time and direction and calling the filter centers, and all while chewing tobacco and expertly spitting into a somewhat stained tin-can.
Nothing exciting really ever happened, although by 1952, when the Red Chinese decided to give North Korea a helping hand in that little dust-up in the “Land of the Morning Calm,” the GOC added them to the list of “them” versus “us” and Hal increased his use of “Mail Pouch” tobacco.
I got to the pasture/airfield fairly early, although Mr. Crawford had been awake for several hours ahead of me as he and his daughters milked and fed the cows and cleaned their stalls.
I carefully stepped over the “cow-pies” and helped him open the doors of the big shed where he kept his plane. The Piper Cub weighed a little over 700 pounds so we pushed the plane out with some help from one of his daughters, a pretty red haired girl about my age. I was looking at the yellow airplane, however. I could care less about girls, no matter their hair color.
With me in the cockpit and a little coaching from Mr. Crawford, he turned the prop and the motor sputtered into life. Into his seat he clambered. He made sure I was buckled in and we were off. He had determined the direction of the wind before we began and as we roared down the pasture we scattered Holsteins and Guernsey’s in a black/brown and white blur of cow-hide.
I asked him if he ever hit any of his cows. His brown face crinkled around his eyes and he laughed. “Nope.” He said. “They got used to me.” And I noticed that his herd moved rather casually. I also noticed they seemed to be getting smaller.
Holy poop! We were in the air! It was the most exhilarating thing I had ever felt in my life – even surpassing that French postcard my friend Harry bought to school one day after filching it from his fathers’ trunk in his attic.
Everything seemed so tiny. The town was spread out before me and seen from several hundred feet up. It somehow didn’t look real. But there was my home – and my mother waving from the driveway.
And my school. Wow. I wondered if any of the kids could see me! I waved. From inside the cockpit of an airplane. 400 feet in the air.
There was the old building that housed the fourth and fifth grade! The old Grange hall. Where once, a few year before, I thought the commies had got us.
We had all seen the film; maybe a couple of them in which a make believe “Big One” was dropped on America. By the Russians, of course. The film depicted a brilliant flash first, then the glass being blown out of the window and shards slicing open a couch that, only a few minutes before, had contained a mom and a couple of her kids. I got real scared after watching that movie. I hated to walk in front of large, plate glass windows, although in Wilmington in 1953 there were few windows of that size. I still ran past them when I got to them.
And we ducked under desks. This is not a cliché’. If we saw a bright flash, we had to duck under our desks, and we practiced doing some serious ducking. It was there that I noticed the amazing amount of gum one surface could hold. Upside down.
So we were fed the facts. Russkies=A-bombs. A bright flash first. Glass shattering and – oh yeah – I almost forgot. The horn going off. Now Wilmington didn’t have a siren to warn of an enemy attack. We had a horn on the roof of the town hall that would blast the underwear off anyone within a five mile radius. It was the fire signal, and every home had a sheet of cardboard with a list of the streets and area which would be revealed by the number of “blasts” the horn would make. Two long and one short was by the library – three long was at the High School. But one loud continuous blast was – Armageddon!! They had dropped the big one!
It never occurred to anyone that by the time the bomb was dropped on Wilmington Vermont (pop. 930) we would be nuclear dust. Or, for that matter - why would the Russians decide to drop an atomic bomb on Wilmington Vermont in the first place?
It was a Friday afternoon get-together at the Grange school. Everyone was down in the basement/hall for some sort of award ceremony. There was a slide show underway so the hall was dim with all the blinds pulled. I was in the back. Waiting to get out of there and home for the weekend, when someone pulled one of the venetian blinds quickly for some reason or other.
For one brain-shattering moment, I thought I saw the flash from an A-bomb. My head swam and my stomach tightened into a square-knot. I almost passed out right then and there. I did manage to wet my pants a little until I realized it was only a venetian blind that had been quickly opened and closed.
Now that I think of it, this was the first of the many times in my life that I thought everything had come to an end.
If you grew up in the fifties you assumed atomic disaster was not far away, and thanks to Senator McCarthy, the commies who would drop the bomb were everywhere. I remember sitting in the living-room after school and watching the House Un-American Committee being whipped to frenzy by one man.
And I, to this very day, recall the applause after Joseph Welch told McCarthy during the “Army” hearings …”Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator; you've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"
I didn’t understand it completely – but I had a feeling that someone had stood up to something unpleasant. But, so far, no disaster - and I thought about that as me and Mr. Crawford glided around the skies above Windham County, passing at one point over Haystack Mountain where I saw the reservoir, an epic lake; cold and very deep at the top where the town got its water.
It was such good water that I remember my grandmother, who had grown up in Vermont and then moved to New Hampshire, drank some from a jug my mother had filled before we left Wilmington to visit her. It was warm from the hours in the car, but she didn’t care. She said she wanted to taste real water. Laconia had fluoridated its water a few years before.
Mr. Crawford let me take the controls – watching the altimeter and the horizon. I put it into a small turn to the right, then the left. I have never felt such freedom in my life. And such respect for an internal combustion motor.
Then, much too soon, it was time to bring the Piper Cub down.
The cows slowly parted and I set it down with one bounce and then the throttle was pushed in. We rolled to a stop and I was on the ground again. I left the five dollars in my seat and thanked Mr. Crawford. He left the plane out – saying he might take it up again later in the day.
I never forgot the thrill of flight, nor how calm I felt when he let me take the controls for a few moments. Of course – the plane had side by side controls, so I really don’t think I had all that freedom. Mr. Crawford was watching out for us.
We moved to New Hampshire a year or so later, and I never got a chance to fly again for Mr. Crawford sold his plane to buy a few more head of cattle and a new milking machine. He brought a whole box of old “Flying” magazines over to the house one day. I lugged them up to my room and poured over them for hours.
I may have never “flown” again, but the short time I did gave me a feeling of confidence that I have never lost.
Come Saturday and for a half-a-buck I could walk, unaccompanied, to the Star Theater (Now the Star Building) on Pleasant Street and have a heck of a good afternoon.
A quarter to get in and watch the newsreels, coming attractions, one or two cartoons, a travelogue and a B Movies – plus – a serial, such as “Gene Autry and the Phantom Empire”.
Concerning the last item, you have not lived, my friend, until you have seen a bunch of cowboys dressed in tin-foil hats and clothes and flowing capes galloping out of the ground to raid the local ranches and then disappearing again into the earth to a futuristic city complete with transparent transportation tubes, towers and soaring ramps. It was cool.
With the change after I got in to the movie I could purchase a box of popcorn for a dime and a box of juju babies for a nickel. They pulled my fillings out but I loved them. Except the licorice ones. Yucch!
With the remaining ten cents, I could get an ice-cream cone at a mom and pop grocery store on the way home.
Concord did lack some things; like grass, gently rolling hills, acres of wild-flowers, pasturelands, oceans of blueberry, raspberry and black-berry bushes, tall and monumental granite cliffs and beautiful blue skies.
I just saw a lot of asphalt, concrete, cement, tarpaper and house-lots filled with packed, brown dirt.
But that was ok. Concord in the late forties did have some big trees and occasional parks where I would go with the old man summer afternoons and watch him and his brothers play baseball. There were some backyard lawns – I had one next to where I lived. I played on it and tried not to step in the dog-pooh or more dangerous stuff that folks discarded.
One weekend, I tried to do a cartwheel and did not notice the broken and jagged end of a glass “fire-engine” that once contained those teeny-weeny round candies, like multi-colored sugar bb’s, that was sticking up and all but hidden by the grass.. In less time then it takes to say “holy poop, I just surgically removed part of my right thumb”, I saw rivers of blood and a rather large gash.
I did not cry but went promptly into the house, holding everything together and said, in my cutest little Georgie-porgie voice. “Hey mumma. Do you want to see what I did?” I uncovered my damaged hand and then I started to cry. Well – mum took me right up to the Concord Hospital, which was pretty big even then, and a doctor tended it, (and I spurted blood all over his clean, white shirt which ticked him off. I actually think he sent a cleaning bill to my folks.) He sewed it up. I have the scar to this day.
Concord only had three things that scared the living hell out of me.
Fire stations, manhole covers and Catholic churches. Not necessarily in that order.
I always dreaded walking down one particular street where the fire station was because I was afraid that the doors would suddenly slam open and I would be run over by dozens of siren-screaming, red metal fire trucks. Somehow they would just roar out of the bowels of the engine house and instantly flatten me. I think someone told me a story of one little boy this terrible thing happened to. Like many urban legends, it probably held a tiny amount of truth.
Manhole covers were easy to avoid. As long as I didn’t step on one, I wouldn’t be hurt if, for some ungodly reason, it decided to explode then and there, carrying me with it. I thought this might happen after having been told (again) by some adult (probably the old man) that some one had DIED once while stepping on a manhole cover just as it blew up.
Catholic churches? Well, see, I walked by them occasionally on my way to school. The doors were open sometimes and the inside looked dark. And spooky. And full of hooded chanting figures with flickering candles. And there was a guy stapled to a piece of wood on the wall. I had this vision of dozens of dark cloaked Catholics rushing from the church to grab a little Baptist boy and carry him back inside to do heaven knows what with him.
To say I had an imagination is putting it mildly.
So imagine my surprise one day when my dad said to me. “Hey Joe-dee.”- He and ma occasionally would call me by that name-“We’re going to move to Vermont.” He smiled. My mother didn’t. My little sister Candy went along with it. “Doesn’t that sound like fun? You can have a room of your own up in the attic and you can paint it any color you want.”
I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. But I didn’t have a lot of friends so I guess I could make some new ones. I would get to go to another school. It was a small town. Dad had a better job and would make a little better salary. I thought it might be ok.
We moved in the summer of 1950 or 1951. I’m not positive of the exact year. It seemed like an awful long drive from Concord NH to Wilmington Vermont. But I did get to paint the attic room any color I wanted. I picked a light bluish-green color because it looked like the sea and I pictured myself living in a glass dome under the ocean. The room even had a normal sized outside window that was tipped at a 60 degree angle to follow the lower roof line that I could slide open or closed. Now that was cool.
But the real thrill came after settling down the first day or so. My folks said that, if I wanted, I could go explore the hill behind the house; a big, sprawling, white, 19th century connected architecture farm house.
And the minute I climbed it and turned around to look, I knew I had found my kingdom.
It was precariously steep for about ten meters from the bottom up, then it flattened out a bit, but still rose for an