Wednesday, February 4, 2009

FIVE ZERO BRAVO

Thump-thump, Thump-thump, Thump-thump –- as a child my biggest thrill was the sound of the last thump as Knox’s spunky tail-dragger divorced us from the ground. Every Saturday it was the two of us at Northern Field for what would become a day of my high adventure.

T-Town had a little airport with grassy cracks across the runway. It seemed like a mighty place to me back then, the blinding concrete expanse. Daddy would wear aviator’s sunglasses and a ball-cap with job logo. He worked construction during the week. On the weekends, however, he became a hot-shot barnstormer and I was his co-pilot.

We made every air show and fly-in within a 500-mile radius. Into the firmament we rocketed abreast like a pair of aces. I imagined us over the Pacific in some old TechniColor movie. To me, Daddy was a fearless hero – a kind of William Holden or John Wayne.

I did not realize at the time that my dauntless father had become somewhat of a local aviation celebrity. On Saturdays engineers would flutter around our hangar like moths at a porch light. They were intrigued by this man with whom during the week they shared nothing, but on weekends only the bravest of them would dare to emulate. There was a pilot among them who owned an identical aircraft and struck up a rapport with Knox. This man learned that once they left the ground they had more in common, though I would not go so far as calling them birds of a feather.

This man and my father became weekend wingmen. His camera would record Knox’s aerobatics somewhere high in John Magee Jr.’s sunlit silence. These photographs are my treasure.

Though Daddy owned a few of these feisty Swifts, the one he called “FIVE ZERO BRAVO” was our favorite. It was a shock of hot-orange accented in black and white with a powerful engine. It had a signature sound and tore through the sky like a falcon with tropical plumage. Wing-under-fuselage, retractable landing gear and a roar to be reckoned with -- it was our little P-40.

At fly-ins, FIVE ZERO BRAVO was always a star. Daddy missed no opportunity to put on a solo air-show. At many of them I was sitting next to him, my hands and feet on the controls, feeling his every move. The thrill of it still makes me tingle. These were Knox's glory days. In this cockpit he made his boyhood dreams a reality. I am privileged to have lived them with him. He told me that nobody else in the family had the guts.

When I was six, he bought me a pony. Into the saddle I went and woe unto the Carrolls' cornfields. In a couple of summer months my trusty charger and I owned all the land. Of course the sky had to follow. Look out lark and swallow. My friend's gallop was soon replaced by the “thump-thump” runway of Northern Field. The sky was something new that needed mastering. Daddy drew me into his fly-boy mania. I caught his fever early and suffer no regrets.

He was born in 1929 to a fiddling farmer with a priggish wife. The fiddler’s passion was Tennessee Walking Horses and parties on the mountain that revolved around his spirited jigs. Knox found himself in the fields behind a plow, loathing the monotonous furrows lain open behind a pair of mules. His father’s sweltering bottom 40 did little to get Knox off the ground.

Daddy was 12 when the Japanese were provoked into Pearl Harbor. You can imagine his vim to charge into the fray with Audie Murphy. He couldn’t wait to get off that farm and make his mark on the battlefield. These mules were boring. There was a war to be won. His country needed him, the posters said. Uncle Sam wanted him. He loved his country and he believed Uncle Sam.

Audie Murphy lied about his age to get into the Army and that was what Knox would do. As he plowed he would sometimes hear the exciting drone of aircraft engines overhead and yell to the mules “whoa.” Then he would stand rigid behind a silent, stoic team like oil-on-canvas and listen. They were statues in the flight-path of what to young Knox was a glorious airplane that he wanted to fly. It was going somewhere exciting and he wanted to go there. How could he get up there? How could he leave this infernal ground? The big silver bird made its way over the Valley in a formidable hum. That moment was the birth of what I call Daddy’s airplane fever.

With the pathogen-like outbreak of WWII, Knox was restless at the plow. He was too young for the war and it frustrated him. A few more summers would see him breaking away from our little Thornton Wilder town. He dropped out of high school and lied about his age to the Army recruiter. Off to Fort Benning’s Jump School he went, figuring that the C-119’s were not far beyond.

His first taste of the combat prop-wash was North Korea in 1950. He was a medic to the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team. Daddy never talked about his war experience but expressed a deep respect for his brothers-in-arms. He liked shiny boots and maintained “if you ain’t Airborne, you ain’t shit.” He had no use for “gravel-agitatin’” folks as he put it. They were not of his ilk.

It was during his Fort Bragg days that Daddy took advantage of military flying lessons. Once he got a taste of the cockpit, there was no stopping him. It was hard to keep him on the ground after that.

During my teens he introduced me to the art of making plastic airplane models. As soon as I hung up the one I was working on, he would rush out and buy a new one for me to glue together. The ceiling was populated with WWII war-birds, fighter jets, heavy bombers and Daddy’s weird favorites like the P-38 Lightning and his beloved “flying boxcar.” Our kitchen ceiling was starting to look like the Air and Space Museum, much to my mother’s dismay. She complained that they collected dust up there. I’ll never forget the first model kit he brought me – a large scale F4U Corsair. Daddy’s and my growing model collection was a small bone of contention with Mother until my departure for the Navy -- just before we ran out of ceiling space.

It was during my teens that I got busy in school and marching in the band. There were times I could not be Daddy’s co-pilot and some other “regular” person would have to do. This was a bad thing because when I was very young and just starting to collect flight hours, I got a mystical message that popped into my head. I had no clue where the message came from but I believed it and carried it secretly in my heart always. It said “as long as you are with him in this cockpit, no harm can come to him.” I tried to be in that bird every time it left the ground.

One night late Knox was flying back from another airport without me. He had a Mr. Parker as co-pilot. The papers reported that the pilot saw no runway lights at Northern Field upon attempting a landing. The wings were torn off of FIVE ZERO BRAVO by treetops and the fuselage came crashing to the ground. Knox bit his tongue and cut his chin, but climbed out of the crash and walked on into town like John Wayne. Mr. Parker fared a little worse.

Daddy got another Swift after that with laughter-silver wings, but nothing ever flew like FIVE ZERO BRAVO to me before or since. That airplane was the thrill ride of my life.

Throughout my childhood I was taken to see the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds at their annual air shows. I looked up in awe with my mouth open for hours. The tight formation roared by. They shook the ground and grazed the treetops. Most of the time we were doing the same.

He had the fever until he died at 76, this man who made me feel a hammerhead stall. He showed me all the things he had dreamed of – the slow-roll at 200 feet, the cocky touch-and-goes, a breathless tail-spin and the force to pull out of it. The force was always with us. We rocketed up, up, up to that poetry they played at the end of each broadcasting day. I always thought about it when we were up there. I would hear the poet’s words in my mind. They were perfect words -- and they were all true.

On my flowers I needed to write something that would represent our filial relationship. The words were not my own. I had been studying English Literature that year and it suddenly came to me: “He has outsoared the shadow of our night.”