“Dreams and memories live mere moments apart, waiting for life to introduce them.”— Never heard that before. Since I just said it, I will take credit for it.
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Another afternoon of archival research last weekend for that book that may or may not become reality rendered evidence of one such dream that became a memory.
The dream began in the heart of a kid who loved airplanes and spent grade school afternoons daydreaming of flying them. That first dream took flight to become a memory at the old Mount Pleasant airport that was located where the Priefert Manufacturing complex is today. That was the spring afternoon in 1974 when I made my first solo flight piloting an airplane.
The memory I was reunited with last weekend was described in a yellowed newspaper clipping found among countless files filled with my life’s work as a writer and photographer. Some 60 years’ worth, give or take. It was the story of another dream come true at the same airport a few years later: flying in an old open cockpit airplane. The story bore no date but was found in a file of 1984-1985 Center newspaper clips. Titled “How time does fly …” it was about a chance ride in a Stearman PT-17 aircraft, the type in which many military pilots earned their wings in the late 30s and early 40s.
According to the piece, the plane was owned by Jack Hurst of McKinney. It was only a little out of its usual realm of operation when it passed through the East Texas area almost 40 years ago. “Though no spring chicken,” I wrote, “This machine is far from through as it is used regularly for banner towing and instruction at the McKinney airport, and is a regular airshow attendee.”
More like yesterday than half a lifetime ago, I remember climbing into the cockpit that Sunday afternoon when offered a ride. Also like yesterday was the unmistakable aroma of an old airplane, aviation fuel and exhaust fumes blended by the exhilaration of flying in an open cockpit airplane.
The old aircraft began rolling slowly toward the runway as the pilot nudged the controls. Looking up at the wing above me reminded that this bird was built utilizing wood wing framework and the entire airplane’s outer covering was fabric, standard construction for the time.
A glance around the open cockpit where I sat spoke volumes about the plane’s age. Instead of the usual array of instruments and radios I was used to monitoring as a licensed pilot, even back then, everything to fly the airplane included only three basic instruments. An airspeed indicator (how fast you are going) and a tachometer (how fast the motor is going) were joined by a turn and bank indicator. That last one closely resembles a carpenter’s bubble level and is a reference for ensuring the airplane’s controls are coordinated for turns and perhaps most important, that you’re flying right side up and level.
Keeping them company was a U. S. Army Air Corp placard. That dated the airplane if you knew the United States Army Air Corps was the aerial warfare component of the Army until 1941. That’s when it became the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) before the U.S. Air Force eventually became its own branch of the armed services in 1947.
My mind was still processing the thrill this ride was about to be when the old radial engine hanging on the front of the aircraft churned up to full speed. The pilot sitting behind me aimed the nose down the runway, and the World War II primary trainer was quickly airborne. Back in the environment for which it was designed and engineered to perform; she was at home one more time.
Responding without flaw to the slightest command, the aging lady climbed, turned, and leveled out with ease. Watching the pine trees and lakes of East Texas slip under the bright yellow wings, I wondered how many fledgling cadets had filled the same seat where I sat, looking around the same small windscreen and feeling the 100-mile-per-hour slipstream.
But I was up simply for an afternoon joyride. The cadets (the majority of them still teenagers) were engaging in the solemn and serious business of preparing for flying combat missions to defend their country that would soon be fighting a war on two continents.
Reality returned and as with all good things, this moment had to end. I saw the runway below turning to line up with the airplane. I felt the airspeed bleed off as we descended, and I heard tires touching the runway with a chirp. Just like that, the soaring aircraft was transformed from flight back to a piece of static history as 1939 returned to the 1980s.
Walking away from the airplane, I stopped, turned, and looked over my shoulder for one more glance. Dreams and memories are indeed fleeting moments apart until life brings them together.
But a kid’s daydreams coming true are the best.
At any age.
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Aldridge columns are published in these Texas newspapers: The Center Light and Champion, the Mount Pleasant Tribune, the Rosenberg Fort Bend Herald, the Taylor Press, the Alpine Avalanche, and The Fort Stockton Pioneer.
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