The fighter pilot and the figure skater were my parents.
I’ve been digging out old family photos from the boxes where I keep them. I do this at least once a year, to remind myself I did indeed have parents at one time.
My mom was a self-taught figure skater. She was gorgeous, and possibly fifty feet tall, since there she is, holding that Braniff airplane. She is striking a classic superhero pose, casually showing off her superhuman strength.
My dad was a fighter pilot, who spent all his spare time trying to get that white scarf exactly right, his cap snugged on at a jaunty angle, and the collar of his jacket turned up. We almost lost the war, because pilots were spending so much time in front of the mirror.
My mom had been living somewhat independently in Los Angeles from her teens until her early twenties being a ‘mother’s helper’. She consistently skipped school to go to the local ice rink. In the 1940’s, streetcars were the transit system of choice in LA. The subsequent demise of the electric railway system was a huge scandal of that era attributed to GM, but is the subject of another story.
Mom was riding one of the streetcars one afternoon on her way to the rink, and was clearly not in school, when she ran into my grandfather. He looked at her sternly, but since I believe he was somewhere he shouldn’t have been, in the company of a strange woman, my mom escaped censure for that day.
She never had any formal lessons, but taught herself to skate well enough to get a job with the Sonja Henie and Dorothy Franey Ice Revues, which is a fancy way of saying ‘shows’.
She had some not-so-flattering stories to tell about Sonja, who is in the picture above; she didn’t tell them to me, so I have to disappoint you fellow scandal hounds. I will not be revealing ancient celebrity gossip.
Regardless of my mother’s academic peccadilloes, and my grandfather’s romantic ones, my mom was hired as a figure skater right out of high school. She had gone to Dallas with the ice show, and had been written up as ‘Hot on Cold’ Diana Stinson, the best solo of the evening, with feet of lightning.
She was lounging at the skaters layover hotel pool one afternoon, when a young man approached her. His pick up line, ‘Did you go to Dallas High?’, had hair all over it even then, but something about the young man captured the ‘shapely’ blonde’s attention, because they were married not long after.
I asked her once if she regretted getting married young, and if so, when she realized it. She told me ‘after about a week’. Good thing she stuck it out, or I wouldn’t be here. I’m the third child.
She was with the Ice Follies at the time, and they were union, possibly an independent union, or a part of SAG. They were on strike when she decided to marry my dad, and she said they wouldn’t hire her back. I don’t know all the details, but apparently the union lost that battle, if skaters couldn’t return.
Or perhaps, like the early days of being a flight attendant, a skater couldn’t be married and be with the show. Being a housewife, a mother, and married, even to a devastatingly attractive pilot who gives you gorgeous children, never came close to the glamor of being an ice skater.
She always said Dad married her for her money; she was making about $200 a week skating, and he was making $200 a month managing a movie theater. He saw ‘Gone With The Wind’, which was a new movie then, at least 90 times. He had to have known who won the Civil War, by then.
Mom wouldn’t skate again until the last of the four of us was at least twelve, about eighteen years later. Once in a great while she would hit the ice for a spin, but it wasn’t until we moved to Portland and she began to skate at Lloyd Center that she really got into it again.
She was approached to teach someone’s child now and then, but she was really just interested in doing her own skating, although she did design a line of skating outfits.
She approached William Morris to broach a deal with their client, Peggy Fleming. She thought Peggy would be an excellent choice to put her name on a line of skating wear.
The agency thought this was a great idea, and not long after a newspaper article came out talking about how Peggy had overcome her ‘shyness’ and decided to endorse a line of skate wear. My mother was never mentioned, and was completely cut out of the loop. Ever since then, I have never, ever, taken anything the media says at face value.
Besides his important work in the theater, namely helping people find a seat, Dad was in college when they met, but quit after a year to join the Army Air Corps. He was a tail gunner, then went to flight training school and flew B-25s. He brought his plane back once with so many holes, the mess hall used it to drain pasta.
I owe my existence to union strikes, and an enemy missing it’s target. He went on to serve for twenty years, but the Army Air Corps didn’t become the Air Force until two years after he joined. I remember wishing he’d applied to the airlines when I was young.
I think he applied to United, but the airlines didn’t want maverick fighter pilots; they wanted staid transport pilots. No flying under bridges with a 747, or doing loop-de-loops and spilling passengers’ drinks up their noses.
My dad left the Air Force with a medical disability after he broke his leg in a Jeep accident in the Philippines. He went on to become a helicopter pilot. I remember his participating in an event that required keeping a helicopter aloft for several days. They strapped boxes of eggs to the landing skids to make sure of it.
He was Portland General Electric’s only helicopter pilot from 1968 to around 1982; they did have a corporate jet pilot who Dad kind of looked down on as a semi-underemployed bus driver. Dad’s flying was world class. The German air force actually hired him for a few weeks in the 70s to go over and teach their helicopter pilots nap-of-the-earth techniques.
Nap-of-the-earth does not mean lying down on the grass, and dozing off, as I had initially suspected. It is a technique of flying a helicopter where the pilot follows the curves of the earth, and stays below radar. It is a very demanding form of flying.
He flew Hueys, but when he was going back east to pick up his new helicopter, a Messerschmitt, I went with him.
I was nineteen, and this was the ultimate road trip. We flew the helicopter back in a horseshoe pattern, down south, across Texas, up through California, and back to Portland. Once, when he wasn’t sure where he was, he flew down by the highway signs to read what they said. I thought that was cool, but my mom hated when I told that story.
That must have been the map-of-the-earth technique…
The husband of one of my mom’s best friends remembered flying with PGE’s helicopter pilot in the seventies, but didn’t remember his name. Since they only had one then, we realized it was my dad. I reprinted his reminiscence below, and here is what he said about my dad’s flying:
“I well remember your dad’s flying skills. PGE had a twin diesel engine Messerschmitt helicopter. Boy, was it one maneuverable machine and your dad could really make it do it’s thing. I remember when we took off, he literally turned it on it’s side so that I was looking straight down at the ground. Sure glad they had good seat belts. I wasn’t sure if I should be afraid or just start praying. I wished for a long time I could have another ride with him. And I remember he was a lot of fun to be with also. We stopped somewhere up the gorge for lunch but I forget where. The ride was the most exciting thing.”
My brother told me he had a dream about my dad’s flying and being with him in the helicopter: “That was Dad. He did the same thing to me a number of times. It must have been the re-remembering, but last night I dreamed of him hovering and doing a 360 barrel roll. I thought it was incredibly stupid – “Don’t you know you have to have forward motion for that maneuver?, I was thinking in my dream. He was a really good pilot.”
What cracks me up is that my brother is correcting us even in his dreams. Occasionally, my dad would fly the helicopter home, and land it in the field where my horse grazed.
We were the only kids on our block to have a helicopter on a pad out back, and when my horse would graze a pad around the helicopter, it was like a true-to-life sculpture on technological advances in transportation.
Dad had enough stories to fill a few pages of this blog, and my mother did too.
I know my dad walked away in one piece from a few accidents. Why didn’t I hear about all this? Were the stories kept for strangers and acquaintances, or just too old to talk about by the time I came along? Probably the latter; I’ve never told my son my crazy stories about flying.
My brother pointed out to me after he read this that should an airplane do a loop-de-loop as I have fancifully described herein, centrifugal force would prevent drinks from spilling ‘up’ into passenger’s noses. Thanks, bro!