Sunday, December 20, 2009

Happy Days Are Here Again!

My mother, Dad, and our pal, Paul, got along famously. Paul employed the proper amount of respect for the older couple while sharing family anecdotes, amusing travel stories, books read, movies that each other appreciated, and music to entertain. My mother especially liked him, and she didn't cotton to many people quickly or easily. A credit to Paul's character.

On a surprise visit to us all in New Jersey, Paul had interrupted a family movie we'd all started to watch. In the ensuing activities, that particular movie had been abandoned and later Paul suggested renting one he'd heard very good reviews about and had been well recommended by friends whose opinions he trusted. Cautioning that it wasn't a 'family' movie, we reserved it until the four kids had gone to bed.

We five gathered around to watch with wine glasses in hand, and Paul sat perched in his chair expectant with hopeful anticipation for an entertaining evening. As the opening credits rolled, my mother groaned loudly. Bruce Willis was among the lead actors. She loathed him. Paul sank imperceptibly lower realizing a slight disappointment early on, but it only got worse: the movie generously featured sex, violence, kidnapping, dismemberment, foul language, lesbian witchcraft, drugs and alcohol. Now, Pat and Wally were no prudes, but this might not have been the best blind-choice selection to view with brand new elder acquaintances. Paul shriveled in the overstuffed club chair as the on-screen embarrassments continued, muttering apologies and protesting 'I just didn't know'. He was mortified. Pat and Wally were more amused at his discomfort than they were offended by the movie's content.

Never-the-less, Paul's good standing over the course of the weekend earned him an invitation from Pat and Wally to Cleveland Place where they'd semi-retired in New Brunswick, Canada. Naturally, when the opportunity presented itself for our next visit, we invited Paul to join us, and much to our surprise, he accepted. He caught a flight to Newark airport in New Jersey where we picked him up in our Blue Dodge Grand Caravan and we proceeded to make a non-stop fourteen hour trip northward with Justin, Andrew, Kathryn, Olivia, Scout, and Mittens the cat. A sack of egg-salad sandwiches sat between Paul and Kathryn. She was in charge.

By the time we'd reached Hartford, Connecticut--normally a two hour drive--we'd been on the road in heavy traffic which added an extra solid hour. Paul was already tired as this was the second leg of his long trip. Occasionally, Scout, our otherwise extremely passive, non-barking, gentle, pink-nosed, yellow Labrador would burst out with vicious, deep throated, seriously intent barking and growling episodes when a motorcycle passed or followed us. Not just any motorcycle, only the Harley-Davidson with its distinctive low 'pah-tay-tah-pah-tay-tah pat-tay-ta' engine noise. We're sure it conjured up negative puppy memories from before he joined our family from the pound with paint on his ear and a profound fear of beer bottles. Co-incidentally, it seemed, these episodes would occur just as Paul's head bobbed about as he was nodding off, snapping him to alert wakefulness. We all found it quite amusing. Paul did not.

Becoming road weary, Scout weary, and needing a break, we pulled over to a rest stop and allowed everyone a 7.5 minute bathroom/stretching break (we had to make up for lost road time). As well seasoned travellers the kids knew we meant business and anyone of them could potentially be left behind if they didn't stick to our schedule. As we all gathered to head back to the parked van, Kathryn ran ahead to reserve her seat of choice next to the egg-salad sandwiches. She jumped in the open door, not realizing that it was another families' look-alike blue Dodge van, and they were already in it. We laughed and pointed calling attention to her, and she quickly re-emerged embarrassed and quite cross, which made us laugh harder, longer and louder. Back on the road, the heavy traffic dispersed, and we were on our way. By the time we'd reached Maine, we'd run out of conversation, Scout was fast asleep, and we were all tired. We asked Paul for a story to help pass the miles and keep us alert. He told us this one:

My father was chief engineer on a B-24 Liberator bomber. They were returning to England after a bombing mission when flak hit a hydraulic fluid line. It was the middle of the night, the plane was low on fuel, and the floor of the plane was slick with spilled hydraulic fluid. Because the hydraulics were out, the only way to lower the landing gear was to crank it down manually.

Flying over the English Channel in pitch black, it was up to my father to manually crank the two landing gear wheels down. He had to stand on a small narrow catwalk under the plane where the landing gear was located, below him was nothing but water. One crewman held onto my father by his flight jacket while another held onto him.

As my father was turning the crank to lower the first wheel the cable slipped off the pulley. Despite the noise and vibration of the bomber in flight and wind whipping around, he undid the nut holding the pulley wheel on so he could get the cable back on. As luck would have it, the nut slipped out of his fingers. He watched as it plummeted down into the North Atlantic.

My father kept his cool. He lowered the second landing gear wheel, removed the nut from the pulley of the lowered gear, and used it to successfully lower the other wheel. They were able to land in England no worse for the wear.

Pretty amazing especially considering these were 18- and 19- year old kids.

But there's more to the story.

After safely landing at the air base in Manston, England, because there was a landing strip especially long, and because the hydraulics was out, they had no brakes and it was necessary to come to a long and agonizing roll to a stop at the end of the strip. They were then picked up by the local base people and taken to a barracks to spend the night. In the middle of the night, their pilot, Dick Rice, woke Dad to tell him that their plane had been wrecked. Dad said" Yes , I know, that's why we're here. Rice said "No, you don't understand. The plane has REALLY been wrecked. A British bomber loaded with incindiary bombs had aborted a mission and landed on the same strip as we had and had slammed into our plane." They went out to the strip to see the damage and ,sure enough, the plane had been slammed into by the big Lancaster bomber. There were incindiary bombs scattered all over the ground together with huge puddles of oil and gasoline. AND believe it or not, NO fire !!!! Dad's plane's name "The Flying Jackass" was later to be replaced by the "Modest Maiden" which they flew for the rest of their missions.

This captivating story entertained us until we were just a few miles from the Canadian border crossing and customs. It was at this point, Kathryn asked plaintively, "Daddy, how much longer until we're at the interrogation?"

Bearing no passport Paul blanched.


  1. this was a great trip!
    i wish we knew where the "adventures of scout" drawings ended up

  2. We took poor Paul's good-natured willingness to play along and broke it into tiny pieces. Then we stomped on the pieces.