First Flight


A Curtis JN-4

My grandfather was a promoter, a booster. He spent time running the family dairy but his heart was with those men who were joiners and community do’ers. He was a Rotarian and an Odd Fellow. Mens and women’s service clubs were very active in the days of small towns; long before television. People needed a way to get out of the house. My grandmother was a charter member of the Arroyo Grande Women’s club. My grandad spent every wednesday night at the old IOOF Hall on Bridge St, playing pool, chewing the cud and sharing some conviviality with his club brothers.

Memberships like this brought men together. One of the results was the organization of community events and fundraisers. In the days before government assistance and a small town needed something it had to plan, raise money and do the work itself. The fraternal organizations sponsored many events to do just that. In Arroyo Grande they sponsored the “Pea Festival” in the early days when bush peas were a major crop in the hills and valley. The old “Pea Festival” became the “Gay Nineties” and is now the “Harvest Festival.”

In 1928 a group of local business men got together in order to act on the idea that if automobile  races were held on the beach, speed hungry auto fiends would flock to Pismo to watch. The contracted with Barney Oldfield, the famous race driver who first drove the “Mile a Minute,” to come and do a flat out speed demonstration on the sands that they advertised as the smoothest and straightest in the country. New speed records were sure to be set.

The group arranged trains to ship the race cars to the railroad docks in Oceano. They organized crowd control and as an added attraction contracted with a barnstormer to fly in and give rides to spectators and to perform death defying aerobatics.

Barnstorming was the first major form of civil aviation in the history of flying. It was also one of the most popular forms of entertainment during the Roaring Twenties. The United States and other countries had trained thousands of pilots during the great war and many of them had no desire to quit flying. Surplus planes were cheap, so cheap that the Navy and army practically gave them away. A young flyer could buy a surplus trainer such as the Curtis JN-4 “Jenny,”  some still in their unopened packing crates, for as little as $50, essentially “flooding” the market. With private and commercial flying in North America unhampered by any regulations concerning their use, pilots found the Jenny’s stability and slow speed made it ideal for stunt flying and aerobatic displays in the barnstorming era between the world wars. Some were still flying into the 1930s.

Flyers could scrape out a living doing local show and giving rides while bouncing from town to town. Living under the wings, camping out or trading rides for food and accommodation, these universally young men and women introduced people all over the country to their first experience in flying. Barnstorming “provided an exciting and challenging way to make a living, as well as an outlet for creativity and showmanship. Jimmy Doolittle, Amelia Earhart, Pancho Barnes, Roscoe Turner and Jackie Cochran were all barnstormers. Flying allowed Charles Lindbergh to make a marginal living, and he always spoke fondly of the “old flying days” and the freedom of movement.

By the time my dad took his ride, barnstorming was slowly being regulated out of existence. The US Aeronautical agency was taking control of the air and essentially creating the rules that would eventually kill the business. Furthermore, the planes themselves were getting old. Some of the “Jennys” had been flying for close to a decade, maintained by the pilot-mechanic who worked on the planes wherever it was convenient. No such thing as the FAA inspection. The plane needed to fly to make a living, and in todays environment its hard to believe how casual the business was. Planes crashed all the time. Luckily they flew low and very slowly.

Even though Lincoln Beachey, one of the first barnstormers had landed on the beach at Pismo nearly 20 years before, flying was still a novelty. A Curtis Jenny sitting on the sand, it’s OX-5 V8 90 horse engine ticking over as the pilot loaded two people into the front cockpit was not an everyday sight.

Like many boys, my father wanted to be with his father whenever he could. His religious career was over the minute my grandfather asked him if he would rather stay home and help with the cows or go to sunday school with mommy. So when he asked dad if he wanted to go see the airplane he jumped at the chance. They took the model T along the old highway to Pismo, crossing the SP tracks at the grade crossing on the edge of monte, then over the Pismo creek bridge and left into town. Leaving the car at the foot of the Main St. ramp,  My grandfather said, “Let’s go have a look.” Up close, the aircraft was huge, squatting like a buzzard drying its wings in the morning sun. The odors it gave off were both strange and familiar. The faint banana like odor of the doping compound used to stretch the linen fabric that covered the fuselage and wings and the, oh too familiar smell of grandmothers spoon of Castor oil for breakfast, the oil used to lubricate the open valves of the engine before starting. Considering what was about to happen, that spoonful might not be a good thing for a boy about to fly for the first time.

As my grandfather spoke quietly with the pilot, dad walked around the plane, having no idea that something which he was never to forget was about to happen. His father gestured him over to the plane and almost before he knew it, he was being boosted into the front cockpit. He was speechless, this wasn’t part of the plan. Grandpa climbed in right after him, settling into the modified seat built for two. The pilot leaned in and checked that the lap belts were secure. Handing them two leather helmets and goggles, he jumped down from the wing, conversed briefly with the mechanic, then hopped on the wing and climbed into the rear cockpit. He moved the stick and rudder pedals around to make sure they were in working order then signaled the mechanic to pull the prop over a couple time to load the cylinders with gasoline. “Ready, contact,” the mechanic spun the prop and the motor caught, spraying my dad and grandfather with castor oil and belching a cloud of smoke that reeked of gasoline.  Having no brakes, the Jenny immediately began rolling down the beach, bumping up and down a little as it ran over the sand. At about 25 miles per hour the tail came up and soon after the bumping stopped and they were flying. At the glorious speed of 60 mph, the pilot banked out over the ocean and flew out to sea briefly before turning back over Oceano towards Arroyo Grande where they got a birds-eye view of the ranch and their home. The pilot completed the circle, back over Pismo, setting the plane down in almost the exact spot they left from.

Many years later when I was a young man myself, dad asked me how I liked flying. Sitting at that old kitchen table where so much of my life was formed, I told him that I had flown tens of thousands of miles in all kinds of planes and that I liked it. It was safe and comfortable and took you to marvelous places you had always dreamed of, a magic carpet, if you will. Of course, I didn’t mention that last part because I was never quite sure where he stood on things like that; you know, approval. Home was always where he wanted to be.

I was living in a tropical paradise then. And in the spirit of hospitality I asked him why he and mom didn’t fly down to see me. Thats when he told me the story about his two flights. “A flight off Pismo in a JN-4, seeing our little community from above I thought would be a delight,” I said. Dad did not, and I repeat, did not, see it that way. He told Me, “That old plane was like a skeleton with one of your grandmothers bedsheets stretched over it,” “It stunk to high heaven and I got covered with grease and oil.” He made me laugh, so I said, “But wasn’t the view beautiful, couldn’t you see everything?” He gave me a look, then said, “You could see everything all right, the canvas was full of holes and you could look right down between your feet and see the ground.” By this time I was laughing out loud, so he threw me a dirty look and said, “It was the worst two flights I ever took.” “What do you mean two flights,” I said, “it was only one” And he said. “Yeah, two flights, the first, and, the last.”

He never came to see me in Hawaii.


PS: The great Pismo automobile races were a bust, the sand beach is not flat enough and the cars would get airborne going over the humps. The spectators just walked around the ropes and didn’t pay admission. They lost their shirts










Mike and Jerry Go Outside.

mike and jerry at home adjusted

The back door to our house was unpainted. It was unlike Lewis Carrolls or Frances Burnetts fanciful portals, just an ordinary wooden three panel door with an old metal handle. No key, it hadn’t been locked in anybodies lifetime. Common knowledge held that it was the country custom to never lock a door, seeing it as a a black mark on hospitality. It’s a possibility that we simply had nothing to take. None of this mattered to us. It just was.

The adult world has forgotten the mysteries of childhood or at least recalls them by seeing them through a gauze curtain, looking back through dimly recalled and fragmented memory. We’ve forgotten how real it all was.


My friend Nancy Brown on the old porch in 1947.

Inside our house there were two parents and three boys, usually a dog or two, maybe a kitty, surrounded by all the things a family acquires. A predictable place for us, a warm, comfortable place where you were safe and loved. We found our adventures in books, for like our parents, we were readers. We lived on the cusp of a revolution in which reading was gradually replaced by the ominous eye in the living room. I didn’t realize that it came to kill a child’s imagination. Perhaps I wasn’t particularly aware until I had children of my own and observed how their lives were different than ours. But “Oh My,” outside that old door… was EVERYTHING! A world in which there were no boundaries.

“Go outside and play” was my mother’s frequent refrain, being in our little house with three young children bouncing off the walls was enough to try a saint. Basically, if the sun was out, we were out the door after breakfast. If  we were reluctant to stay there she’d simply lock the screen door.

That was never much of a problem because we lived in a wonderland for children. It had few rules as my parents were content to let us find our own way.

No Rule: We could build fires and watch them burn. We learned to set the trash in the burn barrels afire. The barrels were 55 gallon drums with no top and a series of holes chopped in the bottom with cold chisels. Garbage was thrown inside and set on fire every couple of days until the barrels were full of ash and debris. Literally everything was burned with the exception of food scraps which were for the dogs. Every so often the barrels were loaded into the pick-up and hauled to the dump on highway 227. Kids were encouraged to tip the barrels over on the piles of trash there. The dump was always burning and had a sort of flat, ashy odor that was vaguely pleasant. You couldn’t mind odors if you were farm kids. Just think of that, you get to go for a ride with your dad; three little boys scrunched up on the seat where he could reach out and tousle your hair so you knew he loved you, explaing the sights along the way, Your great-grandparents old house, then over the Ice Cream Hills where your grandfather Jack used to peddle his bicycle on his way to San Luis in the 1890’s, right by Patchettland and the Buzzard’s Nest Rock which seemed to loom over the road with its myriad little cave where the birds roosted, and when you arrived you got to dump barrels of garbage over the back of the truck, Six little feet straining and slipping on the pick-up bed’s wooden slats, straining to push the heavy barrel off the back of the tailgate. Oh, and then; with a stop at Kirk’s liquor for the candy bar of your choice, you drove home where the dogs would greet you as if you had been gone forever. Boy!

No Rule: Build a fort. Any kind would do. We were under constant attack from any number of bad men and we needed to have a place to stand and fight. Perhaps a dugout, deep enough to stand in with seats carved around the edges and a narrow passage for entry. Covered with boards from the old tumble down barn, laid across the top and covered with dirt, it could withstand the heaviest of attacks.

There was an old redwood water barrel, a big one, half concealed by the mammoth pepper tree next to the corn crib. I took one of the hatchets used for nailing the lids on lettuce crates and laboriously chopped a hole just big enough to crawl inside. It was the perfect hiding place.

My dad bought different types of crates and boxes from the Arroyo Grande Box Company for use in packing our vegetable crops. Delivered on flat bed sets of doubles, a semi with two flat bed trailers, they were unloaded and stacked in huge piles next to our packing shed where vegetables were sorted and packed, ready for shipping. There were different boxes for different crops. Tomatoes and Chinese peas were packed in flats, small boxes made of fragrant pine, so fresh that the pitch was still leaking from them. There were wire bound crates for string beans which were shipped flat and had to be unfolded in order to be filled. Lug boxes were primarily used to transport vegetables that bruised easily from the fields. They were very sturdy. Celery crates were large, lightweight crates used to pack in the fields. A length of butcher paper with a big blue stripe down the center, was placed down the center of the empty crate and the cut and trimmed heads of celery neatly packed. The excess paper was then folded over the top and the lid nailed on. They weighed close to ninety pounds complete and it was a delight to see with what grace the loaders swung them onto the trucks for shipping. The big crates almost flew up and it seemed as if the loaders used sleight of hand instead of muscle.

We kids used most of the types to build with. Flats boxes were shipped nested. One box laid face up, two placed standing inside and one laid upside down on top. A unit of four, stacked ten high they formed a block of perhaps a thousand. If you can imagine carefully removing sets to form stairs and hollows inside the stack in the same way you play Jenga, then you can imagine a labyrinth for little boys to play in. A very fragrant one too.

Our place knew no age. The house had no foundation, just post set upright in the ground. This gave it a certain elasticity so that it conformed to soil conditions, winter and summer. We had a horse barn but no horses. Horses were long gone from farming in the early fifties. There was an old tool shed with two small rooms attached. Each room had a wooden floor and was littered with old machines, dried out shoes and scraps of clothing lying about. No one knew who had lived and worked there. The roof was partially caved in and the whole structure covered by old pepper trees. Perfect for boys to explore, imagine what had gone on there and learn to avoid Black Widows lurking in dark corners. We had a corn crib too, though no adult could tell you the last time corn was grown on our place. Likely it was built before row crops when the valley was dominated by orchards and stock raised for food. Old ranches and farms are history books, recording the changes in technology, crop science and production and the pace at which people live. For boys, seeking out old abandoned spaces is delicious.

Cars, trucks and tractors littered our yard, always good for a drive. Bouncing up and down on the seats, yanking the wheel to and fro, grinding out motor noise, splattering spit all over the inside of the windshield while doing so, adding in screeching tire sounds while we cornered at hundreds of miles an hour, two wheels only, the dogs barking madly in paroxysms of joy, what could be better.

Hours of kick the can and prisoners base played until too dark to see, madly racing our bikes around and between the buildings, playing catch with baseballs thrown over the roof, bouncing on the tin roof and best of all playing in the irrigation ditches. The great adobe mud you could hold in your fist and squeeze between your fingers like slimy glistening worms.

Children don’t have to be taught how to navigate the dark. When dinner was done, we were shooed outside until bedtime. You soon learned that the dark was the same as daylight, everything was in the same place just hidden from view. You had to develop your other senses to navigate. We used to practice by walking around with our eyes closed, shuffling our feet forward like tentacles and waving our arms trying to feel obstacles in our path. Hide and go seek games could be played by moonlight by careful listening or the sense that something was moving in the shadows. Just us, together.