It’s a five-hundred-mile trip from our home on the Northshore of Lake Superior to the airport in Ottumwa, Iowa. It’s an airport I am very familiar with after flying in and out of there for decades; both as a child with my Dad and as a pilot myself in my adult years. This would be a bittersweet trip.
You see, my very dear friend, Steve Black, and his family, had operated Ottumwa Flying Service at the airport for over 32 years. As a private pilot, I kept my airplane there and I also flew commercially as a charter pilot for OFS. Steve had recently passed away and today we were gathering there to celebrate his life. Of course, there would be tears, but many more moments of joy would be shared in remembering some really good times and seeing old friends.
Melissa and I moved to the Northshore in 2014, but I always made it back to Ottumwa on the third Sunday of June. For over twenty years, it became a tradition that Ottumwa Flying Service would offer airplane rides to the public on Father’s Day - and we flew a lot of them! One year we took almost seven hundred people up for rides in one day!
I wondered if I was stealing Father’s Day from my kids by flying all day, but they insisted it was my day to do what I wanted to do. My last flight of the day each year was reserved for my girls. We took a flight together, catching the setting sun, then went out to dinner.
Flying on Father's Day was special for me. Each year I met some new people, got to see some old friends, and most of all, enjoyed sharing the gift of flight with a lot of people. There is a great thrill that comes with taking a person up in an airplane for their first time as well as some people who hadn’t flown for many years.
I particularly enjoyed taking up older pilots who no longer met the physical and health requirements to hold a pilot’s medical certificate but never lost their love of aviation. One gentleman would come out each year to fly with me. Shortly after takeoff, I would tell him to take the controls, “It’s your plane.” I would say.
“I can’t fly this. I don’t have a medical anymore.” He would say.
I would jest, “What makes you think I have one?” We always shared a good laugh about that. “Level off at two-thousand feet, then head over the town.” He would take the controls, adjust the throttle and set the trim.
“Can we go up to three-thousand?” He asked.
“It’s your plane.” I’d say, then mimic the air traffic controller, “Nine-six Charlie, climb and maintain three thousand.” He advanced the throttle and climbed, leveling off at exactly three thousand feet. It was like watching him fly for the first time again as he turned to the left then back to the right. The look on his face was priceless as the airplane responded gracefully to his gentle touch. I wanted to let him keep flying, but after a bit, I told him, “We need to head back to the airfield now.” He seemed a little sad when I said that, but nodded and turned the plane. I didn’t have to tell him which direction, he knew the way.
He entered the downwind leg parallel to the runway, lowered the landing gear and gave her ten degrees of flaps. He added more flaps on the base leg then turned onto final. I made the radio calls for him, “Cessna nine-eight-nine-six Charlie is turning final for three-one, Ottumwa.
He lined the aircraft up perfectly with the runway and descended to about eight hundred feet above the ground. “You probably better take it from here.” He said.
I put my hands back on the controls, “Okay, it’s my plane.” I said and brought the airplane in for the landing. I’ll never forget the wonderful feeling of flying with him every year and so very many others like him. But those days of Father’s Day airplane rides were long gone.
This Father’s Day weekend we were gathered to celebrate the life of our good friend, Steve Black, sharing memories and recalling stories. There would be only one airplane ride given this time.
Rich Wilkening, a longtime friend and pilot, would take Steve’s wife, Felicia, and his son, Schuyler, up for a ride over the Ottumwa airport. Steve passionately loved this airport, devoting over half his lifetime to Ottumwa Flying Service. They carried Steve’s cremains with them. The crowd began migrating from inside the hangar to the ramp to observe the flight.
Steve’s mom is almost 87 years old. She worked in the office at the flying service for all 32 years that Steve was there. She fully knew and understood his passion and commitment. I walked up to her, seated in her wheelchair, “Donna, do you want to go outside to watch the flight?” She said that she did. “Well, please allow me to give you a ride.” I felt honored to push her chair toward the walk door.
I had an idea. I leaned over, “Donna, would you like to go up in the plane with Schuyler and Felicia?”
“I don’t think they’ll have room.” She said, sounding sad. I assured her there was an open seat. “Tommy, I don’t think I can even get up into the airplane anymore.” She wasn’t sure about all of this but I could tell the thought of going along had her attention.
I pushed her across the ramp toward the airplane. “I’ll tell you what, we’ll go over to the airplane. You can decide when we get there if you want to go. If not, I’ll bring you right back.” When we got to the airplane, Donna looked through the open door, inside the cabin. I could feel her yearning to go fly with her son one last time. “What do you think? Do you want to go?” She again said she couldn’t get up into the airplane. “If you want to go, I will get you in the airplane.” She was thinking about it – she was tempted.
“Do you really think you can lift me into that airplane alone?” She challenged, almost as if she didn’t want to impose, but I knew what this would mean to her.
“Rich is here, he’ll help me and if the two of us can’t get it done – have you seen the size of your grandson, Schuyler?” We shared a laugh about that.
Donna thought hard for a moment, then as determined as I’ve ever heard her say anything, she said, “By God, I’m going with them.”
My chest was swelling. I was grinning, “Can you give me a hand, Rich? Donna is going to ride with you.” His smile shot from one ear to the other.
The doorway of Cessna 170 isn’t very wide; certainly not three people wide, and because the airplane is a tail dragger, the cabin sits a little higher. With Rich on her left, and me on the right, we each put an arm under hers and a hand under each knee. We easily lifted her in a sitting position, setting her feet on the floor inside the plane then moved her through the passenger door. Schuyler was inside the airplane and helped her the rest of the way into the back seat.
Standing outside the plane, I buckled Donna in with the seat belt. Felicia got in on the other side. Donna is very at ease in an airplane. With a smile so big and genuine, her excitement was radiating. I choked up a bit. “Have a good flight.” I said, then Schuyler and Rich climbed in and closed the doors.
When Rich started the engine, the propeller blew a gusty wind our way. A full crowd looked on as he taxied away from us toward runway three-one. Soon the little blue and white airplane was rolling down the runway. The tail raised and they picked up speed, now riding on the two main wheels. The wings lifted them gently off the ground. Rich held it about ten feet above the pavement. The crowd of people all waved with arms reaching into the air as they flew past us, straight down the runway before climbing out at an easy, steady pace.
The plane faded, becoming just a dot against the blue sky with bright white clouds behind them. People (non-pilots) pointed upward, “Is that them?” “I think they’re over there.” “That’s them right there, isn’t it?”
Soon the airplane appeared in the distance off the approach end of runway three-one. I pointed that direction, “Here they come.” All heads turned left. Rich brought the airplane down close to the ground for a low-level fly by in front of the crowd. Again, all arms waved in the air as they passed.
Rich came back around in the pattern, landed the airplane and taxied up to the ramp. Several of us greeted the airplane. He shut off the motor, coasted in then kicked the tail around before stopping. Schuyler opened the passenger door and hopped out. I slide the seat forward and looked at Donna in the back seat. “How was the flight, Donna?”
“It was wonderful, Tommy,” she said with tears welled up in her eyes, “absolutely wonderful.”
To keep from crying myself, I reached in the airplane, unfastened her seat belt and said, “Put your arms around my neck.” She did and I put my left arm around her waist and my right arm under legs, lifting her out of the plane. “Getting you in the airplane was free,” I said, “but getting you back out is $100.”
“Put it on my bill.” She said. We shared a good laugh about that, then I shed a tear or two of my own.
I couldn’t begin to count the number of times I landed my airplane and taxied into Ottumwa Flying Service. After the line guys fueled my airplane, they would come into the office where Donna and I were sitting, shooting the breeze. Donna would push a few buttons on the calculator then tell me how much I owed for the AV-gas. “Put it on my bill.” I would say.
Later that night, while driving back home, I had visions of Maverick buzzing the tower at Miramar, in San Diego. At an incredibly high rate of speed in his Navy F-18 Hornet, he caused Air Boss Johnson, to spill coffee on his uniform inside the tower. There’s a substantial difference between a military jet passing at close range doing nearly 350 miles per hour and a Cessna 170 plugging along ten feet over the runway a quarter mile away, doing about 80 miles per hour.
Although the fly-by may have been a little less dramatic, knowing Donna, Felicia and Schuyler were onboard taking one last airplane ride with their son, husband, father - and my very close friend, made this one of the most memorable fly-bys and Father’s Day flights of all time.
Until we fly together again, blue skies, Steve.
“To fly west, my friend, is a flight we all must take for a final check.” (Author unknown)
It was close to noon. We were ready to leave Iowa and head back home to Minnesota. Since both of us were hungry, we decided to stop for a sandwich before we got on the road. I pulled in line. There were several cars ahead of us at the double-lane drive thru. A yellow horizontal sign stretched across each drive thru lane advising: Caution! 9’ Clearance! Melissa noted the warning. “Will we clear that?” she asked. She seems to always ask that when we’re going through a drive up because we have a taller than normal van.
I’ve explained this before, but told her again, “The van is one hundred inches tall; that’s eight feet, four inches plus the roof vent which is another four inches, making us eight feet, eight inches tall. We have four inches to spare...”
“Is the roof vent open?” I wasn’t sure if she was asking me, or telling me.
“…Unless the roof vent is open,” I said, explaining, “at which point, we’re about nine feet, three inches tall.” With several cars still ahead of me, I put the van in park, slid my seat back, then walked to the rear of the van to close the roof vent. I hurried back to the driver’s seat, pulled the seat forward, fastened my seat belt, put the van in drive and held my foot on the brake. I was pretty proud of myself: I felt about nine feet tall for avoiding an accident. As the line started to move forward, I told my wife, “It’s a good thing I thought of that.” Melissa rolled her eyes.
I opted for the outside lane which had less tight corners to maneuver in a large vehicle. To my left was a black and white Dodge Charger – a city police car. At this point I would normally get the cop’s attention and ask them if they wanted to race. But we were pretty close together and being in a substantially taller vehicle, all I could see was the roof and lights of the patrol car. We simultaneously pulled up to the speakers in our respective lanes. I must have ordered faster because I beat the squad car off the line. As I was rounding the corner to the left, headed for the pick-up window, I rolled my window down. Knowing there was a cop behind us, Melissa said, “I don’t know what you’re going to do, but you should just leave them alone.”
Hanging my head partially out the driver’s window, I gave the peace officer the peace sign. They responded with a weak, quick wave. “Oh no.” I said, “I don’t know if I had my fingers spread far enough apart. I hope it didn’t look like I was waving just one finger at that cop…”
…thinking I was flipping them off…the squad car followed me…the officer said…
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Melissa reminded me of her suggestion to leave them alone. “I don’t want them thinking I was flipping them off.” I said and leaned considerably further out the window. I spread my two fingers wide and made sure they were totally perpendicular as I waved again to the officer. This time they responded with a much more vigorous wave and returned the peace sign.
I pulled forward to the window. The man repeated my order and told me what I owed. I gave him my card, then he handed my card back wrapped in a receipt along with a paper sack of food, two drinks and thanked us for our business. I paused at the window and he asked if I needed anything else. “Yes,” I said, “I do. There’s a cop right behind me. I want to pay for their order as well.”
Not sure if I was serious or not, the man leaned out the drive-up window, looked behind my van and asked, “You want to buy lunch for the policeman behind you?”
“Yes, I do.” I said, then handed him my card again.
He ran my card and handed it to me folded inside another receipt. “That’s pretty nice of you guys to pay for their order,” he said, “especially these days.”
I smiled and said, “Please tell them we appreciate the work they do.” I could hear a sincerity in the cashier’s comments and that made me feel pretty good.
As we pulled away from the drive-up window, my wife said, “That was a really cool thing to do, Tom. I’m glad you did that.” We turned right out of the parking lot. The street paralleled the drive-up lane at the restaurant. As we drove past, we heard a horn honking a couple of times. The officer’s hand was waving at us out their passenger window.
At the corner we stopped for the red light, then turned right onto the four-lane street. By the next traffic light, I noticed the cop car was behind us again. A couple blocks later, we turned left onto the four-lane highway – the squad car followed me. They stayed behind us for about a mile, until we stopped again for a red light.
The officer pulled up alongside me and lowered their passenger window; I lowered my window as well. She had to lean our way to be able to see up into my van. “Hey, I just wanted to thank you, again.” She said. “That was a real nice surprise.”
I smiled and told her, “We just wanted you to know, not everyone is against you.”
“Man, it sure seems like it these days.” She replied, shaking her head.
I smiled at her and said, “Just remember the silent majority. The majority of people still support you and appreciate the work you do. I know we certainly do.” She thanked us again. I told her, “You have a nice day and be safe out there.” The light turned green and we both pulled away. We drove along behind her for awhile and then she sped away.
As the distance between our vehicles became greater, I wondered if she had time to eat her lunch? Or, did her lunch break get cut short to respond to a call? Was she rushing off to help someone in trouble or danger? I said a little prayer for her, that she would be fair to all in her line of work and that God would protect her and keep her safe.
It might have been the simple gesture of paying for her lunch; not just as a cop, but as another human being. Or, maybe the words of assurance we offered and sharing our appreciation for the work she does. Whatever it was, it seemed like we made her day a little better and that made me feel really good. As a matter of fact, I felt at least ten feet tall. I took a bite of my sandwich and smiled, thinking, “It’s a good thing we already had our lunch, because being ten feet tall, there is no way I would fit under that nine-foot clearance – whether the roof vent was up or not.”
My daughter was driving, headed back to her house. I was just a passenger looking out the window. In the distance there were areas of dark gray vertical streaks running from some rather ugly clouds to the ground; heavy rain showers embedded in isolated thunderstorms.
A few sprinkles fell on and off, then a few big raindrops hit the windshield. There was a loud boom of thunder. The big raindrops stopped for just a moment then began to fall again. Sydney hit the wipers to clear the glass. Getting bigger and coming down faster, it was as if the rain made a sneak attack upon us and before we knew it, the rain was coming down very heavy. She turned the wipers on low, then high.
The rubber blades slapped back and forth across the windshield, sloshing water in every direction. The wipers couldn’t keep up. It was getting hard to see as if the windshield was steaming over. I ran my finger over a small area of the glass. There was no moisture; it was just rain on the outside. Cars were shooting wakes of water from their tires like boats moving across a lake. A truck going the opposite direction hit a big puddle sending a solid sheet of water our way, crashing into the windshield with a bang.
Every bit as quickly as the heavy rains came up, they stopped again. There were more gray streaks in the area indicating the storms weren’t done yet. The remaining drive home was calm. As we turned into the driveway, the winds were kicking up again. Claps of thunder echoed through the Iowa skies. Sydney pushed the button for the automatic garage door opener. As we waited for the door to lift, more sporadic large raindrops hit the windshield. What happened next, happened very quickly, although it felt like everything was moving in slow motion.
The large blue recycling container on wheels, filled to the brim, sat just outside the garage door, waiting to go to the curb that evening. The wind was lifting and slamming the lid. It looked like one of those yellow Pac-Man guys eating dots in a video game. The barrel started to teeter. I had visions of an inflatable toy with sand in the bottom, trying to keep the calm by reminding me, Weebles Wobble, but they don’t fall down. I hoped the receptacle would stay upright. Sydney frantically prayed out loud. “Oh, dear Jesus, no! No!” I was already unfastening my seat belt, thinking I could save the day, but before Jesus or I could get there, the wind toppled the big container.
Pizza boxes, cardboard and newspaper, milk jugs and various plastic containers, tin and aluminum cans burst from the can and spewed across the lawn.
I got out of the van to chase the blowing debris. I jumped and twitched as every large rain drop that hit me sent a cold chill all the way to my bones. Sydney pulled her van into the garage and quickly secured the next-door neighbor’s recycling bin. She called out, “Just leave it, Dad. We’ll get it later.”
The rain started pouring down. In a matter of seconds, I was completely soaked as if I had been submerged in water. I was determined to gather the mess before it stretched out all across the neighborhood. The rain quickly saturated the carboard and newspaper making them stick to the lawn and sidewalk, but the plastic and aluminum cans continued to travel. Other debris blew into the yard from an upset can a few doors to the west. I was grabbing items as quickly as I could when a very sickening feeling hit me.
Last week, my cell phone died after going through the washing machine. I had a brand-new phone that I had picked up earlier that day in my pocket – my water-drenched pocket. The rain was blowing six or seven feet into the open garage. I set the wet phone on the rooftop of the red and yellow Little Tikes plastic car. I ran back outside to finish cleaning up.
My granddaughter came running outside. With her arms outstretched, her head tilted back, laughing, she turned several times in the rain, then started picking up trash with me. Her mother called her to come back inside, but it was no use; her words fell on deaf ears. The already soaking wet child called out, “I’m helping you Papa.” Indeed, she was.
The rain was cold and it started to hurt as it hit my numb cheeks and bare neck. I turned my back to the rain and kept working. Each raindrop felt like it was stabbing me. Oh my gosh, dime size hail was pelting us. “Addison, go in the garage!” I told her.
“But I need to help you, Papa.”
This was no time to debate, “You need to get in the garage now!” I said with a firm voice. The hail was starting to sting more. She didn’t argue as she retreated to shelter. I picked up the last couple of items, putting them in the can and pushed the load downward. I closed the top and turned the container with the hinge toward the wind so the lid wouldn’t blow open again.
Addison and I stood in the garage shivering for a couple moments, watching the weather outside, then closed the overhead door. We went inside where Addison’s mother wrapped her in a towel and took care of her. I took a quick shower, changed into dry clothes and walked out onto the front porch. The rain had stopped and the sun was shining again. It was hot. The rain-soaked sidewalks, driveways and streets were already half dry. The air was so thick with humidity it was almost hard to breath. Steam rolled up from the green grass and sections of pavement.
With such calm, one would never guess a strong isolated thunderstorm had rolled through just minutes before. It came in, quickly released its fury and moved on. It was very short lived, lasting only minutes, but it seemed like everything moved in slow motion just before all hail broke loose.
People come from near and far to enjoy this magical place. The outdoor activities are numerous; the terrain, scenery and wildlife are spectacular. The north shore of Lake Superior is magnetic, drawing many. Some will choose to stay and call this place home. For others it’s a special destination; a place for people to relax, recreate and unwind. A few days here allows folks to decompress, then go back to daily life refreshed; it’s like getting a clean start. Our oldest daughter, Sydney, came to visit to get some rest.
She brought her bicycle to ride the paved trails along the lakeshore. When she got back to our house, she left her bicycle outside, alongside the front porch steps. We live on a quiet dead-end road in the country with only four houses on it. Still, I questioned her. “Are you crazy? Leaving your bike out there unsecured?”
“It’s not like anyone is going to steal it out here.” She justified.
“Where do you think circus bears come from? And where do you think they get their bicycles to learn to ride?” I responded.
We had a pretty good laugh about that as I imagined a black bear coming out of the woods, straddling her bike and riding off into the city to join the circus.
All in all, we had a real good visit. Sydney returned home relaxed; able to take on the next week with a clean start.
A week later, my brother-in-law and nephew came to visit. Jeff and Andy brought their new mini-bikes. They had a blast riding around our property and on some of the trails in the area. With the recent rains, they found some of the terrain quite wet. They were gone for a couple hours, returning to the house wet and covered with mud. “We went through areas where the mud and water were halfway up to our knees. We had to push and drag the bikes through. We nearly got stuck several times.” Jeff said.
Father and son took turns out in the yard spraying each other down with the garden hose. Melissa found them standing on the front porch in their boxer shorts holding their dripping wet clothes. They had a great time together. They were able to unwind and made some lifetime memories riding those mini-bikes out in the Northwoods.
But not all time up here is devoted to R-and-R. There is work to be done.
Andy, Jeff and I fired up the chainsaws to trim some of the pine trees around our yard, removing the dead branches from the bases. When we were done, Andy hauled some of the brittle branches to the yard where we enjoyed a relaxing fire in the fire ring. When the fire died down, we retired to the house.
At the back door, Melissa put her foot down, “You’re not coming in here covered with sawdust and dirt, smelling like exhaust fumes and smoke.” (She does keep a clean house.) She brought us a laundry basket. I stripped down to my boxer shorts on the back deck, dropped my dirty clothes in the laundry basket, then headed in for the shower.
After the other boys changed out of their work clothes, Melissa put our clothes in the washer for us. About an hour later, she called me to the basement. “Where is your cell phone?”
Logically I deduced, “Since you’re standing in front of the washing machine asking about my cell phone, it would be my assumption it’s in the washer.”
“Yes,” she said while presenting me with a perfectly clean flip phone, “and this time it went through the full cycle. I hope it’s not ruined.” Numerous times, I have made a frantic dash to the basement to retrieve my phone from the washer after leaving it in my pants pocket. It’s been wet, but never went through the full wash process.
I took the phone, removed the battery and gave the device a sniff. “It smells really good. Did you use that new Tide with Downy fabric softener?” She was trying to be serious while I was making light of the situation. “It’s been submerged in water at least six or eight times. This phone owes me nothing. I’ll let it dry for a couple days and if it works – that’s great. If it doesn’t – well, I’ve been talking about getting a new phone anyway. This is not a crisis.”
Melissa looked at the deceased flip phone in my hand. With a glimmer of hope she smiled and suggested, “Maybe a smart phone?” I snarled with disapproval and took my dead soldier upstairs. Opening and closing the phone, I noted how much smoother the hinge was working after a good cleaning. I also started wondering, what important text messages and photos I would lose if my phone was indeed…well, you know…finished; done for; kaput!
Just a couple weeks before, Melissa and I took a drive to the end of the Gunflint Trail to celebrate her birthday with a picnic. Our dog June rode between us in the middle of the bench seat as we rolled up the trail in our vintage Ford truck with the Alaskan Camper in the back. “I hope we get to see some wildlife today.” Melissa said.
June stood up. After turning two full circles on the seat (for no apparent reason) she sat down again. It was her way of telling us, “I’m all the wildlife you need.” Just then June stood up again to join us looking out the windshield at a beautiful fox. Trotting down the shoulder of the road, the full, bushy fox tail remained still as she kept an eye on us. “That tail is too big for her body.” June said with a bit of canine tail envy.
A little farther up the road, we stopped to watch a moose standing in water off the west side of the road. She dipped her head in the water pulling up another mouthful of delicious green water plants, paying no attention to us as she munched away.
At the end of the trail, we climbed to the top of a rock overlooking the beautiful blue waters below. A pair of eagles flew about chattering to one another. They carried talons full of sticks, obviously building or repairing a nest in the area. Two ravens flew by several times. Dancing and playing, they put on quite an aerial display of aviator skills as they were being chased by smaller birds.
We heard the song of a loon calling in the distance. A few minutes later, the pair swam into the water before us. They would dive below the surface, probably fishing, while Melissa and I took guesses at where they would resurface. They surprised us every time.
After our picnic, we picked up our things and began the short hike back down to the truck; June took the lead. Suddenly lunging ahead at something, she flushed up two grouse; one flew away while the other took refuge, landing on a tree branch right in front of us. Safely perched high above the predator at the bottom of the hill below, I’m not sure the bird noticed she was on eye level, and within arm’s reach of two humans. Or, perhaps she sensed we meant no harm to her. She posed while Melissa took several photos of our feathered friend.
June waited for us at the base of the hill. When we caught up to her, she was keeping watch over a rodent laying on the ground. It looked like a vole and it had fresh punctures in both sides of its body, probably from the talons of a bird. I’m not sure June ever saw the two grouse; I think she was chasing whatever had caught the vole and scared it away, causing the bird to leave its lunch and escape the potential dangers posed by a charging canine.
The three of us got into the truck and started on our journey home. As we rounded the sharp s-curves of the Gunflint Trail, we came upon a mother bear with three cubs! We stopped the truck, staying back a bit. The sow kept a close watch on us while growling commands to her young. The cubs, heeding her warning, ran across the road to a tree then looked back to their mama to see if she wanted them to climb the tree. The mother bear sensed we were not a danger to her babies and the four meandered off into the woods. What a treat to see them!
Just after I commented that we hadn’t seen any deer yet, Melissa said, “Look at that!” pointing to a doe with a very large, very round belly, she said “She has to be carrying twins – or even triplets!” I must admit, it was the most pregnant doe I’d ever seen.
After taking in the serenity of the Northwoods on a beautiful spring day, we felt truly blessed to see so much wildlife in their natural habitat while driving up and down the Gunflint Trail. We both felt refreshed. We would go home to welcome the new week with a worry-free, clean start.
I wasn’t too concerned over losing images of that day that were on my phone. Only God and Verizon know how many years I’d had that old flip phone. “Oh well,” I conceded, “the flip phone doesn’t take very good photos anyway and Melissa got plenty of good shots.” The irony caused me to laugh; apparently not everything comes out in the wash and even if my phone was destroyed, at least it would be going out as clean as it started.
a broadcaster, pilot, writer, and our Guest Columnist!