Photo of Aeronca Champ

Where Was I, This Day… December 7, 1958

From my flight logbook for 12/7/58: “Started off in Champ, but window blew out on takeoff and froze the instructor. An impressive turn back to land, and we switched to the Cessna 140.”

Seventeen years earlier it was a different story: “Yesterday, December 7th, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” Thus of course began the speech by President Roosevelt, the day after the attack on our naval base at Pearl Harbor, the attack that jolted America out of an isolationist slumber and into world war.

But December 7, 1958, I was not thinking about Pearl Harbor. That day, in Manhattan, Kansas, was bitterly cold, but my mind was not on the chill factor. No, I was climbing into the front seat of an old Aeronca 7AC “Champ,” eagerly anticipating starting what would be my eighth flight lesson.

A map showing the location of Manhattan, KS.

In the heady days after the two bicycle guys in Ohio launched us into aviation, it seemed anybody with a penchant for flying, and who could find a sugar-daddy to fund it, designed his own plane and started an airplane company. One of those new companies was Aeronca, the Aeronautical Corporation of America, and the Aeronca model 7AC “Champ” was born (although most pilots called it the “Airknocker, poking fun at the corporate name”). Like most planes then, it sat low on a rear tail wheel and was covered with dope-impregnated fabric, joining a class of planes that came to be known affectionately as “rag-wing taildraggers.” 

The instructor installed himself in the rear seat, and we let the cold-soaked engine warm up as we taxied to the runway. Neither of us paid much heed to how cold that unheated cabin was, protected only by the thin layer of fabric that formed its hide. Still not accustomed to steering with my feet, I got it lined up, shoved the throttle to the stop, and we soon were lifting off.

As seen in the photo, the window beside me was rather large. Although only a thin piece of old plexiglass, it was at least keeping the sixty mile per hour wind mostly off us. It was mounted in a track that permitted it to slide open, on balmy days. Problem was, there was no lock to hold it closed, and vibrations of the engine continually caused it to slide open. My assignment, in addition to attempting to learn how to fly the thing, was to keep pushing the window closed. The blast of frigid wind largely passed behind me, but caught the poor instructor in the rear seat full in the face. He did not like that.

After having to be rather loudly reminded a couple of times to close it, once again it had migrated backward several inches. This time, as I pushed it forward, it chose to pop out of its track, and head back to the airport. Whereupon, the full open window immediately blasted the instructor.

“My plane!” he yelled, along with some other colorful opinions of the plane, not relevant to the story. I raised both hands in the air, signifying I had turned control over to him.

Being a novice, I was unaware that a plane could do some of what he did over the next minute, or so. Whatever the maneuvers might have technically been, we were suddenly descended and on the runway, taxiing to the hangar. We got out, he continued to vent his opinion of the “Champ,” and switched me over to a Cessna 140—metal covered, and whose windows were permanently attached to the airplane. I never again flew an Aeronca Champ.

So, it’s no real surprise that I might remember December 7, 1958. I suppose it is pure coincidence that the episode occurred on Pearl Harbor day. My lifelong dilemma, however, is that I also remember Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, 1941. Well, technically, I remember the next morning. Given the overwhelming shock to the nation from that attack, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that I would remember it—were it not for the fact that I had turned five years old just five months earlier. By rights, I should have no memories of the event whatsoever.

Dec 7 1941 issue of the Iola Register newspaper

Regardless, what I remember is being bundled up, that dark, frigid December morning, to go with my eight-year-old brother, Don, while he delivered the Iola Register, our hometown newspaper. Several things are wrong with that memory, including the fact that the Register was an afternoon newspaper and had no early-morning edition, there was no sensible reason why Mom should have let me go with Don; and he remembers nothing of having delivered papers that morning.

Thus, my lifelong memory is of something most illogical, and from every practical point of view, most unlikely to have happened. Yet, it’s still there, real as ever, these many decades later. I did learn, not so long ago, that the Register staff did, indeed, spend the night of December 7 preparing an early morning special edition, lending some credibility to the memory.

Why the Pearl Harbor attack, and World War II—and airplanes, for that matter—have played so prominently in my mind, affected me in so many ways, I’ve long wondered. But they have, and do. There is little reason for that. I was never in the war, and no one in my family, close or extended, was ever a pilot or expressed any interest in aviation.

I’ve reflected a lot, in recent years, on why a war I did not fight in, was largely too young to even remember, should have so affected me, all my life. Likewise, my lifelong love of airplanes, and flying. Nature vs. nurture, as determinants to our personalities, has long been argued. But as there was virtually nothing in my “nurturing” to have put those elements in me, I have to look elsewhere.

The Book of Jeremiah states a claim made by God: “…while you were yet in the womb, I knew you. Before you were born I set you apart.” Are those inexplicable elements of who we are thus planted there, while we are “yet in the womb”? And if so, why? Was it in some way part of God’s plan for my life, that I should choke up when a B-17 should perchance fly over me? Or feel that a literal lifelong dream had been fulfilled the day I got to grasp the stick of a P-51 fighter, and for twenty minutes fly that dream?

The first contract for the B-17 was awarded Boeing in 1936. It was born the same year I was. And the P-51 first flew just before Pearl Harbor was attacked. We all started life about the same time. All coincidences, I have to assume.

One reaction to all these things, these elements of my life that have been so much a part of me but that leave me in a perpetual state of wondering, is to simply accept them, and be grateful. Whether God planted them there while I was still in the warm darkness of the womb, or they are the simple good fortune of how my particular genes “just happened” to get turned on, those parts of my nature have brought me countless moments of pleasure in my life. And I’m grateful for that.

One day, not long before Colleen’s mother died, she was in the car with the two of us, as we headed off to do some shopping. I was going on about something that was perplexing me, and after a few moments of enduring it, she said, “Del, you just think too much.” Which perhaps is true. That is another innate part of my nature.

Sometimes I’m grateful for that, too. But in some of my more sacrilegious moments, I’ve also had to wonder if God wasn’t feeling just a tad mischievous, the day he decided to “form me in the womb,” put two rather inexplicable ingredients in my recipe, then threw in one that would cause me a degree of constant perplexity about them both, all my days in the sunshine.

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