Park Lane

Jody2Hi, it’s Jody and I’m so happy to be with you as a permaent contributor to the Ol’ Reno Guy!

It’s my turn again to tell a story about part of our “Greatest Little City.”  I hope you have as much fun reading it as I did writing it.  A special thanks to those who have reached out to me with story ideas, photos and other things that will help keep the Reno memories alive.

With the stores all shuttered for this plague, my mind harkens back to the ‘eighties when hair was big, vinyl records were all the craze and the term “mall-rat” needed no explanation.

Sure, record albums are back on the uptick but the days of teen-agers killing time cruising the mall is now only a national pastime of bygone days.

A typical weekend for my group of a dozen friends meant whiling away the hours at Park Lane Mall, and eventually, once-erected ‘waaaaaay south of town, the newfangled Meadowood Mall.

Park Lane’s… Weinstocks…. Miller’s Outpost… Orange Julius… House of 5-7-9… Casual Corner…  Woolworth’s… Stuart Anderson’s Black Angus… World of Toys… Waldenbooks… Xanadu…Roos Atkins and Joseph Magnin, and so any more…

All of these lined the 46-acre complex in the late 1960s at the corner of South Virginia Street at Plumb Lane. Before that, casinos and stores shared the downtown, drawing both tourists and Truckee Meadows families. Until six local men decided to transform the south Reno farmland, lined with giant cottonwoods, into the largest Nevada shopping center of its time.

“I even vaguely remember when it was an outdoor mall,” said Jenny Breen-Angella, referring to the later enclosure that happened in 1979. “Oh and we used to get the most amazing taco salads at a kiosk in the middle! We lived there.”

Sears started the migration out of downtown, leaving some to worry that the town’s core would rot if only casinos were left: A situation that is still a topic of conversation with the city council. But that was something for the adults to worry about back then.

Mirabelli’s Records       BOLD-FACE   ITALS PLEASE

Yes, it deserves its own listing. Shoppers passed by the racy Frederick’s of Hollywood, naughty Spencer’s, Foxmoor, or the See’s Candies but the record store was the main destination for people my age. The number of hours spent there was only comparable to the vast number of albums available for purchase.

Mirabelli’s opened downtown, then relocated to the Village Shopping Center but found its permanent home here near the beautiful Ginsburg antique clock, which had been moved from the west side of Virginia Street in front of Ginsburg Jewelers. Sitting under that magnificent timepiece, you’d often find another Reno mainstay, Ed Carlson, who most remember as simply “The Waver.”

I still have a hand-written, inspirational note and rock given to me by the quintessential, sandaled and bearded man who made an almost-daily trek between Reno and Carson for more than 40 years, waving at motorists who, in turn, rolled down their windows to wave and smile back.

In keeping with the city’s hotel and casino boom in the late seventies, planners decided Park Lane with its 600,000 square feet of retail space was not enough. A bigger, better and even further-south shopping center was about to do to Park Lane what Park Lane had done to downtown.

I remember the drive to Meadowood Mall well. The route from my home in west Reno called for us to travel a quiet, two-lane road through a stunning tunnel of cottonwoods, known at the time as Hash Lane: A far cry from current South McCarran Boulevard.  The east-west roadway stretched for one mile between Plumas and Virginia streets. Now, it is part of the six-lane, 24-mile road that encircles Reno.

Almost reminiscent of the first migration away from downtown, Park Lane’s decline happened in the shadows of the new mall. This time JCPenney, one of the last downtown holdouts, led the way when in spring 1979 Meadowood opened, with 1.4 million square-feet of space.

Ice skating…Macy’s… Liberty House… Lord Byron’s Pizza Pub … Sneed Hearn Ltd (that Summer-of-Love’s store’s name borrowed from W. C. Fields by Karl’s classmate George Cross). Eventually, Sears makes yet another move, this time away from Park Lane to Meadowood.

Then-Park Lane manager Mark Darwin characterized the rivalry like this: Park Lane has the advantage of tradition and a casual relaxed atmosphere. In contrast, one can feel out of place in blue jeans in Meadowood’s gracious but sterile, white-walled mall, according to a March 23, 1981 story in the Reno Gazette Journal.

By 2007, Park Lane was torn down and yet another mall, The Summit, opened even farther south of the once-too-far-out-of-town Meadowood. Sears has departed, this time to bankruptcy, and a lonely dirt pile was all that was left of Park Lane Mall for more than a decade.

A stark contrast to last year, when the empty lot became a bustling construction site that is to become a parking garage, surrounded by up-scale apartments and, yes, retail to once again grace the grounds.

And the grand, 1920s-style Park Lane clock, one of the few four-dial clocks still in operation in the U.S., was moved back to downtown Reno in 2013, a half-block from the spot where its Reno tenure began.  Perhaps a reminder of the cyclic nature of things.  And hopefully, an appreciation of Reno’s past as old meets new…

I’ll visit with you again soon; I know so far this week I’m putting the finishing touches on a piece about the Coney Island Amusement Park, a childhood friend and neighbor of Karl’s is working on a story, and that six-year-old-kid is hatching up another of his yarns!

Karl started what became a tradition on these Ol’ Reno Guy pages and I’ll perpetuate it here: Stay safe, huh?



Grabbin’ Rubber in All Four Gears… virtual HAN

It should be said that following a lot of Hot Augusts Night celebrations and almost that many columns, this solemn truth fell over me: We didn’t own the cars that evoke our long-gone hot August nights; our parents did. We were cool, draggin’ main in Jon Key’s robin’s egg-blue ’57 Chev, but in truth his mother Kay, a great lady, loaned it to us. The Beach Boys should write a song about that forgotten aspect of our youth…

1956 Ford F-100Fuzzy dice need no introduction here, but I’m challenged to find anyone who ever had them in 1959; a churchkey was more prevalent, ’cuz we were wild ‘n’ crazy guys who could make a six-pack of Burgermeister from the Santa Claus Market last all night. Nor do I recall poodle skirts; we were young and foolish but our chicks weren’t that completely goofy. Air conditioning was a novelty in the ’50s – a GM car with factory air had a telltale air intake bubble on each side just behind the rear doors. Windwings, by federal law, should be restored. All of us had “4-40” air conditioning: four windows down, 40 miles an hour. Or, if it’s a really hot Friday night downtown, put one of the old swamp coolers in your back window, fill it with water, plug it in to your cigarette lighter, then put a bag over your head, as you’ll look like a complete nerd, or a “square”, the pre-nerd term. But a comfortable nerd. Evaporative coolers remain in the J.C. Whitney catalogue to this day, and they still work like crazy. One was a salvation for our family on a 1953 summer ride from Ralston Street to the Great Atlantic’s shore in our 1950 straight-8 Buick. Six thousand miles, all with a bag over my head.

Safety was not a big deal – look at some old show cars downtown today with chrome bullets on the steering wheel hub, knobs and dials that stick out everywhere on the dashboard, and door handles and hood ornaments to impale errant pedestrians (the spear hood ornament of the aforementioned Buick could shish-kebab one average Sunday reader or three second-graders.) Lincoln led the pack in the late ’50s with a Dolly Parton-esque doodad on either side of the radio that would eviscerate both the driver and passenger long before the windshield glass filleted them. Seat belts? “They’ll never last,” pooh-poohed Mechanix Illustrated’s ace auto writer Tom McCahill in about 1952. “The ‘Mer’can public will never accept ‘em.” Should we tell Tom about the Ziploc baggie that would snap out of the dashboard 30 years later to plant him against his seat as the engine block of the oncoming car was heading for his trunk? Nawww…

“I’ll never pay two hundred dollars for a gadget that does this, and this, and this,” I vividly remember a friend of my dad’s saying about 1950, moving his right hand in the pattern of low, second and high gears on the shift column (”three-on-the-tree,” preceding “four-on-the-floor.”) He later became a Washoe County district judge, and no doubt went to his reward in a stick-shift, $200 the richer. Acceptance was slow, of Hydramatic, Dynaflow, FordoMatic, Fluid Drive and Powerglide – “slush,” we called them, or PNDLR. In fact, the earlier units didn’t even have a “park” gear. (In later years we’d pay a premium for four-on-the-floor over slush. Go figure.) Apropos of that, all remember what the “4-4” stand for in an Olds 4-4-2, four-on-the-floor and a four-barrel carburetor, but the “2” is usually forgotten – it’s for dual exhaust.

Any guy who worked in a service station, which was almost all of us in my era, learned where to find hood latches and gas filler caps. If you’re downtown later today, ask the proud owner of a 1956 or ’57 Chevrolet to show you the gas fill door, or neater yet, the many Cadillacs from ’49 on, where you twisted here or pushed the reflector there to raise the taillight lens to get to the fill cap – sheer poetry in engineering. Ford and Chrysler leaned toward fill caps concealed behind a spring-loaded license plate in the center, another feature that should be mandated by federal law. Handy as hell…


The beat goes on: Dashboard prisms to see the stoplights, when intersections only had one light, always hung over the center of the intersection above a driver’s view. Dimmer switches on the floorboard, where they belong. Push-button starter buttons and two-position day-night inside mirrors, a big deal when they came out (early 1950s); I have one on my Honda and have never switched it in 92,000 miles. Automatic headlight dimmers —the first one I remember was on a neighbor’s ’51 Caddy. Didn’t work then, they still don’t in 2015. [or 2020!]

Several of you wrote about what we really, truly called Hot Pink cars (last week’s column). While we all know what my heart was typing, this is a family column. They’re just plain Hot Gazoo Pink. And the family aspect also precludes writing about chrome plating the glove box doors on ’49 through ’54 Chevys – ask your dad or hubby about that – he’ll know…

Come back in a week; maybe I can find another virtual  Hot August Nights column…!

Photo of Red Kittell’s red panel truck under the Reno Arch © Hot August Nights … two old farts in the red Jeep are me driving my SF buddy Paul Meaney

A Kodak moment…

A trip back to the home my family moved into in 1955  – affectionately known as the “Puzzle Palace” – always held a fascination for me. I usually threw in a piece of raw meat to ascertain the mood of those who dwelt after I left it in 1961, and by 1971 my mother was the last to occupy it.


On a pleasant summer Sunday afternoon in 2004 I visited the home and was engaged in hand-watering a piece of lawn that defied the home’s sprinkler system. I was reclining in a folding chair that either I had stolen from the Reno Air Races or donated to them – I was never sure – downing a bottle of Mickey’s Hard Cider and quite content to just watch he world pass by. Life was good.

A nice-looking car drove up, then stopped. Two young well-dressed gents got out; one with his camera started taking pictures, the other approached me. “We need your house,” he proclaimed. “You’ve got it,” I  responded. “The old lady in the master bedroom goes with it.”

“No, no, no,” he countered. “We’re with Hot August Nights’ publicity firm, and this house is configured just the way they want it.” He described what they had been driving around, seeking: They wanted a south-facing white or light-colored house with a generous two-car driveway and windows on a second floor above the garage. The Puzzle Palace had all these attributes.

The scenario for the forthcoming 2005 poster was that the young chick/daughter of the home’s owners, had been forbidden to see a certain rowdy dude with a hopped-up jalopy. But, as lovebirds will do, he and she elected to violate this edict and by prearrangement, he would show up with a ladder and she would exit a bedroom window to join her swain. At sunset. Risky Business, it was to be called. Made sense to me.

“We will need the total run of your house and yard from about 3 o’clock to 10 o’clock at night, to prep the house and driveway then restore it to the way it was before we get here.”  So, deal was done. “A contract will come to you with releases for our crew and…….blah blah blah.” “Just tell me the date,” I asked. They said that the graphic director would have to compute the optimum time of sunset, and then they’d let me know. Made sense to me, said I.

Compute the optimum time of sunset? I thought that they were turning fun into hard work, computing the right time of sunset for a snapshot. I had no idea…

So, back into their car they went, and back to my watering went I. Thinking that I probably should tell the old lady in the master bedroom. Naahhh, not yet, I decided, and popped another Mickey’s.


The contract and the agreement arrived to turn the Puzzle Palace over from the old lady in the master bedroom to the Hot August Nights publicity firm. I executed it on the “owner” line and put it back into the mail – no sense having to explain anything. Yet. The day for the shoot – weather permitting – as I recall was near June 21, longest day of the year.

As the owner I felt an obligation to make the parties comfortable. A trip to Raley’s resulted in a supply of soft drinks and beer with few bags of chips. I dragged an extension cord out of the garage for power. The hose reel was close by. I hid my purloined, or donated, Air Race lounge chair. I was ready.

Three o’clock came and went. Maybe I got the wrong day. Or they did. The first sign of life came when the catering truck – Pinocchio’s or Nothin’ To It – I forget which – rounded the corner. A catering truck? Yup. I offered them the extension cord. They had their own generator.. In the ensuing six hours, they’d  make sandwiches and nosh for the cast of thousands apparently headed this way. And mixed drinks. So much for my trip to Raley’s!

The neighbors started to appear, two-by-two. A crew appeared in a pair of vans – some began hosing down the driveway, others went in the house, taking screens off windows, tying back drapes and placing light fixtures that they’d brought. Another truck appeared, towing a small trailer. Within the trailer, a generator. So much for my extension cord.

More neighbors showed up – the number grew to maybe 40, eventually 100 or so – all were offered a sandwich or a drink. A police car drove up – I thought this ought to be good…the cop got out and said, “Just came by to see the photoshoot – we heard it was this afternoon…what time do you need to close the street?” “Have a sandwich,” I said.

An hour later, the street all but blocked by vans, food trucks, theatrical lamps on dollies that would later allow the home to show even although it was to be dark outside, the generator trailer with cords snaking all over the vista, came the stars of the show: the rods. A candy-apple orange ’32 Ford two-door sedan, and a ’57 Chevy ragtop.

And the personalities on the double date arrived: one guy who would sit in the sedan, rolling a joint or whatever, awaiting the others; a young couple, he to climb the ladder and help his breathless date with her poodle skirt climb out my old bedroom window, while the dude in the sedan’s date, a young lady of extreme beauty with bodacious ta-tas would hold the ladder for the escaping couple. And all dressed right out of Reno High School authentic 1959 Under-the-Dome garb, one dude with a pack of Lucky Strikes rolled up in his sleeve. I think the Luckies went bye-bye in the name of political correctness. They all arrived in one car and posed with the neighbors for photos.

I peered around at this specter. Yikes…what have I enabled????

Various camera positions were tried, and the orange sedan was relocated several times until all was just right. The camera was a large-format industrial film camera, with a digital camera mounted to it to capture the same image as the main unit for use in aiming the units. Many of the strobe lights in place – those in the sedan – were slaved to the camera.

The old lady in the master bedroom asked, “What’s going on in the yard?” “Oh, a few people taking pictures of the house, Mom.” No sense going in to a lot of detail.

The hour for the photo was drawing nigh. There was really no need for the Bel Air Chevy in the poster, but it was parked in the driveway where the signature “V” on its trunk could be seen. Lights were placed in the orange sedan, and beneath it on the chassis, to fill in the shadows. Large silver umbrellas were placed to bounce light onto all in the scene, and the generators cranked up and the floodlights came on, to wash the house in a dim light. Note that the photo was taken with a tiny amount of daylight still visible through the tree branches above the car…


The poster appears again here for the convenience of deciphering what I’m attempting to convey in the text       

One on-the-scene, seat-of-the-pants decision was made, occasioned by the home’s window fenestration behind the Ford, which is actually the dining room of the home. There was a dark void above the trunk of the Chevy, so a lamp was placed to illuminate it. It still appeared awkward, so a neighbor lad was seized and placed in the window, portraying a little brother, holding his hand over his mouth in awe of his big sister’s tawdry behavior!

The field review of the shots, made by the inspection of the digital twins to the actual film captures, revealed that there were sufficient shots to work with in the darkroom and computer, to make into a poster for the HAN event the next year. And so, the task of restoring the Puzzle Palace to a residence and not a movie set, began. Piece-by-piece, item-by-item, window screen-by-screen, peace once again reigned over the manse. Sort of.

The vans, food trucks, generator trailers, the police car and others left one-by-one (did I mention that good ol’ Engine 5 from the Mayberry firehouse dropped by?); the ’57 Chevy and the ‘34 Ford rods cruised off and the two young couples went up Windy Hill to neck for a while then off to the Mapes Coffee Shop for a sundae.

And in time I got a handful of posters in the mail. I framed one, and showed it to the old lady in the master bedroom. “Why, that’s your old room,” she remarked. “And who’s that climbing out your window? And who owns that orange jalopy in our driveway? When was this? What kind of people are you bringing over here, anyway?”

As I wrote, peace reigned again at the Puzzle Palace, sort of …

text © Karl Breckenridge … poster art © Hot August Nights

Don Hartman checks in with a July Fourth memory (warning: it involves accordions) Don writes:

DonHartmanI could not be with you and Hank Philcox [below right] long on July Fourth as my mom had to drive me to a house off Wells Avenue where Frank Greco’s Accordion Band float awaited me. A large flatbed hay truck donated by Belli’s ranch carried Greco’s Band. About 40 chairs were arranged on the flatbed for the players. The day before, we squeeze-box players decorated the truck into a float…….chicken wire strung around the bottom of the truck even around the outside of the wheels. The 30 or 40 kids put their strong keyboard-playing-fingers to work by shoving napkins into the chicken wire and after many hours……a beautiful Fourth of July float for Frank Greco’s Accordion Band!
So, I left you and Hank and climbed aboard Frank Greco’s Accordion Band flatbed/Fourth of July float and we were off, all dressed alike….black pants, white button-down, long-sleeve shirts, red vests and cowboy hats. The big truck carrying 40 kids with their accordions joined the parade around the State Building in downtown Reno. The truck would drive us up Sierra Street (two-way then!) following the mounted horses, Black Maria paddy wagon, cheerleaders, clowns, Native Americans, the sheriff’s posse and even, I think, Dr. N. A. “Tink” Tinkham’s wonderful Reno Municipal Band.
The parade would then march from Commercial Row to Virginia Street and south HankPhilcoxtoward First Street under hundreds of colorful banners strung across the street – RENO RODEO! All the while we kids pounded out and squeezed out Sousa’s Washington Post march, Anchors Away and When the Caissons go Rolling Along. The parade would wind down First Street to Center and eventually to Valley Road – all the while we squeezed ourselves, by now much wilted from the hot sun, to the Reno Rodeo grounds.
The Reno Fourth of July parade would halt at the entrance to the big, dusty, hot dirt area that would soon feel the hooves of bucking broncos and bulls and clowns protecting the cowboys who were flung far and wide off a bull or bronco. And there we sat under the blazing son. Keyboard too hot to touch. Hot air building-up in our squeeze box.
PacettiBy then I wish I had ditched Frank Greco’s Accordion Band float and gone with Karl and Hank to the cool Idlewild pool. My parents packed a large ice chest with Mason jars of cherry Kool-Aid that would somewhat revive the squeeze-box kids and finally the truck and the whole parade would circle the dusty rodeo field while we kids squeezed out God Bless America. By then, I was so tired and hot I did not want to go to the wonderful fireworks display at Mackay Stadium hosted by Harolds Club. But after drinking more of mom’s cold cherry Kool-Aid, I was ready to meet Karl and Hank along with Willie Molini at University Market and walk over to the University of Nevada campus to enjoy a Reno, Nevada Fourth of July authentic fireworks show above the old Mackay Stadium.
Many thanks, Don; we always look forward to your writings and recollections…! 

July 4  • The Fourth of July!


This is a fine how-do-you-do? Dad took off with Mr. Blakely and Mr. Corica to work at the Reno Rodeo, which is always on the Fourth of July. And I’m home with my baby sister and my mother on Ralston Street. But not for long! I’m takin’ off down the hill with my buddies Hank Philcox and Don Hartman to see what’s going on downtown this holiday weekend with all the people in town for the rodeo! HA!

LoudspeakerTruckSo Dad, while you’re opening beer cans for the Jaycees at the rodeo grounds in the heat and the dust, I’m off. Walking down Ralston Street I can really see a lot of cars, more than usual, on West Fourth Street. Most of the better motels built after the war are either east or west of town. I got to stay In one a couple weeks ago when my Aunt Isabel came to Reno from Petaluma, down by the San Francisco Bay where Mom grew up. She stayed at a motel with a swimming pool and that was the first pool I ever swam in. I’ve swum in the Russian River by Guerneville but the pool is pretty neat too.

Coke truckI walk toward downtown and get to Virginia Street, where the rodeo parade is starting to march. There’s a big truck down by the railroad tracks with a loudspeaker on the roof. Some of the gasoline companies, and the Auto Club, or Three A or whatever dad calls it, have these trucks and send them around the country to rodeos and parades and stuff where somebody wants to talk to a bunch of people. I cross the highway at Virginia Street, the busiest intersection in Nevada. I better go home before I catch hell for sneaking off.

Many have accused me of dogging it this Fourth of July weekend because I haven’t written anything new. C’mon, I’m only a little guy and it’s a holiday and it’s hotter than a bride’s breath so I’ll post soon, soon, soon….beside, I’m trying to listen to a New York Giants baseball game on the radio – everybody says that some day it will be on a “television” set right in our living room but today it’s on KOH, live from Detroit. Hard to write and watch at the same time.

Harolds Club BuickI was asked what’s around the bend on these little walks we’re taking. Well, I can tell you – I want to get Dad to take me down to Harold’s Club – note that as I write this  in the 1940s it’s still using an apostrophe in the name. In a few years it will go away. If we can walk down on a Saturday morning between 10 o’clock and noon, Mr. Smith closes the second floor of the casino so that kids can go in. I want to see the “Roaring Camp” stuff that Mr. Smith bought from Mr. Stagg and all the old guns and saddles the blue Buick station wagon with the steer horns and stuff. There’s supposed to be a bar with silver dollars in the bar. I’ll tell you all about that soon.

Another story is going to be about learning to swim in Reno. I’ve received a lot of letters from readers at our home on Ralston Street, asking me to write about old swimming places like Reno Hot Springs and Lawton’s west of Reno (pictured), Idlewild Pool in Reno (the new one, not the big pond on the west side of the park that was the first LawtonsTowercommunity pool). And Baker’s Stables a long way south of Reno and Deer Park in Sparks, that only opened right after the war. And I also have some notes about the people who gave us swimming lessons, like Marcie Herz, Rick Burgess at that new pool at the Riverside Hotel and some of our friends like Billy Berrum who show us about swimming at Moana Springs. Billy’s a good guy, only a little bit older than me, maybe ten years old. (And in a few years Mrs. Conrad would slap me for writing “older than me” when it should be “older than I” but I’m too young to get hung up on grammar.)

Dad still goes down to Sparks a lot in his business, and one day got me in to the railroad’s locomotive shop. I got to climb up onto a cab-forward steam engine. They30070 cab forward were working the shaking tank in the shop and I got to see (and feel!) that. And they’re starting to tear down the roundhouse at the south end of 8th Street in Sparks, (later they’d call it Pyramid Way). Writing is funny, in Reno it’s written “Eighth Street” which is up by the University but in Sparks it’s written “8th Street”. I’ll never make a very good writer.

Dad’s friend says that we should take a good look at the old steam locomotives because pretty soon they’ll all be those boring streamliners. I didn’t know it then but the last steam engine that would roll through Reno and Sparks on a revenue basis would be pretty soon – late October of 1949. After that we only saw them in the winter pushing plows or pulling heavy trains over Donner Summit. I’ll try to find a picture of one for you.

We got out to the new airport a while ago and Dad drove right out onto the runway so we could watch the Nevada Air Guard land a couple of P-51 “Mustangs” – little fighter planes. And we watched a United Air Lines DC-3 take off for San Francisco. And we went up into the “control tower” on the second floor of the United terminal and hangar. That was pretty cool and I’ll try to write it down.

C-119We had a little excitement in Reno and western Nevada last winter – it got really snowy and the cows and sheep couldn’t get to their pastures to the Army Air Corps brought in a bunch of huge freighter airplanes that had doors in the back, and all the men of Reno and Sparks met out at the airport to load hay into the planes to drop to the livestock. We’ll read about that. Dad got to go on a couple of their flights.

Yeah, Idlewild Park, for sure. I’ll write about the zoo at the park, and our class going to the Old Home Dairy across the street from the park, where we get a lot theCalifornia Building milk around Reno. And the fishing derby. Virginia Lake has a new park too. We’ve gone to some Reno band concerts out there in July, in August they’ll all move to the “Quad” at the University where we can walk from our house. Dad and Mom know some people who play for that band. And we get watermelon during the show and get to march to a Sousa march around the Quad with Mr. Tinkham the bandleader. And the grownups – can’t sing worth a darn but they end with “Home Means Nevada.”

Got to go to the neighbors’ for some hot dogs. Fireworks tonight at Mackay Stadium, Joe Battaglia and the Men of Renown will do the National Anthem as usual. Sorry to bail on you  early but the game’s tied at 3-3 and the barbecue’s starting.

Be safe out there, come back once in a while….

If you came here looking for the story about Ronald Reagan and the Fourth of July at Edwards Air Force base click right about here


A Fourth of July with President Reagan

We now turn the clock back to 1982, in the early days of July.  We planned to travel to Palmdale, California. The high point of a normal Palmdale weekend would usually be the bookmobile arriving from Los Angeles, or tickets to the matinee performance at Western Auto, but on that weekend the space shuttle Columbia, on its fourth mission STS-4, was arriving on Sunday, July 4th, astronauts Ken Mattingly and Henry Hartsfield at the con.

            747 shuutle

          With that in mind, I went to Senator Howard Cannon’s office then on Booth Street and wrangled a VIP invitation to Edwards Air Force Base, where the shuttle was landing. No problem, I was a good Nevadan. We journeyed to Palmdale on July the second, and on the third, a Saturday, we went to the large NASA hospitality building in Lancaster – adjoining Palmdale as Sparks adjoins Reno. To give credit where due, the name “Cannon” rocked the staff due to his advocacy of the Senate aerospace and defense committees, and the kids were treated like kings – tours of past Gemini capsules, “rides” on moon landers, and other courtesies – and we left with four human passes, one for my Suburban’s windshield and some cool NASA baseball caps like the big guys wear. We were advised the landing had been delayed until 9:02 AM that Sunday (tomorrow) morning, from 8:53 AM, so we changed our plans accordingly.

            The view of the Mojave Valley foothills that Saturday night was breathtaking – the firelight of Coleman lanterns and campfires ringing the valley – Caltrans estimated that a million people had camped in the surrounding hills to watch what was planned to be the last west coast space shuttle landing, ever. At oh-dark-thirty on Sunday the Fourth of July we left for Edwards AFB, and upon entering the base, the Suburban was checked from cellar to attic, and beneath with mirrors – for at 9 o’clock the night before it was announced that President Ronald Reagan was coming to witness the shuttle landing. We walked interminably across a parking lot, and I have a photo to this day of a large – make that huge – Rosey Grier look-alike Secret Service agent, who met all at the gate with “Take my picture!” then smiled a display of Ipana-ad white teeth – the purpose to make sure all cameras were indeed cameras and not guns or bombs or whatever.  Nice guy.NASA_T38

            At thirty minutes before 9 AM three tall young pilots, ramrod-stiff, flat-bellied in their powder blue NASA flight suits, arrived at their parked blue-and-white T-38 jet chase planes; the assembled ladies en mass all went ga-ga, the pilots kicked the tires and lit the fires, taxied out, rolled, and climbed out like a trio of homesick angels to points unknown. A moment later, the baseball-stadium-sized Diamondvision TV screens came to life, and the PA system carried the voice from NASA Houston, who was controlling the shuttle’s landing. The shuttle was then over the Santa Barbara Channel Islands, the chase planes transmitting images of it. “You are angels one-oh-two, four miles downcourse” – basically 102,000 feet straight up from Edwards. “Valve off your hydrazine,” and the shuttle complied with a vapor trail; the chase planes laid orange day smoke – all four aircraft now in full view from Southern California.

            “We’re coming down,” announced Hartsfield laconically, and did they ever – straight down, 40,000 people on the Edwards tarmac puckered, expecting the craft to bury itself in the desert. At the last moment, it leveled, its gear fell, the tail split into a brake, and the three T-38s strained to stay above it, using their dive boards, landing gear and full flaps to slow down.  The shuttle rolled to a stop. 9:02 AM. How did they know that a whole day earlier? (And I know,  most T-38s don’t have dive brakes. These were NASA birds, not your grandfather’s T-38s…)    

            Ronald Reagan, in the same western-cut informal duds he’d wear on his


11/25/1982 President Reagan and Mrs. Reagan horseback riding at Rancho Del Cielo

ranch on a Sunday morning, and his Nancy approached the podium and made a few remarks. He then cleared the NASA transporter for takeoff, a modified 747 with the shuttle Challenger. recently completed at Palmdale’s Plant 41, mounted atop it, to fly the new shuttle to Florida. The 747 rolled, rotated, then lifted gently off the desert floor. I watched it – but it never climbed out – just flew across the desert. Curious…

            A few minutes later, joined by the crew of the Columbia that had just landed, RonNancyReagan made a few more remarks. Then, turning to the audience, he concluded his speech with that great Reagan smile and “Nancy and I want to thank you all for coming out in this hot sun, and we want you to go home now and have yourselves one hell of a Fourth of Jul….”

            The 40,000 people, and millions at home watching TV, never heard the “y” in “July”, only the deafening whine of the 747 transporter’s four massive engines and the roar of the three T-38s, all four planes in a tight fingertip formation, coming up from behind the audience treetop-high at over 250 knots and pulling with MEDO power.  They all dropped their right wings in unison to the American flag behind the podium, just as the Marine band from NAS Miramar cued the Stars and Stripes Forever – John Phillip Sousa never heard it played any better.  The planes leveled their wings then climbed rapidly over Reagan’s shoulder as we viewed him, holding their formation in a left departure into the haze.

Our Fourth of July weekend had begun; the Challenger was away on its first trip to Cape Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, in his western White House Levis and a goat-roper shirt on that hot Sunday morning, had shown us the nexus of presidency and showmanship in its highest form. Dry eyes among 40,000 people: zero. Photos of the flyover by the surprised crowd: zero. Offers to re-enlist into the services: 14,307. Pride in the US of A: Priceless.

• •

Thanks for that morning, Dutch, and God bless America on her 244th birthday. And a happy and safe holiday to all on this 2020 July 4th!

© Karl Breckenridge  … photo credit aircraft NASA, at Rancho de Cielo Bettman Archives