The following is a tale of the Grandpa without a Clue. To elaborate, at a family gathering in San Mateo recently assembled some folks, dear friends all. On Saturday a cortège was leaving my younger son’s home – sons and daughters-in-law, grandkids, grandfathers, grandmothers – a lot of grand people in a flotilla of cars. The trip was to be short – through a quiet neighborhood to a youth ballpark where two granddaughters would play in separate games. The Final Boarding Process began. My grandson Andy spoke up: “I’ll ride with Grandpa Karl.”
I sensed a bonding moment. He examined my nearly-two-decade-old Miata ragtop rice rocket, fire-engine red and looking as if it were going Mach One, when in reality 65 MPH was about all it wanted to go. But it looked hot. Andy, now 15, offered to drive. “I can get us there.” Having lived 62 years longer, I sensed the peril of his request. “You have a learner’s permit yet?” I asked. “Working on getting it online. No,” he responded, strongly reminiscent of his father in 1982, absent the “online” afterthought.
“How bad could this be?” I pondered and flipped him the keys. “Don’t tell your Mom,” Mom was now aboard a car enroute to the ballpark. I entered the passenger side, he the driver side. I noted that he didn’t pull the seat forward, owing to his frame well on the way to his father’s 6’-4” range. He cranked up the tiny engine. He slipped it into gear and made a smooth start up the avenue. “You been driving your dad’s stick-shift much?” I asked. “Yup,” he answered. “Don’t tell my Mom.” We were off to the races. But not to the game – he passed the turnoff to the ballpark. I just sat and watched, my mind going back to having his dad drive me around in my pickup in 1981. We didn’t tell Mom about that either.
I sensed my error in giving him the keys when we turned onto the El Camino. A right turn put us on to Highway 92, and a short block later a big swoop put the rice rocket onto the Bayshore. He slipped into fourth gear, then high. Approaching the SFO airport a Boeing 747 that had probably just ridden United’s Friendly Skies from Hong Kong for the past 13 hours was paralleling our route, low and slow in the clear blue sky with full flaps and all the gear hanging. “Take a good look; that’s the Queen of the Skies and we won’t see them in another year.” The death knell has sounded for the Seven-Fours and soon they’d all be parked in Mojave, replaced by the Triple Sevens and the big Airbuses. Quite a sight. North we went on US101, and in a quick glance in my outside mirror I saw a BMW 1600 in our wake, with an older gent in a jaunty driving cap, surely a grandpa, and an underage kid at the wheel. Curious…
The light towers of AT&T Park came into view on the right. The Giants were in New York, but Jon Miller was on the radio, Pence was on second and Crawford was at the plate. Out Third Street to Van Ness and then Geary, turning south onto 19th Avenue. Looking around, the same Beemer was on our tail, but now with a ’57 T-Bird driven by a kid with an old guy like me next to him, and in the inside lane a classic MG TD, with a youngster driving a geezer. Four old ragtops…curious.
Past Coit Tower and the Golden Gate’s orange towers we went, a Goodyear blimp overhead, out 19th Avenue, Stonestown and the Parkmerced Apartments to our right, an SF Muni “M” streetcar on our left. A slight jog at Junipero Serra put us on Highway 280. “Wanna hit the Crab Shack?” Andy asked. I told him no, we’d better get to the ballgame to watch his cousins. Our speed was still OK. Crawford singled with an RBI as Pence scored in New York. And I looked over my shoulder – yikes. The trailing Beemer, T-Bird and the MG had been joined by an early ragtop ‘Vette – a beauty with another youth driving an old guy with a yarmulke then a red Fiat 124 with a young dude named Luca driving what looked to be my buddy Joe Fazio from Marin. We took up the whole three southbound lanes of Highway 280. Still doing only 65, as student drivers with no permits should.
But passing Half Moon Bay, the blue Pacific to the west, I noted a black-and-white helicopter overhead, and joining the parade of ragtops in trail was a black Crown Vic, “San Mateo” on the white door over a gold star. We were busted. A CHP cruiser joined the Crown Vic, all with annoying red and blue lights. Then another. And into that mix, an old Mustang and a ’68 Camaro melded, with, you guessed it, underage drivers hauling grinning old guys. Turning off 280 in unison, a dozen old ragtops merged onto Highway 92 toward San Mateo, with half the police in the Peninsula following and by now three helicopters overhead. Highway spikes and flares crossed Highway 92 ahead. “What’ll I do?” said Andy over the deafening sirens.
“Punch it,” I responded.
Onlookers were mesmerized to see an aging red Miata, followed by the MG, the BMW, the 124, a T-Bird, a Jag XK120 [left] that had recently joined the convoy, with another half-dozen old roadsters rise up from the pavement, gently lifting through the low hills of west San Mateo, not unlike Elliot and his friends on their bicycles with E.T. in the basket in the Extraterrestial movie. Thin smiles crossed the countenances of the Grandpas without a Clue, and I think I even detected a slight grin on the mug of a rather senior CHP trooper alongside the formation as it made its mass ascent. In the manner of airmen everywhere, we tossed a thumbs-up to the other Grandpas and their underage chauffeurs, barrel-rolled the red Miata back to earth to a full-stop landing on the ballpark parking lot, chocked the tires and Andy flipped me the car keys with a grin.
“Don’t tell Mom,” I reminded him.
And this essentially fictitious tale is dedicated by all Grandpas without a Clue to Grandmas with an Attitude everywhere, and to Moms, on Mother’s Day [when this piece was published originally. And yes, the “Grandmas with an Attitude” was in tribute to Gazoo columnist Anne Pershing, who passed away four days prior to the piece’s appearance in the paper, and editor Brett McGinness let it stand as written].
Thanks for reading and believing, and God bless America.
The poor little guy was bawling his eyes out. What the heck………..?
I wheeled my Jeep toward him, a lone little figure about my son’s age, standing with a well-worn paper sack in his hands, ill-clothed and needing a haircut from a real barber, a lad truly matching one’s perception of an urchin. I stopped next to him and killed the engine.
“What’s up, Pardner?”
Through sobs and sniffles, I was able to put together the cause of the lad’s grief. It would seem that he received for Christmas, a model airplane kit for the P-51 Mustang that had raced in Reno every year since the races began ten years ago (I’m pegging this event as being in 1976). In the paper sack was the cover of the model’s cardboard box and the assembly instruction sheet.
He had started last Christmas, now nine months ago, to save his pennies and go to the Air Races the following September, and have Howie Keefe, the owner and pilot of Miss America, autograph the kit’s lid and the instruction sheet. But, upon trudging from his family’s home to Stead and presenting his meager funds at the ticket table for the air race pits – where the airplanes are tied down – he was informed that he was too young to go into the pit area – an FAA regulation and a good, valid one.
He was crushed – nine months of hopes and a dream were instantaneously brought to an end. He walked, alone, back along the fence line separating him from the pits, and broke into tears. His life was pretty bleak to begin with; this visit was his beacon since Christmas, and it was just unceremoniously extinguished. I’ve never seen a kid – or a human – that upset.
Let’s take a few paragraphs and fill in a cast of characters. Howie Keefe owned and flew the P-51 named Miss America, race number One-One. It was totally stock – no clipped wingtips, prop changes nor tail mods – and therefore not terribly competitive at Reno. But it had an easily identifiable and unique color scheme, which rivaled be best of Raymond Leowy, the dean of industrial designers who designed Air Force One. The plane got the attention of Revell Plastics, who paid owner Keefe not a small amount of coin to offer the plane as a plastic model about a foot long. The plane was a beauty, and well known by all.
OK, that said, the owner/pilot was a man named Howie Keefe. I tipped my hat to him as a former WWII Navy pilot with a zillion hours PIC and the respect of all with whom he flew or raced in air races around the country. He was immensely respected, in fact got a call from the NTSB to join the team of investigators of the crash at Stead that killed 11 souls and pilot Jimmy Leeward, who I knew and liked very much.
Yours truly was aboard due to my friendship, away from and prior to air racing, with the likes of Fred Davis, George Vucanovich, Stan Brown, Roy Powers, Jerry Duty and a few others who would form the crux of Reno air racing in its infancy. And my name and often photograph appeared for the next 31 years in 31 air race programs, as “Home Pylon Flagman” and later with “Finish Judge” following. I was in.
I looked at my watch. I had an hour-and-a-half until I needed to be at my post at Home Pylon. Plenty of time until the earliest race. I made a command decision. “Hop in,” I said to the urchin, nodding toward the Jeep’s right, co-pilot seat. He did.
Then I broke a couple, if not more rules – the FAA’s about underage people being beyond the “line” – the fence separating competition from spectators, and the Air Race’s, against bringing unticketed people into the pit. I cruised up to the gate and the look on my visage probably adequately conveyed that the Jeep and all it carried were coming in – leave it alone.
We drove through the pits. I noticed Jeremy (which by the way was the kid’s name) entranced with the whole vista. I found an extra Air Race Operations hat and offered it to him.
Soon, Pay Dirt! In a little shade-shelter very near Miss America, was a tall, elegant figure wearing a crisp red, white and blue flight suit. I stopped and said to Jeremy, come with me.
I was cheery to Keefe and his friends: “Hi Howie; I brought a little friend of mine to say hello; he’s got some stuff for you to sign!” Keefe looked at me askance, at Jeremy, at the official’s insignia on my hat, then said hi. Jeremy pulled the kit’s cover and the instruction sheet out, together with a heavy marking pen he just happened to have in the bag. And believe it or don’t, but Keefe asked Jeremy how to spell his name and signed both articles.
Jeremy’s nine-month quest had come true! But wait, it gets better:
“Howie,” I said, “May I show Jeremy your office in the Mustang?”
Keefe, as I expected he might, said, well why don’t I take him myself? Jeremy, as one might expect didn’t need a second invitation. They both clambered up the wing – I, by now the ex officio photographer, followed,
Not tall enough to sit on his butt in the cockpit, he scrunched on his knees while Keefe pointed out the “stuff” inside – the throttle, flaps, rudders, joystick, gear, radio, trim knobs. I dutifully clicked shots of Jeremy, Howie, the cockpit, the crowd. My favorite was one with Jeremy and Howie, both with a smile you could see a mile, looking at each other and playing with some control on the panel. A bonding moment, indeed.
Time was fleeting. I corralled Jeremy and thanked Keefe profusely. And he actually thanked me for bringing them together. Jeremy and I returned to the Jeep.
I had already broken a couple no-no’s that as an official I should have been busted for, but on the way out to the ramp, I decided that once your heels are off the ground, it doesn’t matter how high they hang you. I steered toward my duty at Home Pylon. Tower cleared me on my handy-talkie to cross the main runway, and Jeremy was put to work at Home. I sensed that the FAA overseer looked the other way.
Jeremy helped us raise Old Glory on cue, as eight Nevada Air Guard RF-4Cs passed over loud and proud just as the flag reached the top of the pole at the end of the Anthem.. He saw the Blue Angels, (the Thunderbirds?), from the best seat in the house. He saw air races. Some of my firemen buddies took him down to a crash truck. He learned how to cook hamburgers on a grill, the only skill really a requisite for working at Home Pylon. He helped us lower the flag and make a crisp tricorner fold, to fly another day.
Jeremy went to the air races. I took him home to a shabby trailer in Black Springs, to where 35 years before I drove a school bus. My first trip back. Yikes.
He was dead-ass tired – noise, excitement, smoke, seeing Howie – he’d had a day. I told him I’d see him in a couple weeks (I was shooting Kodachrome II back then with a Canon A-1; a bit different than pointing and shooting a digital today!). Roy Powers helped me get 8-by-10 copies of a dozen of the best pictures.
I went back to the trailer with the pictures in a fortnight. He was still on Cloud Nine. A Saturday, I took him to lunch. I wasn’t sure he was getting square meals.
I never saw him again. I sent some cards and letters, with return postage envelopes with my address. Nada. I went to his family’s home – they left, no forwarding address.
I’d like to end this with some Mitch Albom-feel good conclusion, but can’t. Howie Keefe, at 92, banged life’s throttle for the final time in the midsummer of 2013, pulled the stick back and climbed up, up, the long delirious burning blue over Florida where never lark nor ever eagle flew, and touched the face of God. His passing was an immense loss to the air racing and aviation community.
Jeremy? Dunno. He said during the brief tenure of our association that he’d like to join the Navy when he was old enough and work around airplanes. I’d like to think he won his Wings of Gold and is now the wing-king of an F/A-18 Hornet squadron flying off the Ronald Reagan. But I doubt it.
I’m just happy to have brought him that day at Stead. I write about Air Racing ad nauseam, or did a few years ago. But Jeremy’s story stayed within me, until this year. They’ll be back tearing up the skies over Stead in a few weeks. And for reasons unknown, I thought I’d put one last air race tale out.
I’d give anything to get that kid in the Jeep once more….
© Breckenridge 2018
Excerpt of Airman’s Prayer credit to John Gillespie Magee, Jr. “High Flight” 1940
Home Pylon Crew, 1984: from left, my younger son Brent; Dale Tucker, now the home pylon flagman; a fugitive from Reno 911 in shorts; Dale’s parents Polly and Ed Tucker, chief timers; chief judge Fred Hallett, the father of Reno Air Race timing and statistics. The latter three have passed away, Dale’s the head flagman
At rest in my lonely writer’s garret on a halcyon midsummer day, the Giants at home in their SF yard and coming on the tube soon; a quart of iced tea on my side table, my weekly “Geriatric Nocturnal Abstinence” advice column filed. What could go wrong with that?
My phone rings. I foolishly answer it. That’s what could go wrong with that.
On the west end of the line is my ol’ childhood buddy Jerry Lenzora, a favorite classmate of mine from Reno High’s vaunted Class of 1959 and one of the funniest guys in our class. He’s a retired outdoor advertising guru, residing for these many years in Ripon, California, a hoot-and-a-holler out of Manteca; a small farming town of ten or twelve thousand souls with a Western Auto store and a bookmobile that comes in from the Stanislaus County Library twice a week.
Jerry is all a-twitter. “I’ve a Hot August Nights human interest story for you that will knock your socks off.”
THAT’S what could go wrong. I tried telling Lenzora that I no longer write. I’m old, feeble, and my mind can no longer form sentences. I told him the local paper where I moiled once a week for 29 years no longer publishes me, and their readership has gone through the roof since I quit and they’re doing just fine. I strengthened the story by telling him that I’m under an order from the Ninth Circuit Court and thus can’t write anything to be published west of Denver, Colorado. But he kept jabbering. I told him that I had Carpal Tunnel Syndrome in both wrists, ankles and one knee. I told him that I’ve written about Hot August Nights until I was blue in the face, that it’s all been written.
I told him the dog stole my laptop (I liked that one). I told him, no, no. No more writing. Call Mike Sion. Call Guy Clifton. Call Erin Breen. But he kept talking. My protests were falling on deaf ears.
THAT’S what could go wrong.
So I listened to his fanciful tale, replete with classic cars and the guys who fix them, pretty girls, a local couple who own a day-care and a garden shop, a newlywed couple, a weirdo V-8 engine that GM once built, of one of the most dreaded diseases in the land, and other stuff pertaining, sort of, to the proposed writing assignment. Beaten down, I acceded to give it a go.
Getting into my Hot August Nights writing mode, as all readers should do prior to reading about it, let’s do the checklist: The family car air conditioning set to “440,” four windows down doing 40 MPH, check. At least two round trips on Virginia Street from Liberty Street northward turning left into Sewell’s parking lot and return to get into the mood, check. Chicks in hip-huggers, guys in 501s, what the hell were “poodle skirts” anyway and who ever had fuzzy dice hanging from their rear view mirrors? Check. Bud Buley, the Reno motorcycle cop we loved to hate, on his Harley in the vicinity. Check. And our tube-set car radios tuned to XEAK, the Mighty 690 AM with the Wolfman [left] spinning stax of wax and Jan and Dean and the Beach Boys. Check. We’re ready, let’s cruise. Or in my case, let’s write something. The Giants can wait, the iced tea will turn to Kirkland Margarita writing fluid in due course, and the sooner I get Lenzora tamed down the sooner peace will return to the Lonely Writer’s Garret.
We’ll start at the beginning, if such it is, by dropping the name of Sparks native Linda (née Franchi) and her husband Pawl Hollis [seen at right]; Linda the owner of Magic Tree Day Care and Pawl the owner of Rail City Nursery, and yes, the host of the radio show on KOH on Saturday mornings (the 1950s’ Big John & Sparky on KOH it’s not, but it’s pleasant anyway…)
We’re admittedly having a bit of fun with this story, but here the text inevitably reins in: In 2000 Linda’s sister Anita (Follett) succumbed to ALS – Lou Gehrig’s Disease. In an effort to perpetuate her sister’s memory Linda endowed the annual use of her cousin Jerry Lenzora’s HAN rod as an auction prize. Newlyweds Patrick and Jené Hickey [seen at left visiting the Grand Canyon] bid on it at an ALS Society dinner earlier this year, and won the ride.
But wait, a discouraging word (cue an ominous diminished chord riff on our piano): Jerry Lenzora turns the starter on the ride which has been nominated as the prime mover for the Hickeys’ 2018 Hot August Nights honeymoon cruising, and black smoke blows six ways from sundown. In a controlled panic, Jerry hauls what’s left of the little red Bel Air into Sam’s shop. Sam has a last name but it’s not finding its way into this text, because Sam is one of the diminishing fraternity of gearheads who make Hot August Nights possible, in fact without the Sams there may not be a Hot August Nights in coming years. I talked to Sam – he’s a fun guy. The Sams know the old hemis, the small-block Chevies, the Ford mills, what cools them, how their Hurst shifters and Holley and Carter carbs work and what keeps the vintage iron rolling. But, mostly-retired they sometimes don’t get quite fully signed up with the powers-that-be and they work a lot for cash, so Sam is henceforth known as Sam.
Sam checks out what’s left of Jerry’s Chevy and renders the opinion that the Chev’s 350 cubic-inch engine is, in a word, toast. Jerry, crushed, relates to Sam that the little coupe was destined to be a ride for a couple of newlyweds next month, an honor they had won as the successful bidders in an ALS Society auction, and what will I tell them?
Sam, no stranger to what makes car-guys think, says don’t tell them anything. We’ll make it roll. Jerry foresees a “new” rebuilt 350 going in, costing upwards of four or five large, and a nail-biter to be done in time for the HAN cruise. But Sam is ‘way ahead of him. He finds a 305-cube V-8 Chevy block, yes, 305; an off-breed that GM built mostly for vans and smaller GM cars like Pontiac’s and Oldsmobile’s compacts. “Let’s get these kids cruisin’,” said Sam with a merry twinkle in his eye.
He called our friend Jerry a week later, pointed to the Chevy in the garage bay, and said “Check it out.” The 305 looked like it had been under the hood forever with all the chromed bells and whistles. “Crank it,” said Sam. Jerry turned it over and it barked to life like a 427 – a deep, throaty rumble, which after all is why we like big bores and hemis – the mellow exhaust sound. “Here’s your bill,” Sam said.
Jerry looked at it and a moment later picked himself off the garage’s concrete floor. It was well-under a grand. Jerry, steeled for a five-grand hit, was out the door for a sixth of that.
“Tell those kids to have some fun!” said Sam as Jerry drove off in the Chevy, a glisten in his eye and Sam thus joining the honor roll of Good Guys for this 2018 ALS ride. In one sense, without his beneficence and celerity, the Hickeys’ newlywed cruise might not be happening in early August.
And, much the same can be said of Pawl and Linda Hollis who sponsor the cruise for a great cause, for a hideous malady that claimed my cousin’s life and the dad of one of my best friends. Certainly we note Patrick and Jené Hickey’s contribution, and that of my ol’ pal Jerry Lenzora, who went above and beyond to keep the little coupe rolling along this year.
So – during Hot August Nights, if you see a handsome young couple in a red-and-white 1956 Bel Air being squired around with an old guy at the wheel, that’s how their cruise came to be – give ‘em all a high-five!
Photos of the Bel Air © Shannon Kuhn and Jamie Eisinga from Birch & Blossom photography. Photo of Jerry Lenzora, who knows…?
The new cars models are out and a bunch of us from Whitaker and Peavine are going to ride our bikes down and see them! The salesmen in the showrooms aren’t too nuts about a bunch of rag-tag kids coming in and leaving their bikes in their doorway but how else are we going to know how the new cars work? And someday we may buy a car, so HA!
I s’pose we rode to see the Studebakers first, since they were at Western Distributing on the northeast corner of Sierra and the Lincoln Highway. They sold American Flyer trains and hardware too. Studebaker had been around since they first made covered wagons for the pilgrims. And they made a lot of wartime stuff, like Weasels and Ducks. Their cars were pretty neat, and they sold a lot of pickups too. I didn’t know it in 1950, but in a few years they’d build the Avanti, which could have been America’s Corvette if they knew what they were doing.
Just to the west a couple blocks, across Chestnut Street where the high school would this year become “Central Junior High School,” was Oden Motors, that sold a bunch of foreign cars, like Jag and MG and Austin, later the Austin Healey, and Mercedes Benz. Those Mercedes were a little over $3,500 a car, the most expensive car in Reno! And the Jaguar XK-120 was one of the prettiest cars ever made. Mercedes would later move to the northeast corner of Virginia and Liberty Streets.
Richardson-Lovelock Ford was to the east, on what I guess was now called “Center Street,” but not too long ago was “University Street” and some maps and Yellow Page ads still show University. Ford was a big seller, had some pretty neat cars, but I mostly wanted a pickup truck like my Uncle Vic’s, which was an “F-1”. But I’d probably never get one, because I’m only nine years old and those pickups cost over six hundred dollars, more than the Ford cars.
We rode down Virginia Street past the courthouse, where there were a bunch of car dealers. Scott Motors sold Cadillacs and Buicks and at one time sold the Durant, a high-end General Motors car. My dad bought a 1950 Buick from Mr. Scott. He was a pretty neat guy; he had a Lockheed Electra like that lady pilot who got lost flying around the world. His son was my age and would later run the dealership. But I didn’t know that in 1950. Buicks had a touch that would continue I’ll bet until at least 2018 – they had “portholes” on the sides of their hoods, three was for Special, Super, and Century; four was for Roadmaster, their big expensive model. They all had big engines, bigger than other GM cars. And the Cadillacs in the same showroom, on the west side of Virginia where Ryland dead-ends into it, were no doubt the ritziest car on the road. Some had air conditioning, and a gadget to dim your headlights when a car was in front of you. Dad said it didn’t work.
The Pontiac dealership was a block to the east, on Center and Ryland. Mr. Winkel owned that. Dad got a 1950 Pontiac “Catalina,” a two-door coupe that GM introduced that year that was designed to look like a convertible. Chevrolet had the “Bel-Air” version, and Oldsmobile the “88” model – all hardtops. Our Catalina (second from the left, light-colored car) was in a picture of Lee’s Drive-In on Sierra and Fourth Street that I found by accident researching drive-ins. But that was a lot later, I was a really old man then, about 50. Marsh Johnson’s Chevrolet was north on Virginia across Court Street from the courthouse. Mr. Johnson would later build a shopping “mall,” they called them later, called “Park Lane” a couple miles south of town.
Waldren Oldsmobile was just south of Scott Motor’s Buick. Mr. Waldren would be one of the first to move off “auto row” on Virginia Street, staying on Virginia Street but building a whole new building just south of what would later be “Plumb Lane” by Mr. Johnson’s shopping mall. In later years there would be no Oldsmobiles (nor Pontiacs!) and the Oldsmobile dealer would become a fish/sushi place. Yecch…raw fish……
We parked our bikes and toured the Dick Dimond Dodge dealership at South Virginia and Moran Streets and looked at those cars. Their dealership’s building was really pretty, said by some to be designed by a man named Frederic Delongchamps. I got in trouble once for writing that it looked just like an auto dealership on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco designed by prominent SF architect Willis Polk so I won’t write that again. I got a picture of it from my buddy Jerry Fenwick – someday I’ll write about Jerry’s parents’ art shop downtown. The Dodge and the other MOPAR cars had a “Fluid Drive” – kind of an automatic transmission that you had to shift, but the clutch was automatic. Dad had a 1948 Dodge and like most Chrysler products the back-up light, which had to be turned on and off manually, was always on.
Dad and my uncle John and their friend Wayne Spencer were once in San Francisco, and while my mom and aunt and sister and all took off downtown to the City of Paris and Gump’s and Maiden Lane, my dad and John and Wayne had a few in some dive bar and got pretty well toasted, and Dad went up the street and bought a Chrysler convertible with wood sides. The next day he had to go back to the dealership on Van Ness Avenue and beg and plead to call off the purchase. It was almost a two thousand dollar car anyway so he probably wouldn’t have been able to buy it. But we sure had fun, and was sorry to see him back out. Mom was, well, I’ll write of that another time. Above, is the Chrysler New Yorker
We didn’t have to ride our bikes too far from Dodge to see the new Lincolns and Mercurys – just across Virginia Street. The Mercury (at left) was kind of a ho-hum car, not too much different than a Ford, (who owned Lincoln and Mercury), and the one in the picture has “suicide doors” (like the Lincoln below) – the rear side door hinged in back, so that if the car gets in a wreck the front and back doors jam and no one can get out. But the Lincoln was a great, big luxurious barge, the choice of many rich people and government officials, and the Continental (below) was about the only specialized, souped-up car made in America. It had a V-12 engine – the biggest of the other cars had a V-8. And most had just a straight-line six cylinder engine. The Reno Motors showroom, which I didn’t know then, would later become the casino for the Ponderosa Hotel, and even later a place called a “men’s club” where ladies would parade around naked. Yecch – sounds like an air conditioning and heating problem that needs repair to me but what do I know? I’m only nine years old.
Ya know, this is getting too long. Dad says the most I should write is four sheets of binder paper or people won’t get through it. There’s more to be written – the foreign cars, the trucks, and the attempts at “compact” cars like the Henry J (left) and the Crosley – let’s get together another time and we’ll ride off to more early Reno auto dealerships…see ya all soon, right back here…
Photo credit Jerry Fenwick for the Osen Motors Dealership building – the rest, God only knows..
Well, here we go, together again! I’ve not written for a couple weeks while I was benched for my poor behavior, but now I’m on the loose again – my neighbors here in the new house on Sunnyside Drive, Tommy Weichman and Hank Philcox, have planned an adventure today, to ride our bikes out to Hubbard Field, the airport east of Reno. Mrs. Philcox – Corrine, we sometimes call her is a really good cook and packed some sandwiches, cookies, fruit and stuff for our trip. That new girl up the street, Judy Metzker, wanted to go too but she’s a gurrrllll, and would just slow us down. Yecch.
So, off we go, down to the river and across the bridge at Belmont, then ride out toward South Virginia by that new lake with the island in it. We get to Airport Road and there’s hardly any traffic this Saturday morning, so we cross both lanes of Virginia Street and head east. Going further out Airport Road we can smell the swamp to the south of the road where Mr. Biltz and Mr. Dant have their game farm, and can see Mr. Chrisman’s trout farm out further south in the swamp. We’re starting to get close to Hubbard Field, because we’re riding alongside the cross-runway and there’s a lot of old planes, most of them salvage from the war that was over a couple years ago.
Hubbard Field has been around for about 15 years [from 1950 when this was written!]. It was named for engineer Eddie Hubbard, a friend of Mr. Boeing’s and who built the airport. Boeing sold it to United Air Lines, three words, in 1936. Not too much has happened since. (United would sell it to the City of Reno in 1955.) The main airport is a great big Quonset hut turned into a hangar, and a little control tower set on top of it. Painted on the control tower is, “Reno, Nev. Elev. 4,415 ft.” The man who runs the airport, Mr. Hopper, saw us and motioned us to come over to the fence. “What are you men up to?” he said. His real name was Claude (!) but he was a retired Navy pilot. Navy pilots all get nicknames. His was “Grass.” We just called him Mr. Hopper.
We told him we were just trying to see what happened at the airport, and he told us to park our bikes. We followed him up some rickety stairs and into the control tower’s “cab.” One controller was working. He showed us how they handled airplanes in 1950: If a plane was approaching Reno, the tower would call it, “Plane over Reno Hot Springs approaching Reno; if you can copy this, show your landing light.” If the landing light blinked, the tower operator knew that the plane could hear the radio. (If the plane could also transmit a message, the tower would already know, because the plane would have called tower first!) If the lights didn’t blink, tower would know that he was “NARDO” – no radio, which wasn’t uncommon in 1950. If the plane could hear, the tower would clear him, and give him the wind direction, barometer reading and what other planes were around.
But, if the plane was NARDO, the tower would take one of the big spotlights hung from the ceiling and give that pilot a green light (he had other triggers also, for a red flash or a white flash}. The pilot would continue his approach and land. When he got on the ground, he wouldn’t cross a runway or taxiway until he got another green light from the tower. Or if he was taking off, he’d wait for a green signal. The system worked pretty well. He let us play with the lights hanging from the ceiling. We didn’t know it then, but those lights are still hanging in control towers today, for NARDO emergencies
He let us listen to what the pilots who were equipped with visual omni-range, mostly in the larger airliner types, heard. A steady tone, [for grownups reading this, middle C on the piano, 256 cycles/second!] interrupted every 30 seconds by “dah-dit, dah-dit-dit-dah, dah-dah-dah” – R – N – O in Morse code. This told the pilot riding the VOR that he was locked on to RNO – Reno Municipal Airport. If he had all the equipment, he could also tell where he was. There was a big bright beacon on top of the mountain north of Virginia City that we could see from all over town.
Tom, Hank and I looked at each other – we’d really hit the jackpot by meeting Mr. Hopper!
There was one big main runway at RNO – it was numbered three-four if you were landing south-to-north, or one-six if north-to-south. He told us that that was because your compass would be reading 340 degrees from the south, or 160° from the north. The cross-runway was shorter, and 90° off the main runway at seven and two-five. We could see also the “diagonal” runway that in 1950 ran from the south end of the main runway to the east end of the cross-runway. It was used mostly for parking airplanes now.
The Nevada Air National Guard was in the process of moving from the Reno Air Base north of Reno to Hubbard Field and the City of Reno was buying Hubbard Field from United. A Nevada ANG pilot named Croston Stead was taking off from Reno Air Base in a P-51 Mustang, and neglected to lock his blower switch on “high.” The engine petered out, the pilot was too low to parachute, and died in the wreckage. The Reno Air Base was being renamed “Stead” in his honor.
There’s a picture around somewhere but I can’t find it, of 17 Lockheed Constellation airliners parked on that diagonal runway. Mr. Hughes, who owned Trans World Airlines, bought them from Lockheed and took delivery of them in Nevada, because Nevada has no sales tax. Somebody in the state raised hell, whoops, sorry Mom, raised the roof and some say that this triggered the enactment of sales tax in Nevada. (And Dad said I better write that these were Lockheed 1049s, not the later “Super Constellation” 1649s. I hate it when he looks over my shoulder when I type this stuff.)
A plane is landing now, a big one, and we’re going to go down and watch it taxi up. It’s a United Air Lines DC-3, the pride of the fleet. Mr. Hopper says that most all airlines’ DC-3s are really military C-47s that Douglas Aircraft took back after WWII and “civilized,” getting rid of the double cargo doors and military stuff so the airlines could fly people in them. And a local restaurant, Eugene’s, way out on South Virginia Street, got a contract to provide snacks for the flight to Mills Field in San Francisco, and dinners to the passengers going east to Salt Lake City. He didn’t know it then, but by 1955 Eugene’s would be providing meals for 28 flights a day!
We watch the DC-3 taxi up to the Quonset hut and the stair placed against the hull of the plane. It’s pretty impressive. And, leave it to Mr. Hopper, he got us a guided tour through the airplane and we all three got to sit in the pilots’ seats. Pretty cool.
We’ll, it’s getting late so we better shove off for Sunnyside Drive. We thanked Mr. Hopper and he said to come back any time! And we will….
That’s about it for now – come back in a week or so and we’ll see where the trusty Schwinn takes us about the city..
HA! I screwed up a fact and no one caught me for 24 hours – Red Kittell, who flew AC-47s in Vietnam, pointed out at coffee this morning that I called the UAL twin-engine plane pictured a rebuilt C-45. I know better – it’s a rebuilt C-47. There is a C-45 pictured, later known as a Beechcraft D-18, or just a Twin Beech. It’s the first airplane pictured in the column….the State of Nevada had one; used it to bomb the burning Golden Hotel with water in 1962…thanks, Red!
And, in response to a reader email, the last plane pictured is a Lockheed Electra, parked behind a Cord automobile parked behind Amelia Earhart, who flew an Electra.
Boyoboyoboy – I thought I’d seen Dad mad when Hank Philcox and I floated the Orr Ditch under Ralston Street in our inner tubes, but that’s nothin’ like he was when he found out about my little ride to the airport west of town – wowee! He grounded me the day after Christmas and I haven’t been able to leave my room since ‘cept for meals. (At left, a Beechcraft D-18. All the planes and trucks in this letter I’m writing were tied down at the airport we rode our bikes to)
It all started when I heard that there was an airport west of town, off Seventh Street that was paved out to Peavine Row, which I guess would later be called Keystone Street. Then it was just a dirt road from there all the way to a little town called Verdi. I can see right now that I’m going to have to use that crystal ball and ouija board I wrote about in September that looks into the future to write about this screw-up that got my little six-year-old ass in a sling (my Uncle John said that once and Mom got real mad.)
Anyway, we rode our bikes out Seventh Street to Peavine Row where there would be a Raley’s Market one day, then kept riding and riding and riding, on the dirt road. And riding. We finally came over a little hill, the other side of the old graveyard by the Highland Ditch, and could see a windsock sticking up above an old hangar.
There was a whole little airport there, probably really just an airstrip. A tired hangar with some oil company’s name on it (Hancock Oil?) Dad said later when he was talking to me again that before WWII oil companies would build a hangar at an airport to get them to sell their aviation gasoline. And this is not the old hangar that’s on the street above the old highway 40; that one came from Reno airport when they widened Terminal Way. There was an air strip, paved but pretty rough-looking with a lot of cracks in it and a faded white line down the middle. Landing toward the west it would probably be designated as runway two-six or –seven. All the buildings and stuff were at the east end which heading would be runway eight, or nine.
A building sat at the east end of the runway, looked like a GI building and I learned later that it was brought in from Reno Army Airbase north of Reno. And from my crystal ball, I can tell that it’s still there (at right), now turned into a house along with a whole bunch of other houses, doesn’t look like the Sproul houses around it. It’s at the northwest corner of two streets, Apollo and Attridge. It’s just west of a school that would be called Clayton Middle School, but this is before 1950 so I don’t know about that yet.
This was really cool! There were a whole bunch of airplanes on the tarmac next to the runway, many with engines or parts missing. As we rode our bikes up and put the kickstands down to get off, a plane was landing toward the east. It stopped by where we were and a guy got out. He was wearing a set of green coveralls, which I learned later was a flight suit. He waved at us.
We went over and he started talking to us. He was a pilot from back east somewhere that had been sent to Reno Airbase to practice flying. (At the left is the picture of a BT-1 “Boston,” similar to the T-6s and SNJ trainers.) He said that a lot of guys would take a plane like this and practice landings at this airport, at one up by Pyramid Lake called Sky Ranch, and one further away up at Beckworth towards Portola. It was called Nirvino Field or something like that. He said there was a field in Sparks called GreenBrae, and another south of the SP railyard called Vista, but the Army pilots couldn’t practice on those because they were pretty busy. (The Nugget’s Dick Graves in later years kept his Navion at Vista Airport.)
Our new pilot-friend’s airplane was also a “Navion.” It was built by North American as an Army trainer. It had one engine and a “clamshell” canopy over the four seats (pictured right). He pointed at another older plane across the field that was built by Ryan as a trainer, a PT-19. Pretty-well shot; it didn’t look like it could fly.(pictured left).
He asked us if we wanted to sit in the plane, and showed us how to climb up onto the wing and into the cockpit. I sat in the front, right seat and my friend sat behind the pilot’s seat on the left side. Our pilot friend climbed into the front seat next to me.
“Wanna see how it starts?” he asked, and turned some switches. The prop at the front of the plane started turning, and after a couple turns the plane shook, smoke blew over the windshield and the engine was running. He closed the bubble over us and it got a little quieter. “Wanna take a ride?” We thought about it for about a tenth of a second and answered, “Yeah!” He showed us how to buckle up, then firewalled the throttle on the dashboard in front of me, and we taxied onto the runway. There was no wind raising the windsock, so we headed west on the runway and pretty quick we were airborne and he tucked the gear in.
“Where do you live?” he asked. I told him the street, Ralston. “How can I find it?” I told him at the top of my lungs that it was almost at the west edge of Reno, across from a square-block park. He cranked the plane around and we headed for Reno. “There’s the park!” I told him, that I lived one house down from the street at the north side of the park (University Terrace). He went down to treetop level, over the tennis courts at Whitaker Park so low I could see cars and people looking up half-terrified. We went over 740 Ralston Street and I could see my dad’s Chevy in the driveway, must have been lunchtime. We turned left over the University and headed back toward the airport. The pilot pointed at the gas gauge, said he was low.
Just what I needed to hear. I can read it now: “Six years old, found in the wreckage of the plane not far from where Bill Blanchfield crashed his U. S. Air Mail deHavilland biplane in 1924 into 901 Ralston Street. Both of them cut down in the prime of life.” I could see the airstrip coming up in front of us. He lowered the landing gear, flew beyond the field, 180’ed and landed to the east. He braked to a stop and raised the canopy. I was still grinning.
We climbed out of the plane, down the steps and onto the ground. He waved a “thumbs-up,” gunned the engine and turned a 180 to head down the runway. In a few hundred feet, he lifted it off the ground, turned back and made a low pass over us, wagging his wings.
We waved back. We had taken our first plane ride! Problem was, we couldn’t ever tell anyone, especially Dad.
Fathers are scary people. We pedaled home; I was relieved to see the Chevy gone from our driveway. But, when Dad (“Senior,” as many called him, as I was “Junior”) came home that night he asked me if I did anything interesting today. “Oh, we rode out to that airport west of town; did you know there was a airport west of town?” I asked. He knew.
Senior went to his grave in 1971. I will never know how he knew about that purloined plane ride, nor what he knew; all I know is that my ass has been grass for the past two weeks.
(Yet, I’d do it all over again!!!)
With thanks to Matt Bromley, we’re able to add an old (1950) Reno map showing the location of “Skyline Airfield,” not “Hillside” as I wrote – more will follow about this as time permits. Thanks, Matt…
“Up Ship” – the launch command of the ground crew of a lighter-than-air balloon, time-honored from the days of Jules Verne as the aeronauts drop a pennant with a braided rope to sample the wind. The modern Goodyear blimps continue that tradition, dropping a line with the American flag from their tails. We’ll hear it a lot at this weekend as the colorful envelopes fill and open, then rise over Rancho San Rafael.
The early balloon races in Reno started with less-auspicious beginnings as an event to fill the early hours of the Reno Air Races, offering spectators a little diversion while the racers were prepping for the main event. They drew a lot of attention – the propane burners slowly filling the gasbags, that gradually blossomed open and disappeared with their wicker baskets and champagne-swilling aeronauts into the distance in a sort of hare-and-hound race, mostly for fun. The envelopes were less colorful yet more traditional in shape – the logo gasbag shapes, starting with Mr. Peanut and a champagne bottle setting the pace for those. On that first windless morning they didn’t go far, and posed a hazard to the later air racers by blocking course safety escape routes and cluttering up the course with ground support trucks. I’ve tried to pinpoint the year from old air race programs with little luck, but I’d guess this all started about 1973, reader help appreciated.
The next year they were back, in greater numbers and a little more organization, with a few VIP passengers and some sponsored balloons. And problems similar to the year before with the congestion. But the event was catching on and few enjoyed them more than the volunteer workers at the air races – the balloons a pleasant diversion from the noisy race planes. And pilots.
I’m shaky on the year now, but believe it was the third year at Stead that the air race trustees, and I detect the fine hand of Roy Powers in this stunt – “We’ll have a Reno Air Race Zip Code, with a commemorative postmark on one-ounce-max letters, put a shoebox full in each balloon, and put these races on the map!” The U.S. Postal Service went along with that, and official airmail lifted off with each aeronaut.
Unlike the past years, the wind was freaky at launch time, coming from the east, west, north, and south and maybe straight down. Hot air balloons with U.S. Mail aboard drifted from hell to breakfast and the post office minions went postal, their mail, their charge, their duty through rain, sleet, dark of night and Washoe Zephyrs, spread from O’Brien Middle School’s parking lot to the Black Rock Desert. Red, white and blue right-hand-drive mail trucks drove all over the racecourse. Well, not really, but from the squawk on our walkie-talkies that wouldn’t have surprised us.
The event matured, from its early beginnings as a schedule-filler for the air races to a stand-alone weekend, and what a hand the early organizers are due for turning it into one of our valley’s major annual shows. And, for proving that the near-silent rustle of a balloon cleaving the air with the occasional whoosh of the burner, can hold its own with the popularity of Hot August Night’s big-block Chevys, the air race’s V-12 Packard Merlins and Street Vibrations’ Twin-V Harleys. Up ship, aeronauts; we’re glad to see you back again.
And, for the trivia that one can only find in this paper on Saturday mornings, the U.S.-based Goodyear blimps have been traditionally named for racing yachts that have successfully defended the America’s Cup, so decreed the late Frank Seiberling, Goodyear’s 19th century founder, a yachtsman himself, now retired. (Get it?) And, we all know that just as Bill Harrah went to the four corners of the Nevada to get low auto license plate numbers for his fleet, the Goodyear big wheels garnered the lowest tail numbers in American aviation, from N1A through November Eleven Alpha.
© Karl Breckenridge 2006
Travel with me now to a time, and this a time not in the dark ages but one still vivid in the minds of many readers, when every high school kid, including members of Stead Air Base families, between the city limits and Bordertown to the north state line, could ride in two 66-passenger school buses. Similarly, every high schooler from Franktown to the south city line would fit in a similar size bus. And here I note that Reno High was then the only public high school in Reno.
The county district didn’t operate their own buses back then, “back then” being 1960 as a year to base this tale upon. That task fell primarily upon a couple of local private bus companies – V&T Transportation, a successor to the railroad, and Nevada Transit, managed by Orville Schultz. Operating those 20-or-so buses for the most part were University of Nevada frat rats taking advantage of a job that was a perfect “fit” for college – drive from 6:30 to 8:30 a.m., park the things on campus and go to class, and return to work near the three o’clock hour. It worked well for all.
Leading the effort was one of the greatest guys ever to ply the streets of our town – James E. Wood was his name, Jim to us, who bought the transportation rights soon after the demise of the V&T Railroad in 1950, together with some buses that couldn’t be given away for free in 1953 but would bring a pretty penny now for Hot August Nights cruisin’. Jim was a member of most of Reno’s service clubs and a State of Nevada Assemblyman from the early 1950s through the 1970s and in that capacity was instrumental in getting the University’s medical school underway. Vic Charles, another popular Reno guy was the company’s manager, Vic’s sister Dollie the office manager and her husband Al McVey the dispatcher. They all remain good friends of many of the old drivers of five decades past.
Jim built a fleet of buses, starting with some pre-war and ex-military recycled units, to newer, yet used, vehicles, eventually to all-new and first-class rolling stock. And he expanded the non-school bus transportation side of his business into tour buses serving Virginia City and Lake Tahoe, some charters with over-the-road equipment, transportation of school athletic teams for every school in northern Nevada, and the Reno Ski Program, leaving weekly on ten Saturdays a year from Southside School downtown on Liberty Street and from Huffaker School ‘way out South Virginia. In later years Carson City added a program. We didn’t know what “snow days” were; short of a full-blown Sierra blizzard, off to Sky Tavern we’d go, chaining up as necessary (and Jim was there helping put on the chains). It was a great deal for drivers to ski all day until one among us busted his leg, stranding his bus and its passengers. And that was the end of ski days for us.
Jim had a little “showman” edge to him; the photograph is of Jim and Tina, Tina pictured sporting a bus driver’s hat as a promo for John Ascuaga’s Nugget in the early 1970s. I know not who dreamed this stunt up, the names James E. Wood and John Ascuaga come to mind and I detect the fine hand of a young Sigma Nu named Fred Davis, by then the Nugget’s PR director, as a co-conspirator to it. The back-story is that one must understand that elephants don’t as a rule back up, nor do much else, with any grace or predictability when in tight quarters, and secondly that elephants aren’t accustomed to being passengers in tour buses. That said, we learn that Tina, after the frivolity with the cameras and flashes and dancing girls was over and being an elephant known to be somewhat recalcitrant anyway, basically said to hell with all of this and plopped down, as best she could, leaving others to deal with getting her considerable mass off the bus. Several stories exist, maybe more, one option being driving the bus to Flint, Michigan where it was built, to be there disassembled by GMC who had built it a few years before. The operative story is that Bertha was brought alongside, who inveigled her smaller partner to vacate the bus that it might be used by others.
And at this point for the benefit and enlightenment of younger readers or those not from around here in the early 1990s I should mention that Bertha and Tina were performing elephants, hence the long-standing name “Circus Room” at the Sparks Nugget.
Virginia & Truckee Transportation Company had strong Nevadans and visionaries at the helm and was manned by good men and true – and few ladies, you out there Misha Miller? – who all had a lot of fun, and were aboard when many of Nevada’s earlier memories were taking shape. The Olympic visitors in 1960. San Francisco’s airport would be socked in by fog and the airlines would bring their passengers to Reno, and we then bused them to SFO. The filming of “The Misfits?” Yup – we hauled Monroe, Gable, Clift, screenwriter Miller, director Huston. One of our frat brothers didn’t know the Chollar Mine from the Sutro Tunnel yet became one of the most requested drivers on the Virginia City tour.
But mostly, we hauled the school kids. Safely. We’d moderate study groups on the long runs to Franktown and Bordertown. We’d patch them up with our first aid kits. We’d get them singing Broadway instead of “Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer…” On my bus on Friday mornings when all were settled aboard northbound on Highway 395, we’d sing “Home Means Nevada,” with great gusto. I’d like to think that somewhere this morning there’s a 60-year-old kid reading this column who can still nail that State Song!
And with that, we bid you a good week; no April Fooling, now, and God bless America!
© RGJ a long time ago…April 2011????
Photo credit Jim Wood: JA Nugget
The non-sensical piece that follows has run innumerable times, usually proximate to Thanksgiving, in the Gazoo when I wrote those columns, on my website when I had it years ago, and a couple times in the SF Chronicle when I sent it in (I didn’t really write it; I merely stole it from someone who told it in a joke and turned it into a news story.) It may be true, or not. The photo is a vintage British airliner, a Comet made by the forerunners of the Airbus consortium. A friend asked me over the weekend, are we going to read that stupid turkey story again? Yes you are; here it is. Maybe the next post will be of some substance. Or not. Happy Thanksgiving to All!
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Early in the maturation of jet airliners, British aircraft engineers, addressing the dilemma of strengthening pilots’ windscreens against bird-strikes at low altitude, think a Canadian honker vs. a FedEx Airbus getting together over Peckham Lane after takeoff. They knew the United States had much experience with this matter and contacted some Southern California aeronautical engineers, who supplied plans for a rudimentary catapult that hurled a standard, store-bought turkey at a test windshield at a calculated velocity for analysis.
The British guys fashioned a catapult, and soon after sent the Yanks photos of a test cockpit with the windshield shattered, the pilot’s headrest in smithereens, a gaping hole in the bulkhead behind the pilot’s head and the flight engineer’s console behind that bulkhead totally demolished. Other photos depicted another huge hole aft of the console in the next bulkhead separating it from the crew lavatory, which was also trashed.
A few weeks later, the Brits received a telegram from the Americans: “Next time, thaw the turkey.”