Turkey time, already?

Some of my columns have become iconic to a time of year; they were crappy when I wrote them 15, 20 years ago and haven’t become any better since, but maintain misleading, boring, non-factual, ill-researched, plagiarized and generally pathetic information. But, if I don’t run the Wreaths & Shamrocks piece on St. Patrick’s Day or the Squaw Valley 1960 Winter Olympics Opening with every new Winter Olympics, I catch hell: “Hey, it’s Thanksgiving; where’s the turkey story?” Just in case anyone alive hasn’t read this yarn that I stole from somebody in 1988, here it is:

Comet3In the dawn of the transition from propeller-driven to jet airliners – c. 1955 – the British DeHavilland builder of the Comet airliner turned to the Yankee builders – Lockheed, Boeing and Douglas – for insight into fabricating test strikes of aircraft windscreens, caused by planes striking birds at low altitude – takeoff or landing. The three Southern California giants gladly sent information about a rudimentary slingshot, to propel a store-bought 15-pound turkey into a windscreen to guage its effect.

Several weeks later, the Brits sent photographs of a windscreen with a gaping holeFrozenTurkey in it, then photos in sequence of a hole in the bulkhead behind the pilot’s head, the demolished flight engineer’s console behind that bulkhead, a hole in the bulkhead separating the flight engineer’s station from the crew lavatory and the interior of the lavatory, also trashed, with the turkey at rest on a countertop surrounded by glass from the mirror above the counter. The final photograph was of a question mark drawn on the damaged lavatory bulkhead. 

“Next time,” the American engineers wrote, “thaw the turkey…”

An air racing story not yet told…

FearlessNoTextThe 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.MissAmericaP51

“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 toInstruction sheet 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 RevellP51good, 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 Howie Keefetipped 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.

JeepersWe 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 race 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’ve written about Air Racing ad nauseam, or did a few years ago. But Jeremy’s story stayed within me. They’ll be back tearing up the skies over Stead this week. 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 2019

Excerpt of Airman’s Prayer credit to John Gillespie Magee, Jr. “High Flight” 1940

Air Race Home Pylon Crew

Home Pylon Crew, 1984: from left, my younger son Brent; Dale Tucker, now the home pylon flagman with Mickey on his t-shirt; next a fugitive from Reno 911 in his 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 now the head flagman

 

 

Up Ship!

BalloonRace“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 coming 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 their 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

A friend asked about Stead AFB – here you are…

Here’s how quickly seven ill-chosen words can germinate into a whole column: Walking Virginia Street in a recent column set in 1950, I alluded to “…the recently-renamed Stead Air Force Base”.  This elicited several inquiries, all reducible to either “Recinchombrenamed from what?” or “We’re new here; tell us about Stead.”

            Let’s start at the beginning: The facility was commissioned in 1942 as the Reno Army Airport, renamed as Reno Air Force Base in 1948 (when most former Army airbases were ceded to the U.S. Air Force), and finally to Stead Air Force Base in 1951.  The Defense Department, in 1949, adopted a policy to name military facilities more after notable people, less after geographic references.

             Accordingly, Reno Air Force Base was renamed, not for Spanish Springs rancher/air race co-founder Bill Stead, as many of you thought; rather, for his brother Croston Stead, who crashed on takeoff into the desert on December 16th, 1948 in an Air Guard P-51 Mustang, not too long after the Nevada Air National Guard was commissioned at Reno Air Force Base in April of 1948, flying P-51s.  (Croston’s older brother Bill Stead, a hot-stick, high-time World War II fighter ace, died in an air race in Florida in 1965, flying a midget racer.  Go figure…).  The third Stead brother is Sparks developer L. David Kiley. 

The base’s mission over the years was basic aviation training, later rotary-wing training (OK: helicopters), and airport fire suppression – recall the Kaman-built fire-choppers (“Huskies”) with the weird twin “eggbeater” rotors that frequently flew over downtown.  There were a few uncontrolled auxiliary airports – patch a better word – around our valley, which were associated with Reno AFB in the early years.  I lived in the most northwest corner of Reno in the late 1940s and often hiked to a now-long-gone unnamed satellite Reno AFB strip that was between the present Keystone Avenue and McQueen High School.  Two youngish cadets in a Beech D-18 trainer with Army tail markings gave three of us kids a spin around Peavine Peak in a 20-minute ride neither our parents nor the flight-line officer at Reno AFB ever needed to hear about.  Some things are better left that way for fifty years or so.  Another Reno AFB satellite strip parallels Highway 70 at Beckwourth, in use to this day as the Nervino Airstrip.  (The bygone Sparks Airport strip northeast of Pyramid Way and Green Brae – the 1950s spelling – in Sparks was not a Reno AFB satellite.)

            Stead AFB conducted desert and mountain survival training, for pilots of all branches of the military, other nations, and even for the early astronauts.  Later there was a “SAGE” facility, an acronym for Semi-Automatic-Ground-Environment, or whatever paranoids do all day in a great big ugly four-story building with no windows, something to do with global air defense.                      

            One interesting occurrence that some old-timers may remember was when the Pentagon, in a convincing effort to demonstrate the massive economic impact the airbase had on our community, paid Stead troops one payday in crisp two-dollar bills.  Those bills circulated around for years, many emanating from the Grotto Bar at Fourth and Virginia Streets, the Stead airmen’s branch offic.  And apropos of probably nothing, I can report that yours truly drove a big bright-yellow, flat-front 66-passenger Cornbinder school bus to the enlisted men’s housing area at Stead, and that Ty Cobb Jr., son of the late RG-J columnist, drove a like bus to the Stead officers’ housing unit.  Between the two of us we delivered every single high school student who lived from the Reno city limits north past Stead and all the way to Bordertown, to Reno High School – the town’s only high school until Wooster was built 1961.  [And I caught Nancy Howell Spina and Tony Clark’s ire with that: “What was Manogue High, sliced bread?!”  Sorry…].  Believe it or don’t, only 132 kids, excluding truants, lived north of town in the early 1960s, and we drove them 36 miles a day for three school years, and never harmed a hair on their heads nor creased a fender.  Damn, we were good.       

            The Defense Department began phasing out Stead AFB in 1963 – actually selling off some of the original 20,000 acres as early as 1958 – and it was finally fully decommissioned by 1966 and acquired by the City of Reno.  The renamed Reno-Stead Airport once hosted all airline passenger flights into and out of Reno while our downtown airport, at that time hung with the unpopular name of Reno-Cannon Airport, was closed for a major runway resurfacing.  For five weeks the PSA pilots in their DC-9s raced the AirCal Boeing 737 guys around the Reno National Air Race’s 8-mile unlimited-class course pylons at Stead on their way to final approach for runway two-four.

            Just kidding…

• •

A Fourth of July with President Reagan

During this Artown month, we 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 conn.

            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 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, Reagan 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 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 transporter’s four massive engines and the roar of the three T-38s, all four planes in a tight 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 243rd birthday. And a happy and safe holiday to all on this 2019 July 4th!

© Karl Breckenridge  … photo credit NASA

 

Don’t tell Mom….

LittleKarlThe 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 Miatarocket, 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 iAndyBnto gear and made a smooth start up the avenue. “YouKFB bow tie 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 747rocket 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 hasBeemer 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…

T_BirdThe  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 MG TDdriven 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.Muni

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 namedFiat 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 CrownVicstar. 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 H32by 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 XK120the 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 ETslight 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.   

 

 

 

An air racing story not yet told…

FearlessNoTextThe 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.MissAmericaP51

“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 toInstruction sheet 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 RevellP51good, 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 Howie Keefetipped 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.

JeepersWe 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

Air Race Home Pylon Crew

 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

 

 

A ’56 Chevy with a load a’ love under the hood…

JeepersAt 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.

Larry57On 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.Chevinterior

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 Wolfmanin 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 HollisLinda (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 PatJeneCanyonpleasant 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 ChevV8a350 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.

hollis2And, 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 Lenzoranewcouple in a red-and-PatJeneLibrarywhite 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…?

 

April 8 – the new 1950 car models are out; let’s go downtown and look at them!

cropped-kf_headshot.jpg

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 soStudebakerCommanderld 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.

Mercedes 188Just 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 Jag 120and 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.

FordRichardson-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 pickupFordTruck 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 Caddyand 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 BuickI’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 Lees1a 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 OldsRocket88one 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 DimondDodgeand 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.

ChryslerWoodyDad 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 Chryslerthousand 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

MercurySuicideWe 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 choiceLincoln 1950 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 ContinentalReno 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 Henry_Jforeign cars, the trucks, and the attempts at “compact” cars like theCrosley 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..