I laugh to see your tiny world, your toys of ships, your cars.
I rove an endless road unfurled where the mile stones are the stars.
— Gordon Boshell
It’s 1959, I’ve just turned 18, and I’m standing in the ready room of a tiny airport outside of Chicago, scanning the list of students accepted into Moody’s two-year aviation and mechanics program. I have no other goals, no other plans, except flying. I scan the names —Doerksen, Hoisington…
Two weeks before, the Moody van dropped me off at the white hangar, into the care of Mr. Bob Rich.
“Hello, Jim. Welcome to Moody Wooddale. I’ll show you your bed.” He’s 30-something, square-jawed, clean-shaven, with glistening dark brown hair, sartorially perfect in his crisp collar shirt and tan pants. A man on a mission.
He walks me up the steel hangar stairs to the sleeping quarters. Twenty-four cots sit in two neat rows. “It’s all temporary — in two weeks the students will find their housing elsewhere,” he tells me. I neatly stack my clothes under my assigned cot and lay my Bible next to the pillow.
I’m a late arrival. Mr. Rich turns to the men who are already settled in. “Men, this is Jim Hurd.”
I scan the room and recognize only one person—Dave Hoisington, a California friend from high school. He’s sandy-haired and confident in his black flying boots, sarcastic but not cynical. “Hi, Jim! Welcome to Moody’s All-weather Airdale Woodport and Country Club.” The other men I don’t know—some seem about my age; a few older. In two weeks, the instructors will winnow these down from 24 to 12.
Mr. Rich tells me the hangar was built in the early 1900s. Exposed steel trusses support its half-Quonset roof. We walk over to a railing and look down onto the gray hangar floor, clean enough to eat off of. Mr. Rich points to the huge yellow T-6. “That’s our WWII trainer—600-horsepower Pratt & Whitney radial engine. We use the blue and white Comanche next to it mainly for cross-country flights. And the Seabee in the corner there is a WWII amphibian with a pusher prop up behind the cabin. Those little floats support the wings on water.” I stare at it—could those stubby wings lift anything into the air? He says, “Those two long tables down there are where you’ll eat your meals.”
It’s hard to believe I’m standing here. Growing up in California, I had only one bright dream—flying. I visited airports. I imagined every farmer’s field a potential airstrip. Now it’s for real. My pulse quickens.
We descend the stairs and walk through a door into the flight ready room, its dark wood walls smelling of lacquer. Mr. Rich introduces me to a tall, sober man who sits in one of the offices. “This is our chief pilot, Mr. Van Dam. He came to Moody from the Air Force Academy because, he says, he got tired looking at the backs of cadet’s heads.” I shake his hand. When he speaks, the earth tremors. I think, if I mess up here, he’ll eat me like a baby marshmallow rabbit.
A brass-tipped wood propeller with a clock for a hub hangs on the wall. Underneath is a Chicago aeronautical chart. Mr. Rich points to the bulletin board. “We’ll post the names of the successful candidates here.” I stare at the blank space. Will my name appear here in two weeks?
We exit the admin building into a languid July day. A dozen metal lawn chairs sit on the grass, and white cumulus clouds float overhead. “The flight students usually sit here for lunch,” Mr. Rich says, “and they listen to Paul Harvey on the radio.” (I remember that famous voice: “Paul Harvey… Good day!”) A Cessna 140 sits on the flight line beside an older twin-engine Apache, and three yellow J3 Cubs, their wings rocking in the breeze. “You’ll fly one of the J3’s with Mr. Lance,” he says. I don’t tell him that I’ve only been up in a small plane once —as a passenger.
Moody Wooddale airport is a pasture. I look out across the wind-wrinkled grass and see a red Farmall tractor and mower. Mr. Rich says, “Each summer, Mr. Anderson tractors for hours. He sets bright yellow cones along the runways. For night flight, he marks the boundaries with flare lamps. After a heavy downpour, the field turns into a soggy airplane trap; gotta watch out for the mud.”
The Farmall rolls up and Mr. Anderson leans over to tell Mr. Rich, “Last week I set out two flare lamps at the lip of Runway 18 so Mr. Van Dam could see to land. But he got a little confused, and started letting down instead over the high tension wires to the west. After that, he asked me for more flare lamps.” As I inhale this story along with the tractor exhaust, I’m secretly glad this flying galactico has feet of clay. Schadenfreude. My insecurity gives me illicit joy at another’s missteps.
The next morning we breakfast in the main hangar, then walk over to the maintenance shop. Mr. Mayhew comes out, smelling of solvent. A wartime aviation mechanics instructor at Purdue University, he’s now chief mechanic here at Moody. In his 50s, he wears a thin moustache—a no-nonsense, blue-collar guy. As we gather around the long shop tables, he tells us to rivet together two aluminum sheets. I drill the hole, insert the tiny rivet, and pull the rivet gun trigger. Pock, pock, pock! The air pressure is too high and the gun leans a bit, putting a smiley face in the aluminum. On the next try, the bucking bar cocks and ruins the butt-end of the rivet. My sweat drips onto the metal. Mr. Mayhew breathes over my shoulder.
And then he introduces us to the turnbuckle. I’d never heard of one. It’s a small brass tube with an eye-screw at each end, for tensioning aircraft control cables. He says, “I want you to safety-wire this.” He gives each of us a turnbuckle, a few inches of stainless steel safety wire, and two pages of opaque diagrams.
I look around. Some of the farm boys plunge in immediately, seemingly a task as familiar as their nose. They’ve probably been safety-wiring turnbuckles on thrashing machines or something since they were five. I look over at Dave—relaxed, dexterous. I hate them all.
After a few minutes I’ve wrapped a tangled ball of safety wire somewhere in the vicinity of the turnbuckle, which lies atop the crumpled instructions. Mr. Mayhew watches, then writes in his little notebook.
The next day, Mr. Lance leads a few of us out to the flight line and introduces us to the J3 Piper Cub. He stands under the wing with his hand on the strut. “Gentlemen, this is an airplane.” We all write it down.
He stands about 5’7”. Handsome, with manicured brown hair, button-down shirt and crisply-pressed pants. Black flight boots. Neatness gone to church. He flew in Yarinacocha, Peru for JAARS, the air arm of Wycliffe Bible Translators. As serious as a heart attack, he carries an unaccountable sadness, and smells faintly of cologne,
He walks us around the yellow, fabric-covered plane. “The J3 weighs 680 pounds empty. Punch your thumb in the fabric. If it leaves a dimple, the fabric’s rotting. Always look underneath the plane to see if there are any tears.” I run my hand over the smooth skin. “Climb up on the wheel here and look into the gas tank. This wire sticking out of the cap is the fuel quantity indicator.” Then he stoops down under the engine cowling. “This is a gascolator. Drain a little gas to see if there’s any water in it.”
I peer at the 65 HP Continental engine with its finned cylinders sticking out from the cowling, evoking the eyes of a huge prehistoric insect.
This day it’s my turn to fly. I climb into the rear canvas sling-seat and buckle up. Mr. Lance hauls himself into the front seat and closes the bottom portion of the door.
Since the J3 has no starter or electrical system, Mr. Rich comes out and hand-spins the propeller. The engine belches, then settles down to a tractor-like clack. I inhale a whiff of exhaust.
There’s no intercom, so Mr. Lance bellows instructions back at me. “Taxi ‘er out, but keep the control stick back in your lap. Steer with the rudders and push your heels to brake.” He advances the throttle and I pull the slack stick back. We start to move, but I can’t see anything except his haircut. “S-turn slightly, so you can see ahead,” he says. I S-turn, inhaling the sweet smell of freshly-mowed grass.
Since the brisk wind is from the south, we taxi out to the head of Runway 18, make a few checks, and then taxi into position. Leo says, “I’ll advance the throttle, and you keep her straight with the rudder pedals. She’ll want to swing left.” He closes the side window and advances the throttle. As we accelerate, I smell oil mixed with burned avgas. I feel his slight control movements under my own hands and feet. Soon the tail rises, we rotate, bounce into the air, and begin climbing to depart the airport.
“Keep the nose about four inches above the horizon to climb. Look left and right—each wing should be the same distance above the horizon.” I sit rigid, feeling that if I lean, the airplane will tip over. I move the live stick to bank or raise the nose, the throttle to climb or descend. Below lies a crazy-quilt patchwork—roads, railroads, woods, and summer crops, the small lakes reflecting summer’s light. Cars are pass us on the expressways.
We’re out in the practice area perhaps 20 minutes; then we head back to the airport. “Reduce power and establish a glide at 60 mph. See; the nose will ride about eight inches below the horizon.” When we throttle back to descend I feel like we’re falling. We sink down, turn 90 degrees, and line up with the airstrip. “Before we cross Thorndale Avenue, waggle your head to check for cars.” I waggle. Skimming low over the highway, the J3 touches the smooth grass and we roll to a stop. Mr. Lance turns the controls over to me and I taxi back to the gas pump.
Now it’s two weeks later. Decision day. We eat breakfast, then spend an hour or so out near the flight line talking.
Gary Jenkins walks over to where we’re sitting on the grass. “They just posted the names.”
I feel the adrenalin rush. This is it, the day I’ve dreamed of since I was 12 years old back at Orange Intermediate School! The day I’m convinced God has given me, to fulfill God’s plan for my life.
Gary and I walk silently into the ready room. We’ve become friends, feel we’re in this together, two men with a common destiny.
There’re only 12 names listed. I scan down—Doerksen, Hoisington… My name should be next. It isn’t. I didn’t make the cut. Neither did Gary.
Neither of us say much. What’s there to say? I have no Plan B. My dream feels ripped up, root and branch. We pack up and ride back to the downtown campus.
The van rolls into Moody’s asphalt campus and we disembark to search for an assigned dorm room on Edgren Hall’s fifth floor. The heavy Chicago air oppresses.
What to do? It seems I will never be a pilot, and yet I still want to be a missionary. Should I redirect and go into Bible translation?
Against all my expectations the sun comes up the next morning, but I can’t appreciate it through the bleak haze of failure. I stay that summer, enroll in Bible classes, and get the first two C’s of my life. I’m just not interested.
But then the summer brightens. Nobody knows me here; I’m 1800 miles from home and I’m starting over. I’ve left behind me the awkwardness and loneliness of high school. Gary and I hang out with other students and commit sophomoric acts of mischief. For the first time in my life, I feel like I belong to a group of friends.
And something else. That summer I learn that I can study Bible courses two years downtown in the “pre-aviation” program, then reapply for flight camp. My renewed hope burns like hot coals amid the ashes of failure.